Sunday 17th January 2021
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing careers recently. It might seem a bit presumptuous, but I’ve been asking myself what type of writer I want to be.
You have to be adaptable as a writer. It’s part of the reason I do the occasional short story or script. It’s not only a bit of a break, but also a way to expand your skill. I’ve seen friends who’ve written fantasy move to other genres. I don’t want to be disingenuous and say that it was motivated purely by the market, but there’s always this sliding scale in your head from pure art on one end to pure commercial at the other. As a commercial writer, you want to find some sort of balance. And it’s different for everyone. Plenty of people have made a good living writing pulpy commercial romance novels, and all credit to them.
But where do I want to be on this scale? There’s no right or wrong answer, just a focus. There are choices you have to make if you want a writing career.
The most obvious example of this is genre. I think I’ve pretty much established I’m predominantly a fantasy writer. But it goes a little deeper. I know at this stage that I can write Swords & Sorcery or Urban Fantasy, but I’m not so much an epic fantasy writer (at least by my definition). The epic fantasies I want to write are non-traditional. And non-traditional might not sell.
But here’s the thing. If you sell an Urban Fantasy novel, you’re going to be an Urban fantasy novelist. If it does well, publishers are going to want more Urban Fantasy from you. Maybe after a couple of contracts, if you’ve established a name, you might be able to branch into something different. If your books don’t sell, then it’s going to be harder to sell anything.
Of course, there are more options available to authors these days. Some create pseudonyms under which to write different genres or restart careers. There’s also the option to take a small following into self-publishing and grow your name yourself. But if you’re part way through a traditional publishing contract, that’s going to be harder. Not impossible, and publishers aren’t these gatekeepers that some like to think they are. But if you want to go into contracted work, there are always going to be conditions, which will result in some restrictions.
So, if your career path is traditional publishing, you have to both have a clear path based on commercial best case scenarios, and a million and one ways to adapt when things go tits up.
I’ve always said to myself that I believe accessibility is key. I love some of those novels where you come away not really understanding what it was all about, but still enjoyed the ride. However, I think the purpose of novels is to communicate, and for me I want to communicate to as many people as possible. The best writers are those that take complex ideas and distil them into an easy to understand story.
Yet I also love language – probably more than I realise. I love strong voice and poetic writing, but not so flowery that it fails to serve the story. Good writing can be simple. Good writing should be easy to understand.
So I want to write fun stories. I want big explosions and adventure and excitement, and that’s why I both love fantasy and want to write it. But it needs to have heart and voice and passion. I don’t want to go so far as have some moral or message to a story, but in my work on theme last year, I realise that there are issues both big and small that are important to me, and incorporating those is key.
I have ideas for some great novels that don’t sit nicely in any one genre, but I feel those are books for later in a career, when (and if) your name gets established and you have a bit of a looser reign over what you write. They are usually more difficult to write, and whilst they might make a good writing exercise to get a very bad first draft out, they’re not books I’m likely to get to this year. And I’ll be honest, I worry I might never get to them.
I’ve been following the same career plan for the last 10 years – possibly longer – and whilst it’s good to check in with myself, particularly when you feel frustrated and are feeling the slowness of publishing, I’m glad that I don’t think I need to change direction.
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