Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Making a Writer’s Plan: Charting a Course to a Career

On Wednesday, Bob Mayer wrote on Genreality about theimportance of having a plan as an author. I always like Mayer’s posts. They’re tough, honest, and challenging. I like someone who will challenge me to be my best.

But, as a young author, how does one make a plan and why are they so difficult to construct? Personally, I’ve had several plans, from vague concepts to detailed roadmaps that I come up with around New Years. Few things stay the same except a desire to be published and make a career out of writing.

I think one of the reasons making a plan as a young writer is so difficult is because there are so many paths to publication these days that it’s less like trying to read a map and more like trying to survive the Minotaur’s maze. Even if you reach the center, the end point, you might well get eaten by the tumultuous publishing market. Between self-publishing, small presses, traditional publishers, everything in between and no two people agreeing on the best way to go, what new writer dares set their plans in stone? On top of this, even if a writer constructs a plan, with the current market, some measure of fluidity seems wise. Three years ago, few would have considered digital publishing a viable alternative to print publishing, yet here we are with major brick and mortar stores teetering or collapsing, like Borders, traditional publishers who once were the solid, safe bet shedding midlist authors like a dog shedding his winter coat, and who knows what around the next corner.

I read a lot of blogs about publishing, by a number of authors who were once successful with traditional presses and now are embracing the digital and turning with disgust at some of the things certain traditional presses now do with contracts, promotion, or simply how they appear to value or not value their authors. Some of these people, like Mayer, who I respect a great deal, laud and embrace the new digital and small press or self-publishing routes. I see their appeal, and I see the value of opening up the possibilities, but I also see one common flaw in a lot of these authors’ perspectives. Yes, they are doing well on their own. Yes, they’ve done an admirable job of forging new territory in a brand new frontier of publishing, but they seem to forget one important detail: they started in a more stable time and often have audiences that followed them from print and traditional publishing on their pioneering trek through digital publishing on more independent routes.

For an author who must navigate this terrain without the aid of audiences and reputations earned from years before, the paths are more muddled and, I suspect, harder to tread. How does one form a solid plan in such an environment? It’s one thing to cross the Atlantic with the backing of the king and queen of Spain, entirely another to build your own ship from your own wits, luck, and perhaps a few pennies in your pocket and set out across the great sea to explore uncharted land.

So how do you do it?

The simplest, steadiest way is to come up with a plan with a backbone that can work no matter which part of the market you break into, whether it’s digital only, traditional, small press, or self-publishing. For example, taking inspiration from Mayer’s plan, you don’t just toss random books out there. When people read an author and decide they like him enough to purchase more of his work, generally they like to see some common thread that makes his stories unique and what appealed to them in the first place. Randomness does not create common threads or a steady path to readership.

How do you escape randomness? Especially as a new author, a series, the most obvious way to avoid this, may be hard to commit to. It takes a greater investment without necessarily equally greater results. Buying into a series is a larger act of faith from a publisher than contracting for a single book, especially from an untested author. Yet, without a series, how can you create that common thread?

Before I go into this further, remember that forcing a thread is probably not the wisest way to go. Books work and resonate because they sing within the writer, not because they come from a formula. Write passionately, whether you write literary fiction, horror, thrillers, romance, or about math, cows, or whatever it is. Write from what makes you up inside.

So back to that thread. Picking a genre, subgenre, or type of story is a good beginning. All my stories, for example, involve some sort of romance. The romance may not be the primary plot, but it is essential to the story and explored in depth. But I also enjoy writing in worlds that are not quite ours. As such, I work well with paranormal romance, urban fantasy, science fiction, and fantasy. I could do horror as well if I didn’t scare myself too much writing it.

Beyond this, look at patterns in your writing: themes, plot styles, character archetypes you enjoy. For me, I love putting my characters in situations where there is not always a clear right answer. I like exploring the heroic qualities of all my characters, including the antagonists. Similarly, I like to really test my heroes worth and see how far they will really go to achieve what they think is right. My heroes earn their happy ending. I don’t give them lightly.

You’ll notice that a lot of what I described about my writing revolves around characters and their relationships. I am a strong character writer, and all my plots hinge on relationships. If I create a story involving these things, I know I can play to my strengths. Once I really begin to build a career, my readers will know to expect good character development and relationships in my books. What commonalities lie in your writing? What strengths do you have that you can use to enhance your appeal as an author?

To translate this into a plan, let me give an example. The story idea “ what if Little Red Riding Hood didn’t live happily ever after” that I’ve mentioned in previous posts became the springboard for a few other novels that would follow that same theme. They are all character stories, not simply an adventure, a fight to the death, and a winning of the princess’s hand in marriage. I have not written these other books yet, but I have planned them to some extent. I know what their primary conflicts will be, many of the characters, and have already composed, at least in my imagination, a number of scenes. If the Little Red Riding Hood novel takes off, I have sequels. However, I have yet another branch to work from. There is a character in this first novel that has since spun himself his own series. Technically, though loosely, it is based in the same world and includes the same character, but rather than a secondary character, he is the protagonist. It’s much like how Sasha White came up with her best selling novel to date, Wicked.

I also have another series, of which I have written two to four books, depending on how I divide them. This series is particularly dear to my heart, but I know that it would be a tough sell as a first novel. The books are heftier, the characters and plots particularly complex, and the fantasy saga not tidily tied up at the end of each book. It is a series more similar to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire in its form than what is traditionally seen in fiction.

On top of this, a few years ago, I made a conscious choice about where to focus the geography of most of my novels or, at least, to use as inspiration. The thought of writing yet another story based in the British Isles or some fantasy version thereof made me wince. Not that there aren’t wonderful stories of this type, but it didn’t fit me. I didn’t want to make myself match that mold. Yet European stories have always monopolized my interest, so I chose a less common location for an American writer for inspiration: Germany. This means more work on my part in the sense of learning German and researching in outlets that might not be as easily accessible, but it also will lend a unique quality to my fiction.

So what is my plan? Whatever route I take, whether print, digital, traditional, or untraversed, my basic plan for my stories themselves remains the same. I will publish these fairy tale spinoffs or at least the first book if not all three. Along with this, I’ll write the spinoff series of that character inspired by them. The two create an easy transition. Once established, I anticipate that I will find it easier to convince a publisher to take on that first fantasy saga that, for now, I’ve had to put on hold. How this all comes about, what publishers and formats, is where I must remain flexible. Do I have ideas of how that might look, of course, but I understand too well that the market is still too much in flux to know what to expect even a year from now.

After all, we cannot control who makes an offer on our books. We cannot control the market. But we can control what we write and that we have a strategy in the fiction we compose. We can approach publishing with a long term perspective or go at it half blind and pray something works. At least for me, a plan to go with that prayer seems the surest path to success.

Do you have a plan for your fiction? If you don’t write fiction, do you have a plan for what you do wish to accomplish?

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