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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Art's Preference and Mine

"I'd rather be a forest than a street;
Yes I would! If I could, I surely would.
I'd rather feel the earth beneath my feet--
Yes I would! if I only could, I surely would."

--Simon and Garfunkel, "El Condor Pasa"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fun Recent Reads

My three latest reads were all terrific in their own ways. DEATH AND THE PENGUIN, a suspense novel set in Kiev, reads sometimes like a mystery and sometimes like existential poetry, but its premise and characters are so unique and fresh that the story stayed with me long after I put away my Kindle.

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is not one of John Connolly's famed mystery novels, but an examination of myth, folklore and fairy tales in a WWII England setting. The first page made me cry, but the story never went where I expected it to go, and I became lost in the labrynth of his tale as surely as Hansel and Gretyl were lost in the dark, endless forest.

I chose to read A RELIABLE WIFE on a long busride, and it was the perfect way to pass the time--the conflict is established in the first two chapters, but surprises continue along the way, and I really could not put this down.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam

"In love longing
I listen to the monk's bell.
I will never forget you
even for an interval
Short as those between the bell notes."

~ Izumi Shikibu

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Belated Anniversary Wish

I began posting in the summer of 2006, and now here I am, more than 1000 posts and 200 interviews later!

Please stop by and share the virtual champagne.

I am in good company, as Sisters in Crime is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year.

Here's to happy milestones.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Cool Winds Approach

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."

--George Eliot

Yes, autumn is on the way, and welcome to it. The soul-crushing heat of last week has me ready to carve pumpkins and hike through the fall foliage. Thank you, God, for the cooler weather and the lovely fall which is surely on the way!