Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Lesson Both Ancient and New

This is the day--Wednesday, September 26, 2007. At sunset, the latest drama begins to unfold in Kanner Lake--this one changing the life of realtor Carla Radling forever.

Or were the choices she made years ago the actual catalysts?

This book released less than three weeks ago, but I have already heard from quite a few readers. (Some of these, to be fair, were reviewers who were sent galleys.) So far to a person their responses have been the same. Crimson Eve is "the best" or "one of the best" books I've written.

This feedback has surprised me. Oh, I like Crimson Eve, don't get me wrong. In fact, I think it's a doggone good story. But I would not have predicted this continuous "best book" response.

Why am I hearing this?

The story has twists, but so do all my books. It's fast-paced, but again that's nothing new for me. Multiple story lines, eventually dovetailing--not new either. As for the suspense, Crimson Eve is not as intensely scary as some of my other stories. (BHCC members--this is one for you to try. Yes, even you, greedy chocoholic Deb Raney.) As Doc Mabry pointed out in his interview with me, I even manage to get through the entire first chapter without a dead body.

So what's going on? In pondering the reasons for readers' reactions, I've come to a conclusion both ancient and new.

Before I go into that--here are a few excerpts from emails I've received. They're kind of redundant, but, well, that's the point.

"[Before Crimson Eve] I don’t recall ever ... that I thought about the characters for hours later."

"This is the best book you've ever written. I could not stop reading."

"I read Crimson Eve all in one sitting. This is my favorite of yours!"

"Collins tops herself by creating a suspenseful nonstop thrill ride." (Library Journal, starred review)

"I didn't think Brandilyn could outdo herself after Coral Moon. She did." (

"I've never edited a more tightly crafted, deftly woven, compelling written book." (One of the editors who worked on Crimson Eve, with 20 years' experience.)

"This is your best ever!"

"I love this the best of your Kanner Lake books."

"I was going to say this one was the best one ever also, but I didn't want you to think the others were chopped liver!!!"

"My absolute favorite of yours."

"In all your books I've read (and that's almost all of them) this is my favorite."

"This is the best you've done."

Intrigued with this feedback, I've probed the readers further: "What's the deal? Why is this book resonating so with you and other people?" I mean, as novelists we need to understand this kind of thing, right? I wanna package ... whatever it is. Do it again.

Some of the readers couldn't quite tell me why. The story just "grabbed" them. Others pointed to certain events, certain twists. Others to the characters. I've continued to think about this as objectively as possible--because I so want to learn. I want to understand.

What have I come down to--the lesson both ancient and new?

"It's the characters, stupid."

Not that I didn't know characters are important. Not that I don't always try to characterize deeply in my suspense. But my genre is about action, about peril and surprise. I focus on these as well as characterization when I write. What I'm seeing though, is that it's not the level of scariness that puts readers on the edge of their seats. It's the level of caring about the characters caught in the trauma that does so. There are more women's fiction type of elements in Crimson Eve than in many of my other suspense novels. When writing the story, I thought these elements might harm the story by toning down the tension. Apparently not. Apparently they only ratcheted up the tension because readers are drawn into the bittersweet, desperately desirable, wrong, savored, rationalized, moth-to-flame choices the characters make.

At least, this is the best I can figure. I'm still studying on it.

Did I know characters are the ultimate in importance? Yes. But with Crimson Eve, I'm learning it all over again.


Richard Mabry said...

Enjoyed seeing you at ACFW--even if it was ever so briefly.
Your other readers are right. Your characters continue to get better. It's almost as though you'd recently read the book I keep on my desk, one about getting into character. Something written by a woman who lives in California...or Idaho...or somewhere out there.

Nicole said...

For those of us who long to write suspense/mystery but aren't so wired, characters are all we have. They carry the story, so the reader better care enough for them to read through the "normal" passage of life without a lot of action, enough to turn those pages, and enough to cry or laugh or feel wistful when that last page is read--and wish they didn't have to say goodbye to them.

I'll be looking forward to reading this series--I'm behind.

Becky said...

It's the level of caring about the characters

Amen and amen. Brandilyn, I hope you preach this from the mountain tops. I've come to believe that is the single most important factor in whether or not readers will read for the short term or the long term--meaning whether or not they will remember the book days after they finish, will recommend it to their friends, will want to reread it years later.


Lynette Sowell said...

It's CARLA! She's always been so secretive. All the rest of the gang at Java Joint let people into their lives, but Carla hasn't. Or at least only up to a point. Until now. Her story, once it unfolded, really made me root for her, and my heart break for her. :)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

It's Carla, and the way you let us into her head without slowing the almost seems like a movie!

johnny dangerous said...

My third mystery features a female protagonist where family, cultural, occupational, and romantic connections make her a complex and conflicted person readers can care about. For some reason, I've found this easier to do with a woman than with the male protagonist who carried the first two books. I'm trying to figure out why. I'm guessing it's because as a guy, I'm working harder to try to understand her.

Cara Putman said...

Oh, That's it! That's why I raced through this book. I was compelled to understand Carla. I think we could all relate at some level to her earlier experiences and the careful life she had built for herself. What a great reminder as I write. Character, character, character!