Monday, February 11, 2013

You're Not the Boss of Me

One of the things I love about being a writer is the fact that I make major work decisions alone.  I decide what I am going to write about.  I don’t have a boss sending me memos with subject lines like “Suggestions for Next Project.”

Given this, it’s easy to forget that other people besides me are involved in the production of books.

For the past few months, I’ve been writing a middle-grade fantasy novel.  This is something entirely new for me, a self-imposed challenge I was anxious to take up.  I found myself uninspired by the things that usually interest me: contemporary kids, real-life problems, small lives examined and laid bare.  Fantasy—a genre I enjoyed as a kid—beckoned.

So far, I’ve been enjoying the work.  I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fantasy and writing every day.

Recently I learned that the story I’m writing belongs to a sub-genre of fiction called “portal fantasy,” which means that characters are able to pass from the real world into the fantasy world.  Think Narnia.  Think Oz.  As a child, I was enchanted with the notion that there were secret doorways allowing entry to a hidden world.

I also learned that publishers aren’t buying portal fantasy.  I learned this from a post called “Portal Fantasies and Cycles of Desire,” featured on the weblog MAKING LIGHT, written by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, both editors of fantasy and science fiction at Tor Books.  Here’s the post:

This makes me fucking bananas.  (Sorry.  I try not to swear on this blog, because I know sometimes children read it.  But come onI mean, come on.)

Never mind the fact that so many of the best fantasy novels of all time involve passage into another world.  (ALICE IN WONDERLAND?  Hello-o-o?)  Never mind that the most transformative children’s book of the last several decades focuses on a character who learns that he is a wizard living in a muggle world.  Never mind that, as my friend Molly Joss, publishing industry analyst and author of several non-fiction books ( asks rhetorically, “In fact, isn't reading fiction, all fiction, falling through a portal into another world?

I think the Nielsen Haydens have it right, and in time, the tides will shift, and publishers will want to buy portal fiction again.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing. And not because my fabulous agent, Jennifer Laughran, read forty pages and said she liked it and to keep going.

I’m going to soldier on because if I were to give up, then I’d be allowing somebody else to tell me what I can and cannot write.  I’d be trying to write to the market, which I think doesn’t make for very good books, and which I also think is odious on principle.

I write what interests me, what excites me, what makes for the kind of story I like to read.   I think that means I suck at marketing myself.  (And as an aside, if I hear one more writer talk about “branding” herself, I’m going to gouge out my eyes with a fork.)    But I’m okay with that.

I’d love to hear from other writers, editors, people who buy books, and children who read them.  What do you think about all this?


  1. I very much want to read your fantasy novel and hope you will write it soon. I have faith that you can make it awesome, and to heck with those who, for some reason, are eschewing one of the best subgenres there is. My children love and read fantasy, and we have been discussing what is "portal fantasy" and what isn't. Our conclusion was that it's a good device, and we don't understand why it should have fallen out of favor.

    I have seen you set your teeth and be stubborn because you had something that you wanted to write and that you thought people would want to read. The result, The Prettiest Doll, is great - my daughter, initially skeptical about a book about beauty pageants, is now your biggest fan.

  2. Wait, what? How is that even possible? I'm not sure I can think of a YA fantasy novel I really love that *doesn't* fall under this genre. The Dark is Rising series and the His Dark Materials series come to mind. How weird. Actually, I think the concept of portals is probably the very point of fantasy for me--the idea that there's some other reality/dimension existing right alongside the "real" world, and we can gain access to it if we can just find the way in. And yes, keep writing. Among all the much better reasons to keep writing, you never know when your very own book might be the one to turn the marketing tide.