Here’s the thing about fiction…

September 9, 2011

I received a very thoughtful and passionate comment on my Gaining Perspective blog post and I ended up using parts of it in a subsequent post. It was so wonderful, I decided to use another part. So, Vanessa, if you’re reading this, send me your address, and I’ll send you a copy of The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box as my way of thanking you for sharing your thoughts so succinctly.

Vanessa wrote:

From a fiction writer’s perspective, traditional publishers are tough as a nut. Even with a big-name agent representing me a few years ago I couldn’t crack it, with rejection letters saying “not convinced this is a best seller”, “this may not be her break-out novel”, and “too mid-list for me”. I would have gladly settled for midlist.

So here’s the thing about fiction:  it’s vastly impacted. So impacted, that it’s incredibly hard to sell…even for the the big guys. Everyone has been hit in the financial un-funny bone, and taking a chance on an untested novelist is a dicey proposition. Please keep in mind that I’m talking in generalities because many debut authors are published every day.

I adore fiction, and my personal library is overflowing with novels. But I know I can’t sell it in numbers large enough to keep the beagle in designer chewie bones because I feel that I’m too small a publisher to drive a novel to the top. The competition is fierce with fiction, and I can’t compete with the big guys. To do otherwise would be financially irresponsible and achingly reckless to the author. So my expertise remains in nonfiction, where I can compete quite nicely.

Because of financial strains, publishers have to go with the sure thing – or as sure as we get in this business – and that cuts out a LOT of authors who write fiction. The big guys have big overhead and are owned by corporate masters who demand big results. Therefore, they’re looking for a bigger payday – and yes, the midlist author has taken a hit with the big gun publishers.

This is also why genre fiction has hit it big. First off, it’s developed a loyal readership. As it is with most things, writers jump on the bandwagon.

“I can write vampire YA!”
“I can write vampire Romance!”
“I can write Steampunk!”

This goes on until those markets become saturated as well. Publishers can’t afford to be on the back end of a trend – they/we have to be always “fashion forward” with big books.

Vanessa also said:

And here’s the clincher. Because of the difficulty of breaking into the traditional publisher’s world (as described above), I decided the smaller town of e-books might be the way forward. But again, after requesting my entire manuscript, a newly established e-publisher came back recently with his response, and I paraphrase: too literary for e-books which tends to be fast-paced (I’m assuming like the murder mysteries now on his website). He recommended I go only to traditional publishers where my literary style would be more suited! Arghhh! I want what’s left of your beagle’s margarita.

The beagle is more than happy to give you the entire blender. And I don’t agree with their analysis that e-books tend to be “fast-paced.” E-books are simply another publishing format, and there are no parameters that differentiate an e-book from a print book. Silly to suggest otherwise.

But more importantly, your comment brings up a vital consideration: Consider the reasons for rejection – especially if you’ve received a LOT of rejections.

Opinions are like bellybuttons – everybody has one – so it’s impossible to consider every opinion when reading a rejection because it’ll drive you batty. I may reject something because I find the pacing slow, yet someone else may feel the pacing is fine, but it’s over-written. We all read submissions through our own filters, and the result can yield a lot of contradictory opinions.

But what you can probably take to the bank is that there is this: if you’re getting a slew of rejections, chances are there’s something fatally wrong with the story. I see many stories that I know will never be ready for publication because, face it, not everyone is a good writer. As tough as it is, one needs to consider whether they have the talent to be published. That’s why I recommend writing many books and not spending years trying to sell that one book.

Frustration = Making Unwise Choices

The by-product of endless rejection is frustration – something that I see happening to new writers who are trying to make a break into publication. And frustration can lead to making unwise choices.

My months’ long search for the perfect hairstylist led me down the road to a disastrous fashion choice that dogged me until the horrible mistake grew out. It made for some unbearably awful family pictures, which, of course, will haunt several family’s photo albums forever. I don’t mean to diminish this conversation with something as trivial as a bad hair day, but rather to convey the emotion behind looking like an over-aged circus clown with a serious addiction problem. Even the beagle growled at me.

And that’s what publishing is – emotional. We’re exposing something that came from our soul while trying not to take rejection personally. I get that. We all do. But in experiencing abject frustration, it’s unwise to let that frustration lead you down a path that will take your literary career from bad to worse.

I’ve seen many cases where new writers reach their maximum capacity for frustration and reach out to someone – anyone – who will read their book and tell them they rock the earth and moon. People who fall into this category are:

  • New publishers who mean well but have no background in publishing and don’t really know what they’re doing
  • Vanity presses who will love anything provided it’s wrapped around a nice fat wad of cash
  • POD model presses who need a constant influx of new meat because they make their money from selling to their authors, not the marketplace due to lack of distribution

And what’s worse is those authors had no idea what they were getting into. I know this because I hear the horror stories all the time.

