In my prior article, Neptune’s Sandbox II—The Benefits of Being Boxed we talked about the benefits of staying in your genre, and the costs of venturing out of bounds. Today we’re going to talk about how to position your first book when you know you’re planning a career that crosses lines.
After our prior article you should have some idea what you think of the boundaries in publishing and your plans for what you want to do with them. What we write is what we read—or what we wish was out there on the shelves waiting for us, the flavor we’ve never found. If you yearn for something off the map, or feel the line between two neighboring genres has become tenuous at best, then maybe its time to cross some lines, or demarcate your own. There are kingdoms that have yet to be founded—yours and mine.
Stake Your Claim Intelligently
Until you have a publisher you are free. Thus, there are things to consider. First—do you need a publisher, or is it better for you to brave the wilds alone? This choice is not the same for all of us—what you write is as much of a factor as who you are.
I’m a self directed Fantasy writer. I crafted my own independent major, and an independent minor in college—you might assume I’d be donning bushwhacking fatigues and sharpening my machete to make it in the Amazonian jungle. Or perhaps I’d go Dystopian and gear up with an excess of thematically black chainsaws?
But that wouldn’t be smart. I write Fantasy. There is a price I pay for that magic.
Do I want a traditional Publisher?
In writing your first book you have no limits—you can write whatever you want, no one can tell you it’s outside your genre. You can retain that freedom to write whatever you want without trying to persuade a publisher to sign off on it if you just never get one. The self-publishing route is viable these days. But it is less viable for certain genres—specifically, the longer your books are, the harder staying afloat will be in the current self-publishing market. Publishing cadence is king—so longer genres like Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Historical fiction are going to have a tough time of it.
Also, longer works are more complex. They are more susceptible to problems that would benefit from extensive—and expensive—editing. Usually, multiple different kinds, from specialist editors. A first book will probably need even more editing since you are still learning your craft. You should always attempt to polish your skills and claim the lion’s share of the editing burden—this is where you make your bid for the best seller lists in polishing your book till it gleams. But you won’t be able to spot all its imperfections no matter how hard you try. Not for your first book, not even when you are advanced in your career. You will need professional help.
Long, complex books particularly benefit from developmental editing such as structural editing and continuity editing. Developmental editing, if your work is lucky enough to get it, will be a pass that takes place before you ever get to the things you probably think of as editing, such as your regular copy edit, and then proofreading. A traditional publisher will be your best bet for getting the right specialists and paying for this—it is not cheap.
So the cadence and complexity of what I write dictates my publishing path—I’m going to be knocking on some doors in New York.
If you are blessed with interest in a genre that permits writing short books and quick turnaround is your strength—if you can be massively prolific—then self-publishing might be for you. You will still face all the disadvantages of a multi-genre career—and those Amazon impacts we discussed in the prior post in this series will really be a concern. To pen name or not to pen name is going to be a big question. You need to decide if clean algorithm results to drive traffic or the ability to write prolifically enough to build a back list and generate interest in self-pub are more important. You may be looking at 8-12 titles under that pen name to start gaining real traction with it. You may want to reach that point and start supporting yourself in your first genre before you start exploring others.
How do I position my first book—what label do I want?
So, I since I’m writing what I am—complex epic works—it makes sense for me to aim for the traditional publisher route. This means that out of the multiple universes in my head, I must choose my first book wisely. My choice will label me.
The World Tree
One strategy is to plant yourself and your first book at the core of the territory you’re interested in—that way, branching out while retaining fans will be easier, since you won’t be reaching all the way from one periphery to the other of your interests. Also, you should naturally be strongest writing from this place. A strong debut is important—you only get a few shots at publishing and becoming a known name. If you don’t perform strongly in your first 2 or 3 novels, publishers will drop you, and your career might be over unless you change your name.
It’s Better to Ask Forgiveness than Permission
The other strategy takes the opposite approach: try to encompass as much territory as possible as quickly as possible so they can’t tell you no. This is the strategy where you plant your first two novels at the extremes of what you expect to want to do in your professional life. Essentially, the idea is to book-end your realm with your first two books. By not submitting to a publisher until you’ve got both in your pocket, you are in a better position since they can’t tell you no yet. However, this approach may be unappealing to potential publishers.
