Being a Better Writer: Forward, Pioneers

Today is Pioneer Day in the state I live in, a day when everyone celebrates the forward-looking, pioneer spirit of the old west that sent so many explorers forth. And I thought “You know, I can make a Being a Better Writer post out of that.”

Which brings us to the here and now, where I am. Writing this post. About pioneers. Man, that was a short recap. Like the thirty-second backstory of a cartoon. Anyway …

So, pioneers. Don’t worry, this is still a writing post. This is still about sitting down and putting hands to keyboard, pen, whatever, and creating a world of wonderful characters and adventure, tragedy, comedy, or what have you. But what does it have to do with pioneers?

Well, I’m going to take a step back further in history to look at an earlier explorer. Namely, a man who put his name on history for the ages by insisting that India could be reached not by traveling around Africa or over land, but by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. Now, we know this man as Christopher Columbus, who stumbled across the entirely unexpected Americas and got a lot of credit for discovering them in the modern eras. And yes, I know the vikings and the people that lived there beat him there, but Columbus was the one that put the Americas on the center stage and kicked off … well, just about everything that lead to the shape of the modern world.

Anyway, why do I bring up this story? For one reason, and one reason only: Most everyone considered Columbus insane. They thought the voyage he was attempting was going to be too treacherous. Pop-culture claimed that his detractors thought he would sale off of the edge of the Earth (despite people knowing back then that the Earth wasn’t flat). A lot of people simply thought he would get caught up in a storm and he and all his men die at sea.

Basically, there were a lot of fearful reasons that no one had ever attempted the journey west before. And if they had, they hadn’t made it back, so there was more to those fears.

Of course, we know the result of this story. Columbus secured his funding at last for his trading expedition. And as it turned out, his calculations were wrong. There wasn’t a direct, westward path to India because someone had put a blasted continent in the way (not that they realized this for a while). But soon they did, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. All it took was someone willing to take a chance on sailing west, against the “common current” that ruled the minds of the current climate.

Why I am I telling you this and what does it have to do with writing? Well, let’s look at one other success story first. Have you seen Stranger Things?

If not, you really should. It’s fantastic. Stranger Things is a Netflix-produced show that’s absolutely stellar. A massive hit that blew away expectations, and it seemed to come out of nowhere. But do you know why?

Stranger Things was rejected over twenty times from around fifteen various networks and cable TV programs, as related by the show’s creators, the Duffer brothers. Why? Well, each network had reasons, as the brothers explained in interviews after the show was a hit. For example, many networks objected to the split-viewpoint story that followed both the middle-grade kids caught up in things directly, and the sheriff who was externally investigating their friend’s disappearance. The brothers related that they were told many times that in order for the show to work, it couldn’t be pointed at both groups, but could only follow one of the two. Additionally, they were told that the tone needed to be changed based on what group the show followed: If it was the kids, it was to be a kids’ show, because adults wouldn’t be interested in the lives of children. If it was the sheriff, then it was to be an adult-aimed show. Kids were for kids, adults for adults, and no crossing the streams.

Seriously, this is the tip of the iceberg. They were told all sorts of things. Another major concern was that the brothers hadn’t planned for any filler, resulting in an eight-episode run. Conventional television only does series in clumps of thirteen or twenty-six, often alternating each story episode with a filler episode or two as needed in order to reach that magic episode number. For advertising purposes mainly, but a show isn’t considered unless it can fit this somewhat arbitrary number and has plenty of filler (a show that used 26 episodes to tell its story would just be expanded into two or three seasons telling the one story with filler). Additionally, going off of what I understand of Hollywood and commercial television, I would imagine that there were major roadblocks associated with the lead characters playing a game of DnD and treating it as a serious game (Because some networks actually have official—yes, official—policies to the contrary).

Point being, this hit breakout show was rejected over and over again by networks, all citing common “conventions” of the industry as their reason. At long last, when Netflix picked the show up and let the two brothers run with their vision, it ended up being incredible and a huge hit, arguably one of Netflix’ largest.

And all those concerns that the television networks had, all the “common sense rules” that the show invalidated. It turned out that those were the artificial constraints of “common knowledge” leading them astray. None of it was true. People were fine watching a show that split between two very different-aged protagonists (Rolling Stone was quick to point out that despite the number of networks requesting that the kids be cut from the story because no one would watch them, the kids ended up being one of the most resounding successes of the show). People were fine watching a show set in the 80s, fine watching something that told the story with no filler (though it helped there that Netflix has made its living by eschewing advertising). Fine with watching a show that showed people playing DnD and treating it like an actual game.

In short, everything that the networks cited as reasons the show wouldn’t succeed ended up being nothing. Nothing but self-imposed, artificial barriers that only existed in the minds of the executives. And each of these networks passed on something that went against their “conventional” wisdom, and ended up being a great success.

Okay, where am I going with this? What does this have to do with writing? With selling a book? And pioneers?

Actually, everything. See, when you set out to publish your first book, whether by going through traditional publishers (who, fair warning, are more set in stone than Excalibur was) or by forging your own path via independent publishing, you are going to run into conventions. The so called “common sense.” The “everyone knows this” sort of thinking that bubbles around the currents of any industry, gathering, fandom, social event, etc.

