May You Write Interesting Books — Part 8

Junk Food For The Soul

We’ve gone through boring at the beginning and boring in the middle, so you know it would come to boring at the end.  (Wake up.  This will be interesting.  Even if I used the dreaded b word three times.)

Boring at the end is a different type of boring.  If you got to the end, the book, by definition held your interest that long.  But I’m probably not the only one that gets to the end of a book sometimes and goes “well, that was painless” but can’t remember a single thing about what she just read.

This is not always bad.  In times of high stress I read a lot of popcorn or “chewing gum” books.  In fact for someone like me, who – to allude to Heinlein – is a print addict and who needs a certain amount of reading per day, and who will read old personal ads off the back of fishwrap after brushing off the scales, most of what I read is by definition popcorn.

But there is a difference between popcorn and tofu.  (And for my vegetarian readers, by this I mean unadorned, uncooked, un-seasoned tofu, which by definition has almost anti-taste and takes a lot of seasoning to taste like ANYTHING.)  By definition at the end of popcorn you go “um, that was kind of nice.  I think I’ll have some more.”  (Keep on crunching, we’ll write more.) BUT after a slice of raw tofu most human beings go “uh… that didn’t taste like anything.  I can live without it.”

Boring at the end are the type of books I read and when they’re done, I remember neither author nor title.  In fact – and this is really tough as I tend to remember 99.9% of what I’ve read – I sometimes will re-buy or re-pick-up the same book and only realize I’ve read it halfway through.

Now, you want to make more of an impression than that!  And don’t ask me “why?” because the answer is obvious.  You want to make more of an impression than that because otherwise people won’t pick up your next book, except by accident.

This is still better than having the reader throw the book against the wall and say “I will never, not in a thousand years, read another book by this XYZ>@}|*” but only marginally so.  Because while it won’t burn you, it means ALL of your books will be first books, forever.

So, how do you imbue the book with deep meaning and make it stick in the memory.

The first cure for this is really simple and it’s something I can only in good conscience tell people now.  Even two years ago I’d have told you that you couldn’t do this, because it would be mentor malpractice to advise it.

Because the first cause of doing this is “writing to market.”  Now, I’ve never done this fully, partly because I have a sad dysfunction of the stereotype gene.  Whatever I take on, no matter how much I attempt to make it a cliche tends to get a twist usually in direction “Weird”.  This is the way my mind works, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to make it work any other way.  So…  Live with it.

However, all of us, from beginner to bestseller, to some extent “wrote to market” in the past.  This is for the very simple reason that there was absolutely no point NOT doing it.  When the powers that were who controlled access to bookstore shelves and therefore to the public made a decision from the top – say (and yes, all these are decisions they made, solely from the top, at some point ) “cozies aren’t real mysteries” or “Space opera isn’t real science fiction” or “Regency isn’t real romance” – you might be able to buck it if you already had a name, but you could NEVER make a good living off bucking it.  Because they wouldn’t take you seriously, and therefore they wouldn’t put you on the shelves.

To what extent did that influence us?  Well, we all read the bestsellers (I wonder how much of a bump they got from that?) even if it wasn’t our subgenre, because we had to know what had impressed a publisher so much they’d pushed it.  We read books on how to write bestsellers, too.  And we would pay attention to what was “hot” right then.  When I started paying attention to the field this was quest fantasy.  Then there was a brief “historical” hotness, which I loved because it was something I could do, but that went away really quickly and we were told it didn’t sell.  Which might be true, or it might be that the minds at the top – the same minds who know their Three Musketeers from the Disney movie – couldn’t keep up and hated to feel like idiots and not be able to tell when they were being spun.  (Yes, I’m uncharitable.  What of it?) So, the next “hot” was something that New York Junior Editors definitely know.  First there was chick lit because, well, duh, Sex And The City did well, so of course books about shoes and sex will do well.  Only they didn’t, which is interesting since at one point that was ALL you could find in all genres in book stores.  Maybe the public has a spine after all (who’d have thunk it?) So, that was brief too, and then there was just sex mostly in the form/excuse of undead porn (thank you Kate for the moniquer) which did well enough because it’s sex & violence and some of it is even competently written.  The last fad I’ve become aware of is steampunk which is one of those that seems to me misguided, since by definition it’s more of a costuming than a writing trend.  It’s a very visual subgenre which doesn’t work well in print.  But it might not matter, anyway, since I don’t think that trends can or will hold on as they have before the onslaught of indie fiction and surprise sellers.  I think the time for trends from the top has passed.

