Friday, August 03, 2007

Knowing What You Write

Genene's fun post yesterday about learning to write got me thinking about what it is we all write about. I'm not talking genres, specifically, but more knowing where the genre and story and characters you write fit into today's market.

For most of us, publication is what drives us to write. I think most writers (and I say most because there are exceptions, even in our chapter) long to see their name on the spine of a book. To stand in Borders or Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore and think, look at that. That's me. I did that. When I was at Nationals, one of the questions I heard over and over again posed to published authors at workshops or on panels was, "What do you think was the element that pushed you from unpublished to published?"

If you're a published author, can you answer that definitively? Most of the published authors I saw asked that in public couldn't. They mentioned timing, of having the right story at the right time, of hitting the right editor who was looking for something specific, but for most, the why of how they sold is still a mystery.

Not very encouraging, especially for those of us who are still waiting for that first sale. But I think there are some things you can do to make your chances better.

The first thing you need to do is read within your genre. Okay, Alice will disagree, but she's been published so long and has a proven track record, so she can write anything and we all love it. ;) For newbies, it's important to know what's being published in your genre, and specifically, what new authors are being published and what they're writing. Of course, there's lag time, and what's being published now might not necessarily be what's being bought, but you can look at recently published books and get not only a feeling for the state of the market of your genre, but what readers are looking for as a whole.

For example, when I sat down to work on my last book (the one I got my agent with, the one that finaled in the GH), I thought long and hard about what I'd written before, what I'd read recently, and what I wanted to write. And one thing stood out to me. Though I was writing romantic suspense, the romance was overshadowing the suspense and my "thrills" were taking a backseat to the emotions. My solution was to try my hand at writing what I call a chase book. To add an element of time, to up the stakes and give the romance more immediacy, to put my characters in more imperative danger. I looked at what was being published in my genre and what I could do differently. Those are the kind of books I was reading. Why wasn't I writing them? The result was a book which garnered more attention from agents and editors than any other book I'd written. Has it sold yet? No, but I'm still hopeful. In the meantime, I'm working on the next book, which, yes, you guessed it, is another fast paced chase-like book.

The second thing most writers need to look at is what type of book they're really writing. Are you writing category or are you writing single title? Trust me, it makes a difference. During the Golden Network retreat, Terry Mclaughlin (from our chapter) told the group she thought she was writing single title when she first started. She kept subbing to the big houses and getting rejected. She didn't realize what she was actually writing was a Superromance - one of Harlequin's longest category lines - until an editor finally told her why her book wasn't right for the single title market.

This was me. I thought the first three books I wrote were single title. That's all I'd read. I'd never even picked up a category book until I joined RWA, and by that time I was well into my second and third books. And my books were loooong. (I used to be veeerry long-winded.) Well over 100K words. But what I didn't realize was word count doesn't determine category or single title, and that the first few books I wrote had elements that would forever make them category - amnesia, secret baby, big, big BIG misunderstandings. It wasn't until I stepped back to study the market before writing books four and five, that I realized what I was writing was never going to sell in single title.

Finally, though we've all heard "experts" say don't chase the market and instead write what you love, I think a writer (or at least a writer with the goal of publication) has to keep one eye on the market and know whether what they're writing (and want to write) has a chance of selling. Maybe what you love to write isn't selling right now. It doesn't mean you have to shelve your book forever. Perhaps writing a proposal and sticking it away for the time being is a smart idea. As the market shifts back (which we all know it will do at some point), you'll be ready to go. But if you continue to write in a genre you know isn't selling, then get frustrated over and over because no one's buying you, you only have yourself to blame.

There are more - many more - things a writer should look at to make their chances of publication better. I'd love to hear what those are from the rest of you. What do you think a writer can do to position their work better in this ever-changing market?

11 comments:

Alice Sharpe said...

Eli -- Thought provoking blog! And FYI, when I was told one of my Silhouette Romance books was being considered by Intrigue instead, I asked my editor to send me a half dozen Intrigues which I read back to back, coming away with vital elements to the line. Those I incorporate. As for reading within my genre -- I'm not the only one who doesn't. I found a kindred spirit at a luncheon in Dallas and it was fantastic talking with her about the mysteries we both read.

Anyway, I agree with the adage not to chase the market. I also agree that investigating the market is a wise choice. In the end, however, you are going to write a book that reflects you and your sensibilities and that includes the core decision of what topic to tackle and how to tackle it. It's the "give a situation to you and give the same one to me and we'll come up with two different books, with two different voices" thing.

But there are techniques to learn that help your chances and there are pitfalls to avoid. There are plots that seem redundant (hence the editor's plea -- just the same but different, please). But in the end, it still comes down to you and how you look at the world and what excites you and how you envision a story -- and then the spark that merges your natural gift to tell a story with writing skills, timing and market trends, etc...

I don't why an author goes from unpubbed to pubbed. I don't imagine there is a single factor and I'm almost positive there is no formula or we'd all sign up for a lesson. This is why I always smile when someone teaches a workshop entitled, "Ten sure ways to get published," or "Writing a synopsis that will sell your book every time." Unless the speaker is literally selling every idea that she develops, she doesn't know either. She has hints. She has insights. But she doesn't have a formula because there isn't one.

