Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Risky Business

As anybody who's ever tried to sell their writing can tell you, writing is a risky business. And I'm not just talking about the intermittent, unstable income. (I once tried to explain to a financial planner that I had no idea how much I was going to make in any given year. The poor man may still be shaking his head.)

But there are other risks, too.

First and foremost, and what can be an insurmountable hurdle for some people, is what I call "personal risk." Whatever you write, the choices you make as you tell your story are revealing, whether you plan it that way or not. You are, in one sense, exposing yourself. And that can be a scary thought.

If you've gotten over that hurdle, there are other risks as you choose your story and the way you want to tell it.

There's what I call the Big Risk, where you come up with a story that's not just pushing the envelope, it's tearing it to shreds. You love it and you don't care if it's marketable. But you send it out into the world anyway, hoping that somebody else (in a position to buy it) will love it, too.

This may work, and it may sell gazillions and get everybody talking.

Big Risk = Big Gamble that may = Big Pay-off. Or maybe not.

See, we only hear the big gambles that paid off. Articles are written, interviews conducted, buzz buzzes. We don't hear about the books that got rejected 200 times and never sold, or how much time and effort the author spent working on what turned out to be a dead end. I believe that for every Big Risk that succeeded, there are at least hundred more that didn't (and that's probably a conservative estimate). We just don't hear about the failures. For obvious reasons, authors aren't keen to talk about the books that didn't work.

Unfortunately, nobody can tell you what's going to work as you're writing the Big Risk book. It really is a huge gamble.

However, there's also the Calculated Risk, which is more common and, I think, more generally successful (that is, more successful for more people). That's where the author puts a new twist on something familiar, or has a unique take on the tried and true.

This can be even trickier than the Big Risk, though, because the writer risks thwarting reader expectations and incurring their wrath. If you decide to take the Big Risk and blow the envelope, you're freed of the constraints of the envelope. If you're still writing within the envelope, there can be a fine line between being different enough to be interesting, and alienating readers.

Whether you want to take the Big Risk or the Calculated Risk, one thing's for certain: There isn't any "no risk" writing. No set of rules or guidelines or formula will ever ensure you sell. It takes time, persistence, trying new things until you find what works, and yes, it takes talent.

It also requires a willingness to run risks. And to put your work, and therefore yourself, on stage.

1 comment:

Michelle Styles said...

Gladiator's Honour was a calculated risk btw, I knew that they were looking for ms set in that time period and figured that I was in a chance.

The people who poo-pooed the idea had not done their homework. It appeareda far bigger to them than it did to me. And it is the appearance of risk that can make all the differnece.

I have no idea how that particular time period will play out. Thus, I am taking another calculated risk and writing Vikings and early Victorian with self-made men as heroes. Besides I like those time periods.

There is a wonderful Guy Clarke song called the Cape that basically sums it -- he didn't know he couldn't, so he did.