It’s not always about the writing


Some writers have cats.  Some writers have parrots.  Here are my babies, Spock and Scotty.  They’re year-old mini-donkeys, and they’ve managed to live up to every donkey stereotype you’ve ever heard about.  They’re cautious, they’re stubborn, yet they’re intensely curious.  If you whip out anything electronic, they’ll come right up and crowd close to get a good look and a good sniff.  They love electronics.

But they’re also intent on self-preservation.  It took us four attempts just to coax them out of their nice safe corral into the open world for a walk.  It then took three attempts to coax them into a horse carrier.  If there’s a garden hose lying on the ground, they won’t step over it.  If there’s a puddle of water, they’ll come to a screeching halt and refuse to go any further.  They have such a strong instinct for survival, they have to think long and hard before doing anything that might endanger them.

That’s how it is with some writers.  (Did I say this entry wasn’t about writing?  I guess I lied.)

Some writers play it safe with their careers.  They find success in one genre, so they stick with it for book after book.  Maybe they even keep writing the same story, with only a few variations.  And that’s okay.  It may even be the smart thing to do.  Donkeys, after all, are known for being experts in self-preservation.  No wonder they manage to survive in the harshest of environments.

Other writers take chances.  They’ll be safe in the niche of one genre and then do something unexpected and daring.  Their risk may take them to new and exciting places — or it may start the downslide of their careers.  I can think of several writers this has happened to.  One achieved bestselling success writing contemporary foreign thrillers.  Then he wrote a terrific historical thriller that garnered lousy sales.  He hasn’t had a bestseller since.

Another bestselling thriller writer, caught up in the pain of a terrible personal tragedy, chose to write about that tragedy in a nonfiction book.  Ever since, the writer’s had a hard time reclaiming a spot on the bestseller list.

In retrospect, these were disastrous career moves for the writers.  But they were risks they felt compelled to take, and I admire them for it.  There isn’t enough risk-taking among writers.  We’re too often talked out of it because it makes our sales unpredictable and it confuses our readers.  We seldom get praised for it; in fact critics often tend to be harsher on veteran writers who try something completely different.

Yet some plucky writers will continue to take those risks.  Some of them will come galloping eagerly out of the corral.  Some of them will trip and break a leg.  But others will discover that even the risk of a broken leg is worth stepping out of that safe and familiar place that has started to feel just a little too confining.

15 replies
  1. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Tess –

    I don’t remember what brought me to your blog initially, but I enjoy reading it because of your (at times, brutal) honesty. I’ve also discovered and enjoyed your novels thanks to your blog. I’ve preordered “Bone Garden.”

    I sense from your recent posts that you’re still feeling the sting of negative reviews for “Bone Garden,” even though I’m guessing the glowing reviews outnumber the negative ones.

    First, even though you are a bestselling author, I think it helps to be reminded of the phrase with which we unpublished writers are so familiar: “It’s a very subjective business and undoubtedly others _____ (fill in the blank: agents, publishers, readers, reviewers) may feel differently. We advise you to keep querying, writing, etc. Love and Kisses, Another Rejecting Agent.”

    Secondly: Because you are a humble person, you don’t mention the fact that most writers CAN’T writer in more than one genre — I believe you’ve written in three — nor have they earned a medical degree, stayed in a successful marriage and raised two wonderful sons.

    It’s hard to ask so much of yourself and then be hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. But I believe that’s all part and parcel of being a writer, being female and just being human.

    PS Your donkeys are adorable.

  2. Julie K. Trevelyan
    Julie K. Trevelyan says:

    Risk-taking is how we know we are alive. Jumping blindly (or at least without any assurances of where or if we will land) into the void and trusting that our fall will be caught is sometimes what we need to do in order to continue to live our own authenticity.

    In fact, we never have any assurances of anything at all in this life, so we are all risk-takers of some degree or other.

    In my life, I, for one, am happy bucking the current and doing what resonates most and best for me, rather than pandering to others’ expectations in any format. And I heartily applaud all those others out there who hear their own drummer and decidedly march to that beat, even if the rest of the band is heading en masse in a different direction.

    Although I also think that those who continue to write (live/work/love/etc.) in the exact same way each time may also simply be doing what they love. Each person needs to discover what fits best, whether that be always the same thing or new experiences daily.

    And yes, your mini-donkeys are definitely adorable!

