Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wagging the Dog

by Michelle Gagnondog tail

I recently heard from a friend who has written a number of critically acclaimed but only moderately successful standalones. Her agent is pushing for a switch to a series character. Another friend's publisher wants him to do the opposite, abandoning a series for standalones (the Harlan Coben model). A third is working on a YA novel, since apparently that's all that's selling these days.

As I hung up the phone, I thought about the tail wagging the dog. The advice that's always offered at conferences is, "Don't try to chase trends, just write the book you want to write, as well as you can write it," (or some variation therein).

But that's not always possible. Everyone from agents to editors has a say in your next book. Sure, you can give them the brush off, but then there's always the risk that they won't be excited to shop that manuscript, or market it if it is slated for publication.

For writers, this can serve as a real wake up call, especially since occasionally the advice you're receiving stands in direct contrast to what was offered by the same source months earlier. I might be mistaken, but at times it seems as though no one has any idea what will sell in this marketplace. I know a lot of writers who are racing around trying to figure out which project they have the best chance of selling, especially if they're writing it on spec. Which is perfectly understandable- devoting months or years to a manuscript that doesn't sell is incredibly disheartening (and I speak from experience). Moreover, for writers who rely entirely on their books for income, the prospect of not getting another contract is downright terrifying.

For the first time recently, I received some negative feedback on a synopsis I'd submitted for my next book. All legitimate concerns, I realized as I re-read what I'd written. However, the suggestions offered for the direction the book should take didn't sit well with me; that wasn't the book I wanted to write. In the end, after some brainstorming, we came up with a solution that (hopefully) makes everyone happy, but I'll confess that I did experience a moment of panic. In the past I've worked as a writer for hire; most of my freelance articles were written for money, not for love of the subject matter. The thought of doing the same for a novel, committing months to a project I just wasn't that excited to sit down and write, was nervewracking. But then again, to have that manuscript rejected would have been far worse.

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Join us on Sunday, July 19, when Julie Kramer, thriller author of MISSING MARK and STALKING SUSAN will be our guest blogger.

10 comments:

  1. As much as we'd like to just write what we want to, we've got to keep not only the readers in mind, but our agents and editors.

    To do otherwise is really just an exercise in frustration--as you mentioned, we spend too much time on a project that our editor doesn't need.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  2. I think there's a difference between chasing trends -- writing a religious conspiracy thriller, for example -- and mapping out a path for your career. It can make good sense for an author who's done only standalones to start a series, or vice versa. Or to expand into a new market, like for a thriller writer to try YA, or for a romance writer to try romantic suspense. That's why it's so important to have a great, smart agent who can help guide you through the treacherous waters.

    The people I talked to at ThrillerFest about the state of publishing were cautiously optimistic, but the business is definitely going through some tough times. It's more important than ever to have a smart strategy for your career.

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  3. This is the intersection of business and art. And as it was it shall ever be, I'm afraid. Walk through any classic art gallery and you'll see works for hire. You think Rembrandt really wanted to paint all those merchant's wives portraits?

    But I hear ya Michelle. You feel a little like you should be standing on a street corner in high heels and a short skirt. So you do what you did. You push back - gently - and you find a compromise that both you and they can live with. And you keep the wheels moving on down the road. Keep on truckin' sister!

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  4. So true Elizabeth.

    David, you're right, I should have made that distinction. And it's definitely a time when having someone who has weathered downturns and upswings in the past guiding you is invaluable.

    Mark- excellent point, this is precisely where you find the intersection of business and art. The trick is doing what Rembrandt did- finding a way to satisfy his own artistic drive even when he was painting things solely for cash. And I think that in the end, the compromise we reached for my novel will produce a better book than the one I originally had in mind. Funny how that works sometimes.

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  5. "Don't try to chase trends, just write the book you want to write, as well as you can write it."

    Michelle, I can't think of better advice for any writer. I think the moment you start writing for your readers or agents or the market, you are not true to yourself and it will come through in the writing. The first person to get excited about your book must be you. Your excitement and love of your story is impossible to hide from the reader. You come first, then the audience.

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  6. Michelle - I'm in the same boat as most of your friends and am trusting my agent's advice. I basically send him the outlines of the projects I'm interested in doing and take his advice on which I should focus on first - so I get to write what I want and also try and satisfy the business demands of what is more likely to sell. This is why I'm focusing on YA for my next project. I have a more 'literary' project idea but feel that in this economic climate I should probably keep that on the back burner for a few months while I focus on the YA. To me it's just a matter of strategy but thankfully my agent also isn't the sort to dissuade me from writing the book I really want to write...but I trust his advice re: what the market is looking for as well. It's a tricky balance but I'm in the business of selling my next book as well as writing it!

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  7. A friend of mine got a speeding ticket a couple weeks ago. She thought that if she went to court about it she could get the points reduced. She is a four foot tall, cute, innocent looking Asian girl who could probably have gotten what she wanted with an approach that accentuated her natural appearance and skill. Instead she came in like a tiny kimchi tornado demanding a discount. The judge wasn't in the mood to deal with a four-foot-tall pushy Korean girl, and said if she didn't shush she'd get a suspension. Afterward she called to vent and when I told her a different strategy would have improved her situation, the realization dawned on her and she got more upset at herself for not taking a different tactic.

    THe moral of the story is be willing to, as General Sun Tzu said a couple millenia ago, shift strategy to overcome obstacles and keep the advantage.

    I look pretty scary in a short skirt and fishnet stocking. Push-up bras chaffe my ribs. But if that's what it takes...

    no...wait...erase that mental image....I won't go that far.

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  8. Michelle, I feel your pain because I've felt it many times before. I suppose I will feel it over and over in the future. My agent knows so much more about the publishing industry than I do. I have thought about so many novels I'd love to write.

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  9. But reality keeps me writing what "they" expect. One of these days...

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  10. I understand about your concern about the negative feedback, Michelle. Here's a tip I got from a sitcom-writer friend of mine who makes six figures annually--when they give you negative notes, nod wisely and pretend to write it down. Then just go ahead and write your story. They'll be happy when it's wonderful. I believe I read similar advice in William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade."

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