Monday, April 12, 2010

THERE ARE NO RULES (And They Are Strictly Enforced)

by Darrell James

Writing fiction for publication is something akin to walking a tightrope… in roller skates! There is often a huge dichotomy between what is wildly creative, and what is commercially viable. Publishers and agents, alike, will tell you that they are all looking for that “fresh new voice” in the industry. They insist that they are seeking that “original new story hook” that grabs them by the you-knows and doesn’t let go. Contrary to this, they want to know “What other work is like the one you’ve written?” and “Where will it fit in?” They are asking: what makes this work safely like the others so we have some comfort level that it will be a success.

Readers aren’t all together different. They say they want to be newly entertained. But buying patterns suggest that they seek out the same tried-and-true authors, same tried-and-true themes.

For an aspiring author thinking of writing their first novel, or for the established writer considering their next project, it can be a maddening dilemma. Enough so, for me at times, to have me throw a rope over the shower rod and get it over with. After all, I would be faced with many long months to write what may not be acceptable.

(Okay, I suppose I could have long-ago offed myself in the fit of this dilemma, but then there’d have been this pesky question of the suicide note: Do I go for a totally original goodbye? Or do I pull up a Word Memo Template and play it safe?).


The title slogan, “There are no rules (and they’re strictly enforced)”, was passed on to me by a screenwriting mentor I once worked with. Her name is Sharon Cobb. Sharon has written a number of screenplays that were made into movies and worked as a paid writer/consultant on numerous others. “Be creative, yes, but give ‘em what they want!” is the message behind it. It’s just not clear who ’em” is or what “it” is that they want. It applies to the publishing world as well, I believe.

"There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
--- Somerset Maugham

I have writer friends who would say, “Agents and editors be damned! I’ll write the story I want to write! I’ll tell it the way I want to tell it!” There’s a word for these defiant but courageous souls. Unfortunately the word is… unpublished.

Over the past six years, I’ve had close to thirty short stories published in various mystery magazines and book anthologies. My first three novels are now under contract, and already my mind is wandering off toward that next series that fires my imagination.

While, I’d like to think that I will decide on it purely from imagination and interest, I know that that’s not entirely true. There will always be one eye focused on the readership. Will an agent or editor like what I’m considering? Will the reading public embrace it?

It may be a sad thing, that so many creative stories are never told. Then again, it may be that creativity is only worthwhile if it accomplishes the end result.

What about you? As writers, do you sometimes feel you sell your creative soul to the devil just to get published? As readers, do you sometimes yearn for something wildly different?

Don’t be afraid, tell it like it is… after all, there are no rules!


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great thoughts here! I think I focus more on the reader and the market right now...maybe later I'll get more daring.

I'm tweeting this one...

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lisa Bork said...

Darrell, too funny! Too true! Except for the shower rod--I'm not that wedded to this business :)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Boy, Darrell, you hit the nail on the head saying it was like walking a tightrope. I'm finding I'm getting more creative with every book and every series, though I still write with an eye to who is ultimately reading it. I think once you are published and have a solid readership, you can take chances you could not have taken before you were published.

Alan Orloff said...

Terrific post, Darrell. And so true.
I guess I'll put aside my martian-human-spaceship love triangle second-person POV story set in the third century. At least until I'm famous :)

Keith Raffel said...

Nice post, Darrell.

When H.N. Swanson, a literary agent, was asked what kind of writing is most lucrative, he said ransom notes. Not much room for creativity there, though,

M Pax said...

Yup, I'm willing.

Maybe I can write the "Seaweed Trilogy" after I get mega pop'lar. ;-)

Beth Groundwater said...

Well, Darrell, my very creative futuristic romantic suspense novel featuring the full-body stimsuit through which wearers could have anonymous sexual encounters over the net is still sitting under the bed, probably where it belongs. ;-)

My less daring mysteries, however, have found publishers, so that's what I'm going to stick to. Plus, they're books that I don't mind giving my mother to read.

Darrell James said...

Great responses everyone! Beth, I heard Elmore Leonard once say, "I never really started writing until I stopped worrying about what my mother would think. I guess we all are little burdens to bear.