Is My Timing Right?*

TimingAn interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, and the comments we exchanged, have got me thinking about timing. Many different sorts of things can affect what we think of a book we’re reading. There’s the obvious things such as plot, characters and so on. There’s also the matter of personal taste. We’re all different in the sorts of stories we enjoy.

But another, subtler, factor in how we feel about a book is arguably the timing of when we read that book. For the reader, timing can have an impact in several ways. For instance (and this is the sort of thing FictionFan and I were ‘talking’ about), if you read a book when it first comes out, it may feel fresh and new. That can add to your enjoyment of a novel. That’s especially true if the novel adds an innovation to the genre, or in some other way digresses from it. But if you read it later, after other, similar books have been released, you may feel quite different about it.

One example that comes to my mind is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. At the time the novel came out (1988), the psychotic-serial-killer motif wasn’t a major factor in mainstream crime fiction. That novel arguably made room in the genre for that sort of story. Since then, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, there’ve been many, many novels with crazed serial killers. Some are better than others. But it’s not a new and innovative theme any more. I wonder how that’s impacted readers who hadn’t previously read The Silence of the Lambs. Would they regard that novel as the trend-setter that it arguably is? Would they see it in a different way?

There’s also the sub-genre that’s recently (in the last few years) been called domestic noir. Of course, there’ve been many novels in which marriages fell apart, and people weren’t what they seemed. But novels such as Julia Crouch’s Cuckoo, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, and Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner have brought the domestic noir novel to the forefront of current crime fiction. And that raises (at least for me) the question of what today’s readers might think of books such as Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead, which was published in 1988. In that novel, Gordon Matthews marries Carrie Foster, and on the surface, all starts well. But each one has a dark past. Matthews was recently released from prison for killing his first wife, Anne. The way he and his lawyers tell the story, it was a case of manslaughter, and Anne was a promiscuous, alcoholic shrew who pushed her husband too far during an argument. But is that the truth? For her part, Carrie is a former prostitute who gets back on the game a few years after they marry. As the story of their marriage, and the tragedy that follows, goes on, we see a real example of domestic noir. Would readers who’ve experienced plenty of domestic noir see this as a taut, fresh look at a marriage? Would they see it as stale?

There are other ways to look at timing, too, of course. If you’ve just finished reading a series of bleak, ‘hardboiled’ crime novels, you might be ready for something lighter. So work such as Carl Hiaasen’s or Chris Grabenstein’s might appeal. Neither author writes ‘sugar coated’ crime fiction, but there is plenty of wit in it. At another time, though, you might think those very same novels too comic, and perhaps too absurd. The same is true for cosy mysteries. If you’ve just been reading a lot of light crime fiction, you might find work like Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef series too light. On the other hand, if you’ve been reading a lot of dark crime fiction, that same series might really appeal.

Timing matters for authors, too. For instance, after the commercial success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, many other novels with a similar domestic noir theme were released. I’m sure you could list more than I could. On the one hand, the success of Gone Girl allowed those other novels more exposure than they otherwise might have had. Publishers were more willing to take a chance on them, and people were more interested in the themes. On the other hand, do readers think of those other novels as ‘me, too?’ Do they look at them with fresh eyes? This raises questions for the author. Is it a good idea to pick up on a theme that’s had some success, so as to hopefully get more exposure?  Is it a matter of ‘me, too,’ or is it a matter of ‘there’s a market for this sort of book?’ Or is it something else?

And then there’s the element of when in one’s life one reads something. Perhaps you started your crime-fictional journey with classic and Golden-Age crime fiction such as Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, or Anthony Berkeley. Since then, let’s say, you’ve branched out and gotten very interested in the modern hardboiled PI novel (Timothy Hallinan, for instance). Would you still see the work of, say, Arthur Conan Doyle in the same way if you re-read it?

There’s a strong argument that timing has an effect on what we think of what we read. Do you see that with your own reading? Do you ever go back and re-read a novel at another time, just to see if your first impression was lasting? If you’re a writer, do you think about timing when you choose your themes, contexts and so on?

