Self Refashioning

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A hot topic in Renaissance/early modern studies a couple of decades ago (and still a lynch pin of Shakespeare criticism and the like) was the idea that with the transition from feudalism to early capitalism people started to view themselves less as constant objects formed by the divine and the accident of their birth (rank etc.) and more as malleable material which they could themselves transpose into something new. They could, with a little money, throw off their peasant heritage and become merchants or landowners. They could learn the sophisticated ways of the court and buy its trappings in the form of clothes, education, and those skills considered essential to aristocratic life. Selfhood was suddenly in flux, something the individual could—with a bit of luck and good judgment—fashion for him or herself. People could make and remake themselves from scratch.

Fashioning is a good word for it, because it suggests how dependent such shifts were on popular consent, on trends, and even on fashion in the sense, simply, of clothes.

But I’m not here to offer an essay in literary history. I’m thinking about this as a model for the way writers see themselves.

When we write a book, we imagine our story, our readership and we adapt ourselves to fit the appropriate model. If we don’t, in all likelihood, our book fails. If we get it right and the book succeeds, we build an identity bound to the idea that we are authors of a particular kind of book. Success breeds a desire for more of the same (or at least in the same vein) and before we know it, if we’re lucky, we have what marketing people call a ‘brand’: a strong, and generically specific association that readers link to our names.

I began my writing career (like Faith) as a thriller writer, something I am being reminded of forcefully today since I am at Thrillerfest in New York. When I started writing fantasy—and again when I started writing YA—I had to reinvent myself a la David Bowie (only without the make up) or Madonna (only without the… well, everything, really).

This kind of self re-fashioning is particularly important if your previous career has stalled. Now, you need to convince the publishing world that you can completely transform yourself and offer a wholly new kind of story in conception and execution. If you merely tweak the old formula, it looks like More Of The Same, and if you don’t have the sales record to back it up, that will make pubishers look askance when you try to sell your new work.

This is a hard truth about publishing which we’ve touched on before at MW but it bears repeating. If your last book was considered a failure, you should probably consider doing something completely different for your next one. Even successful series grow tired in time. I was talking yesterday to an author who has done almost 10 books in the same series, and while the first few were extremely successful and the last ones were critically better received than the first, the sales numbers have dwindled as tastes have changed. His publisher now wants him to come up with an entirely new approach: a refreshing of his brand. He is paralysed and demoralised by facing such a shift in direction, and feels (understandably) that it amounts to a rejection of all his previous work.

Publishing remains an industry in turmoil where everyone seems to chase whatever bandwagon seems to inexplicably dominate the market (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?). In such a climate, writers have to be conceptually nimble, not just in the way they conceive of their stories but in how they imagine themselves.

So here’s today’s challenge. Imagine your current WIP is published but fails to really take off. Your agent calls: You need to do something totally different. You need to rethink your brand. So, what will it be?

I’m not asking you to pitch actual stories, just to consider what area you might consider moving into which is different from what you are currently doing. How might you refashion yourself?

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29 comments to Self Refashioning

  • If that happened? I’d let myself write one of the other stories in the other subgenres I’ve been thinking about. The stuff I’ve told myself, “No, I can’t work on *that*, because I’m focused on *this*, so *that* has to remain mostly a writing pipe-dream until I get a spare moment to give it proper attention.” I could go darker. I could go romance or contemporary. The way I see it, the ideas well is never dry. The time well, on the other hand … But that could just be me. My brain jumps around a lot. :)

  • A. R. Gideon

    My WIP is contemporary fantasy. If it fell through I would probably work on an urban fantasy as UF seems to be the dominating force in fiction right now.

  • A. R. Gideon

    speculative fiction rather.

  • AJ, Thanks for bringing this up. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while since I want to play in a variety of genres anyway. My current WIP is a mystery/thriller… while I have a couple of other M/T ideas, I would probably flip over to a Spec Fic (mainly SF), a “literary” piece that’s been stewing for a while, or a YA concept (in some form of fantasy).

