Friday, September 24, 2010

Good advice, bad advice, and a bunch of scary clowns

Over at the Debutante Ball this week, we’ve been blogging about good advice.

My post is up today, and you’ll be shocked to see I seized the opportunity to be a smart ass.

Just to prove I don’t always have to be a smart ass, I’ll take the subject (mostly) seriously here for a few paragraphs.

In an interview several months ago, I was asked to name the best and worst writing advice I’d ever received. I gave the same answer for both questions, which is probably a sign that I am exceptionally lazy. The best/worst advice is this:

Write the book of your heart.

It’s a phrase that's tossed around in writing circles all the time. The idea is that writers shouldn’t focus on chasing industry trends and what publishers say they’re seeking, but instead focus on writing the book that really speaks to them.

I’ve found that when my books start speaking to me, it means I need to lay off the Chianti. I do get the point though.

You can make yourself nuts chasing trends. I got burned when I jumped on the “next big thing” bandwagon trying to write women’s action/adventure novels for Harlequin/Silhouette’s Bombshell line in 2004. I sold my first book to them in 2005 and wrote two follow-ups that hadn’t made it to contract when the publisher decided it was not the next big thing and canceled the line one month before my scheduled debut.

What sucks is that I knew all along I didn’t really want to write that kind of book. I wasn’t clear what I did want to write, but I knew that wasn’t it and just figured it would be a good springboard for my career. Instead, I ended up with three unsalable manuscripts that would have made excellent lining for a hamster cage if I’d had a hamster.

So while chasing market trends isn’t the best career move, the flip side is the possibility of throwing your heart, soul, and maybe a kidney into a book that won’t sell.

After the Bombshell debacle, I wrote what you might consider “the book of my heart.” You already know the story behind A TRICKY UNDERTAKING, so I won’t dwell on the fact that this book didn’t sell despite the best efforts of two terrific agents and interest from a number of editors.

But I didn’t let that failure crush me, which is something I think can happen all too easily in these “book of your heart” scenarios. Writers convince themselves that pouring every ounce of themselves into a book will be their ticket to success. Then, if the market doesn’t cooperate, they’re left moaning, “but I gave you all I’ve got.”

The best thing I gained from writing A TRICKY UNDERTAKING was the opportunity to discover my “voice” in a way I hadn’t before. No one can take that away, not even if all the publishers in the world close down and we resort to reading the latest Oprah selection on scrolls.

While that book might have been the original “book of my heart,” I knew all along I had more books in me. That’s where MAKING WAVES and BELIEVE IT OR NOT and LET IT BREATHE came from (which is giving me the disturbing mental picture of books spewing from my brain like clowns from a teeny-tiny car).

My point here is this – it’s all about balance. You will make yourself nuts chasing the market instead of writing what you really want to write, and you will make yourself nuts pouring every ounce of yourself into a book that may not have a place in the market.

Research what’s selling, take that with a grain of salt, pour your heart into it, then make sure you can cope if no one wants to buy your heart (though I hear there’s a demand for organs on the black market).

How do you feel about the whole “book of your heart” issue? Do you believe such a thing exists? Do you think writers have an infinite number of books in them, or is your brain more like that clown car? Please share.

I’m going to research that black market organ thing. Think anyone would buy my liver?


Margaret said...

Well, I do believe you should write the "book(s) of your heart" because what makes them unique is the "you" in the equation, whether or not they also fall into a market segment. If you mimic the latest trend though, the books are less likely to sing.

However, on your first hearty ;) book, don't give up on it. The market changes and I know of more than one author who couldn't sell that earlier book worth a darn but 5-10 years later, it's the new hot thing.

Jason said...

Not having written a book (yet) I'm not sure my opinion carries a lot of weight, but I do believe balance is necessary. You can't just write whatever you want with little regard for the market and then be surprised and hurt when it doesn't sell. I think the market has to be a factor. Let's face it - we do right because we love to write, but we also want to get paid to do it. You don't get paid if you ignore the market.

As for infinite amount of books, I think it's different for every writer. Some are able to continually come up with unique characters and plotlines, while some seem to have only a few that have spoken to them (or maybe just a few good enough to be published). Still others come up with a formula they can stick to and be successful with. To me, though, I don't think a writer necessarily knows which kind they are (well, maybe the formula ones) while they are doing it. It's something you find out later when you look back.

I want to say also what I wrote is absolutely not a negative on writers who find a formula. I hope to find my own someday. :)

As for selling your liver as a black market organ...perhaps you should look into buying one? Just kidding. Maybe. :)

Terry said...

I actually never heard that phrase. I always heard write what you love to read. I can read Steele but after a while I want mystery. I can read Grisham but after a while I want or wish there was a relationship in there so I write romantic suspense. I also got the advice to never put "everything" into your first book. That way you'll always have something else to write. As for me I have a million ideas so that's not a problem!! lol

writermomof5 said...

After all that Chianti, maybe you should try a kidney instead. ; )

I wouldn't call the books I've written the books of my heart. Although I fell in love while I wrote them, it was the concept, characters and marketability that made me spend the time to write them. I do love my first book and it's simply not marketable now. Maybe one day.

