Vicki Hinze © 2003-2011
Changing gears, or changing from writing one novel type to another, presents new opportunities for the writer and new challenges. It also presents special considerations for the writer, and I’d like to share a few of those, from a writer’s perspective.
Every author has a theme. Regardless of what s/he is writing. And that theme is present in each of the author’s works. For example: I write healing books. In every novel I do—regardless of whether it’s historical, contemporary, time-travel, romantic suspense, straight suspense, YA, mystery, thriller, or non-fiction, that healing theme is in each book. Nora Roberts writes “protector” books. Joanna Lindsay’s theme involves character oppression.
Your author theme is important. If you don’t know what it is, then look back through your works—particularly at your heroines, as we often most closely identify with them—and see what their issues are. Who are the important people in their lives? What do these heroines believe in—and strongly oppose. You’ll see a pattern in them, gain some steely insight into your self, and your author theme will become apparent.
Why is your knowing your author theme important? When you change gears—or change from writing one novel type to another—your natural inclination is to read current bestsellers and then to write your own individual and unique version of your targeted novel type, bearing in mind the elements you feel made those novels bestsellers. And you should do that. By all means, you should be aware of the market. But you can’t write to trends and you should also make sure you don’t violate your author theme. That theme should be present in your contemporaries, just as it was in your historicals.
What happens if you violate your theme? Misery. Those are the books that give you the greatest challenges to write, and offer you the least fulfillment when you’ve written them. The reason is simple. When you write within your theme, you’re writing from the gut and heart, because that theme is your natural forum. Your own enthusiasm and interest, your care and concerns shines through in the book just as it does in your life. That’s the magic. If you don’t feel it, you can’t translate that magic onto the page. And if you violate your theme, you don’t feel it. The result is, the work is dull, flat, and lifeless.
Another important point worth your consideration is that just as every author has a theme, every individual has a theme—including readers. Your readers feel an affinity with your work because they identify with it. Your themes are aligned. If when you change gears you stay with your author theme, you increase the odds that your readers will follow you because you’ll be writing stories that are different and yet the same. Stories only you can write.
Have you ever read someone’s books for a long time and suddenly it seems as if their work is coming out of left field? It’s very different? If so, the odds are that either their author theme has changed—which it does as we change and grow—or the individual reader’s theme has changed.
Who has changed isn’t as significant as understanding that the alignment between writer and reader on theme is shot. Now, readers don’t necessarily identify this as a change in theme, but you will get clues. They’ll make comments like, “Her stories used to be so good. Her books are really different now. You know, I loved her first three or four books, but after that, I just couldn’t get into them.”
Again, odds are, it’s a theme change. Author or reader. Know that on changing gears, you will lose some readers, but you’ll gain some new ones, too. It’s definitely to your advantage not to change gears and themes simultaneously.
Whether you’ve written one book or twenty, or you’re selling on a partial, a synopsis, or even on air, understand that when you change gears, you’re starting over. You’re in effect a new writer. The advice I’m going to give you likely won’t sit well. So moan and groan if you must—to yourself, privately to close friends, to me—but I’ll warn you that my advice will stand because it’s proven itself true: When you change gears, be willing to write the entire book. You might not have to do it, but be willing to do it.
Writing the entire book does two things for you. First, it shows the agent and editor—who have never read this type novel from you before—how you’re going to handle the material. They know what they’re getting, what they’ve got. When a writer changes gears, buying on a partial is risky. In the past, too many agents and editors have been burned, buying beautiful proposals where the complete novel just didn’t fulfill the partial’s promise.
If you have the entire book written, then this risk disappears. Everyone involved in the process has a firmer grasp on the marketability of the novel. Secondly, your willingness to invest your time—which is your money—into completing a manuscript on spec, sends a very strong signal to the agent and editor. It tells them that you didn’t just get a wild hair and whip up a synopsis or a proposal. You wrote an entire book. This change of gears isn’t a whim, it’s a planned, serious, calculated career move. One you have enough faith in and are serious enough about to invest your time and your money.
In writing your contemporaries, generate multi-layered internal character conflicts. The reason? Because the novel’s major turning points are less apt to occur naturally on external or historical events. If you multi-layer the internal conflicts then you give the characters an opportunity to experience character growth by facing those turning points as a result of choices they make, versus their outside environments. The result is active versus reactive characters.
This suggestion is going to sound self-evident. There’s a good reason for that. It is self-evident. But it’s also a respectable challenge—especially if you’ve been writing historicals for a while. When you change gears, make certain your characters think, act, and respond appropriately. In a sense, the historical writer has to reprogram him or herself to think contemporary. That sounds easy, but if you’ve been in historical mode creatively for some time, this will take some effort. So be prepared and expect the challenge.
