More Important than Money

p1013076Caught this gorgeous full moon setting in the warm sunrise colors on my run this morning. Glad I took my camera along. Although it annoyed me bouncing around, so I had to tuck it inside my zippered hoodie – which made me look pregnant, though unnaturally so.

Unnatural camera baby, ftw.

This week at the SFF Seven – whether by deliberate ploy or mental lapse (there’s some debate on the topic – our calendar guru KAK missed giving us a topic. Therefore this week is an open “on-my-mind” theme.

What’s on my mind? I hate to tell you guys, but it’s marketing. And the love of money.

Is Writing to Spec Selling Out?

Flax is very nearly a weed – popping up volunteer-style just about everywhere. And yet, the blue flowers almost luminesce, making up for everything.

Selling out. It’s the cry of the artist. The accusation of the betrayed fan. I’ve blogged before about whether I think this is a real concept and where it came from. Essentially, for a writer, it’s sacrificing the story for commercial gain. That can mean even the gain of not violating an existing contract. We’ve all seen it happen. Charlaine Harris reportedly kept writing the Sookie Stackhouse books long after she wanted to. I would say that I’d love to have that problem – deciding between writing a book I don’t care about and a multi-million dollar contract, but I think it would be an extraordinarily painful decision to make.

All the same, I think brand new authors, especially pre-pubbed authors, worry about this a great deal. Maybe it’s because the artistic vision, the fledgling storyteller is so very fragile and new. It’s very difficult to know – definitely an acquired skill – how to separate good feedback from bad. Agents and editors famously reject anything that’s too outside the marketing box, even as they ask for “fresh ideas.” It takes time and confidence to know when to believe in a story nobody wants to buy. Because, sometimes, it can be true that your carnivorous shape-shifting sunflower story is and idea that plain should just not ever see the light of day.

The other end of the spectrum is writing to spec. The worst examples are those authors who get into writing particular series, like Vampire Diaries, where they have no artistic control, a corporate ideal dictates the characters and stories and straying from dogma is brutally punished.

As with all things, there’s a place somewhere in the middle. I’ve discovered it gets easier to find that sweet spot once you have a good editor relationship.

See, when you’re a new writer, you’re nearly throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Some are better than others at writing for the market, knowing what kind of thing sells fast and what doesn’t. I have a friend who’s an NYT Bestselling Author who absolutely planned her series with that goal. I, myself, am terrible at this. I tried the same thing, the same approach she did, and my “fresh take” on things is apparently so out in left field that no one has any idea how they’d sell it. So far, I have two totally different novels that have decidedly not stuck to the wall. They slide off into a disheartingly floppy pile on the floor. Sometimes I just let them lie there for a while.

But others *have* stuck.

And there, my friends, is the key.

Because once you’ve sold that book to an editor who loves you (and she will or she wouldn’t have bought your book – my editor Deb recently tweeted that part of her decision to buy a book hinges on whether she loves it enough to read it 4-5 more times in the course of editing, a hell of a lot of love), then you have a relationship where you can discuss the next story. In my case, I don’t have contracts for the next books, so they’re always careful not to guarantee me anything. Which is good for me because I don’t have to guarantee anything either. But they will give you an idea of will or won’t work for them. Editor Grace guided me towards a different word count and essential elements she’d like to see. I wrote Hunting the Siren with those guidelines in mind, but it was still my story. When I mentioned to Editor Deb what I was working on as a follow-up to Sapphire, she pointed out a few things that would make it a hard sell to the acquisitions team. I set that story aside and wrote Platinum instead, which the acquisitions team snapped right up.

Is this selling out? I just don’t think so. Mainly because I’m still writing all of my other stuff. It might also be that I have two fabulous editors who really respect that writing isn’t something that can be controlled and dictated. They give me freedom, but they also give me guidance for the market. That’s their part of the job, as far as I’m concerned.

And heck, at least they’re not cluttering up my kitchen floor.

The Rest of the Story

So, I’ve found myself explaining to various wonderfully supportive friends and family types how the whole “refining my craft vs. selling out” crisis is going, over IM and email.

I figure I’ll write out the update here, then I can tell people just to go read my blog, which saves me typing the same stuff over and over, and has the bonus of irritating people, because I’ve found most people really hate being told to read my blog. It’s the techno version of “come over and see my slide show of my vacation and I’ll tell you about it then.” Beware of expressing idle interest in someone else’s obsession — you’ll regret it sooner or later.

For those listeners at home who may just be tuning in, I’ve been working this last week on trying to discern where the two different voices are in my novel, that this agent identified as conflicting with each other, to the detriment of the book. One is a more commercial voice and one more literary. Guess which has to go?

David, the love of my life, offered to have me read it aloud to him. This is a big favor, because he doesn’t really read fiction. I did once read the entire Ender/Speaker for the Dead series to him over a summer of road trips. Now that we have more comfortable incomes we usually fly places and have very few road trips.

So, I printed out the first couple of chapters, read them to him and he stopped me anytime he lost the thread of the story or thought it got vague. Which ended up being a lot. It’s a good thing he loves me because at one point when he stopped me, I snapped “What? I don’t get ANY description?!?”

But I marked all those sections and our relationship survived and was fully repaired over cocktail hour. It’s funny, because the agent told me that if I could make the fixes, she’d love to see it again, but that she also understood that this was the “hardest and most emotionally frustrating part of the process.” And she wished me luck. Turns out I needed it.

