You Can’t Write About THAT: Staying True to Your Writing Passion in the Age of the McBook

(Guest Blog Post by Kameron Hurley)

Selling my first novel – about a bisexual bounty hunter who chops off the heads of deserters in a world at perpetual war, with bonus bug magic and shapeshifters – wasn’t as easy as you might think. What I heard from publishers again and again was, “I don’t know how to market this,” even though it read like every great post-apocalypse movie I’d ever watched and many reviewers would later compare it to Herbert’s Dune.

I found the “I don’t know how to market this” thing to be a mind-boggling excuse, because I’d written the book I wanted to read. And if I wanted to read it, surely there were other people out there who wanted to read it too. What I would slowly come to realize over the years is that the people like me, who like the types of books I write – the wild, weird, punching and magic and genderbending books – were not the types of people who publishers were used to selling to. They had an Ideal Consumer in mind, and that Ideal Consumer seemed to be scared of women outside of prescribed roles, queer people who aren’t just sidekicks, and any setting weirder than something from Tolkien. Clearly, you know, the world is FULL of people who actually DO love to read books about and including all of those people and things. Full to bursting, in fact. But there was no marketing machine in place at bigger publishers to tap into this audience, or even to speak to existing readers about the unique hook my work offered (see: punching, genderbending). In fact, many of those things were aspects of the book that some publishers actively try to keep off the back cover of the books.

In one of my conversations with an editor who bought my first novel, they said that my work was going to be pretty niche. I would have a small but devoted readership, like the one Catherynne M. Valente was building at the time. I was never going to sell loads of books, they said. I should just be happy with that. But I didn’t want to be a niche writer. If I was a niche writer, then I would have niche ideas that few people would ever read. I didn’t want to write from the margins. I wanted to push to make the margins mainstream. Maybe I saw where things were headed. Maybe I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t just want to sit out here on the sidelines, being someone whose work was only discussed in academic circles, if at all.

The irony here, of course, is that Catherynne M. Valente herself went on to become a New York Times bestseller. We are all not nearly as niche as editors and publishers at first assume. The readers are there. They are hungry. Sometimes it’s up to us as writers to convince the machine of this.

What I learned pecking at the edges of the publishing industry, trying to get into bigger publishers, is that I wasn’t the sort of writer who was going to give up and write dudebro medieval fantasy or vampire erotica in order to make a career. If you love to write those things, that is great! You will make more money than I will right out the gate. But that just wasn’t what I wanted to write. My strategy, instead, was to build a small but fervent pool of core readers and fans who would help launch my work out of the margins and into the mainstream.

That is not an easy road. It’s not the fast way to make a living at this, or to build a readership. But it would allow me to write what I wanted to write without giving in to the appetite of the machine. Best of all, if I had “Kameron Hurley readers” instead of just “epic fantasy readers” or “science fiction readers” then it freed me to write Kameron Hurley novels, whatever those were, instead of being boxed in by the success of any one series. Nurturing a core audience means that you can always, reliably, sell a certain number of books. And then you work to break out from there.

I have had long conversations with other writers in the industry who purposefully write in clear, simple prose, with page-turning, formulaic plots that employ recognizable tropes and themes in approachable settings. We see these sorts of formulas applied to blockbuster movies all the time, and yes: they work. One of the things I’ve learned from these writers is to focus more on plot, and clarify my language. I’ve also learned that I can do this while still writing Kameron Hurley stories, and be true to who I am as a writer and what I want to achieve, without giving in and writing like they do.

How to do that?

It’s said (I believe by, again, Valente) that readers will forgive your work for including one of these three things: a wholly unrecognizable world, strange and dense prose, or a complex, convoluted structure. You can do any one of these three and still sell very well. Two of three, and yes, you’ll be a harder sell. Three of three, and you are probably writing a niche book.

So I choose one or two, and compromise on the third. Then I focus hard on the story itself, because that’s why readers are here, really – ideas and gender fluidity and polyamorous cultures are great, but if there’s no story driving the reader, none of it matters outside of academia.

The fact that your characters are transgender, pansexual, not white, and you deal with themes of genocide, identity, and betrayal? Readers care less about that than trolling internet comments might make you think. Readers are still, even now, most interested in a good story. Write a good story, and you can push up through the heap, nurturing your audience as you go. Create a mailing list where folks can subscribe and get links and news about your latest stories. Find a social platform you like – Facebook, Twitter, whatever – and have fun there talking about what it is you’re passionate about. I hear all the time from folks that being online doesn’t sell books, which is fine to say if you’ve got the support of a major publishing house, and you’re a major title with a major marketing budget. But if you’re writing at the margins, you aren’t going to start with that. This is where social media and online discourse work in favor of those without access to traditional budgets and channels.

Is it going to be difficult to convince people there’s an audience for what you write? Yes. Still. But it’s not impossible. And I feel that needs to be said out loud to new writers who feel their voices and subject matter are forever marginalized: it is not impossible. Please write what you want. We need your voice.

I get email and comments all the time from people thanking me for writing about genderqueer characters, about gay and bisexual characters, about polyamorous societies, about worlds they really have never seen before. Writing about things people have never seen before in mainstream-ish SF and epic fantasy books, all mashed up together into one gloriously brilliant ride, is what I got into the business to do.  I wanted stories about these sorts of people to no longer be niche books, and to do that I needed to make them not only protagonists, but heroes in the very epic sense of the word… and they needed to be driving powerful stories.

It’s true that sometimes I pitched my books as being something they weren’t, exactly. I chose the best of the bad fits. I said my weird bugpunk science fiction/fantasy noir novel was just science fiction.  I said that The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant – the genderbending, parallel universe swapping satellite magic fantasy – was just… epic fantasy. Sometimes you just pick the best of their boxes, and you parade around in front of the publishing industry as if they truly do fit, and you hope they don’t notice that you don’t. You hope they let you slip through so that your readers, the people you really wrote all this mad stuff for, can find you.

I won’t say that it isn’t still tough to keep in this wedge I’ve got in the door of the publishing machine right now. But the thing is, even if the door closes, I’ll have nurtured a core audience that I can always go back to, one that will always help me keep pushing in from the outside.

So in that sense, maybe, that editor was right, all those years ago. I’ve found the people who love my work. And the truth is that I’d never have found them if I was just trying to write the next McBook. I’d have made myself miserable writing more and more watered down books, trying to write just like everyone else, when what I really needed to do was learn how to tell a story, and learn how to talk to the readers who needed those stories most.


(Editor’s note: Kameron Hurley’s new novel Empire Ascendant, the second volume of her Worldbreaker Saga, was released on October 6 and is now available from all fine booksellers. For more of Kameron’s thoughts on writing, please check out her Uncanny Magazine essay “I Don’t Care About Your MFA: On Writing vs. Storytelling)

2 Responses to “You Can’t Write About THAT: Staying True to Your Writing Passion in the Age of the McBook”

  1. J.M. Frey

    *applause* I hear the same thing a lot with my own books, and you have articulated exactly what I’ve been thinking about it. Thank you.

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