Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Next Book Syndrome

This is really in response to Matt's latest blog entry at "Muskets and Monsters". I wanted to share my comments with everyone. I have been keenly following news on the second and subsequent book contracts with MNW and Pan Macmillan. The highs and lows have been shared on this blog. I have a lot of admiration for the discipline that Matt brings to his writing. He is already working on the Secret War series, and I am certain they will go a long way.
I find the writing of sequels really difficult. I can understand crime fiction with a central investigating character, but why should the same parameter work for other genres? Do readers look for continuity? I am ill at ease with the idea of a brand name. Is this a marketing strategy? But what if the author is inspired to write differently? I guess Matt wrote the Dark Hours because his imaginative trajectory was taking him in certain directions, and surely readers who will pick up his book because they liked what they had read earlier, will connect with the "similarities" and "differences" in his new work. I dare say they will like the "differences" more.
My creative phase takes me in different directions. I wrote a bunch of eclectic short stories while writing my academic book for Palgrave. I did this partly because I had less time for fiction. But it was also because my research on oral narratives made my ideas explosive, seeking short, concentrated forms of expression. What connected my work was something far more insidious than writing for a series. My editor at Picador could see the connect, and she told me that she was fascinated by this particular "phase" of writing. She even said she wants to read my academic book now! A big thank you!
I need to know: How do we plan out our next book? Do we write with the Imprint in mind? How do authors deal with a contrary creative impulse? Which is the common meeting ground for marketing and creative strategies? Do readers look for brand names? Are these creative consraints faced by all published authors?


David Isaak said...

A lot of readers do indeed seem to look for more of the same, and complain if they don't get it. That's life.

I think that many very successful "branded" genre writers are lucky in that, although they are writing many very similar books, they are writing exactly what they want to write. I think they are brands almost accidentally.

It can be a real struggle for a successful branded author to move out of their niche. Ken Follett, who in recent years has had great success in historical fiction, found it almost impossible to get the publishing industry let him move out of his thrillers.

As to how you do something contrary to your creative impulses--if you figure it out, let me know! I can't. In fact, my mind resists "assignments." It just wants to play.

This doesn't bode well for my career, does it?

Tim Stretton said...

"This doesn't bode well for my career, does it?"

--It bodes well for your durability, though.

I suppose I could do "assignments" if I put my mind to it, but why bother? It would be just like the day job,only worse-paid.

Which maybe explains why I've just submitted a fantasy novel to MNW with no discernible fantasy elements...

mags said...

I think you also need a solid and realistic understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. As a writer, I keep within my comfort zone; as a reader, I'm all over the place with a keen interest in WW II history, particularly the BoB and espionage (think Bletchley and Enigma). But when friends suggest I play to that interest by writing fiction set in WW II, I blanche.

It's not the research that's daunting because for my second novel (just submitted to Will) I did a boatload of research on a subject I knew nothing about. It's, well ... it's just not my writing comfort zone, that's all.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Unfortunately, I'm driven by stepping outside of my comfort zone and experimenting in new areas. A lot of the pleasure of writing for me is in stretching myself and doing the unexpected. So, unless being weird and different can become my selling point, I'm a bit stuffed.

I did think about this whole branding thing a lot last year, and went off the rails a bit, but after some helpful advice I'm back being weird again, which suits me better.

Frances said...

I think a lot of this comes down to why we write in the first place. For instance, of course it's wonderful being published and making a bit of money, but (having thought about this a lot recently) for me, the actual process - those wonderful highs when it's going well - are what make writing worthwhile. The best anyone can do is write what they WANT to write, whatever that may be. I agree with David that those who fit into a genre are fortunate; I certainly wish my writing did. Having said that, I think it is possible to swap - you won't be changing your own style, just the type of book you write. Susan Hill has done this most successfully by (recently ) turning to crime novels. But I think that if you set out to write the kind of novel that doesn't come naturally, it will read like that. Personally, I don't think Alexander McCall Smith should have left his lady detective. His other novels just aren't as good (although I can understand why he wanted to write them).

David Isaak said...

But Aliya...I thought weird was what defined your brand. I've read four of your books, and although they are very different they are all still unmistakably yours.

You'll just have to wait for the reading public to catch on to the fact that you're a genre of your own.

David Isaak said...

"It would be just like the day job, only worse-paid."

Tim, I've never heard it expressed so perfectly!

Alis said...

