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Business choices in writing

Everyone on LJ has probably seen the Richard Morgan post. It's here.

I have minor doubts about the over-all collegiality of any large group of writers, because, well, writers. But I really like his overall point, which is that we don't need to piss in the pool that we're swimming in in an attempt to hit the Other Guys. Because, well, we're all swimming in the same water, and it's icky.

I occasionally talk about the business of writing, which is not entirely like the business of publishing, and one of his points struck me enough that I wanted to talk a bit about it, because there is one quibble I have with his article.


"Want to make a shit-load of money? Want to make the bestseller lists? Then get on and write a three brick fantasy trilogy about a good hearted farm-boy who becomes a wizard or a warrior (or a space pilot) and defeats an evil empire."


I know that he is trying to make his larger point. I agree with the larger point: the market is what the market is, and you will probably do better if you write with an eye to the market.

But.

Writing a three-brick fantasy trilogy is not an option for a lot of writers, in part because they don't like reading them. If you don't like reading something, it shows in the writing. You may consider the type of book so anti-intellectual that you feel it can be tossed off with little effort, research or thought. I think this is wishful thinking (at best) and contempt for readers (at worst). There are an awful lot of 3 book fantasies that simply do not sell. Assuming that all you have to do is write one to make money? Wrong.

(And this leaves aside the point that for the most part, no one wants fantasy trilogy bricks anymore.)

If we all wanted to make money, the fiction we should be writing? Romance. Because romance outsells everything else. Bad romance numbers? Are our high midlist numbers. Seriously. They can drop a romance writer for numbers that would keep most of our genre's editors cautiously optimistic about your future career.

But we're not all writing romances. Why? Well, in my case, it's because I can't. Whatever it is that speaks most strongly to readers in a romance novel is not something that I understand well enough to work with. If it doesn't speak to me at all, how the heck am I supposed to be able to work with it in a way that will make it true for readers?

Same with the fantasy that Morgan is off the cuff about. I honestly don't think that you can write blazing bestsellers when your intent is a knock-off of something you simply don't respect.

However...

There are stories which will probably be more commercial, and stories which will probably be less so. If you're a writer who has -- as many of us do -- a wide range of stories that you could start writing right now, then an eye to the business of writing (as opposed to the art), is in my opinion a practical, even a good, thing.

But we don't all have the same range of stories. If, for instance, hard sf was the darling of the market at the moment, I would heave a small sigh, and keep writing; if horror were the Next Big Thing, I would be quietly writing in my corner of Old Small Thing, because stories that would fit the horror genre are not the stories I have to tell.

Even if I felt any regret about this, it wouldn't matter. Those are not my stories. And I think it's absolutely essential, no matter what you're writing, that you write your stories. My concept of writing-as-business-move is more about the intersection of two sets: Hard-headed career decisions and Stories I want to tell. If you want to wander outside of this intersection, it's my humble opinion that you'll do better in the end in the Stories I want to tell set.

I write two different types of books at the moment: The West novels and the Sagara novels (sometimes I call them the DAW and Luna novels). The West novels are the books that I want to read, and if I could only choose one type of novel to read on the desert island, it would be books like those. People have asked me if I'm tired of them; I'm not. I'll probably be tired of them when the story is finished, if then.

The Sagara novels are books I like to read. (Actually, they're the novel version of what I would write if I were writing manga, because in some ways, they have the emotional immediacy and the internal visualization of manga or anime to me; I see them in the color palettes of anime, but whole conversations and pauses are manga pauses. And Bishounen. I digress.) They're my attempt to write a story that is both mine and more accessible.

Because no one writes fantasy to be inaccessible, but in my case, it happens anyway =/.

I thought, of all the stories that I could write, the Cast books had the potential for the broadest appeal (there are two other worlds, one still percolating in the background, but with an entirely different tone and texture). It would probably have made more sense to try a contemporary/urban series, given this market. But... I didn't have one of those until much, much later, and I didn't have the emotional kernel of something that could become one of those, either.

Of course, the theory of accessible and the fact of it isn't decided by me. It's decided by readers. I chose the story that I thought would have the broadest appeal, I wrote it -- but you know? I could have been entirely wrong. It's something that the reading market determines and judges. But the decision to write the Cast novels was based entirely on what I thought would have the best chance at reaching the widest audience. I looked over the possible things I would enjoy writing (for a value of enjoy that includes the inevitable middle-of-the-book), and I chose the one that I thought would work best in that context.