You have to find someone who will take both novels—or else what was the point? Those extreme books may be weaker and less marketable than if you’d chosen something at the heart of your interest. Also, you’re emphasizing your peculiarity at the beginning, when your career is most fragile.
First Book Hybrid Approach
Plant your seed at the core of your strengths, but also assume that your strength is this multi-genre thing you are so attracted to. Include multiple genre elements in your first book, but be selective and choose the best option you can for a strong genre performance that still leaves fans expecting you to cross a few lines. You could say I’m doing a hybridized hybrid approach in that I’m writing two first novels simultaneously. Both play to my strengths and are located close to my core interests. Each book also incorporates multiple genres.
My Opening Moves
Book 1: Waxing Dark
The first is a book written for YA mass appeal with the theme magical realism murder high school which blends Urban Fantasy with Magical Realism.
- When Violet Glass’ new stepmom sends her packing to a mysterious, prestigious—and murderous—boarding school, she didn’t think things could get worse… until she accidentally requests a death sentence—one that always comes to pass.
Urban Fantasy and Magical Realism go well together—they are naturally overlapping, porous sub-genres, yet both are a form of Fantasy, so they cause minimal cognitive dissonance for readers.
Book 2: Elemental Things
The second is a book written with teen protagonists, but it should appeal equally well to adults. It’s designed to have more of a cult appeal—think Cyteen meets EarthSea. It’s a world where genetic engineering is used to breed elemental magic into a society with a strong caste system. It has complex themes weaving between political and economic tensions, conspiracies between two competing religious sects, and information control.
- Solaris must prove himself and his pedigree by learning to Work fire before his Trial, otherwise both he and his Lady Mother will die. But he can’t Work, not even as much as a cull. His mother knows why—but she won’t speak, even as the chains drag her under the surface of the lake to drown.
On the surface, it’s an epic fantasy about a society besieged by an amorphous Enemy that seeks to destroy humanity every thousand years. Humans have the ability to voluntarily select which parts of their genetic code they give to their offspring—which they use to further enhance their elemental magic powers in each subsequent generation. Magic with scientific underpinnings ccurrently has wide appeal and acceptance. Epic Fantasy and Epic Sci-Fi can merge almost seamlessly if you choose one to lean on primarily and subtly incorporate the other.
My Sand—My Sandbox
I like writing deep, complex, landmark books. But not all books can be landmarks. I also know that I’ll need a decent clip to my production rate. Plus, pivotal books take time to steep in the psyche.
Cyteen (1988) by C. J. Cherryh is one of my favorite books of all time. I’d say my favorite, except that title goes to its sequel. I was thrilled when Regenesis (2009) came out—as a reader it was everything I’d spent years wishing for. It was worth the time it took steeping. C. J. Cherryh wrote a number of books in the interim which I also thoroughly enjoyed. Particularly her Foreigner universe—which is currently at 19 novels and counting! They are a delightful blend of deep and chewy at the same time. She has also written compelling Fantasy with her Morgaine stories. Her flexibility, achieving depth of concept, breadth of appeal, and works in multiple genres is inspiring—so inspiring it crosses into intimidating.
Writing toward the horizon, you know you’ll never reach that hazy far distance—your footsteps along your path bring you to new ground, but they also push that horizon ever further. I can appreciate new depths in old favorites now that my eyes are more attuned to nuances of the craft. I expect that journey of looking ever deeper to continue for decades, urging me further on in delving my own path. The briary tangled wood we explore is unique for each of us. I hope to write chewy books, and steep long and deep on others until they are bitter, complicated things, a rich decoction of my subconscious and the conundrums I gnaw on at odd moments.
I expect unearthing my sand to be a lifelong quest. What else could it be?
Today we talked about how to position your first book when you know you’re planning a career that crosses lines. In the final post in this series, Neptune’s Sandbox IV—Mid-Career Strategy, we will explore how your subsequent books are like the mid-game in chess, something you should plan before you move that first pawn.