Being the Next…


I was for no particular reason thinking about the Miami Vice television series on Friday afternoon. You’ve probably at least heard of Miami Vice, if you haven’t seen an episode.Television producer Michael Mann originally conceived the idea behind the iconic series during a brainstorming/brainstreaming session in which he wrote the words “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. The audience didn’t necessarily tune in entirely for the music, but they sure didn’t turn away, either. Mann gave viewers a forty-eight minute music video featuring multiple songs, violence, some PG-rated sex, and a lot of style, all from the viewpoint of Crockett and Tubbs, a couple of Miami-Dade County drug enforcement agents.  If your dad or, uh, grandfather has a white linen sport coat in the back of his closet it may well mean that he was rockin’ his best Sonny Crockett back in the day.

cop rock

Now. Have you ever heard of…Cop Rock? It was pitched as the next Miami Vice, and featured dramatic episodes with a cast ensemble who, in the middle of a squad room, a murder scene, or whatever, would…burst into song and dance. It is almost impossible to watch more than a few minutes of any of the very few episodes of Cop Rock that aired without hoping that the cast, scriptwriters, showrunners, and the like would…burst into flame. Just kidding. I think.

I mention this because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to aim at being the “next” of something. I understand that the “next” Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train is precisely what editors — some editors, anyway — are looking for. The entertainment business is reactive, not proactive. The gatekeepers don’t get in trouble for missing a hit; they get in trouble for pushing a project that winds up dead on arrival. The theory is that if a book has a troubled female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator then readers who bought The Girl on the Train will buy and read that, too. At some point, however, that demand is going to run out, and you don’t want it to run out just before your book gets published.

I’m starting to see a number of Jack Reacher-type books, wherein a strong, silent type with an extraordinary skillset wanders into a town and reluctantly becomes involved in someone’s troubles. They’re not all bad books, but it’s almost impossible to read them with comparing them to Lee Child’s offspring, and to find them at least somewhat wanting. I would submit that one is better served by taking an element here and an element there from stories or series that you admire — whether successful or otherwise — and changing the narrative. p.g. sturges does an excellent job of this in his “Shortcut Man” series. Dick Henry, the Shortcut Man, is an ex-cop who stays in one place, helping people with everyday problems by utilizing extra-legal means. Henry is Robert McCall, without the gravitas. Tim Hallinan pulls off a similar trick in his Junior Bender series, which features a cat burglar who works for criminals. Bender is Richard Stark’s Parker turned inside out.  Both protagonists are criminals, but likeable guys; they’re anti-heroes without the “anti-”, if you will. 

What I would like to know is: what authors — or series — do you go to for inspiration? And I mean “inspiration” as a spark, not a model.

42 thoughts on “Being the Next…

  1. Even Reacher can be viewed as an incarnation of Mack Bolan, with Lee adding his quirks and plots. The trick for a genre writer is to figure out ways to satisfy certain conventions and then elevate them through his particular writing lens.

    When I think back about my own lone wolf, Mike Romeo, my inspiration was more Travis McGee. Because of that Romeo has a Meyer-type character in the books, but with a couple of twists. I also inject Romeo with a certain personality that was formed precisely so I could filter my world view through him.

    Your caveat is a good one, Joe. Don’t try to be the “next” thing-that’s-already-been-done. So if a writer is drawn to a certain genre, find ways to make it your own. Spenser was a son of Marlowe, after all, but East Coast literate like Robert B. Parker himself.

    • Thanks for the Executioner/Reacher tie-in, Jim. The Executioner was one of my favorites in the 1970s, as was The Punisher, which certainly owed a lot conceptually to Don Pendleton. Bolan and Reacher are in some ways mirror images of each other — Reacher isn’t found of firearms, though he will use them, while Bolan relies heavily on peace through superior firepower; Reacher doesn’t look for trouble, while Bolan hunts for it — but they are similar in their military backgrounds, skillsets, capabilities, and general descriptions.

      I also liked your Spenser/Marlowe comparison. On simple geographical change — West Coast to East Coast — can give rise to a multitude of different roads to take, as Parker — and Ace Atkins after him — have demonstrated time and again.

  2. I never heard of Cop Rock but just reading the description was an utter turn off. That sounds like something you would see done just once on a Saturday Night Live gig, but not as a recurring show. LOL!

