The Business Rusch: Believe In Yourself
The Business Rusch: Believe In Yourself
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
On Tuesday, October 25, 2011, National Public Radio ran a piece titled, “My Accidental Masterpiece: The Phantom Tollbooth,” by Norton Juster. My sister gave me The Phantom Tollbooth when I was a kid. The book is still on my bookshelf, not in the best of condition, with my name badly scrawled on the flyleaf.
I loved the book, and still remember unwrapping it on Christmas morning. (I used to go around and shake packages, like any kid, and then, if the package was a book, I’d set it toward the back of the pile, because I knew books were best.) When I read The Phantom Tollbooth and fell in love with it, I had no idea that it was the subject of some controversy.
Juster mentions the controversy with vivid language and with anger at the special insanity that comes from the Folks Who Know Best.
“Not everyone in the publishing world of the 1960s embraced The Phantom Tollbooth,” Juster writes. “Many said it was not a children’s book, the vocabulary was much too difficult, and the ideas were beyond kids. To top it off, they claimed fantasy was bad for children because it distorts them.
“The prevailing wisdom of the time was that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn’t already know.”
The NPR piece is thirteen paragraphs long, and would take about a minute to read out loud (my former radio work tells me). The piece celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of a book that has become a classic.
Juster uses two of those paragraphs to remember the negative reception the book received, and another to refute that reception directly.
He writes, “But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet—the kind of liberating words that Milo [the book’s main character] encounters on his adventure.”
In that paragraph, you can hear both the bafflement at the critiques the book initially received and the determination that made Juster keep the book exactly the way he wanted it to be. Juster believed in his own vision—still believes in that vision—and he didn’t compromise it.
The fact that the book became a classic must be icing on that proverbial cake for him.
He probably considered it a miracle that the book got published at all.
The publishing world of the late 1950s and early 1960s was different than the one we find ourselves in today. It was less corporate. Editors had more power. There were more traditional publishing houses who competed with each other But that didn’t make things any easier for writers.
In fact, things were much tougher for writers then than they are in 2011. In the 1950s, if all the publishing doors closed on a project, then that project was effectively dead. Of course, back then you had hundreds of doors to try before you declared that book dead.
The world of children’s literature was particularly tough at the time because of these strange prejudices that filled the field, prejudices that had existed since children’s literature became its own branch of publishing in the 1920s. The baby boom provided opportunity: so many children wanted books that the field was growing, and new voices got heard.
Theodor Geisel, whom you all know as Doctor Seuss, stunned the publishing world by writing an original and somewhat controversial book for a strict formula book line. He had the task of writing a children’s book, using only 225 approved words. None should be above two syllables.
He ended up using most of the approved words, threw in a few of his own, and added just one word of three syllables. Even though the finished book was less than 2,000 words long, it took him eight months to finish it because he found it so hard to write with such stringent limitations.
He turned in The Cat In The Hat to his editors at Houghton Mifflin and Random House (who worked on the project jointly for contractual reasons), and then had to suffer through some ridiculous criticism. The book, you see, promoted terrible behavior. That amoral cat taught the children how to act badly while their parents were away.
I have no idea how many fights Geisel had to conduct to keep his book as he wanted it, but I do know that the arguments about the “lessons” that The Cat in The Hat teaches continues to this day. I heard them resurrected when The Cat in The Hat movie came out a few years ago.
Once again, The Guardians of Quality and Those Who Know Better deemed The Cat in The Hat a book (and movie) that might unduly harm children. Only now, fifty-plus years after the book’s initial publication, The Cat in The Hat is such a beloved classic that those of us who read the book as children and have read the book to children laugh at such silly criticism.
Another writer toiling in the children’s literature departments of publishing houses in the 1950s was the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein, who is now considered one of the giants of the science fiction field, wrote what were then called juveniles (but which would now be called Middle Grade) novels with an eye toward Christmas publication. He published twelve juveniles between 1947 and 1958, books that revolutionized not just the juvenile market, but the science fiction field. Every major sf writer and editor between the ages of forty and sixty working today read the juveniles, and cites their influence (either positive or negative).
At a Wiscon science fiction convention many years ago, I was the Editor Guest of Honor when Lois McMaster Bujold was the Writer Guest of Honor. Lois spent one evening in the con suite (a gathering place for convention goers) reading aloud from the books that Scribner’s had published before the company hired Heinlein to write the books. The previous books were sad and pretentious and (quite frankly) dull, but filled with things that a child “already knew” even though the books were (supposedly) about families going into space. These books made the TV show Lost In Space, which aired nearly two decades later, seem like great innovative intellectual fodder.
We laughed our way through that evening, and more than once, someone in the room expressed gratitude that Heinlein had been hired to replace that abysmal writer. At the time, I did not know that Heinlein parted from Scribner’s and the juveniles over a book.
Heinlein turned in his annual manuscript, after writing twelve of these books, and then got told that Scribner’s could not accept the new novel. I haven’t bothered to see if he was invited to write a new book or if his contract with Scribner’s was effectively canceled. Either way, the end result was the same. The famous line of Heinlein juveniles ended when Scribner’s bounced that novel.
The novel—Heinlein’s Hugo-award winning classic, Starship Troopers. The book remains controversial to this day. It was particularly out of step with children’s literature at the time: it was about young people going to war. The controversy remains: the 1997 movie of the same name caused a lot of debate—not because of its effect on children, but because of its message.
The science fiction field as we know it would not exist without Heinlein’s juveniles or Heinlein himself. Starship Troopers remains one of the classics in the field. Heinlein did not try to revise the book to editorial guidelines, nor did he dumb it down in order to sell it.
