Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Why Writing For Ad Space Turns Readers Off

Though it may be a well-written prize winner, a one-off book, a stand-alone novel, has little chance of commercial success in today's reading market. The mass of readers wants recurring heroes, protagonists who return to deliver the goods in more adventures. It's something a reader can look forward to and feel comfortable with. Series novels are the thing. And looking back, reading of the army of fans who followed Arthur Conan-Doyle and eagerly awaited his latest Sherlock Holmes treat, I feel it's always been so. Now it's big time.

Series novels are invariably thrillers in the crime, mystery and espionage genres. Some come about by accident. They begin with a single book, which is then followed by another, perhaps a sequel, and then a third and so it goes on. Others are intended from the beginning. My new novel, 'The Sum of Things' recently launched on Amazon's Kindle, is one of these. It's the first in what I intend and to be a long and successful series.

While writing my novel, I got to thinking about how long a series should run for? Given that it's successful, how far should a writer continue producing his series before calling it quits? And what criteria should he/she use to govern the series continuance? Intrigued, I began to examine some recent thriller series novels.

Probably, the most popular thriller series today has to be the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child. Two of the novels: 'One Shot' and'Never Go Back' have been turned into successful and money-spinning movies starring Tom Cruise.

Beginning in 1997 with 'Killing Floor' this writer has consistently produced a novel a year, for twenty years, many of them gaining awards. His latest, 'Midnight Line', #22 in the series, will be released in November. His previous novel 'Night School', (#21) has garnered on Amazon 5,464 reviews and counting. I'm impressed. As only a small minority of readers bother to write a review, that gives some indication of the sales numbers Child's books are enjoying. And sales have to be one of the major indices a writer will use in deciding to continue or not. But in reading some of the Jack Reacher reviews, I can see that cracks are appearing.

Many readers, some die-hard fans of the series, are complaining that the plots are becoming hackneyed and see Child struggling to come up with new situations and fresh story ideas, his style becoming more formulaic and his villains are turning into 'buffoonish cartoons.' It seems that Child's creative well could be running dry. Nevertheless, based on current popularity, I'm sure we'll see more of Jack Reacher.

Among other works, that fine British writer, Stephen Leather has now published fourteen novels in his Dan 'Spider' Shepard thriller series and is still getting good reviews.

Another successful series has been Andy McNab's Nick Stone Series of thrillers. Book #19 'Line of Fire' is due out in October 2017. But get this: it can be preordered on Amazon Kindle for a whopping US$ 26.78! Wow. How's that for cheek? Not a hardback mind, an e-book. It would be a long cold day in hell before I would pay 27 bucks for a gift-wrapped, signed hardback edition much less a Kindle e-book. His previous book, 'Cold Blood' #18 in the series, carries a price tag of US$ 14.24, still too expensive for a Kindle novel I feel. And the reviews for this series don't cut it anymore. The 2 and 3-star revues surpass the 4 and 5 stars; not a good sign. It's time he quit, but I feel Andy will press on. It may be he's seen the writing on the wall and decided to make as much as he can before it crashes.

An outstanding series of recent years was the Inspector Morse Series by the British writer, Colin Dexter. Made into a television drama with that fine actor, John Thaw, in the role of Morse, it was excellent, well produced and I enjoyed it immensely. And partway through the television series, I turned my attention to the books and enjoyed them even more.

Dexter wrote thirteen Morse novels, beginning with 'The Last Bus to Woodstock,' and ending with 'A Remorseful Day', in which Morse dies. Yes, he brought his series to a close by killing off his protagonist. Dexter made no apologies or explanation. It was the writer's decision and his alone and therefore had to be. But his fans were disappointed, myself included.

In making Morse a heavy drinker with poor dietary habits and indifferent to his health, could it be that Dexter was setting his hero up for a finale where he could bring on the fatal heart attack that would end the series whenever he chose to? It does seem that way to me. It is worth recording that he killed Morse in a satisfying way and closed his series on a high note, his last novel receiving splendid reviews. Not for Colin Dexter the disappointing reviews of frustrated fans.

And it was death that ended another great series; the James Bond saga. Not the death of Bond, but that of his creator, Ian Fleming.

When Fleming died beside that English golf course on the 12th of August 1964 at the age of fifty-six, it brought to a close a fascinating series. Not a great writer; he didn't have to be. But he was good. And though it's perhaps true that he wrote fantasies for adult children, his prose was lean and spare, and every word counted. His novels were real page-turners, and he was eminently readable.

His last novel, 'The Man with the Golden Gun', unfinished at the time of his death, was cobbled together by his publisher, Jonathan Cape and published eight months later. A poor job that lacked everything we fans expected from a Bond novel, it received poor though respectful reviews. I didn't enjoy it much. It seems that heavy smoking and lifestyle-induced ill health had taken their toll on the writer. But, unsurprisingly, it was an instant bestseller in both hard and paperback form.

