Stiletto heels or comfy slippers?


I was going to talk about Russell Crowe playing Robin Hood, but the movie isn't coming out until next May and what's really to talk about? Russell Crowe will be great--he's always great as a superhero, larger-than-life character. The only "new" thing is that he won't be wearing tights--apparently they weren't actually invented until 300 years after Robin Hood.

So, in honor of May which is Support Your Independent Bookseller Month, I thought I'd talk books today instead of Russell Crowe.

I know, I know, what am I thinking? Musty old books instead of sexy Russell Crowe? But actually I'm talking about the same thing with both.

I'm a huge Russell Crowe fan, will watch him in anything. BUT....(you knew there'd be a but, right?)...isn't him playing Robin Hood exactly what you expected? It's nothing new for him, it's not going to be a challenge or reveal to us new insights into his acting talents like Beautiful Mind or Cinderella Man did.

Let's face it, Russell Crowe playing Robin Hood is the same ole, same ole. It will be a box office hit, leave his audience drooling (myself included), but it's really nothing new.

And that's what I want to talk about. When do you trust your audience enough to try something new?

Over the years I've been privileged to judge many writing contests including the Ritas, the Golden Heart, the Daphnes, and the Thrillers. Between them I've read hundreds of books, searching for excellence in fiction.

Did I find it? Yes, but it was few and far between.

I don't think I'm an overly-harsh judge. But maybe I've read too much? So many of the books blend together—flat, cardboard characters following clichéd, over-done plots to the point where I have to double check my score sheet. Did I read this book already?

No, it's just like all the others is all…..

Many of these books are by multi-published best selling authors. Some of these authors broke new ground with their early books but now continue to follow in their own footsteps.

I can understand that—if you find what works for you and have a large following of fans wanting you to do the same old thing and paying you lots of money for it, who could resist?

And, many readers DO want the "same thing, just different".

They demand it, complaining if "their" author tries a new direction. They like having expectations fulfilled, rather than being surprised. Reading is a comfortable escape for them, not a challenge or adventure.

I confess, I'm more of a thrill-seeker when I choose my books. Maybe because now that I have publishing deadlines to meet, I have so little time to read that every book I do take the time to finish must promise something new and exciting.

I think there's a time and place for both kinds of books. The comfy slipper read and the flashy new stilettos.

But as a writer, it's scary to think about. Your gut tells you to go one way, your brain tells you to stick to "what works", your heart wants to head in a totally other direction…what to do?

I've faced this decision with all three of my books to date. The first, LIFELINES, created a new sub-genre: a medical thriller told from the point of view of women with romantic elements. Since it was the first in the series, I strived to give LIFELINES the feeling of a fast-paced stranger comes to town thriller. Given the praise LIFELINES received and the awards it is garnering, I think I succeeded.

For book two in the series, WARNING SIGNS, I created more of a mystery plot interwoven with a coming of age romance. Again, reviewers and readers alike have praised the results.

But I just turned in my third book, URGENT CARE. It's different than either of the first two in the series. It is darker, edgier, more psychological suspense. And sexier—the first on page sex scene of any of the books. All of the characters move in new directions—some for the better, some for the worse.

URGENT CARE is by far the most difficult and complicated book I've ever written. It's not even out until October, but already I'm worried.

Was I right to listen to my instincts and let the characters determine the plot? Should I have played it safe, written a book that would be sure to please the critics and my readers?

Will readers follow me and my characters into this world where you have to go to hell and back in order to win your happily-ever-after? A world very close to reality where some characters never win, some badguys never lose, and no one is immune to danger.

So, I'll ask all you readers out there. What do you want from a book? A comfortable, familiar sweater that you know will fit perfectly? Or a snazzy, new dress that may itch at first but gives you that feeling of ohlala?

Thanks for reading! And don't forget to go buy a good book from your favorite Indy Bookstore!

About CJ:
Her first novel, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), received praise as a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller" from Publishers Weekly, was reviewed favorably by the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, named a Top Pick by Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and became a National Bestseller. LIFELINES also won a Readers' Choice Award for Best First Novel.

