Monday, July 4, 2011

Because you hate happiness, that's why

By Steve Weddle

The first rule of noir is that the protag starts off completely screwed. In an absolute horrible jam. And then things get worse. (For more Rules of Noir, check out DeadEndFollies.)

We all know this, right? Yeah.

So I was a little surprised when a friend of mine (You don't know him. He lives in Tribeca. (Though he calls it "TriBeCa," further explaining why he'll never sell anything other than his kidney (which I still think he got cheated on.).))

He was griping because he has two noir novels out on submission and no one is buying. He likes the books. His agent likes the books. But no one wants them.

See, he thinks it's "The Market." He thinks his writing is too good for being on one of the front cardboard shelves at Barnes and Noble. His defense is "Man, people are idiots. No wonder I can't sell this novel."

In the past month or so, I've see plenty of tweets and posts and status updates about how disheartening things are these days. Hell, I think I've said the same thing twenty times this weekend.

The complaints aren't uncommon:

People only want authors they know.
People don't want challenging reads.
People only want young adult fiction.

Heck, even Michael Dirda of the Washington Post suggested that authors only be allowed on the NYT Best Seller list once, kind of like you can only be on C-Span's "Booknotes" once. What? I'm the only one who watches "Booknotes"? Damn, I hate you people.

Look, if you think Janet Evanovich and James Patterson are keeping you out of the Publisher's Marketplace announcements, you're nuttier than my Uncle Didemus. (He was born with an extra testicle. Guess it's only funny if you knew him.)

If you think people don't want challenging reads, then you haven't been seeing the same books I've seen. I could give you a list of great challenging reads, but this is a week of GRILLING EXTRAVAGANZA and the charcoals are calling. So, you know, let's stay focused here. Maybe, if anyone visits the internet today and sees this, someone can list some challenging reads. I dig recent Haruki Murakami, but still want to dig into the new David Foster Wallace.

So why does no one want to read your noir series about a twice-divorced, alcoholic cop with a horrible, dark secret in his past now struggling with a chance for redemption?

Because you're a sick asshole, that's why.

OK. Maybe it's because your book stinks. I don't know. I've read the books my pal in Tribeca wrote, and they're pretty cool. But they ain't gonna outsell Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.

You want to look at "The Market"? Alright.

Who reads books? People with jobs. People who hate their jobs. Hate their bosses. People who work their butts off all day long, sitting in cubicles, talking to people they wouldn't share a drink with -- all day long. Five days a week. Traffic. Crappy lunches. Sodas. Energy drinks. Damn it, the network is down again. People for whom "Three-Day Weekend" is a phrase that brings immense happiness. These people are getting their asses handed to them all day. Are they going to complain? With the economy like this? No, you're just going to take it. And you're going to buy your lottery tickets on the way home and hope your spouse found a five-dollar bill in the laundry. You know who else lives like this? Harry Potter. Luke Skywalker. Percy Jackson. Maybe those Twilight kids. Maybe those kids in the Hunger Games. (I haven't read/seen all of that because my kids aren't old enough.)

Harry, Percy and Luke have rough lives. Harry lives with his family, but they're mean to him. His parents are dead and, oh, you know all this? OK. Well, this Percy Jackson kid? Same thing. His step-dad is mean to him and his mom. Luke Skywalker? His mean Uncle Owen wants him to go to town and get an engine part when all he wants to do is race worfs with the cylons. So they're having bad days, too. Bad lives. Just like the people who read these books and watch these movies. And you know what, these losers win. A secret wizard. A secret demi-god. A secret home for Midi-chlorians.

There is a secret beauty inside them all. And it is so beautiful in its beautifulness. See. They're not really losers. See, they're special. That's why everyone was mean to them. That's why the boss expects you to work twice as hard for half the pay. When Hagrid comes over and brings you your magic wand, dude, you are totes going to go all Pirate Jenny on their asses.

When people are losers in their lives, they don't want to read about losers. They want hope. They want to be able to see someone else in a crappier life overcome the odds and succeed. It's why Pretty Woman was made. What? She's a hooker with a horse-face. And now she gets to go shopping with a rich man. Wow. What a feel-good movie. (h/t Bongwater)

People like to have hope. Whether it's Percy Jackson or Luke Skywalker. Whether it's YA or MGD. This is why grown-ups I see are reading these books. Because they want hope. A new hope, like the Skywalker kid.

