Monday, December 10, 2007

Unsolicited Advice

by Joyce DiPastena

[This post springs from some of my personal experiences, both before and after I self-published my medieval novel earlier this year.]

“I can’t sell my medieval novel,” I sigh. “Agents and editors say they like it, but they don’t know how to market it. ‘It has too much plot to be a romance,’ they say. ‘It doesn’t have enough pageantry to be a historical. And it doesn’t follow the mystery formula strictly enough to fit on the mystery shelves, either.’”

Sometimes a writer just needs to whine a little about the unsympathetic publishing world. Sometimes, all we’re looking for is a listening ear, an encouraging pat on the back, a bracing, “Don’t give up.”

But what do we most often get instead? Unsolicited advice.

“I’ve read tons of fantasy books set in the Middle Ages,” my sister enthusiastically informs me. “Just throw a little magic in. Or hey, the ‘alternative history’ field is big right now. Tell a historical story, but change the way history actually turns out. Your book would sell like anything!”

A friend in the ward, after reading my novel said, “I enjoyed your book, but my favorite historical author of all time is Dorothy Dunnett. I’ll bet you could write a book like hers and it would sell. Or Sharon Kay Penman writes books about Henry II, the time period that you like. Why don’t you write a book like hers?

“I’ll bet you could write great LDS novels,” a non-member friend tells me. “You’re so strong and active in your Church. You’d be a whiz at it. Why don’t you try the LDS market?

And my brother? “Aztecs,” he says. “Just put a couple of Aztecs in your [European medieval] novel. That’ll catch an editor’s eye. It’d be a bestseller for sure!”

(It’d catch an editor’s eye all right, but for all the wrong reasons!)

And my weary refrains to each of the above, stating what should have been the obvious?

To my sister: “I don’t want to write a fantasy novel. That’s why I didn’t write a fantasy novel in the first place!”

To my LDS friend: “ I don’t want to write like Dorothy Dunnett or Sharon Kay Penman, I want to write like me. Besides, if those were the kinds of books I wanted to write, I would have written those kinds of books in the first place!”

To my non-LDS friend: “I don’t want to write LDS books. If I’d wanted to write LDS books, I’d have written an LDS book in the first place!”

As for my brother, I think I merely snorted inelegantly. (Aztecs, indeed!)

There is a time and place for receiving advice about our writing. How to improve it when structure, plotting, characterization, etc, are weak. And yes, about marketing realities…when we ask. (And of course, attending such things as critique groups, writing workshops/conferences, etc, carries with it an implication that we are asking.)

But I repeat, there are also times when what a writer—like any human being discouraged about any other subject--needs most of all is just a listening ear. Unless some version of the words, “What am I doing wrong?” spills forth from our lips, it is likely that we are not looking for solutions at the moment nearly so much as we are looking for a sympathetic ear and an understanding heart for what we are feeling.

6 comments:

  1. I guess every craft has its "arm chair" experts. And it is human nature to want to "fix" things when we hear someone whine. I haven't experienced getting much advice, but I just realized it is probably because I don't write enough!

    Thanks for the insight!

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  2. I hear you, Joyce. For what it's worth, Pamela Goodfellow, a retired creatve writing professor from the University of Washington (I think) who is teaching small classes in Gilbert about how to create a character-based novel, (Sorry, I know, that's a long intro, but instead of rewriting it, I'll add more, namely that she also had her own "Goodfellow Publishing" business) says genres were established by booksellers for the simple reason of expediency in knowing on which shelves to put which books, and where to direct customers. Dr. G. says no book worth its salt fits into any category completely.

    So your book is unique, and satisfying. That ought to be a selling point.

    I say hooray for creativity -- and you.

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  3. Joyce, aren't you glad you hung in there despite all the great (I jest) advice? Your novel is wonderful. But you are right. DOes it take another writer to discern quality and offer the kind of listening ear we all, on occasion crave? Good thing there is ANWA . . .

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  4. You know, Joyce, I'm guilty so many times of just that kind of thing. I luuuuuv to give advice. I'm trying to do better, but thankfully, no one listens to me.

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  5. Joyce,
    After reading your blog post, I went to your webpage and ended up ordering your book. I got the ebook today and read the whole thing. I loved it. Thanks for writing the book that you wanted to!

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  6. Wow, Terry! I'm floored! That was the last thing on my mind when I wrote this blog, but THANK YOU for ordering a copy, and I'm SOOO glad you enjoyed it!

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