In writing, the risks you can get away with, and the risks you need to take, depend on a few things:
- how good you actually are
- whether you're a debut writer or not
- the genre you are writing in and what the market is demanding in that genre at that time
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 If the risk doesn't work in your favour, you will either remain unpublished or, if published, your book may bomb.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.
RISKY PRACTICES IN WRITING include:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- It has some radical POV shifts and juggles an omniscient multi-POV. Third person present tense is also probably the riskiest voice to attempt.
- 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.)
- 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.
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.