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