  • KR1L3Y

    My current WIP is an YA urban fantasy series. I do have another novel I’ve started developing that is part crime / part modern day sci-fi; almost hardboiled. Any time I have an idea I might want to pursue in the future I throw a detailed description into a file labeled “possible book plots”. These range from historical fantasies to horror to sci-fi so I feel I could rebrand myself if I had to, I just really enjoy writing modern fantasy right now.

  • Laura,
    jumping brains are a good thing in this instance! The further thy go, the better.

    AF,
    I’m not sure I really understand the difference between contemporary and urban. That’s probably just my ignorance. If it’s a common misunderstanding, you might need to reach further afield.

    Jeff,
    sounds like you’re a man after my own heart. Given the choice between the 2 options you mention, go with the high concept YA: much more marketable than the literary piece.

    KR1,
    as with AR, those first two sound kind of similar to me, though I may not be understanding your terms correctly. In your place, I’d be looking to move further (into horror or scifi) say, to give yourself a broader base.

  • I write in so many varying genres and sub-genres that I could just switch over to another, and I tend to do just that without prompting. There’s epic fantasy, urban fantasy, fantasy-romance, sci-fi sans romance, zombie apocalyptic (an easy switch for me), super-heroic, some sort of *insert type here*punk, supernatural horror, and then there’s the many blendings I also tend to write of all of those. I’ve also been considering some form of historical fantasy, but that would take a bit of research time. My first completed novel is sci-fi romance, and I’ve really been enjoying writing the type of sci-fi I love, but if it flopped and they didn’t even want me to write straight sci-fi anymore, well, first I’d be sad, but I’ve still got several things lying around to fall back on, including my current work that sort of melds various genres and subs. I’ve even got a couple pen names picked out. 😉

  • Sigh. Yeah, AJ, I’ve been so many people that I am totally schizo. In this business, it helps to be adaptable. We writers ask “What If” all the time for our characters and our plots and our conflicts. I guess, in many ways, it is the central question behind all good writing. But when we have to do it for our own lives and careers, it is, well, paralysing was a good word.

    I’d *love* to be able to write YA fantasy, but I have no voice for it. Maybe someday!

  • Steven (Aka_Hinotae)

    Great article. I think if you fail, you kind of have to stay in your confort zone, but redefine your work, not your genre. Unless of course you feel you’re in the wrong place to begin with.

    I write fantasy, so it would be easy for me to shift to science fiction though.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Interesting topic. I have a pretty broad scattering of ideas, but they pretty much all have some form of fantasy element, and without that type of element it would be a no-go for me. My WIP is alternate-world fantasy. I do have some Sci-Fi ideas that *might* be considered a switch from that, but probably my furthest-afield ideas would be a couple of globe-trotting contemporary/urban fantasy ideas I’ve worked out. The second idea I actually worked out as an exercise to see if I could come up with *any* UF-style idea that I’d be interested in writing. There are many UF series I like to read, but writing them has never sounded interesting. I decided it would have to mix in a lot of exotic travel to appeal to me – lots of research, but fun research. 😀 Fundamentally, I don’t think I’m sufficiently committed to the act of writing itself to make the sort of huge leaps you and Faith have made.

  • Gypsyharper

    All of my current ideas have some kind of fantasy element as well, but to me they all have a very different feel – a couple seem like they want to be urban fantasy, one’s more of a ghost story/murder mystery, there’s a short story idea that’s more of a traditional fantasy, and at least one epic fantasy. Like Hepseba, I don’t think I’d want to leave the fantasy elements behind entirely though. I’m really still playing around trying to find my voice, but hopefully I’ll still have lots of different ideas and be able to change it up if I need to someday.

  • KR1L3Y

    AJ – I may not be using the terms correctly. Basically what I called my urban fantasy (Dark Genesis) centers around Aether (the classical element) users, demons and angels in today’s world, so it could probably be considered contemporary fantasy / supernatural. The one I described as part crime / part modern day sci-fi (The Consciousness Puzzle) focuses on kidnapping, human experimentation and noetic theory, nothing really supernatural but not based in proven science either. Would that just be considered “fiction”?