The Easy Reader aspect of the children’s book field would not be the same without The Cat in The Hat. It remains an enjoyable, if uneasy, book, designed for children to read on their own. Without The Cat in The Hat, we would have no Where The Wild Things Are, no modern children’s literature at all.
As I once (angrily) told an agent who refused to market an unusual book of mine, the books that make a difference aren’t the books that imitate other books. The books that make a difference, the books that have long-lasting impact, hell—the books that often hit the top of bestseller lists for the first time for their authors—aren’t clones of some other book. From Presumed Innocent to The Exorcist, Starship Troopers to The Cat in the Hat, the books that changed how we think about genre and literature and reading are originals—things we as readers have never encountered before.
The American publishing culture has lost sight of this truism if, indeed, it ever really knew it. It’s easier to sell a book that reminds you of another book. You can cross-compare. This is how the very idea of segregating bookstores into genre sections came about: Genre, however imperfect, became a way to define books without reading them.
It is no coincidence that the rise in genre marketing matched the rise in the quantity of books published. There came a point when no one could read every book published in a single year—a good thing, in my opinion.
Over the years, we have drilled down this notion of genre into something so fine that we have subgenres, and sub-subgenres, and breakout genres. (Thriller, for example, used to be a sub-genre of mystery. Now thriller is a breakout genre—meaning it broke out of its label—and has become a much bigger selling genre than mystery.) It is to the point that if you want to sell a novel into traditional publishing, you must not only know the genre the book belongs to, but its subgenre as well. In fact, in your pitch letter, you must tell the editor what other books your novel is similar to and if you are wrong, then that’s an easy rejection.
All of that is, in my opinion, the cost of working with a large publishing company. You the writer are making a deal with that company: you will provide a marketable novel in exchange for the distribution and marketing. You will invest your time (and therefore your dollars, since time is money) on creating a salable product and the publishing company will invest its resources into getting that book to market.
It can cost large publishers as much as $250,000 per title to get their books to market. That includes overhead, shipping, warehousing, production, editing services, advertising, the advance, and more. Inside that overhead is not just the rent for the office space, but the salaries of the editor, sales force, managing editor, and others who worked on that book. Those salaries are divided down into a formula that works out to some kind of hourly figure which then becomes a cost on the balance sheet for one novel.
Publishers reject books all the time that the sales force believes cannot earn back that $250,000 cost of production. That’s smart business: it makes no sense to take on 500-page rhymed ode to a snail that will sell to the author’s family (and snail lovers everywhere) when a 300-page fast moving thriller in the style of James Patterson will probably sell better.
The lesson to writers is pretty simple: If you write a 500-page rhymed ode to a snail, you should accept that no one in traditional publishing will be interested in your work.
However, you can self-publish the work now, and prove (me and) those folks in traditional publishing’s sales force wrong, by showing that there is indeed a large snail- and poetry-loving book buying population out there. We as writers have that option now.
Which brings me to my surprise after my latest post. For those of you who missed it, I got quite angry last week at some disrespectful treatment on the part of two editors. One editor’s treatment was probably simple thoughtlessness; the other editor’s treatment has led to an ongoing saga in my business life that I will discuss here later on, when and if the dust ever settles.
I wrote about how common the lack of respect happens to be for writers who work in traditional publishing. I received great e-mails, letters, and comments from a lot of you about my work in particular and about the treatment in general. Thank you for all the encouragement and support, although I must say that I was writing to vent, not to elicit compliments.
I also saw a lot of blog posts from other long-term professional writers linking to my post, and detailing similar experiences. One writer whom I admire greatly and who has been in the field longer than I have expressed surprise that I (with all of my multi-genre and publishing experience) was subjected to the same mistreatment that “the rest of us have suffered over the years.”
The comment made me sad and made me have a similar reaction to his with me. How did anyone manage to mistreat that particular writer given the awards, publishing experience, and high quality of his work? It’s an outrageous thing and something writers do not and should not ever have to put up with.
Mingled with my surprise at the sheer number of recognizable names who wrote me to tell me of similar experiences was the most common response from published and unpublished writers alike.
They seemed surprised that I stood up for myself.
And that shocks me deeply, given what I have just outlined above.
Did Norton Juster, Theodor Geisel, and Robert Heinlein become huge successes because they wrote great work? Or because they refused to back down when pushed?
I contend that it was both.
Too many writers revise continually in order to sell their books. Beginning writers revise a novel a dozen times because their writers workshop (which usually does not have a single publishing professional) has told them to. Mid-level writers revise to their agent’s suggestion because the agent believes the novel is “unsalable” as is—impossible to market because the novel is too different from anything else. Bestsellers listen to their publisher’s desire to have a book just like the last book, eventually making the bestseller’s work predictable and dull.
Most writers of all levels do not stand up for their work because they’re afraid they’ll never sell another word. They’re afraid to take a risk which—in my mind—begs the question: If you’re unwilling to take a risk, why become a writer in the first place?
Writing is all about risk. The first risk is comes in putting the first word on paper, in believing that you are good enough to attract readers. The second risk is working in the arts in America, which has always been a dicey proposition. The third risk is believing that your vision matters.
The moment you lose your integrity, you lose your vision. If you lose your vision, you lose what makes you unique as a writer.
Should you learn craft? Of course. You need to learn how to tell the best story possible. You need to learn the tools of storytelling. You should not focus on the words, but on the unique way that you see the world. Everything in your writing should be in service of the story you are trying to tell, be that story a thriller in the traditional of James Patterson or a 500-page rhymed ode to a snail.
