A couple of months ago I received an email from another writer who was looking for advice. Her first book had been almost-published—that half-tortuous state where editorial wants to publish your book but sales/marketing says no. So she knew she had it in her to get a book to market, she just didn’t know what her next step should be. She sent me a couple of synopses, two new considered stories, and asked me which one I thought might be a better first step in her writing career. Would one of them pigeonhole her in the women’s fiction category? Would the other, higher-concept, be a harder sell?
As I read both of the pitches, I admit I was conflicted about what to say. I perfectly understood her position. While I’d published my first book (Spin), it was considered chick lit/women’s fiction; I thought I was writing something in the vein of Nick Hornby. And not that there’s anything wrong with chick lit (I swear I mean this), only it’s certainly a category that once you’re in it’s hard to break out of. If your book is successful, then there’s this thing called your “brand” see, and apparently, fans want you to keep writing to that brand.
Now, I’ve never understood this. I read all kinds of fiction: literary, commercial, mystery, suspense, and yes, chick lit. If one of my favorite authors wants to take a foray into another field, I’m happy to follow them there if the new story is as well executed as their other books. I read for voice and story—isn’t that true for everyone? Well, no, according to my publisher at the time, it isn’t. What readers want is: more, please.
All this to say, I wondered if I should give my friend advice on what to write, from a commercial perspective. And then I thought: fuck that.
This is what I told her: Write what you’re scared to write. Write the story that keeps you up at night. (Or something close to that; I don’t think the original response rhymed.)
It surprised me for a moment that I’d forgotten this advice, even though it was advice I’d given to myself in the past. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t consciously given it to myself. Let me explain:
After my third book was published (Forgotten), I felt frustrated, mostly with myself. I love all my books equally (you have to say that, right?), but I felt like I was in danger of repeating myself. I felt like I’d written myself into a box, and I wanted to blow the box up. So I decided, petulantly, perhaps, that I’d take away the possibility of a happy ending right from the beginning of my next book. And that I’d tackle a male voice for the first time. And that I’d write it from three points of view, instead of one. And that I’d write about the possibility of infidelity without having an opinion about who was wrong and who was right.
Oh, I set myself so many challenges with this book, it nearly broke me. I’d written the first draft of my other books in six to nine months; it took me 18 months to write Hidden, even though I was writing it on a publishing deadline. I even asked for a one-month extension, and I never ask for extensions for anything. I kept having difficult conversations with my agent—I remember more than one where I was in tears after we hung up thinking she hated the book and I could never make it good enough. When I turned it in and she finally told me I’d done it, I was so relieved I almost didn’t believe her.
That’s not the end of the story. My former US publisher decided not to pick up Hidden, and there were what felt like a million more rejections (okay, at least 10) before it was. But even though there were more tears and nerves and deep down dark thoughts about what the hell I was doing, I didn’t regret writing that book. I didn’t regret doing what made me afraid, rising to the challenges I’d set myself. I can’t say with certainty that this is why Hidden has been my most successful book to date, but I’m sure it’s played a large part.
So that’s my advice. To myself. To you.
Write what scares you.
Write what you’re afraid to write.
Worry about whether it will sell afterwards.