The Business Rusch: Where Art Meets Commerce

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably think I make a business decision every time I sit down to write. You might assume that I have audience-tested my ideas and have planned my next works in excruciating market-approved details.

And if you think any of that, you would be wrong.

When I write, I create, markets be damned. When I’m at my writing computer, I don’t care if what I write will sell for millions. In fact, I don’t care if what I write sells at all.

What I’m doing, when I write fiction, is try to tell the best story possible.

I don’t always achieve that; if you people could see the image in my head that I’m trying to match, you’ll see that it trumps what’s on the page every time. When I write fiction, I am constantly struggling to improve my craft enough to get what’s in my head on the page, every single time.

Failure is an option. If the manuscript doesn’t work, I redraft—in other words, I throw out everything I did and try again. Yes, that means I write sometimes two or three times more material than the readers will see in print. And yes, that means I sometimes toss out more material than I publish.

I figure it’s the price I pay to tell the story I want to tell.

My haphazard, follow-the-story writing method is one of the many reasons why I always balked when one of my editors in traditional publishing asked me for an outline of a book. I can write a damn good outline, one that will make an editor want to buy the book sight unseen. That’s what good outlines do.

But then I’m tied, in some way, to that story, the one communicated in the outline. And I hate being tied to anything. If I get deep into the writing of something and realize that my heroine is just too mean to be a credible protagonist for the romance I’m writing, I want to be able to start over and make her the villain of the piece.

An outline won’t let me do that. I’ve had to do all kinds of machinations to make sure that I’m not trapped by an outline, all the way down to writing the novel first and writing the outline second.

One of my editors, a dear friend, told me that no writer follows their outlines, but when I pressed her on this point, she did acknowledge that the writers were often close to what they proposed.

I am not, and I prefer not to outline at all.

If you want to get technical about it, my early drafts are my outlines, and my brand-new second or third draft (done from scratch) are me trying to follow those outlines.

But even that metaphor breaks down when you get into the nitty-gritty of my writing process.

Every writer is different, and every writer has preferred methods of working. Some writers are lucky enough to have organized minds and can create a story in outline form before they ever write the first fictional chapter. Other writers make me look organized in the extreme.

Because, at its core, what we do is an art form.  The fact that many of us choose to make a living while committing art makes for some difficult moments—made more difficult by “shoulds” and “have-tos” and “this-is-how-it’s-dones.”

None of that is true in creative mode. There are good ways to work and better ways to work, but mostly, there’s your way to work. And if what you—the writer/artist—are doing works for you (meaning you finish work regularly and get it ready to market regularly), then keep doing that, no matter what anyone says.

But, when it comes to business, there are smart ways to do things and dumb ways to do things. Business in general requires its practitioners to be wise about what they’re selling, how they get paid, how they manage money, and how they interact with customers.

The smart businessperson isn’t the one who follows the rules. The smart businessperson is the one who understands more about her business than anyone else, and then knows which rules apply to her and which ones do not. In business, as in high school, just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

This blog is about business. Most writers’ careers fail because they know nothing about business and remain proudly ignorant. They hire employees (read: agents) whom they believe have their own best interests at heart, and let those employees run the show, not realizing that the employees have their own businesses and those businesses (the agencies) come first for the employees, and are much more important than one client will ever be.

These writers never handle their own money, again, they have people for that, so they don’t know if they’re getting paid on time or if they’re owed money at all. These writers remain ignorant of what their contracts say, what they’ve agreed to, often until it’s too late and a publisher cancels a contract because of a breach (and demands the advance repaid in full) or, worse, takes a writer to court for failing to follow contract terms.

Ignorance in business means that you’re ripe for being screwed, and if you’re deliberately ignorant and believe you haven’t been screwed because of it, then you’re either incredibly lucky or incredibly naïve. I’ll wager you’re also broke.

However, there’s a real gray area where art meets commerce, and it traps even the most well-intentioned writer. In fact, the writer most well-versed in business is usually the one who gets stuck here.

It would seem logical for a writer who loves business to know what she does best, what her fans expect from her, and what everyone likes about her books. Some publishing companies want to use the sharing aspect of e-readers to show writers what parts of their books that readers like best.

For those of you who don’t know what I mean by the previous sentence, let me explain. E-readers like a Kindle have a social sharing system that you can turn on or off. I first noticed it reading a Grisham book. Line after line in the book was underlined, sometimes with little numbers on the side. It irritated the hell out of me, and took me about two hours to figure out what it was and how to shut it off.

It was the social sharing part of the Kindle. The underlines were made by readers who liked that sentence or that paragraph, and the numbers were how many readers had underlined that particular passage. If I clicked the right part of that passage, I could go to a page where I could interact with other readers who liked what I like.

I found that particular part of the Kindle exceptionally annoying, and I would never take part. It reminded me of the battered old college textbooks I bought for almost no money at the University of Wisconsin Bookstore. Dozens of students had had the book before me, and all of them found different colors to underline with. So the text was often a mushy grayish pink with ignorant blue pen scrawls on the side. I often wanted to scrawl back in black that someone had missed the point of the passage, but of course that someone would never see my comment, because I had the book after them.

The Kindle has solved this problem with interactive feature. Now you can get into a flame war about the meaning of a passage in a John Grisham book in real time.

Publishers believe that they can use this little part of the device to help writers “improve” their craft. And I swear to God, if any publisher ever tries to get that deep into my writing, there will be some kind of nasty explosion somewhere.

