Monthly Archives: January 2011

Escaping market slavery

There are two schools of thought, residing at opposite ends of a spectrum, about how creative people approach the market with their works.  One side advocates writing (or filming, painting, programming) what makes you happiest, regardless of the market.  This often leads to quality work that may never find an audience.  The creator’s satisfaction coming solely from the work itself.

The other side advocates writing (or creating) what is popular, what people already like, or what the market already endorses.  This perspective may take advantage of an existing audience, but often the work is of inferior quality and doesn’t keep the audience engaged for long.  The creator may find an audience and get compensation , but the satisfaction may be either short-lived or hollow.

What then is a writer (or artist) to do?  Be true to one’s art and broke, or sell out and earn a few bucks?  Does it even matter?

Well let’s take an easy pot shot at Hollywood.  How many of us have observed that Hollywood seems to churn out more sequels than original movies?  How many of those original movies seem like movies we’ve seen before, just with different actors and settings?  How often have you left a movie with the same feeling you get when you’ve eaten too much theater popcorn:  a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

But then every so often a movie comes along that seems ahead of its time, is true to the vision of the director and writer and is a movie that you either watch again soon or talk about with everyone you know.

For me, Inception was that movie.  It was unlike any movie I’d ever seen and yet was so compelling, so watchable, so intricate, and so satisfying.  A satisfaction that still lingers.  A satisfaction that reminds me of a New York strip steak  from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.  It was savory to consume and a pleasure to digest.  Just like the movie, Inception.

Movies like that and The Matrix, ten years ago, show that creative vision and execution can create a new market or tap into the existing market in a different way.  Let’s face it, a great movie grows through word of mouth, or buzz, much more than advertisements and TV commercials.

So, the lesson to be learned for creative people pursuing the art of their choice, is to understand the market well enough to mold your vision into a form that will satisfy both needs, self-actualization and a connection with an audience.

If you choose to write (or create) for your own interest, then it doesn’t matter at all what anyone else wants.  You will find joy in the creation and achievement or your artistic vision.  And you will likely get supportive comments from friends and family.  And that is a great way to go.

However, if you intend to sell your work in any form, then you will need to understand the audience enough so that your vision allows a connection of ideas.  This does not mean that you jump on the latest trend and become a copycat creator.  Those bandwagons are usually already full and by the time you complete and present your work, the trend may have passed and you will be left behind.

A better strategy is to look for gaps or lulls in the market and fill them with the best quality work you can produce.  Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight at a time when the teen vampire market was concentrated around Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television and Anne Rice had long since moved on to non-vampire writings.  There was a gap and she filled it with a compelling emotional story that became hugely popular in just a few short years.

There are many who claim that J.K. Rowling is a genius of audience analysis because her Harry Potter series is set predominantly against the backdrop of a school for wizards.  Her young audience is all in school, and so it is a setting they can relate to.  And older readers all remember their school days, so it brings back memories for them.  Add to that the wonder of a hidden world of magic and likable, three-dimensional characters and you have a recipe for success.

Now we all can’t strike proverbial market nirvana like Meyer or Rowling, but we can understand what has been produced over the past twenty years, attempt to forecast what the next ten years might look like and then seek to carve out our own market niche.

This means we avoid either extreme of the conventional schools of thought and blaze a new path, one that leads to a synthesis of our creative vision and the wants of our target audience.

For me, I pay attention to the fantasy genre.  I’ve read the classics and the not so classics.  I’ve read as many of the newer releases as I could and I’ve studied what makes them work.  By understanding what was come before, I can ensure I capture those universal elements in fantasy fiction that readers expect.  By tracking what is being released and is successful now, I can ascertain what new elements are attracting readers to the fantasy genre.  Also, I understand what I should avoid, so that my work does NOT appear too derivative or imitative.  Armed with this market knowledge, I am now writing my contribution to the field, hoping what I sow will give me something to reap in the near future.

While the adage “a writer writes” is true, that is not enough for a career in writing.  Perhaps I should revise that mantra to “a published writer writes to capture a share of the market”.

Does anyone out there have any success in escaping market slavery and becoming a master?


Outlines are for wimps

I have never liked outlines.  Thinking through a story and crafting a narrative skeleton only to start at the beginning again to flesh out the details.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  These cycles can take a hours, days, or weeks as you are writing, but not really writing. Only when the story structure, acts, chapters and scenes are designed can you begin the actual task of writing the first sentence of the story.

