the most important contract a writer will ever have

by Toni

One of the terrible things about learning to write (and I’m still in that group) is realizing just how many plates you constantly have to keep spinning to tell a novel or script-length story successfully. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the multiple tasks and then drop a plate (or two, or ten). It’s easy to start worrying about things like marketing and agents and breaking in or staying in or growing sales because those things are at least somehow quantifiable. Identifiable. These things are not, as Alex so eloquently put it yesterday, ways of trying to find the murky method to creating a book that is alive, and so they are easy substitutes for forward motion.

But I had some clarity a few years ago. This is after publishing (at that point) for twenty years, so I guess better late than never. And that clarity was in finally figuring out the most important contract a writer will ever have:

Pick the kind of story you want to tell and then deliver on that promise to the reader who reads that kind of story.

That would seem kinda obvious, huh?

And yet, it’s a simple truth which gets lost in all of the other tasks a writer has.

I’ve seen too many writers try to finish a book while, at the same time, worrying too much about being important. They want to write something worthy of those awards, of the critics, of their peers, of their family. They want everyone who ever reads the manuscript to set it down, weeping with either awe or envy. They would dearly love for it to be the thing that makes the editor run over sixteen people in the hallway while trying to get that manuscript to the publisher for quick approval of that big, fat advance.

And in all of that pressure, they try to be everything to everyone and forget to do the one thing they have to do: tell the damned story.

Here’s where I get (somewhat) ranty.

Pick the kind of story you want to tell…

Be honest. What do you love? Do you have an answer you tell everyone, but you secretly read something else? Then you’re not being honest, and that’s going to show up in the work, or in your inability to finish. Do you not want to admit to a specific genre because it somehow doesn’t seem "important" as a writing goal? Let me ask this, and this is my serious pet peeve: when did we start valuing one genre over another, as if one kind of reader was somehow more important than some mythical "average" reader who might buy more books but who, somehow, isn’t perceived as more discerning?

If I hear one more person denigrate readers who bought something like, oh, say, The Da Vinci Code, I’m going to smack ’em. If you don’t think Dan Brown’s language / style was all that great, fine… the more important point is to realize that he delivered on the kind of story that he promised: mystery/thriller. Most of those readers, God Bless Every Single One Of Them, either bought the book or borrowed it from a library (or a friend), and if they enjoyed the book, they probably went back to find something else.

Do you love stories with lush language? Great, write that. Do you love stories which solve a mystery? Or an action adventure which can make you laugh, but keep you on the edge of your seat? Or maybe you like the tense action of a thriller? The eroticism of a romance where characters find some sort of happiness, in spite of the odds? Maybe you love to be completely scared out of your wits?

Language skills are wonderful, but they’re not more valuable than storytelling skills. Depth of character can be found in any genre, but long character introspections are not going to be prominent if the book is, say, a thriller, because that’s not the point of the kind of story the writer is telling.

And ultimately, the kind of story you choose to tell will then have certain expectations inherent in its type. Not formula, but expectations. And if you try to shoehorn everything into that story, you’re probably going to have mush, unless you’re just a master storyteller. I’m not sure there are many masters on their first attempts at writing a novel. I’m pretty sure the rest of us would have them killed. (I am sort of joking.)

**I am adding this in here a little later, due to comments below** … and by "pick the type" I’m not saying "pick one and only one genre… I’m saying "know what type of story you’re telling." If it’s multi-genre, then you’re upping the ante of the expectations and you’ve got to make sure the story delivers on all promises. More in the comments section **

then deliver on that promise…

Read widely in the genre you’ve picked. Part of that promise is that you know what’s expected. Understand what you’ve promised the reader when they read the first paragraph, the first page. Part of that promise is that you’re going to take what’s expected and turn it sideways or somehow upside-down and surprise the reader, without violating the promise of the kind of story you said you’d deliver. And part of that promise is doing this with a voice, with a perspective, that is uniquely yours. Be evocative with voice; don’t imitate or settle or pander–it’ll be obvious.

to the reader who reads that kind of story

You cannot be all things to all readers. If someone does not normally read a particular genre, odds are they don’t because they don’t like it. And that’s fine. Don’t try to shove everything in there on the off chance that you’ll have one thing that appeals to them, because you’re probably going to have a bunch of other crap that violates the promise of the story. And the reader who normally reads that kind of story will be annoyed with you, and won’t tell other readers who read that kind of story, and you’ve lost the battle, right there.

Respect that the reader of that kind of story knows what you’ve promised them, knows that kind of story really well, and then surprise them.

