Write Something Good

By Poison Ivy,

At romance writing conferences, some author usually stands up and humbly asks the editors “What would you like me to write?” The editors always tell her vaguely and rather helplessly to write something “good.” Everybody goes away frustrated, yet what they want is no secret: Authors look for direction, and editors look for imagination.

The author’s lack of vision is depressing. When an author asks an editor what to write, she’s asking the editor to do an essential part of her own job as a writer. It’s up to the author to create new personalities, new situations, and new angles. True, she’s doing it in a vacuum, largely unaware of sales figures or genre trends. (Although the Internet is a big help.) And some authors don’t read much, except research material. The authors are depending on instinct, so they look to the editors for advice.

But though the editors may have vast market knowledge (and then again, maybe not, since sales figures sometimes dribble in to editorial divisions), editors also are operating on instinct. They can never know for certain what the public will enjoy tomorrow, only what it enjoyed yesterday. Sometimes editors take a chance on a manuscript simply because a gut feeling says the time is right. But sometimes the book doesn’t find its audience right away. It is labeled a mistake until reading tastes shift and it is reissued as part of an established trend. (Think of all the people who wrote vampire stories before the paranormal trend arose. Any editor who published one was stepping out on a limb.)

Meanwhile, if the editor isn’t willing to take a risk, she’s tempted to accept a story but fiddle with it to make it more like what is already out and popular, what is recognizably of a genre. If the author wants to create a story similar to a particular trend, then the editor’s suggestions for changes may help. The editor does usually know more about what will go over with an already established audience than an author does. But what if the author is trying to do something a little different, and the editor thinks it’s a mistake, or doesn’t recognize this as a breakthrough? Then the editor and author argue over what to change.

Who wins this battle is largely decided by who holds the upper hand. The less financial or artistic recognition an author has, the less likely she is to have full control of her words. And just to get published, many writers will willingly cede control. This isn’t necessarily a fatal mistake. Some of the finest literary writers have been materially aided by their editors, so why not romance writers? Unfortunately, romance writers are basically commercial writers, who have a very modest view of themselves (less so lately, since we all know that romances account for over 50% of all fiction sold). They don’t claim their works are literary masterpieces to be etched in stone. This modesty makes them too open to manipulation and persuasion. And to artistic suicide. They are too willing to put themselves in a subservient position, too willing to forget about art and be little more than writers for hire. They often define themselves as contracted craft workers instead of as independent artists.

Yet no author does her best work while writing under someone else’s orders. And too many romance writers are being milked dry as they replay the same stories over and over with new gimmicks and new character names. Some people envy the fabled authors who can write a book a month, ignoring the reality that burnout awaits these marvels. Audience burnout, too. If these authors don’t develop in new directions they could find themselves out in the cold.

How far out in the cold? Many years ago, gothic romances and nurse romances enjoyed a popular boom. But like all booms, those ended. After years of writing about distraught young governesses being attacked in the dark corridors of some ancient pile, many authors couldn’t wrap their heads around any other kind of romance. Meanwhile, the writers telling and re-telling Nurse Nancy stories (and I confess it; I once read a book called World’s Fair Nurse, whose only reason for being was to cash in on the world’s fair as a locale), well, these writers were not sure how to turn their girl-next-door nurse heroines, basically girls who could not afford to go to college, into characters who would appeal to the baby boom’s huge college graduate population.

And then sex arrived. Romances went from having a kiss or two in a whole book to opening the bedroom door for every detail. An entire generation of writers suddenly needed to convert to a new paradigm. The trouble is, writing in a genre can get an author comfortable with crutches and blinders. (Sounds awful.) When the market changed, many authors simply could not convert from their gothic or nurse romance cliches. Some authors complained that the new sexy romances did not have stories. Few wanted to face the fact that they had gotten used to expressing themselves in one mode only. They lacked creative agility, perhaps in part because they had followed their editors’ advice so carefully.

The waves of audience enthusiasm continued to roll over writers. Historical romances dominated for a while. Regency romances rose to great popularity. Contemporary romances made a big hit. At their height, 100 paperback books were being published every month in series featuring contemporary romance. By now, they, too, have become passe, although a few lines linger on, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. In today’s writing market, there are more individual opportunities, such as paranormal, fantasy, women’s fiction, chick lit, and many other variations. But it doesn’t matter what the market is like if an author is unwilling or unable to keep changing and growing.

Yes, certain favorite authors are prized for doing the same thing over and over again. And their rut may be big enough, their following large enough, that it seems not to matter. Readers probably do want each Sue Grafton mystery to be just like the last one. Or each Diana Palmer romance. Or each Stephen King horror story. But it’s an artistic mistake to rewrite the same book, and the best writers, genre or otherwise, make an effort to find something new to say. Some, like Elizabeth George, even make sure they say it a different way each time. It took me until the end of one of her British police mysteries to realize that one narrator’s storyline had not been not running simultaneously with another’s. Cool. I love it when a writer works extra hard to make reading her book a unique experience.

But what about writers, maybe beginners, maybe just moderate sellers, whose careers are much more at the whim of the market? When a major market shift occurs and leaves some authors hanging, some blame the editors who told them what to write. And some editors blame the writers who continue to turn out the same old stories over and over again even though the audience has moved on.

Fairly or unfairly, final responsibility for the writing belongs to the writer. It’s up to the author to decide what she is willing to do, as well as what she is trying to accomplish. Whether defining herself as an artist or as thoroughly commercial, an author needs to be constantly new, fresh, imaginative. She cannot expect an editor to feed her new ideas. She must develop them herself. She cannot expect the audience to enjoy the same story she wrote last year. She must write something genuinely new. An author who doesn’t change and grow skimps on herself as an artist. And eventually she has little to offer an audience, either. It’s not nice, but it’s the truth. So, authors, write something “good.”