By Jennie Jarvis
“I’m getting discouraged,” I finally broke down and confessed to my agent.
It had been three months since we started submitting my first novel to publishing houses, and even though she told me that the publishing industry crawls at a glacier-like pace, I hated that I hadn’t heard back from many editors about my book. The few that we had heard back from all said the same thing – “I like the book, but there is too much dystopia on the market right now.” It was like being complimented and slapped in the face at the same time.
My agent said all the right things – assuring me that the book is good, that it will get sold in time, and that patience is the key to making it as a writer with a traditional publishing house. But like all beginning novelists, I had concocted some kind of dream in my head. Surely, my book would be the exception to the rule, and it would sell quicker than a book would normally sell. But of course, I didn’t live in the world of my dream. I live in the real world, where it takes a million years to sell a book. Okay, not a million, but you get the idea.
I continued to talk to my agent about what book I should write next. I have a backlog of ideas, and I really could transition into any of them. I was scared to move forward with the book that I had planned to write next because I worried that it could be seen as a dystopian, even if I didn’t think of it that way, and I didn’t want to wind up with the same feedback that I had already received.
“What’s selling right now?” I asked, stupidly.
“Well, there’s a real need for realistic young adult from a male point of view,” my agent said, “But you can’t write that.”
I had an idea for one, so this comment surprised me. I thought I could write anything.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, none of your other ideas are realistic. You write fantasy. If you want to build your brand as a writer, then you need to stick with what the majority of your work is going to be.”
This is why I have an agent.
When I worked in the film industry, I knew the importance of branding myself. If I wanted to be seen as a writer-director, I needed people to meet me as a writer-director. The film industry pigeon-holes really quickly, and so I knew that I needed to always present myself in the right way. If I wanted people to think of me as a director, then I couldn’t spend my life working in casting or catering. I needed to be writing scripts and directing films.
For screenwriters, this can be especially frustrating. I know a writer that created writing samples in a variety of genres but because his first project sold was in horror, he is now only thought of as a horror writer. I know other writers that are now called “comedy guys” or “drug crime dudes” (for some reason, even the girls are referred to in patriarchal terms). Matt Lopez writes family films. Danny Strong writes political stories. Richard Curtis writes romantic comedies. All of these talented writers could easily write something else, but they are known for their one areas, and so those are the jobs that they mostly get hired for.
When my students aren’t sure whether they want to write a film script or a television pilot for their thesis projects, I always ask them – what do you want to do when you graduate? Because once they get shoved into one hole, they may have to spend the rest of their lives there.
So how in the world had I forgotten that this same idea would apply to me and my novel writing?
Jane Austen wrote romance. Agatha Christie wrote mysteries. Stephen King writes horror. Neil Gaiman writes fantasy. Christopher Moore writes comedy. Sue Grafton writes murder mysteries. We know their names as these kinds of writers, and when we pick up one of their books, we know what to expect. When J.K. Rowling released The Casual Vacancy, it was a shock to the system of the Harry Potter readers because it was so different. True, J.K. Rowling could away with it, but as a beginning writer, I have to work in the system if I have any chance of achieving even an ounce of her success.
Am I saying that this is right? Am I saying that it’s the best way for us to grow artistically? Am I saying that I even agree with it? Not at all. But it is important that we, as novelists, decide what we want our names to represent when we are trying to build our platform. We, as writers, are our own brands, and that brand needs to be as unique yet repetitive as the writer’s signature on a bank check.
So, thanks to my agent’s reminder of this simple yet important aspect of creating a career as a writer, I won’t be working on that realistic YA that I was contemplating. I’ll be moving onwards with another New Adult fantasy.
Now I just have to remind myself to be more patient.