Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield
Readers expect if they pick up the twenty-second volume of their favourite thriller series it’ll be more of the same, a creaky wheezing corpse dragging itself forward with rotting fingerbones. These sorts of books are where the money is. The boilerplate of the industry. Month after month, year after year, these books are churned out assembly line style for the public to ingest, absorbing three sad calories of literary enjoyment, before shitting them into the trash or closest used bookstore.
It’s an ugly cycle. At some point people started buying these books based on firehose marketing and celebrity endorsements and in response more books were written to cater to those buying tastes, ad infinitum. It’s not a secret, far from it, authors know there is a certain magic formula that if they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to master, they can join the ranks of the serializers.
Not just the serials either, the entire mass market oozes sameness. The books look the same, the titles sound the same, the plots are indistinguishable except for the anti-hero’s cup size and eye colour — blue steel or smoky aluminum. Writing by rote. Writing by formula. Everyone wants to be the next James Patterson or Steven King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Rich and famous, with terrible movie adaptions and mansions full of dirty money sex dungeons.
Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound so bad. Where the hell was I going with this again?
Oh right, total lack of imagination in the pursuit of sell out success.
The ability to conjure ideas from the billion facets of existence and assemble them into unique works of music, art, and writing is a superpower with unlimited potential, so it really grinds my gears when writers, who have the entire universe of possibilities to play with, take the same old tired elements and assemble them in bloody identical ways. Sure, they may brighten or darken the paint some, and give the work a clever name and twist the marketing, but it’s typically a clone of a seminal work, and a shittier one at that.
Stories in a particular genre and sub-genre are going to have similar and even required elements. A murder mystery, by definition is going to have some sort of murder and quite possibly a mystery. A thriller should thrill. Noggy loves heist stories. Lots of people love zombie or werewolf stories, half the world either loves or hates vampire stories, traditional or glittery. There are haunted house stories, cosmic horrors, cryptids, occult detectives, you name it. Some sub-genres are narrow, some are wide, but they instill a little order to chaos that is the literary landscape. As I mentioned, there is an expectation that if you pick up a book in that sub-genre it should actually, you know, not be false advertising.
That’s not what my little rant is about though. What I am talking about are overused tropes and by-the-number formulaic bullshit.
Sure, it’s easy to write yet another school for bizarre weirdos novel, packed with bullies and not-so secret secrets and angry, clueless teachers — sorry teachers, you know how it is. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Does every supernatural detective story, mine included, need to pay homage to a certain hard drinking, chain smoking, trench coat and fedora wearing reprobate from the 30’s? Does every epic fantasy novel have to involve an orphan from a purged royal family who grows up to be an assassin with legendary abilities because their father was king of the horny gods? Does every single heist series have to start with a book that’s entirely about putting a misfit, yet oddly exceptionally uniquely talented crew together?
Subvert those tropes. Do it!
We already discussed in a previous episode that if you want to write, you need to read. Period. And it often helps to read the sort of stories you want to write. Subverting tropes requires intimate knowledge of them. You need to know where the boundaries are and what you can twist, and hollow out and fill with explosives, and, in the end, completely break.
Does your haunted house story require a gothic New England farmhouse complete with a vengeful revenant left over from the original occupant’s penchant for baby ear soup? Nope. There are a thousand elements ripe for subversion. And I’m not talking easy ones like making the house a brownstone apartment in Manhattan and the ghosts aliens. Who says the house needs to be a regular house? And who says the ghosts have to be regular ghosts? I’m not saying write a story about a construction site porta-potty possessed by ghost pepper hot wings, but I’m also not, not saying that.
Find an angle, run naked with it. You know you can. Don’t be afraid that you’ll never get published by the big five, or one of their imprints, and get that sex dungeon. Write weird, terrible shit, that has its own unique soul and flavour, and take that unoriginal WIP, wrap it in a tarp and stash it under the Aztek’s trunk liner next to the trencher and gasoline in anticipation of the next wolf moon and a satisfying internment.
It’s for the best, it really is.