Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Suspense Writer Stephen Brayton Explores the Publishing Paradox

This guest blog was written by Stephen L. Brayton. Check out his new book, Beta, at

More Than Pretty Wrappings

Opening a new book is like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning. You see a pretty dust cover over the formed cardboard like shell and you wonder what’s inside. Will it be a story to excite you or make you laugh? Will the hero be fearless and the bad guys extra evil?

Many times, the book ends up being the annual Father’s Day tie. Nothing special, same unexciting characters, standard plot with a few new twists. Once in awhile, however, you do get something shiny and fresh and worth buying.

As writers, we’re faced with a dilemma--one I think is confusing and somewhat unfair. We’re asked by publishers or agents to create something new, to have a fresh voice, because as we all know, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same plots have been rehashed and rebuilt and remodeled every year, but we’re expected to slap a different coat of paint over them, mix up the action a bit, conjure up new surprises.

Then after months or years of blood, sweat, and tears, those same publishers and agents ask us, “So next to whose books would yours sit on the store shelf?” or “To which authors is your book similar?”

What? We’ve spent countless hours trying to come up with something outside the box and you ask us who we write like? I write mysteries and horror, but I’m not supposed to write in the same vein as Robert B. Parker or H.P. Lovecraft, yet some person to whom I pitching my story at a conference asks me which authors’ novels mine might be next to in the store? Can you say, “Oxymoron?”

So, let’s tackle one thing at a time. How do we write in a different voice than everybody else? It can start with plot, but there, you might be limited. Only so many of them to go around. You can combine genres if you think you can make it ‘believable.’ Zombie romance in space with a few cowboys thrown in for added flavor.

Setting: New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago have seen more than their fair share of stories. Try something in Alaska or rural Montana. Or strike out across the ocean to Galapagos Island or Guam. Is your alien planet a desert Vulcan or the mega-metropolis Coruscant?

Character: Here is where you have a plethora of options. Everybody knows the hard-boiled detective, but does he limp, have one eye, stands only three feet tall, was once a nuclear scientist? What new spin can you make on the leader of the religious cult? Could he be Australian or Nigerian? What personal problems can your protagonists and antagonists have? A lisp? The product of a brother/sister relationship? Dealing with the loss of a dog?

Of course, in certain genres, there are standards you have to meet, and some, like romance, you do not have much room for radical creativity. Romance publishers and readers want the same limited buffet every time. That’s okay.

In Beta, I tried to be different with my heroine, Mallory Petersen. Yes, she’s tall, blonde, and beautiful. She’s also a taekwondo instructor with years of training under her black belt. She’s a Sam Spade fan right down to the Bogey trench coat and hat. Many of her cases are fraught with goofiness.

I also placed her in Des Moines, Iowa, because I’m familiar with the area and it’s very rare to see a story set there.

Plot: She’s takes on the serious case of finding a kidnapped eight-year-old taken by child pornographers.

The second question, of how your writing is similar to other authors, can be tricky, because you shouldn’t sound like others; you should sound like yourself. There are aspects, however, you can pinpoint as being influenced by others. Is the humor akin to Evanovitch? Do you have a serial killer a la John Lutz? Did you attend the course on short chapters instructed by James Patterson?

If you’ve done enough reading–and as writers you should be reading–you are familiar with authors you enjoy and probably are somewhat influenced by them when writing your own stories. Certainly you can learn how to improve your writing.

So, how is Beta similar to others? Who do I sound like? Well…I choose to let you decide. I just hope you enjoy the book and you won’t think of it as a Father’s Day tie.


Paula Petty said...

Good and informative blog, Stephen. Thanks.

Patricia Gligor's Writers Forum said...

Stephen, you've made some very good points and, as usual, you've injected your fantastic sense of humor into the post. I enjoyed reading it.

Sunny Frazier said...

Acquisitions editor here.
I have several things on my mind, none of which are "Who do you write like?" I look at the characters--what makes them different? Setting: do I see a market for this book in the locale where it's set? What occupation does your protag have and how much of the author's experience can shine in this area?

When I say "Give me something new," I'm asking for insight and insider info. I write about astrology and law enforcement, you know from reading that I have experience in both. What do you bring to the table? I'm asking for authenticity. If your protag is a jet pilot, convince me you know enough about what that job entails.

I also want to know if you can market and if you will actively promote your book.

All of these factors help me decide if I should pick your novel over dozens of others sitting on my desk.

Unknown said...

Wonderful blog, Steven. You already know I'm a huge fan of your work. Sunny, I love how you break it down and give us a window into what an acquisitions editor is looking for, valuable information from both of you!

Theresa Varela said...

Great information here. The imagery of one's book on a shelf next to another's is exciting. The reality of developing one's voice and bringing unique characters into a distinctive locale brings it to a most divine level. Thanks!

Stephen L. Brayton said...

Good points Sunny. The 'new' is the knowledge about the subject. I just finished Beth Groundwater's Deadly Currents about rafting the Arkansas River. She had a lot of insight about that activity, the dangers, the competitions and the conditions experienced. All tied around a murder mystery.

Gloria Getman said...

Stephen: Your blog is spot on. And if a writer hasn't the experience there'd better be extensive research.

Augie said...

Stephen, thank you once again for unwrapping and departing a piece of knowledge. Augie

Anonymous said...

Lots of good information here, especially about our characters. I've always liked unusual locations, but am so familiar with the Ozarks I tend to set my books there. Sometimes this is good, other times people look askance at the locale because of the perception that only hillbillies and rednecks live here. First I have to prove them wrong. Or then the editor will want me to portray a character much like that. Ugh. Thanks too to Sunny for the insight. I have a book on her desk. Maybe she'll like the Ozark setting and the characters.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Stephen, it's a paradox. Editors/agents want something "new" as long at it reads like the latest bestseller. Some newly published mysteries I know of are set in the NASCAR racing world, carnivals, rural Kentucky. My protagonist, a former teen idol, has never been done before. Fortunately we have small presses (like OTP!) to bring in fresh voices.
Sally Carpenter
"The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper"

Melanie Jackson, author, editor, piano student said...

As someone with family in Des Moines, I'm delighted to hear that it's a mystery setting! I can see why Sunny thinks character is so important. When cracking open a new-to-me mystery novel, it tends to be the protagonist who engages me (or not).

marta chausée said...

What a spirited discussion. Thank you, Stephen, Sunny, Paula, Patricia, Angela, Theresa, Gloria, Augie, Melanie, Donner and Blitzen, for all those original thoughts.

To me, the author and the author's life are the instrument, as actors would say. You bring yourself and all that you are to the writing table. The fun of it is that you can shade, tone, highlight and dimlight to create nuance, texture and heightened interest that may actually be lacking in real life. To heck with real life. It's just a tool in the writer's toolbox.

Marta Chausée
Resort to Murder, a Maya French mystery

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