Friday, February 23, 2018

I write what I want to read, but does anyone else?

My novel is making the rejectiony rounds. The feedback from partials and fulls (when there is feedback!) is that the characters and worldbuilding are great, but it’s not high-concept enough to sell in a crowded fantasy market. I actually avoid reading high-concept fantasy novels sometimes because the characters and plot aren’t there—all you can see is the very marketable concept. My favorite authors and stories from that genre aren’t high concept at all. They’re just well-written, with good characters, not trying to bust out of any boxes or make cultural or political statements. I mean, yes, they’ve got themes, but not THEMES. I wrote the book I wanted to read (the advice they give you now instead of “write what you know”) but I might be the only one who wants to read it!

Should I keep querying (I’m up to 50 agents queried, have heard back from about half) and hope that someone thinks there’s a place for my delightful and well-written (but not groundbreaking) fantasy novel? The novel I’m writing now *is* more of a high-concept, but I have got to confess, I like my smaller-scale book better. Any advice you can give on this subject would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

No matter how much I love your book, or you love your book, we have to find ten thousand OTHER people to love your book.

And those other people have waves of reading likes and dislikes just like everyone else.  Try and sell a zombie novel these days. No matter how much you love zombies, it's going to be a slog.

Or medical mysteries. Or mysteries set on academic campuses featuring crime solving professors.  All of those had their day twenty years ago, and now are much harder to sell.

For a long time Westerns were a big-ass category. Now, not so much, although they're still being published. The guys who are writing traditional westerns tend to be the guys with established careers.  I've tried my hand with a couple westerns that were debuts, and had my hat handed to me in no uncertain terms, and escorted out of the saloon with instructions to come back when I had domestic suspense (right now the go-to category.)

It's not uncommon for writers to have a book of their heart. Often it's not the book that sells well, or even sells at all.

I sold five books for Jeff Somers before I sold the book of his heart.  When I sold every single one of those previous five books, at some point in the conversation he would say "don't forget about Chum!"

And I didn't. And I sold it. It took me nine years, and I don't want to tell you how many revisions and submissions but it was a LOT.

What Jeff did was smart: he kept writing. He got published. He waited for his agent to get the book into the right hands, at the right time.

In your case you keep writing. Keep sending books on submission.  Write books you want to read sure, but remember this isn't an academic exercise.  We need books we can sell, not just books we love.


french sojourn said...

Great question, and answer.

I think the number 200 was thrown out as a minimum query quantity. Good luck O.P.

I also have my favorite story I've written, but am forging on with higher concept m/s.


David S. said...

I agree with French. 50 queries is just the beginning of the journey, not the end. If I stopped at 50 rejections for the manuscript I’m querying now, I’d have less than half the requests I’ve received so far. You gotta keep going, OP. And good luck.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

"...domestic suspense (right now the go-to category.)"

Didn't know there was a name for what I am editing for the bazillonth time. I thought it was Women's Fiction with some nasty stuff but maybe it's more than I thought. Hah, gotta think about this. Gotta read a few.

This post...a game changer for sure.

Kitty said...

I had to google domestic suspense: "Dark, usually written by women, usually concerning domestic affairs."

Popular domestic suspense books on goodreads

Theresa said...

Of all the writing advice out there, I've always been most suspicious of "write what you want to read." I have eclectic, fickle reading tastes, so what Janet said here makes absolute sense.

Unknown said...

Janet, could you define "domestic thriller" for us? Today, domestic thriller for me is sick kid, wet basement, and job interview. I'm pretty sure you're not looking for a book about that!

Unknown said...

Oh, thanks Kitty. Janet, never mind.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Jeff has a heart? Oh, right, of course. I am curious which book was the one. I love all his stuff. I don’t love the publisher sitting on his Writing Without Rules all the way until May. What’s up with that? Do I have to write with rules all the way until then?

Yeah, my last book got some of this same feedback the last time I ventured out into the trenches. Fantasy has become a tough and crowded market.

I am about to hit my 2nd group of betas for my current WIP after another tough revision. I also have 2 other books I am working on, a 3rd in outline form. And I am terrified of venturing out into the trenches for fear of my passion work being hopelessly mocked.

This is a long game to be sure. Keep writing, OP.

Timothy Lowe said...

A thick skin is essential. Hank is right. Until you hit 100 queries, you haven't really gotten it in front of enough eyes. Unless you have an idea of how to revise based on feedback, keep going until you've queried the universe. And keep writing something else. You never know what will be your way forward. If you don't keep going, you won't find out.

