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Writing Popular

One of the earliest pieces of writing advice I remember was that writers — especially new writers — shouldn’t try to write to trend.  In other words, don’t look at today’s hot books and set out to write whatever’s currently leaping off the shelves.

There are problems with aiming for trends, not the least of which is the glacial pace of publishing.  Say Cyborg Unicorns are the hot new thing, so you set out to write your own cybercorn book.  You spend a year writing your book, another year submitting, and then if you actually land a deal, it could be yet another year before the book comes out.  In this highly optimistic scenario, you’re already three years behind the trend, which means there’s a decent chance the rest of the world has moved on to Shakespearean Cthulhu*.

Of course, an established writer can go directly to the publisher saying, “Let me write you an awesome cybercorn book.”  If you’re a fast enough writer, you might have more luck riding the current trends.

But that leads to the other objection, one which I admit is totally bogus**, and that’s the idea that a real author writes from the heart without worrying about trends or popularity.  The best stories are the ones the author loves.

The thing is, I have no proof for this.  I think my writing is better when I love the story, when I’m excited about the ideas and the characters and so on.  But can a skilled writer churn out a tale he doesn’t care about and still make it good?  Why not?  I don’t think of writing as a mystical art, inspired by divine muses.  It’s a craft.  A good carpenter can produce beautiful bookshelves even if she doesn’t particularly love shelves — or even if she doesn’t love this particular set of shelves — right?  Why doesn’t the same apply to writing?  Doesn’t a writer who refuses to write anything she doesn’t absolutely love risk falling into the same trap as the one who refuses to write until the muse gives him the perfect story idea?

None of which changes my deeply held conviction that I write better when I love what I write.  Maybe the love doesn’t make it better; maybe it just makes it easier.  All I know is that I try to write what I love, and while this approach hasn’t made me a New York Time bestseller, is seems to work for me.

All of this is a long-winded way of talking about my drive to work this morning, where I was brainstorming more ideas for the fourth princess book and realized how much fun it could be to write to one of the current trends:

Princesses vs. Zombies.

Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to do it.  The idea isn’t right for the series, and doesn’t fit with everything else I want to accomplish in book four.

But wouldn’t it make one hell of a story?  Danielle, Talia, and Snow kicking undead ass together.

Who knows, maybe I’ll have to do a fifth book after all….


*Note to self: pitch this anthology!
**Yes, I grew up in the 80s.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 115 comments — Leave a comment )
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dichroic
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)
Whether or not it's better - if you're going to be inside this book for months or even years, it seems like writing something you love is a smarter choice, because how unpleasant that could get otherwise.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
No matter how much I love an idea, I guarantee you there will come a time during the process when I absolutely hate the book :-) But I agree that writing something you love will probably help, especially if you can step back and remember why you loved this story in the first place.
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brainstormfront
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
Shakespearean Cthulhu antho titles
"What Dark in Yonder Window Breaks?"
"Titus Cthulhucus"
"The Merry Mi-Go of Windsor"
"When Old Ones Come to Dunsinane"

Can I pitch you the story of Ophelia going mad because she spied Rosencrans' and Guildenstern's alliance with the Old Ones?
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
::Adds Steven to the invite list::
brainstormfront
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:44 pm (UTC)
PS: Why not pitch a 5th book where the ladies take on the original bad girl of faerie tales? The Trio vs. Baba Yaga! :)
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
Partly because of the character arcs. There are a lot of things that will be coming to a conclusion in book four in terms of their growth and change over the series.

I *might* be able to keep going with the series (though I'm playing with an idea for something new), but at the very least, it would require some fundamental changes in the premise.

Though that sounds like a fun story :-)
elven_wolf
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)
I think you totally should write Princesses vs. Zombies. That would be so awesome. LOL.

Conversely, now I feel compelled to break into this cybercorn thing. Okay yeah, I need your plotbunny icon because now this idea won't leave my head. Thanks.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
Feel free to borrow Plotbunny :-)

Depending on what happens, I might try doing princesses vs. zombies as a standalone novella or something...
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cathshaffer
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
This segues into my least favorite response from an artist upon receiving a compliment. "Thanks. I really had a great time doing it."

NO! No, thank you, sir. I am sure you would also have a good time playing Halo or throwing a tennis ball for your dog. I don't care whether you had fun doing it, or whether you were sweating blood from page 115 to page 457. In fact, I would almost prefer to hear the latter. Except it is also not very gracious to say, "Thanks, but I hate this book for the way it destroyed my soul."

I think fiction writers and fans can over-romanticize the writing process. A good writer knows how to entertain the audience. What he writes may or may not come straight from the heart. Sometimes it's just work.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
I'll sometimes tell people how much fun I had writing the goblin books. It's a true statement -- I had a blast -- but it's also very incomplete, leaving out the "Oh god, Goblin War is going to SUCK and all of my fans are going to HATE ME FOREVER FOR RUINING JIG AND SHADOWSTAR!" moments.

I'd say it's almost *always* work. Every once in a while I'll get something that just flows onto the page nice and easy, but those moments are incredibly rare.
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seanan_mcguire
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
Your proposed anthology is relevant to my interests, and I will totally do you a Deep One Winter's Tale.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
You're the second writer to offer. I may have to start taking this a little more seriously...
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michaeldthomas
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
I can think of at least ten writers who would be able to crank out good Shakespearean Cthulhu stories. :-)
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)
Cthulhu Shakespeare was thrown out on a whim. Suddenly I'm thinking I need to take a day and actually write this pitch...
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sixteenbynine
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
I've thought about this one for a long time.

