Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What Kind of Writer Am I?

We're in an oasis of calm here, so anyone whose instinctive response to that question was to shout "A crap one!" can go and stand in the corner.

I've been spending the past few days pondering my options as a writer, and making the mental adjustment that a book that's consumed a year of my life is destined to spend a little longer--indeed, perhaps eternity--on my hard drive. Not only that, the rejection of The Last Free City probably marks the end of my Mondia sequence of novels, given the commercial reasons which drove Macmillan's decision.

I despise the kind of happy-clappy facile positive thinking that views every setback as a blessing in disguise. In this case, though, there's no question that this enforced change in direction is not without its beneficial aspects. Having a novel rejected in a way that undermines the entire series forces a serious re-evaluation of my writing goals; and I've been exploring that topic with Will.

So here are the avenues open to the just-rejected fantasy writer -

Give up

No siree! We don't want none of them potatoes!

Write another, better Mondia novel

This is the easiest option - up until the point where I try to publish ithe result I'm very clear that there's no appetite at Tor to see another Mondia novel. If I can place The Last Free City somewhere else, I can readily enough revisit Mondia in the future. Until that point, another foray into Mondia would be commercially ill-advised in already difficult market.

Start a new fantasy series

This would give me a fresh start in a genre I know I can write. With a better knowledge of the market I might be better placed to write something that will sell.

Migrate to a new genre

Before MNW picked up The Dog of the North, I was resolved that it would be my last attempt at a fantasy novel. I grew up reading fantasy, but these days it forms a smaller and smaller part of my diet. I can see now that this is reflected in my development as a writer: with hindsight, The Last Free City is hardly fantasy at all.

If Macmillan had picked up The Last Free City it's unlikely that I would have gone through the rigorous examination of my strengths and interests as a writer as I did over the weekend. There is a certain kind of story I love to write - it will contain individual dramas played out against backgrounds of political intrigue, with morally ambiguous characters facing difficult choices with real consequences; it will be set in a place exotic to the reader, where nothing is quite as it seems. What I'm talking about here is, in fact, a better fit with historical fiction than fantasy. Have I been a closet hist-fic all along?

In truth, I've suspected as much for a while. Now, driven by necessity, I may need to prove it. Moving genres is a challenge - especially into one as exacting as historical fiction. Will has been very encouraging, and indeed is keener to see my ideas in this area than any other.

Looks like I'm going to need to dust off my research skills....


Doug Worgul said...

It seems to come down to trust, Tim. You probably need to trust yourself and your instincts on this. And it would probably be wise to trust Will, as well. Historical fiction offers so many rich opportunities for a writer of your talents.

Dude! Go for it!

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks Doug! While it's a bit scary to contemplate doing something in a genre with the intellectual rigour of historical fiction, it's also exciting. (And Will's best advice when we were discussing this was "you have to write what excites you as a writer".)

The chance to reach a potentially larger audience is also appealing.

I've also really struggled for plot ideas as a fantasy writer - yet they're queuing up on the historical front.

Frances Garrood said...

Tim, I really feel for you. I have struggled, like you, with letting go of the old novel and wondering about genre, style and everything that goes with deciding where to go next. Several months on from my own Damoclean sword, I am at last settling down into something new. But I really do think it takes time. Maybe you need to let it come to you rather than put all your energies into looking for it. Perhaps take a mental holiday (or even a proper one)?. Having said that, historical fiction seems a good direction, and one which offers you the kind of writing which excites you.

As for 'give up' being one of your options, we didn't hear that.

Eliza Graham said...

' it will contain individual dramas played out against backgrounds of political intrigue, with morally ambiguous characters facing difficult choices with real consequences; it will be set in a place exotic to the reader, where nothing is quite as it seems.'

Are you sure you don't want to write about the Palace of Westminster?

Seriously--good luck with this. I'm so impressed that you've put yourself through this process, Tim.


Tim Stretton said...

Frances, I'm amazed at how many ideas are coming looking for me at the moment! In that sense, a break from fantasy, even if it's not permanent, is just what I need.

Eliza, Palace of Westminster 1605 - maybe!

Brian McGilloway said...

Best wishes with the new direction, Tim. I don't think writers can ever not write anyway, regardless, so giving up is never an option no matter how much you might want to at times.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Well, it's all very annoying that you seem to know exactly what you should be doing next after only a few days. It took me a year of vacillation to decide I should just keep doing the same thing. All sounds far too together and savvy. And logical. And annoying. I'm sure you'll do brilliantly at it. Hmph.

