Writing vs. Mass Production

After I published SMILING JACK, it seemed I couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who couldn’t wait to tell me they had written a novel or were working on one. Which is totally awesome, by the way.

Now, when you tell me you have written/are writing a novel, there is one question you can bet Aunt Maggie’s house slippers I’m going to ask you. “What’s the story?” A few have actually given me a pretty good synopsis or quickie breakdown of their story. But by far, the majority of answers I get are similar to this one:

“It’s a YA thriller/paranormal/romance/hodgepodge aimed at XYZ group, hoping to catch on the popularity of ABC bestseller, and of course it’s the first in a five-hundred volume series.”

Huh? I used to try and drill a little deeper, and actually get the answer to the question. Now I just smile, wish them a heart-felt good luck, and get back to what I’m doing. Because it becomes obvious very quickly that they don’t have a clue what their STORY is about; they just know who they want to sell it to. They’ve decided to manufacture the novel they think people want to buy, also known as targeted writing.

The time for figuring out your target audience is after you tell the story, not before. Of course, you have to know your target audience when you start submitting, but as any editor or agent will tell you, you don’t even THINK about submitting before everything is polished and at its best.

I’m not a fan of the concept of targeted writing; I write the best story I can, and THEN go back and figure out who the best audience is for it. For instance, with some tweaking and revisions, SMILING JACK could have easily been a Young Adult thriller. YA thrillers (or YA anything) are blazing hot right now. The only problem?

SMILING JACK isn’t a YA story line. TJ isn’t a take-charge, let’s-get-it-done, can-do scrappy little young detective in a world full of hapless adults and Keystone Kops; he’s a decently smart, good kid who spends most of the book right where any other teenager in the middle of a murder would be, which is in way over his head. To me, stripping away the elements of SMILING JACK that keep it from being YA-friendly would be stripping away the story itself. So despite the urging of a couple of agents who would have taken it on in a heartbeat if I just changed it to YA, I went independent and published it the way I intended it. I understand their viewpoint; YA is easier to sell, and very popular, meaning more sales and profit for everyone.

Far be it from me to get on a soapbox and beat my chest, wailing about “artistic integrity”, but there is something to be said for telling my story, my way. Nor is this about ignoring advice; much of the advice I was given about my second novel, SISTERS, was spot-on, and resulted in a total re-working of the beginning. Editors and agents know the business of writing better than anyone, and more often than not, the advice they give is fantastic. But you should automatically be alert when you’re being told “if you’ll just strip away the story to fit this genre, it’ll be great.” And to be fair, most editors/agents wouldn’t do that.

And before anyone threatens to dismember me for slamming the YA genre, I think there is a lot of good work being done there. But when I was in the target YA “audience,” it didn’t exist, not really. There were some juvenile adventure series like the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew stuff, and a slew of imitators, but if you were a reasonably intelligent reader at, say, age thirteen, you weren’t reading this stuff. You were reading the adult novels.

And you know what? It made me a better reader, and a better writer. By forcing me to step up into the “grown-up” world, it made me think (and therefore write) about themes not addressed in the work aimed at me.  One of my only real issues with the YA genre is that a lot of it seems to assume that the reader can’t grasp adult themes, and sets forth a set of rules to follow:

  1. You can’t deal directly with the death of a relative or friend, only as backstory.
  2. There is no such thing as sexual attraction as a teenager.  
  3. Nothing bad can happen to the main character.

Again, that isn’t the whole genre, but there’s a good chunk of it that follows those very rules. To me, it assumes the reader isn’t smart or capable enough to think about these things for themselves, which is at best condescending and at worst, insulting.

One of the big draws for adults who read YA is that there’s little to no profanity, sex, or gore. That’s fine; I don’t feel you must have these to tell a good story, but there are times when they’re appropriate to the story, and if you start to change your story to fit any particular mold, you’re already in trouble. Yes, this includes adding these elements where they aren’t needed as much as taking them out when they are.

Write the best story you can. Polish it until it shines. Once you have that, then you can figure out who it’s for. If the idea you have sounds perfect for YA (or any other genre) by all means, tailor it to fit. But never compromise the story to fit a mold, or you may as well be writing fan fiction, one of the lowest forms of writing in the world.

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