Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sitting on Middle Ground

Today, as I went walking (to iron out my computer scrunch, an ongoing challenge), I was listening to Bruce Springsteen on my mp3 player, and thinking about how he's brought out two albums recently after a long time of very little. By very little, I mean that my impression was he stopped touring and producing commercial music with big record companies. There was talk he'd retired permanently. Now he's back, and creating the music he wants to. Same with Tina Arena. During her concerts last month, she talked about walking away from the commercial rat race and finally reaching a place where she could create the kind of album she really wanted to, answering to no one but herself.

What she in fact recorded were two albums of covers of songs from the 60s and 70s, the kind of thing that many people apparently responded to with "why on earth would you do something so uncommercial and old hat?". Both albums have sold incredibly well, as have Springsteen's. But at what point (and how) do you come to a place where you can literally do as you want? Is it having a good amount of money behind you, so it doesn't really matter if the "product" doesn't sell? Or is it reaching a mountain-top of cynicism where you don't care about the risk anymore, as long as you don't have to do it "their way"?

And how does this relate to writers? Well, writing is also a creative endeavour that has, as its end, a "product" which is then sold. I remember a few years ago when Sue Grafton (who writes the alphabet crime novels) came out with a pretty mediocre H and I in the series, and was honest enough to acknowledge that they weren't very good. And then declared that henceforth her publisher would get a new manuscript when it was truly ready and the best it could be, instead of on a yearly schedule no matter what. By Novel No. 10, she was able to put her foot down. No doubt, many best-selling authors are under similar pressure to keep producing for the market, but once you are a best-seller, it must surely be easier to say, "Not yet, it's not good enough."

The other end of this spectrum is the unpublished writer. The writer with nothing to lose. The writer with plenty of time to rework and rework, because if they don't, they're not getting their book up to the highest standard and therefore something that might be accepted for publication. The writer who needs to come up with something new and original and special, in order to get that foot in the door. The writer who needs to take risks in order to get noticed. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

In the middle is the problem area. It can be a bit like a minefield. Writer A has a successful series out there, one that hasn't hit the bestseller lists but has sold quite well. Her publisher wants another series like the first one, or more books in that series. Writer A is sick to death of that series and wants to obliterate it from her brain. Writer B has two novels, similar in tone and style, well reviewed, one has won an award. He could write another one just like the first two, and maybe win another award, but ultimately his books only sell middlingly well, and he'd love to be able to give up his day job. Writer C has 25 books behind her, mostly for readers around 7-10 years, mostly humorous and light, and the last book published has real potential for a series of more of the same. She wants to write something dark and meaningful, something more literary and challenging.

The publishers of Writers A, B and C are making nice money out of their books. Why change a successful formula? Yes, something different and risky from any one of these authors could/might/has the slim potential to turn into a huge bestseller, but who can predict these things? The more risky the subject matter, the more you stray from what you're known for, the more risk of disaster and low sales. Who wants to take that risk, especially the way things are right now? So the middle ground author has two choices. They can keep writing what they're known for and hope their readership doesn't decide to move on to the next hot trendy writer, or they can write what they really want to, and hope their publisher will take a risk. Or that someone else will.

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place! I'd love to hear some comments about this, from all corners of the writing maze. Are you a beginner who doesn't know what the middle-listers are whining about? Or are you a middle-lister who is asking yourself these questions? Or are you Bruce Springsteen? (I wish.)


Anonymous said...

Great post, Sherryl. I'm unpublished in book form, and so am one of those writers still writing along on my own steam without deadlines or publisher expectations to limit me. However trying to write the 'break out' novel is intimidating. And every ms I write seems to be a slightly different genre, so I sometimes wonder how I'll develop a brand.

I would love to have the concerns of either writer A, B or C, however I certainly empathise with them! Every writing stage comes with its own stressors.


Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic post Sherryl. I found it very interesting. Given that I am a writer in progress, I'm yet to hone in on what book I wish to write. For instance, one of my mother's neighbours thought I would like to write an autobiography of my life in Italy, moving here etc, but not at present. I was thinking more along the lines of a children's book, a series perhaps or a fictional something for adults. And one day I wish to bring the Etruscans back to life by writing a novel about them, but for that I will need to do lots of research and my Italian will have to drastically improve to do so.

And in the back of my mind, I'm often thinking, should I bother, will any of these stand a chance to be published.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Sherryl. Very interesting to read. I am also like Katherine, yet unpublished in book form but we MUST work away
at polishing our novels and tuning our craft to be ready when that acceptance email drops into the Inbox!

Sherryl said...

Katherine, I've given up worrying about the brand thing. It suits certain authors like Andy Griffiths, but it also locks you into a certain kind of book.
I think it's not until you've had a few books published that it becomes an issue, or at least a question.
The 'breakout' novel is really the 'breakthrough' novel, isn't it? What is going to get you into print? Great writing plus great idea, and great timing, I guess.

Sherryl said...

Cathy, that's a good question - what is worth writing about? I think ultimately that you have to write about what really interests you most, or what you feel passionate about. It's got to be something that sustains you through all the revision and submissions, that belief that what you've written is worth the time and effort. I can't write about something just because it seems to be a hot topic. I have to find what drives me to tell a certain story.

Sherryl said...

BJ - crafting is up there with the things you must do, but the new writers I see getting published are often the ones who have come up with a whole new spin on something, or a new idea that simply sparkles. It's about pushing through the "been done before" ideas and taking risks. A scary proposition for many.