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, may I strongly suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s excellent blog. There, you’ll find fine reviews, interesting observations, and real wit. And Mr. Darcy.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Hot Blooded.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Chris Grabenstein, Elizabeth Haynes, Gillian Flynn, Julia Crouch, Julie Hyzy, Margaret Yorke, Ngaio Marsh, S.J. Watson, Thomas Harris, Timothy Hallinan

35 responses to “Is My Timing Right?*

  1. You cover a lot of timing issues in this post – and yes, it’s a very interesting topic. Sometimes there is a ‘sign o’the times’ feel to books which are published in roughly the same year and yet entirely independent of each other. It must be coincidence, rather than jumping on an established trend. For instance: no less than 3-4 crime novels taking place on a cruise ship within the last couple of months. Or perhaps there is something in the air or in the news which inspires authors: novels about jihadists and the war on terror seem to abound in recent years.

    • And that’s a great example of the sort of ‘signs of the times’ novels you’re talking about, Marina Sofia. I’m sure you’re right that news stories, social trends, etc., influence writers, as they impact all of us. So it makes perfect sense to me that there would be some similarities in some of the novels that come out at about the same time.

  2. Tim

    Originality for a writer can be a tough-sell to agents, editors, and publishers who are too eager to capitalize on successes of previous originals. Money fuels the engine, and almost everyone in the food-chain of publishing wants to make money. Perhaps that problem, among others, explains why so many writers in recent years are “copying” originals from the past by writing pastiches and knock-offs.

    • Now, that’s an interesting possibility, Tim! As you say, people in the publishing industry want to make money – a not illogical goal. So (also not illogical) they gravitate towards what they’ve seen sell. But as you say, that can make it difficult to sell a really original concept, if one’s a writer. That’s one reason I respect publishers who (at least some of the time!) opt for different sorts of books.

  3. What a great topic, really thought-provoking. I often think with older books, from earlier in the 20th century, they can seem rather routine – but that’s because they introduced tropes that became very widespread. Ethel Lina White is an example, with her feisty young women in danger.

    • Exactly, Moira! Now that we’ve seen the evolution of some of the tropes, it’s easy to look back at those earlier books and think of them as routine, as you say. But in their day, they were innovative. And if one reads them with fresh eyes, many of them still sparkle, if I can put it that way.

  4. Thanks for the mention and link, Margot. 🙂 Yes, I find timing has a lot to do with how much (or little) I appreciate books for a lot of the reasons you mention. For example, you know I’m not at all a fan of first person present tense narratives, and often accuse writers of jumping on a bandwagon with that. But I always try to make an exception for Elly Griffiths who, I think, originated this particular trend in contemporary crime writing and when I read her first book, it felt fresh. Now it feels stale whoever does it (to me, obviously). And I’m very aware that if I’ve just read a book that stunned me, all other books will appear pale for a week or two afterwards. So I do what you mention – try something different, like reading a cosy after a dark thriller, so I’m not led into making direct comparisons. I also find it when reading sci-fi where basic plots are recycled constantly. When I go back to read an early classic, I have to keep reminding myself that that clichéd plot is probably actually the original that started the cliché.

    • I know exactly what you mean, FictionFan, about reading earlier classics (of any genre, actually). If one’s read lot of fiction, it’s easy to have a very jaded view of earlier books. As you say, though, those were the stories that set the trends and started it all, so to speak. And I think it’s important to remember that when we re-read. And I love your example of Elly Griffiths’ series. I’m normally not much for first person present tense myself. But I give her and Paddy Richardson (whose work I heartily recommend) passes for that. Both of them use it very effectively. And to me, both have been innovators.

      Oh, and believe me, it’s my pleasure to plug your excellent blog 🙂

  5. Very interesting Margot. You’re right timing has a lotvto do with the success of a book but knowing when the time is right, well, that’s a bit if voodoo as far as I’m concerned lol. It takes a long time to write and publish a book so, in today’s fast moving world, how do yoy time the launch appropriately?

    Experience does effect the readers feelings about a book, definitely. Empathy for characters is based on our own experiences, for example. Something to think about perhaps.

    • That really is something to think about, D.S. Thanks. And you’re right; it’s so hard to decide when to time the release of a book. Some things one can pay attention to, but as you say, you never do know if the time is exactly right. Sometimes it’s a bit of a crap shoot, as the saying goes. Either way, I do think timing is related not just to how well a book will do, but also, as you say, to how people will feel about it.

