Friday, September 25, 2015

Suspense and the David Cohen series

Destined to Choose (book 1 in the Rabbi David Cohen series) and Strength to Stand (book 2) are very different books in some ways. Destined to Choose might be best described as literary suspense (literary fiction with suspense elements) and Strength to Stand is an out-and-out thriller.  It's come to my attention that an explanation of why this is, and what's in store for the rest of the series, might be of help to readers.

Let me start with a little bit of background. I first wrote Destined to Choose over a period of several years, culminating in its initial publication in 2003. In 2000, I'd shopped it around to other publishers, both Jewish and mainstream, and received some heartwarming responses. The vast majority of publishers loved it. The biggest problem was that I was an unknown author. The next biggest problem was that it was a niche book, too religious for some of the mainstream publishers, not religious enough for some of the Jewish publishers. Some publishers said they'd take it if I could prove myself with a few standalone novels first. Others said they'd publish it if it wasn't part of a series—if it was a standalone novel itself.


Photo: thinkpanama
I actually received several book contracts for it, but I didn't like some of the things they required in the contract. At the top of the list was that I'd have to sign over rights to the series. If Destined to Choose didn't sell well enough for their bottom line, I would be legally prohibited from publishing any other books in the series with another publisher. This, as you can imagine, is the kiss of death for a series author. So I declined to sign them, and my attempts at renegotiation didn't go anywhere.

Upon the recommendation of the founder of a small Jewish press whom I highly respected, I launched my own publishing company in 2002, taking great care to get everything right so that I could compete with the big guys. It worked, better than I could have ever imagined.

At the time, I wasn't thinking about genre. I'd written the book that was inside me, the one that wouldn't leave me alone. David and Sara and Batya and Arik and Eli can be very noisy when they want to be heard. I'd written it also thinking that the primary audience would be the Jewish community, or those who were interested in Judaism. I thought of it as a kind of "scholarly fiction"—the thinking person's novel. A novel with depth and well-researched ideas from a distinctly Jewish perspective. To be honest, I thought that the Jewish community would respect "scholarly fiction" more than "fluff fiction," but the overriding drive was that I love books that make me think more than books that simply make me laugh.

The very best piece of writing advice I ever received was, "Write the books that you want to read." I did exactly that.

 I'd published Destined to Choose with a small print run supplemented by on-demand printing, years before that became The Thing To Do. I didn't print the genre on the book itself because, honestly, I thought of it simply as "fiction." Then I started noticing some troubling things.

Amazon had tagged the book "Christian fiction" until I wrote to them and pointed out that it featured a rabbi, who was rather obviously not Christian. They didn't have a "Jewish fiction" tag back then. (They do now.) Barnes & Noble was shelving it in the "Christian Fiction" section of the bookstore, where it wasn't getting noticed, or was getting passed over because it wasn't, well, Christian.

Around the same time, a publishing organization of which I was a member offered an educational meeting about choosing the right genre. I figured maybe it was time to give this another look. The meeting was a presentation by a bookseller, a book reviewer, and a librarian. I had the opportunity to talk to them about my book. I gave them a copy to look through. They did, and discussed it among themselves.

When they called me back, they said they'd unanimously agreed: Destined to Choose was, in the
Photo: Derek Bruff
broadest terms, a mystery. More specifically, it was a suspense, but bookstores didn't have suspense sections. They all agreed it should be marketed as a mystery.

"But there's no murder," I countered. "Nobody even dies."

"Not all mysteries have to have a murder," the book reviewer told me. "This clearly has suspense elements: finding the teenage runaway, then what all is going on in the rabbi's life, and then especially everything leading up to the crisis with the teenager. That's suspense."

The bookseller nodded. "I'd shelve this in the store in the mystery section."

The librarian nodded with the other two. "What they said. It's not a murder mystery, but it's still within the genre."

I thanked them for their time and consideration and started marketing Destined to Choose as a suspense novel. I also started thinking about the rest of the series.

My idea for the series was pretty general. I knew I wanted to pair each novel with a Jewish holiday, finding intriguing ties between the plot and the holiday. I knew I wanted to deal with big issues: the existence and role of evil in the world, hatred and intolerance, family violence. I knew that each book would be partly from David's point of view and partly from others' points of view. I knew that I was less interested in a whodunit and far more interested in a whydunit.

But I hadn't plotted out all of the books in the series. I didn't have a whole-series story arc. Some might say that I should have had all of that in place before I published Destined to Choose, but if I'd waited until my series plan was clear, then the publishing company—if it ever got launched—wouldn't have been around to publish other authors' books. Many debut authors and two veteran authors wouldn't have the award-winning books that Yotzeret published. The timing might not have benefited me, but it definitely benefited others. Who am I to say that wasn't part of the Big Cosmic Plan?

Photo: Stuart Anthony
Years passed while I raised very young children and published others' books. I worked slowly on Strength to Stand. Several traumatic life experiences changed me and how I see both myself and the world. My writing developed and changed as I did. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer. I wanted to stop hiding in fear of what others thought. I became willing to write controversial material. Strength to Stand took on a different shape. It became darker. Edgier.

Strength to Stand was, once again, the book that was in me. The book I wanted to read. But ten years had passed and I was a different person. I was a different kind of author. The characters remained the same, but I was willing to put them in more difficult circumstances. I stopped playing nice.

There's now a sort of dichotomy between the first two books in the same series.

Readers who hear about Strength to Stand and are drawn to the thriller nature of it will quite possibly be disappointed by Destined to Choose. Readers who loved the almost-cozy-mystery aspect of Destined to Choose might find Strength to Stand too dark or too violent. Readers who love books that make them think and feel might well enjoy both.

The third book, No One to Fear, is even darker and more violent. It's a no-holds-barred thriller with a whodunit element. If Destined to Choose was rated PG, Strength to Stand would be PG-13, and No One to Fear will most certainly be rated R. It's the book that's in me and I won't apologize for being who I am.

If you're like me, you like (or need) to read a series in order. For many—some may even argue most—series, all the books are going to fall in the same genre. If the first book is a cozy mystery, so will be the second and fifth and tenth books. If the first is a thriller, you're not going to get a romantic comedy thrown in the mix. Those are arbitrary rules that someone made up about book series. Rules can be broken.

Ultimately, the Rabbi David Cohen series is about the stuff of life that enters David's realm, his arena, so to speak. It's the could-actually-happen events that real people deal with, where life—quality of or length of—hangs in the balance. Sometimes that stuff of life is harsh and unforgiving, dark and violent. Sometimes it requires thought and finesse and subtlety.

Photo: Karola Riegler
I invite you to join me on this journey with David and Sara, Batya and Arik, Eli and others as they deal with this stuff of life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—no matter what labels the genre folks would like to slap on it. Let go of your expectations that every book in this series be a thriller or a mystery or a whatever, and enjoy them for what they have to offer: a story that makes you think and feel about life and the world around you.
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