Risky Business

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I am many things. A mom. Wife. Sports fan. History buff. Shoe lover. One thing I’m not, by nature, is a risk taker. I like my little comfortable bubble where I don’t have to talk to people I don’t know or eat things I’ve never heard of. I tend to hang out on the fringes of a party, and knee-high water is about the deepest I’m willing to venture out into the ocean.

So now that I’ve shared WAAAAAY more information about myself than any of you ever wanted to know, we can talk about risk and how it relates to writing. Do you take risks as a writer? Do you push yourself to be more, to be better, to be different? Because while our comfort zone is, well, comforting, you never know what you will discover when you step outside it.

“An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.”
            —Francis Ford Coppola, Director, Producer, Wine Maker

Dare to be Different

We frequently see examples of risk in movies and television, such as when an actor takes on an unexpected role. Or the business world, with entrepreneurs who strike out on their own with nothing more than a few bucks and a wacky idea. With writing, it can feel as if everything we do is a risk. You’re putting your thoughts on the page and then sending them out into the cold, cruel world for everyone to rip apart. Isn’t that enough, universe?! Well, no. It’s not. Just because you can string a few sentences together and know where to stick the commas doesn’t mean you’re going to get noticed.

Unpublished authors frequently hear you need a “great hook” to sell a book these days. Stellar writer and character development will only get you so far. The competition is fierce, and your story premise better sound like nothing anyone’s ever heard before. Sounds daunting, right? As if we don’t have enough pressure with the darn commas!

A recent article in The New York Times claims the biggest risks in literature right now are taking place in the young adult market. I don’t really read YA so I can’t say whether this is true or not, but the author wrote:

“Here are a few audacious books you won’t find in the adult section of the library. A Holocaust memoir narrated by Death. A novel written entirely in electronic messages. A historical novel in prose poems. A murder mystery in screenplay format.”

So if you have a story idea you want to try but are worried it’s too “out there” to be marketable…that kind of idea just may make you stand out from the crowd.

Or it may make you sound like a nut job.

The point is, you’ll never know if you don’t try.

“Growing as a writer means taking chances and pushing boundaries. Not that you necessarily want to try and sell all your writing exercises, but that doesn’t mean you [shouldn’t] practice and experiment.”
                        —Josh Lanyon, Author

Breaking Out

Risk means something different to everyone. For writers, maybe it’s attending a conference for the first time or taking a writing class. Submitting to an agent or an editor. Heck, maybe it’s just allowing someone other than your mom to read your work. Or, in the case of our own VF Michele, it might be trying your hand at writing in a completely different genre. She went from writing French historicals to contemporary sports-themed stories. (And guess what? She rocks both genres.)

Occasionally, I’ll hear an unpubbed author express the reluctance to “put themselves out there.” If you stay in a writing bubble by yourself, you’re missing out on a great opportunity to network and learn from others. Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest aren’t there to SCARE you; they exist to help people connect with others, even other writers. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make it easy to set up your own blog.

At some point, you have to crawl out of your writer’s cave and start to build a name for yourself—whether you are published or not. If you don’t, how will anyone find out about you when you DO get published? The difference in the approach is huge: you’re either spamming people you don’t know to spread the word about a book they don’t care about, or you’re relying on your friends to help build word of mouth for your book. Which would you rather be on the receiving end of?

“Learn something, try something, do something else. FAIL. FAIL BIG and FAIL A LOT. Failure is always guarding the door to success.”
                        —Kristen Lamb, Author and Blogger

The Non-Traditional Route

While self-publishing is not for everyone, no one can deny it has changed the landscape. Not only does it allow writers to publish stories that might not otherwise get exposure, it also helps readers find a wide variety of non-traditional books.

Take Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which was first posted online as Twilight fan fiction. FSOG breaks many of the rules first-time authors are told to avoid. Don’t write a story in present tense. Don’t write a first-person narrative. Don’t have too many sex scenes. Don’t use British vernacular when your characters are American. (Okay, that last one is true.) James’ trilogy has become an international sensation, despite everything we may think she did wrong. Clearly, she’s done something RIGHT because readers can’t get enough.

(Of course, if you’re going to risk breaking the rules, you have to know what the rules are first.)

So, have an idea for a story but worry it won’t sell because it’s just too wacky? Having the option to self-publish may be the little mint on your pillow every night, comforting you just enough to take the risk and write the book you want to write—whether you end up self-publishing it or not.

“Fear of failure is the reason most often cited to explain why so many aspiring writers never realize their dreams. But I think it’s that same fear of failure that absolutely invigorates those who do push through—that is, the fear of not being heard.”
                        —Betsy Lerner, Editor and Author

Fear Factor

Are you clutching your laptop like a security blanket, even though you might suspect there might be a grain of truth in what I said? I get it. I understand because I wrote in a bubble for a few years, then finally took a chance and joined the New Jersey chapter of the RWA. I couldn’t get over how nice and supportive everyone was, and I lucked out in getting an amazing critique partner (VF Maria) that then led to meeting the rest of the Violet Femmes. Exhibit A of a small risk that worked out in spades for me. My writing improved by leaps and bounds, and my life improved just by having these inspiring and talented women in it.

