Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Taking Smart Risks

First up, just wanted to remind people that the giveaway for a signed copy of Rhonda Mason's excellent SF debut, THE EMPRESS GAME, is still going! You have until Friday to go check it out and comment for a chance to win a book, so go do that. :)

Second, my swag shop is now open!!! That means....POSTERS!

Banana for scale.
These things are gorgeous! We went with the slightly pricier matte-finish art prints, but the difference between these and the cheap ones is night and day. The colors are rich, the paper feels sleek, heavy, and expensive, they're just all around win!

We have posters of just the cover art without the text as well, so go check out the shop and pick up a smiling Julius for your wall! Posters of Marci and her cat army will be coming soon as well the moment we finish the proof process. Hooray for cool stuff!

Now that's all done, let's talk about one of first and most fundamental cornerstones to being a good writer: knowing how and when to take risks.

Writing Wednesdays: Taking Smart Risks

As I've mentioned here before, I'm a giant fan of Project Runway. I love it the artistic challenge, I love the catty judges and cheesy drama, I love it all! But even though I watch the show for pure entertainment value, sometimes I glean real bits of wisdom from the judges' commentary. The latest of these was from fashion designer Zac Posen toward the middle of Season 12, who said "Success in Fashion is all about taking smart risks."

This statement rang true for me on a lot of levels. The one line that gets repeated over and over on the show is that you can't just design based off what's popular now, because by the time your clothes walk down the runway, now has become then, and you're already out of style. To be successful as a designer, you always have to be doing something new and innovative that will catch and hold people's attention. You need to really think about who your customer is and what they will be buying tomorrow, not today.

If all of that sounds familiar, that's no mistake. Fashion design and writing might seem like the most unrelated of disciplines, but as creators struggling to produce consumable products that have both artistic merit and widespread commercial appeal, we actually have a great deal of overlap. It might seem silly to take writing advice from a fashion designer, but as Uncle Iroh said, "It is important to draw wisdom from different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale."

So, with that in mind, let's steal a page from the Zac Posen Playbook and talk about what it means to take smart risks in writing.

One of the most common accusations thrown at genre fiction is that we're slaves to trends. Sadly, I feel this is a fair criticism. You only have to glance at the famous samey-ness of all the Urban Fantasy covers over the last five years to see it in action, but Romance, SF, of pretty much any other commercially successful genre is just as bad. Once a thing--vampires, BDSM billionaires, grimdark, etc--becomes popular, you can set your watch by how fast the slew of copy cat titles appear on the shelves.

This is not by accident. One of the most popular bits of advice for how to write a book that sells is "Same but different." Take what the readers already love, and then put your own spin on it. But while this strategy has been used to great success by Traditional and Indie authors alike, the "but different" half of "Same but different" is too often overlooked and undervalued in favor of the "Same."

In fashion and writing, there's a fine line between giving customers what they want and beating a dead horse. Unless you are very fast and lucky and get your popular-thing clone to market first, just writing/design on trend isn't enough to guarantee success. Even if you're a technically good writer, you can't just write a functional, pretty-good book about vampires and teen romance in high school and expect to be the next Twilight. Twilight was already the next Twilight. If you want the reward of a true and loyal readership, then you have to be the next whatever you are. You have to innovate, and that means taking risks with your writing.

When I say "take risks with your writing," what I'm really talking about is being creative--doing something new and cool with your book. Like all things in the universe, risk in writing is a spectrum. At one end, we have zero risk. This is represented by a perfectly capable and decently written book well written that does absolutely nothing new, and is therefore predictable and boring. In fashion terms, these books would be the basic Little Black Dress. Sure it looks nice and can even be very well made, but it doesn't do anything new and thus doesn't stand out from the racks of hundreds of other little black dresses just like it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have crazy books that do nothing but take risks and innovate. These can be fun to read for the sheer WTF factor, but books that value innovation over everything else often fall victim to their own "everything but the kitchen sink" attitude. There's simply too much going on, and the plot and characters simply aren't up to the challenge of keeping it all together as a cohesive whole.

These sort of books are the crazy fashions designers send down the runway for attention, but no one actually wears. You know what I mean.