    Well now you’ve got me curious talking about incarnations of both shows and ideas. Regarding TV shows, I wonder if you have any thoughts about if you think there was a MacGyver type show before there was MacGyver, and if you’ve seen anything modeled after it sense? That’s one show, at least in my memory banks, lame though they are, where I can’t think of knock-offs–before or after. Though admittedly I pretty much gave up watching television after about 1991 or so (when we entered the boring age of reality TV).

    • The recent movie Martian has the character saying he’s got to MacGyver himself out of the situation, and in a way, his unique solutions to growing food, etc. are just what MacGyver might have done

      • I didn’t see the film, Maggie, but thanks for a great example of how the term “MacGyver,” in active and passive use, has entered the lexicon. Folks who have never even seen an episode of the original series know what that means. Terrific!

      • A laugh out loud moment in the Stargate SG-1 series came when Col. Carter told Jack O’Neill (Played by Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver himself) that they’d had to “MacGyver together five supercomputers to activate the Stargate) (more or less–it was a long time ago). But I can’t think of a MacGyver spinoff. Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

    • That’s an interesting question, CK. And I’m coming up short. I think that the original Mission:Impossible series had episodes where the plan did not survive the first encounter with the enemy so they had to wing it using whatever was handy, but it’s not quite the same. Anyone? Thanks for a great question!

      • My apologies, BK. It’s “BK”, not “CK.” I used to work with a “CK” years ago and the initials are stuck in my head.

      • Interesting–Mission Impossible doesn’t make me think of MacGyver but it does make me think of The A-Team. 😎

        And I answer to almost anything–some names printable, some not. 😎

        • Yep. I’ve heard references to the A Team. They just use whatever they find laying around to get the job done. (That’s the old show with Mister T, right?)

          • That[‘s The A Team, indeed. On reflection it’s interesting that the A Team debuted before MacGyver in 1983, but only lasted for four seasons, compared to MacGyver’s seven. You never know. Thanks for the reminder of one of my favorite shows from the 1980s (my sons had A Team bedsheets).

    • I miss Stephen and his brainchild Alan Gregory as well, Nancy. I keep hoping that the stars will line up and we’ll see another book or two (or three, or five) from Stephen in the future. Thanks for mentioning an author whose name — and books — are never far from hand in my house.

  3. Many series characters are hard to sustain for long because too many things either don’t change or change in almost the same way from book to book. I loved Spenser but I needed to give it some time between books. Ian Rankin’s Rebus and Larry Block’s Scudder are also great favorites who turn things slightly on end by having the character change but the venue stay the same.

    The thing that always stands out for me, and keeps me coming back, is the quality of the writing. The stories can be good and the characters well drawn, but very good writing sustains a series. Unfortunately many modern series fall down through writing that is inconsistent from book to book. These always quickly lose me as a customer.

    • Stephen, I totally agree. The characters can be terrific but if you don’t show up to write the backdrop consistently well your readers are going to notice, and more than likely go elsewhere. There are a great number of terrific books out there and only so much time. Thanks for noting that.

  4. My go-to writer is Nelson Demille. I love his voice and his sense of heroism. It’s a natural fit for me, so I don’t worry about shadowing him, but reading him helps me get into that groove.

    In writing workshops I often evoke Demille’s name, and I’m shocked – gobsmacked, actually – at the number of writers in attendance who say they’ve never heard of him. He’s among the top-10 bestselling authors of the last two decades, include five #1 NY Times bestsellers. I ask myself why… I think the answer is that writing workshops are stocked with romance and fantasy/sci-fi writers. Nothing wrong with that, certainly, but I’m betting KZ readers have a much higher percentage of recognition of that esteemed name from our genre.

    • Larry, Nelson DeMille is one of my favorite writers of all time. I, too, like his heroism and his strong voice.

      It seems to me that anyone TRYING to shadow him just can’t make the grade. The movie, The General’s Daughter, based on his novel, just fails miserably. In my opinion, the best performance in the movie is given certainly not by Travolta, but by James Woods.

      The rest of the it? No. No. Not really.