  • If my current Fanasy novel flopped, I would explore either Urban Fantasy or Historical genres. That, or maybe Inspirational fiction.

  • josephmcbee

    My WIP, which is my first novel, is a YA fantasy adventure. If that flops, which is entirely possible since it is my first novel, then I would try to rework that same genre. If however, my as yet nonexistent, agent siad “Look pal, you really suck at this.” (That’s the way they talk, right?) Then I would probably move to Westerns, or to an idea for a comedy thriller that I have been tossing around in the old brain juices.

    My problem is that I have so many interests I hate the idea of being pigeonholed into one genre, even if I am successful. Therefore, I have been thinking along the same lines as Daniel R. Davis by considering pen names for other types of books.

    However, if I had to choose between being a wildly successful novelist in a single genre or a moderately successful novelist in many genres, I’ll take the former thank you very much.

  • KR1L3Y – I’ve always just called that aetherpunk, but there’s probably a better term out there. :)

  • I should clarify: Though, that’s when it’s a prevalent thing, like machines running on it and such.

  • Daniel,
    sounds like you’re all set!

    Faith,
    that’s interesting. I feel the same way about some things I know I can’t do, but there are others I feel I could maybe get to grips with if I worked at it.

    Steven,
    yes, it’s a fine line, isn’t it? If you want to stay with your current pen name you might not want to switch genres entirely but still find a way to make what you try next radically different in feel.

    Hep,
    staying within fantasy broadly defined isn’t a bad thing, so long as the subset you go into is significantly different, perhaps in terms of readership.

    Gypsy,
    sounds like you could slide into paranormal mystery or something similar which would retain your fantasy component.

    KR1,
    I think the key in this case is the world, and that might also be the root of any switch: move from an invented world to a recognizable one which retains magic etc. like Jim Butcher’s Chicago.

    Mark,
    isn’t all fiction inspirational? :) KIdding.

    Joseph,
    Westerns are a very tough sell these days, just FYI. A thriller with a comic edge might be a better bet (my 2 cents, as ever).

  • My preferred genre is SF or fantasy, but I have ideas for works in several genres that I’d like to do. Choosing one has been tough for me because I want to work on all of them. At this point I need to just finish something :)

  • josephmcbee

    Here’s a question for anyone who would care to answer: What about making a switch to something like playwriting or screenwriting if the genre you were working in no longer works for you as novels? Could you, for example, take the same genre and write a screenplay for it? Is that an option, or is too difficult to break in to a new industry, or are the mediums so different that the learning curve would be an issue?

  • josephmcbee

    By the way AJ, thanks for the 2 cents. To me, the 2 cents of someone who is published is worth more than 2 cents. Just don’t expect me to actually pay you. I do buy all of your books after all. :-)

  • Dave,
    ah yes: I know that feeling! But yes: finish. Always finish.

    Joseph,
    I appreciate the support! Playwriting is a very tough way to make a living and it generally isn’t suited to genre writers. Plays are, alas, considered a different kind of art. Screenwriting is a great way to pay the bills if you can break in, but it’s incredibly hard to do. Again, indie/art house film is an option if you have local connections, but they still don’t produce much fantasy/scifi. I hear that Hollywood increasingly seems to be a closed shop: most scripts being produced in house or through a stable of networked LA writers to such an extent that it’s almost like TV: just not feasible unless you are located where the studios are.

  • sagablessed

    I was going for a more mature audience, but have been told my voice is better suited to YA. I hate YA. HATEHATEHATEHATE writing YA. I don’t know why. I just do. But if this current WIP does not work, I will have to consider it.

    For your own good AJ, get a mental handi-wipe and clear ‘Fifty shades of barf’ from your brain. Dear gods above and below….what a bit of trash. No, I have read some paragraphs and want my own mental hadi-wipe.

  • sagablessed

    Faith: don’t you ever change from being schizo, gurl!! We love you just as you are. And your FB peeps (namely me) want more!! BEAST!! I have fallen in love with Beast’s advice collumn.