You must constantly work to improve your craft. You must strive to get better, and never assume that you know everything there is to know about writing or storytelling. You must always write to the best of your ability.
When you are done telling your story, when it is the best it can be, that’s when you worry about marketing. You do not write to market. You write and then find a market that might publish your work. Should you market to a traditional publisher? Should you self-publish? Should you go with a small regional press?
Those questions have no easy answer. It doesn’t matter how many times you folks email me asking me to make the decision for you. I can’t. It’s a personal decision these days, a decision made possible by the ease with which writers can distribute their own work these days. You can self-publish, prove that there is a market, and traditional publishers will come calling. It will then become your choice as to whether or not you sign with them.
(I do suggest that you learn business, money management, and copyright before you make any decisions. Because choosing between traditional publishing and indie publishing is, at heart, a business decision.)
So, am I telling you to stand up for yourself because you now have the option of self publishing?
Hell, no. I would have told you this twenty years ago. In fact, I have always told writers this.
Note my examples above. They all took place around the time I was born. Robert A. Heinlein walked away from a lucrative career writing juveniles because he believed in Starship Troopers. Who knows how many rejections Norton Juster suffered? I do know that Theodor Geisel expected The Cat in The Hat to get rejected (and it nearly was), but that didn’t stop him from writing the book he wanted and subverting the formula the publishing company had given him.
What’s shocking, folks, is not that I stand up for myself. What’s shocking is that most of you didn’t even realize standing up for yourself was an option.
Write the best work you possibly can. Then believe in that work and in yourself. It’s your vision, not the publishing company’s or the agent’s or the sales force’s. Believe me, if the publishing company or the agent or the sales force could write a novel that sold millions of copies, they would. They don’t know how to do it. In fact, they know so little about it that they discourage the very thing that creates classics: Originality.
Originality is all that you have. As one of my college creative writing professors said on the first day of class, “There are seven plots. Shakespeare wrote them better than anyone. If that scares you, leave now.”
If you are unwilling to stand up for yourself, you are in the wrong profession. Believe in yourself. Because at various points in your writing career, the only person you will have on your side is you.
If Norton Juster hadn’t believed in himself, I would not have a battered and beloved copy of The Phantom Tollbooth on my shelf. If Robert A. Heinlein had not believed in himself, most of science fiction would not exist.
Could those men see the impact they would have on publishing? Of course not. They just knew they had a good book, and they believed in it—enough that they walked away when someone wanted to cut the heart out of the book itself.
Apparently many writers today are unwilling to make that choice.
And that’s a shame, because it’s so much easier to stand up for yourself now. We have so many options.
If you only open your eyes and look.
“The Business Rusch: Believe in Yourself” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
“Believe in yourself. Because at various points in your writing career, the only person you will have on your side is you.”
I love that! So true.
Since I started e-publishing in April of this year, I’ve put up around fourteen short stories and a novella. Working on two novels now that I want to have up by Christmas as well as a couple more short story collections. The money is a steady trickle, but I don’t let that discourage me. What really gets to me, I guess, is just the idea of this “working out” for me at all.
I was raised Southern Baptist and wasn’t allowed to write the kind of fiction that I liked to write (because God gave us our talents and we should, I was told, use our “gifts” only to glorify Him. Writing for fun or for the hopes of profit was a self-serving sin. I wrote what I wanted anyway *grin*). Fiction writing back then was “foolishness,” and telling people that I wanted to *be* a writer one day was absolutely not tolerated. I needed to focus on the “gifts” God had given me (put in quotation marks because I agree with your husband that we don’t have talents; only things we work harder at than we do at other things) and put that foolishness about writing out of my head. Well, now that I’m older and on my own, I really, really want to write. And I have been. Sure, I’m not writing as much as I could, but I’m damn proud of myself for how much I have put up on my own, and for teaching myself how to format and do covers and e-publish. But it still feels like “foolishness” to me, sometimes, to think that if I continue to put the work in and continue to get stories put up that one day I could make a living from this. It really does feel like foolishness when you think about it that way. How could something that brings me so much joy and happiness also pay the bills and maybe more? But when I can get those doubts and fears out of my head and just write, I stop caring if it ever makes me money and I just write. As Konrath and others have said, you can’t control how much you sell; rather, you can control only how much you write and put out there to be bought. So I’m trying to ignore the fact that I can’t make a living selling a handful of short stories every month and I’m trying to ignore my pastor’s and parent’s voice about how foolish it all is because, dammit, it’s just so much fun and I see people like you and your husband making a living from doing what I love so much and really, I just want to be a fool with the rest of the writers. 🙂
Thank you for this post! I love that you’re inspiring not because you make empty, easy-sell arguments but because you’re realistic and business-minded about the enterprise of writing. Keep up the great work!
Thank you, Brandon. I’m glad you’re working it all out and can recognize where the negative voices are coming from. We all battle them. I’m still fighting the one that tells me I can’t write science fiction. 🙂 (It comes from my Clarion class–and the person who said it [still a dear friend] would be appalled to know of all the things he said, that’s the one that stuck in my head.) We all battle these things, and I think we succeed when we acknowledge them and keep moving forward. Sounds like you’re doing that. Congrats–and congrats on the plan for the fall. 🙂
Grumbles from the Grave was just releaed in a DRM free multi file format ebook edition by Baen this summer. http://www.webscription.net/p-1338-grumbles-from-the-grave.aspx for only 6$. Baen has be releasing a lot of Heinlien’s work including many of the Juvies recently.
Grimbles from the Grave by RAH, unfortunately out of print, is a fascinating book.
I do gather the impression from it that Heinlein was ready to move away from the lucrative juvenile market to write more thoughtful books with adult themes.
