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.