Her second novel, WARNING SIGNS, was published by Berkley in January, 2009, with the third scheduled for November, 2009. To learn more about CJ and her work, go to

photos courtesy of Berkley/Jove, Photobucket


  1. Very thought provoking CJ. I just got my unpubbed Daphne scores back and while everything else scored high, plot was flagged as basically unoriginal. So, I've decided to push the envelope and have already reworked for a more original spin on the same old thing! The other one probably would sell, but why settle?

  2. Good for you, Debbie! Refusing to settle--bravo!

    It's always a challenge, trying to walk the line between audience expectations and giving them something new and different.

    Personally I love new and different, so you'll have to just get published soon so I can read it!

  3. Artists always need to stretch and grow, or they stagnate. But the business side of things doesn't encourage this - and even readers don't, as you mentioned. But I like to be taken to places I'm not expecting. Give me fresh every time!

  4. Amen to that, Julia!

    I wonder, though, if we're in the minority--especially as I see some of my favorite quirky shows on TV being dropped in favor of more traditional, predictable fare.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Hi CJ,

    I hear you on the wanting to break new ground but the readers and the publishers are leery of walking--and breaking--the line of satisfaction and profit.

    I will say, though, that for you and breaking in a new genre that you should have leeway in how you take that new genre on--in fact, it should be expected. You flirt a bit with women's fiction as well, which strives to give each person his or her own tale, no matter how saccharine sweet or downright terrifying that is.

    So in terms of the four main characters of your books, each one of them has her own story to tell, whether it's happy, sad, a yo-yo ride, or downright mean and scary. You as the writer have to be true to each character you're creating. And to yourself.

    I personally have loved each character you've created for your Lifelines series, and I'm sure I'll love the third and fourth characters as much as I loved the first and second characters. Their lives and life experiences are what made "them," and they wouldn't be interesting to me to read if they hadn't gone through what they've gone through in life. I think the wonderful sell through you've experienced so far is testament to the fact that it's working.

    I wouldn't change a thing. ;)

    I also wanted to comment on the issue you raised about writing contests. I, too, have judged many contests over the years. The rare entries I find that are a little "out there" and don't specifically follow the rules but are well written and ready for publication--those are the ones that I score very high. But, because they are outside the comfort zone of many readers, other judges usually score them very low, which effectively means they won't place (I'm placing myself in this category; editors have told me I have a very strong voice, which doesn't get acknowledged by contest judges).

    As a Sr. Editor myself for a well-known e-publisher, I've had many, many submissions pass my desk that have placed very highly in some very prestigious contests...but we pass on them. Why? Because there's nothing new, nothing titillating, nothing that grabs our attention and makes us go "Wow." It's same old, same old. Boring characterization (or none). Plots that have been done thousands of times, with nothing new or original having been done for this manuscript. Not knocking the writers, as the manuscripts are usually flawlessly written. But so many of the stories we receive still seem to be cookie-cutter facsimiles of all the other books out there. Give me something new and unique, with a rich, thoroughly thought out plot and some interesting characters, and I'm all over it!

    Just my two cents.

    Ann Curtis

  6. Ann, thanks so much for sharing your insights on this!

    I'm so thrilled that you enjoyed LIFELINES and WARNING SIGNS!!!

    As a writer, I have to follow my characters. There's nothing magical or even "artistic" about it, it's just how my brain works.

    I think as an audience member I approach a TV show or movie or book the same way--I enjoy being challenged but it has to come from within the character and why they do what they do.

    There's nothing worse (and no worse insult to the creators, in my mind) than to be able to multi-task while watching TV or a movie. That lumps it into the category of mindless distraction instead of entertainment.

    But from looking at the current TV listings, maybe I'm in a minority, lol!

  7. I agree with Julia - experimentation is key with any artist. One of my favorite Johnny Depp quotes is: I never want to become comfortable in what I'm doing. But what artist, writers included, can independently fund their work? (Self-publishing's not an option. There's a reason for editors!) I write across many genres, so hopefully will not be pigeonholed. Shakespeare used up all the good plots early on (ok, maybe not the vampires), but an original take is essential.
    And ooh, Russell Crowe as Robin Hood? Can't wait for that one.