So, I never used an outline.  I believed that writing a story was an act of discovery for me, the writer, and I did not want to know how the story ended any more than I wanted to know the ending of a book I read.  How much more fluid and spontaneous would my narrative be if I didn’t know what was going to happen next?  How much more could my characters ad lib and pursue tangents and tell me, the writer, what they really wanted to do?  How could I justify putting a script in my characters’ hands and telling them to only say this and do this?

After all, this is how Stephen King writes.  Hasn’t he published forty plus books and sold millions?  He doesn’t use outlines and if we are supposed to emulate the most successful people, why wouldn’t I emulate one of the top sellers of all time?

Two unfinished novels totaling over five hundred pages later, I had my answer.

I didn’t have the skill or experience to write a story with the natural rhythms of structure and plot pouring out of my mind and onto my computer in a first draft.  I wrote myself into a dead end in each novel by not planning out how to get from the beginning of the story to the end.  I had a great concept, great characters, settings I either developed or knew well, and I had compelling opening scenes and conflicts to launch the action.

But somewhere along the way, all that untamed creative energy buzzing around in the recess of my mind dissipated and I was left with an empty reservoir of momentum.  I had no plan to move the story forward beyond the vast expanse of the middle of the story.  And so like many aspiring authors, I relied solely on creativity and inertia and when both were spent, I had a story that could go nowhere like a car with no fuel.  I was stranded on the side of the road to completion.

So, this year, with my new prequel novel I am writing an outline first.  A story plan, structure plan, character plan, and everything else plan so that when I’m six months into the first draft, I don’t stop and wonder what is going on with the story and why it isn’t working.  I intend to avoid writing myself into the proverbial corner.

The month on January is my outline month.  February 1, I will begin writing the first draft.  With this plan, I except to spend less time along the way on detour and subplot tangents and more type craft the best story I can write.

When I finish the first draft, I will then know that it was the outline that made the difference.

If that makes me a wimp, to use an outline, then so be it.  I take that title all the way to publication.

–Mark


Novel Update #2

As is often the case when starting a big writing project, a writer finds himself at a crossroads.  My writing pilgrimage began in the summer of 2009 with the intent to write the first book in an epic fantasy series.  15 months and 90,000 words later, I discovered that the market currently does not support first novelists with long books (meaning 120,000 words is the ceiling).  Since my book was on pace for 180,000 words, I was going to be significantly over the acceptable limit.

What to do?  Stop writing and grumble about the state of the market?  Resurrect old writing projects, like a romantic comedy screenplay?  Read some more how to books?  Play a new video game?

Or all of the above, in my case.  So how is this a novel update?  After several weeks of writerly angst and some very good advice from my wife, who is also my muse, I decided to write a “prequel” novel to my epic fantasy series that is much shorter and more suitable for the current market.

Why do this?

Here are the benefits:

  1. I’ve already done all the world building for this series of books.  Many of the same characters are already developed and a prequel just captures events when they are younger.
  2. The prologue to my last year’s big novel is actually the end of what will be the prequel.
  3. The whole story deepens and all characters have much greater motivations be telling the story in the prequel.
  4. Just like The Hobbit is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, my prequel will tell an earlier, but essential beginning to the overall story and sets the stage nicely for all this is come.
  5. The last year’s big novel will need far less back story and fewer flashbacks because those events will actually occur in the prequel.
  6. When I resume writing last year’s big novel, I will already be half-finished.
  7. I will be a better writer after the prequel is written and will be able to add new skill to complete last year’s novel.

So, the very short version of the update is that I’m starting a new novel with a working title of “The Lost Tower.”  For those who recall, last year’s big novel was called “The Tower” but is now entitled “The Codex of Shrines.”

I am currently outlining the story and writing new character biographies.  I expect to begin writing the first draft by the first of February.  I did not outline last year, so I expect to be more focused and more productive with fewer stalls or detours this year.

As a reader, we don’t often realize what happens backstage with the writer and his story before it is published.  We only see the books on the shelves or online in a catalog.  Often each published novel has an interesting story of its own in how it came to be.  And hopefully THAT story is not more interesting than novel itself.

May we all overcome perceived roadblocks in our pursuit of goals and at year’s end be able to look back with satisfaction at what we have accomplished.

–Mark


Resolve nothing and do more

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Like many of you at the beginning of 2011, I reflect back on what I accomplished in 2010 compared to what I resolved to accomplish last January.

And like many of you, I fell short.