I think what's most important is that you find your voice... it's like hitting your stride when running. Finding your voice makes everything else feel easier because you know you're where you're supposed to be.

Julie Musil said...

Not sure about the liver because of that chianti. Or is that the kidney?

You make a really great point about balance. I don't have any answers except to say that I'm writing about something that I enjoy, and I'm hoping that with revisions, I'll find a market for it. And if not? It's all great practice for "the one."

Piedmont Writer said...

I think both of my books have my heart. Each in its own different way. But I do think my second has allowed me to find my voice. Which to me is a good thing.

I never wanted to write for the market, I knew that right from the beginning, I just always hoped the market would be right for my books. The first one, not so much, but I have very high hopes for the second. We shall see.

Betty Angel said...

I have to say, as an unpublished author, that I write what I have to write. I don't write what 'might' sell but instead I write the books that are rambling around inside of me making snarky comments. If I don't write those books they band together and harrass me while I'm sleeping. Yes, I'd like one day to be paid for this but in reality if I don't write I'm the one who pays.

Rebecca White said...

I think you should definitely listen to your heart. I used to try to write literary novels, but would get about fifty pages in and lose steam. Then I came to the realization that I like thrillers. That is what I read, so why shouldn’t that be what I write? As soon as I made that decision, I was able to finally complete a novel that I can actually read without flinching.

If I hadn’t given myself free reign to write what I wanted, I would still be stuck with a drawer full of false starts.

Colene Murphy said...

Awesome, well said, and very very true. Thanks for the truth in this post. It's nice to hear something other than the same ol "follow your heart" but something with more depth than that.

Linda G. said...

Wise post, Tawna. :)

I don't know if I write the books of my heart so much as the books of my funny bone. (In my anatomy, the two are apparently in close proximity.) Keeping myself entertained is, for me, paramount to getting the job done. I figure if I can entertain myself, maybe I can do the same for future readers.

Susan S said...

This is such good advice. At the Maui Writers' Conference a few years back, John Lescroart said basically the same thing, only he said "you have to write the book that chooses you, which is not necessarily the book that you would choose." That really resonated with me, and I've tried to stick with it. Five years later, I think he's right - but I also think it's not necessarily the first book that gets you published, even if it was the right one to write at the time.

As your post points out, each successive book teaches you something about yourself as a writer (as well as improving your skills) and eventually you get to the "right" one for publication too. Thanks again for a very important reminder.

Harley May said...

You're smart.

Brenda Sedore said...

Very good post Tawna and a good question. I agree with what writermomof5 says in that the best way is to write in your voice. That way you'll always do your best writing (the writing of your heart so to speak) and won't necessarily be locked into a genre or style.

Learning your voice is an important step in the journey of being a professional writer. Until you do, you can more easily flounder in finding what you write best. Yes, you need to fit what you write into the industry, or you won't make good sales, but you can't let the industry be your only guide either. Like so many people have already said, balance is key.

Jeannie Moon said...

I've written the book of my heart...and I'm currently fighting the urge to pack it all in.

It's tough to keep hearing, "love your voice; you write so well; not for me."

terripatrick said...

I did write the "book of my heart" recently. I'd put it off for two decades but it had to be written. I knew I was killing a potentially promising career as a Superromance author, to write the BOMH.

But that BOMH is complete now, and is a hot-potato in the publishing world because it's got at least one "never-read" topic for almost everyone. :)

Of course I learned a lot and I'm back in romancelandia again. Fiction is the WORK of my heart.

Dominique said...

I guess I'd say the books I've written have all been books of my heart, because I don't think they're related to any bandwagon I've seen lately. If only I were tragically cool enough to pull of a vampire romance. Sadly, that's not what works for me. Still, I know I've enjoyed working on my projects a lot more than I would have writing a Twilight knock-off. That just isn't me.

Delia said...

I follow the Toni Morrison philosophy on this one. She said, "If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

That's what I do. I write the book I want to read and I do it to the best of my abilities (and, of course, I'm always trying to sharpen those abilities). That way, even if no one else wants it, at least I've made myself happy.

bettyfokker said...

Instead of writing the book of my heart, I think I'll start with other organs. First I'll write the book of my spleen and work my way up to the book of my gall bladder. Once I've made it all the way to the book of my liver, I'll contemplate the book of my heart.

Mary Brebner said...

Girl, you so smaaart! The advice to write the book of your heart is indeed the best AND worst writing advice. My first book (now hidden in a deep, dark well) was written from my heart--but my heart didn't know what it was doing. The next one was written with a confused heart. This one...well, we'll see what kind of heart I've got this year!

BTW, so excited about your books!

Jan Markley said...

Good advice - it's a balance between being aware of the market and writing what you feel (a new twist on the old favourite - write what you know). The worst advice I received was from a writer in residence who said no publisher would publish a children's book with the word dead in the title. My debut middle grade novel is called Dead Frog on the Porch to be followed this fall by the second in the series Dead Bird through the Cat Door!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

This is so what I needed to hear today. Not just because it's very true - don't do the 'popular' genre - but because it's encouraging. :) Thanks

pensees said...