Fleming left behind a corpus of twelve Bond novels and some short story compilations, and so it was over. Or should have been. However, the publishing house, Jonathan Cape refused to accept it, and with the compliance of the author's estate, they began searching for writers able to write Bond stories in the style of Fleming in what became known as the 'continuation' Bond novels.

First off the blocks was Kingsley Amis. Using the pseudonym, Robert Markham, Amis produced the novel, 'Colonel Sun'.It got mixed reviews and sold well. Bond fan that I was, I didn't enjoy it. And I don't read any more of the continuation series which continues to this day. Though a thing apart, the Bond film franchise seems to be unending with a fan base who've never heard of Ian Fleming. For me, Ian Fleming's alter ego, James Bond, died along with his creator that August morning in 1964. R.I.P.

Should a writer 'age' his protagonist as a series progresses or should he make him ageless, impervious to time and therefore able to hold the ring forever and a day? I believe in the first option; it's closer to reality and makes him more credible. And so does Lee Child. Born in 1960, Jack Reacher will turn fifty-seven on the 29th of October. Retirement at sixty? It would seem logical. The clock is ticking.

And if we were to give James Bond the age of thirty-nine when he faced down Le Chiffre at the baccarat table in that casino in Royale in 1952 he would be 104 years old today. He doesn't look it in the movies though, and the continuation writers also seem to have ignored this reality.

My boy, James Fallon, stepping up and showing his credentials in 'The Sum of Things,' is a youthful thirty-five in 2017, so he has lots of things to do, lots of villains to destroy and lots of time to do it in. It's up to me.

Several factors may determine the time to bring down the curtain on a series.

The advancing age or failing health of the author.

The author's desire to write other things in other genres (it was Arthur Conan-Doyle's desire to write more historical fiction that resulted in Sherlock Holmes 'death' at Reichenbach Falls).

Increasingly poor reviews telling the author his ability to produce good stories is faltering and on the wane and the series has run its course.

But if the series is highly successful, sells well and brings in much money, an author would be sorely tempted to press on regardless of poor reviews. To close it down would be like killing a Golden Goose.

I have to conclude there can no hard fast rule on this. At the bottom end, you have writers who publish series schlock, written fast and aimed at low-brow readers with the single intent to make money. Such crap should never see the light of day. At the top end, we have a good example in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, going strong for twenty years and twenty-two novels. I hope my James Fallon series takes the same route. And I'll be more than happy if it's half as successful.
Long before talking heads and hosts of newscasts proliferated the airwaves with multiple superfluous insertions in every sentence, or began a remark with "So," educators promoted Shakespeare's plea to "speak the speech trippingly on the tongue" through elocution classes. They heralded the ability to communicate in grammatically correct sentences devoid of hesitation with appropriate inflection, pronunciation, and knowledge of the topic as paramount to one's success in life.

I was a third-grader at Concord School in Pittsburgh when my mother trotted me off to the King School of Oratory to cure my shyness and fear of speaking with adults. By the time she learned about the miracles its founder, Byron W. King, had accomplished, among them curing himself of a speech impediment, the nation's most celebrated elocutionist had been dead many years, but his wife Inez, a renowned actress of the Chautauqua circuit, still trained actors, businessmen, lawyers, clergymen, and even children after public interest soared in child stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, and Judy Garland.

Despite dutiful memorization of the dramatic readings Mrs. King assigned me, I remained painfully shy. Furthermore, I could not cultivate the deep, theatrical speaking voice she preferred. The first step toward that goal, she suggested, was to practice screaming often each day. The first time I tried it at home, Mother came running, believing I was injured.

My progress in public speaking was minimal by our move to Philadelphia and my entry to the seventh grade at Swarthmore High School, where social studies was taught by Nathan Bell. Each day, I entered his classroom trembling that he would call upon me to participate as a news reporter. Several times each week, Mr. Bell distributed a newspaper published by an educational organization devoted to enlightening teenagers about current national and international events. The format was that of a typical newspaper with columns covering a variety of topics, from serious military and political stories to humorous reports about clever animals or accomplishments by popular stars of stage, screen and radio. Mr. Bell called the serious articles "heavy" and the lighter ones "fluff." He cautioned us to avoid the fluff and focus on the heavy stories because we would be graded for our understanding of the latter.

