Handling Shifting Priorities

By | May 23, 2016

When I first began writing seriously, I had no idea where it would take me. I jumped into it without a plan, but once both feet were wet, I never considered not continuing. I love Romance; therefore, I’d write Romance until I dropped dead at the keyboard.

Two and a half years and more than a dozen published stories later, my views on writing have changed dramatically, and with them, my goals. Handling these shifting priorities isn’t exactly easy, but I believe refocusing my career will have long-lasting benefits I would otherwise miss.

Like everything writers do, it all began with an idea.

Trying My Hand at SciFi Romance

I’ve told this story at least half a dozen times over the past few months, so I’ll keep it brief here. In late fall 2014, I read Mercenary Instinct by Ruby Lionsdrake, which inspired me to conceive, develop, and write a Science Fiction Romance. The result, published in June 2015, has been my bestselling book by far. Fans loved it, my editor loved it, I loved it, and so I did the sensible thing: I expanded it into a series in response to a growing demand in an underserved market.

I’m not going to go into all the problems created by stuffing an unplanned series into an already full schedule. Short answer? Many and varied. Long answer? Lots of unexpected changes in my life (which affected my writing process) were complicated by a three-month illness and subsequent recovery period that completely shot my schedule to hell.

But there were upsides to publishing an SFR. I cut my reading teeth on SciFi and Fantasy. Some of my earliest attempts at writing fiction were Speculative Fiction short stories. They were awful, I promise, but the ideas! Oh, they were glorious.

After beginning the manuscript for The Choosing, I was bombarded with idea after idea, none of which fit with what I was already writing. I seriously considered selecting a few, developing them, and writing them in my (increasingly nonexistent) spare time to pass in front of established publishers, like Baen. It’s an idea I clung to until recently, when I had another major shift in thinking that was preceded by a growing discontent with writing Romance.

Reader Expectations and Romance

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still really love writing romances, but my writing style and voice aren’t always consistent with Romance readers’ expectations. For one, my female leads are all strong women in their own way, but they’re also all different. There’s no sameness there. At all. And I published these stories just when readers craved a sassy-yet-strong heroine in every book they read.

Which is nothing compared to the hero of the story, who must be a brooding, over-the-top alpha or no dice.

I do have alpha heroes. The Enemy Within and Sanctuary, for example. Both feature ex-military male leads (Bobby Upton and Drew Martin, respectively). Ryn abid Alna, The Choosing‘s hero, is an alpha with a soft side, as is his adoptive father Gared ab Einif (Thief of Hearts). Levi Ewart (Say Yes) is most definitely a dominant alpha and so are brothers Dyuvad ab Mhij (Alien Mine) and Benar Q’Mhel (A Warriors Touch), but these characters are not the same archetype repeated from book to book. They’re all very different, almost like *gasp* real people!

Romance readers want formula. They want familiarity. I tend to break the mold.

And that probably explains why I attract as many readers from outside Romance as I do from within it. If I had had Chris Fox’ Write to Market three years ago, I might have chosen different characters and story lines. Maybe.

Or I might’ve done exactly what I did: Spend months learning how to write in a genre I love to read. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience, no matter how it’s accumulated. I have no regrets in choosing to write stories and characters I love, set within intricately detailed worlds readers love.

Write What You’re Good at Writing

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a blog post in which the author said writers shouldn’t write what they know or love to read; they should write what they’re good at writing.

That post came at a time when I was pondering the wisdom of sticking with Romance. To do so, I would need to change the way I write, period, the end. Open up a typical Romance novel and compare it with one of mine. Generally speaking, there’s a stark difference. I am not in any way saying one is better than the other. I’m saying mine are different. The characters are different. The story worlds are different. The stories themselves tend to explore intellectual topics and ideas (in very subtle ways) rather than emotional/relationship ones.

Honestly, when I set out, I was simply creating stories I wanted to read, revolving around subjects I found interesting.