LynnRodz said...

OP, keep querying. 50 is good, but it's not a lot. Good luck!

Janet, I'm also curious, which book was dear to Jeff's heart?

Stacy said...

Janet, how would you define domestic suspense? Girl on a Train type of stuff?

Colin Smith said...

I believe the book close to Jeff's heart was CHUM.

Stacy said...

Dang. I don't always trust Goodreads' definitions, but this one seems pretty accurate. Never mind, Janet. Thanks, Kitty!

Colin Smith said...

I wonder if this highlights another difference between trad publishing and indie publishing. With trad publishing, the publishers know the market and are trying to find books that will sell to that market. With indie publishing, you're putting your work out there hoping the market will find your book.

Of course there are exceptions, but does that ring true to y'all?

Unknown said...

So, the next breakout bestseller will be Chum on a Train, a domestic thriller featuring a shark on a cross-country Amtrak writers' retreat. Query responses aren't passes or NORMANS, they're teeth, rows and rows of sharp, shining, blood-soaked teeth. Will Opie's query survive to Publication Station, or succumb to Madame Sharque?

StackAttack said...

Ah. Domestic Suspense. The ol' "The [Woman/Man/Girl/Couple/Wife] [in/on/of/between] [SOMETHING]", inspired by stories like Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train?

I'm a sucker for these - such quick, fun reads! Sadly, I don't think I'd ever have the creative juices to churn one out myself.

Mister Furkles said...

Gees. I thought domestic suspense was worry whether the maid would recover from gallbladder surgery in time to help prepare for the big party.

Say, could we combine syfy dino porn in a community of domestic dinosaurs stalked by time-traveling paleontologist and still call it domestic suspense?

Steve Stubbs said...

OP: I might be the only one who wants to read it!

If you are getting breathless requests for fulls from excited agents, and you must be uf they are commenting on how high the concept is, I doubt you are the only one who wants to read it.

If you have been rejected by a dozen agents, let alone fifty, my take on it is, it's time to pack it in.

When I was a toddler there were fantasy magazines on the magazine rack all the time. I never did read the stuff, but notice I don't see those anymore when I go to buy a loaf of bread. There may be a reason for that.

I never believed genres could wear out until the news came out Hugh Hefner gave up on publishing pictures of naked women and then capped that by dying when he was not even 100 years old. I am now a believer. Genres do wear out.


Whether that's true or not (I believe the get rid of him part; I never understood why anybody would want him in the first place), that stuff must be selling or it would not be out there.

Write about fictional no-talent celebs who get ahead in defiance of all logic and expectation.

Just don't base it on Donald Trump. CNN is wearing that one out right now, 24/7.

Stothers said...

This is EXACTLY my conundrum at the moment. I always believe that you should write the book you want to write (and read).

I believe that it is a good, fun adventure but it doesn't tackle hard themes of sexual confusion or racial oppression.

But I still believe in it. Others might too.

Kregger said...

Domestic Suspense? OJC!

You mean like wondering about the gender of the next grandchild?

It's one thing to know I've timed out for most I'm gendered out?

At work, I'm a dinosaur. Recently, I've found out I'm also a fossil.

So to write what I know is to write I can't.

Westerns? Hmmm, westerns, I've ridden a carousel. Does that make me qualified?

I guess it's time to go bowling with Fred and Barney, and if Dino has an opposable thumb, I'll make him roll a rock too.

Sam Mills said...

Steve: You're not seeing SFF magazines on the racks because many of them have moved online. There's a vibrant market of high-quality, professionally-paying, award-winning (well, SFF awards, but still!) magazines around these days, never fear. In SFF, a pro short story track record is still a solid addendum to the bio.

Jessica said...

Man, this is depressing. First I write a zombie book, and now my smaller fantasy won't sell either? And my third book is urban fantasy, so there goes that. I might have to throw in the towel on this whole writing thing; I'm always a year or two too late.

OP, good luck is all I can say. I love smaller fantasy stories, so that's one reader for you! You're not alone! Sadly, we may be the only two.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I always figured the 'write what you want to read' isn't publishing advice, it was writing advice. Getting published would be a dream, but that's not the reason I write. I write because I want to tell a story--a story that, yes, is one I would want to read.

The caveat is that it might not be publishable.

If your goal is to write a story well, your success depends entirely on you. Your blood, your sweat, your tears.

