Sunday, August 18, 2013

WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW--but not what EVERYBODY already knows

I may have to take a short break from reading my favorite genre, the cozy/traditional mystery with a non-PI female protagonist. I think I'm waaaaay overloaded on the common tropes, situations, and standard characters. Writers are often exhorted to write about what they know, but I think I'm seeing far too much of that lately. I read for excitement and vicarious experience as well as for escape and fun, and if I get the same-old-same-old, it's . . . well . . . (whispering) boring.

You see, I undertook a little experiment. I downloaded ten e-book cozy/traditional mysteries selling at Amazon and read them over the past couple of weeks with the intent of analyzing what's going on in the market. I discovered some new authors (good), but found some trends that bothered me (bad).

DISCLAIMER: None of these were Oak Tree Press books/authors. I didn't want to be influenced.

Rule one of writing: "Don't be boring." If your work becomes boring and mundane and repetitive (notice how this sentence is an example of what it describes), readers will begin skimming, then skipping, then tossing your book out the window.

I believe that a book set in an unusual place or with a protagonist who has an uncommon profession will appeal more to readers who are sick and tired of the usual tropes. For instance, I can't stand one more mystery/suspense tale in which the heroine is a recent widow, yet starts going out with the detective immediately. Or someone who holds all her conversations in the car on the cell phone or in some boring coffee shop. Authors: people like to learn something when they're reading, so why not do some research and set your next book in the Grand Canyon or on a hot-air balloon--or at least something different from the usual fare? I have found that if I call just about ANYONE and tell them I'm a novelist and need their expertise on Amtrak trains, automobile engines, ham radios, or cave exploring--take your pick--those people are eager to tell me all about what they do and how it's done. I usually pick up some fun factoid or two that'll fascinate the experts and make them think I've actually done whatever it is I have my characters doing. I've even called the local police to ask them about police procedure . . . I'm probably listed as a "person of interest" by now. (LOL)

During my experiment, I discovered such close similarities between the various stories and the characters that populated them that I found myself skimming and peeking ahead to see if anything interesting might happen, rather than putting the pieces of the puzzle together or trying to figure out the crime myself (as I usually do). I kept feeling as if I had read this story somewhere before, even though the plots and characters were not quite the same. I flipped back to check the title of the book to be sure I hadn't made a clicking mistake on the Kindle and therefore was re-reading a book. Nope. Different books. There just weren't many surprises.

That wasn't really what bugged me, though. I kept seeing scenes set in the same old places over and over: the car (usually the heroine alone), restaurants (with one dining companion), home, office, supermarket. After a while, these places all blurred together. YAWNNN. Listen, folks, we are making this stuff up, so why are we making it boring?

One reason I set my books in unusual places (Marfa, Texas, in the middle of an artist's colony with Mystery Lights, and BDSM bars, for two) is to entertain readers. I give my heroines unusual professions if I can. It's something that can capture a reader's attention. Wouldn't you rather read a scene set on a hot-air balloon than yet another "generic restaurant" scene with the concomitant chomping on salads and slurping of coffee? A chase through a winery instead of yet another office?

True, SOME of a book's scenes must be these common things. The hero's clothing is sometimes important, so we have to put up with the "I got up and got dressed" stuff, and often it's easier to deliver a clue via cell phone conversation than to go to all the trouble of having a scene. Some percentage of a book will be like that. But surely the remaining scenes can be more dramatic and have interesting backdrops. Right?

Maybe you don't think you know about an interesting profession. But is your spouse, parent, cousin, or child involved in a hobby or job that would be something readers aren't familiar with or are curious about? It can't hurt to jazz up the story by not having all the usual tropes. Can it?

Okay, time for the readers to speak out. Do you find that you get bored by books that are too vanilla or too much like other books? (Maybe not, and that's fine if it's true. Just asking.) Do you even think about it--meaning that as long as you like the story and aren't irritated by the characters, anything goes? How far can an author go before it gets too outlandish for you?

How do you feel about this? Are you a reader who wants a series to keep the same basic formula with a few variations, or do you like to see originality and creativity? Or are you somewhere in between?

I think I'll take a little break. I'll go back to re-read Richard Brautigan (the last of the Beats, I think), Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. That should wash out all traces of the too-formulaic stuff!


Cora said...

I loved your post. I totally agree with you. I think writers need to stretch themselves. Formulaic or overused themes in writing doesn't appeal to me. Where before I might try to finish a book, I'm growing bored with, now I stop reading and usually never go back. I do think a really good writer can place the setting anywhere, but something new and fresh has to be going on--compelling characters or plot.

