Thursday 6 May 2010


I won't lay down rules about what risks you should or shouldn't take in your writing - it's something you need to work out. I do believe taking risks is essential in both life and writing but I also believe that every risk should be weighed up and taken only as an informed decision.

In writing, the risks you can get away with, and the risks you need to take, depend on a few things:
  1. how good you actually are
  2. whether you're a debut writer or not
  3. the genre you are writing in and what the market is demanding in that genre at that time
In a nutshell, if you are a seriously talented writer, and you are either an established writer OR a new one with a majorly high-concept idea, and if the genre allows it, you can take a risk equivalent to tight-roping across a ravine. The less those conditions apply, the less risky the risks you will be able to get away with.

But remember what these risks entail. If the risk doesn't work in your favour, you will either remain unpublished or, if published, your book may bomb. Or at least die with a whimper.

What do I mean by taking risks in writing? What are the risky practices that you might be tempted to try, rightly or wrongly? Please note that when I say "risky", I do so as someone who approves of risk-taking, so I'm not saying you should avoid it. I'm saying you should understand the risks and possible downsides.

  1. Extreme originality that may be inaccessible to enough buyers - for example, a unique voice, a strange structure, something very arty (because many people, when they come across arty, think weird). The tricky thing is that publishers and agents do want your writing to be original - but the degree of desired originality does depend on the genre, your aim and your talent. Publishers and agents ALSO want books that readers will feel comfortable with. So, my advice is don't try to be original if you're not: go for a tried and tested style / voice with a great idea, unless your writing really can carry off a truly original voice.
  2. Breaking the rules of your genre - yes, rules are, in many ways, there to be broken. But only when you know why you're doing it and when you've worked out exactly how this is going to sell and where it's going to sit on shelves. When rules are broken without reason, you look ignorant or unskilled, I'm afraid.
  3. Genre-crossing without due diligence - of course, very many books are a combination of two genres and this can work brilliantly and be a really interesting read on every level. Crossing genres is not, per se, something risky, but quite normal. However, there are some things to be aware of and wary about. For example, taking it to extremes is risky - a paranormal sci-fi romantic comedy will be hard to pull off for a novice. You must also think carefully about how you're going to pitch it because everyone at each stage of the selling process needs to know where to shelve it and how to sell it. Over-complicating their job is not a wise move.
  4. Writing a niche book - nothing wrong with that but be aware that a publisher has to be able to sell it. Make sure you really do know your market if you're going to write a book that has an avowedly small audience.
  5. Moving away from the genre from which you're known, if you're already published, can be risky. I'd hate to suggst that writers should allow themselves to be pigeon-holed but refusing to sit in your box is still risky. I am a prime example of someone who would be more commercially successful (ie, frankly, richer) if I'd sat happily in one genre so that my readers knew what to expect each time. A pseudonym is an option if you want to differentiate between two types of book, but this wouldn't have worked for me as almost all my books are different from each other. I would soon have forgotten who I was supposed to be!
  6. Not writing the right debut book. A debut book launches your career and has to make its mark. If you're unpublished, ask yourself whether your current WIP is really a strong enough concept to launch a career.
There's a reason I'm talking about risk at this time. My new YA novel, Wasted, was a risk and I knew it from the start.
  1. Its voice is very unusual and if I'd got it slightly wrong it could have grated. An unusual voice is hard to sustain and could have easily slipped or become boring.
  2. It has some radical POV shifts and juggles an omniscient multi-POV. Third person present tense is also probably the riskiest voice to attempt.
  3. It contains difficult abstract concepts and asks the reader to embrace complex aspects of science and several types of philosophy. (So far, everyone seems to have found this easy.)
  4. It is a book that I had to write - but a book that the writer feels compelled to write is not necessarily a book that readers will feel compelled to read. I knew this, but I had to do it. Just had to.
Fortunately, the early signs at the time of writing this post are that my risk-taking has paid off. But my fingers are still hugely crossed and I'm very far from relaxed. But, so far, I have had the most extraordinary response, from adults and teenagers. I am not stupid: I know that there'll be people who don't like it and who will decide to say so, perhaps vehemently - and it's often the case that the more glowing one's best reviews, the more biting the worst ones, so I know it's going to be sore when the negative comments come. But what I do know is that I've done what I set out to do: to get my intended readers by the throat, shake them up, make them talk, keep them awake at nights, and at the end for them actually to say they enjoyed it.

So, to all of you, whatever stage you're at in this crazy business: take risks, yes, but take them in the full knowledge of what those risks are, why you are taking them and how to make sure that your seat-belt is as securely fastened as possible.


