Walking The Line


There’s no doubt about it, things are really tough right now: aside from the depression/recession that seems to be killing publishers daily and making life even harder for writers, there’s the too—often—painful transition from print to digital books, and the problem of getting yourself heard in a world full of other authors screaming for attention.

So it’s only natural that writers would feel a lot of pressure to write books and stories to fit what they think is the flavor-of-the- moment.

So, should you do it? In my opinion the answer is a definitive, absolute, certain … kind of.

Short stories are very different critters than novels. With stories, you’re often writing for a specific anthology, Web site, or the like. The parameters are set, the topic is predetermined, and you’re expected to work within those expectations. Absolutely, then, you should work to meet the guidelines set by the publisher or editor.

But even then you can be too specific, follow the guidelines too literally. It goes like this: you sit down and create the perfect story for a project, one that you’ve carefully crafted to be exactly what the editor is looking for. The problem, though, is that a lot of other writers are more than likely doing exactly the same thing, so when all the stories arrive on the editor’s desk, yours could very well be just one of a dozen “perfect” stories.

The trick, and thus the title of this column, is to step onto the tightrope balancing between exactly what the editor wants and unique enough to stand out. Alas, this is easier said than done but there are a few important things to remember that can make it a tad easier to pull off. First of all, always respect the editor’s plan for the book.

If they are reading for, say, a vampire book, don’t send in a werewolf story. Second, being unique doesn’t mean using the book as a personal platform: even though you might hate vampires, try and write a story that respects the genre and its readers. Thirdly, the best way to stand out from the pack isn’t by being audaciously outré but instead by writing a unique but still accessible story—a new twist but not something completely warped.

Hey, I never said it was easy. When you’re trying to walk that very thin line between mundane and outrageous, you’re taking a risk. If you’re lucky then yours will be the story that stands out from the rest of the submissions on the editors desk, or be the one in the book that everyone talks about. If you’re unlucky, though, you’ll get a rejection slip.

Tough, I know, but there are worse things than rejection. Sure, you can create something designed from word one to fit the flavor of the moment but you’ll be doing everyone, especially yourself, a real disservice. Riding the current literary wave will mean that your work will always just be part of something else, that it will be difficult to stand out. My favorite story about this comes from a few friends who used to write ‘classic’ porn—cheap bumpy-grindy stuff. After a few years of ‘success’ they woke up one day suddenly realizing they’d become soulless, lazy writers and couldn’t do anything else.

All this, however, is not to say you never should pay attention to what’s out there or never try your hand at writing for a specific market. Aside from the reward of possibly getting exposure, trying new things—even trying to be the next ‘flavor of the month’—is how writers discover hidden talents or may even find they enjoy writing a certain kind of story or book. Stories are frequently worth an experiment.

In the end it all comes back to the tightrope, to finding a balance between playing it safe and being unique. One wrong step and you might be too different to be popular, or not even get out there at all, or fall the other way and be yet another copycat book in a fading genre—or trap yourself into being a common, bland, lifeless hack.

The best teacher, as always, is experience. You will make mistakes, we all do, but with practice you’ll hopefully find not successs (because that word is too subjective to have meaning), but instead a balance between art and commerce, between paying-the-bills popularity and admirable literature.

M. Christian
May-June 2009

“Confessions of a Literary Streetwalker” © 2009 M. Christian. All rights reserved.

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