Simple. Just make it conform to this theoretical jacket copy.

He wants to play.

Twenty years ago, The Media-Friendly-Handle Serial Killer cruelly snuffed out the life of her mother/sister/best friend and left behind a poetic taunt to police. Sixteen-year-old Meg/Kate/Alex was there. Saw his face. And barely escaped into the night woods.


He is back.

Now Meg is a reporter/detective/police chief trying to put the shattered pieces of her life back together. But pretty young girls are dying once more. Snuffed out in the same shocking manner. And each piece of poetry points to his next intended victims — Meg and her own teen daughter.

He is waiting.

Now, Meg is reluctantly teaming with FBI profiler John Handsome, her ex-husband/ex-lover/love interest, to track the most horrifying monster in bureau history. But then her daughter disappears on a camping trip while Meg and John no longer let themselves ignore their long-simmering animal attraction to one another. The latest taunt arrives. And Meg is forced to venture back into the same night woods that terrified her twenty years before ... that painted her dreams with blood and screams and the glint of a knife in the moonlight. To venture back for a life-and-death showdown with the most terrifying evil imaginable ... for the highest stakes imaginable.

He wants to play.

This time, for keeps.


I recently helped my mom move from her home into an independent-living facility. In cleaning out her home, I found hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks by what I think of as "supermarket suspense" authors. You know the ones, face-out in the racks by the checkout aisles: Tami Hoag, Lisa Gardner, Lisa Scottoline, Sandra Brown, Alison Brennan, Catherine Coulter, Rick Mofina, Kevin O'Brien, Karin Slaughter, et cetera, ad nauseum.

And at least 40 of these books — no exaggeration, I swear — had this basic jacket copy. Always the woman with the tragic past. Always the handsome FBI profiler. Always the serial killer with a cinematic signature. I wish I'd thought to keep track of them before I hauled two trunkfuls of them to Goodwill.

Every single one of these authors is a NYT bestseller. Every single one, I'll wager, has a multi-book contract and makes a comfortable living. And there is, seemingly, a relentless appetite for this same plot among mystery/suspense/thriller readers.

Every time I go to a writers' conference, I hear agents and editors say, "Don't write for the market. Write what's in your heart." But would those same agents and editors tell me that each of these authors, and dozens of others like them, all wrote independently from their hearts ... and just happened, totally separate from one another, to write essentially the same story?

Who's most full of fecal matter here? Is it us, for insisting on being "better" than this?


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How do you mean? If you want to be a bestselling author, you should only read other bestselling authors?

Lest you be ruined by, say, the classics. :)
You can have the most original story in the world but if you can't tell it properly then that's all you've got - an idea. Hacks or not, these people seem to be able to get people to turn the page. Dan Brown isn't a particularly stylish writer or an original thinker but he can handle a plot. Which is harder than it sounds.

Alternatively, perhaps all the jackets were written by advertising hacks using a set formula, and it's slightly unfair to blame the writers.

I'm betting you can boil down any great work of literature into a cliche. Which could almost be a competition.

I'm betting you can boil down any great work of literature into a cliche.


There are only a handful of stories. But the variations are endless. Plots are merely skeletons on which to hang a dress--they are not in and of themselves cliches. The treatment of a story can be either highly original or tired and worn---in other words, a cliche.
I used to look scornfully down my nose at those books, too, until I tried to write one. It's harder than it looks.
It's harder than it looks.

I don't write mysteries, but I do write on occasion---texts for my illustrated books, and I can attest to the difficulty of writing! (Every writer says this. don't they?) Although practice does improve your skills.
I agree with you--- If you are the least concerned with your craft, then writing IS difficult. Although practice does improve your skills. But if you knew your audience didn't care, would read your books anyway, would you go to the extra trouble?
That's why many writers resort to certain kinds of devices, and use certain words over and over again---because it makes the job a little easier, even though the book may suffer to one degree of another. Because the book will still be readable, will still sell. And if you're working towards a deadline....why belabor it?
I think some people have more of a natural "gift" for writing than others, but it's still not easy. Actually, I don't want to give the impression that I look down my nose at readers of those best-selling thrillers, or even at the writers! It's sort of the difference between liking one kind of chocolate and another. And I once knew of a Classics major---getting her PhD, who was writing bodice-rippers on the side, for fun and profit. :) But those kinds of stories just aren't my cup of tea.
Speaking as a reader I would be extremely unlikely to read a book with variations of this particular back cover copy (unless it had been recommended to me by someone I trust, or written by someone whose books I enjoy).

Speaking as a reader I buy loads of books every year. I can't go into a bookstore and come out with just the one.

Speaking as a reader, I am getting exceedingly pissed off with comments like this:

"Still, it's the readers' fault. They are the starmakers."

and this...
"I don't want to have contempt for readers. I don't want to think of them as comfort-food consumers chasing the lowest and least challenging common denominator"
I'm with you Donna. I'm a reader and a published crime writer and a woman, and - strange as it may seem - I found most of what you said, Jim, to be insulting, inaccurate and snobbish.
How so?
I am never going to disagree with Donna, one of the best readers and funniest writers I know.
1. I respect the hell out of anybody who plunks down their hard-earned to buy my books. What they do with the rest of their money is entirely up to them.

2. Who among us does not work to some degree with the tried and true formulas of genre? Let he/she who is entirely without cliche cast the first stone.

3. Anyone who actually pays money for internet porn either has very specialized tastes or is hopelessly old-school. Porn wants to be free!

4. The contemporary thriller is really a variant of the Victorian melodrama, which is a variation on the medieval morality play, versions of which can be found across many cultures. In short, it's an archetypal form. Readers respond to archetypes not because readers are gullible or stupid or lazy but because archetypal stories are deeply connected to culture and therefore very satisfying. There's nothing wrong with that, although as writers we may or may not hope to transcend those archetypes and create something which is both new and compelling. That's obviously a harder row to hoe.
Well said Jon.
I'm also pretty sure that someone could right a blurb for Hamlet or Macbeth that would almost fit into the 'guaranteed bestseller' plot of this theoretical jacket copy.
Readers respond to archetypes not because readers are gullible or stupid or lazy but because archetypal stories are deeply connected to culture and therefore very satisfying.

archetypal stories are deeply connected to culture and therefore very satisfying.

Never underestimate the power of the archetype!

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