He only wrote one more juvenile after Trooper (Podkayne of Mars) and that seems to have been at the prodding of Putnam’s, who wanted a slice of the profitable Christmas pie themselves.
Scribners made repeated overtures to try and get him back, possibly even to the point of firing Alice Dalgliesh (I’m reading between the lines here, but it sure does look like that might have been what happened), but it seems he just wanted to move on.
He wrote his agent that he was “shook up” over the rejection of Troopers. That other editors went on to buy it and that it won the Hugo must have been sweet vindication for him.
BTW, I love your blog, Kris!
Thanks, Michael, for the compliment and the information. I suspect it was sweet vindication on Troopers. It can be quite an experience when an editor trashes a book, so it feels good to know that your vision is verified. 🙂
Most or much self-published work IS crap. Which is why reviews and blogs are increasingly important. They help me find the works which may stretch genres or break out of them entirely. Or who toddle along quite complacently right down the middle of their chosen genre, but offer that subtle quirky take on an old story which is like the first dizzying whiff of Spring or Autumn.
That butt of so much jealous hatred, Stephanie Meyer, has a useful point to make on this topic. The detail is in the following link.
In brief she was always a reader but only dabbled in writing many years ago. Then she woke from a dream of a young girl and a young “boy” in conflict because she loved him and he knew they had no future, for he was a century-old vampire.
The situation would not leave her in peace. It and especially the boy kept coming back throughout the following busy days of a young mother of young kids, one just six years old. So she began writing down her ideas to exorcize them, taking the story of what happened before and after the squabble. Eventually it became a daily obsession.
Finally the book was finished. Her sister and then her mother urged her to send out queries to agents. Four did not answer at all. One sent her a stinging critique. Most sent back canned rejections. Then one asked for the first three chapters, and the rest is history.
The lesson for me is to write what you love, and be willing to improve but never compromise. I’d like a teeny bit of Meyer’s fortune and fame, but that does not move me. I’m comfortably retired and spend 8-10 hours of every day writing.
The joy of writing and reading what I wrote – Did THAT come from me?! – is what sustains me every day. It got me through creating a web site to showcase my work, and creating a Kindle and a Nook version of my 2nd to 4th novels, and through the queries to agents beginning the middle of next year. It will sustain me whatever comes in the years ahead.
Great post, Laer. One thing: before you start submitting to agents next year, research what’s going on in the industry. The agent business model is changing so rapidly that I’m not recommending anyone get an agent these days (unless you already have one). Right now, agents don’t even know what jobs they’ll be doing, so wait until that part of the business settles before making any decisions on what you’ll do. (You can submit books to traditional publishing without an agent quite easily.)
Last February I became aware of the turmoil in publishing and began looking into going on my own. Your blog, Dean’s, Stackpole’s, Konrath’s, and a host of others have kept me informed and provided me guidance in my decision. This past July I attended Dean’s Self-Publishing workshop and since then have started my own small press and published my first novel in both print and electronic formats.
I’m currently attending World Fantasy Con in San Diego, and after being immersed in ‘indie-land’ for the last eight months, it’s been a bit of shock to experience the bias against authors who’ve taken charge of their own careers.
I think for those who’ve been traditionally published in the past, the transition to self-publishing is easier and more accepted.
But for those who’ve been previously unpublished, the disdain is still quite prevalent.
As I’m fighting to keep ‘their’ attitude from undermining my fragile self-confidence, your encouragement provides me something to hang onto.
Thank you for that, and for all the work you and Dean do to support the rights of authors. Maintaining a blog is time-consuming and takes away from your real job of writing, but anytime you question whether or not it’s worth it, remember the new writers like me who need your wisdom and experience to make the most educated decisions possible as they start their careers.
Again – thank you.
Thanks, Roh. WFC has always been the bastion of the most conservative in the sf/f field. I prefer Worldcon–I can see the true fans, instead of get lost in the Powers That Be in sf. So remember where you are and don’t take the message home with you.
What an inspiring post. Believing. I can do it for the most insecure writer without even thinking about it. I can do it for the most outrageous books by others. I know without a doubt that belief is the biggest career killer I am facing
I know this. I’ve known it for years. Been looking for workarounds for years. I read your posts and think YES! followed promptly by How, and the knowing that I am the only who can figure that out just about breaks my heart. It’s posts like this that help me keep trying. Thanks.
Thanks, everyone, for the great comments while I was away. It’s soooo hectic here, and I barely have time to think, so I’m happy y’all are continuing the conversation. And for those of you who haven’t looked, take a peek at Carol Nelson Douglas’s comment. She’s right on the money (thanks, Carol!) about writers being fighters and the benefits of doing so.
Thanks, y’all, and keep those comments coming!
Writers like to use genre to categorize, too. I attended a few writers’ conferences and found that the #1 question was, “What do you write?” I think it’s a way of finding common ground. I answered, “Everything.” If pressed, I’d say, “I write picture books to erotica. How ’bout you?”
I’m terrible about genres. Ye olde eyes glaze over as soon as I start trying to categorize. I read and write novels, non-fiction, short stories, and poery, in any genre that appeals.
On the upside, I’m very stubborn and believe in my writing, so when editors or agents would tell me they didn’t like my voice or characters, I mostly ignored them.
However, my genre blindness is still a problem in indie publishing. I’ve come to realize that my covers are very different. For example, I just drafted a cover for a romance featuring a chef that shows hot peppers leaning suggestively toward each other. I like it, but it doesn’t necessarily scream romance to most people. Don’t even get me started on Wolf Ice, my paranormal romantic suspense with a wolf on the cover, I filed it under erotica and belatedly realized people might be afraid it’s about bestiality. So I have to decide if I’ll paste a swooning couple over the wolf, scrap the cover altogether, or just wait and see if people eventually buy it anyway.