Stories… books… are meant to be many things. Escapism. Education. Enlightenment. Sometimes, all three at once, but not always, and not everyone wants all three at the same time. Genre lines are useful for marketing and useful for understanding what you’re promising the reader, but after that? They’re unimportant. Because story is how we connect, how we understand the human condition, how we relax, revive, relate, and every kind of story has its purpose. Don’t get hung up on labels, and don’t let what everyone else thinks is important intimidate you. There are, as Anne Stuart and Jennifer Cruise are wont to say, "many roads to Oz."

So pick the kind of story you want to tell. Commit. And deliver on the promise.

Agree? Disagree? Rant on in the comments… but do include what book(s) have delivered on their promise for you lately.


p/s… Congrats to Hank Phillipi Ryan for her Agatha win for PRIME TIME. Hank was one of the wonderful authors at RT and one of the Mystery Chix & Dix group, and a winner of something like 27 Emmys. Clearly, a woman who knew how to define what kind of book she wanted to write, and delivered.

32 thoughts on “the most important contract a writer will ever have

  1. Kathy Sweeney

    AMEN! I’m posting as a reader and part-time bookseller. There is a reason people keep going back to their favorite authors – because they deliver.

    Most readers will also follow a favorite author if they deviate from their traditional style, as long as the book is good.

    But – and this is true especially for the things I like to read – funny, entertaining books with likable characters – not everyone is cut out to write every style. Not sure how you can measure that, but I think Toni is right – if you try to write something you wouldn’t enjoy reading yourself, you may have stretched too far.

    Great blog, Toni!

  2. cj lyons

    Okay, I see what you mean by letting genre define your boundaries, but you know me, anytime someone tries to fence me in, I just have to bust out, lol!

    I do think LIFELINES, despite breaking just about every genre convention out there (it’s a thriller–but told solely from the pov of women, it’s women’s fiction but with thriller pacing and escalating high stakes, it’s got a touch of romance but no defined happily-ever-after) I do deliver on the promise to the reader–even if I can’t define it’s genre…..

    But it does get very murky out there–and that may be why LIFELINES is shelved in general fiction/literature right beside Moby Dick!

    So how to deal with that???? Other than promising a reader a good story, how can we find our target audience, our perfect readers when we blur the genre lines–and don’t tell me Bobbie Faye fits into any one genre!

    Hmmm….too much thinking this early on a Sunday morning!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Toni, you couldn’t have put it better – and that IS the most important thing to deliver on in a book. What are you trying to make (help, entice…) the reader to experience, and are they getting that from the book?

    CJ, I feel your cross-genre pain. Why oh why can’t B&N and Borders just have THRILLER or SUSPENSE sections? Writing what we write, being shelved in general FICTION is deadly.

    And general independent stores have no problem shelving my books as thrillers when they don’t have a horror section, but I’ve found I have to persuade independent mystery stores one at a time that there’s a lot of mystery and investigation going on in my stories.


  4. Nancy martin

    I hear you, sister. But Alex is right, too—getting the rest of the industry to figure out ways to sell those innovative, hybrid books is the key to success. We can write beautifully and with depth of character, intricasy of plot and the wallop of emotional impact, but it’ll get stuck in a genre ghetto unless there’s an obvious marketing hook. (And the hoary cover blurb, “Fans of Janet Evanovich..” is one that readers have come not to trust. There’s only one Janet!) A lot of authors are eating peanut butter because we haven’t figured out how to do it all–writing as well as marketing and sales and PR. So the answer? In my view, it’s sticking with what we do best—great writing. The beat goes on!

  5. Lori G. Armstrong

    Amen sister.

    I’ll add in my .02 that in addition to genre prejudice there’s format prejudice – sorry, we won’t review it if it is a lowly mass market or trade paperback, because it must suck or else the author would’ve gotten a big hardback deal, eh?

    Tell a killer story and don’t try to be all things to all readers. That’s why it’s called genre fiction. I absolutely laugh my ass off when mystery/thriller authors try to convince readers their single shitty sex scene qualifies it as a romance. Jesus. Do they think romance readers are stupid? And nothing makes me see red faster than those same authors who pander–either in print or in person or in a public forum–to a certain group because of marketing numbers…and they haven’t actually EVER picked up that type of book, and snidely denigrate it when they think they’re aren’t among romance readers or writers. And yeah, you shouldn’t be embarrassed that you haven’t read A Thousand Splendid Suns when you prefer to read something like For A Few Demons More.

    Every genre has expectations. Breaking conventions can be good, but every time I see the phrase “steps outside the genre” I wonder if that’s the kiss of death.