But I remember reading a Neal Stephenson interview a while ago (maybe in Locus) in which he said he had decided to write his co-authored thrillers because they would be the money-makers, and the money-making writing would free him up to write the books he really, really wanted to write.

He did both -- but the books that sold were, of course, the books that he really, really wanted to write.

Sometimes it happens that way. That's probably the very best thing that can happen to a writer, imho. Sometimes, it doesn't, which is probably the hardest thing to accept as a writer.

The fact that it doesn't, more often than not, can lead to all kinds of Unfortunate Author Behaviour and insecurities, some of which causes people to -- yes! -- spit on other authors and their readers. And given that you want those readers, spitting on the books they do like does not seem a reasonable way to reach them, imho.

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
kristine_smith
May. 3rd, 2008 04:17 am (UTC)
It isn't just the overall genre--there are certain things I like to do, and as long as I can do them within the bounds of a genre , I'll be happy. Angst. Conspiracy. Paranoia. Complex relationships. Suspense and mystery. If I can indulge those predilections, I can adapt to different rules of structure and worldbuilding.
ciage
May. 3rd, 2008 04:43 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting the article, I hadn't seen it yet.


I guess it depends on the definition of success. For some people, that means being able to do it for a comfortable living/changing the standards.

I dunno. I'm not even really published, and I'm rethinking as what it means to be successful as an artist rather than an author.
msagara
May. 3rd, 2008 04:48 am (UTC)
I guess it depends on the definition of success. For some people, that means being able to do it for a comfortable living/changing the standards.

In my opinion as a reader, if you write a book I love beyond all reason, what you get paid or got paid for it, and how you make a living don't matter. Selfish, but true.

And I think it is just as valid a choice to write the books you love without any more regard for marketability than finding an editor who loves it and a publisher who will publish it. I don't think making a living at writing has to be your focus.
mmegaera
May. 13th, 2008 10:02 pm (UTC)
Hi, I'm new to your journal -- came here via janni -- and I'm finding what you've got to say very interesting. But I do have one question: how do you reconcile I think it is just as valid a choice to write the books you love without any more regard for marketability with the need to have your words read, whether you make money at it or not? If I could figure out a way to get my words out there and read (self-publishing not being a realistic option -- the marketing is what matters), I wouldn't bother trying to sell in the first place.

Anyway, thanks for letting a newbie comment.
msagara
May. 13th, 2008 10:24 pm (UTC)
But I do have one question: how do you reconcile I think it is just as valid a choice to write the books you love without any more regard for marketability with the need to have your words read, whether you make money at it or not?

Hmmm. Good question. I admit that for me, who was always an insane omg don't crack that spine! bibliophile, part of the process, part of the certainty, is the book, regardless. But built-in with the existence of the book is the existence of an audience -- whatever size that may end up being.

The thing about writing -- for me, and the for me can be assumed in any answer I give about writing, because process is so individual -- is that you don't always know which stories will be relevant and moving to readers.

I want to be read, yes. But in part? I want to write the stories I can tell in ways that other people wouldn't tell them; the two are wed, for me. The act of being read doesn't change the stories I've already written.

When you say "If I could figure out a way to get my words out there and read", it leads to the question by who? This is a serious question, and I ask it of myself as well.
mmegaera
May. 13th, 2008 11:02 pm (UTC)
The act of being read doesn't change the stories I've already written.

So you come at it from a completely different point of view than I do. For me, my writing isn't complete until it's read by someone else, and they bring their own experiences to it. I don't have to know what they bring to it, just that they're reading it and bring something.

When you say "If I could figure out a way to get my words out there and read", it leads to the question by who? This is a serious question, and I ask it of myself as well.

Honestly? At this stage, I just want anyone to read it. When I first got to the beta reader stage, it was like a miracle that anyone was reading what I'd written. But that's not enough anymore. I want to touch strangers' lives, even if for just a few hours. That's all.

Sounds corny. And preachy. But the books themselves aren't. Honest.
msagara
May. 13th, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC)
For me, my writing isn't complete until it's read by someone else, and they bring their own experiences to it. I don't have to know what they bring to it, just that they're reading it and bring something.

