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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Selling Out is Hard to Do

January 4, 2011

It’s the new year!  Did I resolve to write more or better blog entries?  No.  I’m going to be really busy with work in January, so don’t expect many blog entries until at least February, if not later.  As for better, you can’t improve on perfection! (Little joke.)

When going into 2011, I thought at first I really wanted to write something “literary” again.  Then I thought about it and told myself, “What’s the point?”  Chances are it won’t be published and if by some miracle it were, it likely wouldn’t sell more than 1000 copies.  Really unless you win a major award (sometimes not even then) or get on Oprah’s couch, it’s tough anymore to make a career as a “literary” writer.  That’s why most of them have second careers like teaching.

So now my new year’s resolution is that I need to try “coloring in the lines” this year.  In other words, sell out!  But selling out is a lot harder than you might think.  At least it is for me.

None of my previous attempts at selling out ever really worked.  The main reason I would cite was not coloring in the lines.  That term comes from someone whose blog I used to read.  What the dude was saying is basically then when you’re doing a genre project there are certain rules you need to follow.  Those rules are probably dictated by the genre.  If you want to know what those rules are, then you should probably read a lot in that genre.  Or maybe instead of “rules” I should say “conventions” to follow.

Because one of the Big Lies agents and editors like to bandy about is that they want something different.  No they don’t!  They want the same formulas, just tweaked a little so that it looks different.  They don’t want you to reinvent the wheel or invent a better mousetrap; they’d rather you just take an existing product, glue a pencil sharpener to it, and call it something new.  At most take some parts off the shelf and rearrange them so it looks like something different.  You know, like how wizards, boarding schools, and a Chosen One with a Great Destiny had all been done before, but put them together and you get Harry Potter.  Or take a high school romance and make one half of it a vampire and you get Twilight.

So don’t strive to be different, strive to be different enough that it looks new.  Of course this is Terrible Tips Tuesday, so take that with a grain of salt.

For me, the problem is that if I try to take parts off the shelf and reassemble them I take the wrong parts or I just wind up breaking them.  What I usually wind up with is something that doesn’t really fit into a niche.  That was something I was lamenting in my last real entry for the year with the Scarlet Knight stories.  I haven’t even tried querying them because I haven’t the slightest idea what genre I would describe them as.  Urban fantasy?  Some kind of sci-fi?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that as soon as I bring up the superhero thing whatever agent’s intern will start thinking POW! BAM! and so forth and think it’s like a comic book.  But it’s not, not really.  The action scenes were most always an afterthought to me.  If it was any comic book it would be Watchmen, which was more focused on the people behind the masks than slugfests.

Even before that I had trouble in trying to sell out.  In my YA series Forever Young, I made a couple of bad decisions.  I set it on a remote island, which created problems for the sequels, and then I made the bad guy an evil reverend.  Religious politics was probably something most YA agents would choose to avoid.

Before that were the novels Higher Power and Virgin Territory.  I’m not sure what genre they were supposed to be.  Kind of romance, but not really romance.  I mean they were love stories, but they weren’t really romances if that makes any sense.  Higher Power I describe as “Nightmare on Elm Street” (or maybe “Inception” now) meets The Notebook.  Yeah, where do you file that one?

So if you’re wanting to sell out and maybe make a few bucks, then the first thing is when you start to know what genre you’re writing.  Then try and figure out the conventions for that genre and generally stick to those.  Try not to make dumb decisions like making your main character a superhero or your YA story villain an evil reverend or writing a story that has prominent gay relationships in it.  Besides conventions or rules, part of “coloring in the lines” is realizing that certain ideas bring up certain perceptions.  Do the test and when I say, “superhero” or “gay” what springs to your mind?  As every writer should know, words have power.  So when it comes time to query, you’re going to want to be able to use the right words to make a good impression.

Until next time…

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