The Trouble with Different

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

It must seem beyond frustrating to writers who long to be published. We tell you things like, “The plot seems like it’s been done,” or “If you want to write about God’s grace you need to do it in a fresh way.” And yet, when you try to do something different you hear things like, “It feels like you are pushing the envelope and going into unfamiliar territory,” or “It just doesn’t feel familiar enough for a [enter genre or category here] book.”dreamstime_xs_1386455

What’s a writer supposed to do?

Here are a few random observations:

  • In a novel we want a plot and characters that feel new but we generally don’t want to see experimental writing from a debut author. In other words, we get queasy with second person narration or wonky chronology unless we’ve really come to know and trust the author. (And even then we’ll worry about how their readers will react to a crazy new wrinkle.)
  • In nonfiction we seek that new way of looking at a subject but we don’t want to explore something outside of orthodoxy with a new writer or see a format that is unexpected.
  • Too short or too long are often marketing issues. How do we make a book come in at an expected price point?
  • Sometimes the norm is that way because we’ve watched sales. For instance, we know romantic fiction sales will be strongest if the protagonist is a woman. So if you choose to be different by going with a male lead, you’ve already got a hurdle to cross with the sales people on the acquisitions committee.
  • “Pushing the envelope” in an effort to be different often looks exactly like that– an author trying to be different instead of a story that demands coloring outside the lines.
  • Writing in a new genre is dangerous for a new writer. While we think there should be more innovation, the truth is that it’s easiest to write where readers are already avidly reading.

So how does a writer feel fresh or different?

  • Your voice, if you are developed as a writer, will set you apart. No one is going to say things and look at things the way you do.
  • If you are novelist, look for fresh characters– characters we like. (Don’t try to break in with a seriously flawed protagonist. Too tough for a debut.)
  • Write a story that is fresh. In order to do this you need to read widely and study books in your genre.
  • If you are writing nonfiction, give us a book we’ve not yet seen but give it to us in a familiar format.

Okay? Is that confusing enough? Let’s talk today about what is different enough and what’s too different. Don’t forget, YMMV. This is subjective at best, and we’re always learning.

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53 Comments

  • I think I lot of people learned from this post, Wendy, including me.

    One suggestion i would make for both aspiring and established authors is to read Shakespeare. He was a master of observation, and described so many facets of human life in fresh and distinctive ways that ring true hundreds of years after his death.

    Don’t emulate him – you can’t (well, I can’t!). But use his work as a guide, a Northern Star that describes how people behave. When you have appealing and believable characters, a lot of hurdles will disappear.

  • Thank you, Wendy … don’t feel like I know enough to comment, but I’ll enjoy reading and learning from others today.

  • Well, Wendy, I’m with Shelli. I don’t feel like I know enough to comment in an intelligent manner. Bob Hostetler just spoke on Saturday at our ACFW state chapter meeting, and he quickly acknowledged all the conflicting advice to new writers. I appreciate your observations. They do illuminate the subject a bit more, and every little bit helps. :)

  • Wendy, we kind of had a conversation about this at the ACFW conference. I understand that it is hard to break in with a flawed character, but on the other hand, it’s the story I feel called to write. So somewhere there has to be a balance between writing for the CBA market and writing the story God’s put in your heart. At that point, it all comes down to trusting God for guidance and for His timing.

    And trusting is easier said than done. :/

    • We are all flawed characters.

      I mean, if the CBA can tolerate King David, God will send someone down the path to your door.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      If we could set up a “get published game plan” we’d never encourage an out-of-the-box book, but we can all name noted exceptions.

      Some writers put their challenging book aside for later– when they are one of those trusted authors. It’s easier to cross that first book threshold with a book more likely to be a commercial success.

  • Lori says:

    Reading today’s blog makes me feel like I am walking a balance beam or a tight rope.

  • Cathy West says:

    Well, somebody out there must like white pumpkins, right? In the meantime, maybe I’ll just go for the stripy look… :)

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    It’s like when we were in high school trying to be “different” while complaining that no one understood us.

  • Here’s the thing. I’m covered in freckles. I never tan. I’m not skinny. I’m WHITE, my dad is an Arab. My mother and both in-laws are deaf. I’m a West Coast girl living out East. I can’t sit still in church. I like war movies and think I’d be a soldier if I was younger and sort of remotely fit.
    I don’t just think outside the box, I colour outside the lines of the box that I smushed into submission.

    BUT, I learned early on to work within the parameters given. There’s ‘different’ and there’s ‘unable to play nicely with her own kind’.

    Frank Peretti and the Thoenes took Christian fiction to a whole new level with their work in the late 80′s and early 90′s. They blew the gates open and no one has ever looked back.
    They were different, but not SO different that people ran away in droves. Their first books primed and readied the market for everything that came after.
    I like different,and I’m glad my parents are readers, and instilled a love of variety in me.

    But this quote scares me:(not scary part>>>) “Your voice, if you are developed as a writer, will set you apart. (scary part>>>) No one is going to say things and look at things the way you do.

