By Lisabet Sarai
A few nights ago I woke from a vivid dream with an idea for a new story. Consumed with excitement, I grabbed the notebook I keep on the shelf in my headboard and scribbled down a synopsis, in the dark. When the next day dawned, I was delighted to find that (a) I could actually read my notes, and (b) the story premise still struck me as really promising.
Having just released a novel, I’ve been wondering what project I should tackle next. This new concept—a scifi tale that resonates with a lot of contemporary issues—really got my mental wheels turning. Though the dream was little more than a single scene, with hints of a back story, I could see how to expand it, and how to focus its harrowing emotional intensity. Tragically romantic—intellectually challenging—distinctly different—the idea really sank its claws into my psyche.
Then I realized that although what I’d envisioned was a love story, it definitely did not have a happy ending. So if I wrote and published it, I couldn’t sell it as romance. And at this point in my publishing carreer, romance is what I know how to promote. The readers on my 300-odd mailing list, the daily visitors to my blog, the people who enter all my giveaways, are readers of romance. They crave an ending where the characters ultimately get what they want, not a finale where the hero dies. Yet that’s the natural way my dream would play out, if I spun a story from it.
Could I make it into a romance with a HEA? Probably, though finding a believable solution to the hero’s impending demise would take significant creativity. As a romance, I suspect this would sell, at least among the readers who have come to appreciate my unconventional approach to romance tropes. Did I want to turn this notion into a happily ending tale, though? Wasn’t that a betrayal of my midnight vision?
I could always keep the original ending and market the book as erotica, of course. Although the thematic core of the tale is not primarily about sex, I expect it to contain a significant amount of carnal activity, since the hero is a prostitute. Even erotica readers tend to shy away from dark endings, though. They might not require the characters to make a commitment, but they like it when everyone ends up satisfied. Heartbreak, injustice, terror—these aren’t favorite topics in erotica.
In any case, I don’t know how to market erotica these days, at least not stuff that would probably be more literary than smutty. Blue Moon is gone. Cleis (and just about everyone else) wants romance. In the old days, Circlet would have been the perfect publisher for this tale. But even Circlet seems to have largely climbed on the romance bandwagon.
What about turning the dream into mainstream fiction? Tragic endings are always welcome in literature. Or genre science fiction? But then what would I do about the sex? Play it down? Leave it out? I’d probably need to create a new pseudonym, too, to avoid being tarred with the opprobrium of also writing “porn”. I’d be starting from scratch, in an environment about which I know very little, at least as an author.
Let me be clear. I don’t make my living from my writing. Heaven forbid. I don’t write primarily for the money. On the other hand, I have very limited time to write, so I try to produce books that I think people will actually read. That’s the payoff, for me—emails like the one I received a few weeks ago, from a guy who absolutely loved Rajasthani Moon, or gushing reviews like I’ve been getting for The Gazillionaire and the Virgin. I write to be read. So I don’t want to put effort into creating something that will go over like a lead balloon.
It’s a dilemma. Do I follow my muse down a barely-trodden path, or divert her onto a more well-traveled highway? I go back and forth about this. Is it principled or foolish to stick to my original notions? Or maybe a bit of both?
A lot of authors read this blog, so I’ll ask: what would you do? Which would you choose, the muse or the market?