The next morning, I sat down to revise. And decided pretty quickly that David was an idiot who had no idea what he was talking about. All the stuff he picked out was really good stuff.

Just then, an email arrived from a contest I failed to final in, with comments from the judges. Now, I’ve pretty much stopped reading judge’s comments. I enter the contests for the opportunity to put my novel in front of editors and agents if I final. If I don’t final, most of the time it’s because at least one judge REALLY HATED my book. Like giving me a 50% score hated. Usually the other judge will give me a nearly perfect score. So between the two, I don’t get super-useful feedback. Just the love/hate thing.

But I decided to look at these comments, to see if any of theirs coincided with what David identified. These scores turned out to be unusual because all three judges ranked me highly, with just enough points taken off to keep me from finalling. And they ALL picked on the exact thing the agent pointed out. And their comments? Yes: exactly the sections David thought slowed the story.

Another writer friend told me she read her novel to her tattoo-artist boyfriend, who was not a reader, but spends his days talking to people. She says “I’d want to kick him when he’d stop me and say ‘what? wait? what?’ But he was invariably right.'”

There’s been discussion lately on the FFP loop, about finding someone to critique your work who understands your particular sub-genre. Several people have chimed in that their best critiquers don’t write anything remotely the same, but they know a good story.

I lost a page and a half in the revision of Chapter 1. I read it again to David and he didn’t stop me once. He was surprised when I stopped at the end of the chapter, he was so caught up in the story.

So, yes, it’s painful. But I see that I can do it now. One of the judges clearly also writes in first person and she warned me to watch out for “I wondered,” “I thought,” “I saw,” “I heard” and “I noticed,” as constructions that yank the reader out of deep POV (point of view). She means that it brings in the narrative voice and the reader loses the sense of being in the character’s head. She’s dead right. I’ve been searching for those phrases and they cluster in the “slow” sections. Alas.

I suppose it’s part of life, that you never stop discovering new flaws. As you get things polished and handled, new problems are revealed.

Guess I won’t run out of stuff to do!

Selling Out

I’m not sure if I believe such a thing as “selling out” exists, even as I’m thinking of doing it.

Alas, the irony.

Over the past few years, I’ve desultorily pursued the history of the term. I wrote to The Word Detective about it. (He didn’t answer.) The Wikipedia article on the topic is tagged with warnings that its neutrality and factual accuracy are disputed.

The trouble with the concept of selling out is that it requires that you accept certain assumptions. If selling out is compromising artistic integrity for commercial gain, then you have to accept that there is such a thing as artistic integrity. And that making money automatically compromises it.

I had a great conversation last night, both on air and off, with two writers, Julianne Couch and Paul Bergstraesser. We were doing the final show of Speaking of Writing on our little community radio station. Julianne has been keeping the show going for five years now and I’ve been a co-host most of that time. Paul is a recent addition to the UW English Dept faculty and has been co-hosting also.

Julianne asked me to share my recent agent rejection. I thought it would be boring to read on air, but Paul — who I was meeting in person for the first time — jumped in and said I should, that “this is in the trenches stuff!”

I’ll just share this bit from the agent with you here:

I finally had the chance, over the long weekend, to give this manuscript my full undivided attention and see it through. You are such a terrific, vivid story-teller, and I really was absorbed by this fantastical world and intrigued by its bizarre rules and culture. However, though I could gush and say many wonderful things about this novel (and indeed I wouldn’t have kept reading at any point if I hadn’t been truly enjoying it) I want to say upfront that I don’t think it’s for me. I think that you are two kinds of writer in this prose. There is the Jeffe the Writer who is highly literary and has a beautiful, sometimes surprising turn of phrase that catches the reader off-guard, and there is the Jeffe the Writer who is more informal and intimate with the reader, with the classic approachable style that makes for great commercial fiction. I see both of these writers inside you, but they conflict pretty often on the page in this novel. You are clearly both versatile and professional, with a wide range and diverse capabilities, but I think that there’s an uneven quality to this prose that was disconcerting and sometimes distracting for me, as if you would have been better off sticking to one style or the other.

She went on to give me very specific plot critique, but this is the part that broke my heart. And caused my mini-crisis of this week. Plot stuff is an easy fix. My writing style though — should I consider altering the way I wrote this book to make it more commercial?

Paul stared at me like I was an idiot. “Of course!” he says.

After the show we retired to Bud’s Bar, official watering hole of Speaking of Writing, where they pour Jamesons with a very free hand. We wished that conversation had been recorded, too. We talked about whether there’s such a thing as selling out, as artistic integrity. We all agreed that making our living as writers is the brass ring — everything else is gravy. As Paul pointed out to me in a most pragmatic way, it’s still me writing it and, as authors, we often change our style depending on the audience, whether for a magazine article or an anthology. Then he asked what kind of fool was I to bypass an opportunity like this. Fix this to have a commercial style and I can write all the lyrical stuff I want.

Maybe it was the four fingers of neat Jamesons, but it felt like an epiphany.

So, I’m going to try it. The big question now is whether I can do it. I might have to look for a good critique partner(s) who can help me untangle the two voices from each other.

Anyone out there interested? I’m willing to trade anything but sexual favors. Even if you ply me with Jamesons.