Submissions wishlist: Domestic thrillers

I’m not going back on what I said in my very first post about reading everything in terms of queries, because sometimes I don’t know what I want until I see it, but here’s the first of what will be an ongoing series of spotlights on subgenres I really, really want.

Domestic thrillers, in a nutshell, are defined by the thrills happening at home. I’ve sometimes used the phrase “murder and mayhem in suburbia,” though a domestic thriller can take place in an urban or rural area, too. The main character can be, but doesn’t have to be, employed in law enforcement. Regardless of profession, the main character does have to be involved in something one would normally find in a thriller, perhaps a murder or stalking or even identity theft. The MC doesn’t have to be a direct victim or perpetrator of a crime. S/he could be the parent or sibling or neighbor of someone more affected by it. You’ll see law enforcement and courts, but it’s very unlikely you’ll see the CIA or a mention of Al-Qaeda.

What I love about domestic thrillers: I fully admit, it’s the “me” factor. It makes a book all the more terrifying knowing that something like the crimes I read about in these novels could happen right next door. Though Numb3rs is one of my all-time favorite TV shows (for those who haven’t watched, if The Big Bang Theory were a crime drama, this would be it), I don’t always seek out books about FBI agents. I’ve never been a huge fan of books that involve high-octane international chases after people who want to blow up the world. I’m much more interested in books where the terror begins at home.

Some examples of domestic thrillers:

Even within these few books there’s a wide range of crimes and effects of such, but what they all have in common is that their protagonists are dealing with crimes that, while they affect the characters in a huge way, would have almost no effect on the rest of us outside those pages. There are no high-stakes terror plots to solve. Stephen King wrote in the afterword to Full Dark, No Stars that he wanted to write about “ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” and I can hardly think of a better definition of what makes a domestic thriller.

YA has some fabulous domestic thrillers too, like I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, and Gone by Michael Grant. In YA, you tend to find that these thrillers have a secondary element outside of domesticity; Imaginary Girls is more of a psychological thriller and Gone has an important science fiction plot, but these elements don’t change the basic nature of them being domestic thrillers.

I also mentioned police procedurals. For me, what separates a cop novel I want to read from one I don’t is the answer to the question: “Do I want to have to listen to this character’s voice for 5+ novels?” I do like cop novels, especially ones that give themselves well to franchises, but again, I prefer that the focus of the series be on local crimes. There’s a reason Alex Cross sells a lot of novels: His is a voice people want to hear. He’s tough, but just as dedicated to his family as he is to his job. One of the reasons I think Rizzoli & Isles is so successful is the interaction between two smart, independent women who are not only great at their jobs, but who go through family dramas just like the rest of us. Stephanie Plum makes us laugh (and swoon) as she brings down Trenton’s crooks.

Having grown up in suburbia, I know it can be as terrifying as anywhere else, just in its own ways. Hand me a book that explores it well and I’m yours for the next 3 hours.

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Your book, your rules

Vampires sparkle. Or they don’t. You have to cut their heads off; they can’t be killed with a wooden stake. Or not. They’re sexy. Or repulsive. Wizards use wands. Or their minds. Werewolves are only dangerous to humans. Or to all creatures.

Regardless of your view, you can find a vampire/wizard/werewolf book to suit your reading needs. And when you’re the one writing about them, that’s when you get to have the most fun. The great thing about writing speculative fiction is that there are legends, but ultimately the rules of your legends are yours to control.

But with great power comes great responsibility.

I have been known to pass on more than one query because the writer talked about supernatural creatures (not just vampires), without giving me a good idea of why they were important to the story, what the rules were for their existence, or how they affected the human world, if such a thing even existed. I think just about all of us are influenced the most by our earliest encounters with legends of supernatural creatures. So it’s not that I don’t believe that vampires can walk in the daylight, but I had a near obsession with The Lost Boys when I was a kid, so that’s where my personal rules for what vampires can and cannot do came from. I’m willing to set my rules aside in favor of another writer’s, of course, as long as that writer makes it clear that in their world, vampires do x, y, and z instead of a, b, and c.

Some of the points I check for, when reading a book with paranormal creatures, are:

  • Are the origins of this species explained?
  • How do they live among humans, if at all, without being noticed?
  • How do their rules shape their interactions with the main character, if the main character is human?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What kind of a world do they come from?
  • Why have they bothered to appear on-screen in this book?

You cannot assume that readers, be they your agent, your editor, your critique partners, or your customers, will have any idea of your personal views on the supernatural when they open your book. Maybe you’re writing about a creature they’d never heard of. I didn’t know what wendigos were until I started watching Supernatural, but I had no trouble picking up on the lore because the writers of that particular episode made it clear. Maybe I’ll pick up a book tomorrow that tells an entirely different story of what wendigos are and how they came to be, one that contradicts everything in that episode of Supernatural. Either way, I’m fine with it as long as the writer lets me know the rules.