Whatever you’re feeling at the moment, or even the long haul, don’t make any rash decisions that will result in your losing something you love to someone who doesn’t care, and can’t get the job done. Honor yourself and your book enough to be smart about your next steps…even if that step is putting it under the bed.

Fiction is hard, it’s very impacted, and it’s a buyer’s market. Because the market currently favors publishers, they have the choice of picking the very best, or what will sell very well (no, those aren’t necessarily synonymous…hello Snookie)

Sadly, I have no magic bullet to offer you novelists. You can attend any number of writer’s conferences and hear famous authors talk about how to write a NY Times bestseller, and it always makes me gag. They have no clue as to what makes a NY Times bestseller. No one does. They know what works for them. Just like I can’t take one of Paula Deen’s recipes and expect my dinner to come out tasting exactly the same, no author can use a famous author’s recipe and expect to have a winner book.

In short, the platitudes are the same – write a darn good book, know the marketplace, be in touch with your targeted readership, blah, blah, blah. It’s all sound advice, yet it doesn’t guarantee success.

On the flip side, I know many novelists who didn’t bother wasting time on being frustrated, but instead put their heads down and wrote other books while learning more about the industry. And sure…I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug Tackle Box because I wrote it for exactly this audience with the intent of helping authors increase their chances for success. The more you know, the better able you are to make wise decisions that will favorably impact your writing career.

So for all you novelists, don’t lose heart just because this is a very tough genre. If you love writing, take pleasure in it because it’s no small accident that fiction is the largest selling genre. We love it. Don’t give up, but do know how to navigate a bumpy road.

Mainstream vs. Genre

October 4, 2010

“Mainstream fiction rules, and genre drools!”

“Genre rocks and mainstream fiction eats dirty socks!”

Kids, kids, calm down. There’s room for everyone to play. Or is there?

“Yah, you go, Underworked and Overpaid Editor! You tell ’em! We can’t sell our mainstream fiction!”

Um…that’s Overworked and Underpaid. Geez, have they been talking to the beagle again?

I agree that genre works like romance, mysteries, SF, and fantasy sell well because they have loyal audiences – they’re a cohesive unit. They have their own conferences and it’s easier for new authors to maximize their exposure. But what about mainstream fiction? There’s no conference for that. So how does one rise above the loud voices of their competitors?

You’ve seen it yourself, editors are very careful about buying mainstream fiction these days because it’s the biggest genre around. I’m equally as guilty. It’s harder to sell, and not just for the small trade publisher.

So what do you do if that’s your particular love? How do you get our attention in a way that makes us jump on our desks and say, “By golly gosh, I can sell this beast!” After all, we get tons of queries every day.

The author as salesperson

Yes yes, I realize many of you are reaching for your flame throwers with the intent of singing my eyebrows. “I’m a writer, dammit, not a door-to-door Hoover vacuum salesman.”

Times have changed, baby. Especially in the U.S. Writing is no longer a solitary endeavor where we can send our words of brilliance off to an agent for that instant six-figure deal. We. Must. Sell. Ourselves. Add the blowback of vanity presses rising from the steamy cow pastures of Middle America, and there are more books than ever. Writers are smart to be prepared to differentiate themselves from the rest of the herd.

Book Proposal

I know people who would rather have root canal without drugs than write a book proposal. “Ah, thank the Cosmic Muffin! I write fiction and don’t need a book proposal.” I happen to believe this is wrong.

Book proposals got their start as, well, a proposal; the book wasn’t yet written. It was a well-formed spark of an idea –  a “hey, I have this idea for a book, whaddya think?”

Editors would reply, “Before I entertain such a notion, prove to me that it’s marketable. tell me who your competition is, and who you are.”

Book proposals force authors to consider all the elements of where and how that book will behave on the marketplace. I have a complete rundown about the book proposal here.

All the information that comprises a book proposal is pertinent regardless of genre or level of completion. Marketing, promotion, audience, competitive titles, purpose of the book – all these elements help us decide the sea legs of a story – so why should it only be relegated to nonfiction?

A book proposal forces you to separate your mainstream fiction from everyone else because you have to think about your story’s unique qualities and pitch them in a convincing manner.

I know what you’re thinking; “How do I do that?”

Look for a socially relevant theme

Here’s how you can tongue waggle your genre brethren. See if you can’t pull out universally appealing elements. It’s one thing to tell me that your book is about five women who, for years, have been getting together for a week of catching up with each others’ lives, laughs, and too much drinking. Meh, another buddy book. Where’s my hook? What’s the universal appeal that makes me care?