For me, the writing is complete when it's a book because at that point, it is literally out of my hands. I can respond to people who've read it, and I'm happy when they do, and I admit I'm nervous because their reaction defines success or failure, since in the end, writing is communication. But the book is out of my hands because I can't take it back or revise it or argue about covers or copy or anything else. I can't bring their perception to the story, or somehow make it mine, and reading is very individual.

Anything I can do has already been done. Anything anyone else does, I have no control over.

Honestly? At this stage, I just want anyone to read it. When I first got to the beta reader stage, it was like a miracle that anyone was reading what I'd written. But that's not enough anymore. I want to touch strangers' lives, even if for just a few hours. That's all.

I think, at base, this is part of what motivates any of us. It's the hope of affecting readers in the same ways that we were affected by books that moved us.

But... having said that, what we write in some ways defines who might read us. I write fantasy. That means that I'm already not going to be read by a large, large number of readers who simply don't care about fantasy. My novels are sometimes too dense, and the density will also pare down audience, even among readers of fantasy. I'm sometimes considered a bit grim, which is also a choice that will affect readers.

But I write about the things that move me, first. I try different things, in different novels, but there are some stories that, while I can read, I can't write.

So I have control over the text to a certain point.

I think there's an arrogance involved in writing, that balances the edge of the insecurity involved -- and the insecurities are legion. At some level, I have to believe that the stories I'm telling are stories that will move people. It's possible that I'm not yet at the stage where my story is clear enough, or accessible enough -- but to write, I need to find the place in which the belief is strong.

And then... I have to let it go out into the world, to find ways in which I can fix mistakes and make it stronger, until the point where it's a book, and there's nothing at all that I can do.

At that point, I'm working on something else in my little corner of the office.
mmegaera
May. 14th, 2008 02:19 am (UTC)
For me, the writing is complete when it's a book because at that point, it is literally out of my hands.

Yes, exactly. I want it out of my hands, and in the hands of others. It's sort of the difference between hitting in a batting cage, and hitting on the field. Once the ball is gone, the ball is gone, but the first is just practice. The second is a real game.

Or, as a character playing an out-of-work actor in one of my favorite movies once said, "I'm tired of practicing my expressions in front of the mirror."

I have to believe that the stories I'm telling are stories that will move people.

What I want is the chance to get mine out there so I can see if they are.

I want to let them go. But I can't get anyone to catch them.
msagara
May. 14th, 2008 02:26 am (UTC)
Or, as a character playing an out-of-work actor in one of my favorite movies once said, "I'm tired of practicing my expressions in front of the mirror."

I think, because I also write poetry which I never submit anywhere, the idea of writing something that has to be written, shorn of audience, doesn't seem as pointless, if that makes sense. It's something I already do.

I want to let them go. But I can't get anyone to catch them.

This is always hard, and it's something almost every writer goes through =/. And I know it is hard, but also, that it's not permanent. Someone - I can't offhand remember which author, said he wrote something like 16 novels before the first one was published, and is doing quite well now.
mmegaera
May. 14th, 2008 03:02 am (UTC)
the idea of writing something that has to be written, shorn of audience, doesn't seem as pointless

Isn't that how most of us get started in the first place? I know I did.

that it's not permanent

I wish I could hold you to that... [wry g]
janni
May. 3rd, 2008 04:48 am (UTC)
Well said.

The thing is (to me mind) nothing is a guarantee, but if you write books you want to write and they don't sell, at least you still got to write them--but if you write books you don't want to write, and they don't sell, well, you don't have much of anything.

Because we can play the odds a little in our choices (and if there's more than one book you want to write anyway, like you say, it makes sense to do so), but there's no guarantee any book will sell. I think folks sometimes forget that when making these calculations.
(Deleted comment)
burger_eater
May. 3rd, 2008 06:29 am (UTC)
I have a teensy weensy bit of sympathy for the people Morgan is criticizing because I have often thought "why are all the books in subgenre X written with plot element Y in them?! They'd be much better if..." and from there came up with a story I want to write.

It's a good exercise, as long as you don't start talking about your personal preferences as signs of virtue.

But yes, write what you like that you think will appeal to others. It's a fantastic idea.
msagara
May. 3rd, 2008 06:48 am (UTC)
I have a teensy weensy bit of sympathy for the people Morgan is criticizing because I have often thought "why are all the books in subgenre X written with plot element Y in them?! They'd be much better if..." and from there came up with a story I want to write.

I have some sympathy for the reader reaction, but not a lot of sympathy for the writer reaction. Writing a book that people will want to read is a good thing; writing a book and being furious that people don't read it is almost pointless.