  6. Interesting question. And it’s incredibly timely too. Recently I started reading Silence of the Lambs again. (on the beach there’s no better way to freak people out than with this novel and a toe tag as your book marker. The looks are hilarious!) Anyway, I truly believe Thomas Harris brought serial killer thrillers to a whole new level. He raised the bar high in so many ways. Not only does the novel have perfect structure but his character development is superb, IMO. So yes, I’m enjoying it even though I’ve read a few times. Only now, I’m enjoying it for different reasons…by reading with a writer’s eye rather than a readers. And I think that’s the thing about reading novels a second time. When you know where the story is going you can really dig into what the author did to suspend your disbelief, or how they used cryptic clues that you missed the first time through, or the way they led you down the wrong path. I think we, as writers, can learn a lot by re-reading our favorite novels.

    • Oh, I think so, too, Sue! That’s especially the case, in my opinion, when a novel has a deep structure and layered characters, so that you could miss the subtleties at first. And one thing I’ve learned is that the more I (re)read, the more I learn about how to do things better. In other words, I think writers improve their craft as they read what other writers do.

      About Thomas Harris? Yes, I think he certainly brought the serial-killer motif to a whole new level. I know plenty of people who don’t generally read about serial killers, who like his work very much. Oh, and what a masterful touch to have that toe tag bookmark! Priceless!!! 🙂

  7. Very true… I think the timing also matters in this way – if you are upset/tired for instance, you may not enjoy a new book as much as you would have if you’d read it in a better mood, or in the mood for actually reading. Great post! 🙂

    • Thanks, Regulus98 🙂 – And you have a point: being upset, or sick, or extremely tired certainly can impact a person’s feeling about a book. I’m glad you mentioned that.

  8. Margot: I am going to be a contrarian on this topic. I do not find “timing” an issue. I do not think of books as following trends. I try to read each book as a new book without a preconception to genre or style or topic or location. Written now or long in the past does not really matter for my approach.

    • There’s no reason not to be a contrarian, Bill, if it works differently for you. And, to be honest, I respect the way you take each book on its own merit (or lack thereof). That’s a very clear-eyed way to assess a book.

  9. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Another interesting article from mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg!

  10. Margot, your insightful posts continue to amaze me. I remember when the first Harry Potter novel appeared on the market; an author friend of mine who had published two fairly successful teenage-oriented paranormal mysteries suddenly changed his protagonist from a high school male “nerd” to a female cousin of his who possessed wizardly powers. The series never sold another book. Do you remember the flood of Harry Potter knock offs that followed J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece?

    Yes, I believe timing has a LOT to do with the success or failure of books. Hitting that precise “magical moment” first has resulted in many author’s careers taking off, while followers–some of whose books were as good or better–were left in the dust. It’s timing with a hefty dose of Providence thrown in for good measure.

    Thanks for another interesting post!


    • Thanks for your kind words, Michael. And what a story about your friend! Among other things, that shows not just timing, but also the impact of the sort of novel, etc.. There really were, as you say, lots of other novels in the fantasy category that came out after the success of the Harry Potter series. And I couldn’t tell you much about them now, if I may put it that way.

  11. You make exceptionally good points here Margot – I was one of those who happened upon Cuckoo and Before I Go To Sleep as they were published and to some extent they are the bench-mark by which I still judge others in this sub-genre, but, I was also introduced to Margaret Yorke recently and had previously enjoyed Gillian White’s books beforehand which were ahead of the explosion of these types of psychological thrillers.
    As you say Gone Girl was a springboard for another leader for this sub-genre which has seen the ‘surprise twist’ which of course is now expected, and so no longer a surprise – I do wonder where we will go next?

    • Thank you, Cleo. I sometimes wonder where we’ll go next, too. I find it fascinating that you use Cuckoo and Before I Go to Sleep as your benchmark, despite all of the other domestic noir that’s come out. To me, anyway, that’s a sign that those books were truly fine examples of that sort of novel. It’s also interesting that you enjoyed both Yorke and White, although you read them after having read some of the more recent novels. So in that sense, the timing of your reading didn’t take away from your enjoyment of them. Really fascinating!

  12. Col

    As a reader timing can be critical for me, mood dictates my responses to a book quite often. Right book – wrong time syndrome! I do also need to change it up and go light, or at least lighter after reading dark. I once read McCarthy’s The Road followed by Catcher in the Rye – big mistake. I was in a funk for weeks!

    • That’d do for me, too, Col! And the right book/wrong time thing happens to all of us, I think. I know it does for me. A lot of those factors (mood, book one’s just read, what’s going on in life) can play a role in what our reactions to what we read.

