In honor of Robert B. Parker’s birthday (Sep. 17), I’m re-running this analysis I did of one of his best novels, Looking for Rachel Wallace. Enjoy!
I imagine that, for most authors, the urge to write comes from reading. My earliest attempt came from having read a story and wanting to emulate it. There is something about the cognitive process that, for writers and would-be writers, makes the act of reading equate almost directly with writing.
Unfortunately, our cognitive process blithely glosses over an important fact: that writing a book is an order of magnitude harder than reading one. That single issue has broken the will of more than one would-be novelist over the years. We probably all know someone who, flush with the pleasure of having finished a really good book, has bought a new laptop, a shelf-full of Writers Digest guides, and sat down to knock out their first novel in a weekend…only to give it up before Monday morning.
But that doesn’t mean that the original impulse—to read in order to write—was unfounded. To be a good writer, you have to continue to read and, in fact, improve as a reader if you want to be successful.
I was at a New Year’s party, talking to one of the guests about favorite books. He mentioned some comics, I mentioned some mysteries. The conversation turned to ongoing storylines: what we liked and why.
“What series do you like?” he asked. “Like, a character that you really can’t wait to read again to see what they’re up to?”
I hemmed and hawed, and eventually chose Robert Parker’s Spenser character. “But only the first seven books or so,” I amended.
I went on to explain that, while I loved the character and the first half-dozen novels, Parker’s writing became so formulaic (to me) after a certain point that I read the rest of the 40-odd novels in the series only out of a sense of loyalty. Subsequent books had all the excitement of tucking into a favorite Sunday dinner: it was familiar, and comforting, but I wasn’t ever going to be wowed by it. And, far from being protective of the characters and plots, I would’ve welcomed a radical change (in the same way I could use a different side-dish on the table…or, hell, ordered Chinese).
My friend said he’d experienced the same thing with comics, but that–with few exceptions–he always kept coming back to his favorites. I agreed; I’ll never stop loving those first seminal Spenser stories, even though the vast majority of them are cookie-cutter renditions of those first few great ones.
“Why is that?” he asked. “What makes us stick with these series–or even a single book–if whole parts of them stink?”
So, right there on the spot, we cobbled together a pretentious academic theory: The Point of Defection. It goes like this:
At some point, a writer will interest a new reader in their story. The tale can be of any length: if it’s a series, maybe Book One does it. In a single novel, a particular plot line. In a short story, it might be the first sentence.
If the writer is skilled and careful, as the reader moves along he or she will become so invested in the ongoing life of the character/plot/world that they pass The Point of Defection. They’re hooked, and after this moment whole lines, chapters, and even books can be a disappointment and it won’t matter: the reader will stick with the author through thick and thin (i.e., won’t defect). Can you imagine any fan of The Game of Thrones not buying the next book just because they didn’t like A Feast for Crows…even though it’s one-fourth of the entire series to date? Or a Sue Grafton follower not buying the Z is for Zebra (or whatever the next Kinsey Millhone mystery is) because G though M didn’t tickle their fancy?
(Of course, it certainly helps the overall “health” of a series if the writer raises his game again: as many movie-goers know, “Sequel-itis” stings a lot less if Number Three delivers.)
After we were done admiring ourselves for codifying and naming this common-sense principle, I suggested an addendum: the more legs a story has to stand on, the less likely the defection. In comics and related short story collections, there are enough “legs” (mini Points of Defection?) that a reader is free to take or leave a number of them without defecting.
The original Conan series, for instance, are all collections of stories; Robert E. Howard never wrote a Conan novel. Same with Fritz Leiber’s immortal Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series; there is only one novella and one novel; the rest are short stories. Comics and graphic novels, the same: they often rely on an underlying premise to carry the life-story of the protagonist forward, but individual adventures can be dismissed or embraced without requiring the reader to “drop” the whole series.
My love of the Spenser novels can be seen in this light: I could only tolerate 30 mediocre novels if I’d already loved seven of them (a ratio of 1:6). Give me one great book and six stinkers and I’d probably walk away from the series (and maybe the author).
Reverse engineering a series’ success this way doesn’t really tell us much as writers, since the lesson seems to be: write a good story, hook your readers, and let yourself skate when they’ve passed the Point of Defection. Theproblem is, since you don’t know when that ‘Point is, you could end up really screwing yourself.
So, you’re left with something you already knew: just write a good story. Keep doing that and you’ll never have to worry about where your Point of Defection is.