Now, before I go any further, a warning. I’m not talking about common sense (note the lack of quotes) things like “have a protagonist.” Or “show versus tell.” Or “edit your book.” I’m talking here about “common sense.” Conceptual ideas about the industry that don’t make as much sense when someone takes a step back. Like Stranger Things run-in with network officials who believed that audiences wouldn’t watch a show that had a large age division between the protagonist groups.

And such “common sense” exists in the writing world. You’ll find it among publishers, certainly (‘an ebook should cost at least as much as a hardcover edition, because it’s a luxury purchase,’ or even just ‘that’s not a genre that sells’) but even among indies (‘an ebook shouldn’t cost more than a few dollars, or no matter how well-received, it won’t sell’ or ‘that’s not a genre that sells right now’). No matter where you go, you are going to be faced with “common sense advice” from the people in the industry. You’re going to have it tossed at you on forums, sent to you in comments, etc etc etc. But at the end of the day, a lot of this “common sense” is going to be the stuff that, if asked for details or facts concerning its authenticity, or how the teller knows, comes with the reply of “Well, it just does!” and no further explanation given.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should ignore advice out of hand. After all, most of these “rules” like not having age-split protagonists have been around for a long time because there was something that drove that line of thought. But it may have been in a different situation, or so long ago that things have changed, and world in which the “rule” exists has simply been too slow or stuck in its ways to catch up. So when you hear the “common sense,” do think on it. But don’t follow it out of hand. And be ready to look past it and ask yourself “Yes, but …?”

Likewise, don’t expect instant success simply because you didn’t follow outdated conventions. Stranger Things was a hit that broke a lot of conventions, yes, but there are plenty of shows that also broke conventions that failed as well. Some through executive meddling, sure … but others because they simply didn’t quite make it, or came at the wrong time, or against a marketed juggernaut.

In other words, just because you do something new, don’t expect immediate success will follow … maybe ever. Remember Firefly, if nothing else than as an example of a show that was only recognized for what it was and the conventions it broke long after it had had its brief, partial run. Just because something bucks the rote trends of old and tries something new, and even does well at it, doesn’t mean it will succeed. For every Firefly, there are dozens of other wonderful shows, movies, books, etc, that broke conventions but have never been found for it.

But even so, here we come full circle with this post and get back to that original subject: Pioneers. A lot of pioneers don’t reach the end of the journey, or the destination. At least, not the first time. History is full of stories about explorers who tried three, four, five, maybe even ten times to make a journey, or to find some ancient place or legendary location. Sometimes all those attempts ended in failure. Sometimes they discovered something else entirely. And, sometimes they succeeded, and then everyone else followed into this “new thing.” Like LitRPG (which isn’t my thing, but is a new market that, as near as I can tell, is growing quite rapidly. Maybe it’s a fad, but I don’t know). I just know someone out there said “I’m going to write a story like it’s an RPG campaign world, with the rules and everything, then subvert those rules.” A lot of people probably told them not to do it. And yet … it’s a genre now. And crud, I myself read Order of the Stick, which is a webcomic with a similar premise (and good fun, though the first hundred or so pages are pretty rough).

But simply because you might fail shouldn’t be enough to dissuade you. Take a long look at the advice being given to you. Is it good advice, like “have a good cover?” Or is it advice as was given to the Duffer Brothers, holdover of some ancient networking “common sense” that may have only held water decades ago during the era of laser-targeted programming?

Look at it, examine it … but don’t be confined by it. Tell the story you want to tell. Especially if you’re a new writer, trying things for the first time, try all the things. Experiment! Come up with a wild idea and give it a go! Sure, it might not work. Some of them definitely won’t. They’ll crash and burn, your “expedition to lands relatively unknown” cut tragically short by a misstep or mistake.

But you’ll learn from it. You might step back and say to yourself “Well, I know now why that’s something everyone says not to do. But if I did this and tweaked it like that …” And lo and behold, you might be the pioneer of the new frontier.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. To be a pioneer. Always keep in mind that you want to be profitable, sure … but don’t be afraid to step back and say “You know, I’ll be I can make this story work and sell.” Try new things. Come at problems from a new angle. Listen to the wisdom of those that have come before, but keep in mind that the world is ever changing, and while those that have come before may have excellent advice on how to care for a horse, you own a car that needs some tuning. Some of that advice might hold grains that work for both … but some of it’s going to be nice, but not really applicable.

But … with all this encouragement to go out there and experiment, to try new things, to be a pioneer … Keep this in mind: Try not to bet everything on one expedition, AKA don’t put all your eggs in one basket. That’s an adage that still holds true today. Experiment, yes, be a pioneer … but don’t bet everything on one big thing. Try new things, etc etc … but don’t make it all  you do. Diversify! Write a story that tweaks things in new ways, but still is familiar enough to be recognizable. Or be sure to write something that is common enough to keep you going while you decide to defy genre conventions on the side.

But don’t stop experimenting. Push yourself forward. Be a pioneer. After all, that’s where the next “big thing” comes from. And while everyone else will hop on that bandwagon, you’ll be off on another journey for the next horizon.

Try new things. Push your boundaries. Go to new places. Try new genres, new approaches, new worlds! We’re writers! We can create anything we envision! So do it! Give it a shot! If it fails, it fails, and at least you may understand why. But try the new. Don’t get stuck in the rut of “this is how it’s always been.”

Try the new. Be a pioneer.

Now go write. Good luck.


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