Look to the characters for that universal appeal. Let’s say one of the characters is a well-known writer whose son was just killed in Afghanistan and, in her grief, she considers canceling her book contracts and hiding away from life. Her friends drag her to their weekend getaway and slowly start to bring her back to life.

The idea of death – regardless of where and how it happened-  is something that has touched all our lives. It’s universal.

See how the story takes on a whole different feel? The first one sounds light and fluffy because it’s all description. And let me tellya, description is what makes up 80% of my query letters. I can’t get enough information out of description. I need specifics so I can say, “send me pages.”

What if I don’t have any socially relevant elements?

Yanno, I get that question a lot. And I don’t believe it. If I was able to bring out something marketable in a surfer dude fantasy, then you most certainly can find something that makes your book universally appealing. If you don’t, are you sure you have a marketable book? Ask yourself why someone would want to read your book. It may be that you do have a marketable book, but I do have to ask the question here because you can be sure I will if you query me.

Authors who write mainstream have a tougher road to travel, and those who take these steps of preparation are the ones who get my attention. They’ve shown me they understand the business because they didn’t make me dig and ask a ton of questions. They were good Girl Scouts – always prepared. Or is that the lifeguards?

I would love to sign more mainstream because I enjoy being taken into someone else’s world where the possibilities are endless. But in order to get an editor’s attention, you have to know how to sell your story.

So, yah, mainstream does rule in my book. Just make sure you show me why. Take my advice – try writing a book proposal. It’ll clear your head.

Or make you drink heavily…

Why do we write fiction?

June 27, 2009

It’s the weekend, and I should be outside paying homage to the sun as we Californians tend to do. But noooo. I’m indoors – like a fool – at my computer – because, as usual, that Nicola Morgan woman, once again, tweaked my nose with her life-pondering questions. Pity I didn’t see her post about writing fiction on Wednesday when she wrote it. I would have happily blown off a weekday to contemplate the more esoteric elements of my life. I’d put the whole thing off until Monday, but Morgan knows me all too well. Once that cat is out of the bag, I’m looking for a scratching post. She writes:

Why do we write fiction? Why should we? What does it do to the reader? Why? Why is it damned important? What will happen to the human race if we don’t do it and if readers don’t read it?

Now, Nicola’s post is more scientific and she uses all kinds of five dollar words because, let’s not pretend here, she’s a lot smarter than I am. Science and math were subjects that left me drooling on my desk, thus earning detention after school. So rather than talk about the brain – an organ I lack since losing it in a card game – I’ll attack this from the heart.

For me, fiction is about passion. Something is burning inside of me and screams to get out. The characters are like real beings, and they slam me down at the breakfast counter and tell me to shut the hell up because they have a whopper of a story to tell me.  I’ve considered the possibility that I’m mentally unbalanced [there have been rumors], but I think that burning passion is what drives a lot of novelists. We’ve been storytellers since the beginning of time, and it’s part of our genetic code. We were born with imaginations, and they simply can’t be corralled. Well, unless you play video games and watch MTV for hours on end.

I think our imaginations are what allow us to stay sane – or is that just me? It’s my escape from everyday life – my cosmic sigh. And isn’t that what fiction is about? Escape? We’re simply reading someone else’s cosmic sigh. Sure, our stories are often about realistic plots and characters, but they’re not our lives or our plots. This explains soap operas, eh? We escape to see how someone else handles a particular life-altering adventure and maybe, in the process, we learn a little something about ourselves.

I look at the characters of my own book, Donovan’s Paradigm, and I can’t help but admire the crap out of Kim Donovan. She has more guts than five of me, and the fact that she’s willing to take on the good ol’ boys of medicine gives me hives. I know I don’t have that kind of chutpah. She’s also a lot more stubborn than I am and tends to be “all or none.” Makes me want to give her a swift kick. But I have to admit that in my everyday life, I think about her and find myself wondering how Kim would handle that particular agent or author. She’d probably fillet them with her scalpel. In spite of her faults – or the faults of any character of any novel I read – I always pick up some grain of knowledge and pack it into my heart. Some of these grains incite real changes within me.

Personally, I don’t think readers will ever stop reading fiction. I look at how impacted genre fiction is – so much so that it’s hard to sell. This proves that we need our escape from reality. I think if we, as a race, did stop reading fiction, we’d become humorless automatons with no sense of imagination or humor. We’d be cutting off a valuable part of our humanity. Oh my GOD – we’d be politicians! So Nicola, bless her soul, can talk about narrative transportation, but I’ll simply say that it scratches my itch.

Crikey, Morgan, why didn’t you just ask for the whole meaning of life thing while you were at it?

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