If your goal is to be successfully published, your success depends on markets, publishers, and readers--all things entirely out of your control.

Choose the goal that you have power over. Let that be your guiding light, and even if it takes you ten times as long to be published, you'll have more peace along the way.

Craig F said...

The hard part of writing what you love is in finding a way to look at it from a distance. Finding the perspective to balance a book is hard enough. The heart felt make it even harder.

By balance I mean how much time to ground you characters and when to start making something happen. I have dumped a lot of books that seemed to have an interesting concept and I have almost completely moved away from literary novels. The main reason I do that is because my attention wanders when layer upon layer of detail get piled in the way of the story, like speed bumps in a road.

There is a market for almost literary fantasy work. The Wheel of Time series is an example. A lot of people love that over worded thing.

Joseph S. said...

For those of who don’t know what domestic thriller or domestic suspense is, StackAttack got it right. I think the credit (blame) for its popularity goes to “Gone Girl” (excellent) with a booster shot from “The Girl on the Train” (not so excellent).

In other news the Southern Voices Festival begins tonight and runs through tomorrow. Nine authors will speak (actually eight now – The Flu Bug took down Steve Berry, who was supposed to be the keynote speaker tonight. Andrew Gross will sub for him - and speak again tomorrow). I have not read any of the authors’ novels, but I have at least heard of Andrew Gross’ “Eyes Wide Open,” Lisa Ko’s “The Leavers,” Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife,” and Lisa Wingate’s “Before We Were Yours.”

Unknown said...

Joseph, The Paris Wife is a lovely book!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Also, I've got to admit I'm not 100% sure what 'high-concept fantasy' is, even though fantasy is one of my favorite genres. Google isn't helping much. It seems like high-concept has an easily-summarized struggle at it's center (e.g., abused but good-hearted kid finds out he's a wizard and escapes to a magical school/Roman legionnaires with Pokémon).

My suspicion, OP, is that there might be something off with your plot. Good characters and world-building are vital in any fantasy, but if you don't have a good plot, it doesn't really matter. I'd dig into your story to see if you're relying on too many tropes for a plot. Of course, it could just be a great book at the wrong time. Either way, I hope you find a good home for your story. :)

Anonymous said...

@Bethany_Elizabeth - High-concept is exactly that, plus mass appeal and a uniqueness factor. I'm working on a 'Gender-bent Robin Hood, where Robin never made it back from the wars and his half-sister Scarlet conspires with Lady Marion to save the family title.' I *think* it's high-concept.

@OP! You're getting a very respectable number of partials and full requests! It might not be time to hang up your hat. Is there any way you can tweak your novel, to make the theme stronger or the plot more immediate? A little revision may be all you need from 'compelling, but not quite marketable' to 'YES!'

@Colin_Smith - I'd totally agree re: Publishers buy for the market, Indie publishes then hopes for a market.

Colin Smith said...

By the way, if you're as anxiously anticipating Jeff's Writing Without Rules as I am:

1) Have you pre-ordered it? If not do so. NOW.
2) Check out Jeff's other blog:

Jeff has also started a video series to tie in with the book:

Jeff Somers and the Rough Beast, Episode 1: How to Write a Novel

When Janet says Jeff Somers is one of the hardest-working writers she knows, she's not kidding.

You're an inspiration, Mr. Somers! Except in the pants department. I keep mine on, thanks. :D

Joseph S. said...

Kathy Joyce

Ah, Paris . . .

I just started Kristin Harmel's "The Room on Rue Amelie." Only read four pages and I'm already captivated.

Elissa M said...

As a reader, I'm really tired of bandwagon stuff. I hate it when I go into a bookstore and all the featured books are genre-of-the-month. I've read lots of truly excellent books that were part of a trend, I admit. But I'm ready for a change long before the industry ever seems to be.

Fortunately for me, doorstop fantasies (books big enough to serve as a doorstop) are my favorites, and people do still write and publish those. Maybe I won't find many debut authors in that section, but at least I know I'll find something I'll never tire of reading.

John Davis Frain said...

Thanks for that link to Jeff Somers' vlog. That cat!

I was waiting to pre-order The Ineffable Joyness of Jeff. Hadn't realized the title got changed.

Quick plug: Jeff is letting you tag along as he writes a novel, so if you're a writer this might be a glorious opportunity. On the other hand, the camera crew might have a sense of humor and show what pantsless writing really looks like. That image might get seared into your mind forever, and who could write a decent domestic suspense after that? So, approach at your own risk.