Holy geometry, Batman!
That said, though, for my money, these wild experiments are vastly preferable to the books that don't innovate at all. Sure they might not work, but at least they weren't boring! (And as Project Runway taught us, boring is the cardinal sin of any form of entertainment.) Unfortunately, whatever points these books win for imagination, they lose in readability. Sometimes they aren't even really novels, but collections of cool ideas loosely strung together by a frame story. And while there is a market for that, it's not the mainstream fiction reader.

If you're looking to appeal to a wide readership, then you need to go to the sweet spot, which is right in the middle of the risk spectrum. Here, we have books that are familiar enough to be easily readable, but with a great new twist that lets them stand out from the crowd. Going back to our fashion metaphor, they're the super flattering, fun-to-wear clothes that are normal enough to wear anywhere, but still have those awesome little details and design choices that never fail to draw attention and get you complements. They're your favorite clothes, in other words.

To achieve this mix of comfort and awesome, you have to take a risk and do something new, but you have to do it smartly. You can't just stick some superfluous bows on the back and call it a day.

Innovation for innovation's sake unfailingly comes out as overly complicated and weird because it wasn't done for a purpose. Smart risks, on the other hand, are all about looking at the problems your book presents, be it characters or setting or big moral questions, and finding new, clever ways to approach them that still make sense within your story. It's throwing out your first plot impulse, because if that solution was the first thing you thought of, it's probably the first thing everyone thought of.

If readers can guess what's coming every time they turn the page, they rapidly get bored and stop turning pages. The only way to prevent that is find ways to surprise them and delight them, which means taking paths no one expects. If you can find a clever way to turn their expectations upside down or throw in an entirely new twist they never saw coming--but that still makes total sense within the book--they'll be your reader forever.

All of the above is a pretty high bar to hit, but fear not! Writing is not a performance art, which means you don't have to do all of this all at once. Writing an amazing book full of smart risks happens one step at a time. Also, the details that takes your book from blah to "I MUST HAVE IT" don't have to be complicated.

One classic way to make things new is to take a story everyone already knows and telling it from a new point of view, such as telling a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost as Rin Chupeco did with The Girl from the Well. Another, much crazier version of this was the insanely popular Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which took one of the most read novels of all time and inserted a completely new, and equally popular element of zombies. Though seemingly simple, this core idea of classic literature + popular genre trope (sea monsters, vampires, etc) was so powerful, it spawned an entire series. The author's creative risk paid off in spades because readers are clever people who appreciate new and hilarious ideas.

The Hunger Games is another perfect example of this. The core story is a pretty standard, well told YA dystopian coming of age and rebellion plot, but the idea of the Hunger Games themselves and the intense awesome that is Katniss are more than enough to carry the rest onto teen library shelves forever. The central idea was so good, it created a rabbit hole that readers wanted to fall down forever. After that, all Suzanne Collins had to do was not mess up the rest and success was pretty much guaranteed.

Of course, if bolts of brilliance aren't forthcoming from the blue, you can always take something traditional and do it really, really freaking well. Kristin Cashore did this in YA Epic Fantasy with Graceling, and Kresley Cole knocked it out the park in Paranormal Romance with her Immortals After Dark series. Both of these examples are still fundamentally representative of their respective genres, but both creating entirely new and fantastic experiences by taking the old rules and doing entirely new and awesome things with them.

The key to all of this is creativity. Enjoying and exploring the creativity of others is why we read. It's what makes art art. And just like a designer can't hope to make a living churning out uninspired clothes that do nothing but ape the latest trend, authors can't coast by on tropes. It's not enough to simply write a popular genre well. You have to dig down and find something new, something that makes a reader pick your story out of all the others in your category.

Call it a hook, call it a Unique Selling Point, call it whatever you want, but that new, unique whatever that you alone can bring to your books is the key to success in writing. Everything else--plot, character, structure, tension--is mechanical, the turning of the gears. At the end of the day, talent in writing is just another word for creativity, and creativity is the art of doing something new.