This very thing, this micromanagement of text and story, is precisely why I don’t work in Hollywood where writing is mostly done by committee. If I want to do that kind of writing, I will go to Los Angeles and let some friends who’ve been trying to hire me for years actually put me on payroll. I’ll get paid 20-times more than I would for a novel advance, and maybe, just maybe, it would be worth the aggravation.

Um, no. Never mind. It wouldn’t, for me. I’m a prose fiction writer by trade because I like to work alone, creating my stories. If the audience doesn’t like them, they can read something else. The point is that I have achieved what I’ve been trying to achieve—or I haven’t. And that’s all there is to what I do.

Not very businesslike, I know. If I were 100% business 100% of the time, I would want to know what I do best, what readers want the most, and I would audience-test every single idea, from the plot to the character development to the setting.

And my writing would lose any creativity that it has.

Readers gravitate to storytellers because the storytellers enthrall them or surprise them or comfort them. Some readers like to be scared. Others love to be reassured. All fiction readers want to escape into a book and leave their own world behind.

If the world of that book is predictable, well, the reader will enjoy it. But if the world of the writer’s next book is equally predictable, the reader will enjoy that book a little less. And if the world of the third book is just as predictable, the reader will drift to other writers whose work is “different” or “unexpected” or “charming.”

This is true even of the “predictable” genres like romance, which requires a happily ever after ending to the novel. The journey becomes important, and somewhere in the middle of a great romance novel, the reader wonders how this couple will ever get to that ending, because it seems impossible. The expectation—the happily ever after—adds tension that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Same with cozy mysteries. Everything will wrap up tidily at the end, but how? Again, the journey is the important thing.

In literary fiction, the language itself must surprise. And in some forms of science fiction—particularly hard science fiction—the ideas must tantalize.

If a literary fiction writer knows that certain phrases will excite her readers, she’ll use them. Eventually her language will no longer surprise the readers, and they’ll move on to someone who makes the English language seem fresh and new all over again.

If a cozy mystery writer gets told that her readers prefer her descriptions of tea over her descriptions of coffee, then she’ll make sure every book has a scene over tea. Eventually readers will make fun of that.

A friend and I grew soured over a favorite fantasy writer at about the same time. We got tired of the work because at the end, Our Hero faced down the Big Evil, came within one inch of death, and somehow survived, battered, bruised, but no worse for the wear.

The predictability of the climax of each novel made us scan the last fifty pages, and then, finally, about eight books in, give up entirely. We knew not only how the book would end, but once we got two-thirds of the way from the ending, we knew exactly how the events would play out.

At a certain point, that writer’s work became boring, at least to us. I’ve noted that other fans are now complaining about the books as well, using the phrases “predictable” and “dull.”

Writing to command eventually makes every writer dull. Yet a lot of writers do it, believing that’s what the market demands.

Certainly, it’s what the sales forces of large publishing companies demand. The more predictable the book, the easier it is to sell. All the sales force has to say about Book Two in a series is that it is exactly like Book One, only better! Theoretically, then Book Two will sell as well as Book One.

But it never works that way. What makes a true book two in a series better than book one is making sure the story moves forward, and that it contains some surprises. You can’t surprise if you write cookie-cutter books, based on an algorithm. It doesn’t matter if that algorithm comes from previous books or from the sales force. It matters if the writer allows herself to be boxed into what she’s good at or what she’s done successfully before.

Because—speaking about the creative process here—boxes are exactly what a writer should avoid. She shouldn’t be thinking about what her audience will say as she writes. She shouldn’t be worrying if this half-finished book will ever sell or if it will sell as many copies as the previous book. She shouldn’t be worrying about what her editor will say or what her agent will pick on. She shouldn’t worry that reviewer at The New York Times will say about her prose or how many stars her books will receive on Amazon.

She should write the best story she can possibly write. She should be stretching her wings, trying harder with this book than she tried with the last book. If she feels safe and comfortable in the knowledge that the book will make all of her readers happy, she’s probably not trying hard enough.

In her creative office, every writer should feel like she’s on a high wire twenty stories off the ground over a major highway with no net to catch her if she falls. She should worry that this book is beyond her skill level, that she might not know enough to write this one, that she might not be good enough to pull this off.

At the same time, she should be having fun—but an adrenalin-junkie kind of fun, an I-can’t-believe-I’m-up-here-trying-this kinda of fun.

Statistics and underlines and social media be damned. The sales force should be having fits if they hear about what the writer is trying to do while the book’s in progress. Because it should go against that “what everyone expects” on some level or another.

So you wrote a romance that doesn’t have a happily ever after ending. Then your book isn’t romance. It’s women’s fiction. But you don’t know that until you’re done.

Genre is simply a way for readers to find the kind of books they like. Sometimes strict genre writers slide outside their genre. They shouldn’t fix it. They should accept that they committed Other Genre, publish the book in Other Genre, and move on—to whatever they want to do next.

Here’s the really cool thing: Back in the day—oh, say, five years ago—when a romance writer committed Other Genre, it was a disaster. Her publisher probably didn’t want the book, and another publisher might not take her seriously in Other Genre. She might have to come up with a new  pen name and start all over again as a brand new writer.

But now, our romance writer friend can indie-publish her Other Genre book if her traditional publisher doesn’t like it. Or she doesn’t even have to show Other Genre  to her traditional publisher—unless, of course, she signed a bad contract with her traditional publisher, promising that she would let the publisher see all of her subsequent work and decide if that work “competes” with the books at the publisher.  (This is where not knowing business bites writers in the ass.)

We have come to a place in the publishing industry where writers truly have creative freedom, where they can write what they want to write in the way that they want to write it, and the marketplace can then decide if the work is good without the middlemen of sales forces and agents and editors in the way. We’ve already had surprise bestsellers this way, including, but not limited to Fifty Shades of Gray. We’ll have more.

