Thursday 22nd June 2017
Let me preface this by saying that there are lots of ways to write a book, not only in the actual writing but in the planning and plotting as well. If you look at this and think “I don’t work like that” it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. In fact, you may do completely the opposite. It’s getting to the finish line that counts, not how you got there.
That said, I hope this will be informative for some people.
This evening I went to see Kate and Sophie in deepest Gloucestershire for a special cake club meeting. There’s a few things we want to do in the coming months and the idea was to find a time we were all available (we’re all getting increasingly busy) to go over some tech stuff for our plans.
It was intended to be very much a night of marketing / behind the scenes stuff rather than craft… but it ended up being very different.
Over dinner we got talking about books and ideas, and the evening quickly became a brainstorming evening.
Keep in mind that I think it’s fair to say that all three of us would like to write at the highest level possible. And that means looking at writing books not solely from a creative standpoint but also from a commercial one as well.
I don’t believe you write books deliberately for a market. Those that try and capture a zeitgeist tend to feel hollow and find that by the time they are finished, the ‘trend’ has long gone. However, if I learnt anything from writing the Four Realms and Black as Knight it’s that labels matter.
I hate labels. The Four Realms was this glorious mix of urban fantasy, epic fantasy, a splash of science fiction and everything in-between. It was very cross-genre and it does slightly irk me that we can have the latest Final Fantasy game come out and no-one bats an eyelid at driving around in a car to go kill monsters with magic. And yet, publishing seems really behind on that trend. Readers seem to like their silos.
The Four Realms never sat neatly under epic fantasy or urban fantasy or any of the established sub-genres. That was deliberate on my part and I thought that was what made it great.
But I was making that decision from a creative standpoint and ignoring the commercial.
Black as Knight was an experimental novel in terms of my writing process, and when I came to write it I decided (because this book would never get published) I would attempt something. I would make sure the novel sat firmly in one sub-genre.
Because I like huge set pieces and wanted to showcase to the world how much I deserved to be a writer due to my large imagination, I always felt epic fantasy was the genre for me. However, I’d always had problems with epic fantasy. I read the books but often came away slightly dissatisfied. In some ways, Four Realms started as me wanting to show how I’d do epic fantasy. It then grew in the telling.
So when I decided I wanted to do an experimental novel, my first choice was to do epic fantasy. Yet, I realised that the books I was loving and raving about, were all what I labelled as swords & sorcery.
I realised that I should be writing that type of book. Whether it eventually gets shelved under epic fantasy or one of a hundred other sub-genres doesn’t bother me, it was the fact that I was writing a book that I could place alongside some of the books I loved.
I think this is important. Speaking tonight, it was clear at least one of us should be writing in a completely different sub-genre. Remember if you sell a book in, say, historical fiction, it’s likely to be a 3 book deal. And if it does well, your publisher is likely to want another 3 books in that same genre before feeling you’ve established your name enough to branch out into different sub-genres Note: This is a very broad generalisation and there are plenty of examples of people who have done something completely differently. However, it stands to reason that if you love a certain sub-genre, you’re likely to write something that connects with readers better than tackling a sub-genre that you’re dissatisfied with.
I likened this choice of limiting yourself to a sub-genre as the cover of the book. Whilst styles change over time, you can often get a feeling from the cover on whether it’s epic fantasy or urban fantasy. As a reader scanning the bookshelf I search for that aesthetic that matches my tastes in sub-genres. Yes, I might see something different that catches my attention but a cover of a girl in the arms of a muscular man whose shirt is falling off, however good it is, is likely to send a visual message that it’s romance sub-genre and therefore not to my tastes.
I hated the idea of being limited by a sub-genre. It felt claustrophobic for me. But I was prepared to give it a go with this experimental novel. So I genuinely said aloud to myself a couple of months before I wrote it, “Fine, but if I write a swords & sorcery book, I’m having giant robots in it.”
And little did I know, but I think that’s an important thing. Readers want something the same, publishers want something different. And as a result it can feel conflicting. If you write something different, the feedback comes to make it more the same as what’s out there. If you write something the same as what’s out there, it’s not different enough.
So what I did with Black as Knight was to say that, yes, I would write what I considered a swords & sorcery book but inside that sub-genre I’d go as crazy as I like. The moment it stopped feeling like it was still a swords & sorcery book, then that was the moment I felt it had gone too far. So I constrained the edges but not the core. In that way, I feel I’m both the same and different as well.
So going back to the analogy of me shopping at a bookstore once I see a cover I like, I pick up a book and read the back. This is another area I got totally wrong with the Four Realms. I couldn’t explain that book in a paragraph if I tried. I still think it’s a great book, but it’s not an easy sell.
Black as Knight, however, I’m convinced got me my agent based on two words. If I say Regency Batman… it might not tell you everything you need to know. (No, it’s not actual Batman. No, it’s not the real regency period). But… with just those 2 words, I can pretty much paint a picture in your mind of the type of book you’re going to get. It’s a really strong concept. And I’m pretty sure the back blurb will give a good sense that the book sits firmly in a sub-genre whilst also being a bit different.
And that was the problem another friend had… the idea for the book was good. They explained the book and the plot was solid but… it lacked something. A hook.
Think of the books that have caught your attention. You know, those books that get announced a year in advance and you spend that year waiting to see if they are any good. Now sometimes the hook is good but the book isn’t.
Examples that have stuck with me have been Dinosaur Lords (which is a great title and tells you what to expect) and River of Teeth (which I remembered as Valley of Teeth but caught my attention because it has war hippos in it).
The back blurb needs something to elevate it from being just another sub-genre book to being a book that’s still on your radar a year later.
And so we spent a lot of time taking what would have been a really decent story and making something that’ll capture attention by being both different and a clear sub-genre. We also brainstormed some of the plot and gave it a lot more conflict.
If editing has taught me anything the last couple of years it’s that it’s amazing how much you can change and still tell the same story. Replace magic with technology and most fantasy novels work as Sci-Fi. The trick is to not be so fixed on an idea that you’re not willing to change it.
It was a really good session and I didn’t mind that we never got chance to do what we originally met for. I now really want to read one friend’s next novel (I may even offer to beta read despite being a slow reader and really busy) and another friend could start writing in a different sub-genre that I think will see her make some amazing strides.
I love these types of sessions because I think we know each other well enough to be absolutely brutal, not to be nasty and make people feel bad, but to rip a story apart and build it into something so much more awesome. We’ve done this a couple of times now with various people and the result is something we all want to read and the writer can’t wait to start.
I’m going to be really interested in following the progress.
If you want to follow more of my journey, then be sure to check me on my social channels. Likewise, if you’d like me to expand on any point mentioned above, please say so in the comments.
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