    If we could all take a moment to pray for people in my orbit, that would be quite helpful. ;)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I’d have to say that all of my clients are utterly unique. There is already something about being a writer that sets you apart from what Brandilyn Collins calls “the normals.” But then each one approaches story and message differently. It’s what makes this community such a delight.

  • Rachel Smith says:

    I write romance, primarily from his POV. I *can’t* write it primarily from her. It’s not natural for me. I’m at home in his POV, it flows like Niagara Falls, and is full of life.

    I also gravitate to reading books largely in his POV. Part of my issue with first person, especially in a romance, is I’m locked into HER head. And I don’t care about her.

    Whenever I try to make it about her, the story shuts down. They stop talking. It doesn’t work. All the spark that is me and my voice disappears. If I write mostly in her POV I’ll never make it to the acquisitions committee in the first place. But my ABA romance told in 70% his POV is going further than my inspy HR forced into largely her POV ever did.

    Partly because of my natural bent and preferences, and partly because God is leading me away from it, I’ve stopped writing CBA. CBA really has no room for a romance told primarily from his POV. But ABA does. Lots of room.

    The stories I have to tell don’t fit the CBA box. Rather than restricting myself to writing lackluster fiction I hate, I decided to play in a different box. One that’s bigger and welcomes my natural voice with open arms.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s good that you’ve done a great deal of thinking about this and decided where you belong.

      But in traditional romance–ABA and CBS–we generally have two viewpoints– his and hers.

      • Rachel Smith says:

        I definitely do both. I feel cheated when both POV’s are not in a romance. But I do skew heavily to his POV. It’s natural for me.

        In the genre I write, there is a place for it. In fact, with the target readership I’m going for, they’re more than okay with it being told largely from his POV. It’s part of the attraction of paranormal romance in the first place. I write science fiction romance. light on the SF, and I’m targeting PNR readers who are ready for the next mind-bending world building to take them places no other genre can.

        My POV choices don’t make SFR a hard sell. SFR itself makes SFR a hard sell.

  • I agree with everything above and then some. It is very frustrating. I spent a full 12 months reading only debut fiction last year to see what is working and selling. I read a few self-published – two to be exact – and the rest “mainlined” publishers.

    What I found over and over again was that different was a big part of books that got published, and I mean really different, so different they were obtuse. I made myself slog through some of them, looking for the clues to success and why they were award winners, and came away with this. Different was selling. How successful they were in the long haul? I didn’t take the time to track them all, but the number which won awards and more that were recommended by BookPage, Goodreads, etc. was shocking!

    I have a series of three novels I’m currently revising. I read two to three books a week. I’m a professional editor and writer. I attend webinars and conferences. I belong to critique groups. I read this blog religiously. None of it seems to be enough. Sigh……….

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Good for you, Mahala. You are doing your homework. Your analysis is interesting. I would challenge others to read as intentionally.

      And you are so right. Award winning and best selling are very different. Very often the books with the most awards are only modest sellers.

  • Michele Huey says:

    What’s YMMV? Thanks.

  • Thank you, Wendy, for this thoughtful post.

    Yes, it can be frustrating, but I think the hope is in what you said about voice and perspective. Each of us has a unique voice–if we take time to find that voice rather than trying to write like J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K Rowling.

    In all honesty, I think SOME artists (not all) believe that different equals artistic. Jennifer said it very well: “…work within the parameters given. There’s ‘different’ and there’s ‘unable to play nicely with her own kind’.” A person can follow the rules, work within conventions, and still find a way to be artistic. It may take a little creativity to find a way to balance the two, but after all, aren’t artists supposed to be creative?

    The bottom line question is: do you want to be traditionally published or not? Another important question, I think, is: do you want anyone to read your work? Finnegan’s Wake is quite different–and admittedly, it has had staying power–but how many people have read it (all the way through)because they wanted to, not because they had to for a college course? I still remember a poetry workshop I took in college. Once a week, we sat in a circle and the entire class critiqued each student’s work. There was a young man whose poems were incomprehensible. After several of his classmates had remarked on how inaccessible they found his poetry, he stated, “It’s my poetry. You don’t have to understand it!” I remember thinking, “If you feel no one needs to understand or connect to your poetry, then write it and put it in a drawer. But if you want others to read your work, you need to show them respect. They don’t have to understand fully what you are trying to do, but you need to give them something to connect or relate to.”

    Any writer who wants to publish a book needs to keep his / her readers in mind. The writer who ignores what the reader is looking for from a book does so at his or her peril–and, I think, to his / her shame.

  • Jeanne T says:

    Oh good. I was wondering what YMMV was too. :)

    It’s been a busy day in my world, so I’m just joining the conversation. Let’s see, different and too different. With my first stories, I’ve discovered that they’ve been done. Especially my first one—a lot. Sigh. So, I tried to make my second one more unique, and I did it. To an extent.

