Last weekend I went to the Penguin Writing for Commercial Fiction Workshop. It was a great workshop desiged for those who write commercial fiction and if they run another one, I would highly suggest anyone writing commercial fiction should go.
The fabulous Anne Gracie and Fiona McIntosh were speakers and kept us all enthralled with how they came to be published and how they have managed to create careers in the ever changing world of publishing. They told us how naive they were when they began and that it was a mixture of working on their writing, persistance and luck that led them to the realisation of their goals, but also writing what they loved and having conviction in that love was key. Also what made a difference was understanding the genre they were writing for. The greater the understanding, the more marketable their work and the better their sales (they said this in a much better, more artistic way, but the gist was basically the same.)That learning process was ongoing and was something they were always trying to better to understand.
Ali Watts and Carol George (Penguin editors) spoke about commercial fiction from an editorial standpoint, the expectations, the pitfalls, the hell they go through to publish something that they love – and this was stressed a lot, that they had to love something to back it. To go through the hell of getting something published, they really needed to see something special in it and love it enough to back it the way they needed to, because there were so many hoops to jump through and even then, sometimes there was the heartbreak of almost getting something there, only to have it falter at the last hurdle because they just couldn’t make others at the publishing house see the value in it that they saw.
The upshot of both the writer and the publisher version of how to get published is to love what you write because nobody else would love it unless the writer did.
Write what you love. It seems such a simple piece of advice.
But while I know that you need to write what you love, there was also the other major message at the workshop to consider – that to be published, your work has to be marketable.
You could be the best writer in the world, and write only what you truly loved, but never get published simply because what you are writing is not seen as marketable. I’ve had this said to me a number of times just recently – that the agent/editor thoroughly enjoyed my story, thought the characters and situations were well drawn and the whole senario evocative and original and that my writing was excellent, but that they just couldn’t get behind the project because it wasn’t romantic enough or fantasy enough depending on what the publisher published. I even had one lovely agent tell me that my writing was the best that she’d seen come across her desk in a long time, but the submission I’d sent her was too cross genre and she just didn’t know how to go about marketing it or what publisher to send it to because it just didn’t fit – it was a hexagon and wouldn’t either fit into a round or square hole.
I really appreciated this feedback, because it clarified something to me about that particular novel – I have to make it one or the other if I want to have a chance of getting it published. The workshop on the weekend just clarified this even more.
However, while I understand this aspect of publishing better now (and that it’s not necessarily my writing that’s the problem, but rather how I’m presenting it) it does create a bit of dilemma for me and others – becuase what is deemed marketable isn’t necessarily what a writer loves to write.
The manuscript I’ve been submitting recently is a prime example of this. It’s well written and engaging, but it’s not marketable. I’ve been told quite clearly, if I want to get it published, I have to make it adhere more to one set of genre expectations and not try to make it both.
So, what do I want it to be?
I love the fact that it has a romance in it, but is also very epically paranormal fantasy. I wrote it because it is something I love and would love to read. Since talking to a very lovely editor about it recently, I’ve come to understand that maybe part of the problem with the novel is it is the first in a series and I tried to be too ‘hooky’ with the end – ie: I didn’t actually finish my heroine or hero’s journey for that novel therefore leaving a reader feeling unfulfilled because there was no change made for that part of their story, something that is essential for commercial/genre fiction – but even when I fix this issue, it still might not make it ‘fit’ better. That leaves me wondering if I try to force it one way or the other if it will change how I ultimately feel about the novel. Obviously I have to fix up the glaring problem with the end and weave some things through the novel to make the end more fulfilling, but if I back away from the epic fantasy elements and make it more of a romance, or visa versa, then how will that affect it? Will I lose the love? I don’t want to lose what made that story so special to me in the first place. So, therein lies my dilemma.
I’m lucky though. I do in fact have a few other things that I’m working on that are not cross genre – they are romances and fit into that genre quite well, so when I am finished editing them up, I’ll submit them to the intersted parties and see if they get a more favourable response (after all, from everything I’ve heard other authors say, aside from working on your craft – which I do – persistance is key.) So, I don’t have to make a decision about that particular novel right now, but have a little freedom to think about it and then have a bit of a play and see if a solution arises to fix my dilemma.
But I have a writer friend who was also at the Penguin workshop and after having a chat to one of the authors there about her work, was told that if she wanted to sell her work as commercial fiction she would have to include the hero’s POV to create empathy for him as well as for the female protagonist and do a number of other things as well. The reason she was told this was because her work is also too cross-genre. It doesn’t fit comfortably into commercial fiction but nor is it literary enough to be literary fiction. However, she knows that if she makes those changes suggested to her (which she understands are really good suggestions re commercial fiction) that it won’t be the novel she wrote or wanted to write and that her love of the work would most definitely disappear because it would turn into something she never wanted it to be. I also have another friend who was told a similar thing at another workshop. So, what do they do?
It isn’t that neither of my friends (or myself for that matter) don’t see the value in the advice we have been given – we absolutely do. It is valuable, well meaning and industry knowledgable advice – so how can you ignore it? But also, how can you follow that advice and also follow the advice that you must write what you love? It is the conondrum for all of us who are trying to get published whose work doesn’t fit into a designated market.
At times like these I always try to remind myself the story of a multi-published New York Times best selling Australian author who wrote a particular kind of paranormal romance that was deemed unmarketable for years. She got rejection after rejection, stating that her writing was great but that the stories she wrote just wouldn’t sell, so she didn’t get an offer. Then one day, someone in a new e-publishing company saw something in it and offered her a contract. And while things were rocky for a while and it wasn’t really until she came upon an idea about a particular feisty heroine and got a publishing deal with a larger house that things truly turned around for her, it did just take that one person to take a chance for her to get her foot in the door. The moral of her story was that her belief in what she wrote, and her love for it, eventually won the day.
While I know this is the fairytale that all of us aspire to, (and isn’t likely to happen to many of us at all) I do see the merit in the story. I must love what I write and just keep trying. I’m not so pigheaded stubborn though not to see that if I was to change my story into more of a romance, that might be the thing that will tip me over the edge I am precariously balanced on at the moment. I’m also not stubborn enough not to see that I could still really love it if I did make the change – I just have to find a path and walk down it a little way and see if I find my way or get lost. But what I must always do is make sure I love it.
This is a problem my friends face as well – so I know I am not alone. We all want to get published, but we also want to be proud of what we write and love it. The advice we have been given is gold, but will it fit with what we love? Maybe it will – and I for one, will give it a try. But if it doesn’t work with this particular story, I will continue on with my other manuscripts and keep trying – because if I learnt anything else from the Penguin workshop, aside from write what you love and make sure it is marketable, it is that without persistance, I will get nowhere.
So, I will write what I love, be aware of what is marketable, keep persisting and also hope that even if I can’t change my current manuscript into one genre or the other, that one day, someone will see marketing value in the cross genre as they did with that other Australian author, and make my dreams come true.
I write fantasy – who’s to say I can’t live my own?