Colin Smith said...

John: You are supremely welcome. Jeff says part 2 will be posted sometime today.

Steve Stubbs said...

Those who are struggling to understand what Ms. Reid means by "domestic suspense" might benefit from this:

It is a review of Sarah Weinman's Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction.

Well, actually, it is not Weinman's book. It is a collection of domesic suspense stories from as far back as the 1940s.

But it is Weinman's book inasmuch as she is the collector and editor of the stories.

Weinman is the one who coined the phrase "domestic suspense" to refer to this genre.

If you want to understand the genre, spot Penguin $16 and grabbacopy.

The phrase "Twisted Wives" made me think she was writing about my first wife, but no dice. That one never wrote anything but threatening letters. This book is about real writers. If you have not abandoned the single world yet, you don't have to worry that this is about the morons you used to meet. Never judge a boook by its title.

Unknown said...

Great... now I'm worried my fantasy novel isn't high-concept enough. This blog both soothes my worries and gives me new ones I never thought to worry about.

One Of Us Has To Go said...

Hm, domestic suspense? So am I spot on then with my story about my tyrannic father who made my mother kneel down and beg him to speak with her again, who threatened me to do a sh*t on the kitchen floor if I had used the wrong toilet, and whose father cheated on his mother with a prostitute that had fled the GDR, when I mainly blame my father for my OCD?

My stuff is pretty, pretty dark.

But I have had no requests and stopped querying for the moment.

I don't use the term "domestic suspense" in my query letter. Sounds like I should... !?

Which book should I buy to read (I haven't been reading many in English yet, since I only got into this world a while ago; I also don't know much about the English language market).

Thanks a lot 💗!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I absolutely write what I want to read. I don't know how to write what I don't want to read. But, it's also how I've ended up with this werewolf trilogy and I need to wrestle into shape.

Granted, my personal publishing goals have also altered in the past two+ years. I've had acceptances in magazines (and had my first Real! Pro! Acceptance! The story is forthcoming in Escape Pod) (My Daily Science Fiction sale was technically a prop market sale, but not an SFWA membership-qualifying sale), I've had good response to things posted on my blog, Patreon is a thing now, etc. etc. etc.

I probably wouldn't have found an agent for my werewolves, and I'm not interested in that struggle. Might they hinder future agent searches? Who knows. Might they take off and make me piles of money? who knows.

Onward and upward!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ya know, I wrote exactly what I wanted to read. I loved it when I wrote it,I love reading it now. I'm having a ball making it the best I can make it. If I'm the only fan of my book, so be it.

Sam Hawke said...

OMG, OP, please don't listen to Steve. Give up after a dozen queries indeed. FFS. There are at least 200 agents repping epic fantasy, plenty more who do urban, and that's not even counting the massive YA market. DO NOT give up just because you haven't found the right fit yet. I don't know that 'high concept' is the big thing in fantasy the way it is with some other genres - fantasy, particularly secondary world fantasy, often isn't easily summarisable in a pithy single sentence. I doubt that is your issue. It's not clear from your post what kind of responses you've got from the half you've heard back from, but unless agents are actively telling you 'this isn't high concept enough' then I wouldn't speculate that's it. I queried something like 70 agents from memory before the offers started coming. These things take time.

Steve, for goodness sake, you clearly don't read in the SFF market - just because the store you buy your bread from doesn't stock things the way you remember doesn't mean the genre is worn out. Some of the biggest selling franchises in book, TV and movies are fantasy. It's not getting any less popular. Please don't spread such discouraging rubbish.

There were at least 5 very successful breakout epic fantasy debuts last year in the adult market: Blackwing, Kings of the Wyld, Godblind, the Court of Broken Knives and the Bear and the Nightingale. That's just off the top of my head, and just the very very successful ones.

Joseph S. said...

I'm with 2 NNs:

"Ya know, I wrote exactly what I wanted to read. I loved it when I wrote it,I love reading it now. I'm having a ball making it the best I can make it. If I'm the only fan of my book, so be it."

Brittany said...

I came to realize that the thing I needed in order to sell my inbewteeny not-quite-YA fantasy not-quite-satire, the thing that agents couldn't or wouldn't articulate when explaining their passes, was an existing audience. I still dearly love that book, and perhaps once I get to a point where my name has its own sales appeal, it will have its moment. A traditionally published debut novel is a fairly specific beastie, and what I had wasn't it.