Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary or Commercial? Character or Plot-driven?

At conferences, I would always hear authors, agents, and editors talk about 'character-driven' versus 'plot-driven' stories. Character-driven are the stories where the character dictates the action, and the reader cares more about what happens to the character than what happens in general. More often than not, they are the stories that get labeled as 'literary'.

Plot-driven, on the other hand, often labeled 'commercial', are fast-moving. The plot, not the characters, dictate the action. Readers tend to care more about what is happening, than what is happening to a specific character.

This whole categorization between literary/commercial, character/plot-driven used to bother me because as I would sit and listen, I'd always come to the same conclusion - I am more of a plot-driven writer, and that seemed to be wrong. Editors were always saying they wanted literary, character-driven stories, not plot-driven, commercial stories. I felt like I was somehow unworthy of publication.

When I paid a published author for a critique of one of my manuscripts several years ago, she drove the point home by saying: "This is too plot-driven and your characters under-developed; if your goal is commercial fiction, this is ready, but if you want to be published in any of the big NY houses, you have a lot of work to do." She went on to separate out her comments, based on whether I wanted to be a commercial or a literary author (the literary suggestions being the more lengthy of the two sections). My reaction was, "ugh, I must really suck if she thinks it's commercial" and I abandoned the story.

As I sit down now to begin revising that novel after some five years, I see what she was saying. I do agree with 99% of what she said (after all back then I was still quite the newbie writer) but I also think she missed the boat on the whole commercial vs literary separation.

First of all, who cares if it's commercial? That stuff sells; being commercial is not a bad thing. We all like to read a light book once in awhile, a quick read, especially after slogging through a heavy literary novel.

But more importantly, who says a book must be one or the other? I think you can have a literary AND commercial book. The suggestions she made based on whether I wanted to go the commercial or literary route, when combined, would make a brilliant book.

Too often people equate 'literary' with 'quiet' and 'internal', downplaying the plot - they think you have to be writing in a first person narrative with lots of internal dialogue for it to be good, worthy stuff .

It doesn't.

Plot is not a dirty word. I love plot. I love having things happen on the sidelines, seemingly unrelated to the story, and then having all the strands meet in one big catastrophic collision. I love planting seeds that sit quietly growing underneath the surface or that tumble gently along between scenes, unnoticed, until BAM! They pop into the picture, sending things stumbling out of control. What better way to orchestrate these sideline events or plant these seeds than through the development of your characters? I love creating characters who make choices that send everything into a tailspin - choices you know as the reader, were wrong, but you also know were the only choice that character could have made.

In my opinion, that's literary AND commercial. That's what I like to read, and that's want I want to strive for in my writing. So the next time I hear someone ask "literary or commercial? Character or plot-driven?" I think I'll just smile and say, "Yes, please."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Deciding What To Write -- Revisited

Okay, so after my last post I was all gung-ho. I was going to stay with what I was writing, see it through to the end, stick with what I was passionate about, what I was hearing in my heart. And I did - I wrote two more chapters and was really getting back into it.

Then . . . I received the March 2009 issue of HipLit, HarperTeen's e-newsletter featuring new books, series, etc. I read about a new series they are releasing that sounds WAY too similar to my book. UGH! In an already saturated market, I am afraid I don't stand a chance with my plot as is.

Thus, I have decided to shelve my manuscript - at least until I can come up with a way to make my plot drastically different than anything out there right now. In the mean time, I think I will focus on my MG ghost story that has been sitting patiently awaiting revision for about five years!

So, I bid farewell (for now) to Simon and Kat in Wendigo Blood, and say hello to Julia in Nana's Ghost. Please, no tears or dirges, they will return again - I can never leave my stories shelved for too long!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Deciding what to write

Over the past few weeks I have been a bit stuck. It isn't writer's block exactly because I have several things I could be writing. My problem is which one I should be writing.

I had been revising a novel that I am passionate about - in love with the plot, the characters, the new twists I've built in to the old plot, etc. Problem?

I went to Barnes and Noble and saw how many paranormal/urban fantasy books are out there right now. I think my story is unique, but is it unique enough to stand out from an already saturated market?

I don't know, so . . . now I am stuck. Should I continue writing it and not worry about the market that may not be there when I complete the novel? Or should I instead work on the MG ghost story I also could be revising? Or, how about the two plots I have outlined using the characters of the novel I just finished? But, there again, do I even want to delve into the whole series thing when I don't know if that book will even get published? Nothing like spending time writing a series of books about characters no one cares about.

When I sit down to write everyday, I start asking these questions, and I end up in the same argument with myself:

Inner Me: Write what is calling to you right now; what you are passionate about right now; don't worry about the market.

Me: But with limited writing time, I'd hate to be spending hours and days and months on something that potentially will go nowhere.

Inner Me: So, you're in this just to get published?

Me: Heck no, but that is a goal, nonetheless, and I'd like to be working on something I am passionate about AND is marketable, you know?

Inner Me: Yeah, I see your point.

Me: ??? !!!

Any suggestions to resolving this uncertainty? Advice? Words of wisdom? Anyone? Anyone?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I think Tom Petty said it best: "The waiting is the hardest part . . ." Of course, he wasn't referring to the publishing industry, but the sentiment is the same no matter what you're waiting on.

I've done my fair share of waiting in my forty-something years of life (yes, I can say forty-something now, can't I?) I've waited for buses, waited for grades, waited for guys to get a clue. The hardest waiting has come as an adult: waiting to hear if I graduated, waiting to hear if I'd been hired, waiting to give birth, waiting to hear if a sick child is okay. The worst always occurs each time my husband gets deployed to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc . . . sitting by the phone, afraid to leave and live my life each day for fear I will miss that coveted phone call from him, or waiting to hear he is okay when I slip up and read the newspaper or hear a news story or don't hear from him in a few days. Thank God I haven't had to deal with THAT kind of waiting this year.

But, waiting to hear from an editor or agent (or both as is my case right now) can be almost as excruciating. My imagination runs wild each time a day goes by without hearing anything. I imagine one of them reading my manuscript and saying "this is awesome" and the next minute, I imagine a less desirable reaction like, "wow, is she serious? She can't write!" - when the reality of it may be, they haven't even read it yet. Perhaps it is the lack of a deadline that sucks so bad. At least when my husband was deployed, I had a date range to focus on most of the time. But, with publishing, they could say three weeks, and three months could go by before hearing anything.

I try to put myself in their shoes. They are busy people with many manuscripts to sort through, projects they are responsible for editing, conferences and meetings and deadlines of their own to attend to - my one manuscript is not on their minds like it is on mine.

It's kind of like the long lines at Disney World. Us riders, like us writers, wait for eighty minutes in a long crowded line for our thirty seconds of thrill, complaining on the wait, the dead time. But those Disney employees running the rides, like the editors and agents, are working their butts off, running each and every one of those thrills for those in line. They are responsible for all of the trips that roller coaster makes around the track, not just the one each of us riders/writers are taking part in.

So, I tell myself these things and I try to be patient while I stand in that line. I try to focus on other things, work on my new book, or re-edit the manuscript I've sent off (cringing as I find new mistakes, cliches, weakly written spots that I now know eventually they will be reading too!) because I know that when us writers do hear from an editor or agent, that thirty seconds of thrill is so worth it. We scream; we cheer; we're exhilarated.

And yes, when we come back to earth again, we do walk back to the end of the same line or search out a new one, because even though that endless waiting is the hardest part, the ride is so worth it!