Sadly, though, writers who now have the freedom to stretch their creative wings look for ways to clip them. They go to critique groups and listen to peers who know nothing about reader wants and reader needs (I did a series on this last summer. You can find the first post here.)

These same writers will hire someone to tell them what they do well and what they should keep doing. These writers encourage that idea from traditional publishers that social reading tells writers everything that they need to know about their craft. (It doesn’t.) They look for a formula, and then continually try to replicate it.

Or even worse, they try to write Harry Potter meets the Da Vinci Code in the Twilight instead of finding their own voice and their own storytelling patterns. Instead of trying to get better or venturing out on that high wire, these writers search for rules and play it safe, never really getting very far because what they write is ordinary and predictable and just a little bit dull.

There’s nothing exciting in the text because the book wasn’t designed to be exciting. It was designed to sell. And of course it doesn’t sell. Because if anyone knew what really made the Harry Potter series a bestseller when all of the other books set in magical schools were not, then traditional publishers would hire that person to tell them what to publish every single time.

Not even Amazon, which has the best algorithm in America on what readers buy and why they buy those things, can figure out how to manufacture a bestseller. Amazon’s traditional publishing arm has not taken over the world, and if any traditional publisher were poised to do it using logic and outlines and data, it was Amazon.

So in that place where art meets commerce, a lot can go wrong. Writers veer off the path of creativity and move into the assembly line of manufacturing. And sales, rather than following a predictable path, will often slow or stop altogether.

I know it’s scary to venture out there on a high wire above that highway. The wind blows hard up here and it often knocks you sideways. It’s cold as well, and lonely, and there are times when your foot misses and you dip just a bit. Your heart is in your throat and you think you’re not going to survive this. And then your toe finds the wire, and suddenly you’ve made it another step. You stop for a moment, look at the view, and realize that only a handful of people have enough courage to reach this place and see what you see.

In fact, none of those people see what you see. Because it’s only there in the moment, when you’re standing in that spot on that day twenty stories up.  You’re alone, but exhilarated. Eventually, you’ll get to the other side. Then you’ll have to figure out what you’ve done, and what it means, and whether or not you want to repeat the experience.

Even if you do repeat it, you won’t do so in the exact same way. You’ll know not to let your foot slide off halfway across.  You might hold your arms differently. And you might wear a heavier coat.

But what you’re doing is uniquely yours.

Yeah, someone might tell you to get a net or to try only two stories up over a field so that you can survive the fall. But the view won’t be as great and you won’t experience that exhilaration again.

Most importantly, you’ll be doing it their way, not your way, and that’s wrong. Artists should always follow their own vision as they’re working on their art.

Commerce comes later, after the art is finished. Then you must sell what you’ve done. As it is. And take the risk that the audience might not like it.

But the flip side to that risk is that the audience will love it. And they’ll love it because for a moment, you managed to let them see that view, feel the same exhilaration and yes, the same fear. They’ll enjoy it vicariously—through you.

Remember that. You’re not learning to cross that wire from them. They’re crossing it only because you went there first and then decided to share.

Be courageous. Write your own stuff.

Figure out the commerce later.

Like all true artists should do.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

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“The Business Rusch: Where Art Meets Commerce” copyright 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

 

 

 

 

 

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52 Comments

  1. “Publishers believe that they can use this little part of the device to help writers “improve” their craft. And I swear to God, if any publisher ever tries to get that deep into my writing, there will be some kind of nasty explosion somewhere.”

    Heh. Some people might have used a tamer tone.

    Then, of course you’d hear “Ka-ching”. “What? Oh, no. I’m just cleaning it.”

    “All the sales force has to say about Book Two in a series is that it is exactly like Book One, only better! Theoretically, then Book Two will sell as well as Book One.”

    Nope. It’ll sell *better*. It’s a better book, after all. And I’m not sure that’s not the underlying logic in corporate.

    Recall Rory and that “I don’t want you to become a bad copy of me” [*] crazy idea he has? A writer shouldn’t want to become a bad copy of X, even if X is hirself.

    “If she feels safe and comfortable in the knowledge that the book will make all of her readers happy, she’s probably not trying hard enough.”

    If she feels so, she ain’t getting any *new* readers. Then readers will change (have kids, get some chronic disease that changes their habits and worldview, whatever) and leave, and she’ll have no new ones. Oops.

    “In her creative office, every writer should feel like she’s on a high wire twenty stories off the ground [...]”

    I can’t speak for writing, but in other subjects, there’s that pushing yourself and that “I can’t believe I’m managing this; wow!”. It’s addictive.

    “The sales force should be having fits if they hear about what the writer is trying to do while the book’s in progress.”

    I’d let them know. Just because I enjoy squirming.

    Being successful in writing looks more like hunting fowl than sharpshooting. Spread and hit vs. hitting right in centre of the target.

    “Even if you do repeat it, you won’t do so in the exact same way. You’ll know not to let your foot slide off halfway across.”

    You know when they bring Escher drawings to the silver-screen? The way the change and move and…? I just pictured everchanging Escher-tightropes. Your fault.

    Take care. Merry Christmas.

    [*] Rory Miller, SD instructor. http://chirontraining.com/

    Reply
    • Oh, Ferran, the Escher image will live in my mind forever. :-) And I think your hunting metaphor works. Thanks for the comment. :-)

      Reply
      • ;) If I ever find the way to put that image into a story, I will. You can do the same, yes.

        Also, I’ve been doing some tests on Smashwords [*] and… the reporting tool is a danger! Gods! It’s a time sink but a stress fountain!

