Saturday, April 21, 2007

Midlife Thriller Crisis

There are various types of writers to whom I’m willing to randomly assign categories to, though I won’t list them all here. There’s the child prodigy, who was writing short stories about cats when she was in 4th grade, and writing fanfic will all the names changed when she was in 11th grade, and probably got suckered into some MFA program after college, but will probably give up at some point if she ever comes to the realization that her dream is not commercially viable. (Future me) There’s the prisoner, who’s doing significant time. Thanks to some well-meaning creative writing instructor (probably a failed writer herself) sent by the state, he starts to write and writes whatever type of novel he’s been reading from the prison library or an account that more than loosely resembles his own life of crime. The list goes on and on.

I believe strongly that there is the occasional person who can write solely thanks to raw talent, so no matter what category you might hail from, you might have written a great novel, even a masterpiece. But that’s another story.

There’s a particular type of writer that we probably see the most of, and rarely ever accept. It’s what I’ll call the “midlife crisis writer.” This person has done the normal thing and has a job that pays money but generally doesn’t make a mark on society in any way. Now they’re forty or fifty, and instead of buying themselves a new car or having plastic surgery, they decided to write a novel. Novels last forever, don’t they? They touch millions of people! (And even appropriately!)

If said writer decides to move into fiction and not autobiography or some thing about how their cat taught them everything they know, this writer will probably move into the thriller, suspense, or mystery genre. This is because it’s what they’re probably reading and because those are genres that look deceptively easy to write. You have your basic plot elements at work: Open with a guy being chased by a killer and then killed. Move into Chapter 1, a domestic scene, until the protagonist (who usually has a similar job to the author’s) gets tied to the killed person in some way and decides to solve the crime or gets thrown into some conspiracy because of a package of information sent to them by the dead person. Throw in some attempts on protagonist’s life, maybe a love triangle, and end somewhere dramatic or symbolic (a church, a graveyard, or the original murder site) with the protagonist facing off against the killer. The protagonist wins but probably gets shot. End with a wrap-up three months later and try to end on a mysterious letter or the announcement that someone’s pregnant. There, done.

Recognize anything? We get tons of these. The only thing that ever changes is the thing driving the plot. For several, unbearable years it was some church secret about Jesus, thanks to The Da Vinci Code, but that died down when the movie came out and everyone realized how much the book sucked when they saw it on screen. Then we saw a lot of Templar stuff because novels/histories about the Templars (based on their mention in The Da Vinci Code) were selling. Now we’re back to the more standard international crime/mafia/drugs/nuclear threat thing, or if the author is the doctor, it involves a disease in some way.

For some reason the current trend is drugs. All drugs. Everyone’s smuggling drugs or killing people over smuggled drugs. Maybe they’ll connect it to terrorism (another big seller) by making it Afghan hash, which supports al-Qaeda. What’s the deal, guys? I haven’t really seen drugs in the news much except crystal meth epidemics, but those don’t involve smuggling. They involve making me sign my name and address when I’m buying one box of Sudafed. What’s up?


Issendai said...

I wish there were a central location where agents and editors could post what they've been seeing too much of. If there's a run on drug books/mysteries where Jesus's clone did it/fantasies where farm boys get blipped through portals in search of magical jewels, it would be great to know about it. It would also be entertaining, because so few of the topics agents complain about are obvious to those of us who don't see the slush.

Bernita said...

"They touch millions of people! (And even appropriately!)"
Killer line!

madhack said...

issendai, I agree. That would be awesome--an international slush dump. We could cross-reference it every time a new novel idea popped in our head, just to be sure a dead horse isn't being beaten. Someone should put that site together.

Of course, until someone does, I'm just going to stick with wandering through to see what themes/concepts are getting a lot of airtime. (Page time?) The idea is to come up with something that isn't getting a lot of attention.

Scriptorius Rex said...

Crap! I'm 38 which means I only have a couple of years to get this novel done before I fall into the same category.

These are some great observations. I think it is interesting that there are trends in writing that try to follow The Last Big Thing. Sounds like a supporting argument for some books getting accepted by the marketing department before the good writing department.

Brian said...

Do you not find that an alarming number of the midlife crisis writers are ALSO in MFA programs?

David said...

Drug running is still a standard plot on TV, so perhaps a lot of people are writing to the market as they perceive it, but they judge the book market by what's common in TV plotting.

The Rejecter said...


That's not generally true. Midlife crisis writers are usually totally untrained and make up only about 20% of the population of my program, which is a very, very large program. Most of the people in my program are 20-somethings writing about living in NYC and being an underpaid 20-something.

LJCohen said...

I'd like to think there is at least one more subcategory to your mid-life crisis designation. Turning 40 and feeling settled in my life and work allowed me the courage to return to writing. I've completed 3 novels to date, and none have the plot line you describe. (phew!) So there is something to be said for the mid-life reflection (I don't think it's really a 'crisis') that allows someone to take a creative risk.

Best regards,

Termagant 2 said...

How come all these folks think whatever they're living through right now is interesting? It's only interesting to them. And n, we don't wanna read about it.

Now, on the other hand: people who have been telling stories most of their lives usually get better at it. To quote The Rejecter: (these are) person(s) who can write solely thanks to raw talent.

That's me! Thanks for noticing there are some of us out here.


Brian said...

I must be in the wrong program. My MFA program is populated by midlifers/empty-nesters, most of whom are convinced that workshopping the memoirs of their lives, bursting into tears when they read aloud from their own work, is cheaper than therapy. I've checked. It's not.

The Rejecter said...

I just did the math, and my MFA tuition is much cheaper than my therapy/medication bills. Sadly, I'm a big fan of public humiliation, so psychiatry it is.

Paul Anton said...

Midlife Thriller Crisis. Sounds like a killer book title.

You have described me to a T. You failed to mention that - like drugs - you have to keep writing more and more to get the same feeling until it takes over your life. I'm halfway through writing my third. Will I be able to go cold turkey when it is finished? Will I be able to find happiness at last? Or will I haunt writing conventions until I am seventy, like a trekkie with Alzheimers who wandered into the wrong auditorium?

Julia said...

I guess I'm a midlife crisis writer. But I don't write thrillers, so I guess I'm 1/2 OK.

Anonymous said...

Count me in on the child prodigy column. (Though I wouldn't describe myself as a prodigy...just someone who has been writing from a very young age.) I'm intrigued that you say many of these writers will give up when they realize their dream isn't commercially viable. Do you mean once they quit when they realize they're never going to live off their book advances and writing alone? I have known that for a very long time. Or did you mean more along the lines that they give up when they realize just how hard it is to actually publish a novel? Just curious. Call me a masochist, but I plan to keep writing and hopefully improving even when my apartment floors crumble under the weight of my unpublished novels.

And how often do you get prisoner queries? Just curious.

The Rejecter said...

A couple times a week.