The best way I can boil it down is like this: When you sit down to write something, write the thing you can still see yourself working on, and excited by, a year or two from now. Because that's about how long it's going to take to finish it and make it right.

As far as inspiration goes -- the way I put it is, the muse visits those who come calling. Having a muse is itself a craft. The process of getting and developing ideas is a skill like any other, and if you don't practice it (which means getting, developing, and tossing, lots of ideas), then of course you're going to be wandering around waiting for lightning to strike.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
I think a lot also depends on where you're at in the writing career. Right now, writing isn't my primary source of income, which means I have more freedom to write what I love. If I were to quit my day job and had to survive on writing alone, I could definitely see where it might be important not to limit myself to just the projects I love. Sometimes there are valid reasons to churn out a good book, even if you're not excited about it, just to make sure you can pay the mortgage this month.

Definitely agree with you about the muse. Funny how often the muse visits those who actively work to find her.
sageautumn
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:13 pm (UTC)
Hrm. I'd somehow missed that the fourth book would be the end, definately. I think this might make me sad.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:17 pm (UTC)
Nothing is definite yet. Only four books are under contract right now, and I'm planning to wrap up some ongoing plot threads in #4.

I'll probably be talking to my agent in the coming weeks about what I want to do from here.

A 5th book is possible, but I have nothing planned, and I've got another idea whispering from the back of my mind which could turn into my third series.

But nothing's final until contracts are in hand. Who knows, maybe my editor will offer me lots of money a princess/zombie book :-)
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janni
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
But can a skilled writer churn out a tale he doesn’t care about and still make it good? Why not? I don’t think of writing as a mystical art, inspired by divine muses. It’s a craft. A good carpenter can produce beautiful bookshelves even if she doesn’t particularly love shelves — or even if she doesn’t love this particular set of shelves — right?

But even a carpenter can have some bookshelves which are merely serviceable, and others which are truly beautiful and add to the home they're in, rather than just keeping the books out of the way.

I think passion actually does show through on the page -- or rather, that lack of passion can show through, and turn what could have been a good book into one that's merely "okay," and that readers don't mind but don't care about either.

I do think that most of us can be passionate about more than one sort of project -- I've written for themed anthologies and done work for hire, and was able to find passion for all those projects, even if the ideas weren't initially my own (though in a sense I made them so) -- but I do think if you don't much care at any point in the process, it shows through more often than not.

(It's interesting, actually. I'm part of two different writing communities, and I find -- speaking very broadly -- that the SF/fantasy writers tend to want to reduce writing to an engineering problem than any skilled person can crack with due diligence, while the children's writers tend to talk more in terms of inspiration and passion and yes, following one's muse and one's loves -- though not ignoring the hard work part of things. The truth, I think, is somewhere in between: you need passion and diligence both, and pretty much any other tool you can bring to bear, too.)
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)
Guilty. I can definitely get carried away on the intellectual/analytical side of things.

Like I said, I do believe deep down that I write better stories when I love what I'm writing. But I don't think I can fairly judge myself or put myself out there as proof of anything. So instead I turn to published work out there and ask myself, "Can I really judge which of these books were written with love and which were churned out for the paycheck?"

I don't know. I think we (myself included) might overemphasize the write-what-you-love rule. But I have no way of proving it one way or the other, so it's also possible I'm totally talking out my backside on this one.
(no subject) - janni - Aug. 19th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
bookdraco
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
Is it a sign that I love HP Lovecraft too much that I would love to find and anthology of Shakespearean Cthulhu stories? I would buy that the day it hit book shelves.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
::Grin:: That one throwaway line has generated an awful lot of interest. I may run it past a few people to see what happens....
sartorias
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah . . . the love isn't what makes it better. The love makes it easier. Talent and craft make it better. (And sometimes luck.)
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
::Blinks::

Okay, how come I end up rambling on for 500+ words about this stuff, and you wander in and cut straight to the insight in only 22? Unfair :-P
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marycatelli
Aug. 19th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
What's scary is that some artists' best work is their "miserable hack-work."

I would hate to be one of those artists.

But, OTOH, sometimes it's clear that "miserable hackwork" frees an artist from the self-imposed obligation to be Significant and Serious and Important.
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
Wait, we're supposed to be Significant and Serious and Important too? Aw, crap...
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deborahblakehps
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
You crack me up!
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
:-)
hawklady
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:22 pm (UTC)
> But wouldn’t it make one hell of a story? Danielle, Talia, and Snow kicking undead ass together.

In game module writing, if I can't come up with a way for the BBG to be whatever monster/class/etc I want the party to hit, I can look at the idea of making them one of his minions.

In this case, an opponent who dabbles in necromantic magic might fit. This just becomes another facet of an opponent who may very well be another fairy tale character. Or vengeful apprentice of some former defeated badass.

If it doesn't fit into the story arc for the full-sized books, how about as a short for an anthology?
jimhines
Aug. 19th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
Standalone story is a definitely possibility :-)
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