Work in progress
Guest Blog: Writing for radio

The third way

A while ago, in Ask Your Talent, I was thinking about what you do when you've learnt your craft, done your time, are writing really well, and just can't quite get an agent or publisher to take you on. The rejectors like your work so much that they're trying to help, but what they're saying is things like "The ideas and characters are subtle in a literary way, but the writing style is very commercial." Or, alternatively, "It's quite plot-driven and the characters are lively, which doesn't sit well with your sophisticated and allusive style". And the writer howls, "Why can't I have interesting ideas and plain writing?' Or "Why should really good writing mean I can't tell a thumping good story?"

As writers, putting different things together and finding something new emerging is what we do; 'What if?' is our basic mode, and 'As if' the defining characteristic of fiction. On the other hand, the industry needs to persuade readers to part with their hard-earned cash, by reassuring them that they'll get something worth paying for, which for the most part means something which does what it says on the tin (or the book cover): a certainty.

And, as is almost inevitable in our Western, dualistic way of thinking (I blame the Greeks), we not only accept the problem as the book trade sees it, that these things are opposites or at the best opposite ends of a spectrum, but we also accept their solution: be one, or be the other. But if my experience of learning in and now teaching workshops, of editing and being edited, has taught me anything, it's that what a trusted reader tells you must be listened to and dealt with, but what they tell you to do about it, is a different matter altogether. As I said in Accept, adapt, ignore, learning to deal with feedback is part of learning to be a writer, and feedback that tells you to "Be one, or be the other," suggests that it's not possible to be both.

For the writer who finds themself in this position, there seems to three possibilities. 1) Push your writing firmly towards one pigeonhole or the other, and with luck the industry will welcome you with open arms. 2) Give up. 3) Do what you're doing, better, until you really do integrate what the book trade considers incompatible aims. 

If 1) makes sense to you, that's great and I hope you'll go for it. And 2) isn't what this blog is about, though I honestly respect anyone who looks at what it would take to get their writing publishable, and decides they've got other lives to lead. Which leaves 3). I can't tell you how to do what you're doing better, because it's not something that can be abstracted: it needs sleeves-rolled-up, down-and-dirty talk about words. It may need talent, which is the elephant in the room. But there's no denying that the history of publishing is full of mega-selling books which took everyone by surprise: they gathered together things which everyone - including industry wisdom - said were incompatible, and readers lapped up the result.

I can't tell you what that third way is, or how to find it: I suspect it needs re-inventing from scratch for each writer, each apparent pair of incompatibles, each book. It would sound a bit like some ghastly self-help book to claim that I found it, once, sort of, for readers of my kind of writing (which sounds cooler and more literary than saying my kind of the market, doesn't it?), and that I'm telling how you, too, can be like that. My editor thinks I found it - 'brainy and sexy', she said - but any writer is only as good as their last book, and that was two books ago. But if writers are built for seeing connections that others don't, then we should also be able to make things which don't work... work.