Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Pigeon Theory

Have you looked closely at a pigeon recently? They are really pretty birds, with lovely markings, pink feet and interesting eyes. I can hear you now, “Are you nuts? Pigeons are a dime a dozen.” On the other hand, if you see a mountain bluebird in your area, you’re likely to explain, “What a beautiful bird!” Rare. In fact, bird watchers won’t cross the street to see a pigeon, but some travel long distances to see rare birds.

Now imagine that these birds are books and the birdwatchers are readers. The question a writer hoping to be published needs to ask herself is, “Am I writing a pigeon or a bluebird?” In other words are you writing a book very much like dozens of books out there, or are you writing one that will stand out?

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. After a long hiatus from trying to get published while my son was young, I decided when he was a senior in high school that it was time for me to get to work again. I promptly wrote a brand new book with a female detective protagonist working for an agency in San Francisco? Sound familiar? Yes, I wrote a pigeon. And sure enough, even though every agent I queried told me it was well-written and many of them said they were eager to read whatever else I wrote, all of them indicated in one way or another, “Ho hum, another pigeon.”

Then I took a weekend writing workshop organized by Sophie Littlefield and Cornelia Read. It was a great workshop, but the pivotal moment for me was when Sophia gave an impassioned speech to those of us struggling to find our writing niche. She urged each writer to reach deep inside and find something he or she was passionate about—something that only “you” could write. She said that’s what you had to do if you were serious about being a success as a writer.

I had heard the first part of that advice before, but this time I heard the second part as well—that this is what you had to do if you were serious. I was working on something else, but that advice kept nagging at me. So about two months later, I sat down to think—really think: what did I have a connection to in my life that no one else had, and that I hadn’t read anything like it. My grandfather and the town he lived in sprang to mind. I had written some short stories set in Jarrett Creek, Texas—even a couple of short stories featuring my grandfather.

The rest is history. The first book, A Killing at Cotton Hill took me only a couple of months to write—it was a book that had been inside me all along—I needed to recognize it. I didn’t know any other characters like Samuel Craddock, and at that time hardly knew any other mystery series set in Texas (one huge exception was Bill Crider).

So I urge you, if you are having trouble reaching an audience, ask yourself if you’re writing a pigeon or an exotic bird that people will flock (groan—pun intended) to see?

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