However, we had to be aware of these so we could spin our writing that way.  Put in a sex scene, drop in a werewolf, whatever.  If it was the choice between not being accepted and being accepted you did what you had to do.

Does this mean everything written was pap?  No.  Look, given my ideal career path, when I first came into the field, I’d probably never have written fantasy, or perhaps have written one or two stand-alones in fantasy amid a sea of space opera.  But I got my spirit broken on that before I ever sold novels.  My space opera short stories didn’t sell at all, no matter what the level of competency and in self defense I started writing “significant” sf and a lot of fantasy.  Which sold.  So I was prepared to write fantasy novels.

Now, most of the time the mind that does SF can do fantasy, because it’s the explanations that are different.  However, I made the fantasy mine.  Some would argue too much so, as I’m one of the very few fantasy writers that makes her fantasy feel non-supernatural.  This is partly because my first love was SF.

But there are people – perhaps more lacking in self-confidence, or perhaps just saner – who go “the other way” on that fork in the road.  Having read what’s selling, or having decided to write what’s selling, they go full “pattern” and write such a stereotypical book that it should be sold in a white cover with a bar code.

Those tend to fall under the “tofu book” category.  And those will condemn you to a lifetime of first books.

So, my first advice on beating the bland is easy.  Don’t write books to pattern without making them yours.  Look, in the present day it won’t even help you that much.  Yeah, you might sell to the big houses – maybe – but what are they going to offer you?  Shelf space?  Don’t be silly.  They no longer have command over that.  So, what else?  Cover?  Sister, let me tell you about covers…

I’m not saying here that there aren’t reasons for a dual traditional and indie career.  That would be rich, coming from me, since I’m doing both.  I’m saying that there aren’t reasons compelling enough to justify writing a generic book and suppressing your own individuality (there’s a question if the reasons were ever compelling enough for THAT.)

So, stop playing to the house.  Just write what you want to write.  Some of it you’ll have to publish Indie.  Big deal.  You’ll live.

The other causes for this are more difficult to cure, and we’ll deal with them Monday.  Why Monday you ask?  Well, tomorrow I’ll mostly be running errands, shopping and taking down holiday decor (Witchfinder will PROBABLY be posted late as tonight I’m also dealing with a bunch of minor housekeeping stuff.) and then new year’s intervenes, including the infamous tradition of at least one meal at Pete’s on New Year’s Eve to see off the year in style.  And I’ll have to molest dinosaurs (i.e. visit the natural history museum, whatever they call it these days) either the eve or the day, because that’s what I do (Yeah, like you’re not all geeks.  Pull the other one, it plays jingle bells.)  So posting will likely be irregular.  I’ll still try to post everyday, but won’t make any promises as to theme and promptness of post.  So, class dismissed, see you Monday, drink a glass of champagne for me and don’t forget your writing resolutions.

3 thoughts on “May You Write Interesting Books — Part 8

  1. As a complete indie, and thus in the business of selling directly to the public, I would rephrase this as: Write what you want, but only a fool ignores what the public will buy.

    The difficulty is finding out what the public really wants, which isn’t what the gatekeepers have been proclaiming.

  2. This was a great analysis. This series is awesomesausce. Lots of writers prattle (and I say that mostly kindly) on and on about “write what you know” or “write from the heart” without looking inward towards how external factors impacted their own literary journey and how their advice doesn’t mesh with the stifled creativity within their own works.

    Sarah, you one smart woman. I’m printing these series out and putting them in my writing notebook where I keep the chapter or two of what I’m currently editing.

    1. Tom Wolfe has a great observation on the problems of “writing what you know”, starting about 36.15 minutes into this lecture at Duke University from the 2006 North Carolina Festival of the Book [ http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/IsSo ] after discussing The Right Stuff and leading into Dickens and Steinbeck at 45 minutes. The whole speech is great, but if you don’t have an hour and twenty minutes spend the ten for that middle section.

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