    So I tell a story I’d like to read from a viewpoint that might not be PC or the standard. And I don’t try to pretend or strive to create literature. Leave that to the literary folks, they do it much better than I. I hope what I write is entertaining. If I wanted to change the world, I’d go into politics.

  6. JDRhoades

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Toni. It’s far too easy to let that be one of those truths that, in the words of Jimmy Buffett, are “so simple, it plumb evaded me.”

    Recent books that have delivered on the promise: Our Alex’s THE PRICE. Promises scares, and boy does it deliver. Also, Jonathan Maberry’s upcoming PATIENT ZERO, which I had the honor of reading for blurbage. When you hear the words, “zombie thriller”, you think of a certain kind of book, and boy does it deliver. Great, slam-bang, pure adrenaline fueled fun. I read the whole thing with a big goofy smile of pure delight on my face.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    CJ, like you, I didn’t adhere to genre lines, so I’m not advocating a writer let a genre *define* them (as in, limit them), but to know what’s expected of that genre. Once a writer knows what’s expected, they can combine genres, add in what they want in service of the story–not worry about coloring inside the lines because they have a clear picture of what they’re doing. Where I think a lot of people get off track, especially in the beginning, is not really looking at what they’re doing to see if they’re paying attention to what that story needs.

    So if someone promises a multi-genre story, they have to know those genres and deliver that promise. It has to be a medical thriller / romance (in the successful case of LIFELINES), or action-packed paranormal (Rob’s KISS HER GOODBYE).

    In other words, I’ve seen too many people try to call a book every genre they can think of because they think that’s going to give it wider appeal, when it can, instead, just be confusing because they haven’t picked one sort of dominant structure on which to hang the story.

  8. JT Ellison

    Nice, Toni. A Sunday morning rant ; )

    I agree that it is our job to be true to ourselves as writers and write with passion. My number one thought, above all else, is to write a book that entertains. I don’t worry as much about the genre, or the expectations, because I’m happily contravening some of those expectations. The only person I want to be compared to is JT Ellison.

    And I was honored to endorse PATIENT ZERO too; it was incredible. I had that smile of delight on my face that Dusty talked about, the goofy, oh, FINALLY, something new. Jonathan Maberry is a wonderful writer, AND obviously a storyteller.

    And big whoots for Hank, one of the sweetest ladies in the business!

  9. toni mcgee causey

    CJ, Alex & Nancy — completely feel the cross genre pain as well. And I think the marketing issue of cross genre is a royal pain in the ass, and misses a huge potential audience because people don’t know where to find that kind of story.

    Bobbie Faye is cross genre, so I’m absolutely not advocating for someone to pick one genre, but to pick the kind of story, the “type” of story. My particular type is action adventure comedy. That means it has a thriller structure (which a/a tends to have) and comedy throughout.

    But that marketing issue? A killer, because there’s no single place in the bookstore for action / adventure comedy. I’m shelved in general fiction as well as CJ, and oftentimes I’m next to very serious dramas, or sandwiched between very sad books, and if people don’t know the name / book title ahead of time, they’re probably not going to realize what my particular book is, in spite of the attempt (cover-wise) to make it appear light and fun. It’s not an automatic identity, like being in mystery or romance might be. So I feel the pain.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks Dusty — and even though I’m not a big zombie fan (because, I have been told by a dear friend, I am an idiot who doesn’t know how to find good zombie books)… I’m going to have to go get that one. If you and JT blurbed it? It’s gotta be great.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    JT said: I don’t worry as much about the genre, or the expectations, because I’m happily contravening some of those expectations.

    To which I’d reply, “Yeah, because you are brilliant and you did your homework — you read a *lot* and knew what was expected of the genre.” I think a lot of people starting out tend to not have read something and just want to toss an aspect of a genre in there and call it that thing (for marketing purposes) without really thinking it through. 😉 You, my dear, don’t do that.

    Man, I am bossy this morning.

  12. toni mcgee causey

    Lori, I hear your Annoyance and I’ll raise you two Grumpies because there’s not even a ghetto for comedy. There’s… nothing.

    And that’s really a whole blog by itself… so once someone has delivered on the promise, how in the hell do they let the readers know? HUGE problem, I know. And knowing what to call it, what kind of book it is, even if it includes some minor elements of various genres? Another big-assed problem, because that’s a real marketing / placement issue, and one most writers don’t have a lot of control over.

    But if the writer doesn’t know what kind of story they’re writing in the first place, they’re probably going to just have a mess. Or weak writing.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Toni – loved the post. As always, you cut right to the heart of it.

