Hi! I’m back after my first extended hiatus from Magical Words in several years. I went on vacation with my family (a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and then a week on Tybee Island, Georgia), I spent some time working on a couple of books and doing little else, and, like all of you, I took time to enjoy Jim Butcher’s contribution to our site. But I’m back now, relaxed, fleetingly tan, and ready to return to the normal routine.
I have recently started working with a new student — a graduate student in creative writing for whom I’ll be serving as project mentor. Not long ago, she emailed me with some questions, and included among them were one or two that I thought would be good to discuss on this site. We are never shy here on MW about telling you things that should concern you as aspiring writers. Business trends, quirks of the market, scams aimed at taking your meager earnings, etc. But there are things out there that we are told to fear that really shouldn’t be frightening at all. And I figured it might be helpful to focus on those for a while. So here, for your peace of mind, are some things about which aspiring writers commonly express concern that really aren’t worth the worry.
1. What happens if you come up with an idea that has been used before by another writer? Well, if you come up with a book idea that contains literally nothing that has ever been done by any other writer, you deserve a medal. This is actually a concern I’ve heard expressed many times (most recently by my new student), and I always respond with the same story. When I was a grad student trying to settle on a dissertation topic, I was worried that I was going to be “scooped,” meaning that someone would take my topic before I could finish the project. And my advisor said, “If you’re worried about being scooped, you’re thinking of your project too narrowly.” His point was that every project goes far beyond the mere subject, to encompass the research done, the way it’s written, and the intellectual process of each individual historian. Fiction is much the same. Yes, there are going to be other novels out there that have similar magic systems, or that focus on similar story tropes (vampires, faeries, castle intrigue, psionic magic, etc.), but the fact is that the originality of an idea is not merely about things like magic systems or plot devices (although, of course, these can add to that sense of novelty). Rather, it is far more dependent on character work, voice, ambiance — the intangibles that we bring to a book, and that no one can copy. Your book is going to wind up being unique, even if some of the foundational ideas sound familiar. There are so many books out there that have similar bases — check out THE SWORD OF SHANNARA and LORD OF THE RINGS, Charles de Lint’s Newford Books and Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS. When I wrote the Forelands books I worried that because I had ducal Houses connected to clans and lots of castle intrigue that people would think I was copying George Martin. I wasn’t, but I worried about it. And for no reason; the books really aren’t that similar. So don’t worry about this. Just write your book.
2. What can you do to keep editors and agents from stealing your ideas when you submit work? Well, to begin, you can get over yourself. Just as you don’t need to worry about using a few familiar ideas, you also don’t have to worry about your ideas being stolen. Faith and Misty tell a wonderful story about a writer who “thwarted” such a theft at a writer’s workshop by submitting for critique 30 non-consecutive pages from his/her book. How unbelievably foolish, not to mention paranoid. Ideas are a dime a dozen — yours, mine, whoever’s. Again, the success of a book is not about the ideas inside it, but the characters, the tone and voice, the prose — all the elements of writing that transform an idea into a story. So relax, and submit your work. That’s how you get published.
3. How do you deal with it when your publisher or editor makes you change your book because of worries about political correctness or other content-related issues? This is another question that comes up a lot. Many people seem to be under the impression that authors face some form of censorship from publishers worried that our books might offend someone. I’ve been publishing for a long time, and I have never encountered this. My editor has suggested changes, of course — deletions as well as elaborations — but his reasons have always been related to character or story issues, not political or social concerns. It may be that this does happen to some writers, but as far as I can tell it’s very, very rare. Again, relax and write your book.
4. How do you handle demands from your publisher that you write what will sell rather than what you want to write? This is similar to number three and yet another question that I’ve heard many times before. There’s an assumption out there that publishers make authors write books that they don’t want to, or that “what to write next decisions” are made by the market, not by the author. Now, I won’t deny that authors are often persuaded to write books by offers — series that might otherwise have ended are continued because a publisher offered lots of cash and the author suddenly “discovered” that there was more story to tell and that it would take another three books to complete the story arc. But this certainly doesn’t happen all the time (otherwise we would have already seen the releases of Harry Potter and the University From Hell, Harry Potter and the Frat Party of Doom, and Harry Potter and the Blood-Oath Internship. For most of us in the mid-list, we write what we want to write, and we follow our own creative impulses rather than the demands of a publishing house marketing department.
5. There are things I want to do with my book, but I’ve been told by authors and writing instructors that I just can’t do them, that no one will publish me if I do. I once had a writer at a conference ask me if her book would be rejected by everyone if she started the first chapter with a line of dialog. I asked her where she had gotten that idea, and she said that an author teaching at another workshop had told her it was true. There is lots of stuff like this out there: never start a book with dialog; never write a story or book in present tense; don’t write epic fantasy in first person; etc. Say it with me: “There is no single right way to do any of this.” I’m not saying you should ALWAYS start a book in the middle of a conversation, or that you should write a book in present tense or first person just for the sake of doing it. But you need to write your book as you envision it; you need to be true to your creative vision. I wrote a short story in first person present tense, and yes, an editor questioned me about it, wanting to know why I had made those artistic choices. When I explained, she said “Those are excellent reasons. I want to buy the story.” The editor was Ellen Datlow, and the story, “The Christmas Count,” remains my highest profile, best-paying short fiction sale to date. Write the story you want to write. Don’t worry about the “rules” that other writers have made up to explain their inability to sell one piece or another.
6. The mid-list is dead, if you don’t write a bestseller, you’re through — maybe I shouldn’t be doing this at all. Yes, this is a very tough time in the marketplace, and it has never been more difficult for midlist authors to stay afloat. And yet, we’re still out here, writing books and getting paid to do so. We at MW have always said that if you’re going to write, do it because you love it, because it’s all you want to do. The money isn’t good enough and the business is too hard to make it work for any other reason. But taking that as a given, you can still make a career for yourself without putting up Rowling/Martin/Gaiman-type numbers. That’s what I’m doing. Faith, too. And Misty. And A.J. And Stuart. And Ed.
There are more, of course — myths about writing and publishing that scare us, make us second-guess ourselves and our work. But as you can tell, the theme of this post is pretty simple: stop worrying and write your book. There are plenty of things that do warrant our attention and our concern. Don’t make things more difficult for yourself by worrying about the stuff that’s inconsequential.
So, are there issues out there that you need reassurance on? Let’s talk about them.David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net