Beyond that, I feel I’m still learning, still stretching my skills to make myself the best writer I can. Is it working? I don’t know yet, but I hope so. After I finish my current historical WIP, I’ve got an idea for a contemporary series that I’m going to run with. Who knows, right?

So tell us—what risks do you take in your writing?

Joanna

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22 Comments

  1. Hi Joanna. Wow, you really capture the essence of what it’s like to take risks (or dodge them). I liked the quote you posted about art being risk. My view on this is if you try mimicking something already done, then you’ll likely end up with a bad remake. It is much more interesting attempting something new, even if it’s a word or phrase or paragraph. Which, I have to add, you do quite brilliantly in your historicals. Cheers, Michele

    Reply
    • Thanks, Michele! And yes, that is so true about trying to do something that’s already been done. Destined for failure.

      Reply
  2. Wow, what a great post.

    Where would we be without Fifty Shades letting us know it’s ok to take risks?

    It’s more of a tribute to all of us being our creative selves and pushing our ideas when no one says “yes” right away.

    Reply
    • Hi Tara. Good point. This business is full of rejection, and you have to take or leave the criticism as you see fit. There are certainly a lot of riskier books out there than Fifty Shades, but it’s a pretty good example of one that broke out despite the odds. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  3. Hi, Joanna,
    Piggybacking on Michele’s idea…have you seen all the “remakes” in film this summer? Spiderman. Dark Shadows. Total Recall. One of the things keeping me out of the the theaters these days is that “Been there, done that” feeling. Do I really need to see the same story I’ve seen before, just with new actors and a little more special effects (or, horror! in 3-D)?

    The interesting thing about your writing, and the period you write, Regency…these stories all run the risk of being repetitive. It’s when you take risks with the premise (even within the confines of the genre), when your characters are relatable, when they do something considered modern or “forward-thinking”, in a not-so-modern setting, that the stories really resonate with today’s readers.

    You’re right…risk is intrinsic to moving forward in life, and in writing. I’m battling that now…setting a book in a locale that traditionally doesn’t sell. We’ll have to see what happens with it. You never know what will be the exception to the rule.

    Speaking of risk…a book that is now on my “Must Read” list, that I think our readers will enjoy, too, is To the Last Breath, by Francis Slakey. Check it out!

    Hugs,
    Jaye

    Reply
    • Hi Jaye! Yes, there is definitely a feeling with romance that we’ve been there, done that. I think that’s why everyone talks about needing a good hook. How can one possibly make a secret baby or arranged marriage story fresh? Those stories have been done to death.

      Good luck with your story. Write the book you want, not the book you think will sell!

      Reply
  4. Jenna Blue

     /  May 29, 2012

    Wonderful post, Joanna! We writers all deal with fear. I’m presently quaking with fear that the next book won’t be as good as the first. That even though I know what I’m doing, I have no idea what I’m doing. That every editor on the planet will reject me & my book. That OMG it might get published and then I’ll have to–gulp–promote! Fear is never reasonable, but it’s very real…and that’s why we thank our lucky stars to have NJRW (for how can you avoid pitching when they make it so accessible!?) and critique partners (who help every book be it’s best & cheerlead like professionals?!) and always, the stories (that come anyway, even when you talk yourself out of doing what yiou love…)
    Jenna

    Reply
    • Hi Jenna. I think every writer goes through that. I know I have. It’s hard to have a ms out on submission, get the rejection, and not feel the doubt affect everything else. I would say try not to think about it and power on, but I know that’s easier said than done.

      Reply
  5. Nicole Doran

     /  May 29, 2012

    So true everyone- and a great post Johanna. I love your quotes too. I feel that as a writer and juggling the other aspects of my life, I kinda have to step out of the comfort zone (or try to – I will – I promise). You talk about risks – well I don’t take risks either as a practice..not with my kids, or my husband, or family, or my finances, etc….so it’s almost like being two different people to be a writer and put myself out there. It’s easy to be in a bubble – safe, profound (hopefully)..but not practical – at least not to get on the road to being published. I thank NJRW and RWA for being out there…for so many of us to become joiners where we wouldn’t necessarily have been before. It’s a big help. Keep at it!!
    Nicole

    Reply
    • Hi Nicole! So true about RWA and NJRW. It helps us comfort zone folks break out of our shells. I never balance my checkbook. Does that count as a risk? Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  6. Risks are a hard thing to take. It took me a while after joining NJRW to actually show up to a meeting. Like you, Joanna, I tend to hang out in the back. What’s funny is that I used to sit closer to the back of the NJRW meetings but moved up closer the first time we met over a year ago. I had waited SO long to put in a request for a CP. And the day I did, I was paired up with you. Talk about a risk that paid off!

