EVERYTHING OLD IS OLD AGAIN

by Gar Anthony Haywood

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.

16 thoughts on “EVERYTHING OLD IS OLD AGAIN

  1. PippaW

    Don't forget the:

    Local craft business woman having an on off relationship with local law enforcement, manages to continue to run biz and catch the *killer* and keep the on off relationship. #3310

    My favourite is lone cop in the UK manages to solve a murder without recourse to any of the resources that are in place to record/administrate murders…… HOLMES has been around in various guises for so many years…..!

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hilarious, Gar. I am mightily sick of all of the above and would add to "diabolical serial killer whose M.O. is so twisted, half the CSI team loses its lunch at every crime scene."… But leaves poetry behind as clues to his masterpiece.

  3. Lisa Alber

    Awesome! And so true, and so funny!

    You know how children love have the same book read to them thousands of times? I know that's part of a development process, but I wonder if that behavior remains in adults, hence, why the demand for the same kinds of stories exists.

    And I wonder about agents/traditional publishers too. In our conservative environment, it's hard to find anyone willing to NOT go with the tried-and true, especially if you're a debuting novelist.

    Great food for thought. Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Fran

    Thank you for throwing in the amnesiac one! If I see "amnesia" in the description, I put it down. Don't care who wrote it. Just. Can't. Do. It.

    I'd add in the improbable hacker guy/gal who can get into anywhere with no trouble in under .00002 seconds flat. I like a good hacker as much as the next person but there comes a time when enough is enough.

    Unless they're funny. I'll put up with improbable hacker who makes me laugh. But then that's true of a lot of characters. Humor, even black humor, redeems a great many faults.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all who participate!

  5. Debbie

    I dunno…. Romeo and Juliet vs The Twilight books…or, all the things that prefaced Scoobie Doo vs Harry Potter? Perhaps there is comfort in repetition and we just call it tradition, habits,or 'an interesting take'? Then again, perhaps we all have a self induced amnesia.

  6. Gar Haywood

    Alex: Poetry. Or a red rose. Or a pink carnation. Or the Home Depot receipt for the ax he used as a murder weapon. Or…

    Mary: Thank you for the kind words. You're very sweet.

    Fran: Funny makes up for a lot of things. But not EVERY thing.

    Lisa: You're absolutely right about the complicity of agents and editors in this nonsense. If they were less inclined to buy these trope-filled redundancies, authors would be less inclined to write them. Oh, well…

  7. Ed Marrow

    That could also be a list of every thriller movie coming out now. Then they feed off each other. Worn out book begets tired movie begets copy cat book. Occasionally, one will be a hit and keep the plate spinning.

  8. Robert Ward

    Very funny piece. But don't a lot of people read these books because they are the same books over and over again? I had a really original premise in Four Kinds of Rain but it didn't sell all that well, even though it got raves. Why? My guess is it was a little too original. Most people read thrillers so they can have the exact same experience over and over again…Just like they watch soap operas for the same over the top dramas over and over again. Hope I'm wrong but it seems people want comfort and only a modicum of fear. A woman reader once told me, "I dont like a book that's too scary." She wants her cozy to be cute and have a sweet little recipe or two in them and nothing too demanding. A little romance, a happy ending…look at CSI…the same stories every week. Popular as hell. Homeland ,which is much more original, would probably not play on the nets. Too original and no obvious good guys. What's the answer. hell if I know but for myself I read more and more classics and look at less and less new stuff. But I agree with you. Idont want to write any books with the same old premises. That being said I do have two new ideas which aren't thrillers and based on characters not easy concepts.

  9. PD Martin

    Mmm…given my first five books feature an FBI agent with a past….!!!! But there was no lunch lost at the crime scenes πŸ™‚ Am I redeemed?

  10. Gar Haywood

    Ward: You always write outside the box. That's what makes you so good. I definitely think you're on to something in suggesting readers love to read these books just to relive the same experience, with only a slight deviation between iterations. But where does that leave a thriller writer? Do you keep pumping out the same book, over and over again, just to keep the paychecks coming, or try something bigger and better and risk no paycheck at all? It's not an easy call.

  11. Katherine Wikoff

    Excellent, funny post! As someone who reviewed romance fiction for about a six-year stretch over a decade ago, I can totally identify with your descriptions. I had been a huge fan of the genre my entire life, but toward the end of my tenure as a reviewer, I was SO sick of the same tired storyline running over and over, exactly what you've described here for crime novels. In fact, whereas I had originally been excited to receive free novels in the mail every month, I eventually came to view the packages as burdensome junk mail.

    Writing a novel is extremely hard creative work, and I respected the authors of all those books for their accomplishment. But I had grown weary of all the serial killers terrorizing small towns and heroines in mortal danger from both the serial killers and the law enforcement agents with whom they had love-hate relationships. (Many of the novels I received were "romantic suspense.") The plots were boring, the graphic violence was boring, even the sex was boring.

    I guess the key characteristic that sets highly successful genre writers apart from the crowd is their ability to achieve that delicate balance between satisfying readers' demands for familiar conventions while at the same time surprising (and delighting) them with fresh twists on the tried and true. Far easier said than done!

  12. Diane Schultz

    Insightful (and useful) post, but it does – as Lisa pointed out – contradict Alex's advice in Screenwriting 101 to find that space in someone's head where they've already bought into part of what you're "selling" — she goes into this in much better detail and explanation, but basically there are so many people writing screenplays and only so many of them will be read, fewer picked up, and even fewer produced, and even fewer than those will actually make the rounds of the movie theaters. And it's called "mental real estate" if I recall correctly, where you are providing some things that are sure shoe-in sellers, something that — in the case above — would let the agent know that it's a good thing, a sure thing, and you can see this by looking at HISTORICAL SALES. Ergo, it's not a new thing, unless one can do what you said, and still hold onto some of the mental real estate somehow. Still, I am all for continuing to grow my craft, and hopefully one day I'll work out how to do that. I appreciate that what you're both saying is that somehow one has to find the right balance in there — as a new writer — where we are not saying the same things the same ways and we are also finding some kind of mental real estate that helps our agents and publishers sell our works. For myself, I am sick of all the PRESIDENT or any other POLITICAL FIGURE or their RELATIVE being in mortal danger. Please don't make me read any of those. None of them approach The Hunt for Red October's mastery of technology and it seems a bit gratuitous (like bad sex in books). I think the cozies themselves are loved for being visits back to old friends. They do have a different appeal. Wonderful post.

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