Was having a conversation with someone in the publishing industry recently, and it triggered an epiphany for me. Basically, I think The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms became my “breakout” novel (i.e., the one that actually got published, as opposed to the ones still sitting in my harddrive) because I stopped caring about what the market wanted.
OK, let me clarify. (Cut for length and a bit of profanity.) I’ve been writing novels since I was a child, though only the recent ones have been good enough to have a chance at publication. But in all of my novels, I’ve included things that the fantasy genre has — at various times including currently — seemed to turn up its nose at. Magic based on something other than D&D rules. Characterization that consists of more than stalwart heroes and faceless dark lords. Female protagonists, before the recent urban fantasy boom. People of color, GLBTQs, races that weren’t different species and none of whom were Always Chaotic Evil, older people who weren’t just advisors. Settings that were anywhere but medieval Europe. Whatever.
But because I write these atypical things, and I’ve always been aware that the genre regarded these things as iffy, I generally tried to keep the rest of the storytelling pretty conventional. Third person, multiple points of view, casts of dozens, big sword battles, male protagonists (I write about 50/50 male/female), plots that turn on getting the MacGuffin of Significance to the Place of Importance, etc. I’ve never minded writing this way, and in fact I think a couple of the books I’ve written this way are pretty darned good (and that’s high praise, from habitually self-deprecating me). But it did feel a bit constricting, somehow. Like playing a game by the rules, when what I really wanted to do was make up my own.
(BTW, did anybody else do that with Monopoly, as a kid? I remember that my cousins and I didn’t really understand how mortgages worked, so we came up with something very fantasyesque: whoever bought a property was its warlord and could charge anybody that tried to cross it. But if people didn’t want to pay, they could challenge the warlord! Then we would have a thumb war or an arm wrestle, and whoever won could throw the loser’s token across the room and dance the Dance of Victory, and then get the property for themselves.
…So, yeah. We were very bored. Moving on.)
Anyway, once I got my agent in 2004, I had high hopes. I’d acquired her on the strength of a novel that I thought would definitely be my breakout. It had everything the genre seemed to want, and it was the best writing I’d ever done to that point. I quickly wrote a sequel, since it was burning in my brain, and then I waited.
And waited. It didn’t sell.
There’s lots of possible reasons for that, note. Once I’m done with the Inheritance Trilogy, I’ll go back and take another look at those books, since rewriting 100K worked out so well for me. But the fact remained — I’d done everything by the book, and I’d failed.
I got very depressed, for a little while. Then I got mad. Existentially mad. Righteously mad. Because I knew full well those books were good. These days I understand the industry better, and I know that getting published is not necessarily about being a good author; it’s about being an author who’s writing what the market wants to see, at the time the market wants to see it. (Though being good helps.) But back then, all I could think was, goddammit I did what they wanted. WTH?
So I did some soul-searching, and then decided to take another look at an old trunked novel. I re-read it and thought it had good bones: mortals enslaving gods, political drama, interpersonal angst. And it wasn’t badly-written — though it, too, hadn’t sold. That one hadn’t even gotten me an agent.
And I thought, screw it.
I tossed the file, opened a blank one, and started the whole thing over from scratch. This time I didn’t bother with the rules. I wrote whatever narrative style popped into my head, however crazy and disjointed it sounded. I made the protagonist a girl, since that worked better anyway. I stopped trying to tone down the romance, and I went whole hog with the most cracktastic of my ideas. (“Yeah, a black hole! I don’t care if it couldn’t happen in reality! It’s fantasy, bitchez, I can do what I want!”) I did things all the writing books say not to do — dream sequence infodumps! Constant interruptions to the narrative flow! Cute kid sidekicks! Whatever! This was going to be my book, written the way I wanted to write it. If the fantasy genre thought I wasn’t good enough to publish, then the fantasy genre could kiss my ass.
So I wrote a few chapters. In the process, the righteous anger wore off and was replaced by doubt. I re-read what I’d written and realized, “Whoa. This is weird, but I kind of like it. But does it have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting published?” So I asked my agent for her opinion. I usually call her to let her know something’s on the way. The conversation went like this:
Me: So, uh, I’m sending you the first 100 pages of something new… it’s kind of weird. The style, I mean. I’m playing with some techniques… Uh, I don’t know about this. If it’s any good. Can you tell me if I should even keep writing this, or focus on something else? No rush.
Her: OK. I’ll get back to you in a few weeks.
Her, calling me a few weeks later: HOW SOON CAN YOU FINISH IT?
Her: Yes, it’s good. Yes, you should finish it. FINISH IT.
Me: Are you su —
Her: FINISH IT.
Me: (meekly) …okay…
So I finished it. And it sold. Quite frankly, it sold very well — in the end, three publishers were interested. And as far as I can tell, the early reception from readers has been amazingly positive.
The lesson here is obvious: trying to write what the market wanted didn’t work for me. Writing what I wanted, did. Now, this is not to say that every writer should throw convention to the winds and expect success; I’m a firm believer in the idea that writers have to master the rules before they start playing around with them. (And remember that some conventions exist for very good reasons.) But this is my personal takeaway, never mind anyone else: I need to trust myself more. I’m the kind of person who frequently second-guesses her own instincts — I think a lot of writers do — but I need to stop doing that. My instincts won’t always be right, but I think they’re more right than my conscious, conservative (in the artistic sense, not the political) brain tends to be. And here’s the thing: if I truly believe I’m a good writer, then I need to act like one. I need to stop worrying about what “the market” wants. “The market” consists of people like me, too, after all — people who are tired of what “the market” usually produces. So by writing for myself, I write for them.
And as long as I write my best for myself, I’ll be okay.
So, back to book 3.