I love how you point out that the book of your heart may never sell. I hear the "write what you love" axiom often, but then folks think that heart=publication and that's not always the case. I think you've hit the nail on the head here.

elizabethreinhardt said...

I love the quote Delia used. The BOMH is the book I NEEDED when I was seventeen, young, in love, passionate...and I love it still! But I write every single day, so I've written a few more and have loved growing. My BOMH will totally sell one day (and teen girls will swoon!), but until then, I keep seeing where else I want to go. Oh, and I totally have a Bombshell on my computer, written, polished, asked for and rejected! Man, they were really, really pushing that line, right?!

Claire Dawn said...

I must be a paranormal creature. Every book I write is "the book of my heart." So far, I have three hearts and will be picking up a new one in 2 months. lol.

I'm just that kind of person. Either I love something to pieces or it could fall off the Earth and I wouldn't notice. For me, it's pretty near impossible ot write something I don't love.

I'm not sure how well I deal with the possibility of not selling. I spend months not doing anything related to my books, and sometimes I feel like it's the fear that they'll never be good enough.

Bethany Mason said...

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Tawna Fenske said...

Wow, amazing discussion here, guys! Sorry I'm late jumping into it.

Margaret, we're definitely not giving up on TRICKY UNDERTAKING. My agent and I both believe that one WILL eventually's just a matter of when :)

Jason, this is a great insight, especially considering you haven't started writing yet: "You can't just write whatever you want with little regard for the market and then be surprised and hurt when it doesn't sell."

Terry, I think the "book of your heart" expression gets tossed around the most in romance writer circles. Go figure :)

writermomof5, great point! And there's no real way of knowing how long it'll take a writer to find his or her voice. Sometimes it happens fast, and other times it takes a few books.

Julie, I should probably buy both a liver and a kidney, just to be safe.

Piedmont Writer, high hopes are the best thing a writer can have :)

Betty Angel, great points all around!

Rebecca, I went through the same thing, thinking the action/adventure route was a good path for me because I'm pretty outdoorsy and it seemed like a nice niche. But the humor thing really started to take hold and I thought, "why the hell am I not doing more of THIS?!"

Colene, glad you liked it! It's all about balance, really :)

Linda G, what coincidence, my heart is also in close proximity to my funny bone!

Susan, Maui Writers' Conference? Why am I not attending this?! :)

Harley May, wanna make out?

Brenda, I think the whole "finding your voice" thing doesn't click with many writers at first. I'm writing, so it must be my voice, right? But there's this magical "click" we hear when we finally find it, and that's an amazing thing!

Jeannie, keep at it, girl! It only takes one "yes" in a sea of "nos."

terripatrick, that "hot potato" sounds intriguing!

Dominique, it's so great you know what is and isn't you. That's tough for a lot of writers to figure out.

Delia, I love that quote! Thanks for sharing it.

bettyfokker, I think the book of your ovaries has some merit, too.

Mary, glad you enjoyed it! I suppose we have to acknowledge that our hearts do tend to change.

Jan, OMG, those dead books sound terrific!

Bethany, I'm so glad you find it encouraging. I never really know if I'm being encouraging or just depressing.

Pensees, the challenge is learning not to be crushed if the "book of your heart" isn't "the one."

elizabethrheinhardt, ((hugs)) on the rejected Bombshell. That line really did have potential, and if I put my marketing geek hat on for just a moment, I'll say that I think it could have been a smashing success if only they'd done a smarter job of branding it and marketing outside their established readership.

Claire Dawn, now I'm picturing you with three hearts, five arms, and twelve stomachs. Or something like that.

Bethany, awww...thanks!

Thank you for reading, guys!

Abby Minard said...

I think finding your voice, and what you love to write is a good way to go. I think people would totally read through the lines and call me out if I wasn't writing what I truly loved, and was only writing what was popular. I think it would be kinda stale. But I also know that some things just won't work- like I'm avoiding vampires like the plague, even though I've always liked them (hello, Buffy!) and have kind of wanted to write about them. But they're old, and I know if I pour my heart into a book with vampires, it'll bomb.

I do agree with someone else that said- write what you like to read. And that's what I'm doing- YA fantasy.

Great post- it really makes you think. Thanks.

OfficeGirl said...

I am at a conference as we speak and the phrase of the day is this "Write what you're interested in, write what you know." Which is quickly followed by "Treat it like a business. Write for the reader if you want to sell." So its all very confusing. But there is truth in it. If you don't write what you love and or know then you won't write it well and readers know the diffrence between something thats cared about and something that is laughable.
They have been saying today that there is a SMALL percentage of people that will sell a book, very small. So heres what I think, write what you love so that you enjoy the journey. Theres no telling if it will ever sell even if you write for the reader but at least if you love it you can be proud of it. Dollars or no dollars.

Brad Jaeger said...

Liver fetches a nice price on the black market :p

I'm a new follower. Hiya!