    There’s an awful lot of emperor’s new clothes talked about our ‘art’ and I’m with Jeff Deaver – it’s a craft – and with Marcus Sakey – there’s good writing and bad writing and everything else is just a flavour.

    I originally started to write because I couldn’t find the kind of heroine I wanted to read. I still write for myself first. After all, we have to live with the book, in the planning and the writing and the copyediting (don’t get me started now!) and the marketing stage, for months at a time. How can you work on something that’s a cynical exercise in selling books – rather than something you want and believe in – for that length of time, without the end result being pretty blindingly obvious to the reader?

    Keep telling it like it is, kid ;-]

  14. JT Ellison

    “…you did your homework — you read a *lot* and knew what was expected of the genre.”

    I’ll agree with this part of the sentence… I read my favorites, saw how they do it, and went to work. Where I got lucky is diversity of favorites — there are writers I’m addicted to in almost all genres. I love Diana Gabaldon, I love Lee Child. I love JK Rowling and I love John Connolly. All four writers bring something wholly different to the table. Add in John Sandford for pace, and there you have a formula. Pace, plus character, plus tension, plus hero, plus sex. I gave it a villain and some pretty words. Presto — a book.

    God, I WISH it were really that simple…. though the reading part is true ; )

  15. toni mcgee causey

    You know what? I keep re-looking at CJ’s comment, and I realize that I have a somewhat completely different a priori understanding of genre than maybe a lot of other people do. I don’t look at the term like this:

    genre = boundaries

    Instead, I look at it like this:

    genre = expectations, challenges

    There are certain challenges a genre has as a genre, and that does *not* mean that there can only be one genre per book. We combine genres (challenges) all of the time. So maybe I am automatically ascribing something different to the concept of genre than what is generally accepted by using that term. I dunno, you all can tell me if you perceive it as more of a “boundary” issue.

    So when I say, “pick the kind of book” and I say “read widely, know the genre,” I am not saying “therefore, you have to limit yourself to just that genre” but instead, am saying, “know what your challenges are” — because if you set up these expectations, you have to follow through.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Zoë, thank you. 😉

    And I think you nailed it as well: you’d read widely enough to know what was out there, and you’d read stuff you loved, yet knew something was missing, and so what you created both “satisfied” the challenges of the genre(s) you picked while still making it uniquely yours.

    (And really, JT, that’s what I mean about yours, too. See above post.)

  17. Bill Cameron

    I don’t have any quibbles with the broad strokes of your thesis. Hell, I agree. But, unless I’m reading this wrong (and on a Sunday morning, all bets are off in the mental processing department) I see a contradiction in this statement: “Genre lines are useful for marketing and useful for understanding what you’re promising the reader, but after that? They’re unimportant.” And yet, didn’t you just make a vehement case that they ARE important, even allowing for the cross-genre murkiness created by romantic thrillers, or vampire cowboys, or whatever.

    I have so few ideas that I just have to write what comes into my head and hope it makes sense to someone later. I’m never quite sure what I’m writing — I just write the story that I want to tell in the way I want to tell it. Then I hope for the best. I thought Lost Dog was a “mystery,” but apparently it was more a thriller. And I thought Chasing Smoke was a “mystery,” but I guess it’s a police procedural. Unless it’s not. I got an email from someone who said they liked my Killer Year story, but didn’t understand why it was in “that kind of anthology.” Oy vey. If I was Portuguese, all this confusion might result in me suffering from saudade.

    Hmmm, maybe what all this means is I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. But, personally, it may be just that I don’t see cross-genre as all that cross-genre; books always seem to be more one thing than any other thing, despite the cross-this and hyphen-that. Yeah, it’s messy because of the way books get shelved in the book stores, but that only means, if anything, that they AREN’T that useful for marketing. They are, however, critical for defining your promise to the reader, which is sorta the opposite of unimportant.

    And on that, I emphatically concur: keep your promises.

  18. toni mcgee causey

    Bill asked: “Genre lines are useful for marketing and useful for understanding what you’re promising the reader, but after that? They’re unimportant.” And yet, didn’t you just make a vehement case that they ARE important…

    By “after that… doesn’t matter” I mean “worthiness” – I actually was alluding to the fact that a lot of people get hung up on whether or not being labeled a “genre” writer is somehow not as worthy as being labeled just a “fiction” writer or a “literary” writer. I’m advocating (a) reading widely in the genres that you love and (b) committing to the type of story that you want to tell and then (c) make it uniquely yours. By knowing what you’re telling, (a mystery/thriller, an action/adventure comedy, a romantic suspense), you can at least have a clear idea of the challenges you’re shooting to answer / deliver on by the end of the book, and, hopefully, you’ll have something clear enough as a “type” of book that will help marketing and PR and reviewers know how to tell readers where to find it.