    Writing is a risk. Every time we pitch to an agent or editor or submit a blind query, we’re taking a risk. But, we can either be paralyzed by fear or embrace it. How will any of us ever be successful without taking risks? And now, with great friends such as all of you, it’s easier to take those risks. Especially when I see how we’re making progress. So which is the bigger risk, trying with the possibility of failing or sitting back afraid to take a step forward. If you don’t take the step, you’ll never hit the goal. But if you do…well, anything is possible. I choose to take that step. It may only be a baby step, but I keep moving forward and towards my goal. As someone famous once said:

    “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” by T.S. Eliot

    So, here’s to embracing risk!

    Maria

    Reply
    • Hi Maria! I love that quote. It’s true about baby steps. No one says you have to jump straight into the deep end.

      Reply
  7. hieubietusa

     /  May 30, 2012

    Your points are not good…they are excellent. I will not give an example in writing, as I am lucky I can read…but use a real life incident.
    For years I tried to become a college basketball coach(The guys with the Armani suits on ABC) I had the clothes…but was not breaking through.
    I developed a style frowned upon by the experts. It was due to my location and talent available.
    I received a call from a small college(one I never applied to) asking if I would be interested in a First Asst. position. This is after being turned down by others…a greater number than my literary rejections.
    The Head Coach was looking for something different and heard of my style at a basketball camp.
    The dream lasted two years before reality caught me…but I got my shot cause I did something different.
    PS: I wish this was an original…but it is not
    “You’ve got to stop doing all the things that people have tried, tested, and found out don’t work.”

    Joe

    Reply
    • Hi Joe! I love that story. I can see you as Dick Vitale. Thanks for sharing!! And your story is a great example as one that doesn’t fit any mold. I think you’re going to do well with it.

      Reply
      • hieubietusa

         /  May 30, 2012

        from your lips to God’s ears…I hope
        Joe
        PS: the suits were more Pat Riley

  8. Excellent post, Joanna! And very timely for me. I’m just start a couple projects that I think are risky. But you know what, I’m having fun writing them so the words are flowing. So, I’m hoping my muse knows something I don’t yet.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Marlo! Good luck with your risky projects. Sometimes those are the ones that pan out. Keep writing!

      Reply
  9. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  May 30, 2012

    Great post, Joanna! I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one afraid to step outside of the bubble. I remember telling my husband that I was worried someone in NJRW might want to read my writing. He wasn’t sure which of my three heads to respond to when he asked me if that wasn’t the whole point! Even after stepping outside the bubble, I wrote what felt safe to me…Contemporary Romances. In essence I avoided writing what I really wanted to because I didn’t think I’d be capable. Now that I’m working on my first YA Fantasy, I realize that this is probably where I should have been for a long time, but was too afraid to take the chance. The result is a new love and energy for writing.

    There are other various risks in the industry and you touched on one of my fears in regards to Social Media / online presence. It is a promise that I’m making to myself that I will invest more time in these things. I guard my writing time like a Mommy Lioness. As a full time working mom I have very little time to write. I don’t want to give any of that time up to setting up a website. As for twitter and pintrest…I’m afraid that I’ll enjoy that stuff TOO much and then I’ll never get to writing because I will have spent all my time playing on the internet. In the end…those are just excuses to avoid taking the risk. Thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
    • Hi RoseAnn! Glad you chimed in. You were one of the people I was thinking about re: genre switching when I wrote this. (Just didn’t want to “out” you. 🙂 )

      The social media stuff can definitely be a time suck if you let it. There are ways to do it efficiently, however. You are right when you say writing is the most important thing. There are only so many hours in the day and we have to pick and choose our battles. Remember, you don’t have to jump into every social media all at once. You have a FB presence, so maybe blog next? Or Twitter? Do it slowly and maybe it won’t be so overwhelming.

      Reply
  10. Hi Joanna,

    I write historical fiction so I’m about to take a risk by trying to write a contemporary. The quote from Francis Ford Coppola – “An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?” – really resonates for me because it’s so true!

    Reply
    • Ohhh, I can’t wait to hear all about it! Have you worked out the plot? I think I’m basing my contemp series on my mom’s Appalachian home town of Barboursville, Kentucky (no lie) where I spent a good chunk of my youth and still have relatives.

      I wish you lots of luck with it. Won’t the contest people be confused to see you start finaling under the ST category?!!?

      Reply
      • I definitely won’t start counting my contest finals before they hatch! I’m really nervous about the contemporary and am still working out the plot. It will be unusual though. I think it is a GREAT idea for you to base your contemporary series on your Mom’s Appalachian home town in Kentucky. I hear small town contemporaries are happening right now!

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