How do we learn to tell our own stories? This is a question for the individual writer, as well as for companies that produce and market creative products to the public in the hope of earning money. Profit. That stuff.
These two issues are intimately connected. Nearly every bestselling book I'm familiar with, and up until the late 1980s, film, experienced often tremendous and potentially overwhelming difficulties in the process of going from the creator's mind to the end-user -- readers and/or filmgoers.
This question is at the heart of all of the recent controversies related to science fiction and fantasy writing and fandom. It's at the heart of the now-obligatory con "diversity" panel. It's at the heart of the pleas to "listen to me!" one hears daily.
As I said in my 2013 message to young women -- now is the time to start doing. In the words of my abhorred hippie generation ... as I find myself coming full circle: "Do your own thing."
Here are some examples of popular, enduring works of literature that experienced difficulty or took a long time to find an audience:
1936: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell is published ten years after it was written.
1955: Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which took 12 years to write, was finally published in the UK by Allen & Unwin, six years after its completion. Here is some correspondence between Tolkien and the publisher regarding items thought to reduce publisher profit, including Aragorn & Arwen's romance, and those pesky, unnecessary maps. Tolkien took no advance, electing to take a larger share of the profits after the book "earned out." 150 million copies later ...
1965 - Frank Herbert's Dune is initially published by Chilton Auto Publishers (yes, the automotive manuals). This excellent book discusses many aspects of the history and development of Frank Herbert, and now Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's creative Dune universe.
1976 - Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice is published by Alfred A. Knopf, nine months after its completion, and after five rejections. In 1974, Rice signed with literary agent Phyllis Seidel, who was able to place the book within two months. It was fundamentally the same book that received the rejections, and has since gone on to sell many millions of copies worldwide, and to serve as a foundation for many other books by Rice.
1996: Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling is published by Bloomsbury in the UK, for a £2,500 advance, after it was rejected by eight other publishers. By 1998, Scholastic and Arthur Levine famously offered $105,000 for the rights to the book, which was retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for US publication.
2008: The Hunger Games sold to Scholastic for a "six figure advance" in 2006, and had a first printing of 50,000 copies, later to be exceeded by over 1 million copies sold. The Hunger Games books hit the children's book industry strongly, with many in the industry, as well as young readers, reading a post-apocalyptic tale of survival for the very first time - a tale and structure very familiar to readers of dozens of similar books published between the Cold War era and today, and to viewers of such films as Death Race 2000 and The Running Man.
The Hunger Games books are good books. Their primary innovation is the character of Katniss Everdeen. They were the first well-known books to feature a young female character physically fighting for her life and serving as an emerging leader in a science-fictional or fantasy context. They are a great example of a story that was right for its particular time. I am not entirely certain whether or not these books truly belong on this list, because I'm referring to long-tail, enduring bestsellers. The Hunger Games books are still too recent to evidence the staying power of Dune, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter -- and yes, Anne Rice's vampire books.
Suzanne Collins, by the way, was an employee of Scholastic and had an extensive background in children's television prior to the success and impact of the Hunger Games books. She also published five fantasy novels for young readers between 2003 and 2007 (with Scholastic) with titles, characters and topics eerily reminiscent of a better-known fantasy series. Harry Potter. These books are classic "midlist" books written in an already well-established market segment and trend.
Which brings us to: What do you want to write when you grow up?
The beloved books I've mentioned are all products of personal vision, belief, passion, and endless hours of work. Each of these books was received with less enthusiasm by the publishing industry upon its initial presentation than it was, eventually, by readers. Somehow, by some method or means, Margaret Mitchell, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert and J.K. Rowling (sorry Suzanne Collins - you made some good corporate food work but I'm thinking it's kind of not Dune or Harry Potter) wrote something that was not only of great importance to them, but also communicated most effectively, and over a great deal of time and space, and in many different languages, to their audience of readers.
Great passion will have its day, and will find its voice: there is no question. I believed for many years that a great book would always, eventually, be published. Now, of course, this belief is nearly meaningless. All books can be published today.
A barrier has been removed as far as reaching the audience is concerned.
The question I asked remains. "What do you want to write when you grow up?"
