Stories need to stand out in some way to be marketed. Even if you accept that there are only seven types of plot, you can still write unique characters who do unusual things.
A modern way of describing this is having a Unique Selling Point (USP) which can also be an elevator pitch, a term used to describe selling an idea for a movie to a film producer you’ve trapped for a few seconds in an elevator. An extreme example of this is Snakes On A Plane whose title alone summed up the plot.
I write in the crime genre because I like it, and, as it’s the second-highest selling genre I stand more chance of success; also, crime stories allow me to tackle anything in society. I deliberately chose to conform to the conventions of a crime series—a set location, reoccurring characters and compelling antagonists who commit dreadful crimes. Cornwall and its landscape become a character. I explore the lives of my main character and his detectives to encourage the reader to bond with them.
Where my books differ from the mainstream, is that the Cornish Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle is the opposite of typical sleuths who drink, womanise, gamble, smoke and bend regulations. He’s a Green/Liberal lover of nature and the arts, who rides a 10’ long black chopper and is clean-living and faithful to his woman; I didn’t give him a love life until the fifth book. In these ways, he’s a weirdo.
Will this make him stand out enough to be successful? I’ve yet to find out. Do readers want to find a main character who’s unique, as marketers suggest?
How different is your protagonist? What idiosyncrasies do they have?
Are your stories predictable or surprising in their twists and turns? They should always be plausible.
I actually trained as a librarian back in the early 1970s, working in the profession for six years. I always loved books, and as a lonely child, they were my constant companions. I’m a firm believer in the library movement, as historically it offered a way of allowing ordinary people to access knowledge. Governments would rather that we didn’t know things, and simply believe everything that they tell us. In the current economic recession, many libraries are being closed or are operating on restricted hours. My local branch is only open two and a half days a week these days. As Ray Bradbury said:
After feeling stifled by the way that libraries operated in a very static way, I jumped into a crazy way of earning a living, by becoming a motorcycle dispatch rider in London. I’ve done about forty different jobs since over the years, sometimes with the thought in the back of my mind that this would be a good way of learning things to write about later. I moved back into what might be called disseminating knowledge, through writing self-help and technical articles for magazines and by training as an infant teacher.
Since returning to creative writing six years ago, I’ve become aware that I never left librarianship behind at all. The whole world runs on a system of classifying and organising things, as regimented as the Dewey decimal classification system by which most libraries shelve their books. We understand how people, ideas and machines work by comparing them to other things. One of the first things that strangers ask of each other after exchanging names, is ‘What do you do?’ That becomes the first step towards pigeonholing someone, so that they can be understood. We paint folk with the colour of what we understand being a butcher, social worker or car mechanic means.
This habit affects writers in distinct ways. I wrote a crime story as my first novel for several reasons, including the commercial one of it being a successful genre of writing that sold well online. I like crime stories, but don’t exclusively read them, and nor do I only write them. Most of my twenty short stories and novellas are about other things, with just one concerning a case of mistaken identity in a murder investigation. Yet if The Perfect Murderer achieved any commercial success, I would immediately be labelled a crime writer.
It must be very frustrating for successful authors who get defined in this way, expected to write more of the same sort of story—to become a brand. It’s not that their other tales fail to work, it’s simply that the first one that readers glommed onto was a Western, a Science Fiction short story or a torrid Romance. We all do this sort of thing every day though – just think of the elevator pitch, which is used to quickly describe your new novel. ‘It’s a space romance, set in the 25th century and based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but featuring a love affair between a human-being and an alien creature.’ This immediately gives you a load of cultural reference points, which may tickle the agent’s interest or not.
Even our everyday life involves being a librarian. What about the cutlery drawer in the kitchen? The knives, forks and spoons are separated out, probably in a moulded tray. You may have other items arranged around the tray – corkscrew, spatula, coasters, scissors – and you know where everything is so you can find it straight away.
Running wild and free may be fine as a liberating concept, but to get through life without hassle we need systems, fences, boundaries and other organizational tools that make sense of chaos. We should definitely consider who we are and how our status, experiences and current circumstances can be used to sell ourselves as writers. We are as much classified by the public, as our books are.
Our potential readers might fail to be charmed by the idea of a novel written by an author who’s worked most of their life as an accountant, but be immediately attracted to a blurb which mentions how you’ve made 200 parachute jumps. This immediately transforms you from boring bean counter to exciting risk-taker.