My father always say, “You can tell a Thompson, but you can’t tell ‘em much.” He’s referring of course to how stubborn my mother’s family can be. And yes, I got that in spades. Unfortunately.
Years ago, I sat in the bar of a fan convention with a writer I really respected and asked for his advice on getting enough traction to make a good living writing. The conversation really stuck with me. He told me that I was super talented. That I should be making a fortune, but my big problem was that I needed to stop coloring so far outside the lines. If I followed genre rules and wrote books that were similar, my books would sell like crazy. The funny thing he noted was that I was working way too hard to create the stories I wrote. Because they are all so vastly different.
In the last several years life really got in the way of writing and recently I found my way back and started thinking about that conversations and what makes me tick as a writer. I had vague ideas about what tied my books together, but never really put my finger on it until a project came up at my day job. I’m working on branding for a computer services firm and I came across a book by April Dunford titled, Obviously Awesome.
I must say I have been truly blessed with a great number of fans who have stayed with me over the years. I got a group together and started working through Dunford’s brand methodology and came to an epiphany that really has me reenergized about my work.
The people who love my books, really love my books. The problem is that it was always really hard to explain what tied them together… until I asked the right questions.
We started with THE END OF MARKING TIME. This book is a very different look at the problem of crime and punishment. Readers should hate the lead character, but almost everyone falls in love with Michael. And then the end is an absolute shocker.
Next, THE CAT BAGGER’S APPRENTICE, takes the prison scenario and flips it on its head. Again, most of the revelations come at the end and the reader looks back and sees the entire story differently. I realized this is the main focus of my work, getting readers to look at things differently than they do now.
THE WINEMAKER’S SON is a very intense story about two men who seem to be friends, but we soon learn they are enemies. The villain in the story seems completely unhinged, willing to stop at nothing, just purely evil. Until we learn why. In the end we look at an insane villain and have sympathy for him.
Dinner at Deadman’s is a look into the life of a real guy (my brother) who works to help those addicted to drugs. ONE MORE DEGREE shows us an alternative afterlife that makes us wonder if we ever know who is truly right for us.
I came away from this exercise very energized about my work and now understanding what it is that makes me write what I write. It comes down to three things.
- I don’t follow writing rules.
- My characters don’t fit into typical archetypes.
- I challenge readers to think differently about themselves and their world.
After my project with my reader team, we came up with the following statement about who I am as a writer: “CJ West writes stories without rules about characters who demand your attention and challenge you to think differently.” I think this came about because I use my work to explore the world.
My path isn’t the quick road to fame and fortune and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to new writers. If you are looking for success, follow the rules and write books that readers are sure to like. If you find yourself wandering in the woods after two decades of writing and wondering who you are, maybe you should try Obviously Awesome. Who knows, maybe you’ll become exactly that.
C.J. West Books