Friday, February 19, 2010

Stick and move

My friend Christian is a writer of very elegant and imaginative fantasy, and he’s also a formidable practitioner of the martial arts. He’s a friendly, outgoing guy, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And yet he’s more than capable of removing my ass, shooting a few hoops with it, and very politely handing it back to me.
When demonstrating these skills, he likes to say, “Stick and move, man. Stick and move.”
I mention all that by way of talking about something completely different.
Lately I’ve read a handful of “suspense thrillers” by some modern writers. Best-seller types. Huge names. I won’t mention who they are, because I don’t like talking ill of other writers (even when my comments will have less than NO effect whatsoever on their success). Suffice to say, they are writers who are active now and each new release is accompanied by book tours, media coverage, and commercial accolades.
I’ve learned to HATE these books.
The reason: in my reading mix are a great many old titles, reprints, put out by a handful of small-to-medium sized publishers, Hard Case Crime being the most commercially successful of them. Writers of paperback originals in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, guys like Gil Brewer, Day Keene, Peter Rabe, Charles Willeford, etc. You read a few of those books, you really start developing a hunger for them. My hunger led me to seek out new writers, one’s still doing it, who perhaps mirror the raw story-driven brevity of those guys.
And I’ve found that, yes, there are some writers out there now who fit that bill. But not a single one of them has seen the best-seller lists—or if they have, they haven’t stuck around long enough there to get overly comfortable.
The problem with these best-selling suspense novels is simple. Bloat. Bloat, bloat, bloat.
Here’s my two-cents on the subject: a suspense novel should move fast. It should be the sort of thing you can devour in one or perhaps two sittings. I mean, that’s the very nature of suspense. Sure, there are going to be exceptions to that rule. But for the most part, the suspense novels that knock me out are almost always fast-moving, lean, without baggage.
Let’s leave out the pages and pages of inner soliloqueies, shall we? Let’s leave out the unconvincing and uninteresting love interest. Let’s leave out the psychoanalysis. Let’s get back to the STORY, whattaya say?
I’m just gonna say it: in most cases (and again, there are exceptions), a good suspense novel should come in at no more than, say, 250-300 pages. My own first novel, The Bastard Hand, breaks that rule, I know—but if I knew then what I know now, it would be a good 50-75 pages shorter. I think the novel still works, but I can tell you that I’m unlikely to write anything that long ever again.
Stick and move, Christian says. Damn good advice for writing a suspense novel. Stick and move.

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