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.