I'm now midway through week two of my self-imposed holiday to get distance from FF, and I've officially lost the plot. I know this because whenever I read a writing related comment on Twitter, I am filled with sorrow and longing that someone else gets to be writing while I'm not. Seriously guys - I'm no good when I'm not writing. I was supposed to be getting some work in on Big Secret Project this week, but all I can think about right now is FF and working on that, so I've given up and I'm lolling about eating Quavers, drinking coffee and re-reading my Austen collection. O the glamour.
Okay, onto today's reader question! This is from Emma, via email:
...I have a really random problem with my writing, and I as wondering whether you had any advice or whether i'm just plain crazy! I've written a novel, but it is the first in a planned series of four. It still needs work, and of course the other books need to be planned more thoroughly though I know the overriding plot arch. But I'm familiar with the world and I really, really know and love my characters. But I don't think that this is the book that will get me published, mainly because I know (now) that publishers will not sign deals for a series from unknown authors. I absolutely want to come back to it but for now I have turned my attention to another idea. I love the idea and I have had some pretty big flashes of inspiration regarding plot etc. but I'm having trouble getting the characters from my series out of my head. I keep hearing what they are saying in the scene or their personalities creep into other characters and it's kind of stopping me getting to know my new characters. I think part of it is that I feel guilty for casting them aside for a bit, as crazy as it sounds!
ETA: Before you read the rant below - it turns out I've misread Emma's question and she has no intention of giving up work on her beloved series. She's really just wanting advice on how to work on a standalone book at the same time, because she'd like to know she CAN, and because she loves her other idea too. So - foolish Zolah! No cookie! Read more carefully next time! I only leave my rant in place because I think the points I make are good in general - just not in Emma's case. Sorry Emma!
This is a very interesting conundrum, and my reaction to it is...mixed.
My first reaction is 'Yeah, I can kind of see where Emma's coming from, you don't want to be spending your time and attention working on something that you can't see getting published'.
Now, according to that reaction, I'd be giving Emma the advice to take her time. Not to rush into work on her new idea but to let it mature - because it's only natural that the characters and story she's worked on before will linger in her mind a bit. Maybe Emma could go through the Build your Own Character questions listed here for her new story. Set up a notebook for the new idea and collect pictures that evoke it, write snippets of dialogue and random ideas. Get comfy with it. Then, when she feels like she's securely in the headspace of the new story and the pull of the old one has faded, start work.
The other reaction is more like this: 'WHAT ARE YOU DOING GIVING UP ON A STORY THAT YOU LOVE FOR MARKET REASONS?! YOU'RE NOT AN ACCOUNTANT, YOU'RE A WRITER! DON'T LET YOUR VISION BE DESTROYED BY WORRYING ABOUT PUBLISHING AT THIS POINT! GET BACK TO WORK ON THE BOOK YOU LOVE!'
Look, I understand that you want to get published, really I do. I spent pretty much every spare moment I had between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two working, researching, submitting, with the single aim of getting published. Wanting to be a published writer is a craving, a consuming ambition - and a very worthy one! There's nothing wrong with it. Unless you allow it to get in the way of the actual writing.
The harsh reality of the world is that there's no guarantee anyone will ever get published. I have a friend who is a fabulously talented writer. She's had many poems and short stories published, but she really wants to be a novelist. She's written all kinds of books - standalones, trilogies - and they're all fantastic. But for some reason her agent just can't find a home for any of them. It's never the right time, the right subject matter. The editor loves it but the editorial board don't. The editor accepts it and then leaves the company and no one else wants it. It's beyond the comprehension of any of her friends, but this lady simply can't seem to get a book into print.
I'm not saying this to be depressing. I'm saying this because the fact that she hasn't had a novel published does not make my friend any less of a writer. She has dedicated her life to books and stories. She has written books that she is passionate about and believes in. How could a life like be wasted? No matter what, she knows that she's done the right thing. And she hasn't stopped writing either. I admire her more than I can say.
Now imagine that she had spent the last thirty years of her life writing stories that she...liked. Sort of. But didn't love. Writing books that she felt had strong commercial appeal, which her research led her to believe would be received well by publishers. And then imagine that THE SAME THING HAPPENED.
What kind of a life would that have been?
Books that no one thinks have the slightest chance of being successful take off like a rocket and re-write sales history. Books that publishers snap up and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on sink without trace. Books that ought to get published languish for years, and books that make everyone roll their eyes sell translation rights in a hundred countries. No one knows why. Especially not the authors. The only consolation any of us have is that we've written what we love, what makes us excited, what we believe in.
Your new idea might be brilliant, Emma, but that doesn't mean it has any more chance of getting picked up than the series you were working on before. Maybe it SHOULD, according to all the research you've done, according to sense and reason and logic - but publishing is not a logical business, and expecting it to be as reasonable and sensible as you are will very likely lead to bleeding from the ears and uncontrollable screaming on your part.
Debut novelists get given multibook contracts all the time. Courtney Allison Moulton. Leah Clifford. Veronica Roth. Josephine Angelini. Cassandra Clare. Stephenie Meyer. All these guys were given contracts for several books after the publisher had seen their first one. No, it's not as common as selling a single book, but it does happen. So how can you make it happen?
It seems like the best way of going about it is to write a first book which a) stands on its own as much as possible and could be read as a standalone and b) is REALLY, REALLY GOOD.
So you might need to think about the ending of that first book, about making sure that it ends in a satisfying way and ties up at least some of the story arcs you've set in play, even if it leaves others open ended for the next book.
Then you need to make sure that the book is the absolute best it can be before you try to submit it. You need to believe in your story and characters absolutely and make sure that they LIVE on the page to have the best possible chance of capturing an agent or editor's heart. You need to make that book so awesome that the editor will be ripping their own nails off with the desire to find out what happens next to these characters.
Do you see where I'm going here? You have a lot more chance of writing that mega-awesome-amazing book if you yourself are consumed with the characters and their lives, if you're writing the story that is beating right next to your heart instead of the one that your head is telling you is better. And what's more, even if you don't get published writing this series, you'll have spend your time doing something you adore instead of something that makes you feel 'Meh'.
So my advice is this: focus on the writing. There is time enough to worry about getting a publisher when you've written the best novel you possibly can - and writing the best novel you possibly can is hard enough without second guessing yourself as to what you should be writing in the first place.