    I backed off that “after that” “unworthy” feeling in my original post. There’s a risk there of sounding like I’m saying, “people who write literary are automatically assuming they are better than genre” which isn’t true. But a lot of genre writers (especially starting out) are afraid of being labeled genre because of perceived elitism.

    (For the record, I have long been vocal on the idea that literary is not a genre, but a style that can apply to many genres. I think I am in the minority there.)

    As for what you’re saying there at the end… that there’s probably a main thrust in a book? I’d agree with that. I know I have several genres / challenges blending in Bobbie Faye, but at its heart, it’s action/adventure, and I have to be honest with myself about that and keep its pacing as well as keep the language from obliterating the pacing if it’s to be successful.

  19. Tamar

    Re. genre expectations, Lois McMaster Bujold talks about this a bit in her recent interview on Fantasy Book Critic. She’s an award-winning (and amazingly good) SF/F writer; her Sharing Knife series, though, is structured more like romance. Romance readers have embraced it. Fantasy readers have been more uncomfortable. She talks here about how the tropes, the structure, the heart of a story determines the genre:


    I wanted to see what would happen when I tried to make a romance the central plot of a fantasy novel – and wow was that ever a learning experience, not only about what makes a romance story work, but, more unexpectedly, uncovering many of the hidden springs and assumptions that make fantasy work. It turns out to be a much harder blending that I’d thought, going in – after all, I’d had romantic sub-plots in both my fantasy and my SF books before, and wasn’t it just a matter of shifting the proportions a bit?

    Well, no, it turns out. The two forms have different focal planes. In a romance in the modern genre sense, which may be described as the story of a courtship from first meeting to final commitment, the focus is personal; nothing in the tale (such as the impending end of the world, ferex) can therefore be presented as more important. On a secret level, it’s also true; romances are in effect tales about the promulgation of human evolution through sexual selection, a far more fundamental and important long-term activity than any year’s, or millenia’s, passing politics. (For one thing, it is now theorized by evolutionary biologists that human intelligence is a result of sexual selection.) So romances are at once more personal and more universal than most F&SF plots.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    Bill — you crack me up. But yeah, awards are subjective. And I think when we’re at the task of writing, when we’re trying to slug it out and find what matters to us, find the truth of what we’re doing, that it’s important to remember that awards and recognition really are subjective, and the only thing we have control over is the writing. (Unlike, say, an Olympic 100 meter race, where years of training can be erased by one slight stumble near the finish line.)

    And thanks, Karin!

  21. Tom

    Can hardly tell you how important it has been for me to see this today, Toni.

    This probably means I should line my nightcap with more sheets of lead foil.

  22. Tamar

    *I have to laugh: “She’s an award-winning (and amazingly good)…” As if it’s a surprise to find the two together.*

    Heh. Yeah. Is my skepticism about awards showing? I admire a lot of award winners but of course not all.

    Mostly, I was trying to say Bujold is a personal favorite, but it came out kind of sideways, didn’t it?

  23. Tom

    Tamar wrote:

    “Bujold is a personal favorite, but it came out kind of sideways, didn’t it?”

    Words; unruly critters, aren’t they?

    Five or six years ago I helped LMB find her way out of the LA Times Festival of Books and onto the shuttle bus. She was perfectly pleasant, if a bit puzzled by the map.

    I admire her Vorkosigan Family stories. Quite audacious.

  24. Allison Brennan

    As always, you make me think, Toni. Which can be scary, especially late at night.

    I don’t consider genre as confining, but you are 100% right in that there are reader expectations. That’s why I always tell people WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE, not to the market. Because if you sell and have a book on the shelves, you now have READER EXPECTATIONS. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing cross-genre/mixed-genre–and I do–or if you’re writing a “strict” romance or thriller, once you’ve established a name for yourself in providing a specific *type* of story, you need to meet those same expectations.

    And Lori, I love you and your rant! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  25. Hank Phillippi Ryan

    Oh–just back to Boston and saw your lovely post! Thank you, so much! It was wonderful to meet and hang out with you in Pittsburgh.(thank you, too, whooting JT!)

    And a propos of the genre battle, the Malice win was especially sweet for me, since I’d been rejected by mystery publishers for being “too romancy” and by romance publishers for being “too mystery.”

    And when they ask–well, whose books are yours similar too?: why isn’t it a better answer to be able to say: “no one”?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *