This week: Predictable ProceduralsEdited by: Jeff
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"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."
-- Carl Sagan
Mystery Trivia of the Week: For many authors, their first published book doesn't automatically mean they were able to retire from their day job and write full time. Here are a few mystery authors, their previous professions, and how many books they wrote before shifting to a full-time writing career:
Michael Connelly (former crime reporter): 4 Harry Bosch novels
Ken Follett (former publishing executive): 12 novels under various pseudonyms and series
Tess Gerritsen (former doctor): nearly a dozen standalone novels
John Grisham (former trial lawyer): 2 standalones (A Time to Kill and The Firm)
Robert B. Parker (former professor): 5 Spenser novels
James Patterson (former advertising executive): 3 Alex Cross novels + nearly a dozen standalones
The lesson here is to stick with it... you don't always strike it rich on the first go-round. Unless you're Tom Clancy, of course, and write The Hunt For Red October, which sold 45,000 copies after an initial run of only 5,000, and was recommended by then-President Ronald Reagan, spurring the book to further sell another 300,000 copies after that.
In preparation for the mystery novel I'm going to write during NaNoWriMo this year, I've been reading a lot of mysteries over the past several weeks. This will be the first time I attempt to write the first installment of a series rather than a standalone narrative, so I decided to check out the first novels in a bunch of bestselling mystery series including those from Robert B. Parker, J.D. Robb, J.A. Jance, Tony Hillerman, Carl Hiaasen, Andrew Vachss, Jim Butcher, etc. A lot of these series were first started a long time ago (Parker's first novel was published in 1973!), and I've discovered two interesting things about these books.
The first is how much times have changed. Our social and cultural attitudes have changed a lot in the past few decades, and it's kind of surprising to read stories where people of Asian heritage are called "Orientals" and tough-guy characters are regularly demeaning or downright disparaging both females and minorities in various ways. I don't think you could publish a book in today's world where - unless the book were specifically about gender issues - a male character casually tells a female character not to worry "her pretty little head" about something and that maybe she'd feel more comfortable back at home making dinner for her man.
The second thing I've noticed, though, is far more applicable to current writers than three and four decade old political incorrectness. And that's just how many crime stories have been told since then. I'm using some really, really broad generalizations here, but according to this website there were 347,178 books published traditionally (no self-publishing) in 2011. Then this website reports that the mystery genre accounts for approximately 16% of Amazon's Top 100 bestsellers on Kindle. Let's pretend that Amazon percentage applies to book sales as a whole, and let's pretend each year has had a consistent number of book sales (I know, I can hear my statistics professor screaming at me now... but I don't think he realizes how hard it is to find publishing figures! ).
Using that math, there are roughly 55,550 mystery books traditionally published every year. Obviously some consideration needs to be given to different languages and countries, the size of publishers and their release patters, etc. ... but we can all agree that's a whole lot of stories being published in this genre, right? And don't forget about the TV shows. At any given time, there are roughly a dozen procedural shows on the air (CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, etc. Your average season order of a popular show is between 12 and 24 episodes, so let's call it eighteen episodes on average. That's 270 episodes of television per year. So between television and books, 55,820 mystery stories are being told. That's 558,200 stories told over the last decade alone. That's a lot of mystery stories!
My point in introducing all this math (yuck!) is to point out the fact that there are simply so many stories being told (and that have been told) since some of these mystery novelists first started writing their books, that you can no longer get away with writing a generic mystery. It's been done before. It's been done many, many times before. Which means that in order for your mystery story to really catch a publisher's or an executive's attention, it has to be something that differentiates itself from the literally thousands of other stories vying for their attention.
One of the toughest things I have to tell aspiring screenwriters who turn in feature screenplays in the mystery genre is that their ideas aren't fresh enough to warrant a movie. On any given week, television is putting out twelve to fifteen procedural stories across all the shows in the genre. And they're spending about $1-$2 million per episode to do it. So when someone comes to a feature film production company with an idea for a feature-length procedural that will cost anywhere from $5 million to $100 million to produce, the question then becomes, "What makes this different than your average episode of Law & Order or CSI?" It's a hard truth for procedural screenwriters to learn, but unless it's based on an existing property or has some other unique factor to it, no matter how good the writing is, it's probably not going to be worth spending twice to fifty times the budget to make a two-hour theatrical version of a story that can be told in an hour on television.
I suspect that mystery authors are in the same boat. The market is shrinking and you're putting your mystery novel up against not just the bestselling series from Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs or Mary Higgins Clark, but also the manuscripts from tens - perhaps hundreds - of thousands of other mystery writers who are also trying to carve out their little niche in the publishing industry.
Yes, the numbers can be sobering ... but the good news is that the solution is already available to you: write something fresh. Write something unexpected. Write something new. Even if you're dealing with familiar genre conventions or common story elements, don't let your plot twists become predictable or your story and character development become hackneyed and cliched. If you put in the time to come up with surprising and clever takes on the old standards, your work will stand out amid the deluge of others. Don't let yourself be satisfied with a predictable procedural.
If you're planning a NaNo novel this year (or a novel of any other kind!) always keep these two questions at hand for yourself:
What sets this story apart from others like it?
What can I do to make my version of this story more unique?
Until next time,
I encourage you to check out the following mystery items:
One afternoon when time had grace,
Tall grass called me to this place.
I asked the meadow resting there,
What stories she would care to share.
He woke with a start, cold sweat running down his face and chest. He lay still, barely breathing, listening carefully for the slithering sound again. He was alone in the house and there shouldn't be anyone moving around at this hour. The sound seemed so close, as though it came from right inside his bedroom.
Fynn is a Mercyman. His job is to choose who lives and who dies. For eighteen years after the pandemic that decimated global population and nearly all hope in a future, Fynn has sheltered with fellow survivors in the Placement, an underground refuge designed for the protection of the living from the undead. But when their safety is once again threatened by a zombie siege, something comes from Outside that brings the people hope as well as danger. A girl with green eyes and bite marks who should be dead...or undead. Ignoring his own rules and resisting the warnings of his companions, he lets her live. And he knows that nothing will be the same again where science, survival and self-discovery are concerned.
His smile was soft, and his twinkling eyes were gentle, contradicting the rough hands around her neck. The last sound she heard was the snap of her neck.
In the quieter parts,
of the Nevada state.
In a deep valley's heart,
there was a small estate.
It was hidden between,
mesquites and sages.
Some scary things were seen,
beasts were locked up in cages.
The darkness covered my eyes as worry began to take over. Alex and I both sank deeper into the pit. “No one will find us in here,” Alex stated. We searched for the ways out but only did we go down faster. Our whole bodies lurking and prowling for ways to escape. Hard objects began to touch our bodies with every thrust or simple movement.
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Feedback from my last newsletter about the human element in stories:
DB Cooper writes, "The British system doesn't allow so many objections as ours. American trials are too much about personality INSTEAD of law."
The trial I was on was pretty grounded in the law... I absolutely agree that personalities play a huge part during the trial, but I certaintly didn't feel like they were distracting anyone from interpreting, applying, or evaluating the laws in question. I'd be interested to see a British trial; I wonder how different it would be?
Quick-Quill writes, "I took that test(Myers-Briggs?)100 questions that tells what kind of person you are. I think I need to take it over. I was perceptive, judgmental and Intuitive. I love court cases, I'd love to serve on a jury and I'm currently watching a marathon of Criminal Minds."
Maybe you should be a trial attorney! It was a really interesting process; I would definitely serve jury duty again. I'm not sure why so many people actively try to get out of it. I mean, sure, it's inconvenient, but it's also an interesting process!
Reader? Check out 2233315 writes, "How interesting. I didn't think about the differences between reality and fiction when you were serving and talking to me. I didn't even think to ask. Very cool that you learned something while serving. Thanks for sharing!"
Thanks for writing in! Yeah, we didn't talk much about the details of the trial since I was sworn to silence while it was going on, but I saved up a bunch of observations to note later.
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