I agree that the core is believing in yourself, or as Jennifer Crusie put it, Be a rat with an island (http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/rats-with-islands-how-to-survive-your-publishing-career/).
@Mario, I’m ecstatic to hear about MetaMaus. Can’t wait to get my hands on that, even though the reviews say the DVD doesn’t work on a Mac.
And thanks for this, Kris. Another great article.
But there is great peace in retaining one’s integrity and maintaining control of one’s own work.
Like John, this is why I decided to self publish. I was part of a writers’ board for many years, and the arduous process of coming up with a good query letter, synopsis, et al., made me fearful that I would never get a publishing contract.
But I’ve always been a personal control freak, so when I heard about the self pubbing revolution (or whatever you want to call it), I knew I had to be part of it: I could write whatever I wanted, revise as little or as much as I decided, and I make my own decisions as to cover art.
Liberating. And altho it’s taking me a little longer to get my stuff out there, it’s gratifying to have all three books selling, tho the numbers are extremely modest. (And I received my first review on the collection a few days ago, a nice 4-star one.)
Validation? It comes from seeing your stuff sell. 🙂
Nice work, Kris. Thanks. Needed that this morning. 🙂
Great topic and insights into some foundation writers, Kris!
I came up with the following motto before I ever wrote a novel, as a newspaper reporter trying to sell what I believed were important story ideas to doubtful and (now that I look back) fearful editors: “A writer is a fighter. You fight all your life to write what you want to write, the way you want to write it.”
In those days, I was thinking in terms of getting permission to pursue my article topics, as I didn’t have an option unless an editor signed off on my ideas, which tend to be ahead of the curve. (You’d think that would be valued in journalism.)
The same proved true in publishing. I once insisted my first agent keep marketing my third book and first fantasy novel. She was so uncertain after it was rejected a few times she’d paid a reader to write a report on it, which was negative to the point of insulting to a writer who’d been a professional journalist.
I was new to publishing and thought hard and long about the report. Then I told the agent to keep marketing that fantasy novel. It sold shortly after. And sold 225,000 thousand copies and made the Top 25 on chain bestseller lists and had 13 printings.
The writer’s job is to have the vision and the passion and to stand by it.
P.S. I had to persist again recently to publish another novel editors were afraid of. It too made bestseller lists. 🙂
I really needed to hear these words today. I’m putting passages from your blog on my computer monitor to keep me going! I’m also going to stop kicking myself for waiting until late middle-age complete my first novel. Maybe it’s a good thing I stalled until now–maybe the new emerging self-publishing paradigm will be better for late bloomers like me. (Well I hope I’m a late bloomer. We’ll see.) Thanks again for that post. — Cara O’Sullivan, Provo, Utah
I’m another one who had to point people over here from my blog. People should print this out and tape it on the wall over their workspace. (I know, it’s a bit wordy for an inspirational quote, but heck, they need to see it every day.)
Still, considering the persistence of some people in clinging to authority…. I wonder if self-confidence is not the issue for some of these people. I wonder if some of them (especially some of the newbies and unpublished) are writing in the first place to specifically to get approval.
When you say to them “You don’t need approval to be a great writer,” that’s a threat to them, because the only reason they want to be a great writer is to get approval.
Thank you. Words I needed to hear.
🙂 Snail poetry… an interesting concept – sadly not new and unique – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gus_Ferguson .
Three of my favorite books, mentioned in a most excellent rant. Heinlein’s so-called “juveniles” rank high on my all-time favorites list, and Dan’s snippets about him and his work just add icing to the cake.
It’s interesting, in light of the self-help theme you mentioned earlier, that abused women and children often have the same “the abuse I’m getting must be *my* fault” response to the bullying that the writers you described exhibited, and often have to do intense work before they can or will stand up for themselves. They’ve been so brutalized into thinking little of themselves–and their self-worth–that they are afraid of defending themselves and doubtful about their self-worth.
Great article last week, too. I think those who don’t understand what you were saying don’t grok that the outrage over the lack of respect is often not so much a demand *for respect* as it is a demand for a cessation of contempt.
Inspiring post, Kris.
One of my favorite examples is that of Daniel Keyes and “Flowers for Algernon”. He pulled the short story version from Galaxy because the editor wanted him to give it a happy ending, and sold it elsewhere (F&SF). He returned the advance on the novel version when Doubleday asked him to change the ending, and was rejected by five other publishers before he sold it to Harcourt. It’s unlikely many would remember the story if he’d made the changes demanded.
Kris – thank you. I feel like I need to be beat with the “You doing fine, just keep GOING” stick right now. Totally jonesing for Heinlein right now.
Mercy – I look forward to nonstandard romances, too!
Kris, you’ve given me yet another reason to self-publish if I write a novel. No, not the standing up for myself reason. That’s important, but it’s not something I’ve generally had a problem with. On the scale from underconfidence to overconfidence, I’m generally well to the over side.
No, the reason is you make submitting to the traditional publishers sound like a lot of work, including research that I don’t really want to do. It’s one thing to go looking for markets; it’s another thing entirely to go looking through their book lines and seeing what might be similar to mine. And in particular because I don’t know if I’ll find anything! My latest novel-length idea is a genre-crosser that doesn’t look much like anything I see in the stands. The closest I’ve seen to it is Silverlock, which isn’t exactly a new trend to follow.