This question can only be answered by the individual author. What makes you most passionate? What do you believe in, care about, wish for, hope for, dream about? What nightmare do you wish to banish? What great love do you wish to feel? In what manner will you present your most closely-held hopes and dreams to others?
Much of what J.R.R. Tolkien was obsessed about has been revealed to readers through the publication of his many notebooks, drawings and drafts. By now, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit have become so enduringly popular, virtually everything Tolkien committed to any scrap of paper has been published. The simple vision of a "scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy" that J.K. Rowling had on the train in 1990 has become not only the Harry Potter books and films, but an international merchandising industry, and a world in which millions of readers and fans wish to, in some way, experience and live. That strong. That powerful. As I've commented before, J.K. Rowling owes a tremendous amount to Charles Dickens, who told the first stories of little orphan boys on the outside, looking in.
This essay isn't about how stupid publishers and agents are, that they cannot seem to recognize the biggest, most enduring creative work without an extraordinary amount of prodding and/or happy/lucky accidents. All but the most isolated writers, writing individually and alone, are influenced by the larger world. Many writers spend their entire writing lives writing "what is expected."
There are those who wrote mashups following the popularity of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies in 2009. There are those who, upon seeing the rise in popularity of urban fantasy, wrote books featuring creatures of the fantastic in gritty urban settings. Today, there are nascent Hunger Games writers, and continued legions of Harry Potter-inspired individuals telling stories of wizarding schools and benighted orphan wizards, male, female, and transgendered.
If we're talking about big ideas here, and we are, all of these big books, in a certain respect, was a game-changer in one aspect or another, or in some cases, more than one aspect. Let's take Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire. Vampire books were hardly the "coming thing" when that book was written in 1970. The concept of a first-person "interview" telling a vampire's story: also somewhat of a game-changer. This simple concept enabled the life of Louis, and through Louis, Lestat, to be told and shown to the reader. If you could live hundreds of years, what would that mean? In the 70s and 80s, there was one (1) highly successful female horror writer and she remains on top in many respects: Anne Rice. It is in some ways miraculous that the book saw publication, and she was able to build the career she has today, entertaining millions of readers with her deep passion and rich perspective. The character many people most-remember from Interview With the Vampire is Claudia, the little girl vampire beloved by both Louis and Lestat. It is said that Claudia was inspired by Anne's own daughter, who died of leukemia.
A well-known book exists, Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. Zuckerman identifies a number of common elements to bestselling books. Nearly all of the books and authors Zuckerman covers in the book were also made into successful films. He correctly identifies common elements to bestselling novels - elements that coincidentally, cannot exist without authorial (and reader) passion. Yet even with following Zuckerman's guidance to the letter, a mediocre book can easily be written. Because there is an indefinable personal element that can only be contributed by the writer. It can only come from the writer's inner heart and soul. It's "who they are" and when that goes into a book, it is a piece of greatness. It is what writing fiction is about, in its highest sense.
A writer writes from his or her heart. At some unknown later time, a reader reads it, and it becomes at that time, the reader's own story. And the reader is moved. Delighted. Engaged. Transported. Changed.
If you, the writer, have one chance to do this to another person -- a person you will likely never meet or talk to -- what is it you want to say to them? What do you wish them to say to themselves? When they read your work.
One of the several gaps and flaws in the traditional publishing system is that it makes it so very difficult for the writer to truly say what it is they mean to say.
There are hundreds of years of written and creative history in which the "expected" stories are the only ones which could be told. We are familiar with the "Hero's Journey," dating from ancient myths and legends. For the entirety of the 19th century, there were two types of novels with female heroines: 1) she got married to the right guy; 2) she cheated and paid the price. That's it. Variation #1 remains the basis of 75% of Harlequin's output today. This is modified to: "She screwed the best guy and got rich" for alternative titles.
But our world is about the unexpected today. It's the era of the individual. And guess what? Being fully-human, and being individual, is hard.
We do have room today for as many stories as there are people. Yet some things remain common to all human experience.
Where do you, writer, fit? How will you cast the story that only you can tell?
As to me, I put my family and friends in it. If you'd like to beta read Like Fire, I will send you a copy. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Because I found what I wanted to write when I grew up.