Full disclosure: I obtained a Kindle copy of Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James when it was offered free on Amazon. I borrowed a Kindle copy of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke via Amazon Prime. I do not know the authors nor have I ever communicated with them in any way about their books or any other subject. I am a traditionally published author of historical romances, and self-published in contemporary romantic suspense and miscellaneous non-fiction.
Further disclosure: I read both books in their entirety.
Openings are important. If the opening of your book fails to hook the reader, you aren't going to be there to urge her to take a second look, read a few more pages, give the story a chance to develop. The sooner you grab her interest, the less chance you have that she'll give up. Remember, there are hundreds of other books out there for her too choose from. You can't count on her being one of those readers who reads everything and loves it; she might be, or she might not.
If, however, she does continue to read, you now have to continue the story. All the rest of it is the ". . .and then what happened" part of the book. At any point in that ". . .and then what happened," your reader still has the opportunity to give up, quit, toss it aside, DNF* and WNRTAA**.
(*DNF = Did Not Finish; **WNRTAA = Will Never Read This Author Again.)
Readers come to your book with expectations, and this is especially true for genre fiction. The two books currently under discussion are categorized as "cozy mysteries," which means they are expected to follow certain conventions. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Generally a small-town or rural setting.
2. Murder but not too gruesome, and generally not committed on the page.
3. Amateur sleuth who has informal connections to law enforcement but is dismissed by them, until of course she gets lucky and solves the crime for them.
Both Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder take place in small towns. In the former, Ryli Sinclair tells us on page 1 that she lives in "my small hometown of Granville, Missouri." She works for the local newspaper, so we learn right away that she qualifies as an amateur sleuth. Hannah Swenson operates a cookie bakery and coffee shop called The Cookie Jar in her hometown of Lake Eden, Minnesota.
Picture Perfect Murder opens with Sinclair called in to take photographs of a murder victim.
This dead body was spread out over the kitchen table, naked from the waist up, covered in blood, and missing a heart.Because this is on page 1, it kind of breaks the rules/conventions/guidelines of the cozy mystery genre regarding the gruesomeness of the murder.
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 57-58). Kindle Edition.
Hannah Swenson, on the other hand, doesn't even discover the murder victim until page 23 (of 289), at the very end of Chapter One. All the preceding pages are devoted to background information about Hannah, why she's come back to Eden Lake (from somewhere else), about her family, about her cat, about her bakery, about every detail of her morning from six o'clock to approximately half past eight, when she finds the deceased.
Ryli, on the other hand, did not herself discover the body, but has been called by the police to take photographs. After the announcement on page 1 of the murder, she (in first person viewpoint narrative) proceeds to dump a bunch of background information, primarily about herself and about the chief of police, who is on the scene as well.
Both books suffer from the same problem: The author fails to integrate background information with action. Ryli is there in the kitchen -- whose kitchen? -- with various police officers and a mutilated corpse, but she stops the action to give some of her own history, the chief's history, her sexual attraction to him, and so on.
Is any of this background information, as presented in both books, absolutely necessary? Maybe some of it is, or will be, but almost none of it is necessary at this point.
The key to keeping your reader reading is to mix necessary background information with action and/or dialogue.
The writing of a novel involves three distinct skill sets, two of which you may even remember from high school. A hundred million years ago when I was in high school, those skill sets were labeled "Form" and "Content," and every paper we turned in was graded separately on each aspect. "Form" was the writing technique skill set: the grammar and spelling stuff. "Content" was the meat of the paper.
In writing a novel, "Form" is still the grammar and spelling, the punctuation and proofreading. "Content" becomes the plot and story construction. But then there's "Style," something our high school teachers didn't bother too much with.
A novelist's style consists of how she tells the story. Does she stop the action to give fashion show descriptions of each character's wearing apparel? Is she able to give each character a distinct voice and personality? Are the characters' actions and interactions rational and justified? Does the whole book have an internal consistency that allows the reader to believe this story could really have happened?
This can almost be summed up as: Was this book easy to read, hard to put down?
One page leads to another and another. The flow of words and action is so smooth that there aren't any convenient stopping places.