I’ve been following your posts and Dean’s on self-publishing. I’m a techie, a programmer for 30 years. To me, the self-publishing technology and protocols sound vastly easier than the traditional submission process. And while my idea isn’t exactly Ode to Snails, it’s quirky enough that I suspect sending it to traditional publishers is just delaying (by years or more!) the day when I self-publish it. I might as well just go straight to self-publishing.
(And thank you, Kris – again.)
Another interesting post, Kris.
As you know I tend to write “outside the box” as the story flows from my subconscious. What ends up on the page ends up on the page. I don’t attempt to change it to fit any particular market. I do think having the same formula (for lack of a better term) can be comforting to readers. I think this is why Harlequin is so successful for example. I know I could never sell them anything because my work is just too different.
Though I do believe the different stories have a place in the market too. How big they will be is uncertain, and in traditional publishing this is too often why they shy away from anything they see as too different from “normal”. I also agree when they do take these chances the results are sometimes huge sales. No one can say Catch 22, or The World According to Garp are the same as any other book, and over the decades their sales have been impressive.
In the world of indie publishing one of the real benefits is the variety of stories and the joy it brings to authors to get these stories out to the world. I know I love the freedom to write whatever I like, and my readers seem to be enjoying it as well.
Thanks for sharing.
I (of course) absolutely agree, I just posted on Writer Unboxed on this very topic last week. Interestingly, though, I got the fewest number of comments on a post I’ve EVER gotten over there. Writers do have options, and it’s increasingly clear that traditional publishing has less and less to offer the average author. But so many still don’t want to hear that or believe it, I think. JA Konrath commented on his blog that ‘it’s like telling kids that Santa Claus has cancer’, and I think that’s really pretty true.
I feel I should either say nothing in silent agreement or write a whole essay about how I feel. This post parallels what I have been going through lately and wrote about in my blog post “My Emancipation Proclamation” – http://johnwalterswriter.com/2011/10/23/my-emancipation-proclamation/. I feel Like I’ve paid my dues and I will write about whatever I want and publish it however I want. I hope for both critical and monetary success but that is really out of my hands. But there is great peace in retaining one’s integrity and maintaining control of one’s own work.
Kris, yes, exactly right on a) making the story different (ie, my own) and b) not revising it but finding another home if rejected. Several of my published stories ended up in anthologies other than the ones they were originally written for. (Although, I usually have a secondary and/or tertiary market in mind when I’m doing those. Gotta have a plan, y’know.)
It’s just those pernicious truisms crop up at the oddest times. I’ve talked to unpublished writers who are tentatively starting to submit short stories, and they look at me like I have a second head when I tell them how I target markets. How could they possibly not just follow their muse?! Pfthah! That’s fine for them I suppose, but I’ve got rejection quotas I need to fill. 😉
Back to the original post, the number of romance authors I’ve heard from recently, talking about how now they can finally publish that non-standard romance novel set in Ancient Greece or Egypt or medieval whereever, because their publishers said everyone only wants Regency… It makes me so happy! I can’t wait to get to read all these! (I’m such a history geek!)
Also, I never realized until recently how much power having a day job gives me. When I don’t have to rely on my writing for my living, it makes it really easy to say no if I don’t like something. What used to be a detriment is now a bonus. Funny old world.
Good points, Kris. I would add that sometimes we mistreat ourselves without knowing it, by assuming we have no say when we do. I’m KNOW there are editors and agents out there who insist writers make bad choices and either force us to walk away or conform. Been there, done that–only once and it was a nasty bad experience. But the GOOD experience I had publishing my first novel was in many ways a failure of integrity…and that failure was all mine.
With my first novel, I made the mistake of treating edits to it the same way I do the marketing stuff I write in the day job–to me, being a “professional” there meant taking direction from reviewers. I applied that same definition of “professionalism” to my first novel and that was wrong, because “professional” in fiction has an entirely different meaning. Protecting the work as MY OWN wasn’t even a concept I had heard of at that point. Wasn’t even on my radar. And this isn’t to say that those reviewers–my agent, my editor–did not have good points to make and that their input didn’t help make the book better. BUT–it wasn’t until much too late in the process that I figured out IF I said no, the editor would quite possibly respect my decision. The one time I did it–and she was fine with it–surprised the hell out of me…and made me wish I’d known this earlier and could have made better decisions, based on my instincts, throughout the book.
The good news is, ebooks are here, and I have an opportunity print writers have never had before: I can take that same book and rewrite it to meet my vision of it, and sell that “integrity” version online. Which I’m working on doing as we speak. It will be interesting to see what happens–and the difference between print and online experiences–with a book that has already been through print publishing. Certainly honing my own editorial instincts–my VISION–has been an amazing and vastly challenging experience by itself. Thanks for the encouragement!
Beautiful post. Thanks, Kris!
Great words! I’m going to spread the link over here in the UK.
I must admit I find standing up for myself difficult, and after ten years of being published it gets harder not easier. The truth is that the riskier books do not sell as easily to publishers, especially lately, and if you are desperate for income something “the same but different” is the easiest option for all concerned. At least we no longer have word lists in children’s fiction, though!
A few years ago I was asked by a large publisher to help select the book that they would “push” for the next year.
I was sent about 40 titles, some of them quite good. But I picked a book that their marketing department thought was “far too long” and that I myself admitted was “written at a grade level too high” for its intended audience. I gave them a list of reason why they should push it anyway. The book was called HARRY POTTER.
Authors, and editors alike, should sometimes ignore the rules.