  8. I agree, Cate!

    And Russell Crowe as RH? Can not wait!!!

  9. After Russell's anger incident he got the look of a bad boy with a severe temper problem. I think he is continually taking roles that show him in a calmer if not brighter light until he erases that problem. Actors and their film choices always relate directly to the audience and the relationship they think they have with that actor. Right now he is trying to get your trust back rather than he trusting his audience to try new things. He'll do that later on in his career when he establishes the same relationship to his audience he once had.
    But thats just my opinion.

  10. Murissa,
    That's very interesting. Do you think authors need to try to somehow meet audience expectations the same way?

    Hmmm....something to think about.

  11. Oh dear, another Russell Crowe fan! I can't wait for Robin Hood either, but I'll need to wait for the DVD as the theatres here will show the French-dubbed version and a big deal of Russel's attraction is in that sinful, yummy voice.

    I read the rest of your post with lots of interest, and also the comment made by Ann Curtis. Being a writer and an editor too, it is oh so true about good technical writing being rejected because there is no originality. Something can look the same on paper but the way the writer treats it can gve something completely novel and different.

    I've always been encouraged by my mentor to break away from the mold and step out of my comfort zone. I've stumbled at first but now it seems I am getting something new out there. Mostly it's about breaking the cliche without actually shattering the illusion, if that makes any sense. Readers still gte a nice ride and it's comfy, but more like being seated in a contemporary-design sofa than an overstuffed couch.

    October you say that new release? We do get Berkley books here in Mauritius, so guess who's 3 books are on my list when I hit the bookstore in November?



  12. Aha! That's the "Mendy's" Question - remember that ep of Seinfeld when Jerry has to take Bania out for dinner to repay a debt and Bania can't decide between Mendy's - because it's so good and reliable or a new restaurant that sounds exciting but may not deliver something you like. In the end they went to Mendy's. But Bania had the soup and then wanted to finagle another meal out of Jerry. LOL! sorry I just couldn't resist the Seinfeld reference. Anyway - for me it depends on the mood I'm in - I do like to follow certain authors who've delivered a certain kind of book that I've enjoyed in the past - kinda like watching a great long running TV show - you know you're going to enjoy it over all - maybe not every episode but it'll deliver most of the time. But if I hear some buzz about a new author or a new book by an author I haven't read then I'll be intrigued enough to try it. I don't think there's anything wrong in delivering what people enjoy. I mean otherwise we wouldn't have those big move franchises or Law and Order or ER - but the quality can still be good. If an author wants to try something new - well there's always the "pen name" - we all know that Nora Roberts started writing under JD Robb but didn't publicize that fact until the Robb books took off then she let everyone know - then it was - cool - a different kind of book but from an author we love. So there's always that option. OH - I can go on and on about this. Now, regarding Mr. Crowe - I believe that Robin Hood is being directed by Ridley Scott and recalling their last big epic collaboration - Gladiator I'm actually looking forward to this' 'cause it's been a while since Gladiator. So that formula - when delivered less often can be irresistible - if that makes sense. Great post CJ!

  13. I think a reader absolutely gets bored reading the same thing. I know I do, and switch genres until that runs its course.

    As a writer, I'm bored writing the same sort of book. So, I challenge myself every so often. I wrote a sci-fi novella and hated every moment of it, but the funny thing is, it's one of the stronger of my works. Just recently, I wrote a pirate novella which was also a big departure for me. Tons of fun and I will definitely be writing a full length novel along those lines. I'll submit them at the end of the month and hopefully get lucky and have them published. If not, it was a learning experience :-)

    There always needs to be a challenge, otherwise, everything grows stale and it won't be fun anymore.

  14. Thanks Joanna! Great points--and I too am looking forward to the reunion of the Gladiator crew!!!

  15. I agree, Sandi--without the challenge, there's just not as much joy and passion...for me at least.

    Thanks for stopping by!


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