Phoebe recently did a post on editing, which got me thinking about how people approach their unpublished manuscripts. (And when I say ‘people’, I mean ‘me’.) There’s a lot of advice out there that covers more than just the technical side of writing. Blog posts dealing with how to approach genre boundaries and publishing categories and first-draft woes are a dime a dozen, and a lot of them boil down to a simple rule: just write what you want. Don’t worry about what genre you want to be published in, or what an editor is going to think of your unconventional story structure, or that nagging voice at the back of your head that keeps saying you’d be better off if you went with first-person instead of third. Just write, and get a first draft done at all costs.
I think some of the people who give out advice like that are suffering from a severe case of Writer Romanticism. Here’s why.
I think a lot of people want to believe that they’ll never have to make sacrifices to get publishes publication. Sure, plenty of other authors might need to do it on occasion, but you’ll be different; your sheer creative genius will ensure that no editor dares tamper with your vision. Not only do you not care about what genre your book is supposed to be, you’re not even sure what the different genres are. Creativity! Artistic integrity! Freedom!
And you know what? That’s probably a good attitude to have once you’re holding a contract in your hands. There are certain changes I’d absolutely refuse to make to my current WIP (hint: it’s a topic that’s been stirring up controversy in recent weeks), even if it meant foregoing publication. Instead, I’d like to suggest a slightly counter-intuitive option: that you take the constraints of the publishing industry into account while you’re still writing.
Are you planning on writing YA? Then try to make your manuscript suitable for that market from the beginning. And when I say ‘suitable’, I don’t mean in terms of its content. There are certain formal rules for YA that you probably don’t want to break without giving it a lot of consideration first. Viewpoint is a big one; in adult fantasy, for example, it’s usually expected that you have anywhere from four to (in the more extreme cases) eight or nine viewpoint characters, some of whom might only get a chapter or two to themselves. YA fantasy? Yeah, not so much. On the other hand, present tense narration is much more common in YA than it is in a lot of other publishing categories, which means you’re unlikely to face many objections down the line if you feel like using it. (Although I could personally do with seeing a lot less of it, which is clearly the most important thing here.)
I really don’t think this kind of consideration compromises your work’s merit. I mean, you want to get published, right? Then focus on getting published. Is your novel really going to be that much better just because you didn’t take its genre into account at the outset?
There’s a related idea that goes something along the lines of ‘Write first, revise later’ – in other words, get your first draft down even if it’s a mangled wreck and then fix it when you’re done. I’m starting to think this is among the worst pieces of advice out there, for the simple reason that there are times when ‘getting it finished’ is a terrible idea. Confession time: I’ve only finished a single first draft from start to finish. I got to the last sentence, finished it, and then instantly realized that I should have completely altered the story’s structure, focus and plot…starting from about the 5k mark. I first realised this around this at around 30k, but decided to keep going because I wanted to ‘just get it done’.
If you know that you’re going to radically alter the direction your story is going, there is no point continuing down the wrong path. If things aren’t working at 30k, stop and go back to the last point where they were working. I did this with Castor, my WIP. I was getting close to 50k when I realised that having things develop into a fairly typical, action-heavy chase plot was a horrible idea. That kind of story has never appealed to me, and my writing quickly went down the drain when I forced myself to try it. So I stopped, deleted something like 40k words, and started again with a revised plot. I’m now writing what is essentially a second draft, and it’s far superior to what I was doing before.
Those 40k words I deleted were not shining examples of pure creative energy. No amount of reworking would have ever turned them into shining examples of pure creative energy. They were just bad, or at least mediocre, so what use would it have been to keep them?
I would even say that it’s worth stopping to consider whether your novel is likely to have mainstream appeal. If you don’t care about that, no problem, but I’m not going to look down my nose at someone if they tell me that they tweaked their manuscript with a wider audience in mind. (I will look down my nose at anybody who says they’re writing a certain kind of story just to make money, though. Screw that.) Remember, you’re trying to get published, so write with that in mind.