Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Asking the Right Questions

Of course, there are no wrong questions when you're learning, but the more you learn about the publishing business, the more you realize how common it is for beginners to ask the "wrong" questions at the outset. I blame the portrayal of the publishing industry on TV and in movies. Ah, if only publishing worked like it does in the movies we'd all be rich and jet setting on all-expense paid tours to well-attended book signings....

Last week, a newly discovered Drunk Writer Stalker, posed a question in the comments of another post. The commenter is an aspiring writer wondering what line at Harlequin to target. And the way he framed his questions reminded both Molly and I of me -- of my six-years-ago self, anyway, so I thought I'd draw on Molly's advice to him for my blog post this week. Notice how I'm stealing from Molly? Shhh... Don't tell her.

Our new stalker's criteria for weighing the pros and cons of different Harlequin lines had to do with comments he'd read (here and other places) about the extent to which the various editors required revisions before buying, and how many books each editor was likely to ask her authors to write every year.

Molly quite rightly pointed out that all editors at Harlequin require revisions for most new authors, before acquiring...

Molly also pointed out that none of the Harlequin lines want one-hit-wonders, so no matter which line you write for, your editor will hope and/or expect you to produce at least two books a year. (Most hope for 3.) That's just what it takes to be a Harlequin author.

When I started writing, I asked different, but equally "wrong" questions about Harlequin. I was asking things like: which line is shortest? Which line is new and more likely to be picking up new authors? Which line fits this story I already started writing before ever reading any Harlequin novels? (Ultimately I chose the first line I targeted, based on the fact the editor of that line was coming to our chapter meeting and taking pitches. Sure, I can make it fit her line. Yeah, sure I can...)

The second of my "wrong" questions above isn't completely wrong-headed, but as both Molly and Stephanie can attest, there's a huge risk selling into those newer lines at Harlequin, because they don't always last. I never even got a chance to submit the second manuscript I wrote, because I was targeting the very short-lived Flipside line.

All this right question/wrong question stuff reminds me of a great talk I saw at nationals this year, given by agent Kristin Nelson, and her client Ally Carter. The format of their talk was a series of "wrong" questions to ask about writing YA, along with the "right" questions.

For example:
Wrong question: "How can I develop a young adult voice?"
Right question: "Will my voice appeal to teen readers?"


Wrong question: "What's the right word count for Young Adult fiction?"
Right question: "How important is pacing in Young Adult fiction?"

And this got me wondering, could we develop a similar list for people who want to write romance but don't know what kind of romance they want to tackle?

Romance is probably the most diverse genre in publishing with oodles of subgenres (just check out the annual Romantic Times award list). Sure, there's a lot going on in speculative/sci fi/fantasy, too... but I really think (contrary to an article done a few years ago in Writers Digest) that romance is the most diverse. That article on genre fiction showed a gazillion different branches of fantasy and sci-fi, but only five or six sub-genres for romance. I thought this was crazy, especially since I could go along the branches on that fantasy/sci-fi tree and tack the word romance after almost every branch to yield a fully formed sub-genre of romance that probably outsells its fantasy counterpart... But I'm going off on one of my tangents... **Maureen pulls herself back.**

So, let's take romance's diversity as a given. If you're starting out, what kind of romance should you write?

Even if you're not just starting out, this is a hard question. The single hardest lesson, I continue to work on learning, is to stop asking: What's hot right now? What are the editors looking for? AARGH.... Get that question out of my head.

Some of the right questions might be:

What books do I love to read?
Do my strengths as a writer lie in fast-paced plotting or slowly-developing, delicious, emotional moments?
Am I drawn to supernatural or suspense or futuristic elements?
Do I like writing tame or hot?
Do I enjoy doing research about historical periods?
Is my natural writing voice formal or casual?
Can I consistently deliver wit in my writing?
Can I write great action scenes, or scary scenes, or really hot sex scenes?
Are my story ideas big enough to carry a 90K+ book, or are they better suited for shorter novels?

But ultimately it all comes back to: "What books do I love to read?"

Sinead and I were chatting the other night about some changes I'm making to my current WIP. My concern (pre changes) was that given the premise and the conflict, the reader would be able to see the climax of my story coming from about chapter 3, if not sooner. I feared readers would know exactly what was going to come between the couple in the end, would see all the decisions and compromises and sacrifices each would have to make. Sure, they wouldn't know the details, but there was no getting around the core of the conflict between these two characters and it was cliche. And I wondered whether if I were reading this book -- even if it had an interesting premise, even if it was fast paced -- if I was 99% sure I knew where the story was leading me, would I just put the book down. (Sure, all romances end in a HEA, it's the climax or black moment that should sneak up and grab you.)