Kathryn Evans said...

A risk well worth taking in WASTED, original and breathtaking.

Rin said...

Excellent advice as usual Nicola!

Jo Treggiari said...

Well I was one of those who really enjoyed your book and liked being shaken up and disturbed and inspired and touched. It's a book that stays with you afterwards.
But it was also clear that it needed a skilled, experienced and very clever writer to write it. In the hands of a novice it would have been a disaster.
And until the rhythm (which seemed almost organic to me) was grasped by the reader, one had to concentrate on what one was reading. So it was a challenge.
Many people don't like a challenge. Many readers don't want to have to think too much.
I hope that when you do encounter negativity you can receive it calmly (I'm not sure if I could) and remember all of the people who think WASTED is thrilling, gripping and unusual, and expertly written.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

Reading this post I kept thinking of Catcher in the Rye, because it was all these things and stirred up the literary scene for decades to come. I haven't read Wasted yet, but regardless I think it's awesome that you put yourself out there and took a risk. I think it will pay off for you big time.

Emma Darwin said...

Thanks so much for this, Nicola. So often the debate round this kind of issue polarises into "should you be true to your writerly heart (aka be obscure and arsy)" on one side, and "should you write things people actually want to read (aka sell out the lowest common denominator)" on the other.

But of course it's not nearly as simple as that: we all have to find the intersection between what kind of writer we are, and what kind of writing people want to read which means what publishers want to buy.

Levi Montgomery said...

In the immortal words of the great Dennis the Menace, sitting in his little chair in the corner:

"Nothin' tried, nothin' got away with."

Thomas Taylor said...

I take small risks all the time, and like trying new things, but I'm nowhere near capable of dealing with truly risky writing.

I'm looking forward to reading Wasted, and I'll review it on my blog (for both my followers:-)

Molly Hall said...

This is fantastic. Thank you!

catdownunder said...

Having used 8 of my 9 lives I tend to be terribly cautious about everything. I rather suspect though that one of the things I like about trying to write is that my characters can take risks for me!

TARguy said...

A very interesting posting. The question of originality particularly struck me. I agree entirely with your advice... but have to qualify that by saying that originality is highly subjective.

When I wrote my book, THE AFRIKA REICH, I wanted to do something which I felt was original but not intimidatingly so (as you suggested). Despite that, several publishers rejected it as being 'too original' for mass taste.

That wasn't the whole story though... I got several other rejections stating that my book wasn't original enough!

So how do we navigate through such tricky waters?

Luckily, Hodder thought it was a 'Goldilocks book' in terms of originality - ie just right. And gave me a two-book deal.

Best wishes


steeleweed said...

Good to see you found a publisher. John Masters said that one publisher rejected a book as too sympathetic toward an Indian terrorist, another rejected it because it wasn't sympathetic enough.
The first publisher was probably right-wing, the second left-wing.

Elizabeth West said...

Great post, Nicola, and something to keep in mind. I like the book I'm querying now and like the crime genre, but another one I'm planning/piddling with would be risky. I want to write it anyway. I've gotten some down and know what is going to happen, but I'm having trouble finding the right narrative structure. The straightforward style I used in my romantic crime thriller is not quite working here. Perhaps I need to study a bit more before I attempt it.

Laura S. said...

#6 makes so much sense, I'm surprised I've never read that kind of advice anywhere else! Thanks for making me think hard about my current WiPs with these great points!

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, all, for your comments. As you may know, I've been on a book tour and have had really bad internet access so haven't been able to join in. I'm bacl, but now inundated by tasks!

Kathryn, Jo and KarenG - thank you so much for your comments about Wasted!

altguy3 - you make a good point. I agree that originality is relative and subjective (I think the relativity bit is the important bit) but it's also worth pointing out that it mostly depends on the requirements of the genre and sub-market: so, the same book could be too original for "commercial" fiction and yet not original enough to be "literary". And different publishers will legitimately be looking for different things, depending on what they are good at selling and what they want their list to look like.

Flowerpot said...

very wise comments Nicola.

Janet O'Kane said...

Sage advice, as usual, Nicola. Your #1 point reminds me of how a publisher answered the 'what are you looking for?' question at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a few years ago: 'The same but different'. Cries of frustration came from the audience, but I've kept this in mind during my writing.

Catherine Hughes said...

I write SF romances for young adults. Which is likely a big problem - I've had lots of nice personal rejections, including some compliments about my writing, but no deal!

