Friday, March 2, 2012

More Than Pretty Wrappings

Opening a new book is like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. You see a pretty dust cover over the formed cardboard like shell and you wonder what’s inside. Will it be a story to excite you or make you laugh? Will the hero be fearless and the bad guys extra evil?

Many times, the book ends up being the annual Father’s Day tie. Nothing special, same unexciting characters, standard plot with a few new twists. Once in awhile, however, you do get something shiny and fresh and worth buying.

As writers, we’re faced with a dilemma, one I think is confusing and somewhat unfair. We’re asked by publishers or agents to create something new, to have a fresh voice, because as we all know, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same plots have been rehashed and rebuilt and remodeled every year, but we’re expected to slap a different coat of paint over them, mix up the action a bit, conjure up new surprises.

Then after months or years of blood, sweat, and tears, those same publishers and agents ask us, “So next to whose books would yours sit on the store shelf?” or “To which authors is your book similar?”

What? We’ve spent countless hours trying to come up with something outside the box and you ask us who we write like? I write mysteries and horror, but I’m not supposed to write in the same vein as Robert B. Parker or H.P. Lovecraft, yet some person to whom I'm pitching my story at a conference asks me which authors’ novels mine might be next to in the store? Can you say, “Oxymoron?”

So, let’s tackle one thing at a time. How do we write in a different voice than everybody else? It can start with plot, but there, you might be limited. Only so many of them to go around. You can combine genres if you think you can make it ‘believable.’ Zombie romance in space with a few cowboys thrown in for added flavor.

Setting: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago have seen more than their fair share of stories. Try something in Alaska or rural Montana. Or strike out across the ocean to Galapagos Island or Guam. Is your alien planet a desert Vulcan or the mega-metropolis Coruscant?

Character: Here is where you have a plethora of options. Everybody knows the hard-boiled detective, but does he limp, have one eye, stands only three feet tall, was once a nuclear scientist? What new spin can you make on the leader of the religious cult? Could he be Australian or Nigerian? What personal problems can your protagonists and antagonists have? A lisp? The product of a brother/sister relationship? Dealing with the loss of a dog?

Of course, in certain genres, there are standards you have to meet, and some, like romance, you do not have much room for radical creativity. Romance publishers and readers want the same limited buffet every time. That’s okay.

In “Beta”, I tried to be different with my heroine, Mallory Petersen. Yes, she’s tall, blonde, and beautiful. She’s also a taekwondo instructor with years of training under her black belt. She’s a Sam Spade fan right down to the Bogey trench coat and hat. Many of her cases are fraught with goofiness.

I also placed her in Des Moines, Iowa, because I’m familiar with the area and it’s very rare to see a story set there.

Plot: She’s takes on the serious case of finding a kidnapped eight year, taken by child pornographers.

The second question, of how your writing is similar to other authors, can be tricky, because you shouldn’t sound like others; you should sound like yourself. There are aspects, however, you can pinpoint as being influenced by others. Is the humor akin to Evanovitch? Do you have a serial killer a’la John Lutz? Did you attend the course on short chapters instructed by James Patterson?

If you’ve done enough reading–and as writers you should be reading–you are familiar with authors you enjoy and probably are somewhat influenced by them when writing your own stories. Certainly you can learn how to improve your writing.

So, how is “Beta” similar to others? Who do I sound like? Well…I choose to let you decide. I just hope you enjoy the book and you won’t think of it as a Father’s Day tie.

2 comments:

Patricia Gligor said...

Stephen,
Interesting post. I'm ordering my copy of "Beta" today. Can't wait to read about Mallory's adventures.

Stephen L. Brayton said...

Thanks!