Be On Your Garde
I recently had a nice chat with an editor. And it was nice because editors are fine people.
I’ve touched on this before, in an ancient post. It’s still just as true today.
That said, it can be difficult to convince an editor of what you’re trying to say. Acquisitions editors are often called “Gatekeepers” within the industry, because their job is to be a filter. It is not unrealistic to go even further, and state that their job is to say “No.”
And people who say “No” are the bravest people in the world. And often the least appreciated.
That is why I go easy on editors. But it also creates a stumbling block when trying to communicate with them, because editors—like other gatekeepers—give recognition to the familiar. They predict the success of what they’re seeing by comparing it to previous successes. Which is often a good policy.
But such an approach will always exclude the revolutionary. It leaves no room for the avant garde, which is where the greatest successes are to be mined.
An Example: Young Adult Lovesickness
Why must I be a teenager in love…and also an ancient robot warlock programmed to destroy all life on Earth?
Some professionals within the Young Adult (YA) literary market insist that every YA novel needs to contain a love story. Because that’s just the way it is and there is no going against it so your book absolutely must have a love story.
Unless you’re the first Maze Runner book.
Or the first three Harry Potter books.
Or any YA novel that doesn’t particularly need romantic tension because it already has a hundred other kinds of tension.
And this lockstep obsession with shoehorning love stories into YA novels results in a lot of stilted, awkward love subplots that lack any kind of chemistry.
The idea that YA novels work better with love stories is still sound as a general rule. A cursory analysis of the YA market will reveal that whiny teen love sells. In some cases, it sells by the millions.
Which doesn’t guarantee that it always will, or that you can’t sell millions of copies without it. And there are certainly instances where the story is better off without a romantic subplot or love interest. Yet there is a rhyme and reason to assaying the strength of a YA novel by giving special scrutiny to its love tangent.
The avant garde approach in this direction would be to forego a love story, or have a love subplot that ends unhappily, or that ends with a rejection of love in favor of something else. And any of these is going to be a hard sell.
What an Editor Told Me During a Book Pitch
So—getting back on topic—I met with an editor recently and pitched her one of my books.
This book is particularly good, and, more importantly, has the potential to do a lot of good. Those of you who know me personally know what book I’m talking about.
And she had concerns. Chiefly, she wondered how one of the characters in a YA book could be a sixty-year-old man.
That the three other primary characters were all teenagers was not enough to sway her. This was a sticking point for her. And, honestly, it made me reexamine the book, wondering if I hadn’t made a mistake.
I had to ask the question: can a Young Adult novel include a geriatric man as a viewpoint character?
And the answer, of course, is yes. Old people interact with teenagers all the time. Just ask Albus Dumbledore.
“Now where did I leave my keys?”
I am reminded of a quote by Doris Lessing that always give some clarity whenever I question my own work:
There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.
Putting such arbitrary strictures in place is bound to trample on some worthwhile work—quality work that is unlike what has been seen before, but will be endlessly imitated by future generations.
The question this editor was asking herself was NOT “Can a Young Adult novel include a geriatric man as a viewpoint character?”
The questions she was asking was “Should I trust an author who thinks it’s a good idea for a YA novel to include such a character?”
That’s the real issue, and the answer is…less clear.
The Irresponsible Avant Garde
I promise it is possible be new and different in a responsible way.
But by saying that, I also imply that once can be irresponsible with these same principles.
Every artist should seek to expand and refine the genres to which they are called. Yet some artists take this too far, and don’t so much expand their genre as trample on it, decrying the shoulders of the giants they stand on, wanting to reshape the world in their own image.
This is the danger of pursuing the avant garde. It is what most editors have in mind when they scrutinize whatever boldness you imbue into your work. Does this person even understand how their chosen genre works? Are they even aware of what such and such a story normally looks like?
It’s only natural to be suspicious. The world is full of hacks, unable to string a coherent sentence together. You don’t want to hand them the keys to the kingdom without some kind of test.
But Consider This
For a lot of writers, creating something that exists entirely within the established genre is impossible.
People might point to the commonalities among a genre and say that your book should be like that, but that does not mean your book must be like that.
Another quote comes to mind—this one from J.K. Rowling:
The only rule is what works for you. People find that scary, so they try and grasp hold of a blueprint, but the only way is your way.
If I had listened to ‘the rules’ back in 1990, there would be no Harry Potter. Stories about schools are passé. 95k words is too long.
Write what you need to write, write it as well as you can, revise it, refine it, and if it still seems alive to you, you’re done.
J.K. ROWLING – 9 Nov 2017
And that, I think, is a good enough guiding philosophy for anyone in this business.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…to understand.”]
2 thoughts on “Be On Your Garde”
Playing by the rules of genre fiction sounds boring. I don’t know why anybody would want to become an author just to rewrite what has already been written before… unless that person has no imagination. But, Pablo Picasso learned how to paint normally before he ever became a cubist. Maybe a first time author should not try and be so revolutionary with his/her debut novel. Maybe the best strategy is to reserve your mind-blowing, genre-bending material for your subsequent contributions to the literature.
But if you insist on pitching something avant-garde, when you are yet unpublished, you might try being up front with your agent/editor and ask: can you handle something a little offbeat? If they say, yes, or maybe, they’ve just given you permission to show them something that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions.
Then they will be expecting something different from you, and won’t be so alarmed when they hear something that would otherwise set off a red flag.
If you can show them that you know what the rules of the genre are, and that you are purposefully playing with those rules, rather than ignorantly transgressing them, you (probably) won’t scare them away.
Interestingly enough, one can be penalized for being too mainstream when pitching to editors as well.
If you offer them something that looks too much like what they can get from already-established authors, they’ll ask why they need to take a risk on an unknown asset such as yourself.
That said, the histogram is skewed just a little toward banality.