Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How Original? How Edgy? Writing for a Market

One exhilarating thing about writing is that there are so many choices for our story.

When I’m working on the Memphis Barbeque series, the plot possibilities are endless. There are dozens of possibilities for story direction, new characters, and character development.

What I do know when I start writing, is that the book will be set in Memphis. There will be at least one murder (and probably two.) Much of the story’s activity will be centered around a barbeque restaurant.

There will not be a lot of profanity, excessive gore, or over-the-top violence.

The lack of profanity, gore and violence is because I know my genre and my readers—and I respect them. I’m writing for a particular market...and readers who might not buy my next book if they’re disappointed by a radical departure from cozy norms. Check out these posts from Margot Kinberg (she explains that these subgenre categories help readers find the kinds of books they want) and Alan Orloff (writers should know their audience and the conventions that audience expects.)

The story’s setting, the murders, and the centering around a restaurant is due to the series’ branding and the expectations of my publisher. This is how we’re marketing the series—it’s set in Memphis, Tennessee which is a vibrant city known for its barbeque. The series is a culinary mystery series.

When I signed the contract for the series, I agreed to certain conditions. My publisher paid me an advance on the books that I hadn’t written yet, and in return I promised to produce something that they could market and put on the shelf—that fit the parameters of the genre.

I was on Twitter the other day and someone sent me a message. They were interested in my agent’s name because they had written something that “had never been done before.”

I know that many unpublished writers say that they want to write a book that is unique and really stands out from the crowd…or the slush pile.

Of course you should write the book you want to write. The one with the characters that talk to you all hours of the day and night, begging for more lines.

But, if you’re looking for publication, I don’t think you have to go wildly original. And you don’t have to push the boundaries or be really edgy to stand out.

In most genres, there’s an audience for what’s considered standbys for the genre. And what you see on the shelves in those genres represent, for the most part, what works. What people want to read, what they’re talking about and sharing with each other.

It’s great to have the breakout novel that defies definition. I think many of us have a book like that in us.

But I think there’s a lot to be said for following industry guidelines for a genre and delivering something that can easily be marketed and sold. The type of book that readers of that genre genuinely love to read.

What makes your book unique and not the same as every other fantasy or YA book or mystery out there? Your characters and your voice.

So, if it’s the edgy, breakout novel that resists labeling is the one that’s asking you to be written, definitely write it.

But don’t feel like that’s the novel you have to write. There’s plenty of room for the old standards. For the kinds of stories that people go back to. For comfortable reads. For what works.

I think it’s great to wow an agent or editor with your unique voice and your amazing characters. I don’t think you necessarily have to forge new territory with a radically different or edgy plot.

And maybe…once you’ve established yourself in the industry with with reliable sales, you can more easily find a home for something really unusual or unique or edgy.

I know there are folks who feel otherwise, though, like the man who contacted me on Twitter. What do you think? New territory? Old standards? Which do you see making its way through the slush pile easier?