I am the market.

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?

Me: Bwuh?

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.

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26 Responses »

  1. I can’t even tell you how much I needed to see this post today. Seriously: a few days ago I finished the (very) rough draft of what I’ve been calling my IdNovel. After spending a few years starting and abandoning projects that I thought were Doing It Right I was frustrated and started it on a whim, wrote a story directly from my id that’s exactly what I’d want as a reader, and words poured out. Obviously it needs heavy revisions, and goodness knows if anything will come of it ever anyway, but seeing this post just made my day.

    (I’ve got 100K in my TBR pile and it just got skipped up quite a bit. *g*)

  2. Great to hear this one!!! I love it.

    I’ll add your post to my “Passion for Writing” feature on my blog tomorrow.

  3. “‘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.”

    A-freaking-men, lady.

    I’ve been seeing 100K recommended at a ton of blogs I read, and was debating whether or not to get into another damn fantasy series (no offense, but I’m sure you know the reputation the genre has deservedly earned re: series).

    This post convinced me to pick it up and read it ASAP. Not just because it sounds like it has all the unconventional things I secretly yearn for in fantasy, but because you had this revelation and wrote it for yourself. And my favorite books all feel like that: they were written for the author herself. Because she is the market, and she’s tired of reading contrived, market-tailored fiction.

    Hooray for writing for yourself.

  4. I cannot say amen enough to this. What is this ‘market’ thing everyone bellyaches about, anyway? Uh… us. There’s room for a lot more variety and pizazz than we think!

    Your novel I’m sure benefits from that surge of confidence and self-belief. Sometimes we need a little bit of angry energy to break out of a stifling mold… To hell with what some guy in a suit somewhere has decided ‘people want.’ This just proves the lesson that if you do something you genuinely enjoy doing, that joy will come through and attract attention. :)

  5. I think you’re right, and I’m glad for your epiphany.

  6. I want to play Monopoly with you. :)

  7. I quoted some of your post on my blog today for my daily “Passion for Writing” feature.

  8. Hear hear. Great post.

  9. I love this entry! Thanks for posting it.

  10. [i]I made the protagonist a girl, since that worked better anyway. I stopped trying to tone down the romance[/i]

    I have to admit that I strongly dislike the association of female protagonists (and authors) with import of romance on the overall plot in fantasy books, and romance was what I liked least in the Thousand Hundreds Kingdoms. I mean a deadly dangerous demon lover? They are a dime a dozen by now, surely.

    The unconventional writing style is great though, the worldbuilding, the mysteries, the characters (except for Nahadoth, who is very cliched), etc.

  11. I stopped trying to tone down the romance

    You go girl. Can’t wait to share this post with my blog readers. Very inspiring.

    I mean a deadly dangerous demon lover? They are a dime a dozen by now, surely.

    Not in SF/F they aren’t. The market is wide open for hybrids like fantasy romance and science fiction romance. Demon lovers, cyborg lovers–they’re all good!

  12. There are many badly written novels of supernatural romance; and yet they sell, because readers are desperate enough for reading material to buy them anyway. So the market for well written fantasy/romance is wide open.

    Wiiiiiiiiiide open.

    So… thank you for writing romance plot and description that didn’t make me gag. Some of it was pretty cracktastic, as you say; but it was still well-written. I enjoyed the intrigue and worldbuilding very much, and the dry first person asides hit the spot.

  13. Long ago, my art was glass; I’d make it in colors people were decorating in. They sometimes liked it; but when they didn’t >I< was stuck with it.. So, I began making what I wanted, and sure enough it sold (all but the last, largest piece).
    Now, I paint… And I do only what I want. (and I'm damned if it does NOT sell. LOL. Still, I like them; they're on my wall. And eventually someone will see them and want them.)
    Always always take your own path. (tho, yeah, if you wrote about vampires the youngsters would prob eat it up)(but would you be proud of it???)
    it's really about YOU, when it comes down to it!

  14. “Not in SF/F they aren’t.”

    Oh yes, they are. What passes for urban fantasy these days is brim-full with them. Saintcrow’s Japhrimal immediately comes to mind and there are tons of others. For that matter your garden-variety vampire or werewolf lover has too much in common with Nahadoth for comfort. My comfort, at least :).

  15. Following trends is always b.s. Doing anything other than writing for yourself and hoping readers will respond is b.s. We all have one life, and that’s it. Why compromise on what’s most personal?

    JeffV

  16. Just read “Non-Zero Probabilities”–loved it.

    Hadn’t heard of you before–looked you up.

    Read your entry above–loved it too.

    You’re cool–I like you.

    Keep writing–now I am your market too.

  17. This is exactly what I needed to read. Thank you for this post!

  18. All I can say is, “thank gawd you threw out what the market ‘wanted’ and wrote what YOU wanted”–cuz I LOVE it. Seriously, where do you get female characters THAT bada$$, and sizzling-hawt CLAMP-inspired biseinen who are both BL-friendly and strong heroine-friendly?? It’s like you wrote the perfect romance for me!! XD And obviously, you don’t find it really anywhere else! So I am very, very thankful~~~~ Good for you for trusting in yourself and going forth! You definitely had the writing chops to back it up~~

  19. I agree totally! But what I like and write is conventional fantasy! LOL!

  20. Trends or not, I think it comes down to one of two things:

    An agent (or someone to push for you)

    Luck

    At least with writing, you can publish in some small obscure place and still be published. Once you get well known, those pieces WILL be sought out and read, maybe even republished and bought.

    Art, well, it sits in a garage, attic, bedroom, et al. Until we die, and then someone would be glad to buy it for the (garage sale) price of the frame.

    It sucks being an artist sometimes.. we’re just as driven to do what we do… there are no agents anymore, galleries are stuck in this economy (and have been since 9-11). We’re told to move to NYC or Chicago or LA (sorry, NOT a city girl, tho I grew up in one. I don’t even like Portland OR) if we’re ‘serious’..

    Starving artist? Nope. We get married to someone who works, or get jobs ourselves… and yes, I’ve marketed (I’m bad at it, what can I say? can’t be good at everything ;) )

    Enough ranting.

    I DO want to say that I’m glad your novel has been accepted so readily, and hope that the others get even more, higher, acclaim!

    You go, and keep going :D

  21. The books that I love the most in this genre are the ones that have a strangeness to them, a special eccentricity and voice unique to that author alone. I’m just re-reading Julian May’s Pliocene Exile Series, a perfect example of this. The books are a strange mix of characters, milieus, and genres, one of the most memorable being a S&M loving lesbian, who is also sociopathic, a professional athlete, and ESP powerhouse.
    Love it.

    I also love your novel and I think it is the best of the lot up for the Nebula. It was a great read, but more importantly a f u n one. It sounds like it was just as much fun to write.

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