Artistic Choices and the Market


Two common themes coming together in this post:  First off, I’ve written and spoken before about how often my characters surprise me in some way, be it through the assertion of a trait I hadn’t seen in them previously, or through the unexpected twisting of a plot thread.  My favorite example of this — one you’ve heard before, no doubt — is the time one of my Winds of the Forelands characters told me that she was pregnant literally as I was typing the words.  Now fortunately this character was a woman, so it didn’t make things TOO difficult for me.  Still, I’ve informed my characters that in the future I could use a bit more notice on such things.  Not that they listen to me….

The second thread is one that comes out of a question readers ask me quite often:  Does your publisher or your editor ever impose changes on you — force you to change things for marketing or “political” reasons?  The answer to this is “less often than you might think, but occasionally.”  (Examples forthcoming.)

So today, I’d like to talk about changes that we as authors sometimes have to impose upon our characters and our plot.  It would be great if we were able to listen to our characters always, to follow them wherever they take us regardless of what doing so might do to our plot outline.  After all, life is like that, right?  We are at the mercy of circumstance; any one decision can ramify through the rest of our existence.

To which I say, “Yes, but….”  Writers are artists.  Every story is an act of creation. And while spontaneity is certainly a crucial component of the creative process, so is control.  My brother is a brilliant painter, and as he describes his art, it’s clear that much of what he does with color and brushstroke happens in the moment, “unplanned” as it were.  But he still has to impose his will on the work; there are matters of composition and balance that have to be maintained, or else the painting falls apart, becomes merely a collection of shapes and tones rather than a visual tale.  The same is true of writing.  We can’t cede control of our work to our characters.  Have you ever taken a child on a hike?  She wants to explore, to stray from the path, and occasionally it’s fine to let her.  But you are responsible for seeing her safely home, for keeping her out of the poison ivy and away from the cliff ledges.  Well, so it is with your characters.  They may be adults in the story, but they’re as self-centered and irrational as children, and they must be controlled.

But even more, there are times when we have to make decisions regarding plot or character or book structure that have less to do with the creative process than with more pragmatic considerations.  Back when I was in the middle of Winds of the Forelands, which was originally planned as a four book series, my editor asked me if there was a way I could split the fourth book of the series in half.  Booksellers were becoming concerned with book length and price point (the price of a book printed on the jacket), particularly with respect to hardcovers, and wanted to see smaller books.  There was no way for me to split that final volume in half without destroying the narrative integrity of the book. But the third book wasn’t out yet, and I found a fairly natural stopping point earlier in book three that enabled me to divide books three and four into three complete books, thus making it a five book series.  This was not an artistic decision; it was a marketing decision.  But it helped sales for the second half of the series in a way that did little or nothing to compromise the narrative structure of the overall project, and so it made sense.

I have, on a few occasions, had my editor ask me to tone down some language or make a scene slightly less graphic than it had been when I wrote it.  I’ve had it suggested to me that I change a character’s name or the name of something on one of my maps because the name might offend or put off or confuse readers. 

Right now with my WIP I’m seriously considering changing the gender of a lead character because there is some gender inbalance in the dramatis personae as it currently stands.  What difference does that make?  Plenty, actually.  To some degree people enjoy reading about characters like themselves.  Well, currently my books are getting a lot of attention from Romantic Times.  The Southlands books are garnering very good reviews from RT, and my female readership is on the rise.  This is something I want to nurture —  a majority of all readers are women, and I want them to continue to read my books.  And right now my book has too many boys and not enough girls.  Does this make me crassly commercial?  Maybe.  But as I’ve started thinking about this change, I’ve started seeing exciting possibilities for sexual tension between the character I’m considering changing and my lead character. 

Yes, I’m an artist, but I’m also a businessman.  Part of my job is to be true to my characters and my story, but part of it is to sell books.  I say this not to rationalize or justify.  Well, okay, maybe a little bit to rationalize and justify.  But also because this is the reality of what I do.  To some degree I write for myself, and I have been known to fight long and hard to preserve an artistic decision with which my editor does not agree.  I also write for my audience, however, and part of my goal is to maximize that audience.  The key for me is finding balance between the artistic and the commercial.  If I thought that changing the gender of a lead character would compromise the integrity of my story, I wouldn’t do it, no matter the commercial benefit.  As it happens, I see artistic potential in a choice that might also help me commercially.  I’d be a fool not to consider it.

If I can be so bold as to offer advice:  You should always strive to be true to your creative vision, but you shouldn’t ever be embarrassed to think about the commercial ramifications of your artistic choices.  There may be virtue in sticking to your artistic principles no matter the cost, but if nobody reads your book, who’s going to know how virtuous you were….?

