To Publish or Tell a Good Story?

Karin Kallmaker Awards and Reviews, Business of Books, Christabel, Craft of Writing, In Every Port, Kiss That Counted, laura adams, Maybe Next Time, Painted Moon, Sisters of the Pen, Touchwood

Two Women Talking
Every writer walks the tightrope between art and commerce. In answer to a question on the Golden Crown discussion list, here is my balancing act.

When you sit down to write a new story are you writing strictly to publish or to tell the story?

Every writer will answer these questions differently, so I can only answer for myself. And typically, the answer has varied throughout my career, and I’m well aware that I have been one very lucky woman.

I could say that my first novel, In Every Port, was “fic fanfic” of a kind. I wrote it because it was the story I wanted to read and it was greatly influenced by what I was reading at the time, which was the groundswell of mid-80s Naiad Press romances, starting with Curious Wine. Finally, books I identified with that appealed to my romantic leanings. And that’s what I wrote, a love story about two twenty-something women, adding a historical context (the tumult of 1978 San Francisco) that I found interesting. I never saw the “constraints” of the genre and publisher as limiting. We were all pleased with the result.

My second novel, Touchwood was an intergenerational romance, which pushed hard on the existing constraints, so I think even then, while I was well aware of the romance genre’s absolutes, I was willing to bend the things that were bendable. My third novel Paperback Romance poked some gentle fun at the genre, and I followed that with a mixed race couple facing some intrigue in Car Pool. Finally, with Painted Moon I wrote what most people call a “classic” romance. In some ways it was full circle, as the story was no more complicated than my first novel’s–but I was a better writer and told the story in a more mature, confident form.

Then, five novels under my belt in just about as many years, I took stock. At some point I'd forgotten to pretend that my writing was a hobby; all my life I'd known it was a calling, but it seemed to smack of hubris to tell anyone that! So with that much (and that little) experience I was finally in possession of the one thing in short supply: data. The Internet was still something geeks knew about, fan mail far and few between, but I had sales data. In the first half of the 1990s, readers were more likely to pick up the "classic" style romances than anything else, and by a vast margin.

To what extent did that influence what I wrote and continue to write? That's really quite hard to say.

I'm not sure that it did to any great extent in that my next five novels included farce, death of a beloved character, a story where the two love interests never have sex and a treatise on cooking and home renovation. What the sales numbers have really done for me is set my expectations about a book's probable success. So when I decided I had a story to tell about a suicidal violinist I was braced for the "not quite usual" sales results. And I wasn't disappointed!

In Addition to Romance

I've also published five novels as "Laura Adams" which were sci-fi and fantasy works. Combining an unknown name with less popular genres wasn't the most lucrative idea I've ever had, it's true. Probably the lack of finding a consistent audience has something to do with the resistant muse, and the third novel of a trilogy remains half-written because I've found it difficult to find the time and energy to complete it even though there is a readership waiting (patiently) for it. It's a vastly different (and fragile) creative space is all I can say. "Laura" tends to wander farther afield in her style and themes and a lot of "her" creative energy and alternative spirituality has shown up in the novellas I've written in the New Exploits <series.

Happily, though, one of Laura's novels is being re-released in a new edition and I am curious as anything to see what reception it gets early next year. Christabel is a gothic romance and I've added a quarter more to the story, which was an experience in itself. I don't know if other writers feel the same way when examining early works, but I was also pleased for the opportunity to fix a few old bad habits. (I still don't know where the effing commas go, and I swear they've changed the rules.) When "Laura" starts itching again I won't ignore her, that's for sure. I get too much from the process and result that is good for me.

One thing I know is true: at no point has a publisher told me to write to a formula or discouraged any theme or approach I chose to take. They took the risks on my fickle creativity and let me make my own mistakes.

Were I an unproven writer who wanted to do a take off on Pride & Prejudice I have no idea how Bella would react. I have been incredibly fortunate in my career and I thank the fates constantly for the blessings.

Writing for a Tribe?

So I won't rule out writing to/for any particular tribe, but I have found over the years that if I consciously try to drive my Muse toward a given destination she stops speaking to me. Mysteries, thrillers, action tales all elude me and every time I try Ms. Muse stops cold. No matter what I write, I am far more fascinated by what the characters are thinking and feeling as opposed to what they are doing. Even so, I'd rather wait for Guffman than Godot.

Journeys are Always Surprising

I can be clear as day on how a book ends and how I think I get my characters there but in the process of creating, I often find the journey is not the least what I thought. These clear-cut characters start to tell me the real truth about their lives and offer surprises. (Sometimes I have to get tough with them, but it's hard.) Ironically, my current contemporary romance, The Kiss That Counted, is the closest in physical appearance to the X&G mold than any I've done, and the dark heroine indeed broods, the fair heroine does bubble. My choice of the archetypes was deliberate, stemming from the question "What if a thief met an elf?" Even as I say that I find myself adding, as I have so many times in the last twenty years, "Trust me, it'll work."

So all I can say is that I am constantly thinking about the story I want to tell, but I never forget my audience. I'm thinking about the reader looking for a diverting story for a long night, the commuter catching a chapter here and there, the isolated lesbian whose only community is lesbian fiction, the book club looking for something meaty to talk about, and the woman who sees in my books an affirmation of who she is and her right to basic respect and hope in her life.

This is, in many respects, what I want from lesbian fiction and it's not surprising that it comes out as a force in what I choose to write. Balancing the needs for differing reading experiences with my often chaotic process of creativity is challenging. I am always hopeful with each new book that the reader is willing to take the journey, even if it leads to unexpected places. If at the end of any book or story the reader sets it down with a pleased sigh then on some level it didn't matter how we got there as long as that's where we ended up.

Draw Your Own Lines

Every writer has to draw the lines for herself, and decide if her observations about what readers want will influence what she writes and to what degree. If those choices are made with conscious thought, good craft and set purpose, then any writer ought to be able to stand by her work no matter why/how/when/who/where it came into print.It's what works for me, and at the end of the day I can at least say that so far I've yet to publish any work which I am not proud to claim as mine. As I said, I've been incredibly fortunate and I don't intend to ever take the readers, my publisher or my muse for granted.

© 2007 Karin Kallmaker

Comments 2

  1. Curious Wine is a watershed book for so many women I know. There’s life before CW, and life after. There’s no going back to Duckburg. *g*

  2. You mentioned “Curious Wine.” Until I stumbled on CW, I didn’t know anyone had written a book like that, and didn’t even know that someone had just spoken MY truth. (baaa baaa, what an innocent lamb was I, lol) And yet, I kept going back to it, and took it with me every time I moved. Thoreau said, “the at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered.” Damn right. What can ya do when the world opens up unexpectedly like that? Go back to Duckburg and act normal? This is what a skilled author can do–make a reader want to reach further, delve deeper, dream bigger. And if the story is sexy as well? Sweet, baybeh, as my gf says. 🙂

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