Good writers take risks.
I’m not talking about the risk of drinking too much at writing conferences and going back to your hotel room with the wrong people -- person -- and…er…yeah. Nor am I talking about signing contracts you know damn well you shouldn’t sign (although I’ll be posting in detail on that topic in June at Jessewave’s. I’m not talking about the worry of where to spend your hard earned promo pennies or the difficult decision of who to partner up with in anthologies (yes, it does matter). Anyone in business takes risks, and most writers are in business -- the business of selling their work to a publisher -- and then a reader.
But, as the guy in Joe Versus the Volcano says, I’m not arguing that with you! I’m talking about the risks we take with our writing.
In order to grow as a writer you’re going to have to take risks. A couple of recent events brought this sharply into focus for me. One was my reaction to the idea of death fic in a fandom I’m rather fond of. Why the hell would anyone want to write that? I says to myself, says I. Indignantly.
I don’t want to read that.
A lot of people don’t want to read that.
Does that mean it shouldn’t be written?
Of course not. Did the author know when she wrote the story that a lot of readers were going to give it a pass without even checking it out? Sure. Unless she’s very naïve, she knew that going in. She needed to write the story for herself. Maybe in a cathartic sort of way -- I have no idea about that -- but certainly in a testing her creative wings sort of way. She needed to take that creative risk.
The other thing that brought this to mind was the reaction of a few readers toward The Dark Farewell. Now most readers liked the story, but one or two folks hated it. I mean, with a gimme-my-money-back passion.
I don’t know why I’m chuckling as I write this because I actually love to please readers and make them happy. I’m a people-pleaser by nature. I like things to run smoothly and I like people to be happy. And I just can’t help thoroughly enjoying it when readers respond passionately and enthusiastically to my storytelling. Truthfully, I get as big a kick from it now as I did when I first started out. I realize that’s not a very sophisticated response, but hey.
One thing that was interesting to me was how many readers felt that I had made a “mistake” with the book because they didn’t enjoy it. That I had ended it the way I had because I lost interest in the story or had grown tired and just given up. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of faith in me (if I’d been in my right mind I’d never have let them down so badly) or the simple egotism of all readers (myself included).
In the words of the immortal philosopher: I meant to do that.
Which, if you didn’t care for the story probably seems like madness, but that’s the way it works.
See, it’s not a risk if there’s nothing to lose. By which I mean, if success is guaranteed -- say, another Adrien English novel -- there’s really no risk involved, is there?
Now, I don’t mean that everything we write has to involve a risk. That’s too exhausting to even contemplate. And there are different kinds of risks. There is the risk of writing in another genre or trying a new “voice” or exploring themes and situations that make you uncomfortable. There is the challenge of moving from a short format to a long format or vice versa. Or maybe trying co-writing.
There are all kinds of risks we can take with our writing, but one thing is for sure: in order to expand your range, to creatively grow, you have to challenge yourself, you have to take some risks.
That means you have to be willing to fall on your ass. In public.
Yeah, your risks won’t all end in success. Depending on how you define success. Most of us define it by strong sales and good reviews and positive reader feedback. And that’s great as far as it goes -- that’s what keeps us in business. But there is more to it. I feel very good about the creative risks I’ve taken over the past year. I feel like I’ve pushed myself and found ways to keep the work fresh and new -- even if only for myself. But opinion might be divided.
If you’re a reader who likes a certain thing, and you’re counting on your favorite writer to deliver it every single time, well…I can see it might be disappointing. I mean, if you liked Mary Stewart’s romantic-suspense and you hate fantasy, then no matter how good those Merlin books were, you’re still going to wish Mary had stuck to doing what you loved. Not everyone liked Robert Parker’s westerns. Some readers would have preferred he just wrote Spenser novels.
If I was handing out advice on taking risks, I’d say a certain amount of risk is commensurate with where you are in your career. If you’re trying hard to sell your first book, I don’t know that I’d start out writing unpopular themes and situations. Granted, it worked with the Adrien books (I can’t tell you how often I heard I could NOT have a main protagonist with a heart ailment). You have to weigh the risk of not being published with being true to your artistic self. Publishers are in the business of selling books lots of people want to read. They aren’t thwarting you just for the exercise.
Speaking of which, I wouldn’t do all your risky books with one publisher. That’s just not very diplomatic. Mix it up so that no one company bears the burden of your experimentation.
If you can’t bear to be criticized or to be unpopular, well, you probably should play it safe and stick to the tried and true.
But then again, if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t have gone into writing. The first time you put words on paper, you were taking a risk -- and you took a bigger risk the first time you showed that paper to anyone.
Risk. It’s part of the writer’s job description. So is rejection, but we’ll save thought that for another day.
So…Writers: what’s the riskiest thing you’ve written? How did it turn out? Readers: how many chances will you give a writer who disappoints you? Is there anything you won’t read no matter who writes it?