At the start of 2010, I had just begun the first draft of my fantasy novel, The Tower, and resolved to finish the first draft by summer, edit and revise by September, and have it submitted to agents and publishers for consideration by end of year.

So, how did I do?

For a story I expected to finish north of 175,000 words, I hit a wall at 90K.  But I hit that wall in October.  So, in nearly the full year, I wrote just over half the projected story.  And then I got the unwelcome news from a member of my writing group that agents and publishers weren’t considering books over 100K words by newcomers.  I felt like a gong that had just been struck by a huge mallet.  My proverbial bones and guts were ringing and vibrating in shock and awe at the unfortunate state of the market.

What did I do?  I did the unthinkable.  I did the unfathomable.  I did the absolutely expected thing that many aspiring writers do.  I stopped writing.  Gasp!  You didn’t?  Yes.  I was flummoxed.  I was stymied.  I was a deflated balloon.

After five months of world-building and 10 months of writing.  My project was a no go even if I finished the draft in 2010 as planned.

Where did that leave me for 2011?  What would I do next to muster some momentum and reboot my writing?

How will I increase productivity this coming year?  Is that even possible?  Shouldn’t I be renewing last year’s resolutions and adding more specifics, or more personal incentives?  Shouldn’t I stick with the modern cultural expectation of at least making some token resolutions?

I believe it was Einstein who said that the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So, rather than setting resolutions and the expectations to meet them and falling short, I am going to reverse the expectations on myself and thereby open up an unlimited potential for accomplishment.

“Let me ‘splain.   No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.”  Bonus points to whoever recognizes that movie line.

The key is simply setting realistic goals (not resolutions).  In my experience resolutions are what we tell others or ourselves we want to accomplish this new year.  Things like “I want to get a promotion at work,” or “I want to exercise more,” or “I want to eat a healthier diet” or “I want to travel more”, or even “I want to write a novel,” of all things.

But what happens with all these verbalized or cogitated wants?  When they prove elusive from our initial efforts in January and February, we eventually shrug and say, “I tried.”  We then resume or previous behaviors and nothing has really changed.  We convince ourselves that at least we made some resolutions, so we’re okay with it.

Goals are different.  They are not simply wants that are talked about.  A goal is something written down in its specificity and then pursued via a plan.  Progress is marked and adjustments are made until the goal is reached.

Imagine a football team receiving a kick-off and starting with the ball on their own 20 yard line.  A “resolution” might be: “We want to score some points.”  So, they run or pass the ball a couple of times and then after no immediate success or only gaining a few yards, they have to give up and punt.  A “goal” however looks and acts different.  A goal is: “We intend to score a touchdown for six points.  We have 80 yards to go and therefore must achieve up to 7 first downs by moving the ball an average of 4 yards per play.  Let’s use these formations and run these plays and make adjustments based on the defense along the way.”

We all know football.  You score a touchdown when the ball crosses the “goal” line.  It is rare that you score a touchdown on one single play.  Typically, it takes a dozen plays moving the ball several yards at a time.  Sometimes, you gain a big chunk of yards, sometimes you get sacked for a loss of eight yards.  These are the markers of progress and setbacks in seeking the goal.  Forward movement is half the battle.

Like football, success in life is achieved one step at a time.  Rarely all at once.

For a great breakdown of how to structure a goal for the year, go to Randy Ingermanson’s web site and read the January 2011 copy of his e-zine (click link to open a PDF copy).  He is a writing guru who gives great advice that is useful to writers and non-writers alike.  He lays out goals in an easy to understand and easy to follow manner.

Like last year, I will track my writing progress and I will report it here periodically.  I have two main goals in 2011.

  1. Revise and submit my romantic comedy screenplay for representation, sale, or contest placement
  2. Start and finish the 1st draft of my prequel novel with the working title of, “The Lost Tower” and begin submission for representation by an agent.

For clarification, the novel I worked on last year had a working title of “The Tower,” but has been updated to “The Codex of Shrines” and is now Book 2 in the series.

Don’t worry about the titles, they will likely change again, but my goal to finish will not.  I resolve nothing, but I have very specific and very achievable goals.

And so should you.  What are they?  Share so we hold each other accountable…

–Mark


Scott's Grimoire

MY SPOT OF INK: my ramblings on the ups and downs of writing a fantasy novel (or anything else that grabs my interest - books, food, movies, life)

The Undiscovered Author

A Day in the Life of aspiring Fantasy Author Stephen A. Watkins

Geoff's Ruminations

The thoughts and passions of a hopeful future author.