Matt Curran said...

Hi Tim

Never realised this was how you viewed Dog of the North, i.e. your last stab at fantasy.
If you were not that fussed with the fantasy genre and were looking to progress into writing other genres then perhaps the Mondia series was not really for you - or at least how Macmillan wanted it to be. It certainly sounds as though Last Free City broke this mould - and from experience skipping to another genre (no matter how closely related) mid-series is viewed as a big "no-no" by publishers.

As Will says, and pretty much everyone here would agree with, you write what interests you. While it might seem like a blow not continuing the Mondia sequence (and from someone who really enjoyed Dog of the North, it's a bit of a downer) as an author you don’t want to be branded by your publisher, writing something you don’t want to write, especially in a genre you don’t have as much time for as you once did. We see too many bestselling writers clogging the bookshelves of Waterstones with books they forced themselves to write due to contractual obligations or because churning out the same rubbish pays the bills, regardless of artistic integrity because you never realise the trap of branding until you find yourself stuck in it. Sometimes it is a trap, sometimes it is a blessing – but only if you enjoy what you’re writing. (At the moment I’m enjoying writing historical fantasies, but that will not last forever, and I’ve been looking into pseudonyms and other fantasy series to break myself out of this sub-genre in the long-run.
I don’t just want to write Secret War books…)

Dog of the North has shown you have not only the appetite but the aptitude to write gripping historical yarns, and the progression to this looks like an assured move. It also looks like a move that will take less time facilitating as it’s a close cousin to fantasy and it sounds like you already have the stories waiting in the wings.

Huge best wishes in this endeavour, and here’s to seeing the first “Tim Stretton historical novel” in print soon!

(PS: Apologies for the previous comment's typos - sleep deprivation is creeping in again!)

Tim Stretton said...

Aliya - I sense it may not be quite as straightforward as I am making it sound. Although my most promising idea may require a tax deductible trip to Versailles, so maybe not all bad... Much of the decision making has been going on the background for a while, so it's quite such a smooth journey as presented on the box.

Matt - I was happy enough writing fantasy but on my own terms. If the only way I could keep getting published in the genre was to go more commercial then that wasn't for me. But The Last Free City sits squarely within the "fantasy of manners" sub-genre: it would have appealed to readers of The Dog of the North. The problem there, of course, is that there weren't very many of them...

Matt Curran said...

"...It would have appealed to readers of The Dog of the North. The problem there, of course, is that there weren't very many of them..."

I can’t help but feel they’re being too hasty about this, especially just after six weeks. I know times are tough out there, but I would have thought waiting for another couple of months to see how sales would pan out would have been a good move. What if Dog of the North suddenly takes off? Would they publish Last Free City then? But what if you’ve already moved on to other things by then, maybe even another publisher? Aren’t some of the most successful books sleepers? They take months, even years to take off properly, but when they do, a publisher with a sequel or follow-up in the wings is the publisher that cashes in.

Just shows that when times are hard, long-term prospects and risk go out the window… Which I think is a scary prospect for most new writers.

Tim Stretton said...

Matt, I suppose that's the kind of gamble commercial publishers have to take. For every slow selling book that becomes a sleeper hit, there are no doubt hundreds of slow sellers that stay there.

Perhaps they'd have given it more than six weeks if TLFC had been more obviously pyrotechnic - but as you say, it's fairly early to be making a judgement.

David Isaak said...

Well, I think you have all the makings--and the natural tendencies--of a fine writer of historical fiction (look at what you tend to read, outside of fantasy). Your fantasy novels are very much historical fiction themselves; it's just that you've invented up the milieu.

So I'd encourage you to move ahead with that option. But I'd also encourage you to take some time on the side and see if you can find a home for TLFC. No reason you can't do both, is there?

Tim Stretton said...

TLFC has a query letter and six chapters sitting with an agent as we speak, David. We can but hope...

Ellie said...

You certainly don't let the grass grow under your feet, Tim!

Haarlson Phillipps said...

Thanks for sharing an honest, and possibly painful, appraisal of your strenghts as a writer. Illuminating. Good luck, Tim. Regards.

Tim Stretton said...

Eliza, all the time the book is sulking on my hard drive it's annoying me. I prefer to have it out of the house making new friends.

Haarlson, thanks for dropping by. The period of reflection was painful, but necessary. I'd like to be able to begin my next project without feeling I've encumbered it with anything more than my own unavoidable ineptitude...