    I know that everything has been done. But, like you said, what can I bring to it to make it unique? That’s where I am striving toward now with my stories. At ACFW, I had an appointment with Deborah Raney to ask her how she came up with such unique stories. Her answer was helpful—she looks at headlines and things going on around her. I’m praying for the “gift” of seeing happenings with a unique angle. It seems like it boils down to a unique voice and story telling with a fresh perspective.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      This is excellent advice for women’s fiction especially. Another trick is to modernize an old oft-told tale. How many stories are Romeo and Juliet retold? And yet we never get tired of it.

  • Jan Thompson says:

    Firstly, an agreement…

    I agree with your points, Wendy. IMO what’s woven throughout your list is that we writers should write with our readers in mind.

    As a writer, I am mindful of the fact that publishers are in the business of making sales, so they will try to publish what sells, and that’s the way it is. If I write something that only 2 readers would appreciate, then the poor publisher isn’t going to get a good ROI.

    As a reader, I expect certain things from the genres I read. For example, it’s very hard for me to read a novel in which the MC is a really horrible sadistic killer. Sure, the novel is different, OK, but IMO most readers want to be able to like the MCs.

    Secondly, a consideration…

    “Sometimes the norm is that way because we’ve watched sales. For instance, we know romantic fiction sales will be strongest if the protagonist is a woman. So if you choose to be different by going with a male lead, you’ve already got a hurdle to cross with the sales people on the acquisitions committee.”

    As a reader, I think I can be persuaded to like a male MC if that romance is well-written, but do you think that the reason most romance MCs are female is that most romance novel buyers are women? I thought that’s the RWA stats, anyway, but not sure if they included CBA or if it’s just ABA.

    Finally, a question…

    “If you are writing nonfiction, give us a book we’ve not yet seen but give it to us in a familiar format.”

    If one is writing non-fiction but doesn’t have a ready platform, should she self-publish it and go for word-of-mouth marketing? (I tweeted this to you when I retweeted your link.)

    Thank you for the insightful blog, Wendy. Have a great day!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      As for your nonfiction question, if you don’t have a platform, how will you sell a self-published book? A platform is the number of people you come into contact with– the number of people who listen to you (for free). Only a portion of them will shell out money to buy your words. A writer needs to work the numbers and see if it makes sense fiscally. If you have 10,000 different people who read your blog or listen to you speak and you can figure 10% may buy your book, can you make it work with 1000 book sales?

  • Wendy, your comment about voice stuck out to me. More so, the process and time it takes to develop as a writer. If my writing stagnates, my voice will follow suit, becoming insipid and weak.
    If I strengthen my writing, my voice will mature, becoming distinctive yet adaptable.
    It reminds me of the many years I sang in choral groups. I had to learn to carry my part in the group before I was ready to audition for my first solo.
    Maybe I’m drawing parallels where there are none, but it made sense in my head. :-)

  • Kiersti says:

    Thanks for this post, Wendy! Seems like we writers are always trying to better understand and walk the “different but not too different” line. And you are always helping us along the way. :) The thought that came to me in reading this was, “We need a fresh take on a familiar format.” Does that sound right? Lately, I’ve been reading Liz Curtis Higg’s Lowlands of Scotland series for the first time. She took the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah and transported it to 18th century Scotland–definitely different! And I’ve seldom read such a masterfully complex set of characters, decidedly flawed yet still sympathetic. Yet because she set this unique take on a story in a familiar format–historical romance–and wrote within its basic parameters, yet of course with her own voice, style, and touch, the story connected and resonated well with readers. At least with me. :)

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Wendy, your share a great perspective, and that gives me added clarity in how to stand out in a good way without standing out in a bad way. Thank you!

  • Wendy – This may have been said but I have learned to stay in line with “write what you know.” Hopefully, I can bring an original viewpoint to a theme or concept, even if it has been done before, but I need to stay near my comfort zone for the best flow. I have learned that it’s not always what actually happens but what an observer’s perception is of what happens that counts. 6 people see an incident – they all may remember a different scenario. If I can envision the same scenario through different eyes, I can try to bring greater depth to a creative piece and a fresh perspective as well. Hope this makes sense.

  • Annie says:

    I always enjoy your perspective Wendy. I don’t often have time to make a comment – but I’m sure to read whatever you have written for the blog.

    Annie

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I think that’s part of the challenge of writing, isn’t it? Unique, voice, that creative story that strikes a chord. I love rock climbing, so pushing and striving and aching forward is all part of getting that next hold to pull yourself to the next ledge. The climb never ends in writing. Love it!

  • I have to admit that at times I have fallen (hard) into the category of artists Christine mentioned who “believe that different equals artistic.” In an effort to keep myself in check, I remind myself often of these words by C.S. Lewis: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

  • I tend to think for every “different” author, there is an audience waiting to hear that voice. I won’t lie and say it’s easy to get in with a “different” kind of debut novel that doesn’t look like anything else out there. But once you GET out there, there are readers who will hunt you down once they latch onto you, if they’re anything like me. I have authors whose books I will buy based on name alone–I have that much trust for their writing style, topics, and integrity in storytelling.

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