Formula or Creative Freedom? / Mike Nemeth

Formula or Creative Freedom?

by Mike Nemeth

You’ve finished your first novel and you’re proud of it. Your friends and family are proud of you. You may be savvy enough to predict the obstacles you face: early readers who misunderstand the story, rejections from agents, criticism from editors, an unexpected lack of interest from the media, reviewers, and bloggers. You clear these obstacles and wait for the royalties to roll in. Then you are surprised by one last hurdle: confusion over how to categorize your work for distribution.

Physical bookstores have relatively few categories of fiction and getting misplaced in the mysteries aisle when your book is an action-filled thriller isn’t the end of the world. Online bookstores, however, have a plethora of sophisticated and detailed categories to make searching millions of titles easy for sophisticated readers who know what they want to buy. No problem, you think, put my book in that huge, often-searched mysteries category and readers will find it. But wait, if your novel doesn’t conform to the definition of a mystery, it can’t be categorized as a mystery. Then it must be a thriller, you think. Well, it is if it conforms to the definition of a thriller. Otherwise, you’ll have to keep looking for a home for your story.

That’s what happened to me when I published my debut novel. I wrote a story without thinking about its sales category. I thought of it as a legal thriller, but the judges and lawyers were neither protagonists nor antagonists. The plaintiff and defendant played those roles so it wasn’t quite a legal thriller. Eventually, it qualified as crime fiction, a category in which a protagonist is an anti-hero who fights for moral superiority against faceless institutions. I had to wonder how many Scott Turow fans would wander into the crime fiction category to find a story that didn’t quite conform to the legal thriller formula.

As writers, we are faced with a dilemma when we write a story: will we follow a predefined formula for a genre, or will we write what our creative instincts tell us to write and let the chips fall where they may? Having learned from the confusion over my debut novel, I faced this dilemma with open eyes as I plotted a sequel. I tried to write this second story as a mystery but the characters don’t know there’s been a murder until it is unexpectedly solved in the climax of the story. Try as I might, I couldn’t force the victim to die at the beginning of the story. I experimented with the thriller category but couldn’t find a way to keep the victim alive either. Since the victim was an elderly woman, her passing hardly rose to the usual thriller standard of saving the world from disaster.

So, I wrote the story that I had to write without regard for genre formulae. This second novel will again be categorized as crime fiction. I’m okay with that. It is who I am as a writer. However, if you want to be a writer of mysteries, your first step should be to learn the definition of a mystery so your story conforms to the definition. If you want to be a thriller writer, learn the definition of a thriller and plot accordingly.

You are either a genre-focused storyteller or a freeform storyteller. Knowing who and what you are will make the writing easier and the distribution, categorization, and selling of your stories less confusing.

MIKE NEMETH is a novelist, blogger, former AAU basketball coach and retired information technology executive. “The Undiscovered Country” is the sequel to “Defiled,” a crime fiction thriller, which became a bestselling book on Amazon. Mike’s other works include “128 Billion to 1,” a nonfiction examination of March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament. Mike lives in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Angie, and their rescue dog, Sophie.


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Thanks to Joseph Borden and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s editorial.