So now I am writing a ghost story instead.

Today I am having a sour day, so forgive me if I sound a bit negative about taking risks, but I wonder if there are limits to the risks we can take as debut novelists? As in, push it - but not too far!


I loved 'Wasted' and it inspired me to try something risky. I have shelved that project for now, because my confidence has dipped and I need to get it back by writing something I feel secure about. So I also wonder what everyone makes of the link between confidence and risk-taking, too...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting; I particularly sat up when reading about taking risks as a novice in the paranormal romantic comedy genre. My first book is paranormal and somewhat romantic, however, certainly not comic. I have finished it now and am spending time editing.

CJ xx

Unknown said...

Love the advice! I'm so glad i visited from over at Talli Rolands blog! She's amazing and if she is showcasing you it's because you must also be amazing!!!!

Awesome advice and I can't wait to check out your latest book!

Kittie Howard said...

I saw your link at Talli's blog and thought I'd drop in. Glad I did. Your writing tips are succinct and, thus, helpful. And congrats on your awards. Well-deserved!

Theresa Milstein said...

Wasted sounds so interesting! And you've given me a lot to think about.

Besides having a lot to learn about writing, my previous MG and YA manuscripts weren't risky enough. I travelled down well-trodden paths. The one I'm writing now feels unique, but hopefully not so much that I scare people away when I begin querying. It's first person, past tense, so that's not unusual. It's the subject-matter. I hope agents and publishers like it as much as I do.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Thanks, Nicola, your words were quite thoughtful and useful.

Sometimes a risky novel, like your WASTED, will take hold of your imagination and not let go until you've written it.

Such a novel was my Lakota/Celtic fantasy THE BEAR WITH TWO SHADOWS{in the YA school of THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS} was such a book for me.

And you won't be surprised to hear me say that not an agent out there wants to come within the same galaxy of it.

You pay your money, you roll the dice, and take your chances.

Thanks for such an inspiring blog. All the obvious effort and creativity you put into it shows. It's appreciated by this new visitor, Roland

Jennifer Nolan said...

I find your blog extremely helpful, and this post excellent advice for any writer. I've included a link to your blog on my blog page, and wondered if you'd be ever so kind and put a link for mine on yours?
(You can delete if not okay)

Thank you xx

Jennifer Nolan said...

Oooh, I forgot - I'm defo buying your book btw.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Hi Nicola,
I've just finished Wasted and loved it.
I knew I would.

I also knew I'd need a bit of free time to read it because I did not want to be interrupted! Yay, got that too

Thank you for a sensational read. You made me cry. Poor, poor Sylvia. Sad, pathetic, lonely Sylvia. Little bit too close to the bone Sylvia.

DJ Kirkby said...

My copy of Wasted has arrived and I'm looking forward to reading it though it's sitting a ways down my tbr pile at the moment. My debut novel isn't very risky at all but it is very much MY voice and the way I imagine I will always write but who knows really?

James Killick said...

It's easy to see why this post is creating a lot of comments - it's excellent and insightful and cuts to the heart of an issue that I think is one of the main concerns of writers today - producing something that the industry can easily compartmentalize yet different enough to be original - and where to position yourself on the sprectrum between the two extremes. Excellent thoughts and considered advice - this is one of the best and original posts I've read on writing. Thank you.

Carolyn Rosewood said...

Wonderful, sensible advice. Thank you.

Eeleen Lee said...

I was thinking of 'The Book Thief' by Marcus Zusak while reading this excellent post- unusual voice and appela to both YA and adult markets

blondezvous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maxine said...

Great post. I'd be interested to hear your/other readers' opinions on what constitutes a 'niche' book Would this refer to books with a very specific setting or 'minority' characters (in terms of their ethnicity or sexuality)? A while ago I chatted to an editor about my WIP, which is set in my (legendarily small) university town, and I asked her if she thought it would alienate people who don't know the place. She reckoned not but I'm sure people have different views on this kind of thing.
(sorry, the last deleted comment was me - accidentally posted under the wrong name!)

Nicola Kim said...

When are you going to give a course/workshop? I will pay good money - I will even throw in a bottle of champagne and chocolates. I will walk. I don't live far from you. Perth. Oh, that's Perth Scotland by the way!

Nicola Morgan said...

Nicola - I do several every year at the Edinburgh book festival - the programme is out on June 17th!

Maxine - I'd like to blog about this soon. Good idea. The short answer is that yes, it can often be off-putting, BUT if the idea / hook is strong enough, other aspects of niche are not a problem.