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Genius at Work vs. Working Writer

There was an interesting discussion in the comments on one of the workshop entries a little while ago. It’s very common that, whenever us agents mention something that doesn’t work well in writing at a conference or on our blogs or on forums, there are always a few devil’s advocates who say, “Well, what about VERY UNIQUE BOOK by Famous Writer? That broke the rules!”

Of course it did. But as I said in the comments thread, Famous Writer gets to do what they want because a) they’re well known, b) they have a history of book sales, c) their publisher felt good taking a risk on them. If you look at the publishing history of most genre-busting or groundbreaking authors, you’ll notice that their first few releases are usually, ahem, bad pun alert, by the book, in terms of craft and genre and structure. Unless, of course, they were already famous when they started writing novels, and the publishers took a risk on them regardless, because of the commercial value of their name.

Not a lot of first-time, unknown authors will get to publish their completely off-the-wall, genius masterwork the first time out of the gate. I’m definitely NOT saying that everyone should stop being creative or dreaming big. I am, however, saying that you should learn novel craft, genre, form, structure and what the “standards” are inside and out before you start to innovate. And you should prove to publishers that you can do well with a more conventional novel that follows the rules in terms of all these nitty gritty things (but feel free to be innovative in terms of plot points, story, language and characters, of course), before you try to recast the mold.

There are, of course, some writers who only have one brilliant novel in them, like Harper Lee. “Wait a minute, ” you might say to yourself, “I’m one of those genius artists and my genre-busting, completely-unlike-anything-you’ve-ever-seen novel is going to take the world by storm and win me a Nobel Prize!” I will most likely counter with the thought that, if you sit around musing about what a genius you are, you’ve probably got a few delusions about your stories and your writing. Geniuses don’t spend their energies trying to convince everyone of their genius. They just do what they do and then the rest of the world is left scrambling to catch up.

Most writers follow a very predictable publishing path. They publish a few novels that fit in to the marketplace and adhere to the work of their peers. Then, if they’ve got enough of a track record and if their publisher will give them the leeway, they can experiment and innovate. There’s nothing wrong with this. And, if you work hard and get a great track record, you very well could hit it big and write the exact kinds of books you want to write. (Not that there’s anything wrong with writing conventional books for your entire career, of course.)

Take a client of one of my colleagues at the agency. She has made her bread and butter for a long time by writing tie-in novels (like mass market paperbacks that use the characters from a popular TV series or movie), which some might say are the ultimate in adhering to “the rules” or today’s fiction marketplace. A lot of people who write tie-ins or novels for specific publishers even get guidelines for, if not what to write, but how to write it. Talk about books by the book.

This client, though, also writes her own fiction, with her own ideas. After years of writing tie-ins, she’s finally started selling her YA work to various publishers. On her most recent sale, she hit it big: she is going to be a publisher’s lead title with a trilogy that garnered a lot of interest and a high advance. This was already announced on Publisher’s Marketplace, so I’m not spilling any agency secrets, but wow! Can you believe that? After all her hard work and playing by the rules, she’s finally writing the books that she wants to write.

It’s the same thing with M.T. Anderson, who wrote a lot of books before he got to write OCTAVIAN NOTHING. It would’ve been very difficult, I’d imagine, to convince a publisher to take a risk on something like that from a complete unknown. And I’m firmly convinced that you can only innovate and break the rules once you’ve internalized every single nuance of them and have adhered to them successfully.

When a first-time novelist “colors outside the lines” in terms of novel craft or structure, I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re a mad genius and that they’ve totally revolutionized the novel form. I assume that they don’t exactly know what they’re doing yet. You’ve got to learn the scales and the instrument before you can start to ad-lib and play jazz. That doesn’t mean that you can’t express yourself and make beautiful music, but this kind of OCTAVIAN NOTHING virtuosity only comes after putting in a lot of time and a lot of traditional work.

Would you rather be an unsung genius or a working writer who is building their career toward their shot to produce whatever they want? That kind of thing is a hard-earned privilege and not really something beginners should be obsessing with.

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