        Seriously, guys, if you find yourselves addicted to that, *limit* your access to it, for all that’s written!

        Take care.

        [*] https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/267001 Some more coming, and this is not the main thrust of it all, but I decided I could test waters.

        Reply
  2. This.
    Exactly This.
    After over forty traditionally published novels, including one that made the New York Times Bestseller list, I’ve grown to see that contracts can be chains. In this wonderful new world, I’m free to write what I want to read. It’s too easy to forget why we do what we do when we’re writing to order.
    I’m hitting the tip jar on the way out, Kris. You’ve given every last one of us a very special Christmas present! Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Tim, for the comment and the donation. For me, these last few years have been all about reclaiming that sense of joy and fear I get when I write. I’m enjoying the process more and more–again. So I figured I should share. :-)

      Reply
      • “Joy AND fear.”

        Oh, yes. Yes!

        Reply
  3. Thank you for this, Kris! I so needed to read this today. I’m in the middle of a book, smack in the what-the-hell-is-going-on, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing phase and doubting myself. That evil little voice whispers so soft that all those other times I finished stories were flukes and who-do-I-think-I-am,I’ll never finish another story and I don’t know what I’m doing and on and on and on. But I recognize your description of the high wire, feel it in my heart, and it makes me breathe a little easier.

    I hereby give myself permission to be bad and I’ll remember, it doesn’t have to be good, it has to be finished!

    Happy holidays to you and everyone!

    Reply
    • Not flukes, Rebecca. Some of those stories from last summer are still quite vivid in my mind. :-) Keep walking the wire and breathe. :-) Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  4. Wonderful post and so true. We have to use our own voice and become the writer we are meant to be.
    Merry Xmas and wishing all writers a good year!

    Reply
  5. Love this! I definitely feel like I’m wobbling on the high wire every single time. I always feel most wobbly near the start, then I find my stride and I’m still scared, but exhilarated too. And amidst the fear and exhilaration, there’re moments of pure euphoria. It’s a heady mix. So far, I go back for more with a new story. But there’s always a hesitation: do I really want to mount the high wire again? I do. And I also don’t. What if I fall? Then I imagine my life without writing (been there, done that) and shudder. And open up my writing notebook to start brainstorming the next story!

    Reply
  6. I’ve had issues with the commerce side my entire career, which is why I get a lot of “love it, can’t buy it” rejections. Years ago, my first agent referred to my novels as literary. I smiled at him and said, “You just mean they’re hard to sell.” And he smiled right back at me. We worked well together and got along fine, but I simply couldn’t produce the cookie-cutter thrillers the “market” wanted.

    It’s frustrating, and frankly, as good a sales channel as self-pub can be, I don’t want to self-pub EVERYTHING I write, but if traditional markets can’t take the risk, then that’s the only avenue left to find a readership.

    Case in point: Last year I wrote two longer short stories, around 10K words each (Strike one). I like both stories very much (strike two), busted ass to get ‘em the way I thought they should be. The problem is, one story is directly linked to another older short story of mine and is useless without that first tale (strike three). So I packaged them together myself. Best I could do, but no traditional market would ever want that.

    The other story is a crime story. I sent it out to a big market and haven’t heard back yet, but I suspect it may be “too” everything: Too long, too dark, too violent (one, two, three strikes, yer out). Oh, and the title is really long as well (now they’re just throwing balls at my head). But to me, this story is exactly as it should be. So I have to accept that self-pubbing is probably the only option.

    The quest to push yourself, take risks, strive for original ideas, and challenge genre limits can impede commerce. A true occupational hazard. I just wish writers could get hazard pay :)

    Great post, Kris. I’m off to finish a novel that would piss off my agent, if I still had one.

    Mike Zimmerman

    Reply
    • Mike, those of us who refused to write what everyone told us to write have always had trouble with the commerce side, especially as it became more corporate. Now we have options, which is such fun.

      As for the big mystery short story markets, remember they’re in NY and they got hit pretty hard with Hurricane Sandy. So give them some extra time on any submissions. (Length can be an issue for them, but not always.) Don’t give up yet, in other words.

      And yeah, like you, I’m straddling traditional & indie, and loving it. I don’t love the trad pub book contracts right now; I’m hoping they’ll settle down into something reasonable soon. But I’m such an optimist. :-)

      Thanks for the post.

      Reply
  7. I once heard an interview with Neil Gaiman, where he said something to the effect of: people want me to write more of what I’ve already done. And I could do that, write something I’m comfortable with. But I don’t want to write comfortable books. I want to write the books that scare me. I want to write the books I might not be able to pull off, because those are the books I’ll learn from writing.

    (Wish I could remember which interview it was. Sorry, Neil.)

    But that really resonated with me. I think of it every time I think “I’m not good enough to write that story yet.”

    I workshopped my first novel, and I’m glad I did. I got some really great advice and feedback. But none of the people in my workshop, including the instructor, had ever read a vampire book before they read my manuscript, and they didn’t read horror or urban fantasy. This actually made it easier for me to ignore the advice that wouldn’t have helped my book. I knew my genre, and they didn’t, so I was the expert in that area. What they helped me with was pacing and a better hook and making the big fight scene at the end better, the basic craft stuff we all practice regardless of genre.

    I have never understood underlining stuff in books. Writing in a book (a book someone else wrote and published) has always seemed like a sacrilege to me. That’s what notebooks are for. Besides, you’ll remember that quote better if you write it down yourself.

