Monday, July 1, 2013

How to Deal When You're Told Your Idea Won't Work

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.



In last Wednesday's discussion about the special books we write and skill set and all that, a very interesting question arose in the comments. Cait asked, "What if the book that's special to you is too unique, or too 'different,' and people have told you it won't work? Are people right or are you right?"

Often this question gets phrased as, "Should I write for the market or myself?" This is a question that almost every working writer must ask at some point - what kind of compromises am I willing to make?

I've been confronted with the dreaded statement of, "your story won't work," or, "this won't fit in the market." When I'm being told that, here's how I deal with it:

Who is this person?

If you're being told that a story idea won't work, this is the first thing I would start with. What kind of credentials does this person have? What's their reputation? Does their opinion mean much?

People tell me all the time that they're so glad I write for teens because there just "isn't much out there for them to read." Um, you mean other than the books shelved in Barnes and Noble's huge teen section? Other that tremendous list of YA books you can order from Amazon?

These are people who mean well but don't know their stuff. It'd be stupid for me to take what they say and think, "Wow, there's not much out there for teens to read."

Make sure you're thinking through who's offering their opinion. And this goes for people who are feeding you happy thoughts too - before you take it to heart and act on it, be aware of who they are.

Why do they think what they do? What are their arguments? How many others agree?

So you're being told your story idea won't work. Sometimes (especially if you're me and you would rather just agree than be in conflict with someone) this can be so deflating we don't ask questions. Try very, very hard to not get defensive. Instead ask why.

Is there a particular element of the story that makes them think this? Have they seen it too much already?   Push them to offer concrete reasons. If they already know of five other Snow White retellings releasing next summer, that's information you want to know.

Why do I think my story will work? Does any evidence back me up?

Sometimes our stories are more of a "gut" thing. Like Stephen King says in his book On Writing, "Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad."

Regardless, if you want to publish this book, you'll need to provide "evidence" that it'll work. This is where you look at the current market and say, "I think my books will succeed for this reason." If you were Stephenie Meyer trying to sell Twilight a few years ago, you might say something about how many millions of viewers Buffy the Vampire Slayer still had when it was cancelled. If you're wanting to write about the 1960s, you can point to successful shows like Mad Men

Think broadly with this - video games, graphic novels, movies, and hot topics in culture.

Is there a compromise I can make?

There are very few (I would say "none" but as soon as I do, I'll discover one) new writers who naturally write stories that meet all the criteria of a published book. They write books that are too long or too short. Their main character is too perfect or too unlikable. Their prose is too flowery or too dialogue heavy. Their beginnings are too slow or too quick. Their endings are too neatly tied or too ambiguous.

When we start out, we all have a lot to learn about communicating our stories to readers. While writing a shorter book or cutting words may grate against our nature as a writer, those who do it often see that the story is strengthened. (And the reverse is true too - those of us who naturally write short books figure out our pacing and depth issues, and the story is strengthened because of it.)

Writers have to make choices about what matters and what doesn't. I wanted to cling to dialogue tags, but I chose to give them up when I saw the wisdom behind action beats. I decided it was more important to me to learn how to use action beats than it was for me to cling to my writing instincts.

So if you find that for some reason your story idea doesn't work in the market, it's a great time to ask if you can compromise and:

Am I willing to make that compromise?

My heart has always been to write for teens, but for a while when all those doors had closed, I decided I would try my hand at writing for adults. I figured maybe I could break into the adult market, and then come back around to writing for teens. I didn't walk very far along that path when an agent asked to see more of Me, Just Different. 

There are some compromises I'm happy to make as a writer. Word count? Sure, I can tailor my word count for a publishing line. A word or two they would rather I not use? Okay, fine. Typically that pushes me to come up with something I like better anyway.

But there are plenty of compromises that I wouldn't be able to make.

To circle back to Cait's question, "are people right or are you right?" I would answer with, "how much does it matter to you?" Maybe they're right that your story wouldn't work for a publishing house. You might have to make the decision to compromise a book contract for the story you're burning to write. Or maybe you're right and the story will be unique in that wonderful way that has editors fighting over it. There's risk involved in writing stories, and you have to decide how much risk you're willing to take.


26 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post! I think the answer to this question could go either way. I mean, it seems like more ideas are actually working these days than they used to. The other day I saw a teen book about vampires in an Amish community. It seemed pretty outrageous to me, but I read mostly historical fiction and that fast-emerging "college/twenty-somethings" genre so I'm definitely a little biased. Lol. It was obvious that people had been buying the books, so I guess some people don't consider Amish vampires to be a bad idea. You know that saying, "If you build it, they will come."? It seems that "If you write it (and write it well), SOMEONE will read it."

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    1. What a great way to put it, Ashley! Funny story - "Amish vampires" were an industry joke back when Amish fiction and Twilight were the rage. And then some very clever writers ran with the idea. You never know where inspiration will strike!

