It has happened before. After finishing a large writing project (that is, a novel), I flounder around for a while trying to organize a new one, get terribly confused about the welter of material I’ve generated, and give up writing entirely. But then a month or two later I start thinking about one of my abandoned projects, dream up some possibly useful changes, and start putting it back together.
Sometimes a project will go through this rinse-and-repeat cycle more than once. Sad to say, I’m not the kind of writer who can crank out a new book every six months. Or at least I never have been. For the project I revived a few days ago, however, I’m setting up some careful guidelines for a series. With the guidelines in place, if they’re good guidelines, maybe I’ll be able to write six or eight books back to back.
I want this project to have legs, because I’m burned out on self-publishing. I would like this book and its sequels to be commercial. As in, pitch it to an agent and the agent says, “Ooh! Please send me the full manuscript!” I don’t need the money, but I do like a nice challenge. If I don’t have a meaty project to work on, I get bored.
To get a positive response from an agent, you pretty much have to hit the sweet spot in a genre. Agenting, as I’ve noted before in this space, is a 100% commission business. If the agent doesn’t see a prospect of placing your manuscript with a publisher (by which I mean, a commercial publisher that pays a hefty advance against royalties), the agent is not going to waste even 30 seconds looking at it.
This project started out as a sort of tongue-in-cheek riff on the cozy mystery genre. I was calling it an anti-cozy. And as someone who heard about it asked me a couple of years ago, “If you dislike cozies so much, why are you writing one?” Good question.
Something about the story wouldn’t let go of me, though. So now I’m re-imagining the material in a way that I hope will hit the sweet spot in this admittedly very competitive genre. I’ve made my sleuth more relatable. I’ve moved the small-town setting inland and renamed the town so that it’s no longer a snide comment on Murder, She Wrote. And I’m thinking as seriously as I can about the parameters of the genre — not just the length (60k to 90k words, average 80k) and the absence of sex, violence, and bad language, but also about things like the clever book titles used in series and the balance between the crime plot and the sleuth’s social network.
Also, I’ve gone back to doing research in the genre. Bringing home stacks of books from the library and trying to be as broad-minded as I can about what I find.
Being broad-minded is difficult. To be honest, the style of writing in cozies ranges from adequate down to dreadful. And the dreadful books are being published by major imprints, not just as one-shots but as series of a dozen or more titles. Flat, stilted dialog. One-dimensional characters. Failure to meet even a minimal standard in setting a scene.
The challenge for me is to avoid being snobbish about what I’m encountering. The right way to look at it is, I’m a better writer than most of these authors. Seriously; not giving myself airs here. I really am. I interpret this as an encouraging sign. If I can get the formula right, I should be able to sell my series, because my manuscript will float feather-like to the top of the pile.
It’s the formula that I need to master. For instance, the typical amateur sleuth in a cozy is a woman between 30 and 40, and she has a career in a field that female readers (the vast majority) will be able to relate to. You will not find cozy protagonists who are motorcycle mechanics; don’t even think about it. A lot of them own charming little bakeries that do specialty chocolate muffins or something. Food is guaranteed to be relatable; there are even cozies that come with a few pages of recipes. Book shop owners and antique store owners are also big. And because the sleuth is the business owner, she has time to run around solving the crime, a crime that has somehow mystified the local police.
For almost any generality that I might mention, there are of course exceptions. In the only series I’ve found so far that I really like, the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley, the sleuth is an insanely precocious and rather nasty-minded 11-year-old girl. My advice for aspiring cozy writers (including myself) would be that you can probably get away with deviating from one element of the formula, and in fact you might be well advised to do so if you can do it in a way that makes your book stand out from the pack. But while deviating from that one element, be doubly sure to keep the other elements well in line. And really, the ban on sex, graphic violence, and bad language just plain can’t be violated.
My sleuth is in her early 20s and has, in the first book, no job at all. So I’m stepping outside the formula. She won’t land a standard cozy job until book 4. But I’m planning that out as part of the long story arc, and since my personal motivation is that I’m rather fond of this character, I’m keeping her. I got rid of her pet rat, though. A friend of mine said, “Oh, no, you can keep the pet rat! Make it a rescue rat.” My friend is wrong. The pet rat was satire, a not very subtle dig at the pet cats that are crawling all over everywhere in the cozy genre. But this series is no longer a satire. The rat had to go. Now her aunt’s next-door neighbor has a golden retriever. See? Golden retriever. Relatable.
I’m still fiddling a bit with how to make the series titles cute. It’s harder than it looks. But I’ll have to nail it down before I pitch the series to an agent. Having a spiffy manuscript is not the only requirement. An agent will want to see the whole package.
I’m aware that there are people who look down their noses at this sort of thing. They want their creative writing to be deeply personal, straight from the heart. Hey, if you can do that and sell it to a New York publisher, more power to you! Or if you’re satisfied to self-publish, you can do anything at all.
Me, I like plotted genre fiction. It’s what I read, and it’s what I write. I’m not ashamed to want to tell a good story. And that’s harder to do well than you may think.