    Reply
    • (Hiding under my desk as I type this) Mercy, I underline in books, when I’m researching. I then add sticky notes to everything so I can find what I’ve done. My books look like they’ve been through the wringer. But I can tell which ones were valuable to my work and which ones weren’t, just from the sticky notes. :-)

      But yeah, writing to order because someone liked a passage just doesn’t work for me, and won’t work for most. :-) Thanks for the post.

      Reply
    • Chronic annotator here. *waves hand from under desk* I make pencil margin notes so I can find the important ideas more quickly. I take notes from books that I do not own, or from really $$$ books that I do own. If it is mine, then I make margin notes and pencil underlines. This is for non-fiction books, I should add, because I need to find those spots for footnotes and quotation purposes.

      Reply
  8. Genre is one place I’ve struggled a bit. I’m a prolific guy, and using the means Dean suggested to measure output, if I stay on task in 2013, I’m looking at around a million words written, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, revising and editing on weekends. Maybe I’m a bit of a workaholic about it, but this is the first time I’ve made an income that benefits myself more than anyone else.

    Anyway, those projected million words works out to 30-40 novels. In a year. And I already know that I have ideas for all of them, and that I’ll be able to turn those ideas into workable stories. I’m already halving my peak wordrate to come to that figure, but let’s be conservative and say 25 novels in a year, to account for extra time spent editing, time producing the covers, time brainstorming and outlining.

    The problem I’m facing is that these stories aren’t all in the same genre. Is that an issue? Right now my ideas run the gamut from steampunk mystery to apocalyptic psychological horror to ghost stories to space opera. Let’s just say all of them. I’ve got ideas that can fit all genre.

    My plan has been to eschew genre in branding, and write everything under two pen names, effectively creating a new genre for each that transcends setting and focuses on mood and style.

    Those stories written under my own pen-name will be fast-paced character driven stories of genuine-feeling characters in fantastic situations. The fantastic is the key, here; reality with a twist of lime, ideally a bit removed from standard fare.

    The other stories are darker, more tragic, a little less hopeful and a little more twisted. Terrible things happening to terrible people. Horror, apocalyptic fiction, darker thrillers.

    Is that sufficient? Should I subdivide my work along traditional genre lines? I mean, I COULD field a sci fi name, a horror name, a urban/contemporary fantasy name, and a YA name, and still put out 6-10 titles under each in a year, significantly more if I spend time on short fiction. But if I don’t have to, if it doesn’t offer any significant advantages, I’d like to stick to just one or two.

    What makes the most sense from a business perspective, when I put on my indie publisher hat?

    Reply
    • I don’t think you should give up on genre, Michael. That’s how readers find you. So figure out–after you’re done–what genre your work belongs in and then go from there. Genre is useful–on the commerce side. Not as you write. If you think there’s a big difference in tone, use different names. If not, use the same name. I write in many genres, sometimes with the same name and sometimes with different names. I pay attention to tone more than anything else. YMMV, though. Good luck with it!

      Reply
      • Thanks. I think that keeping things between two pen names — one for darker stuff, one for lighter, maybe a third for YA — may be the way to go here.

        We’ll see.

        Reply
  9. “I don’t always achieve that; if you people could see the image in my head that I’m trying to match, you’ll see that it trumps what’s on the page every time.”

    I needed to hear this. I thought it was a new/inexperienced author problem, not an issue for authors, period.

    Reply
  10. Wow, Kris, what a post! What a DAMN good post!

    This really hits home. It’s exactly what I needed to hear, and it’s helped to clarify some of the decisions I’ve made for 2013.

    Over the last four months, since September, I’ve written a lot, but have failed to finish anything. (Before that, I finished EVERYTHING I started in 2012 except for three projects I began immediately after the Character Voice workshop; I don’t really count those, since my critical voice was on HIGH after that workshop.) I’ve petered out on novels (maybe five), somewhere between the 10,000-20,000-word mark. I became frustrated beyond belief. But then several things converged at once: I read Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” began reading Knight’s, “Creating Short Fiction,” watched a Ray Bradbury lecture in which he talks about a writer’s hygiene, and started taking Dean’s “Idea to Story” workshop. I began looking at my process and habits and realized that maybe it was time for a change.

    You see, 2010 was the Year I Got Serious. That year was almost a miserable failure until June, which was when I decided to write a story a week and follow Heinlein’s rules as best as I could. Within three months, I was a changed writer, and since then I’ve written 1,000,000 words. Go me! And yet, I have a deep sense it’s time to make another big change, namely, by looking at my writing life as a whole.

    For the last 2.5 years, I’ve focused on writing alone. Getting words on paper. And now, the best way I can describe it, is I feel like I’m running on fumes. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I haven’t read enough nonfiction to generate ideas. (I read a lot of fiction.) Maybe I’m too focused on genre and publishing, letting the business side of things into my writer’s office. Probably a combination of both. But the long and short of it is this: I’ve decided to make some changes in 2013.

    1. I’m going to follow Bradbury’s reading advice: one short story, one essay, one poem a day, with a bigger focus on older fiction writers (Maupassant, Hawthorne, Poe, Hemingway, etc.) as well on those modern fiction writers that really work for me most of the time (Ellison, Bradbury, King, OSC, Flannery O’Connor, etc.). The goal here is to stop thinking so much in terms of genre and start thinking in terms of good stories.

    2. Total focus on short fiction … not only because genre and the business side become much less of a problem (since I’m not devoting several months to one project), but also because, for me, I find that short fiction is the BEST way to hone in on the craft, practicing one craft element a story. Also, the older I get, the more I like short fiction — both as a reader and as a writer. And I’m also finding it harder to find novels that get it done for me.

    3. Writing to the hour, not the page. You suggested this to me once, and then I read Jerry Mundis’ book about writer’s block, in which he says the same thing, so I figured it would be worth a try. One thing that amazed me about writing to the hour (besides how much more I write) is how much deeper I get into the story. I no longer look at how much I’ve written and how much I have to write. The timer will go off, then I’m done, so all I have to worry about is writing a good story that’s well told.

    4. Keep a writer’s notebook, filling it with observations, just like I’m learning in the Idea to Story workshop.

    So that’s 2013 for me. I know this is a long comment, and I’m moderately sorry for it, but your post only confirmed these decisions, and I wanted you to know. In fact, these four goals exist to serve a much larger goal — namely, what you said at the end: “Be courageous. Write your own stuff.”

    Also, I needed to tell SOMEONE who understands. My wife is wonderfully supportive of my writing, but she’s not a writer.

    Thanks for listening.

    Reply
    • Sounds great, Jeff. Like you’re figuring out what interests you and keeps you at the keyboard, and gets you to finish (the important thing). It all sounds good.

      Reply
      • Thanks, Kris. Bradbury’s reading plan has been great, and following Dean’s “tricks” in the idea to story workshop has allowed me to come up with several very cool ideas I’d never have thought of my old way. I feel really excited about 2013.

        Another question: Is what I’m going through –this search, really, to find myself as a writer — normal for a beginning/intermediate writer? I sure hope it is.

        Reply
  11. This is very interesting stuff. It’s 49 years since my first novel appeared (in the UK) and since then I’ve written maybe thirty full-length novels under various names, radio plays, TV scripts, stage plays (some of these were produced/broadcast/performed), and a lot else. But I’ve never been a big name or made serious money because I seldom did the same thing (in genre terms) twice. So from a certain point of view my ‘career’ has been a failure. On the other hand… I did have a lot of fun, and continue to do so in the digital age. As the lady says, you can do any damn thing you want to, and put it out there without having to rewrite chapter 14 and cut 20,000 words. Modern writers don’t know how lucky they are.

    Reply
    • Oh, Michael, I think some of us do. But the ones coming in are just beginning to figure it out. Mostly, they look at us old-timers and ask how we survived all of that. I’m not sure myself sometimes. Like you, I value the fun of the writing more than the money from it. And that makes a difference in how I write. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  12. You truly are an inspiration, Kristine. I’ve just read through a bunch of doom and gloom articles about the downfall of the Indie author, and coming her is refreshing.

    You offer hope and insight that I appreciate so much. I loved the visuals of your article. In a world full of doomsayers, it’s nice to have the calm voice of reason to fall back on.

    Thanks for all you do to enlighten those of us that are not as far along the path as you are. Now, off to the tip jar!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Christie, for the comment and the donation. I’m glad the piece was a little light in all the gloom. :-)

      Reply
  13. I was originally going to rant about how much I detest that underline feature (whatever the stupid thing is called) but then you talked about how some publishers are trying to get writers to use the feature to learn how to improve their writing.

    How can a writer do that with a work in progress if he or she keeps getting bugged by those in the social network? When I’m working on a story, I don’t want people in the social net telling me what they like or whatever.

    Let me figure stuff out on my own; isn’t that the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t? (Trusted first readers can help AFTER the story is done, but it’s understood the person who wrote it can reject any or all of what’s offered.)

    I feel like I’m on the high wire because I’m using 3 separate characters to tell the story. I find it fun and interesting, and of course I’m hoping readers will feel the same way.

    I also trashed what I originally wrote because I thought the conflicts were, well, boring.

    So thanks for writing this post, because it makes me feel as if I’m going in the right direction. We’ll see (and I’m not giving up, no matter what anyone says :-)).

    Happy Holidays!!!

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Nancy. And it sounds like you are going in the right direction. It sounds like you’re challenging yourself, which is always good. :-)

      Reply
  14. Thank you for this! And for last week’s post, which I just re-read this morning, and asked myself, How did you forget this SO quickly? Especially “..what makes our writing special is our personalities, which to us, are as normal and every day as the air we breathe.”

    I look forward to Thursday and Business Rusch every week! Happy Holidays.

    And I’m getting in line at the tip jar.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Cathryn, for the comment and the donation. I’m glad to help. And sometimes it takes a few readings/hearings for something to stick. I know it does with me.

      Reply
  15. Great post, Kris… and I really love your high-wire metaphor. :)

    One question. You wrote:

    “She might have to come up with a new pen name and start all over again as a brand new writer.

    But now, our romance writer friend can indie-publish her Other Genre book if her traditional publisher doesn’t like it. ”

    So what do you recommend regarding pen names… say, if a writer decides to indie publish in a different genre from what she’s known for? I know a few – very few – writers who use the same name across many genres, but publishers have long advocated building up a new name/brand for each genre to avoid disappointing and misleading readers who may have come to expect a particular kind of book that has that name on the cover.

    Any thoughts you have on this would be hugely appreciated… and thanks again for sharing your insights!

    Reply
    • Good question, Jak. I’ve taken pen names when I feel like what I’m doing might disappoint or offend or startle (in a bad way) readers who aren’t expecting it. I don’t want my Kristine Grayson readers (who like funny light books) to read the Fey, where someone’s skin gets ripped off, accidentally, and then get mad at me. If they want to venture over to the Rusch books, they’re on notice from the start that this writer is different somehow.

      I took Kris Nelscott twenty years ago when the country was much more polarized, and the idea that a white woman could write about a black man was something traditional publishers could not handle. So that was a commercial decision for a publishing climate that still exists in traditional publishing, but not in the real world.

      And Kris DeLake is light again, and so my serious sf fans would probably wonder what the hell I’m doing with spaceships that go whoosh! Again, they can choose to read them, but I want the choice to be theirs, not a surprise. And that’s my thinking about it.

      It’s based on my reading experience. I like Barbara Michaels, am not fond of Elizabeth Peters, and they’re both pen names of Barbara Mertz.[sp?]

      Reply
    • I use a pen name for fiction for the same reason Kris does, Jak. Think of the old candy commercial: “Hey! There’s a werecat in my water policy analyses.” “Oh yeah? Well there’s a water policy analysis in my sci-fi bundle!”

      Plus I’d just as soon not have potential employers search for my academic writings and find fiction. “Oh, don’t even consider her for the position. She’ll never publish enough real work,” blah, blah, blah.

      Reply
  16. “When I write, I create, markets be damned. When I’m at my writing computer, I don’t care if what I write will sell for millions. In fact, I don’t care if what I write sells at all.

    What I’m doing, when I write fiction, is try to tell the best story possible.”

    Hallelulah! :) Pretty much exactly how I feel about it. I’m so glad for how the publishing world has changed because it lets me just run rampant with telling the stories I want to tell and lets me have the business side of things, too.

    One of the best and most freeing pieces of advice you and Dean ever gave me was to write it first and worry about market later. Whenever I find myself worrying that an idea is too tough or too weird or something, I just repeat that and try it out anyway. It is pretty scary writing things that I’m not sure I have the skill for, but so far those are things that readers seem to love the most, so it is doubly encouraging when I manage not to fall off the 20 story building. :)

    Reply
  17. “They should accept that they committed Other Genre, publish the book in Other Genre, and move on—to whatever they want to do next.”

    You have NO idea…well maybe you do…how much I needed to read this right now.

    HUGS
    Phaedra

    Reply
  18. This reminds me of some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten, from my college drama teacher:

    DARE TO BE BAD

    Get it out there, put energy into it, commit to it. If it’s bad, you can always do another rehearsal. But it has to be out there to begin with.

    Yes, many of the people started out very bad indeed. But they got better with practice.

    Same thing with writing. Your beta readers may ask you WTF? and you’ll realize that you did screw up that chapter. But you can always rewrite.

    Back in the day, I wrote a little fanfic story (this was before we had the internet and it all went on dead trees and we PAID for it), and the editor had several things she wanted changed. I disagreed, particularly on this one phrase that I was really, really proud of. I finally said she could make all the changes, except I would not budge on that one phrase that she hated. A grumbly accord was reached.

    Sure enough, when the letters of comment came in, every single one mentioned that phrase and how it perfectly encapsulated one of the main character’s usual mannerisms. They could all see and hear it.

    So: don’t always kill your darlings. And don’t let the editors kill them either, be it a phrase or a book idea.

    Reply
  19. Great post!

    I’ve always been a seat-of-my-pants writer, but I have all these great proposals sitting around (most are the result of your classes, actually *g*), so when I decided to write a novel for NaNoWriMo, I picked one of the proposals and wrote the novel from the proposal. Interesting experience, and it was definitely writing outside my usual box. The proposal turned out to be a great roadmap for getting 51,000 words done the same month I ended up going back to work fulltime *sigh*, but there were times it sure felt like I was trying to shoehorn the characters into predetermined emotional responses. I have a feeling the next time I tackle one of those proposals, I’m going to use the initial setup, keep the end in mind, and just let the characters get there the way they want to.

    So now I’m writing a new Diz & Dee holiday story by the seat of my pants, and it’s a little different and way longer than I thought it would be when I started, and last night I got to thinking that it might not really be a “Diz & Dee” story. Today I read your post.

    Thank you.

    Dee thanks you, too.

    Reply
  20. I really needed to read this right now. I started finally finishing things last year and I’m at the very end of the biggest project I’ve ever undertaken. In fact, I’m at the “oh gawd, everybody’s going to hate it, what did I spend the last 2 months doing? They’re going to throw things at me, especially when they get to the dragon.”

    Nope, I don’t know who “they” are but I’m constantly between I love it, everybody is going to hate it right now. It is very exciting, wondering if I’m actually going to hit what I want to do with this book or if I’m going to fail spectacularly. And the next project is going to be even bigger :-)

    Reply
  21. I don’t know. I like using an outline, but mine are very simple. Ten points or so. Nothing preventing me from side trips, new characters, places, plot twists; more like a general reminder of where I’m ending up.

    I think of it as a good underwire bra, lending support where needed, but baby, it’s still all me.

    Once I start writing I do list scenes I want to include. Each must have a purpose. They help me build tension and tie all the threads together in weird new ways, but I couldn’t do that if I didn’t put thought into how to make it like something I’ve never read before.

    Reply
  22. This post has been very encouraging for me, as I often feel my group of writerly friends want me to push myself into a sellable box and never try to go beyond that. I want to be able to write a story and not worry about sales — and it’s nice that I know I have multiple options for publishing, if I even decide to go there with the story. Thanks for always writing the most encouraging and yet brutally honest business articles. I love them.

    Reply
  23. The high-wire metaphor really resonated with me, Kris.

    The sixth of eight sequences in a book I wrote last year had a one-sentence note in my outline. I had no idea how to hit that plot point. But it needed to be hit.

    I buckled down. I literally sweated over the laptop. I could feel the tension in my stomach. Slated at eight thousand words, the sequence ended up at twice that–and it stands out, in my mind, as the best plotted and characterized thing I’ve ever written. Reviewers have noted it.

    Squeeze a lump of coal hard enough, and you’ll eventually form a diamond.

    Reply
  24. The points that you bring up here have been on my mind a lot today. I know that I have to produce great art to sell but to sell them I have to be a great businessman. Along with my wife wanting to know when I’m going to start bringing in some money (this time next year I told her) it is all getting almost too much.

    Might have to keep this page open for a while–maybe later I could afford to drop something in the tip jar. Until then learning and writing…

    Reply
  25. So true, Kris. You’ve got to write what you believe in. My work has always been “hard to place” in traditional publishing, but I kept doing it my way. When I look at a genre, I ask myself what needs to be done here that isn’t happening? Ta-dah, Irene Adler gets her own series. Etc.

    There seems to be more money (and certainly there is more publisher support) for cookie cutter stuff, but if you’re boring yourself, what’s the point? A you say, being predictable has decreasing returns.

    I’ve been able to use my own name all the way through, and now being freed of bookstore shelf categorizations by online site listings, it’s all to the good. Readers who don’t like one genre don’t complain about it. They just don’t go there.

    A few years ago I was frustrated that my Delilah Street noir urban fantasy titles couldn’t be on store mystery shelves with my Midnight Louie feline PI series as well as
    on sf/fantasy shelves.

    Now I’m putting together an eBook mini-collection with a Delilah Street story, a Midnight Louie historical (“Past Life Adventure”) story that “collaborates” with a fragment from Edgar Allan Poe, and a Midnight Louie-narrated Delilah Street novella from a vampire romance anthology.
    How many genres is that? Who cares. Just dying to see how it does!

    Freedom is another word for innovation.

    Reply
  26. I have two things to to thank you for and you hit on both of them here. I also have a comment on publishers analyzing data to tell you what to write.

    1) Follow your own process. Thank you for this which I learned from you 8 years ago. I just didn’t believe it until 3 years ago. :) Like you, I write into the mist. That means I do a lot of rewriting. There is a point, about two-thirds through the book when I do figure out what is going on and can outline to the end. By then, what’s the point? I’ve tried several times to change this process and it never works. Because I love your books, knowing this is your process as well makes me feel better. Or at least not alone.

    2) Write what you want to write. Worry bout the market later. I’ve always done this because I can’t create any other way. So far, it’s always ended up cross-genre. I am happy these books can be self-pubbed and the market will tell us if the book works. But I have to admit it is disappointing they haven’t found a larger readership. Even with decent reviews, discoverability is still a problem. I’m not sure if that is because they aren’t category specific or if it’s the competition of 300K other books. Even when I go to local bookstores who love my books and always feature them, they are still frustrated that they don’t fit neatly into category. So, they get shelved differently in each store depending on what the owner thinks will provide the most likely sales. Maybe I’ll figure out where each belongs that way. We’ll see.

    On the publishers telling us what to write based on analysis, I think that has always gone on in some regard which is how they decide what to buy. The closest thing I’ve seen to your description, which is really happening now, is this crowd-sourcing serial idea. I have two friends who have taken this on with publishers.

    The author starts writing the book and shares it with readers as each chapter is completed. They also ask the readers what they think should happen next, or who should be the love interest, and then react to that reader input in subsequent chapters. In the end, the completed book is sold in two forms: 1) As serial reads where the reader can download a chapter at a time and thereby slowly pay money for the entire book; and 2) Sold as a completed book. If you buy the whole book at once it is about $5 less expensive than buying a chapter at a time. I haven’t heard their sales numbers yet, but I don’t think they are huge.

    Both of my friends, who are significantly younger than me and part of the whole social media world, love this way of writing. For me, it would drive me to never write again.

    Thank you again for all you do, Kris.

    Reply
  27. A timely reminder that those of us who walk in this brave new world of publishing need to be brave ourselves. Write the story the way it is meant to be written, to the best of our ability. Such is freedom.

    And I never got that whole high-ligting thing, or the prompt from Amazon every time I buy a book to tweet that I’ve bought it. Hello, I haven’t read it yet! Who cares if I got it — other than the author, anxiously counting sales in a garret somewhere. ;)

    Happy holidays to you and yours, and onward to a bright 2013!

    Reply
  28. Another great post, Kris, which encapsulates exactly how I feel about writing, down to the no outline thing.

    Back in the days of traditional publishing, I discarded a lot of story ideas as soon as they appeared, because there was no market for that sort of thing and I had no idea how to sell it. Such a story only got written, when the idea was strong enough that it just wouldn’t let go. But no I give every potential story idea a chance, no matter how offbeat, because I can indie publish it. Of course, it might not sell after all, but at least it will be available to potential. That feeling is immensely liberating.

    Happy holidays to you and Dean.

    Reply
  29. I always enjoy your posts. Thanks for all you do for the writing community! :-)
    ? Merry Christmas! ?

    Reply
  30. Except your metaphor is broken — and in a good way!

    When you fall off a horse, you’re expected to dust yourself off, bruises and all, and get back on that horse.

    When you fall off a high wire, even if you survive, you’ll have days, weeks, or even months of painful rehab; but eventually you’re expected to get back on that wire.

    But if you fall off this writing high wire, no matter how high you climbed, you land… in a comfy chair, in your warm, safe office. The only time you lose is the time it took to try. The only bruises are to your ego and your confidence. And getting back on that wire is only a mouse click and a key stroke away.

    Yes, there’s an emotional risk, and a time risk; but those are your only risks. If you can’t go out on that wire, all those bruised and battered people on horses and REAL high wires are going to laugh at you. Or worse, they’ll pity you.

    If you want to write of heroic characters facing impossible odds, then be a little bit of one yourself. Get out on that wire!

    Reply

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