What you're doing is having a dialogue (a long one, with hair pulling) within the same genre. You don't like things you're reading, or you think they could be done better, writing a novel that does what you would like to see is a productive way of responding; as I said, it's part of a dialogue with the genre itself, and it's often part of the way anything evolves.

Getting angry at readers of the genre that you're frustrated with is sort of pointless, and getting angry at writers because people are reading them is more so, imho. It's almost as if some people think that if there were no books of type X, where X is despised, all those readers would suddenly flock to thing Y, where Y is favoured. And I'm not sure I believe that. Well, okay, I'm sure I don't.



shannachie
May. 3rd, 2008 07:41 am (UTC)
You are right, of course. We write what we love. And I would go further and say that we are probably best at doing what we love, because it adds quality and value to what is written.
No book - genre or mainstream - is ever going to be liked by EVERYBODY. And from the reader's point of view it doesn't have to. Because there are so many writers and the variety of their writing will guarantee that "every pot will have its lid" (German saying).
I found it difficult to sell my book because it is a genre mix, alternate history fantasy (mystery) with a love plot. I wrote it because I like historical novels (I got aan M.A. in history), I like fantasy and I got a little tired of all those virginal protagonists. We'll see whether I find a readership with a similar taste.
My agent keeps trying to talk me into writing one specific book because there is a market for it. She found an old short story of mine and wants me to turn it into a full length thriller. And I just don't want to - even though she probably would find it easier to sell that.
But it's just not my thing. And I could not do it credit.

Edited at 2008-05-03 08:23 am (UTC)
moontear
May. 3rd, 2008 12:03 pm (UTC)
8D Wow, I must be naive. 'Cause here I was, typing away at the stories I very well wanted to tell without even realizing that some people apparently think you should cater to audiences.

Man. Hm. That puts a new twist on things. I mean, I wasn't ignorant completely, I guess, I just -- it never occurred to me to write something that I didn't want to write. .__. If that makes sense.
la_marquise_de_
May. 3rd, 2008 12:05 pm (UTC)
Hi, I'm Kari -- new DAW writer, been lurking here for a while. I had the identical reaction to Richard Morgan's post. And your comments here are spot on. I daresay that somewhere out there is someone who writes purely for money and succeeds at it, but I doubt they write fat fantasy trilogies. (My guess would be they write short-life span financial non-fiction.) Fiction written solely to sell lacks a centre and readers notice.
Please excuse me chipping in.
Kari in the UK.
msagara
May. 4th, 2008 12:26 am (UTC)
Hello :). Nice to see another DAW author!


jedinic
May. 6th, 2008 12:03 pm (UTC)
Hi! A friend linked to your post and I found this so very interesting. For years I've struggled with this concept: the books I WANT to write I know will not sell. I've started writing a 'marketable' book several times but always lose momentum by the third chapter.

I wonder how many authors are trapped by this: the war between financial failure versus personal failure.
janni
May. 13th, 2008 04:30 pm (UTC)
Though what will sell changes. By the time you write the one you want to write, the market could be in an entirely different place. IMHO, no one ever really knows what will and won't sell ...
msagara
May. 14th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC)
I'd agree with Janni on this -- nothing is ever carved in stone.

20 years ago, I wanted to write a historical novel about Aethelflaed. I was told, flat out, by my agent of the time that he could not sell it.

But now? My agent says he could sell it tomorrow. I can't write it tomorrow; I can't write it without a couple of years lead-time. But the markets shift, and what people want to read, or are willing to read, or are willing to take risks publishing, also shift.


madwriter
May. 15th, 2008 11:04 pm (UTC)
Not to mention Bernard Cornwell is now writing about Aethelflaed--or at least she's a character in his Saxon Chronicles series.
green_knight
May. 13th, 2008 09:38 pm (UTC)
I hear you on the 'not marketable' and writing what one loves gets frustrating if nobody loves what one writes! Or, in agent speak, does not love it enough. I suppose that's better than 'I hated it'...

But the answer is not to write something you think ought to sell, because that also doesn't work. I've found that after umpteen years and mumble books I'm finally getting a different class of ideas which I hope will do the trick. They're more complex, more unique, and easier to sum up as concepts; but I love them just as much as I do my sort-of-renaissance coming of age stories which are great to read and near impossible to sell.
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