So never be afraid to take risks in your fiction. If you're making story choices for no reason other than that's how things are done in your genre, stop. Don't do that. Do something different, do your own thing. Leave everyone else to do what everyone else is doing and take a smart risk with your story. Make plot choices that showcase your new ideas. True, choosing the unmarked path over the highway means more work for you while you write, but your book will be infinitely better for it in the end.

Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this Project Runway fueled post!

For tons more writing articles, click on either the writing labels below. I put out new writing and story craft posts every Wednesday plus lots of other fun stuff throughout the week, so be sure to follow me on Twitter or Facebook for all the goodies! You can also subscribe directly to my RSS Feed (located on the right) to have these posts delivered right to you. :)

Thanks again, and as always, Happy Writing!

- Rachel


Tami Moore said...

Really really loving your Writing Wednesdays posts. It's a fun mental exercise to apply this not just to my writing, but to also look back over YOUR books and see where you've put them into play and how the elements were used to make your books so goshdarned fun to read. Thanks for sharing!

BG said...

For better and for worse, that's exactly what 50 Shades of Grey did: started Out as a Twilight fanfic with BDSM elements. You may like it or not (I don't), but it created a while new genre

Rachel Aaron said...

@Tami thank you!! I'm really enjoying writing them since I learn about my own process as well!

@BG actually, I''d argue that 50 Shades DID innovate from Twilight since 50 Shades took the same formula and then added all the explicit sex Meyer was too prudish to put in. This allowed 50 Shades to cash in on all the pent up sexual tension Twilight built but never delivered. Kind of brilliant, in hindsight.

Wrayth Lethe said...

the poster is awesome! yay to a Marcy one two :)

..... ermm could we get a Bob one pretty please? ;P

I'm not a writer at all, but these behind the scenes posts you write are quite interesting!

Sam said...

I loved this post. This post is part of the reason plain fiction most of the time doesn't appeal to me. It feels when you get into sci Fi fantasy many more options open. But interestingly this doesn't apply to me by shows. A passion fiction/thriller show can sometimes appeal to me as much or more than a fantasy.

Sam said...

*plain fiction/thriller

Anonymous said...

Is there a Bob and the pigeon poster? I want bob and the pigeon. I would pay for bob and the pigeon.
I highlighted all the pigeon in the book...


Anonymous said...

I don't know, passion fiction/thriller sounds waaaaaayyyyy more interesting!

-Wrayth Lethe

Unknown said...

I agree with the Bob and pigeon people! Thanks for all you do Tachel* love the writing posts*

Unknown said...

That would be *Rachel*

Rachel Aaron said...

The giveaway is closed!! And the randomly chosen winner is....Alicia!! Congrats!! I'll tell Rhonda, and I really hope you enjoy the book!

Thank you ALL for reading, and I have heard the requests for a Bob poster. Let's just say you're going to be pretty happy in a few months ;)

<3s and pigeons,

Ken Hughes said...

Some poster action for Bob? We should have seen that coming... :)

So true, storytelling needs a balance of innovation and basic appeal. I think part of it is how both readers and writers get used to a given level of sameness and want more-- if not always changing at the same rate. Some fans read a formulaic style for years and get angry if one of their authors "gets too weird," and then one day they say the trend's over for them. Some writers push and push just to prove that they take more chances than the writer next to them, never mind how those work.

But "smart risks" still sums up what it ought to mean. We may all want different balances of storytelling, but we'll never stop wanting a twist that adds something new to the basics. From someone who pulls it off.

Travis Bach said...

Since the posters come primarily from our cover art, I can neither confirm nor deny that there will be a Bob poster ^_~

Wrayth said...

what with Bob's power, I've wondered if you've ever read Benedict Jacka "Alex Verus" books?

Anonymous said...

Just about every company says it puts a premium on development, but in practice many possess a culture that's intolerant for you to risk. a managing lover of Schaffer Asking, and Lisa Bodell, the actual founder as well as CEO of innovation training company FutureThink, write within Harvard Enterprise Review with regards to a survey that they conducted using employees of an global organization that publicly touted just how much it recognized research as well as development of new services, processes, as well as practices. Only 18 percent mentioned their employers would say yes to and pay back them whenever they developed as well as tried "new as well as untested ideas. " A huge 47 percentage said the actual reaction could be "unpredictable. inch.

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