Thanks for the post, Kris. I just read MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman’s book about how he created his graphic novel Maus and it’s an interesting read, especially considered in light of your post. Spiegelman met resistance from just about everyone whiel he was workin on Maus: publishers, editors, agents, even his cartoonist colleagues. The consensus seemed to be: “A comic about the holocaust? With Jews as mice and Nazis as cats? Are you CRAZY?? That’s the most tasteless, appalling concept I’ve ever heard of.” He stuck with the project for thirteen years, never giving up on his vision. When it finally got published it sold millions, won a Pulitzer, got him a Guggenheim, and is now considered a classic and is taught in universities. Not bad for a book that was so out of step with the “norm” that most people thought he was wasting his time even considering the project. A lesson for every creative person out there: follow your vision and never give up.
Phantom Tollbooth is one of my all time favorites. 🙂
As far as I’ve gotten in this business, which is not terribly far as of yet, it has all been because of the originality of my vision.
Thanks, everyone, for the posts. I have to run a huge number of errands today and deal with estate stuff, but I’ll do my best to answer when I get back. Oh, and Dan, thanks for the details on Heinlein, particularly the difference between being treated with respect by an editor who disagrees with you and being treated disrespectfully. Very important, imho. I often write for editors whom I disagree with on many matters, including politics and storytelling, but we respect each other, and we have useful discussions that I learn from.
One other point: Mercy, I often write to a specific market, particularly in short fiction anthologies, but I always ask myself what I can do that will make my story different from everyone else’s in the anthology. If the story doesn’t work for that market, I don’t revise, I don’t give up on the story. I market it elsewhere. This method has stretched me as a writer many times and made me reach for targets I didn’t think I could hit. The key, though, is that I don’t consider the story a failure if it doesn’t make its intended market. I see it as a finished story that is what it is and will eventually find a home.
I also don’t bend or break a story to hit a market. That’s what’s behind the advice of not writing to market. Too many writers finish a lovely urban fantasy, but are told by editors that it doesn’t work so they should make it a romance or a horror story or take the fantasy out entirely. Taking such advice breaks the spine of the story and ruins it. If you want to write a romance, do so, but do it with a fresh story. Leave the original story alone. Imho.
I’ll talk workshops either in a later post or in a blog post. Now…off to run errands!
Excellent post as usual. I find this especially timely myself since the novel I self-published this month (squee!) was one I workshopped, and I had one person pushing really hard for me to turn the book into a paranormal romance–to the point where she was telling me I was wrong about what one of my characters would do when threatened. (She insisted he was a heroic character. Um, no.) She meant well, and had lots of advice which I found very useful, but on that I would not budge. It made me glad I could self-publish and not have to deal with my agent or editor pushing the same thing, which is more or less what this person told me would happen eventually anyway.
On a slightly different topic, I very often see the advice that one should never “write to the market.” I think this is a topic which could be explored further, because I got my start in publishing that way. I found open short story markets, and wrote stories specifically for them. The thing is, those stories were not any less my writing than something I came up out of the blue–much like Geisel with The Cat in the Hat, I took what they were looking for and found a way to do something with it that interested me. (If I couldn’t find something interesting in that market’s call, I didn’t try to write a story for it.) I think this approach was a TREMENDOUS help to me as I got serious about writing, for lots of reasons, but particularly because it made me think outside my usual box. I NEVER would’ve written a zombie love story if I hadn’t seen the call for Hungry For Your Love. Writing “White Knight, Black Horse” really helped me solidify some of the more nebulous aspects (at the time) of my story universe rules, and I’ve been able to use that in subsequent world-building and in other stories. (And that anthology sold to Simon and Schuster, so it got me into SFWA as well!)
I think people should be passionate and excited about what they write, regardless of whether the idea came to them from the idea fairy, or whether it was something they came up with while aiming for a specific target.
Damn, woman! You made me cry. Not for myself, because I’m perfectly happy doing what I’m doing. But I am crying for all the friends, a few of whom escaped abusive personal relationships ironically, who are too scared to stand up for themselves when it comes to publishing.
Wow. The voice in my head, as I read this, got louder and angrier. Very powerful.
You’ve given me a lot of food for thought. My writer’s group is very supportive and we try to help each other hammer out the best story possible. But now, I’m wondering how much we should let float? Voice is a given. As is grammar and punctuation. But how much of structure or flow or plot?
If there is a market for anything, what guidelines can we critique by? I feel like the rules are changing faster than I can learn them.
Damn it Kris, you’ve just shined a big bright light on what I am finding is the hardest thing about writing: Believing in yourself.
This is harder than craft or business or the whole process. Sending out that first story and getting a rejection, and then sending the next one out, and the next one, and the next one, and the next one…
Releasing your work so that others can read it, fearful of what they might think. Self-pubbing and being more afraid of no one caring than someone hating what you wrote.
It seems to be the cornerstone of all this. If you don’t believe in yourself and what you write, you won’t write long enough to write something great. And it’s not like it is a battle that is ever won; you have to keep believing in yourself.
Thanks for the great post.
P.S. Now I have to read “Starship Troopers” again. Heinlein’s books shaped me as a young person in profound ways. It’s always fun to go back and reread those books.
Thank you for that truly inspirational post, Kris! Sometimes it’s so hard to hold to that original vision, even when you’re a baby self-publisher like me. I just started a short romance piece that breaks several “rules” of the genre, so this was really timely for me. I don’t know if the story will sell, but I’m not going to compromise on it!
This is, as expected, great advice. Write what you believe in. And if you believe in it, you fight for it. And you aim high… because the other targets will be there on the way down.
Very nice. As much as self-published writers are mistreated, I find it hard to believe that those published traditionally are mistreated too. I’m amazed at how many people refuse to purchase my novel because it’s self-published. I had the choice to go traditional, and it was well received, but I wanted my novel to be available this year, not two years from now. I’m with you 100%, stand up and believe in yourself. I can remember several authors who went the ePub route, and were eventually picked up by traditional houses and even made the bestseller lists. Believe, get a fresh pair of eyes to confirm, and stand up!