Creating and sustaining what I call the fictional dream can be a formidable challenge. In writing historicals, you must acquaint the reader with details of the time, place, the customs, social mores and dress, and all that requires page space. Often on changing gears, the writer, realizing this, veers too far in the opposite direction, giving the contemporary reader too few details. Yes, the details between historicals and contemporaries do vary, and the contemporary reader’s familiarity does negate disclosing as many intricacies, but the contemporary novelist shouldn’t forget that is concrete details that create the vivid imagery, or the fictional dream, which transports the reader from reading words on the page to becoming an active participant in the story. This is vital because the river of conflict flowing through the novel is stressed more in contemporaries.
My point is, whether you’re writing an historical or a contemporary novel, you are still charged with the responsibility of creating and sustaining the fictional dream. (There’s an in-depth article on The Fictional Dream in the Writers’ Aids Library.)
The next point I’d like to make is that, while in contemporaries you do have more latitude for peopling your story with more secondary, eccentric, or peripheral characters to add color, flavor and spice to your novels, those characters still must serve a solid story purpose. One of the best critical analysts I’ve ever seen, Laverne Brigman, pointed out something to me that you might want to keep in mind. In many of the best-selling contemporaries, when you’re in a secondary character’s point of view, that secondary character is generally revealing some new, undisclosed information about the protagonist, or is offering a different perspective on the protagonist.
This “Echoing” or “Opposing Revelation” by the secondary POV character is worth noting if you intend to write contemporaries with multiple viewpoints, which is the current trend. Though POV is obviously story-dependent, this point is worthy of your consideration.
In this competitive market, be willing to seek alternative sources. What I mean by that, is for the writer changing gears to change those gears informed and aware that the change could—and likely will—necessitate the writer proving themselves—again. You might have to reinvent you. Someone once said that the commercially successful author must reinvent herself every five years. In part, I agree. Things change and people change. Emotions do NOT change, yet our perception of them does. If you’re unaware of the changes in our industry and in us as a society, you could be reduced to scrambling just as hard as when you were a brand new writer, trying to get a grip on everything at once.
Be open to change—in your writing and in your approach to the business side of your writing career. Be willing to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of options and proposals–even on the proverbial hot buttons like pseudonyms and specific rights. It’s vital to look at all of your options with an open mind as they present themselves. It’s easy to get locked into a certain mind-set that, due to changes in the market and how books are sold, is longer in your best interests.
For example: we’ve all heard a million times in the last few years that not all but many large, commercial publishers—tier #1 in the industry sales structure—are relying more and more on the “tried and true” books and we’ve all heard the prediction that small presses will in the future assist with “growing” authors until they reach the point of mass appeal. If you’re changing gears, or you’re not, you should be aware of these anticipated trends, and you should have a firm understanding of what they can mean to you if they should come to pass. Career planning has never been more vital to the career novelist than it is today.
This point applies to every writer, regardless of what you’re writing. There are two things that will bite a writer on the backside every time: write a novel you feel no passion for writing, and stop reading. Both are kisses of death to the creative writer. Your passion is the magic in your books. It is what makes each and every writer indispensable and irreplaceable. No one else can tell the exact same story that you can tell. Ever. And life is short. Don’t waste it by writing anything you don’t love. When you stop reading, what happens? Your creative well runs dry. You lose touch. Read. Read not only the type of novel you write but novels you don’t think you will like. Read non-fiction, articles, short stories. Read essays–and not just those where opinions mirror your own. Read those with opposing viewpoints. Fill your creative well. The deeper it is, the more there is available in it for you to draw from and pour into your own work.
My last point: Don’t let the odds of success, or the fear and doubt that comes with change, daunt you. You’re reading this article because something inside you is niggling at you to stretch and grow. You’ve reached a turning point. And while we all know that turning points are a natural phenomenon in life, we also know the transitions they cause seldom come easily. But they are always worthwhile.
Know that, and understand what you’re really fighting is that demon, Fear. When you confront the demon—and you will because we all do—there’s an article on Doubt in the Writers’ Aids Library that I hope will help you. In the years since I’ve written that article and began lecturing on it, I’ve found that most often all people really need to know to make the transition less painful is that they are not the only person in the world to confront that demon.
My point in all of this? As the wise man said, you can’t have everything you want, but you can have what you want most. If you want to change gears most, then don’t let fear or doubt stop you. Don’t even let them slow you down. Just go ahead and fail your way to success. If you scrape your knees often enough, you might even stumble your way to genius!