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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Well, that's true enough. But the archetype is merely an image that is added to the story. The burden of quality is still on how the story and the archetype are handled.

The stuff in the jacket description does indeed fit a very large number of books I've come across. Most have been boring because they are repetitive and not very well written. A few have been better than that.

I'm surprised at the defense of readers who keep buying books by the same people (Cornwell, Evanovich, and Patterson come to mind) and then complain bitterly that the books are horrible, unreadable crap just like the last ones. I think it's stupid to buy a product that was a disappointment before just because it might have changed. That's something that can be checked in the library. It's also a sign of a closed mind, because those readers could be trying other authors. They might find something they like better.
What pisses me off is people defending bad books.
I wouldn't defend bad books, or at least not bad bad books, which seems a bit like aiming low and missing. But at the same time you can't blame people for enjoying them, anymore than I can blame my wife for liking "Project Runway" or those competitive cooking shows. She's got an IQ that's off the charts, and she's a better fiction writer than I am by miles and miles--but when it comes to TV she likes what she damn well likes. And she's entitled to like it, if you ask me. The point is that the general pop-fiction reader probably isn't invested in quite the same way that writers are: they want to be entertained, and what's entertaining is often what's familiar, with a few sexy wrinkles thrown in. The way I see it, it's beat 'em or join 'em. If I can't do either of those things, I'd better accept my lot as a guy who can write well but for one reason or another isn't really tapping that archetypal vein. I tell myself I'm doing it this way on purpose, and actually I think that's true. If it was entirely about money I'd sell Kindle-porn on Amazon for $1.99.
Thanks, Jon. This really is my point — it's not to insult the readers of contemporary archetypal fare, but to better understand them. I haven't said these works are bad — I've read some, and they vary wildly in quality — but the sameness of them has me wondering how to define the bestseller market and tap into it without necessarily writing to it. Good books have to be as much art as craft, as much about establishing a unique voice as about meeting reader expectations.

So when I read work that sports jacket copy like my example above, my question is: "How do I find that balance?" (As opposed to say, "Do I have to pander?" Which is not what I was saying at all.) So when I talked about not wanting to have contempt for readers, I was saying that I sincerely don't want to believe the worst that other writers might have to say about fans of "supermarket suspense" books. Because I don't. I want to understand what they want ... and need ... and didn't even know they wanted or needed until they got in in these books.

Basically, I want someone to break down the "supermarket suspense" success formula for me. So I can learn from it, not necessarily slavishly replicate it.
Here's my take:

Humans are interested in the same basic things, and the stories we tell each other usually concern these basic things -- life and death, good and evil, love and hate. Variations on those themes exist, but that's the basic stuff most humans want to read. The plot blurb you quoted covers them all. That's probably why it's popular.

Also, keep in mind that the blurbs on book covers may or may not have much to do with the quality of the story. The book cover is basically an advertisment written by the marketing department, and those guys stick to what sells. Their job is to get the book into the shopper's grocery cart, not to be original or even honest about what's in the story. You really CAN'T judge a book by it's cover, especially nowadays.
There is nothing wrong with archetypes. There may be a lot wrong with certain books even if they seem to use some archetype.

Archetypes are quite ancient. I'm not sure Bluebeard qualifies. Or Dracula. (Oh, yes. while I'm at it: I think vampire books are utter shlock, too.)
When Jon says, "The point is that the general pop-fiction reader probably isn't invested in quite the same way that writers are: they want to be entertained, and what's entertaining is often what's familiar, with a few sexy wrinkles thrown in," he has hit several nails squarely.

Pop-fiction readers, who are most fiction readers, are not only not invested in what the writer is invested in, as Jon says. They don't care about point of view, voice, sentence structure, repetitions and unless really bad, they don't care about klunky prose. They care to get in, get out, and get on with it, just as I think most very good writers do. As Jon says, readers want to be entertained.

Too many writers, I believe, write for themselves and for the admiration of their peers. There is nothing wrong with that, but those writers have to face up to the fact that they are most probably not going to writer best-selling fiction. Very few writers are, best selling fiction is a matter of luck, no matter how well written--unless the writer has had his or her luck with an earlier piece of best-selling fiction, which is another fact that most of us don't want to face.
Not luck (or very, very rarely). Promotion!
Always luck is involved, from catching the first reader, to catching an editor, to catching the marketing department with a big, fat "we can sell this."

I've heard rumor that that was how "The DaVinci Code" was sold. Criticize as we might "The DaVinci Code" touched a nerve that made it a best seller. It was marketed, but all the advertising in the world wouldn't have me read it except that it was praised by readers (not critics) that I respected.

It takes luck to get the editor to promote, even though that luck may come with the name of the author having been someone important or at least popular first.

Luck, believe it or not, is one of the things that economist note as an ingredient for success.
But at the same time you can't blame people for enjoying them,

I believe these arecalled "guilty pleasures." And as long as we call them that, people are more than willing to 'fess up to theirs! :D
But the archetype is merely an image that is added to the story.

Yes, we mostly think of archetypes in terms of images---but even so, when they are embedded in a character, there are actions attached to them that move the plot along, as they do in fairy tales. Their actions create re-actions; they are agents that get things rolling. I'm thinking of a character such as the ones in the books Jim was talking about, who are "evil" archetypes. A wife/woman murderer, for example,might reference the Bluebeard archetype, and then there would be a potential victim who has to figure out how to escape his "clutches." Maybe that's why so many readers like those serial slasher books. :)
I.J. says.

"I'm surprised at the defense of readers who keep buying books by the same people (Cornwell, Evanovich, and Patterson come to mind) and then complain bitterly that the books are horrible, unreadable crap just like the last ones."

In my experience, most readers who like those writers rarely complain about them, but rather don't understand why I don't like them.
Actually, I've encountered this several times now. In fact, the Cornwell and Evanovich reactions have been on mystery web sites.

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