Honestly Kris, I don’t know why more people aren’t reading you and Dean.
This is an AWESOME post. I’ve forwarded the link to some of my fellow writer friends, especially one lady who is working on an amazing book that I can see already will be a hard sell down the line, will generate some very vocal outrage, but will nonetheless be spectacular when it gets finished.
Thanks so much for this!
p.s. I guess it can be difficult to stand up for your vision of a piece if doing so risks publication at all. I can understand the ‘risk not this beautiful prize of being published’ attitude, especially when no other options for publication are available. That’s why the viability of self-publishing as a successful business is so exciting to me:) Having the option to self-publish without sacrificing the benefits of distribution too much… quite liberating:) Of course, equally importantly, the growth of more and diverse publishing presses (increases the chances I would think of different kinds of writing being accepted for publication).
ack, typo! ‘it’s no about genre’ should be ‘it’s not about genre’… sorry:)
Nice one. Definitely strikes a chord. Genre is useful, for sure, mostly as a marketing device though; it shouldn’t be something which limits a writer’s vision of their story. If that happens, there’s a chance that what could become a new genre/subgenre will be gradually wiped out of the picture. The number of times I’ve been asked/told ‘why do you write in so many genres’, followed by ‘they do not go together’… lol I cannot understand sentiments like that… each of us have unique visions before we actually put them down on paper. it’s no about genre. it’s about experimentation. something pretty common and expected in most industries in the world; it should be no different with the writing trade. Unusual visions do not become less unique simply because they don’t fit neatly into a genre as it exists at a particular time. If they fitted so neatly, they wouldn’t be original/unusual to begin with…
I’m smiling three miles wide. Heinlein was a formative influence on me as well, enough so that I actually bought and read much of his professional correspondence and am eagerly awaiting the next volume of William H. Patterson’s biography. As a writer, there is still much to learn from his triumphs and his missteps in terms of craft and professional conduct.
The episode with Scribners was even more canny than you make out. Beginning with his third book for them, his relationship with his editor, Alice Dalgliesh, deteriorated rapidly. She repeatedly attempted to censor the books for reasons both political and sexual (she insisted, for example, that the flat cats in Rolling Stones, on which David Gerrold based Star Trek’s Tribbles, were Freudian symbolism for female genitalia, and that the entire second half of the book was therefore pornographic–this is not the most ridiculous example of her bullying), and Heinlein began looking for a way out. After ten straight books of censorship fights, he wrote Starship Troopers. He’d spotted that his contract would lapse if they rejected a novel, but he didn’t consider it honorable to turn in a deliberately substandard book (and he suspected it would break his trust with the readers anyway), so he went another direction. He pitched the story, she accepted, and he then deliberately made it as provocative as possible–weaving in much of his experience in boot camps and with friends who went to war, open arguments about culturally sensitive topics like corporal punishment, etc.–tailored specifically to anger Ms. Dalgliesh so that she would reject the book.
Reject it she did, and Heinlein promptly went across the street and sold the book which won him his second of three Hugos. The relationship between Heinlein and Scribners, and its deterioration, are detailed in Grumbles from the Grave.
Heinlein also had an ongoing contentious relationship with John Campbell–Heinlein appreciated Campbell’s imperial editing style early on, but as he grew beyond Campbell’s sensibilities there was a lot of friction–but in marked contrast to his correspondence with Scribners (and, toward the end, his correspondence through an intermediary with his Scribner’s editor, as he found Dalgliesh’s lack of respect for his work so onerous he couldn’t speak directly to her without getting hopping mad), the letters between himself and Campbell were always marked by mutual respect and affection. Reading the two streams of correspondence next to each other, it’s remarkable to see the difference in character and tenor between a mutually respectful relationship between an author and editor with very different visions, and one between benighted, bullying editor and a writer defending himself against her.
By the by, fun bit of trivia: If Heinlein hadn’t believed in himself, and made a habit of standing up for himself through those years, not only would most of science fiction not exist, but much of the history of space travel would be different. Neil Armstrong tells a story of his arrival in NASA, when he was asked by a superior why he wanted to be an astronaut. He said “Well, if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ve wanted to be an astronaut ever since I read Space Cadet.” The superior laughed, and said “Heinlein, eh? Don’t worry, all these other guys are here because they read too many of his stories, too.”
Which is why the astronauts of Apollo 15 scheduled a reading of “The Green Hills of Earth” whilst on the mission.
Standing up for oneself–definitely worth the moderate discomfort it can sometimes cause. 🙂
Thanks for the smiles and stories–huge day brightener for me
My most recent release is a YA SF trilogy. The first sentence contains a swear word. It’s in diary format. It rambles. It’s full of Australianisms which require either the glossary or Google to understand. It doesn’t follow traditional novel structure, but instead has three vague “character arcs”. It has over a hundred named characters. It’s full of tell, not show, is rife with passive voice, introspection, space ships, silliness and terror – it’s a kitchen sink.
And it’s my most successful story by far.
I’ve sold over 500 copies of Book 2 this month. I have people counting down the days till Book 3. I receive fan mail and Facebook messages telling me that this is the only science fiction story the reader has ever loved. That they’ve read Book 1 and Book 2 back to back twice and can’t stand the wait till 3.
It would never even have OCCURRED to me to submit this to a publisher. I have no idea in what form it would have ended up if it had gone through a publisher’s editorial process.
I love self-publishing.