Successful writers are conformists, not iconoclasts. The "Way of the Cookie" may be mysterious and yummy; the way of the storyteller is much less mysterious. It's all about telling stories that people want to hear.
I woke up in the middle of the night and re-watched Eli Roth's episode of Discovery's Curiosity series. The "Bear Jew" is one of my favorites, even though the Hostel films are not. The show explored "How Evil Are You?" Roth had an MRI and genetic analysis to determine whether or not he had genetic and physical "psychopath" tendencies. He also rebooted the famous early '60s experiments of Yale's Stanley Milgram, which showed the powerfully disturbing truth: about three-quarters of people will inflict fatal harm on others if told to do so by an authority figure. The experiment's subjects are sad and sometimes extremely guilty and conflicted about hurting other people -- but they go ahead and do it anyway.
I've been looking at months of conformity among other writers on my Facebook list. The best, most original posts and forwards aren't coming from other writers. They're coming from artists and photographers, but mostly from my family and real-world friends. All this conformity was starting to hurt my heart. I could not and still cannot see how this type of thought process would produce good creative work. I have begun to question my lifelong assumption: creative artists are more flexible in thought than the "average person" and are less susceptible to conformity and authority.
I'd like to think that I'd be one of the 25% who wouldn't shock someone just because an experimenter told me I "had to do it." But I've been familiar with the Milgram experiment for years; I have an advantage. I am aware of this, and know to say "no" when confronted with this situation.
I haven't had an MRI like Eli, nor have I had a complete genetic profile that would show me if I had "psychopath" or empath genes.
Based in years of experience, I know I'm somewhere farther away from the conformity scale in what I choose to do as a writer. In a desire to actually sell my work and please readers, I've increasingly taken time in recent years to analyze "what works" and "what doesn't."
A writer cannot be completely nonconformist and reach a broad audience of readers. Work that is too strange, too disturbing or too far from the interests of most people will remain exactly that. Frequently, storytelling that is well-known, yet lacking large numbers of readers, is simply conformist to a smaller subset of the population which represents the audience for this work. I have my Paul Bowles shelf; others continue to buy and read Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
More people probably bought and read 50 Shades of Grey during a single week earlier this year than have bought and read Naked Lunch in the 53 years since its first publication. I'm not enthralled with either work for different reasons. Some might see 50 Shades of Grey as "breaking new ground" because it introduced explicit BDSM sex to a readership of millions. Yet it is deeply conformist, coming out of Twilight fan fiction. Grey made the hot fantasies of thousands of Twilight fans into a concrete story, scrubbing off the "Edward" and "Bella" personas and replacing the fantasy of star-crossed immortal love with astonishing wealth and the pleasures of the flesh.
The pitchtastic process is the same thing. 50 Shades of Grey is "Twilight Meets 9 1/2 Weeks Meets Wall Street." Twilight is "Romeo & Juliet Meets True Blood." The Hunger Games is "Hansel & Gretel Meet The Running Man."
I started talking about "successful" writers. This group includes writers like E.L. James, Stephenie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins. But what about writers who break ground? It is possible to break preconceived notions and achieve tremendous success.
I was fascinated by Ursula LeGuin's cri de couer on the Book View Cafe blog this past week. I know Ursula and I are quite opposed in official political sentiment. But her questions and observations were exactly correct. Our country has devolved to a lower standard of living and a lower moral standard. People are accepting statements as fact from leadership that are anything but. They are not comparing daily quality of life with official pronouncements, they are overlooking obvious horrendous behavior on the part of people in positions of fiscal responsibility, and are not acting like they want to work together to make anything better.
Ursula is a great writer, uncompromising and thoughtful, powerful and skilled in all areas and levels of storytelling. The stories she has told matter. They are not "other people's" conformist stories; they are her own. And she has also achieved success and deserves much more.
We are not built to be a society made up of millions of Ursulas. We are built to be a society made up of millions of people who will fatally administer shocks on the order of those in authority. The only reason we don't go Nazi Germany is that we have sufficient guardian angels in our society, for the time being, who will step up and say "No - stop - this is wrong."
Maybe I am one of those people, and maybe I am not. I know I am not someone comfortable with writing "Twilight Meets Gone With the Wind." I'm pretty sure I don't share genes and brain architecture with "The Bear Jew" because, while I can watch the Hostel films, I would never do it for pleasure. I've always told people they don't really want to see me do a full-on horror story because the stories I tell are very real to me, and while I might stand up to the authority figure in the Milgram experiment even if I didn't know what was going on in advance, I might also be that experimenter.
As to pitches, I can do them all day. Here is a new one for you: "Lord of the Rings meets A League of Her Own." Go ye to it and write. If I can make a story out of an Altoids tin, you can make a story out of that.