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Rogue Mutt Classics: Selling Out is Hard to Do

August 31, 2011

This was one of the last entries before the Crusade thing.  It’s also kin to the entry I wrote last June about wanting to sell out.  My problem:  I always fuck up at coloring in the lines.  I have pretty much no commercial instincts at all.  So yeah, it’s not easy to be a sell-out.


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.

This concludes the summer reruns.  On Labor Day we get underway again with an appropriately-themed entry about laboring on stories.  So, get excited people!


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  1. I think “literary” is sometimes used as “we don’t know what to call it,” while “Literary” with a capital L is “high-minded types of stories.”

    You could sell Scarlet Knight as YA, you know — that’s a new catch-all for books these days.

    It’s weird that you wrote this today — I just read the HuffPo story about “Mirror Mirror … Of The Wall,” a blog about a girl who gave up mirrors for a year; you probably saw that on Twitter I said it’s “Amy Adams’ next movie.” I noted it because of my old blog post about how to write a best seller, in which I said “What humans mean, when we say we want variety and new things, is this: we want the same old things, but with slightly different sauce.” ( and pointed out that “Zombies-Plus-Things” was an example of how people don’t really want new.

    So you’re absolutely right– you won’t really get rich writing something “new” or “unique” because people don’t like those– Better Off Ted gets canceled but Rachel In The OC outsells me 1,000 to 1 — but it might be more satisfying to write what you like. (It is for me, although in fairness, I have not been able to compare the satisfaction of “working in Wisconsin and writing part time” with the satisfaction of “being a millionaire writer with a home in Hawaii,” so I’m not really a good judge.)

    • I probably couldn’t have submitted it as YA before but now that I’ve gone through and stripped out all the dirty parts and bad language I probably could. Though I doubt it’d get much of a response. They’d probably decide I’m not hip and with it enough for the kids.

  2. I think I know the formula for selling out with YA but I just can’t do it because it’s boring to write that way. My formula is girl protagonist, first-person present-tense, love triangle with hot guys, all three are white or mostly white and the boys are super hot. The girl really doesn’t need to do much except be super attractive to the guys. Once I got that done then I’d need a setting. I’m thinking sometime in the future near San Francisco or more appropriately Sausalito as the shallow market of people that buy these books like reading about rich kids. My protag would be underprivileged because ppl love to make baddies out of rich folk. But one of the love triangle is rich…the other poor. The rich dude thinks he’s all that…the poor dude is an athlete. Then I throw in some parents who are scientists and torture some kids that have telepathic powers in a laboratory in the hidden basement of their 40-acre mansion because of some government project that has to do with life in the oceans of Europa.

    • Sounds like genius to me!!!

      • We should write a YA story together. I could do 40,000 words and you could do 40,000 words. I wonder what we’d come up with.

      • How about you do a detailed outline and I’ll slap a rough draft together?

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