      • Jim, I had a similar experience with film versions of James Lee Burke’s novels. They just can’t measure up. Burke does such a great job of putting the reader in the scene that the films come up second-best, at best. Thanks for noting that. There are plenty of other authors one could say that about, as well.

  5. Thanks, Larry, that’s what I was looking for. Your style is very different from DeMille’s yet I can totally get that he gives you — and probably others — a jump start.

    Re: authors not knowing DeMille’s name…that surprises me as well, particularly because, as you noted, he’s had several bestsellers. I’ve never read Danielle Steele or Mitch Albom but I am at least aware of who they are and what they do. I think you have a winning bet there. Thanks once again for stopping by.

  6. Gee, I think we’re influenced by everything we see, read, or experience. I honestly can’t tell you what specific series is my go-to place, but I do get plenty of ideas from watching Hannibal, the series, as well as binge-watching true detective stories on ID.

    • Thanks, Sue! BTW…if you like true detective television series, you might want to check out the current Killing Fields season on the Discovery Channel. I’m a little partial to it because it takes place in my occasional stomping grounds of Baton Rouge, and I was down there frequently when the initial cold case that they’re investigating took place. Bon Appetit!

  7. Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson books spark my imagination. I love the small town atmosphere and characters. He just doesn’t write them fast enough for me.
    Tony Hillerman’ s Leaphorn and Chee novels as well.

    • Always good to hear from our Missouri Connection, Dave! I feel the same way that you do about Ace and the Colson books…he’s probably got a full plate with his Spenser books, though. BTW, if you haven’t tried Ace’s quartet of true crime novels, please do so. They are in a league all of the their own.

  8. The thing I like about DeMille’s stuff is the same thing I admire in T. Jefferson Parker’s — he never writes the same book twice. I don’t think all books of either author work hold up. (couldn’t get thru Parker’s “Little Saigon” for example). But both authors are just darn good writers, and that is what I look for most. I just don’t want to read the same-old same-old. Which means I tend to NOT read series characters because frankly, they can get really stale. As someone who writes a series (working on book 12 now), I know how hard it is to keep things fresh.

    As for catching the next big wave: As a lot of us have said here before, if you try hard to catch what’s en vogue, you’re already too late, and by the time you factor in the time it takes to get a novel to market (even self-pubbing), the fad is over.

    I heard an editor call Gone Girl on Train et al “Domestic Dystopia” the other day. Geez…

    • Kris, thanks for mentioning — and it bears repeating — the point about the time period between conception and birth in the publishing business. Very true. If someone starts writing the “next” “The Girl on the Train” today it will be almost two years before it’s published and the train, if you will, will have left the station. “Domestic Dystopia”? I love it! A new sub-genre. Actually, you could probably include the spin off “Fear the Walking Dead” in that category as well…Thanks again.

  9. Lee Child is by no means the creator of this type of character whom I call the manly man — an incredible fighter and brilliant crime solver who can survive even the most ridiculous odds and has many loyal friends to help him as well as women who love him. Dick Francis, for example, was writing this character before the first Reacher novel.

    The manly man is the standard hero for most action/adventure of the Clive Cussier type, some suspense and thrillers, and urban fantasies.

    As an educated guess, I’d say this character is a modern version of the knights in the Arthurian tales and early Romances.

    • Marilynn, if you ever get the chance to hear Lee Child speak, he may tell you about the moment in his schoolboy days when he became aware of the parallel between James Bond in the “Dr. No” novel that he was reading on the bus and “Perseus and the Minotaur” that he was reading for school (in Greek…don’t you hate a showoff? 🙂 )For that matter, David, the King of the Israelites, slew Goliath, way back when. I’ve always loved that story…underdog hero triumphs against impossible odds with his world at stake. Not much different from Die Hard, is it? Thanks for the reminder.