  • AJ> What a cool question. I have seriously considered–god help me–writing erotica. I mean I edit it, and so why not? I’m a little sick of everyone looking down their noses at “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I get the criticism of it–and I’ve not read it, so I can’t say if the prose is good or not, but a lot of the criticism is from the standpoint of “all erotica is just trash and I’m better than that…” Which is the same thing you’ll hear in (some) MFA programs about genre fiction. “all sf/f is just trash and I’m better than that…” I know some of it is “the writing sucks…” and that’s fine, but there seems to be a lot of bitterness along with it. But I’ve met some incredibly talented writers who write erotica.

    But that’s a side topic. Sorry. Anyway, as I said, I’ve considered erotica, possibly YA (my new WIP is a YA). I’ve also (somewhat seriously) considered working on an editorial career. I’m a good editor, so I’ve been told, and so I’ll believe it. I’m making moves to continue editing, which I do enjoy. My editing has made me a better writer. So if I had to make a big move that might be it. We’ll see. :)

  • Well…after doing the hysterical dance of joy that my WIP got published at all, I’d probably mourn it’s short life a bit. And then I’d pitch my YA epic fantasy because that’s what I’m doing right now anyway – I’m shopping around 1 1/2 urban fantasies and just starting an epic fantasy. I didn’t mean for it to be YA but the MC is at the upper end of that audience age range and if putting a YA label on it will make it sell, I won’t complain. I admit, that I still have trouble not hearing “your work is childish” when I hear “your ideas sound like good YA plots,” but I’ve been told several times that my epic fantasy ideas would make good YA, so I’m trying to shed my stereotypes of the genre and just write good books.

  • Joseph – Sci-fi would seem easier by far to break into, regarding screenplay, than fantasy, and horror easier still. I don’t know about urban fantasy though. I do a little screenwriting on the side (and some SFX makeup), mostly local so far, and what I know about my area at least, much of it is horror, possibly because fake blood and wounds are cheap… I haven’t seen much desire, even in mainstream, for fantasy, unless it has a famous author attached.

  • Razziecat

    I already have two main areas of interest. My WIP is fantasy, as are several things on the back burner, but my long-time love is space opera; if one genre doesn’t work, I have a back-up. I’m not averse to trying other things, too, if an intriguing character pops up (everything I write is character-driven, whatever genre I work in).

  • Saga,
    don’t write what you hate. Really. Ain’t worth it.

    Pea,
    I have no problem at all with erotica, and I really can’t comment on 50 Shades since I haven’t read it. I was just noting that suddenly other publishers are trying to mimic it. I dont know much about (non academic) editing, but it sounds like an interesting 2nd string to your bow.

    Sarah,
    totally with you on grieving for the loss of the previous book, but your YA strategy sounds good.

    Razzie,
    space opera is a bit outside my wheelhouse so I can’t say if it’s still a good market. I assume it is. Sounds like a good and different option.

  • wrybread

    It’s somewhat hard for me to think about this question since I’m (probably) years away from finding myself in this situation and I’m still dabbling in a lot of genres at present, but I think I’d answer by first of all reflecting on how far I’d come; getting a book published is still no mean feat after all. Then, I’d turn my attention to the story idea of mine that’s furthest away from the work that had failed. I spent much of today writing a darkly fantastic coming of age story set in a small area with not too many characters. So, I’d write something bigger and more epic, less intimate than the current story, and with more explicit fantastic elements. What I’d write would best be defined, I think, as Epic Fantasy, while the failed work is more dark Magical Realism. Just trying to get away as much as possible from the work that, for now, hadn’t sold.

    I’d also keep in mind that, no matter how different my first failed book was from my new one, if the new book succeeds the old failure would be far more likely to see the light of day eventually again, seeing as how readers will usually buy books by authors they like regardless of genre (hence very successful authors’ old failures and false starts being reissued years later to brisk sales) . The best thing I could do for my failure would be to distance myself from it for now, to return to it with more success another day.

    If this scenario ever happens to me, feel free to check to see if I take it as well as I’ve outlined above. I’ll be as surprised as you.