And that's why your noir novel won't sell a million copies. Look at the top best sellers. Hell, people even love to read about a person overcoming great odds when that person is a damned horse. Better yet, a half-horse.

So, if you want to sell your book, fill it with hope. Have the detective find redemption by risking his life to save Rachel McAdams. See, he thought he was nobody, when in fact, he's the lost son of K'targ and has been implanted with the Stones of Cth'ar'gla. And he has to do this questy thing and there's this bad guy to stop him. And he has to give up something he loves to save the planet. Maybe it's a locket his mother gave him just before she died. And he realizes it has healing powers, and he has to use it to save Rachel McAdams and he does it because he is full of beautiful.

That's what people need. They need a book they can look forward to reading when they get home. A book of hope. A book where the loser turns out to be a secret prince or princess, right?

If you want to sell a book, write one like that. Most people don't like to be depressed.

I'm reminded of a line from an Ann Beattie story: "You'd be depressed too, if you felt the way I do."

So I said to my Tribeca friend, if you want to sell a million books, don't depress people. I mean, you'd think I wouldn't have to tell him this.

He said, "But I don't want to write those stories."

"What do you want to write?"

"I want to keep writing this series. Or at least some of these stories. I like this world I'm making."

"You want to sell a million books or write the ones you like?"

"Yeah, can't I do both?"

"Well, you could try to write the 'After THIS TERRIBLE THING HAPPENS, the protag must overcome THIS BIG OBSTACLE in order to save THIS REALLY BIG IMPORTANT THING' book."

"Yeah, that's what I've written," he said to me.

"I know, but he doesn't save the really big important thing."

"Yeah. I don't want him to save the thing. That's the whole point."

"Well, what if I make him a half-minotaur alcoholic detective?"

"I think minotaurs are already half-human."

"Oh. You sure?"

"Pretty sure?"


"Hey, how about you write it with the ending you want, but make it the first of new series?"


"Well, even if you end with him losing, there's still hope in the next book?"

"Hey, that's nice."

"Yeah. It's why people get up and go to work in the morning without having a drink. They have hope."

"Lucky bastards."


angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

This post gave me hope, thanks.

Why not call "noir" black? That is what it means but use a foreign word and it is okay - because "black" is politicallly incorrect (in the US), although, really it is just the name of colour like the background of this blog.

Ivory black, mars black, jet black, carbon black, black black.

Unknown said...

Great post, Steve. Loved it.

Kieran Shea said...

Honestly, all this hope talk made me think of

Ray Adam Latiolais said...

As a former B&Ner I had to read the Henry Gardene...Harry Potter books or be eaten alive by smart-assed children and their Junior League mothers...also there was this chick who liked the Harry Potters.

After spending his entire life being abused by his family, Harol...Harry didn't grow up to be a serial-killer. That just ruined the whole thing for me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Write a funny book. That's what we want to read. And NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD qualifies there too. There are so few humorous books-I don't mean cute or quirky-I mean laugh out loud funny. I saw a movie yesterday that came close to pulling it off but no one else will see it-Delhi Belly, an Indian crime caper with lots of laughs.

Dana King said...

Thank you. No, that's too tepid. BLESS YOU. People work hard all day (if they have jobs), and things aren't getting better for them. The last thing they want is to read themselves into a shitty fictional world where things are even worse than they are here. They want to be entertained, period.

I became a much happier about my lot as a writer when I realized I (and you, you know who you are) am the outlier. We're the guys who are willing to work all day and then spend our recreational time reading something calculated to make us think.

I became much happier when I realized all those people who make Janet Evanovich and James Patterson (yes, even Dan Brown)rich aren't ignorant troglodytes; they're regular, normal people. We're the ones who are outside the mainstream. There's nothing wrong with that. Some people like Hershey bars. Some like Snickers. Some like those nasty coconut things I wouldn't touch the wrapper of. Such is life.

As for those who choose to write exactly what they want to write and complain they can't get sales, try getting a real job sometime. Or not. Either way, grow up about it. The general public doesn't owe you a living as a writer. Meet them half way, or settle for what attention you can get writing what you want.

