This has been a pretty good week for manuscripts and queries. Some quite interesting things have come my way, which is always exciting.
I've written in the past about those qualities that turn me off to a manuscript, but I've been giving some thought to the things that turn me on. Of course, good writing, good characters, and a strong plot must be taken as a given. Beyond that, what grabs my attention?
1. Stepping into a world. I like a book that creates and sustains a world. Each genre has a sort of metafictional world of its own, and mystery lends itself to many different world types, from the cozy village to the hardboiled world of the Big City. I like to be enmeshed in that world from the first paragraph of the book. I think this may be part of the reason that job or hobby-based mysteries are so successful--the reader is taken into the world of, say, the antiques dealer, the Civil War reconstructionist, the professional ballet dancer, and so forth. The ironic thing, of course, is that most antiques dealers probably wouldn't say their lives are more exciting than those of the average person, nor would the average ballerina. The creation of those worlds makes them seem more glamorous, more exciting, more mysterious than they probably are. (For example, how much excitement can ballerinas experience when they are practicing 12 hours a day, eating sparsely, and exhausted at the end of the day?)
2. Feeling a sense of unease. My heart always starts to race a little bit when I am confronted by something peculiar on the first page of a manuscript. I don't mean something disturbing, perverted, or psychotic, but rather a scene where something very unexpected is happening. Take this first line from The Listening Walls, by Margaret Millar: "From her resting place in the broom closet Consuela could hear the two American ladies in 404 arguing." Huh? Exactly. Why, exactly, is Consuela resting in the broom closet of a hotel? We've all been to hotels, all seen the same things, but Millar arrests our attention immediately with something that obviously can go on in a hotel but that none of us ever think of.
3. Setting sail on a raging river. A mystery/suspense novel is nothing without an exciting plot that grabs your attention and doesn't let go. A first chapter that has us off and running, with action happening immediately--and no backstory to drag down the pace--makes me want to keep reading, to sail that raging river all the way to its end. Ponderous thoughts and philosophizing don't grab my interest on page one, though certainly it's a good idea for the lead to have some deeper thoughts somewhere in the book.
4. Wondering what the hell just happened. So, I've just read Chapter 1, and the protagonist has done something that makes no sense. Maybe she's just planted a bomb in her daughter's car, or he's traded his wife's acetaminophen for ibuprofen. Why would any mother want to blow up her own daughter? What difference does it make whether the wife takes Tylenol or Advil? If I'm asking questions like this in frustration, it means the manuscript has hooked me. I don't always need to know what's going on--in fact, I love to be confused. Note, though, that I want to be confused by the brilliance of the plot, not by a writer who hasn't done a good enough job of establishing place, setting, or character.
5. Feeling as though I have been tricked. Any writer who can fool me has my respect, and that goes a long way in buying a manuscript. Sometimes I see what the writer is doing. "Aha!" I think. "Look at how cleverly the writer is not mentioning an important detail. So, she thinks she can get away with making me think the character is walking a dog when she is actually walking a cat. She has obviously called attention to that obelisk looming in the distance for some reason that will become clear, but how on earth did that English village end up with an obelisk?" I'm good at seeing tricks, but that doesn't mean I don't love them. The best mystery writers are tricksters of the highest order. I love it when the tricks work--and I love them even more when they work on me.
6. Wanting to cheat. I'm from a traditional school that believes that reading ahead to the last chapter of a book is a cardinal sin. But if you've driven me mad with the desire to know, and I am tempted to peek at the end because I can't take the suspense any longer...congratulations. You will most likely have a contract in your hands sometime soon.