Friday, 5 July 2013

Writing to Prescription by Savita Kalhan

I know many writers who write to prescription. By that I mean they have three or four synopses for different story ideas, which have been written out in some detail, the complete story arc and characters fleshed out within them, often with the first few chapters written out too. This is what their publishers want.

Recently on Twitter there’s been some discussion over the #MSWL hashtag. The #MSWL hashtag stands for “manuscript wish list”, and it is what literary agents are currently on the lookout for. Of course that in turn is based on what publishers are looking for . It’s mainly “high concept, high brand”, and publishers are very particular about the type of story required. Everything you write must fit into that tight little niche, that brand. They believe it’s the best way to market the story and the writer. That’s all well and good if everything you write fits into the same narrow band, but not if it doesn’t.

Once, I did plan a story in quite a bit of detail, but my synopsis stopped just over halfway through the book, so I still had the freedom to allow the story to go in a number of different directions. When I wrote The Long Weekend, I had no plan, no synopsis, just the opening line. I wrote the first chapter and thought, “Where’s this going? How far is it going to go?” Beyond the two boys getting into the car, the rest of the story wasn’t even in my head. It all happened on a day by day basis, which made it really exciting to write. I didn’t have a clue about the ending until I wrote it.

A writer friend was telling me how hard it was to write to prescription, how influenced the manuscript was by the editor and how changes were forced and had to be accepted because someone in the editorial or marketing team wanted those changes. The writer had to pretty much accept all the changes demanded, even if it meant the story was no longer how it had been envisaged by her. She was no longer in control of her own story. From what I’ve heard, this is not an unusual situation for writers to find themselves in. Writers have always worked with editors to a greater or lesser degree. It’s the prescriptive aspect to it that seems to have changed.

I understand that publishing is a tough business, but to take so much creative freedom away from the writer in order to follow market trends surely must limit the scope and diversity within teen/YA fiction. Going into the teen/YA section of a high street bookshop confirms that. There is little in the way of diversity; shelves are overflowing with the hot series of the moment. Stand alone fiction finds itself squeezed into the interstices. Talking to teen/YA bloggers, they pretty much unanimously said that they’d had enough of series fiction, particularly of the paranormal and dystopian flavor. They want to see more stand-alone fiction, more humour, more crime, more drama, more historical, more everything. More diversity.

Nick Hornby said: “I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.”

There are still masterpieces and some wonderful teen/YA fiction in the bookshops, but it’s fighting for space, and some of it is being stifled before it’s even written.
twitter: @savitakalhan


David Thorpe said...

I do agree with what you say about the need to avoid prescription by publishers, although one can understand why they do it.

When there is a trend for a certain type of novel amongst teenagers, it is because there is a market that they wish and need, for financial reasons, to fulfil.

On the other hand, I know that they recognise there are always ground breakers who suddenly uncover new territory and create a new trend.

Then, the prescription will change and they will be on the lookout for more novels just like that one.

Writers can choose, I suppose, to either go along with what the publishers have on their wish list, or follow their hearts and obsessions to produce something more original, but the latter trail is bound to contain higher risks, as I know from personal experience.

I think you are making a separate point when you say that you cannot write from a synopsis. This is about your preferred style in the process of writing.

For myself, I like to map out some plot points along the way, as markers, as I know then that I have to aim for these. It's a bit like going on a car journey and mapping out my destination, with a few stops along the way.

But it gives me room to make detours in between, and allows for spontaneity and for the characters to come up with their own ideas about what happens.

I find that having no map at all wastes my time and I will get lost.

Nick Cross said...

I think publishers have learnt a lot from book packagers in terms of creating new series (or inevitably "IPs"). And that's fine, as far as it goes, but there's a definite muddying of the water when that process starts to encroach on author-led fiction.

Personally, I'd like a publisher to be totally upfront with me about what they wanted at the contract stage - where the book was going to sit in the market and where the creative control was going to lie. Then it would be my choice as a writer whether to accept that or walk away. There are a lot of positives to working in a collaborative situation too!

catdownunder said...

Are wish lists about what publishers want children to read (or adults in general want children to read) or what publishers think they can sell - or are wish lists about what children really want to read.
I think I said it here once before but there was that child in the library who looked up at me (a complete stranger) and said, "I'm sick of AIDS and death and divorce. I just want a good story."
I could not write to prescription - which may mean I never get anything published. But, at least I will have written what I believe children want to read.

catdownunder said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Savita Kalhan said...

David, you are certainly right when you say writers have the choice whether to go along with what publishers want or not to, but the risk not to is definitely far higher and if it means you will miss out on a book deal, how many writers would make the choice not to?
I think with the synopsis it's the fact that some writers have said that they write three or four and that the publisher chooses which book they want you to write from amongst those that troubles me, rather than the writer using a synopsis as a story plan for their current WIP.
Nick, there are lots of great positives working with good editors. I think it's when the marketing departments prescribe not just the book cover, but the story too, that it poses limitations on the author's creative control over the story. And again, how many writers walk away from book deals which are harder and harder to come by?

Savita Kalhan said...

Cat, I guess the wishlists are based on what markets say kids want to read, or what publishers think the markets say about what kids want to read. But after talking to lots of kids and teen book bloggers who want far more choice and diversity, I'm not sure readers are getting entirely what they want.

Carole Anne Carr said...

Must be the one good thing about being an Indie publisher, I can please myself. :0)

Sue Bursztynski said...

I remember attending a publisher talk at a SCBWI conference where the panellists said,"Don't write according to the trend, which might be out by next year, set a new trend."

Which is perhaps not what this post is about, but ave me pod for thought. I wrote non fiction for entertainment on request for many years, though I thought of a list of topics that I could live with, which publishers might like. It took me years to sell my first novel, but sell it I did, to a publisher who had loved it but had to turn it down first time due to company policy.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Whoops, it's "gave me food or thought."