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    2. That's great. Lol. Maximizing upon a joke. I think you'd have to be pretty clever to weave vampires and Amish culture together. :)

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  2. It's also helpful to remember that trends come and go, popularity of things change, and you just never know when the pendulum will swing your way. Six years ago, I heard nothing but "No European-set historicals! Write American!" So I set aside the books I'd written and wrote new ones, which sold. Now what's my next contract? European-set historicals. Fun. =)

    And I also have to say that I have books I wrote just for me, not for publication. Maybe some would view them as wasted time (and I may now that time is so much harder to come by), but they were great for me, helped me grow. Wouldn't trade those manuscripts for anything. =)

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    1. Yes, that's a great point! Like how everyone was saying chick-lit was done and couldn't be sold. But now it's reemerged as romantic comedies.

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  3. This is a question I've had on my mind for a while, actually. I've had others shut down ideas that I had loved, causing me to wonder if I was wasting my time by writing the ideas. But eventually I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't really worry about what other people think. Even if I never got these novels published, writing them would help me improve as a writer. Besides, the people who put down my ideas didn't have much knowledge about the market anyway, so I shouldn't really pay much attention to their opinions, right? Thanks for this post!

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  4. One of the things which bugs me about the Internet is people constantly contradict each other! One person says "always write what you know" and the next says to experiment! Gah! And there are many different answers to this question. So I never knew who or what to believe, but I love this site and all the other advice has been amazing, so now I know who to trust :) I agree that you need to go with your gut, because if you're just writing something for the sake of writing something that will fit in the market, a) your heart won't be in it so you won't write it well, and b) it will be unoriginal. As Roseanna said, trends come and go. And all the books that have gotten really popular are quite different (or were at the time of being published. Now there are a gazillion vampires vs werewolves variations.) -- take the Hunger Games! I bet loads of people rejected that because if the whole creepy teens-killing-each-other thing, but now it's huge!

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    1. Hannah, I'm glad you feel you can trust us :) We try to be honest about what we know and what we simply have opinions about, but not a ton of experience with. And that's the frustrating thing about learning how to write great stories - great writing teachers disagree with each other all the time. Ultimately, you're the one who knows your story and who knows what works for you.

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    2. Goodness, yes! Would the internet please make up it's mind? ;)
      Stephanie, thank you so much for this incredibly amazing website that is made specially for us teen writers. It's so helpful! I am writing a lot better everyday.
      Hannah, I just thought of something random. Your name would be an awesome pseudonym- Hannah J.-- Hannah Jay. Or something like that. It just sounds cool. :)

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    3. Catsi-- that is just freaky you mention it because I emailed Stephanie asking about pseudonyms last week and she said we'll get the answer in a post! Hannah Jay -- I love it! :)

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    4. That is a little creepy... Weird how things do that sometimes, isn't it? Can't wait for the blog post! Glad you like the name!

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  5. Hey Stephanie, I guess I am one of those people who say that there isn't much out there for teens to read. I suppose I mean that there isn't much good stuff. Thank you for this post, very useful!
    Please keep writing good books!

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    1. Yes, that's true - sometimes people mean that there's not much they WANT their teen reading. (In my original draft, I actually went into that, and then I'm like, "No, this is a bunny trail!" and I cut it, so I'm glad you mentioned it!)

      And, thank you. I'm glad you feel my books are good :)

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  6. This post is really nice! Thank you!
    I do like the part about people not knowing the market. And yes, trends do come and go! Why can't I start the next one? It has to start somewhere, right? Haha!

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    1. Haha, I'm always trying to start a trend. They never go anywhere though... (OK, I can see why. I guess not everyone is as obsessed with dragons and demigods as I am. XD)

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    2. Er... what is a demigod?

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    3. If you read the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, a demigod is defined as somebody who is half mortal and other part a god or goddess. In other words, the offspring of an Olympian and a human. The human then possess the traits of the god/goddess part. But these traits usually are not strong.
      This is my super nerdy part talking, lol. I like books :)

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    4. Oh okay. Cool. Thanks!

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    5. Yep. I like those books, and actually started a book on the adventures of my own demigods. As a defense, I was 13 at the time. And the writing's not too bad. There's just no conflict. At all. Good practice, though!

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  7. I know it matters whether or not your story will make it in the market, but you just don't know whether it will or not. Today teens are reading "The Hunger Games", tomorrow they maybe reading political fiction (Ha! I like that genre's name!) we just don't know.
    The point is if there's a story you love write it. It may make it on shelves in a book store on the other hand, it may not. Some of the most unexpected books become the greatest hits.

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  8. I'm just going to hug this post. It's brilliant. Thank you SO so so much.
    I guess I should take note of who I'm listening to, but they're usually writers like me (and the odd few with credentials too). Which probably means they have a point, I'm guessing. It's really hard to shelve a project that is my dream though.

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  9. I don't pay attention to what other people think because most of time they just say "yeah that good" but that doesn't really help me. Mostly becaue I have what I think are really good idea's but usually I just tell them about it because I haven't written it down or don't have it with me, so they don't really read it... And I never know what to do but so thanks for post!

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  10. I found this really encouraging this morning, Stephanie. Thanks!

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  11. Great advice Stephanie. It can be very hard to persevere when criticised.

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