  10. I remember Miami Vice, but since I wasn’t a fan, I don’t recall the musical aspect to it. I’ve never heard of Cop Rock, but that’s ok, from its description, I’m sure I wouldn’t be a fan of it either. I am, however, a fan of series. I loved Agatha Christie’s books on both Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. I am beta reading for a writer friend. It is Book Three of a fantasy series. It is quite good except for one thing. I haven’t read Book One or Two, so it several spots I get lost. He assured me that it could work as a stand alone, but it doesn’t seem that way to me. Now, fantasy is not really my genre, although I do like some of it. I am not sure if it’s me, or if not enough information is given. How does an author achieve balance in a series between giving enough information for new readers, but not so much as to bore the faithful returning readers? I am interested in possibly writing a series, and this is a confusing point to me. Thanks for all your great advice. I read TKZ every day without fail. 🙂

    • You raise a great question, Rebecca, concerning balancing information between new and old readers. If each book builds on the last I’d recommend slipping what is necessary into the narrative in dribs and drabs. And I wouldn’t worry too awfully much about giving veteran readers of the series too much information: those of us of a certain age who follow a number of different series often find that after a year or so certain details of this or that series may have, uh, slipped away, if you will. You also can do a page or two of “What has gone before” at the beginning of the book, which readers new to the series can use but readers familiar with the series can skip. Hope that helps.

      For an example of a long-running series that tells readers just enough of what they need to know in each succeeding book…try the Louis Kincaid series by The Kill Zone’s very own PJ Parrish as a model for how the job gets done. And thanks for being a faithful visitor to our blog. We appreciate it!

      • Thanks for the shout-out, Joe! Boy, it comes on a day when I am really struggling with just the question Marilynn posed: How do you insert enough backstory to appease the NEW readers without 1. Boring your old readers and 2. Revealing stuff and endings from previous stories? That second one is the hardest, I think.

        For example, we have to often deal with why Louis got kicked out of Michigan as a cop and had to move to Florida and become a PI. It’s explained in book 2 but if we TELL readers why in subsequent books, we give away the climax of book 2.

        The book I am working on now deals with Louis’s trauma as a foster child but I can’t divulge too much back story or it spoils it for anyone new to the series.

        This is one of the pitfalls of writing a series, Marilynn. No easy answers, alas. One tip: Be very careful what “baggage” you give a series character in the first book. You can’t go back after that and un-ring those bells.

        Back to work on chapter 23 now…

  11. Hi, Joe.

    Sorry to be checking in so late. I was in Columbus for the annual woodworking show.

    My two favorite series have already been mentioned – Nelson DeMitte’s and PJ Parrish’s Louis Kincaid. They have been a spark for me – particularly in finding the right balance of internal monologue -somewhere on the spectrum from Patterson to Koontz.

    Thanks for a great post and discussion.

    • Hi, Steve.

      You’re not late, because we.never.close. Always good to hear from you, Steve, and thank you for that astute comment regarding internal monologue. You hit it right on the nose.

      I didn’t even know that Columbus HAD a woodworking show. Hope you had a good time and found some new toys. Thanks again!

  12. I’ve got two: Dan Lennon, the naval officer at the center of David Poyer’s series, which follows Lenson from his first ship, shortly after graduating Annapolis right after Vietnam, to command of a cruiser circa 2003. The series follows Lenson’s career but also his personal life, including his struggles with marriage and family responsibilities and, for a time, alcohol abuse. The other series is by William Kent Krueger. His part-Indian sheriff-turned-PI Cork O’Connor works out of a small town in northern Minnesota. At a reading I attended, Krueger said he came up with the character’s name because he envisioned a man who is constantly pulled under by the circumstances of life but always manages to bob to the surface.

    • David, I’m unfamiliar with Poyer’s work but is sounds worthy of investigation for sure. Krueger’s O’Connor series has been widely acclaimed; there are quotable passages in each and all of his books that stand out years after they’ve been read. His prose is a great jump-starter for sure. Thanks for the recommendations!

  13. I adored Cop Rock during its short existence, apparently the only person who did. One of my favorite scenes was the jury rendering a verdict by breaking out in a gospel rendition of “He’s Guilty”. It still amuses the hell out of me. Nevertheless, the series that gives me that spark is Michael Dibden’s Aurelio Zen. He’s not quite on the up and up, not always aware of the political currents, but he’s a very human character, and very Italian.

  14. Mary, thanks so much for stopping by and for sharing the link to that clip which…really defies description. I didn’t know that VH1 had even had a Cop Rock marathon. Those of you still following the thread of this post: please take a few minutes and watch the clip which Mary so thoughtfully linked. Talk about sparking creativity, and thinking out of the box…it’s just amazing.

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