Thursday, January 21, 2021

Misplacing The Problem

     Time and chance occasionally present a writer with a problem, or several of them, that have an odd aspect. Such a problem can at first look like a blessing. But with the passage of time its Murphy-esque character becomes clear.

     As an opinion writer, my worst problem has always been having too many subjects to write about. Like most of us who blog, I keep a folder of bookmarks to stories that deserve the touch of my leaden rapier. That folder repeatedly fills up to a despair-inducing level. I periodically delete the whole thing without bothering to review its contents...and feel guilty about it for quite a while afterward.

     As a fiction writer, my worst problem is ideas. No, not a lack thereof; a superfluity, an embarras de richesse. Other fictioneers have dismissed it as “a good problem to have.” I’ve tried to view it that way, but it truth it’s an albatross around my neck. A novelist who seizes upon a juicy, perhaps entirely fresh idea but fails to exploit it suffers incredible guilt pangs over it.

     (No, we seldom “give away” such an idea to other novelists caught in a dry spell. Very few writers are that generous. Instead the idea gets filed away for future exploitation “when I really need inspiration.” In the usual case, the idea is misplaced, lost until some other writer happens upon it. Ironies abound.)

     Earlier this morning I was grumping over my inability to choose from among four separate novel-scale plots when I happened upon an “I wept that I had no shoes” situation: a writer who feels compelled to write a story he detests:

     ... I haven’t been able to write anything else. I should be working on a sword-and-sorcery short for Tales From The Magician’s Skull, which is due before April 1 and should take about a week, if I buckle down and get to it. But I may have to finish the d-mned novel first. This is the time for multiple projects at once, and for the first time in my writing life, I can’t seem to manage it.

     For a book that might not even be publishable.

     I don’t know the writer cited above personally. I have no idea why he detests time-travel romance, the genre in which he currently feels compelled to write. I don’t know why he thinks the ultimate product might be unworthy. But as one who has occasionally suffered similar agonies, I feel for him.

     Fiction writing is tough enough without feeling a need to do something you abhor. It’s the sort of thing that makes one question the reality of free will. Whatever the case, it leads to a story I’ve told now and then in a writers’ circle. Perhaps it will help take my Gentle Readers’ minds off the horror of our political situation and its likely fruits, at least for a little while.

     Way back in the early Cretinaceous Era, when I was still doggedly pursuing “conventional” publication, I had a series of agents. All three were perfectly nice people. All three were striving for a respectable place among their colleagues. And all three of them spoke warmly, even fulsomely, of my books. But they couldn’t move them. Then as now, my stuff was too far off the beaten track for any publisher to take a chance on it.

     Publishing is, after all, a business. Publishers may have gotten into the business out of a love for fiction, but they must make money to remain in business. The key to success in publishing is to anticipate correctly what a significant number of readers would buy. That’s a lot harder than marketing a gadget with a specific function. It makes the Prime Directive of the publishing world a phrase that writers repeat to one another and themselves as something between a mantra and a cri de coeur: “The same, but different.”

     The difficulties publishers face in assessing the marketability of submitted novels gave rise to the system of genres that characterize the fiction world. Yes, Gentle Reader: there was a time before bookstores were neatly arranged into genres. Genres were publishers’ first thrust at customer targeting: aiming the product more or less directly at him who is most likely to find it attractive. The subgenres that have proliferated in recent years are just an extension of the approach. The system benefits publisher and reader alike.

     And there is this: the genres are not equal. Some are more popular than others.

     So my first agent counseled me to write a romance. Romance, she said, is the easiest genre for a new writer to penetrate. The market for romances is truly immense. So write a romance, Fran—and keep all that weird crap about anarcho-capitalism, alternate Creation myths, and millennia-long combat between immortal representatives of the demigods out of it!

     I disdained her advice without giving it serious consideration. She kept slathering my books with praise, but she remained unable to move them. We parted sadly, but on good terms.

     My second and third agents were similarly inclined. My novels intrigued and pleased them as readers—both told me that they’d never encountered anything quite like them—but they were as unable to move them as my first agent. And both counseled me, for reasons that require no further elucidation, to try my hand at romance. I shied back from the notion as I had previously. I insisted that it wasn’t “my thing.” In point of fact, I simply lacked the necessary respect for the genre and its devotees...but I was unwilling to admit it.

     (“Ve get too soon old und too late schmart.” – Old saying)

     Eventually (2016) I did write a novel-length romance. And I found that not only was it more popular than all my other stuff combined, I actually enjoyed writing it. I loved the characters and the central idea. I enjoyed crafting a series of escalating problems for my protagonists to surmount. I’ve written other romances of varying lengths since then, and I’ve enjoyed them just as much. And I’ve occasionally wondered what my earlier stubbornness had cost me.

     Sometimes, we humans are unwilling to be candid about “the problem.” We routinely objectify it, separate it from ourselves, and push it out to arm’s length where we can sneer at it. But sometimes the problem is inside us. Sometimes the key to solving it is honesty about one’s own limitations, or preferences...or prejudices.

     Just a few morsels for casual contemplation.

1 comment:

squeeky's mom said...

Read some time ago about a married lady w/3 children on a ranch in the wilds of a western state who received from a friend a large box of Harlequin romance novels. Turning her nose up at such drivel she put it aside. Cue the blizzard so she turned to the dreaded box of romance. After reading about 10 she realized there was a pattern. Being an enterprising young lady she charted how they were crafted. Beginning when they meet, why they have problems, how they get back together, how soon the mild sexual scenes are introduced and the HEA. She charted the entire box and then proceeded to write her own and submit to a publisher. Of course she sold the first and went on to become a best selling author. She wouldn't answer the question of how she now thought about romances.