We all know or have come in contact with people who write a certain way or revisit a certain subject without regard to its potential to sell. They are either pure spirits who aren't distracted by money, etc... or they have not yet come to the place in their career, in their writing life, where they can absorb the information that will allow them to move forward -- once again, IF that is their goal. And maybe we all fit that description at one time or another -- perhaps it's like the aha moment Genene talked about yesterday when she heard information that shed light. I bet she'd heard the same information a dozen times before, but she needed to build the background to fully understand and interpret that information in a useful way to her, to personalize it, get it out of her brain and into her heart.

Sorry to have been so long winded. I used to write short before I started hanging out on this blog!

Paty Jager said...

Cross your fingers, toes, and eyes- say over and over "he/she will love it" and be persistent! Oh! And write a good book! Those are how you get published! LOL

Really, it is all a crap shoot in my opinion. There are so many good writers out there still trying to break in and then you read a book and think, "How the heck did this get published."

I read books in my genre but not while I'm on the first draft of a project. Then I'm either reading research of things outside what I'm writing. And I don't always read the most current.

I've never been one to worry too much about the trends (as you can tell since I seem to be stuck in the 1800's west) I tried the one contemporary and will be interested in seeing what the reviews are on it.

I know my voice works best for westerns and that is what I want to write so whether the market is for or against them, that is where I'll be.

Interesting Blog, Eli, glad I have until Monday to come up with something interesting!

Karen Duvall said...

Oooh, oooh, I know, I know! (waves hand furiously in the air to get called on) You write down your greatest desire, to be published, on the back of a sage leaf and sleep with it under your pillow. Works every time. 8^)

Seriously, though, I'm with the rest of you. The first most important component is to write a really great book. The challenge is then getting that book in front of the right people. That's why I think attending conferences can be helpful, especially if there's a particular editor or agent you're wooing. I'll be spending time with senior editor Liz Schier for the 3rd time in a year, and though she's the editor with the publisher I'd love to have my book with, my constantly running into her wasn't planned. It just worked out that way. But it could end up being advantageous in the long-run.

In some cases, I think it is who you know and who knows you. Getting stuck in the right people's minds has the potential to get you places. Maybe. That's the crap shoot Paty was talking about. Knowing authors can help, too, if they recommend you to their agent or their editor. What a great way to get your foot in the door, or to get moved closer to the top of the "to read" pile of partials and fulls.

Piper Lee said...

Great Blog Eli. Very timely for what I've been struggling with lately.

Alice said this... "heard the same information a dozen times before, but she needed to build the background to fully understand and interpret that information in a useful way to her, to personalize it, get it out of her brain and into her heart."

This is sooo true! This is me, totally!

But it would be nice to do it Paty's or Karen's way. LOL

Really great post and comments girls.

wavybrains said...

Timing. Timing seems to be everything. I was reading the list of inspiring stories that Karen posted to the list yesterday, and timing seemed to be the key factor over and over again--the right book at the right time in the hands of the right person. Sometimes it's the 20th book you write, sometimes it's the first.

I had an epiphany last fall when I realized that I love to read deep POV, but I wasn't pushing myself deep enough. With the WIP, I've pushed myself deeper, and it's a better work (in progress). I read extensively in both of my genres--YA and contemporary. If I didn't read so extensively, I think it would be much harder to take feedback. When a conference judge says that my YA heroine is too "sassy," I can look at my stack of recent best-sellers to discount that advice, or when someone takes issue with the language in a love scene, I can look at the recent trend towards explicit sex and put that advice in the right context. If I didn't read as much as I do, I might be content to leave my hero a Beta. But clearly, Beta men don't sell. I don't read Beta men. Ergo, when someone says "make him more Alpha," I'm able to say "Yes. That needs to happen."

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Okay, Alice. I know you don't read romantic suspense, but you just proved my point when you said you read a bunch of books in the Intrigue line before you wrote your first. You researched the market and figured out what it was that made a book an intrigue. I think new writers need to do this with whatever line/publisher they're targeting. If you have no clue what goes into an Intrigue, how could you write one?

Great points in your comments (and I love that you don't write short!)

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Good point about voice, Paty. I forgot to mention that. As far at ST vs. category goes, I think there's a distinct category voice. If you don't have it, it's going to make it that much harder to sell a category length book to Harlequin. I can't define it, I just know it when I hear it.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

ROFLMAO, Karen. About six months ago a group of women on a different blog I read were making "boob wishes". They were writing their wishes on a piece of paper and sticking them in their bras for 30 days. A few actually came true!

I agree. Networking is SUCH a big deal. It's why I fork out the money each year to go to Nationals. The contacts you make at conferences (whether you realize it or not) are huge.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Piper, I'm glad you found the post helpful. :)

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I think timing is a huge element to selling, Wavy. You're absolutely right.

I'm glad you're able to take comments and see the validity/absurdity of them because of the amount you read (and you read way more than I do - esp. new authors). You know what works and doesn't in the market. And that's going to be a be a huge boost for you.

Genene said...

Definitely a thought-provoking post and comments! I'm still waiting for that aha! moment on why one story sells and another one doesn't. Though I'm kinda leaning toward Karen's sage leaf theory! LOL!

I'll definitely need to revisit this post and the comments. Thanks, ladies!