  3. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    Nice post, Tess. I’m of the opinion that our creative sides demand taking risks and we’re crazy not to respond. The reading public has their right to object, but I think the majority will applaud the attempt to grow creatively and professionally. Besides, who wants to read stale content?

  4. Sue
    Sue says:

    Then there are the ones who write under another name just to “test the waters” of another genre. It seems to be if it is well accepted, then they’ll eventually own up to being the author. I think it is very brave of authors to break out of their comfort zone and try something else. I admire their creativity.

  5. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Risk taking from a financially secure position: exciting and laudable

    Risk taking with a family dependent on your paycheck: questionable reasoning

    I liked your anecdotal donkey experiences. Those two are pretty cute.

  6. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    OK, I hope this makes sense but not meaning to sound awful but a publisher knows what will sell, should they not like what the author turns in, then they wont accept it as the submission.

    The fact that as an author you decided that you wanted to write a book that was different to anything else that youve done before not only shows bravery but also demonstrates that as an author youre not a one trick pony that sticks to the safe paddling waters that others dabble in. IE the old “If its not broken don’t fix it” attitude.

    Basically what I always feel is the best thing is to ignore critics, after all, as we say in the UK, todays critism is tomorrows chip paper. So treat it as such, the fact that youre an approachable author who cares about thier fans says a lot. You listen to what we’d like but temper it with what you want to write, your excitement when youre writing fills the fans with just as much joy reading it. Its one of those things.

    It seems however that as a writer you just cant win, on one hand you have some saying “Oh god not another x book, when will they write something new.” or its a case “Oh god, why cant I have another x book I love those.”

    As a reader I love it when an author tackles something new it shows a spirit, and if someone refuses to read another book because one wasnt to thier taste, they were only a fair weather fan in the first place.

    What I suggest Tess is write what you want, listen to fans and ignore the critics, after all most people forget what the critics said only remembering that the book was mentioned. Try not to let them get to you and have fun with your writing. And stick with the donkeys, dig your heels in, if you felt you gave it your best then what the hells wrong. I also think that you’ll feel better after having met the fans to get thier feedback, thats what matters more.

  7. NewMexicanAnn
    NewMexicanAnn says:

    I never thought I’d like donkeys, but Spock and Scotty are CUTE! Kinda wish I were there to cuddle them now, as a matter of fact.

    Forgive me for saying this, please, but it just popped into my goofy mind: The only thing they’re missing are multicolored serapes on their backs and a cigarette coming out of their butts (ala those tacky cigarette holders).

  8. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess, you’re approaching this from a writer’s POV, naturally. From the READER’s POV, it takes time to find an author they like. They have to go through disappointments and duds to find an author who writes on their wave length. Once they find that author, they want to read everying, having a sense that they’re going to get when they like.

    When the writer shifts gears, the reader suddenly doesn’t get what is expected. That tends to bring disappointment, at the least.

    Prhased differently, when a writer shifts gears, that will usually translate into needing a new reader base. During the transition, the existing reader base will become annoyed. The “new” reader base may never appear because they have already heard that the writer is not the kind they are looking for.

    Thus, shifting gears is tough, both in terms of fan base development and short term economics. If it’s done as a long term investment(e.g. the new emphasis will continue for the period of time necessary to get the word out and get a new fan base established), it can make sense.

  9. Craig
    Craig says:

    Tess, I will tell you when you’re whining. That way you won’t have to worry about it. Don’t hold your breath waiting, though.

  10. Tess
    Tess says:

    BernardL, you’ve distilled the whole dilemma down to its essence — risk vs. reward all depends on HOW MUCH you’re risking. And I totally agree.

    I think if a writer is just starting out and trying to establish himself, he’s better off establishing a secure brand first. Only then is it safe to branch off into new stuff.

    The adventurous writer sometimes has to curb himself and wait a bit to try something new.

    And thanks for all the nice compliments about Spock and Scotty. Yeah, they ARE cute. That’s why they get away with so much!

  11. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    If I had a solid fan base in one genre, I think I might use a pseudonym to publish The Big Risk. Does that make sense?

  12. spyscribbler
    spyscribbler says:

    Those donkeys are just the cutest!

    I’m definitely on the donkey side. Every step I take is WAY overanalyzed, fretted over, worried about, calculated. Must work on that, LOL.

  13. childofthewilderness
    childofthewilderness says:

    oh man your donkeys are SOOOO adorable.
    looking at them just about deprives me of whatever intellectual comment i was about to make >

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