David B. Coe

13 comments to Artistic Choices and the Market

  • David said, “There may be virtue in sticking to your artistic principles no matter the cost, but if nobody reads your book, who’s going to know how virtuous you were….?”

    *wild applause*

    I had to rewrite Mad Kestrel twice for my editor before Tor bought it, and I became so tired of hearing people tell me I had sold out for doing what my editor asked of me.

    If the changes he wanted had been out of whack with the final story, I’d have argued. But they weren’t. His suggestions were solid and improved the story, and I ended up published. I think it all comes back to knowing what we want out of writing. 😀

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Nice article, David.

    John actually had an editor request a change for political reasons once. John wrote his first novel in the 90s, but it came out soon after 9/11. In the book, he had a bunch of bad guys who were soldiers in the U.S. Army. After 9/11, his editor did not feel this was appropriate any more.

    John sympathized with his editors point of view. He added a scene that made it clear that these particular soldiers were bad guys who had been recruited by the enemy for this purpose and not average soldiers. The scene both met the editors criteria and improved the story (it added additional dimension to some of the lesser villains.)

  • Thanks for the comments, Jagi and Misty. Seems to me that the lesson here is clear: Editors will ask for changes on any manuscript. Some of them will be purely aesthetic in nature; some will stem from marketing concerns. We as authors have to decide what we want to do with those suggestions. No one would say that you need to accept them without first examining them critically; but neither should you reject them out of hand. You want your book to be as good as it can be. You want it to reflect YOUR creative vision. And you want it to sell. Your goal in evaluating editorial comments and artistic decisions should be to find the best balance among those three things.

  • I’ve thought long about this subject myself with my current WIP. The story will touch on several touchy subjects and I have wondered what an editor’s response might be to them.

    Thanks for the great post, David. This is definitely something that writers face, I think.

  • Great post David!
    Two comments. One, you said:
    >one of my Winds of the Forelands characters told me that she was pregnant literally as I was typing the words. Now fortunately this character was a woman, so it didn’t make things TOO difficult for me.

    I *love* this! I’ve heard you say this before and it perfectly makes the point that characters are *real* to us.

    My editor for Skinwalker (out in July) thought that one of the the inner voices of my main character was too distracting, and wanted me to change it (a lot) and then cut out major portions of the inner voice scenes. I fought hard for it (in a totally professional, logical, and reasonable way, of course. No guns, knives, or claws), feeling that it made *made* the story.

    We compromised on several aspects of the voice and she suggested several places I could cut sections, tightening scenes, and I followed her advice to the letter there. It was a difficult negotiation, as this was the first book we’d worked on together, but it was worth it. The book is *much* better for combining her wisdom with my vision.

  • Thanks, Mark. I think you’re wise (no pun intended) to have it in the back of your mind that issues might come up. You want to think about how you’ll react if they do — what you’ll compromise on, and what you’ll insist on keeping. I also think you’re smart to write the book as you want it to be and use your artistic vision as the starting point in whatever discussions arise. It may be that your editor will have no problem with any of it, in which case you have exactly the book you’d envisioned. Good luck with it.

    Faith wrote: “The book is *much* better for combining her wisdom with my vision.” YES!! That’s the key phrase right there: the author’s vision combined with the editor’s wisdom. Thanks, Faith. That’s perfect. Wish you’d been at my shoulder as I was writing the post in the first place.

  • Heidi Berthiaume

    David wrote: And right now my book has too many boys …

    which some women may not find to be a bad thing. I’m just saying. 😉

  • You’re absolutely right, Heidi. And I appreciate the feedback. I haven’t decided definitely to do this yet. I probably won’t decide until I’ve discussed it with my agent. I do think that for some women it does make a difference. But clearly not for all. Thanks again.

  • David, very thought-provoking issues, and an interesting tidbit for me regarding the gender split. Until you mentioned it, I don’t think I’ve realized how few female characters I have running around in my wip, other than my protagonist. Things to ponder! 🙂

  • Thanks, Hayley. Glad you found the post helpful. It’s very easy for us to get caught up in our worlds and plotlines and characters, and lose sight of little things like that gender balance I’ve been struggling with. Good luck with your WIP!

  • Cognition includes more than what we’re paying attention to. Sometimes it’s sub rosa, taking deep and shadowed paths the light of our waking minds never see. As when it occurs to me that “Light of Waking Minds” would make a neat title for a book.

    In other words, the pregnancy was your idea, but how you came up with it is on a need to know basis, and you don’t need to know. 🙂

  • Right, Alan. On some level I knew already. On some level it was my choice. But that level was buried pretty deep and it certainly felt like a revelation at the time.

  • I’m with Heidi. I usually like the male characters better. 🙂