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Unpublished authors frequently hear you need a “great hook” to sell a book these days.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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