  13. Very thought provoking topic, Margot. You touch on a lot of great elements of timing. As you mentioned with Gone Girl it’s like a coin toss. On one side it’s good that the other books come out otherwise readers might not have given them a second look. On the other side now they will all be compared to Gone Girl and not truly seen in just their own light. Timing does have an impact on what I read and when I read it. Sometimes I just want a change of pace from what ‘theme’ is currently most popular in books so I’ll try a completely different genre. Also, sometimes reading a cozy mystery after several darker thrillers lets me see the next thriller in a better light.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Mason. It’s sometimes best to read something a bit different, just so that you can see things with different eyes, so to speak. So…a light, fun mystery after a dark noir, or a thriller after a slower-paced read. All of that can give one a better perspective. You’re right about the timing of a book’s release, too. Does it help or hurt a book to be released right after another, similar book’s been released? It really can cut both ways. Thanks for the kind words.

  14. I think of this often. The time in the world, the time in the world of novels, and most importantly, the time in one’s own life. Right now my work is so full of dark childhood stories, abuse, violence and pain, that I find myself uninterested in dark fiction of any sort. Sometimes it is because the stories pale beside the raw authentic voices I’m hearing, but often it is imply that I need a break, and fiction is my break of choice. Maybe a historical mystery or a court procedural will fit the bill.

    • I can well imagine, Jan, that it would be hard to enjoy a very dark novel, given what you hear in your work. There is real, raw, ugly pain in those true stories, and I’m sure it makes reading fiction about it difficult. All that to say that I agree with you that sometimes, it’s what’s going on in one’s own life that impacts one’s feelings about reading.

  15. Interesting topic, Margot. You have covered a lot of related issues. Personally, I can read any book any time, even several years after its release. I’m not fussy about reading books as soon as they are published and selling in bookstores. So I’m not concerned about timing. The only series of books I read while it was still “hot” was Harry Potter, thanks to my children and the film adaptations.

    Frankly, what really bothers me about timing is that I have so little time to read all of the books I want to read, from the classics to modern fiction and everything in-between. Is there a middle path?

    • I understand so well what you mean, Prashant, about not enough time to read. I haven’t got a quarter of the amount of time I wish I had for reading; there just aren’t that many hours in a day. And as far as the Harry Potter novels go, I think a lot of people followed them as soon as they came out, for very similar reasons to yours.

  16. You make a good point about timing, Margot. So many times I’ve started a book and given it up after a few pages. Trying again many years later, I loved it. Similarly, books I loved when I was younger are now hard to read for whatever reason. Although not mysteries, “On the Beach” and “The Scarlet Letter” are two examples of old favorites that I found very difficult on rereading, mostly because the point of view techniques are no longer in favor…head-hopping in On the Beach and that distant omnipotent narrator in The Scarlet Letter.

    • I know what you mean, Pat. I’ve had the same thing happen with books I liked very much as a young person, but couldn’t enjoy now that I’m older. Interesting, isn’t it, how our views of life and of what we read change over time. That’s a well-taken point about the narrator in The Scarlet Letter, too.

  17. I agree totally timing is so important when reading and reviewing- the last book I have read impacts so much on the next- particularly if the last was more than amazing. Lately I am struggling with “the next book favourite author writes” expectations can be a little high and sometimes I put off starting the new book as I have a fear that it couldn’t possibly be as good as the last. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I am a fan of Sabine Durrant and reading her new one Lie with Me and waiting anxiously for that moment in the book that will make me glad I read this.

    • You’re quite right, Carol. Timing such as what one’s been reading lately, what other new books are out, etc., matters so much, doesn’t it, when one’s deciding how one feels about a book. I know that’s happened to me. I’m sure it impacts book reviews, too. So, of course, does one’s feelings about the author, as you point out so well. And those are things authors can’t always plan for or control

  18. tracybham

    When I first read this post about timing when reading a book, I was thinking about how much difference it makes if I am reading when I am too tired, or work is heavier, or even if I start a book of one type when I am really in the mood for another type. I often consider that when writing about a book… how fair am I being to the book? Was I in the right mood for it?

    • I think all of those factors really do play a role in what we think of a book, Tracy. Level of energy, mood, book we’ve just finished, all of those factors can impact our opinion of a novel. I often wonder myself whether I would think of a book in the same way if I’d read it at a different time.

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