Thursday, March 10, 2011

Potato Chip Books

Unlike a lot of people, I’m not a true chocolate fanatic. I enjoy the taste, but I can take a single chocolate and leave the rest of the box without feeling particularly deprived. Potato chips, on the other hand, are another story. Put me near a bag and my self control promptly takes wing.

This rather labored explanation is meant to serve as the basis for an equally labored metaphor. Some books, you see, are like chocolate for me. I read a chocolate book over several days and then I may or may not get others by the same author. It’s pleasant reading, I like it, but it doesn’t really drive me to read nonstop. Other books, believe me, are more like potato chips. Once you start you just can’t put it down.

I first encountered the whole potato chip phenomenon when somebody gave me a box of Linda Howard’s old Harlequin romances from the eighties several years ago. I soon discovered I could polish one off in a few hours if I didn’t do anything else, and I usually didn’t want to do anything else while I was reading. After a couple of Linda Howard binges, I started rationing. I’d come home from work on Friday afternoon and curl up with a Linda Howard series romance. Three hours later, I’d probably be finished, but if I wasn’t, I’d go on reading after dinner or the next day until I was done. The whole process made Fridays something I looked forward to all week long.

After Linda Howard, I discovered Jayne Ann Krentz. Now Krentz’s books were a little longer, but I tore through them in the same way I’d torn through Howard’s. Weekend reading—I’d always check to make sure I had one on hand. Just like potato chips.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the writers who grabbed me this way (and I’d add Elizabeth Lowell to this list) were all old school. They’d come up through the ranks of series romances and they’d learned their trade well. Plots moved along at a very brisk pace. Characters were drawn in broad strokes and tended to fall into predictable patterns—the brooding alpha male, the headstrong, passionate woman. You didn’t spend a lot of time thinking when you read these books—you just plowed ahead.

By now, of course, all three of these writers have moved into Living Legend status, and they no longer write in the same way. They publish longer works and they seldom do more than one a year. Moreover, their characters are usually more complex, with more complete backstories. But the lessons you can learn from potato chip books are real. Stories matter. Characters may be stereotypical, but they’ve also got to be interesting. And most of all, once you’ve got the readers hooked, you’ll hold onto them. For those of us who write books in a series, that’s the Holy Grail, believe me.

Potato chip books. Betcha can’t read just one.

So who have I missed? What other potato chip authors would you add to this list?


Kate Klebanski said...

Have you noticed the potato chip books are also the re-reads? I work out of the house, so I have to make deals for the reading time - I finish a portion of work before I allow myself a "five minute break". I completely agree with your selections, and would add Julie Garwood (especially the old ones) Nora Roberts (again, the really old ones), Lori Foster and Christina Dodd.

Meg Benjamin said...

Yep, these are books I reread when I'm feeling blah!

PG Forte said...

Oh, yeah. I'll add Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels to the list. I moved on to her after Krentz.

I think, for me, it boils down to the relationship between the characters. I think it matters less who they are or what they're doing as long as I fall in love with the way they interact with each other.

Kelly Jamieson said...

Yes yes and yes. Yes to all those authors and hell yes to potato chips (If only I could bring you some Old Dutch chips to RT, Meg). I'd add Jennifer Crusie and Lori Foster to that list.

Meg Benjamin said...

Oh my, Elizabeth Peters. I'd almost forgotten about her, but boy did I ever tear through her Amelia Peabody book!