Since I previously wrote about why I like to set my work in slightly fictionalized locales, I'd like to take on the problem with using exclusively using real places and products in my writing.
Sure my characters love all things Apple (I am writing this post on a MacBook Air with my iPhone within reach, so they come by it naturally), and they drive real cars (whether your character drives a new BMW sports coupe or a 10-year-old Honda Accord tells you something about him or her), but I tend to avoid real places and things when I can for three reasons.
First, I think using real places tends to make me lazy. I can describe the iconic red-and-white interior of In-N-Out and detail their precision-crafted menu, but I'd rather introduce you to Glenn's Burgers, with an owner might be modeled after a friend of mine and whose menu is from another place I used to love when I didn't care as much about calories or carbs as I do now.
Second, if I feature real places too much it feels likes I am doing an advertisement for them. In my most recent novel, Disneyland was part of the storyline, but I found myself trimming down much of the section that described which rides people rode and in what order. I'm a novelist, not a tour guide.
Third, bad stuff tends to happen in my books and I'd rather not make our local landmark doughnut shop, for example, the scene of a grisly triple homicide. They've got these amazing strawberry doughnuts and there's no way I'm giving up my access to those on the rare occasions I frequent the old haunt .
It's just not worth the risk.
One thing I have learned as an author is that once you have drawn readers into your type of storytelling, they are hungry for more. There is a reason John Grisham uses the same structure in most of his novels: it sells really, really well.
But sometimes as a writer you want to explore a new type of story or different genre altogether. The fear, of course, is that people won’t join you on this journey. I have a manuscript in the works that is a significant departure from my first book and I am pondering how to market the project. I even briefly thought of using a nom de plume to separate it from the sequel I also am planning to Chasing Deception.
Speaking of assumed identities, one of my favorite authors who I had a chance to meet at a writers conference a decade ago, has written a new mythic fiction book under a pen name. Revell recently sent me a complimentary, advance copy of this book, Emissary by Thomas Locke, in exchange for an honest evaluation of its merits. While I normally don’t write book reviews on my blog, I thought I would make an exception here because I admire how this award-winning author bravely is striking out in a new direction with this work, thus encouraging me to do the same.
Locke was wise to publish this title under a different name, as it is a departure from what people expect from him. His other works are distinctly Christian in nature and Emissary, while not anti-Christian, stays true to the mythic fiction genre in a way that might make his regular readers uncomfortable. In particular, there are mages who use spells to battle evil forces. While this might upset some in his traditional audience, he would not be true to the body of literature he is joining if he ignored such elements.
Having said that, I must note Emissary is quite well structured, blending character development and conflict to engage the reader throughout the tale. The work is reminiscent of Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle in that it embraces the mythic fiction genre but avoids some of its darker elements. You may have the use of magic, but the force is more of a weapon against evil than a blueprint for the reader channeling such powers for his or her own use. There are battle sequences and a romantic subplot, but Locke refrains from the graphic narrative techniques so popular today. Game of Thrones, it is not.
In Emissary, Locke reinvents himself, writing in a grand style evocative of his earlier work. He takes us to a new land resplendent in rich detail and introduces us to flawed heroes driven to impact the world around them in a powerful and dynamic fashion. Locke dives deep into the world of mythic storytelling, creating compelling characters readers would follow on a grand quest to fight the forces of evil.
Sign me up for the next adventure!
If you’re like me, you probably have a favorite author or collection of authors you like to read. Right now I am in the middle of a series about time travel written in a style that reminds me a bit of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. This author is well known for his mythic fiction, so this series is something different. As an established author, I imagine it was easy to sell this concept to his agent and publisher, since they both know people will pick up his work based on name recognition alone.
For those of us who are not “internationally acclaimed” authors, we have a harder time when we switch gears in our writing. This summer I was planning to write the sequel to my first novel. I had done some research and even worked out a secondary plot line with a book editor. But then I was inspired to write a practical non-fiction title that has received some early positive feedback but has put me on the hunt for a new agent because this work isn’t in his area of expertise. I am having to rebrand myself a bit and counting on the same people to buy my second book is much less of a sure thing.
The real problem comes when you start talking about my third book. Several years ago I wrote a short story that scared me so much I shoved it in a drawer for a year. It was creative, but it touched on themes that were surprising to say the least. After a writers’ conference where the keynote speaker talked about “going to the dark places” and being willing to pull our inspiration from such journeys, I retrieved the story and made it the foundation for another novel. The initial response for the piece was not as positive as was my first book, so I put it away again. I am taking it out a third time and passing it around to a couple of friends to see if these initial impressions were right or if I need to try harder to revise and sell this project.
The biggest worry I have is one of creating a consistent reader base. People who liked my first book want a sequel, which I plan to write next summer. But will these same people buy a book that is a bit experimental in both form and content? Will an agent who knows what I have written before want to take a chance on something different? Since my first work was self-published, will a traditional house be willing to make the same “gamble”, especially considering how risk-adverse the industry has become?
I don’t think publishing is a charitable pursuit, nor do I think authors should blithely ignore the conventions of branding and marketing, but if writing comes from the soul, then sometimes we need to open rooms others would leave closed and compel readers to take a look inside. For what is hidden in the secret places often reveals who we are or who we may become.
Wanna peak? I’m hoping you do.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.