Tatjana Soli spoke several times during our interview about the need to stay true to the story you are trying to tell. This is perhaps doubly true in literary fiction where the tension between commercial viability and artistic intention can make for heated writer/editor emails. Soli took the position – a position reiterated by editor-turned-author Brando Skyhorse last month – that in the end one has no real control over how many copies one’s book will sell, but a writer does have control over whether she tells the story she most wants to tell.
I have to agree. I also happen to believe that you are more likely to attract a larger readership the more firmly you hold to your narrative vision, whether that vision is literary or otherwise. Imagine for a moment the entirety of the world’s reading population. This is too vast a number to picture. But you aren’t trying to attract all of these people; you are only seeking those readers whose own interests, curiosities, desires, ambitions, and perspectives most closely align to yours.
How do you reach those people? By being authentically you. Let’s imagine all those people are not looking for a story but a piece of fruit – to be precise, a Braeburn apple. They are searching the world for the best Braeburn apple they can find because for reasons they cannot articulate to anyone else, they love the Braeburn above all other fruits. If you hand one of these people a Granny Smith, they may eat it, but they won’t love it. They love Braeburns, and once they find the genuine article, they will, by some means or another, let all the other Braeburn lovers know where to find this fruit they have sought for so long.
Your story is a delicious Braeburn apple, but only if you tell it authentically. If you try to please the lovers of all apples, or of all fruits, you will only succeed in creating something washed out and unrecognizable. You must allow those people who want to read your story to recognize it. You don’t have to know who these readers are, or what they look like, you only have to know they are out there, and once your story finds its authentic form, distinct in ways large or small from all other stories, then and only then will your audience find you.
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It’s conference week here in the Seattle area. Tomorrow begins the 2010 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and there is much envelope and folder stuffing going on in anticipation of the big event. If you are attending, I will of course be there, in many roles, helping and pointing and explaining and probably apologizing too.
One of the problems we have run into in planning the conference is knowing in which rooms to put which speakers. Some rooms are bigger than others, and there is no way to tell for sure who will draw the largest crowds. So you guess, and you are wrong. There is always some grumbling because who wants to stand and listen to an hour presentation, but really writers of all people should understand. Brando Skyhorse, who gave an excellent interview for this month’s issue, spent ten years in publishing before selling his first novel. He spoke about how often publishers and writers are surprised by the success of a given book. How do you plan for such things? I don’t think you can.
Though I do remember working with someone years ago who’s motto was, “Prepare for success.” I always liked this. It certainly beats preparing for failure, as I explained yesterday. But how do you really do that? James Joyce, as he was awaiting word on Dubliners, his first collection of short stories, told his brother to join in him Trieste, as they were soon going to be living luxuriously off his royalties. Didn’t work out that way.
So Joyce was counting his chickens, which always seems to invite disappointment. I am always happiest and most grounded when I prepare for the best possible thing to happen without deciding ahead of time what that will be. More wiggle room that way. Also, if you are so certain ahead of time that success means Agent A representing you, you might not take the time to talk to Agent B, who would actually be a better fit.
We know what success is when we feel it. Success is the lining up of events with desire, that sweet connection of thought and action. Your job is the desire; it is really all you have control over anyway. And you will never know success, as it were, unless you are listening to the constant current of your desire. Not that you won’t have success, you simply won’t know you are having it.
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