Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Code

One of the many many benefits of the Chum Bucket experiment is I'm forced to write back to authors about why I'm not going to read more of their work.  This is harder than you'd think, and with Chum Bucket "cause your writing sucks" is never the answer.**

In the last round, I received a query from a good writer who had a mystery novel featuring a police detective. Her query referenced Steve Ulfelder's novels. She'd read them and liked them.  It seemed then that I might like her book.

And I did, but there was something missing.

I thought for awhile about Conway Sax (the protagonist in Steve's novels.)  Conway is an interesting character, a recovering alcoholic, a guy who drank away his career in racing, and now struggling to find his place in the world.  A guy who frequently acts not in his own interest, but in the interest of others, even when it gets him in to trouble.

In this way, Conway is not just a protagonist, he's a hero.  Not a superman hero, but heroic.  He has committed himself to a code: he's going to do whatever his AA group The Barnburners ask of him. Maybe that's break the legs of a loan shark. Maybe it's drive someone to a safe location, some days away.  Conway knows breaking legs is bad. He knows he should be at work, not on the road. He does these things anyway. He has a Code.

I think that's one of the main reasons I want to be in the Conway Sax world. Same reason I want to be in Jack Reacher's world, or Spenser's.  These are guys with codes that say they're choosing to be heroic. I want to live in a world with heroes. Who wouldn't?

What I'm not saying is that every character has to be like this. In fact, not every character can. Some have to be venal.  But your main guy, the guy we're going to root for, spend time with.  Does he have a code? Does he need one? What is it?

You might not spell it out on the page although Robert Parker spent a lot of time doing that with Spenser.  You might refer to it only elliptically or only by the consequences that adhering to the code generates.

But if your hero has a code, the readers should know or be able to intuit what it is. Which means we need to see it in action.

**Queriers to the ChumBucket are almost 100% thoughtful, well-prepared writers with good material.  It's really rather wonderful.

1 comment:

T.D. Hart said...

I missed this when it came out.

Have to say that getting honest, no-bullshit feedback on my story was worth (almost) the giant 'thud' of hearing you'd passed.

Still haven't figured out whether the flaw in that story is fatal. But I damn sure didn't repeat it in the next ms.

Thanks again for Chum Bucket, for Query Shark, and for all you do to lift up the profession.