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.
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?"
"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."