Both Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder and Picture Perfect Murder had far too many places where the reading became difficult and the books became easy to put down. I nearly gave up on Picture Perfect Murder several times because there were either stylistic absurdities or internal inconsistencies.
For instance, were Ryli and the chief of police, Garrett Kimble, actually dating? Did she just have the hots for him but hadn't gone out with him?
I tried staying clear of him when he first came to town… mainly because he makes the spit in my mouth dry up. Whether it’s from sheer terror or sexual frustration, I don’t know, but more and more lately I’ve been thinking of finding out.suggests in the first scene that she's not had any social interaction with him.
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 81-83). Kindle Edition.
Just a few pages later, when Ryli is snooping (!) in Kimble's office, he comes in and we get this:
I was almost nose-to-chest with him.
He reached out and lifted a curl from my shoulder, winding it around his finger. “Leave the investigating to me.”
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Kindle Edition.
Later, Ryli and Kimble have been invited to dinner at her brother Matt's house, and she is arranging to leave work early to get ready for this "date." The following conversation takes place among Ryli, the owner of the newspaper she works for, and the owner's wife:
“What’s going on?” Mindy asked.
I didn’t know if I should tell her. After all, she’s my friend, but she’s also my boss’s wife. What do I say? That I’m going home to shave my legs because I may or may not fool around tonight.
“I’m going to Matt’s tonight for dinner,” I said. “I wanted to stop by the store so I can bake a dessert.”
Hank snorted. “One death this week isn’t enough?”
“Bite me,” I said.
Mindy laughed. “Hank! Be nice. So just the three of you?”
I stared at her. How does she do that? Like she knows I’m hiding something. “No. Garrett is picking me up. We’re going together.”
Mindy squealed. “You know what this means, right?”
“It means she’s probably gonna go and get herself knocked up,” Hank growled.Ryli is the newspaper's only employee, filling the roles of reporter as well as photographer. Granville is described as a town of some ten thousand population; the paper is a weekly. Ryli also helps Mindy with the layout of the paper.
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 587-597). Kindle Edition.
So, okay, newspaper owner Hank is a jerk; no real boss in 2015 would be able to get away with that kind of comment to an employee. But there are other aspects of Ryli's employment at the newspaper that just didn't ring . . . right.
Picture Perfect Murder has a copyright date of 2015. When I worked for a small town weekly paper in the late 1990s, the staff numbered about 20: six or eight reporters, at least one full-time photographer, two editors, four office staff, five of us in the layout department. Some layout was still done manually then, but much was already computerized. There's no way Granville's weekly can be put out with a staff of three.
Then there's this, as Ryli is finishing her photographing of the opening crime scene:
Half an hour later I finished off my last roll of film. I took plenty of pictures because after my run-in with Kimble, I didn’t want to take any chances of not getting everything possible.
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 173-175). Kindle Edition.
After Ryli leaves the murder location, she heads to the police station, to which she has a key.
I rifled through my keychain until I came up with the key to get into the station. Claire, the dispatcher for the graveyard shift, should be inside. Running the last few feet to the door, I unlocked itWhy is she at the police station?
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 218-220). Kindle Edition
“Hey, Claire. It’s me, Ryli. I wanted to drop off the rolls of film for Chief Kimble before I went home.”Apparently Ms. St. James doesn't know about digital cameras. I'm not a professional photographer, but even I have had a digital camera since 2003.
St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Location 222). Kindle Edition.
These are the things that take a reader out of the story. Most readers won't notice. Most readers just see the words and turn the pages.
But here's something interesting I found just today.
The second book in the series is priced at $4.99. Though it was released almost seven years ago, it has only 400 ratings for about the same average.
Looking at the third and fourth books in the series, the number of ratings has continued to decrease.
This doesn't necessarily mean the books aren't selling, but it does suggest that fewer people are reading -- and liking -- the books.
Looking at the 1-star reviews for All Eyes on Me gives the impression it's the form and style that tend to turn people off enough to leave a negative, rather than the content, or story/plot.
Remember, I'm only one critic. My word is not the final judgment on your writing. I may be totally wrong, and your book that breaks all the rules may turn out to be the next million-seller.
The odds, however, are against you.
As Stephen King has written:
And no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (p. 141). Scribner. Kindle Edition.