Friday, June 18, 2021

Rain Man meets Bosch By Josh Stallings

Q: Publishers and agents usually ask you to compare your book to somebody else’s and want to know that you are up to date on what is popular at the moment. How much importance do you place in writing for the market?

A: And now we come to the part dear readers, where I destroy all hope of gaining fame or fortune… I don’t think about the market one bit. At least not while writing. I write because an idea, setting or a character shows me a glimpse of a world worth falling in love with. A world I want to chase for the next year or more. 

TRICKY, began with one scene I could fully see, two LAPD uniformed officers aiming sidearms at a Chicano man (Cisco) who is leaning over a body, and holding a gun. He’s not responding to the officer demanding he put down the gun. Why won’t he put down the gun? Did he shoot the dead man or is he protecting him? I move closer and discover Cisco appears to be intellectually disabled. Ok, I’m in. This scene was enough for me to know there was a novel here I wanted to write. 

Marketing asks: Is it a police procedural? A gritty LA crime novel? A social crime novel? I don’t know is the wrong answer, but the honest one. I had yet to discover the story and what it meant to me. 

Like everything I choose to write, TRICKY is full of emotional spiderwebs I can trace to my life. My grandfather was a LA Deputy. My father was arrested more than once, as was I. I’ve had police draw guns on me, as has my intellectually disabled son. TRICKY isn’t biographical or true crime, but it is personal. I can’t write anything worth reading without skin in the game.

Before taking on the novel I wrote Barrio Math, a short story for Eric Beetner’s “Unloaded 2” anthology, in it I explored who Cisco was as a teenager. For “Waiting To Be Forgotten,” Jay Stringer’s anthology inspired by The Replacements, I wrote a story about an LAPD officer working East Los. In this piece I was exploring Detective Madsen’s back story. 

I then wrote and rewrote the opening few chapters. Took notes from my agent, and my wife. Rewrote and had some other writers give me comments. It felt like if I didn’t get this correct, I couldn’t move on. Through all of this I hadn’t thought once about the market. 

As for being up to date on what’s popular. I’m aware of current best sellers, particularly when they’re by a writer whose work I love, or a new writer who's book blew my socks off. Like all readers, I have very particular and peculiar taste. I’m a slow reader and will never have time to read all the books I’d like to. I don’t finish books that don’t light me up. Best seller or limited run indi published, doesn’t matter to me. If I tried to read all the on trend best selling books, I’d never have time for my own writing.

Also, I worked in movie marketing as a trailer editor. I witnessed film after film fail while chasing the latest trend. From the moment you start a screenplay until it hits the theaters is a minimum of two years, by then whatever trend you were chasing has faded. I worked at Cannon films for a bit. They made thrown together copies of successful films, never huge box office but the production costs were low so they made a profit, if not great films.

If I could successfully write to market, I would. Really. It’s just not one of the tools in my chest. I’ve tried, hell I was paid to write screenplays that went from good ideas to dust in my hands after I’d sold the producers on a scene by scene outline. It took me a long time to discover my error, I was spending what passion I had on the outline, leaving myself nothing left for the actual screenplay. My passion comes from discovering the book I’m writing. I leave myself clues and mysteries to be unraveled as I type. No spoilers, but I was three-fourths of the way through writing TRICKY and I still didn’t know if Cisco was intellectually disabled or pulling a brilliant con. 

As I’m writing the book, I do start to think about where it fits in the world of other books. Whose shoulder’s is it standing on? My Moses McGuire novels wouldn’t have been written without James Crumley and Andrew Vachss. Young Americans owes a nod to Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder books and E.S. Hinton’s Outsiders. I could only write TRICKY because I read socially relevant police novels by James Lee Burke, Terry Shames, Tana French, Ken Bruen, Stuart Neville, and others whose work helped widen my view of what was possible in a police driven novel. 

Where does TRICKY fit in the market? After the book was finished, that became a discussion for me and my agent and later our publisher to figure out. Chantelle Aimée Osman, the editor on TRICKY came up with the marketing angle “It’s all about neurodiversity.” She also wrote, “More than a police procedural, Tricky explores questions of human nature: Whether a man can change, for better or worse, and whether redemption is possible.”

And that’s loads better than what Hollywood Josh would’ve come up with, “It’s Rain Man meets Bosch.” So I guess I’ll leave market gazing to the pros.


Susan C Shea said...

Another probing post. Josh. TRICKY sounds important for us. We're all in learning mode about experiences and perspectives other than our own in 2021. And if my agent has a hard time conceptualizing a novel I wrote because it skews a few degrees from a clear sub-genre, your agent gets major applause for standing with you for a novel that sets its own course.

Josh Stallings said...

Thank you Susan. We had almost a full year of "love it, made it to the big meeting, just not quite what we're looking for." I'm very lucky to have an agent who stands by me, I know I don't make it easy some days.

Catriona McPherson said...

I've got to admit though - I've got a real soft spot for those "meets"-style comps. Also, I love the idea of writing short stories as novel prep.