STATUS SEEKERS AND STORYTELLERS
Why do some novels by published writers go wrong? To start to answer that question, I think we must first go back to the beginning and examine the two primary reasons why people write fiction.
For thirty years I have observed fiction careers. I’ve seen them succeed and fail. The more I see, the more I feel that novelists fall into two broad categories: those whose desire is to be published, and those whose passion is to spin stories. I think of these as status seekers and storytellers.
It can be tough to tell the difference, at least at first. Before their first contract, most fiction writers will urgently tell me what they believe I want to hear: I am totally committed to making it, to being the best writer I can be, no matter what it takes. I want to achieve excellence.
I believe such sentiments are sincere but I have learned to take them with a grain of salt. It is over time that I discover an author’s true motivation for writing. Authors themselves may not know, and all have a mixture of motives. Still, their primary reasons for writing will ultimately emerge.
You can begin to see the difference as fiction writers try to break in. The majority of writers seek representation or publication years too soon. Rejection slips quickly set them straight. How do they respond? Some cleave to the timeless advice get it in the mail, keep it in the mail. The more thoughtful pull their manuscripts and go back to work.
Here’s another clue: once in a while an unready but promising manuscript will cross my desk. Wanting to be encouraging, I send a detailed e-mail or letter explaining my reasons for rejecting it. What do you suppose is the most common response? It’s the immediate offer of a trunk manuscript; a shame, since what is needed is not something else but something better.
Serious fiction writers sooner or later reach a point where their command of craft seems good enough for them finally to break in. Their supporters agree. Critique groups proclaim the latest manuscript the best ever. Mentors say this should be published and introduce the no-longer-newcomer to New York agents at the next regional writers conference. Interest is expressed. The big break seems imminent.
Still, rejections arrive, often glib brush-offs like I didn’t love this enough or this would be difficult to place in the current market. In response, status seekers grow frustrated. They decide that landing an agent is a matter of timing or luck. Storytellers may be understandably bewildered at this stage but recognize that something is missing from their writing. They resolve to do something about it.
At my Writing the Breakout Novel workshops I again notice the difference between these two types of writer. Some want to know how to make their manuscripts acceptable. If I do this and I do that, will I be okay? When I hear that question my heart sinks a little. That is a status seeker talking.
A storyteller, by contrast, is more concerned with making his story the best story that it can be, with discovering the levels and elements that are missing, and with understanding the techniques needed to make it all happen. Status seekers rush me fifty pages and an outline a few months after the workshop. Storytellers won’t show me their novels again for a year or more, probably after several new drafts.
You would think that at long last finding an agent who says yes, it’s time to show your novel to publishers would relax the status seeker’s anxiety for validation, but that isn’t true. Generally speaking, authors are never more work than during the submission process. It is normal to want updates on how submissions are going, but with status seekers the process can get nutty. If declines keep coming, I hear unhelpful suggestions. What about Viking? Didn’t they launch Stephen King? Should we submit my comic vampire novel there? There also are impossible questions: What does it mean when an editor doesn’t respond after six weeks?
As you can see, questions like that don’t really need an answer. What the status seeker wants is a contract. He wants to know that his years of effort will pay off.
The first contract is a watershed that finally divides the status seekers from the storytellers. Once in the hands of an editor, a status seeker will focus on what he is getting (or not) by way of cover, copy, blurbs, and “support” like advertising and promotion. It certainly is okay to want the best for one’s novel. It is also normal for publishers to put only modest effort into launching debut fiction.
Why? Because two-thirds of fiction sales are branded—fans buying new titles by authors whose work they already love. For unknown authors, ad and promo dollars produce few unit sales. That drives status seekers crazy. Why throw money at authors who are already bestsellers? How am I supposed to grow if my publisher doesn’t spend some bucks pushing me?
Storytellers have a more realistic grasp of retail realities. They may promote, but locally and not for long. They’ll put up a website, maybe, then it’s back to work on the next book. That’s smart. The truth, for newer authors anyway, is that the best promotion is between the covers of the last book.
What about later stages of career? Do status seekers correct course and grasp the fundamentals of success? I wish. Typically, in mid-career, status seekers go full time too soon. They grow to rely on advances for their living. Revisions become perfunctory. Frustration grows. A friend gets a film deal and panic sets in. In-store placement, posters, and shelf talkers become the keys to salvation. After six or seven books, advance size becomes critical. I am working too hard to keep getting paid fifteen thousand per book!
Storytellers ignore the ephemera. Their mid-career focus is hitting deadlines and delivering powerful stories for their readers. The issues that come up are about developing their series or what to write as their next stand-alone.
In advanced stages of their career, status seekers will grumble about publishers, spend on self-promotion (or spend nothing at all), and expound as experts on getting ahead. They change agents, obsess over trunk projects, write screenplays. They wind up at small presses. A typical request from a status seeker at this terminal stage is, I whipped off a graphic novel last weekend; can you find me a publisher for it?
Storytellers are different. Storytellers look not to publishers to make them successful, but to themselves. They wonder how to top themselves with each new novel. Their grumbles are not about getting toured but about getting more time to deliver. Storytellers take calculated risks with their fiction. Mostly they try to make their stories bigger.
Therein lies the essence of why storytellers succeed where status seekers fail: Storytellers may seem anointed, but they are anointed by readers. Give readers stories that blow them away every time and they will become the loyal generators of the sales that make career success appear effortless.
Storytellers are oriented the right way; consequently, their stories almost never go wrong. Which type of fiction writer are you? Really? I believe you, but the proof is in your passion and whether or not it gets on the page.
from the fire in fiction . donald maass