The difficulties of being 14

Fourteen is a difficult age, both in real life and in YA novels. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of giving a query workshop at Ascendio 2012 with agent Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary & Media and Lindsay Ribar of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. One of the things the three of us harped on was that YA novels with 14-year-old protagonists are difficult to sell.

Joanna pointed out that kids always like to read up from their age. I think this has been the case since stone tablets were the popular form of media. So, 14-year-olds want to read about juniors and seniors in high school, but because of delightful things like puberty and maturation levels, 11-year-olds are still pretty far removed from the world of high school where most 14-year-olds exist. I think there’s a good reason that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire focuses mostly on a mystery, though it certainly has some of the best “painful teenage boy” moments I’ve ever read.

I agree wholeheartedly with Joanna’s point, and here is one of my own reasons for passing on most books with protagonists of this certain age: 14-year-olds can’t do anything. They’re too jaded by that age to have that outlook of wonder that makes MG novels great. They’re past the age where the world is their oyster. This puts them in great situations to mope around and modify their wardrobes, but there’s not a lot they can do to really affect a ton of change because their primary forms of transportation are bicycle, feet, school bus, and parents. They can’t get jobs at the mall. They don’t have the freedom to stay out very late on school nights and are reliant on others to facilitate them moving from place to place. 14 is not seen as a magical age the way 10, 13, 16, and even 17 are.

From a publishing economic standpoint, books with 14-year-old protagonists are hard to sell because even if they’re great, there’s always the question of whom to market to and where to place the books in bookstores and libraries. The middle-grade audience might be the ideal target, but how well do books about what 14-year-olds experience fit the reading needs and wants of 8-to-12-year-olds?

My exception to the rule of “no 14-year-old protagonists” is books that are specifically about the high school freshman experience. Carter Finally Gets It wouldn’t be the same (or half as funny) if Carter was a worldly sophomore. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie is great because it’s about the journey of self-discovery Scott makes during that special year and it does focus on some frustrations that are specific to his being a freshman. If you’re a writer with a freshman book I’d be delighted to see it, but if your fourteen-year-old is the subject of, say, a high fantasy, you may want to do some thinking about why or why not it’s important that your protagonist be 14.

The opposite of hot

Here’s another question agents hear a lot at conferences:

What’s the next hot trend?

I don’t know what the next hot trend is, but here’s my anecdata from the past 10 years or so:

In the YA world, Harry Potter was the opposite of Gossip Girl in terms of theme, language, plot, and heart. The only thing the two books really had in common was their audience (though yes, one could argue that setting was equally important in both.)

Twilight was the opposite of Harry Potter.

Hunger Games was the opposite of Twilight.

And in the adult world:

The adult world is a little different because it’s bigger and within its genres there are tentpole writers. In mystery and thriller, for example, we can rest assured that Harlan Coben, Lee Child, and James Patterson will always have big bestsellers.  But if we hold up some of the hugely influential books of the past 10 years that have reached readers outside their genres: The Davinci Code, The Devil Wears Prada, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 50 Shades of Gray, and Gone Girl (still a little early to make predictions for that, but I’m hoping it will lead to a trend just because I want more books like it), that same pattern holds. They’re all the opposite of each other the way the YA books are. Like all the YA books, they vary greatly in terms of theme, characters, plot, etc.

I know that the plural of “anecdote” is not “evidence,” but I’m happy to use these anecdotes to give my answer to this question.

I don’t know what the next big thing will be, but I can nearly guarantee that whatever it is will be the opposite of what’s popular now.

All of this is yet another reason why I’m looking for a wide variety of genres and voices. One popular book can spark a trend, but all trends come and go.  I wouldn’t mind finding one of these books that spark a trend, of course, but I can’t predict when, where, or if I’ll ever find one. Don’t tell Sheldon Cooper, but there’s just no science to it. That I know of.

The importance of sample pages

Here’s something I’ve been known to say more than once at writers conferences:

I need 50 pages to know if a book is great, but only one to know if it’s not.

(Disclaimer here about the fact that “great” means something different to everyone.)

I can decide the fate of a query in 60 seconds. So can most other agents I know. Sometimes the query describes a kind of book I generally don’t enjoy reading, or I can’t get a sense of the plot, or it’s got some other quality that tells me the writer and I won’t be a dream team.

If a query is intriguing enough to get me to read the sample pages, that’s where I’ll really know whether the book is something I want. As I’ve mentioned before, I can never be quite sure what I want in terms of plot, concept, genre, etc., but good writing can appear in any genre. What’s not good writing in any genre: clunky dialogue, inauthentic voices, characters I don’t care about, etc. And anonymous dead prostitutes in  mystery or thriller novels. When I see those things on the opening pages, I pass on the query because I have yet to see one that overcomes those elements in subsequent pages.

A good book can’t be built in one page, though a great opening page can set the stage for one. Good books need time to develop. Plots, characters, and problems have to be introduced. None of this can be done in a single page, but by reading 30-50 pages I can get a definite idea of the direction the book is taking and decide if I want to pursue it further. It’s possible that I’ll give up on a book after those 50 pages, but it’s still a sign that the opening pages showed promise.