Unknown said...

I hate you, Weddle.
(Kidding, I actually think you're pretty swell)
For me it breaks down to writing what want and not bing surprised that if your pitch black novel won't sell to one of the big houses. But you need to continue writing what you want, market be damned.
BTW, I've read a good hunk of YA novels (because my midget will want to read them eventually.) and man, most of those are pretty dark and I mean PITCH BLACK. Yeah, most YA novelists make Noir guys look like pussies

Sandra Ruttan said...

Just to play devil's advocate, what if we marketed noir differently?

"Hey, if you think your life sucks, read this! Anyone has to feel better about their own life when they see the shit this character goes through.:

"Guaranteed to make you realize your life doesn't suck quite as much as you thought it did."

What could be more uplifting than that? I mean, I don't want to read about people who've got it all together. They depress me.

Ben said...

First, thank you for that link thing on top.

I will also say that your depiction of corporate life is scarily accurate. Good fiction is cathartic, you're right. But I also sincerely believe that this whole therapeutic, inner-self thing with literature is going a little far.

Somebody can be a hero without saving a heavy breasted girl. You can do the right thing and die from it. Chuck Palahniuk sold millions of books by telling his readers they weren't special.

I think readers mostly want novel protagonists to help them bear their grief. If you hate life, I hope you'll tell me why, so we can share something. Anthony Neil Smith did a great job of portraying a terrified and paranoid USA in the Billy Lafitte saga.

I don't know. I might just be talking out of my ass here, but I like reading about dudes who are not special, but who are trying to do the right thing. No matter what the law has to say on this.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

"Friend" from Tribeca meet Snubnose Press (though I hear the editor is a dick and will tell you to your face if your shit stinks).

Ray Banks said...

"So why does no one want to read your noir series about a twice-divorced, alcoholic cop with a horrible, dark secret in his past now struggling with a chance for redemption?"

Because it sounds like derivative shit?

Make him a thrice-divorced middle manager in a highly-regarded multinational retail company with a dark secret that's only really dark to us, and who's struggling for a chance at promotion ... then I'm a bit more interested.

Spencer said...

Hmm... this post makes me think about a few things.

1. Challenging reads? Well, I've been reading a lot varied stuff lately. For me, a challenging read is a graphic novel, because it is a totally different medium, and it takes me a while longer to read. I also recently finished gravity's rainbow (2nd attempt) and it was totally worth it!

2. People don't want to be depressed? I kind of disagree with that. I have been a big fan of Henning Mankell, because his novels are so freaking depressing. But, if you want to sell millions of books, the story has to be pretty light hearted in the end.

Thomas Pluck said...

I dunno, Mystic River wasn't exactly uplifting. Neither is Steel Magnolias for that matter, and people love it.
I'll admit, I roll my eyes a little at the washed up cop archetype... and my father was an alcoholic ex-cop. Might as well name the guy Ben Dunn, because he has. That doesn't mean he can't be part of a great story, we like archetypes. The lone killer. The troubled hero. The rookie learning the ropes.
I wouldn't stop aiming high just because your novel is dark. All those YA readers, reading stuff that makes noir look like cotton candy?
They're gonna grow up.

Josh Stallings said...

Great post Steve, it stuck with me all day and this am I was mulling it whilst getting ready for work and the sad fact came clear that I can only write what I know. Many have the chameleon like ability to morph into what the market demands. No disrespect, I view those word crafter with awe. My writing is informed by my world view. My world view is informed by the way I came up. Because of my childhood I have conflicting views, an optimist what ultimately believes it will all turn to shit and that everyone lies. This view fits well with Nior writers. As a kid I saw E.T. and thought it was crap, no one I knew lived in happy homes like that. No divorce I knew ever went down that gentle. This doesn't make E.T. bad, just wrong for me. As a teenagers I saw Mean Streets and thought yes, now that is what life feels like. Now I write from what I know and don't bitch if I can't get Dan Browns numbers. And I'm glad others are out their telling their truth so I have good shit to read.

M. C. Funk said...

Great post. I do hate happiness. Would that everyone else did too.

Jason W. Stuart said...

Writing what you feel comes closer to art. Writing what people want to buy is manufacturing, which is not a bad thing. But a spade is a spade.