An author learns a lot when he volunteers to be a judge on a literary awards panel. Such as:
- A slow start is an absolute deal breaker.
- There are a ton of books out there.
- Most of that "ton of books" is unreadable.
- If you believe everything you read on a book's cover, there are approximately 8,417,212 "international bestsellers" writing crime novels at present. Who knew?
- There are some incredibly talented writers today working in a state of obscurity their storytelling skills simply do not warrant.
- Great cover art guarantees nothing; awful cover art, on the other hand, is usually a perfect compliment to the book to which it is attached.
And finally, the most important lesson to be learned of all:
- We all need to try a little harder to come up with some new ideas.
Quite a while back, I promised you a Murderati post in which I list all the crime novel premises I think are begging to have a fork stuck in them. These are premises so overused, so tired and ubiquitous, that at this point, any book based upon one should just be given a number for a title, as in "THEY KILLED HIS FAMILY AND NOW HE WANTS REVENGE #46,808."
Well, here's that list, at least in part:
- The loving widow who discovers her recently deceased, ostensibly perfect husband/boyfriend was not the man she thought he was (because he was in fact a spy/crime boss/assassin/serial adulterer/etc., etc.).
- The triple-crossed espionage agent who must travel the globe in search of those who betrayed him before the multiple contracts on his life can be filled.
- The amnesiac who wakes up in a strange place and must piece together his/her past while simultaneously evading an army of people trying to kill him/her for reasons unknown.
- The serial killer survivor who, years after the attack that nearly killed her (and it is almost always a woman), finds herself being stalked by either that very same serial killer, or someone mimicking him.
- The ex-con, fresh out of prison, forced to pull one more job by his former partners in crime, who are holding his wife/child/mother/brother/family dog hostage to ensure his cooperation.
- The unstoppable professional assassin with the catchy code name (the Wolf, the Hound, El Tigre, El Diablo, etc.) who suddenly finds himself being hunted by his most ruthless professional rival (the Snake, the Dog, Sir Muerte, La Leona, etc.).
- The grizzled, addiction-addled cop forced to play cat-and-mouse with a diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene.
- The grizzled FBI agent-with-a-past forced to play cat-and-mouse with a diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene.
- The grizzled, addiction-addled FBI profiler-with-a-past forced to play cat-and-mouse with a diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene.
- The haunted, addiction-addled psychic who reluctantly helps the police play cat-and-mouse with a diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene.
- The grizzled, addiction-addled EX-cop-with-a-past forced out of retirement to play cat-and-mouse with a diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene.
- The grizzled, unshakable ex-military policeman who plays cat-and-mouse with a diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene.
- The grizzled . . .
Well, you get the idea.
If I were nothing but a reader, I'd be way tired of this stuff. I mean, seriously, enough is enough. But speaking as an author, I have to admit that avoiding such overly-familiar concepts is easier said than done, because there are only so many promising crime or thriller novel premises to be had in this world and devising one that's never been done before is damn near impossible. Also, let's be honest here: The reason people keep writing books based upon these retreads is that people keep buying and reading them.
Still, I think any author seeking to create truly great work must make a concerted effort to take the tried and true and make something relatively fresh and new out of it. Adding a twist here or there is not enough; true creativity demands that an author deconstruct these belabored premises and rebuild them from the ground up, so that a reader cannot instantly identify --- or worse, dismiss --- their latest book as "WRONGFULLY ACCUSED WOMAN SEEKS MISSING CHILD AND HUSBAND'S KILLER WHILE RUNNING FROM THE LAW #24,909."
A unique voice and/or intriguing protagonist can only do so much to separate a book based upon a tired old idea from the hundreds of others based upon that very same idea. To be memorable, to stand out from the crowd, such a book must break the mold in some significant way, not merely massage it into a slightly different shape.
If all you want to do is sell thousands of paperback originals at Walmart (and come to think of it, who doesn't?), this may all sound like way too much work, and you're probably right. But if your goals are a little loftier --- if you want to build your reputation on more than just an ability to create suspense using the same limited tool box hundreds of other authors are drawing from --- you have to go the extra mile and yes, reinvent the wheel.
Otherwise, you risk turning off readers and award judges alike for whom unadulterated familiarity may not only breed contempt, but qualify a book for the Been-There, Read-That-a-Million-Times-Before rejection pile.