Once we had perused the newspaper and selected an article, he instructed us to stow it inside our desk to deter peeking. Then he would call on a student at random to explain the story of his or her choice and why it should interest us. His criteria for excellent reporting demanded extemporaneous delivery with expression, appropriate vocabulary, and clear understanding of the topic. To facilitate sharing, he directed us to move our desks into a circle. He always asked for comments on the presentation just given and how it might have been improved. Then he would move on to another student, stressing that the chosen article must be different from those already covered. Repeats were not permitted.

Terrified, my focus each day was to recall key points about the article I had selected and fervently pray that he would call on anyone but me before the bell sounded. Sometimes my mind went blank and I could not remember one fact. Not only did we have to report on the story in our own words, but we had to stand erect and address Mr. Bell and the others in the circle as if we actually knew what we were talking about. Unable to do this to his satisfaction without stammering, I received poor grades for "participation." Still, I persevered.

The goal of our English teachers was to produce students who were masters of the spoken and written word, even if they did not hear ideal grammar at home. After drumming basic rules into our heads, Elizabeth McKee rewarded us the last few minutes of class by reading from her moving novel about her grandmother's wait for her sweetheart's return from the Civil War. Before exiting her classroom, every student who had made an error on a paper or during a discussion that day could expect to be halted, asked to recall the correct usage, and to use it properly in a sentence.

Hannah Kirk Mathews, who studied at Cambridge and became one of the world's finest scholars of the Chaucerian dialect, taught only freshmen and seniors. Under her tutelage, we were voyagers across wondrous seas of words. We lapped up every poem, short story, play, and novel she recommended and performed at least two of Shakespeare's plays per year, always yearning to evolve into adults who could transfer that knowledge to our own children or students.

A Quaker, Ms. Mathews began her career teaching at George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where one of her students was a young man so nourished by her wisdom and guidance that he devoted his life to celebrating mankind and our fragile earth through his novels. Just as she followed closely the lives and careers of all her students, she never lost touch with the young man destined to put "Hawaii," "Chesapeake," "Alaska," and "South Pacific" on bookshelves.

Long after I had been teaching for many years, Ms. Mathews wrote, "My fondest memory is of my retirement party where the community came to give thanks and James Michener came to see me instead of attending a White House dinner."

The strict rules of elocution that my classmates and I eventually mastered under these watchful teachers are shattered daily on television newscasts by reporters who insert "you know," "like," or "I mean" multiple times in each sentence. And let us not ignore those who blithely reverse subject and object as they chatter about what "her and me" or him and I" did. The most frustrating thing that can happen to someone attempting to research most any subject online is running into Junk Journalism. You visit a website looking for serious information or content only to be confronted by a wordy, mostly useless article. If you are lucky it might contain one or two sentences of information that will be helpful to you. The problem is that you had to read a dozen useless paragraphs and click through several pages to get there.

People experience this type of thing all the time. I know I do. So, I have learned that when I land on a site like that it is time to immediately move on to greener pastures. I mentally ban those sites and, after a while, recognize them in search results. And I am not alone. Newbies do not know this and will have to learn by experience just as I did. That is what keeps these useless, over monetized sites alive.

Now, don't get me wrong. These websites obviously make money or they would not exist. And it may be that the hacks who write for them may also make money. The issue is not just how negatively they affect visitors, but what they do to the people who write the content. Writers develop enough bad habits without having their writing style ruined by producing pulp garbage for what amounts to ad sites with virtually no useful information.

A writer is like any other professional. If they start out or head in the wrong direction, it is hard to change course later. You might be a talented musician who learned to play by ear. That will entertain people at a local talent show or inspire parishioners at a church if religious music is your thing. What it will not do is get you a job as a serious music professional. For that you have to learn to read music and be able to transfer that information to the instrument of your choice. By the time you get around to doing that, your brain is already hard wired for playing by ear.

Another aspect to Junk Journalism is the disregard many writers have for spelling. Sure, we all turn off Spell Check to avoid having to go back and dump or change words it uses instead of those we type. That doesn't give us permission to write something with misspelled words. I cannot get through any major News site without finding a number of misspelled words. If you doubt me, try it yourself. Misspelling doesn't just tell the reader that you really don't care about what you're writing; It detracts from the subject and causes an unnecessary pause in the material.

Very few writers are disciplined enough to obey all the grammatical rules and that includes me. I do not believe there is anything wrong with having a 'natural' writing style that allows the Writer to make his or her point in their own words. That's a far cry from being too lazy to spell words correctly or create a dumb-downed document using increasingly popular 'phonetic' spelling.

Just because our educational system sometimes embraces phonetic spelling doesn't make it right, especially if you plan to write professionally. The teacher writes TELEPHONE on the board, then writes TELEFONE next to it and says that's alright because it's pronounced that way. Meanwhile, some brain trust in the back of the room that has already benefited from years of this type of education says, "Yeah, It's spelled that way in Canada, right?" I think I have made my point.

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