But is 'brand' the same as 'genre'? I'm not sure it is. OK, for some writers who write within very recognisable parameters, maybe the two are the same but I think 'brand' can be both narrower and broader than genre. For instance, Len Tyler's books are labelled 'crime' but are very different from those of Brian McGilloway - both are building a brand within the same genre but their books and their approach to their subject matter are very different. If one started writing like the other, despite the same 'genre' label, they would be wandering beyond the brand they are building.
If you're writing a series then I think you're stuck with brand. If you're approaching broadly similar material with the same kind of assumptions or the same literary structure, you're more or less building a brand.
But does it have to be like that? Isn't there a place for the kind of 'brand' (if that's what it is) defined by authorial voice?
For instance, Sebastian Faulks' novels are all astonishingly different (although, arguably, they are all within the literary genre, except for his foray into James Bond) it's the authority of his voice as the author which gives his books their identity. Is that a brand or not?

Doug Worgul said...

My day job is marketing. Branding is what I do. In the business of novels, the author is the brand. No mater how many different genres that author may write in, the author is the brand. Having said that, some brands are more well defined than others.

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Doug Worgul said...


Ann Weisgarber said...

Just to add to the complexity of this topic (along with Chinese characters!), it seems that authors who move out of a niche often use reoccuring themes in their novels. I'm thinking of Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News. The stories are different in terms of location and time period. And yet they both focus on characters who are lost souls.

So maybe it's particular themes that readers expect from authors.

Matt Curran said...

First things first... Huge thanks for everyone's support on this. It's a appreciated, but probably not deserving. I guess the first thing to say is that it really doesn't feel like a rejection from Macmillan as I'm still very much with them.

But following on from Suroopa’s post and the comments on the whole branding/writer's freedom issue, I think it's Mags that has hit the nail squarely on the head here.

I'll be the first to admit that my writing has its strengths and weakness – but that’s all part of learning the craft. The great thing about being an apprentice author that is published by a major publisher, is that you receive the kind of support and guidance that very few budding writers get - it's a privilege. But publishers need to make money out of this relationship and Macmillan see that when it comes to action/adventure fantasies, they have a writer who can deliver and hopefully become rather successful (and make them money), hence the branding, and perhaps why Random House published the German edition with my name quite a bit larger than the title of the book (they're selling the idea of the author before the idea of the book).

But this branding does mean Macmillan are hesitant on growing me unless it's on those established lines, i.e. as a fantasist.

As Aliya pointed out, quite a few of us like to write outside of our comfort zone - me included. The Secret War was very much a book written out of that zone (I hadn’t written historical fiction before then) and it paid off, which is perhaps why I feel compelled to experiment each time, and occasion, on disparate books.
The Black Hours is a book with no fantasy trappings. As a third draft it has its flaws – some of the pacing needs to be worked on – but it was liked by the publisher, and there’s the rub. I suppose it’s like confessing to someone you really fancy them, being told that they really like you back – but as a friend. They won’t commit to anything more than that, even if both of you know the temptation is there to be more than that. If they only laughed at you, saying they aren’t in the least bit attracted, then you could move on. And in the short term that would be better… but in the long term there’s a chance they may just commit; they may just take that risk. As Macmillan or another publisher may commit to the Black Hours later on in my career - it might be less of a career or publishing risk then.

In terms of my development, I admit it’s frustrating that I don’t have the freedom to feel my way into other genres, as I reckon experimentation is key to learning the Craft, and now as a part-time writer I have to ensure that what I write at least has a slim chance of publication - because I've sacrificed "paid" work to go part-time (and I’ll soon have three mouths to feed).
As I said to a friend and colleague, it looks like I’ll be treating all the non-fantasy writing as a hobby and the fantasy writing as THE job – which, you know, isn’t a bad position to be in (many apprentice writers would kill to be in my position). I love writing fantasy books – I really do. To prove it, I have this big A4 sized notebook in my study with the plots of several fantasy series scribbled and doodled onto the pages. If someone gave me the choice of being a fantasy writer or a thriller writer, I would choose the former without hesitation.

While branding/pigeonholing/genre-grounding/whatever-you-want-to-call-it does restrict your freedom, I reckon it's up to the writer to learn their craft and prove to the publisher they can write in other genres effectively, and consistently too (especially if they choose to adopt a pseudonym). Great writers are allowed to flit between genres (such as Iain Banks, James Patterson, Stephen King etc...) not just because they are established, but because their writing is persuasive enough to convince their publisher they can play more than one instrument.
As a debut novelist – an apprentice, really - I'm not in that position yet, but bloody hell, I aspire to be at some point down the line.
I have too many non-fantasy books up my sleeve not to.

suroopa said...

I discovered today that the debate continues on

Clearly it is an issue that concerns writers.

Green Kokichi said...
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