I was talking to a writer this past week who said, "If I read about one more lord or duke I think I will puke. How many dukes could there have been in England?"

Again, I would read another story about a duke, but something new and fresh needs to happen with character or setting or plot--ideally all three.

I would grow bored if I had to write about the mundane, so my stories end up in different times and places where I can fantasize about events and mix historical fact with imaginary projections. It's why I write--to make stuff up that is not about everyday life.

Shalanna said...

@Cora: EXACTLY!! In fantasy, it seems that EVERY hero has to be the Chosen One or hidden prince who is revealed as being destined for greatness. I wrote one about a perfectly normal girl who had a magical ability that was new and who stumbled into greatness, though she wasn't born into it. There were peasants and paupers in Merrie Old Shakespeare-Land who were interesting--and Dickens has a few of the non-royals as stars. So that can work well.

I really don't know where all of these books that re-tread the same old paths are coming from. I make up stuff, like you, and I like that better!

Holli said...

I think ultimately it depends upon what is happening in the scene and who is involved in the scene. If a conversation is taking place, a coffee shop or a car is not that interesting. If the culprit is following the protagonist and she has to outmaneuver him, a car is a mighty fine choice.

For instance, there are oodles of shows on t.v. today that revolve around the prosecutor/cop formula, or the crime lab solving the crime formula, and now the bad guy or crazy guy being the one who solves the crimes formula. The characters are what differentiate for me the too formulaic from the shows I will actually watch or DVR.

I could read six books of characters who do the same exact profession and if the characters are well-written, interesting, speak with a lot of subtext, and engage me, I would like and read all six of them.

So to me, keeping things from getting boring or stale is all about having well-written, engaging, well-developed characters, who are doing interesting things, even if they are doing them in normal and mundane places.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I like interesting settings, but I'm with Holli, what I love is interesting characters. I want to be part of their lives for the short time I'm with them.

Beryl Reichenberg said...

I, too, have read too many books with formula or overused plot, characters, settings, etc. Some writers get into a rut. After all, if the plot, etc. worked in one story, why not reuse it in another? Beryl

Amy Bennett said...

I agree completely! I like to learn something new every time I read something new. Nothing is as tiresome as reading a new book and feeling that I've already read this before... someone just used "find and replace" to change the names!

Romance has become a popular "side plot" to some mysteries. So have recipes. Both have been done to death and unless the writer has something new, or at least fresher, to offer, I'd just as soon skip both elements. One overused element is the love triangle. Or maybe one author in particular has burned me out on it (you'd think after almost 20 books, the main character would make up her mind... especially after one of the suitors has repeatedly proven himself a jerk!) If the hero/ine can't make up their minds, there'd better be a good reason why (fear of commitment isn't it!) Same goes for recipes--interrupting the action at the end of every third or fourth chapter to include the recipe for whatever the characters were eating during that chapter tends to make me want to put the book down and head to the kitchen to make something totally not good for me (and really, how many different ways can the brownie be reinvented?)

I like the unexpected in a novel, whether it's locale, characters, or situations. Having a predictable plot would not be bad if the characters, places, and situations weren't predictable as well!

Elaine Faber said...

judged my books against your theoryand found myself guilty of some of it. Conversations in a diner, love triangle, following the clues to solve a crime. but I think there is another point to consider. How many of us have been travel guides to Mars and run into white slavers, mummy curses, espionage and murder (or any other fantastic, unbelievable nonsense). I think readers do like to read about characters they can identify with, "It COULD be me." The key is to make the plot interesting, characters fun, diaglogue intriguing whereever it takes place. Though I have used some common elements in my book, by adding a cat that helps our common divorcee solve the crime, get involved in a love triangle and all take place at a common lake resort, (where anyone might be) I think I've captured both sides of the argument. At least that was the intent.

Lesley Diehl said...

I try fro both unusual settings and protags with odd professions or avocations. Nothing could be more unique for Florida than rural Florida. It allows me to write about cowboys, cows and alligators. No one seems familair with a location that looks like Texas with palm trees. My protags range from a preschool teacher turned bartender to a female microbrewer. My short stories are often about family members, but then, I have an odd (read crazy) family.

Velda Brotherton said...

You're absolutely right. Formulaic anything bores me. Even though I write romances, they don't cling to the old NY rule that kept us following set scenes at a particular time.
Ordinary characters however can be given unusual backgrounds, hangups, flaws that will make their stories more interesting.

John M. Wills said...

Love different within the genre. Love when the author writes from the opposite sex POV.

John M Wills