And Sinead, as usual, said something really smart. She pointed out that for the two of us, right now, because we're still sans publisher, (hey, we're publisher free!), we have no one to please but ourselves. And that's perhaps the one luxury of being unpublished. No one to please but yourself. If we don't write books we, ourselves, would like to read, then what's the point? Why not save the "do I really need to write another book like the last one, just to please my publisher and readers" stage until we run up against it?

Right now, we need to write for ourselves. (With an eye to the market of course. We're not that dumb.)

Can you think of other wrong and right questions to ask about writing romance?

And Milo. Ask more questions. Please. :-) We hereby promise never to say you've asked the wrong questions again.

Oh, and to answer your question about whether being a dude will hold you back? Short answer is no. It might even help you because you'll stand out from the crowd of submissions. You might want to use a female pseudonym, but not necessarily. And that's something you don't have to worry about now. That's something you can discuss with your editor after you sell. But contrary to the movies... you won't be jet-setting around on book tours where you'll be outed as a man. You won't need to hire a woman to pretend to be you like Hugh Jackman did in that silly movie. No worries, mate...


Kwana said...

Wonderful post Maureen. So well done. I still ofen ask myself the wrong questions.

D.D. Scott said...

Hello, Maureen!

D. D. Scott here!

What a fabulous post for all the "right" reasons!

For me, my wrong-to-right-aha-writer-moment was when I quit asking myself how to create my voice and started to see and hear the one I naturally put on the pages of my WIPs.

Les Edgerton, in his fabulous book FINDING YOUR VOICE, taught me the darn thing was there the entire time, I just had to recognize it for diva-in-training it was shaping up to be.

Sexy, Sassy, Smart Writer's Right Question Wishes --- D. D. Scott

Kimber Chin said...

I wish I had asked more questions (wrong or right).
I'm a shoot first, ask questions later type of gal.
Asking questions first would have saved me a lot of grief.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog with spot-on advice. I still ask the wrong questions sometimes but I'm getting better. What I know is I need to duct tape my internal editor, turn off spellcheck and write the story I enjoy.

Scotti Cohn said...

I nominated YOU for a Kreativ Blogger Award, because I like what you do for our shared artistic community! Check out my blog to claim the logo,, and keep up the amazing work.

Eileen said...

I feel like I'm still asking the wrong questions! One of the mistakes I made was to ignore a lot of workshops, etc., about the business of publishing. I figured I'd learn that part after I got published and that I needed to learn enough craft to get published first. I wasn't totally wrong, but I should have been paying a little more attention to those "what happens after The Call" workshops, too.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Eileen - your comment cracks me up. I was the exact opposite. I avoided all craft work shops because I thought it was hooey.

Just write the book if it gets published great, if it doesn't write another one.

It's only been since reading THIS blog and attending some workshops and meeting writers - that I've learned I need to spend more time on the craft if I'm going to grow as a writer.


Maureen McGowan said...

Thanks! Maybe sometimes we need a crystal ball for the questions as well as the answers.

Nice to see you here! I was the same way about voice... It took a while to come, but then bang, it was there. (I hope.) I blame years of writing business letters and memos, etc. on my suppressed voice. ;-)

I think you consider your options way more than you claim... Just an outsider observation :-) I admire your get things done attitude.

I think I could use some duct tape for my internal editor. Got tape?


Eileen and Stephanie,
It's funny to look back and think about what we all focused on and when. It always makes sense at the time... And I think with this crazy business, there's no way to do the right thing at the right time, at least not without a heck of a lot of luck. I remember when Diana Peterfreund first sold and she said it was like being powered up to the next level in a video game, but suddenly you no longer knew your surroundings, or had any weapons... I imagine no matter how prepared you are, it's probably a little like that.

Eileen said...

Ha! I STILL attend craft workshops and read craft books because deep down I'm convinced that someone is going to hand me the magic key that makes this easy.

Love the Diana P. quote. Very accurate.

Molly O'Keefe said...

so smart, maureen - honestly! Everytime you steal from me it's like you make silk out of swine ears or however that saying goes.

I think Diana's comment can be applied to the right/wrong questions thing too - I'm at a different stage in my career and the allure of asking the wrong questions - of getting caught up in those things like money, and professional jealousy and how much FREAKING time everything takes - is still there. It's always there. Because the right questions - about craft and story and diligence are so damn boring.

Sinead M said...

Maureen, great post and so true. When I first started writing, I wanted to know everything about getting published, not writing the best story I could.
Now I worry about both:)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...