Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Outside the Box

When you’re contemplating a book and tossing ideas around in your head, do you try to think outside the box? Do you try to think of something that hasn’t been written before? Maybe a twist on the bad guy? Or a protagonist that has a job or career that no other protag has in a book? Or perhaps an exotic setting? Most authors do take this into consideration. Why write something that’s been written before?

But how far out of the box do you think?

This question came into my mind a couple of weeks ago while reading an article in The Wall Street Journal. The article was about an author who, as you might guess, wrote outside the box. The author, Chelsea Cain, writes a series where the protagonist is a serial killer.

Sure, there have been other serial killer protagonists. I can’t get cable, but I know about Dexter. Cain’s twist that takes this protagonist out of the usual is that this protag is a woman. The WSJ called her “the blond, icy blue-eyed serial killer Gretchen Lowell.” Some reviewers have called the novels “nightmare-inducing bloodbaths.” You can link over to the article to read some of the ways the character has killed people, including children.

Cain says that her series is especially popular with women.
When the first manuscript circulated, a bidding war broke out among publishers, and Minotaur, a crime and thriller imprint, acquired the first three books for seven figures. She recently signed for three more.
I’ve not read any of the books in this series. Have you? How far out would you go to come up with something “new” that would catch the eye of an agent and/or reader?

32 comments:

  1. Haven't read any, serial killers scare me to bits and pieces no matter what gender. As for trying to come up with something "no one has ever done before", it vexes my mind too much. I just try to write the stories I have inside of me knowing they're heavily influenced by the other stories I've read or seen in my life.

    Alex
    Breakfast Every Hour

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  2. Hmmm. Am I the only one who finds the bloodthirsty trend in stories for women concerning? I wonder if it's linked to the increase in physical girl-on-girl school bullying? In the adult world too - HUsband recently had to deal with two women staff members (luckily support staff not the professionals) getting into a fist fight! In office!

    To get to your question, though, I think my voice is naturally eccentric, so my stories are out the box. Unfortunately, they're so out the box I've had excellent feedback but no bites! :(
    Judy (South Africa)

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  3. Don't think I'd go that far outside the box. I don't want to write something uncomfortable just to get attention.

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  4. Somehow, she stepped so far out of the box that she got picked up and is apparently selling well. But you do have to write something you're comfortable with and can keep being creative with. I'm sort of like you, Alex, I'd probably keep myself awake at night.

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  5. I'm just not that good at controversy. If it goes against my morals, I can't write it.

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  6. I think you're right. It has to be something you're comfortable with. You have to love the subject matter, not just pick something random that you think will sell.

    That said, I think there's a lot of value in playing around with ideas you love and trying them in different combinations. If nothing else, it stretches your imagination!

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  7. I haven't read any of this series, and probably won't. It's just not a genre that interests me. But with my own writing, I do bring something new to the story. Though they say all the stories have already been told, it's still possible to slant them differently, or bring in an unexpected element, to make them fresh.

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  8. Reading about serial killers is not my idea of a good time. Nor would I be able to write about it. My writing comes from a place deep inside me. I'd be scared to death if something like that came out of me
    Karen

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  9. It's more difficult these days to go outside the box as per the examples, at least as far as being original. Think of Charles Bukowski's brilliant story, "The Fiend" in which he writes from the pov of a child molester as his character... molests a child. Pretty hard to top that.

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  10. ...Meant to add--especially when Bukowski wrote it (The Fiend) in the sixties...

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  11. She's written several in the series, so I'd say she likes writing the character.

    Very true, Joanne. You can make your writing new and different by taking the familiar and twisting it.

    I love times when I'm writing, Karen, and I scare myself or I go back to read and really love the words.

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  12. Les, that would be so difficult to write, I think. It would also be difficult to read. You could read about a child molester. You could read, probably through tears, about a molesting told from the victim's POV, but I think it would be almost impossible for me to read it from the molester's POV. I started to type that I could never write that POV, but then I stopped and deleted it. Maybe I could. I'd still be crying, though.

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  13. Killing children, no way! I write about serial killers and step outside the box by having my two sixty-year old women amateur sleuths travel the country in a motorhome solving crimes, including my latest, Murder on the Interstate, which involves homegrown terrorism. Novelists should realize that what they write might influence readers with mental/emotional problems who may decide to act out what they read or watch on the screen.

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  15. Killing children, no way! I write about serial killers and step outside the box by having my two sixty-year old women amateur sleuths travel the country in a motorhome solving crimes, including my latest, Murder on the Interstate, which involves homegrown terrorism. Novelists should realize that what they write might influence readers with mental/emotional problems who may decide to act out what they read or watch on the screen.

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  16. I haven't read Chelsea Cain, but she is on my list. I like outside the box with characters and story, one or the other. Something steady needs to be in place to ground everything, but outside of that, I'm open. Pretty much.

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  17. I'm interested in *reading* something really different (sometimes...and sometimes I like what's familiar and comforting), but right now I'm concentrating too hard on branding to step out of the box. :)

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  18. I agree with Judy in that there is something disturbing about this trend of violence in and against women. As far as serial killers go, I deal with them in my books, but I don't make them the protagonist. When the Dexter series first started, I watched a few episodes just because of how different the concept was, but I couldn't stay with the show. It was too much like promoting the worst in humanity and I couldn't be part of that. And I find it a little scary that so many people think there is nothing wrong with all the debasing violence in entertainment, including video games, movies, and television.

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  19. I like out of the box, but that idea is more like off the cliff. I wouldn't be comfortable with bloodbaths.

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  20. I'm very envious of people who can think outside the box like that. Years ago, Joe Lansdale gave me a piece of advice: Take risks! It obviously paid off for Chelsea Cain. More power to her.

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  21. Haven't read anything by this author but I can see where it would catch readers' attention. Outside the box is good as long as it's not off the deep end.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  22. Elizabeth, from what I've seen, you're doing a good job of branding.

    Maryann, I agree on the violence against women. Just violence and anger in general seems to be increasing.

    Mark, I love Joe Lansdale. And that's definitely good advice.

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  23. Although I've tried to come up with some original characters or settings, I didn't give any consideration to what agents or publishers wanted--not until after the stories were written!

    Lately I have less and less desire to fit my writing into someone else's expectations...

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  24. Serial killers are outside my comfort zone. I try to be original and I think outside the box is more acceptable now than it was ten years ago.

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  25. Strange that you would bring this up. I'm currently tossing some ideas around about a story that will stand out. My angle has more to do with the relationship between 2 characters though. I want it unusual.

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  26. Glynis! You are such a tease!

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  27. It's one thing to write your nightmares in story form. But I wonder what kind of mind has continual nightmares of that kind and what sort of minds are ready to devour such things.
    Seems people are just to ready to accept more and more violence and atrocities and call it entertainment.

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  28. I haven't read any of these - I can't read about anything with too much graphic detail - nightmares :)

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  29. With more violence on TV, in songs and books, on the news, in reality, our levels of what we tolerate have changed as well.

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  30. Well, I wouldn't write what I woudn't read...and this subject has no appeal for me.

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  31. The book you mention sounds interesting, and I do like it when authors put a new spin on characters - particularly protagonists. In the past, morally questionable protagonists have worked very well, and for me, part of what makes them so intriguing is their personal journey riddled with struggles, whether those struggles are good, bad, or downright inconceivable. *g*

    As for thinking outside the box in my own writing, I'd say yes to a point. It's not so much twisting a protagonist or villain role, more the smooshing of genres to form unusual sub-genres - which can be a double-edged sword, I'm sure. On one hand you want to sell your work, but on the other you strive to do something a little different to what's already out there. I can only imagine what the submission process is going to be like! :)

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  32. Well, I certainly won't be reading them. I'm not a big fan of antiheros, and have no desire to read this series. I hope the trend does not catch on. I'm already up to my eyeballs in vampires zombies, now all I need is shelf after shelf of serial killers who get away with it.

    It is good authors try new things, but this new thing - no thanks.
    ~jon

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