They’re romances without a doubt. There’s always a strong, central love story and a Happy Ever After. But they’re not typical romances, which tends to be off-putting for the average Romance reader. It’s rather demoralizing to realize that no matter how good your writing is, your stories will never appeal to the vast majority of your target demographic. That’s no way to run a business and it’s certainly not a great approach to earning a living.

After reading that blog post, it finally occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I should be writing something besides Romance, a notion I’ve always scoffed at. I love Romance. Love it. It’s a great genre for a lot of reasons I won’t go into here. (If you read Romance, you already know them, and if you don’t. Well. I feel kinda sorry for you.)

But am I good at writing romances? Eh. My fans think so, but maybe they’re just the quirky few who like my writing and don’t care what I write as long as it feeds their need to read.

A Changing Perspective

Then again, there’s the Vampyr Series, which I’ve billed as Paranormal Romance slash Erotic Dark Fantasy. There’s a strong, central love story and an eventual Happy Ever After, which takes on new meaning when the characters are vampires.

But it’s not a traditional vampire story. The three primary characters are in a non-love-triangle, polyamorous relationship. The main character is a shy, scrawny Physics geek who transforms over the course of the series into an incredibly powerful vampire. There’s more gore in it than most people are comfortable reading. Torture, including mild sexual torture. Underage sex (with a teacher) that fades to black. Explicitly detailed sex scenes, most of which are male-male and involve more than two people at once. I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s not exactly your typical Romance.

On the other hand, it would make a great movie, even with the sex scenes cut.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months pondering the kinds of stories I enjoy writing and have come to the conclusion that I would far rather write something quirky than write something formulaic. There aren’t many genres where I could pull that off and still make a living. The only one, in fact, is Speculative Fiction, which is more of a broad umbrella than a genre in and of itself. It encompasses SciFi, Fantasy, and Horror, the roots of my Romance novels. It’s not such a great shift from what I’m writing now. Plus, the vast majority of story ideas I’ve had over the past few months fall neatly under that umbrella.

Then there’s this added benefit: The way I write would probably be much more acceptable to readers in the SpecFic genres. Detailed story worlds, strong, unique characters, thought-provoking narratives, slow builds through a twisting story arc. Those are all much more common in Science Fiction, etc., than they are in Romance.

Shifting Priorities

Of course, there’s a huge gap between speculation and reality. I have to test my hypothesis (stated in that last paragraph), but to do that, I have to find time to write outside my already scheduled stories, possibly by jam packing the last of my free time with writing.

I’ve been that route. It wasn’t pretty. In fact, I’m still recovering from it. I’m not sure my career ever will. Actually, I’m not certain I’ll even have a career to call my own unless I make a drastic and radical change.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come to believe that change is necessary or I’ll never be as satisfied or financially successful as I’d like to be.

The change I’m referring to is essentially a narrowing of focus coinciding with shifting priorities. Until now, I’ve been scattershot in my approach to writing. I’ve written the stories I wanted to write whether they fit in with my pen names and business plan or not, and published them willy nilly. If I had it to do over again, I’d still do the same thing. I’ve learned too much with my scattershot approach to regret it.

But I don’t have to wind the clock back in order to have a do over. All I have to do is create another pen name and publish under it according to a well thought out plan. The past three years of experimentation can all be channeled into making the stories written under that new name a success from the get-go, from writing stories readers want to read to building a platform to marketing effectively. It sounds a lot easier on paper than it will be in practice, but I have faith that it can, and should, be done.

Getting from Here to There

In the meantime, I still have two pen names I’m obligated to. I’ve decided to finish out the main series I’m writing, after which I’ll let one of the pen names go. I have a handful of additional stories I’d like to publish under the other pen name, but they aren’t in any way expected by readers. If I have time to write them and feel they’ll be a good investment of my energy and effort, I can. If not, I won’t and that pen name will gradually fade as well.

Discarding two established pen names, and the story worlds they’re associated with, wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I do believe it’s the right one. To ease the transition, I’ve promised myself that I will not move forward with the new pen name in a large and time-sucking way until I’ve finished writing the final stories in the series I’m committed to now.

What I refuse to promise is that I will never write another Romance. That would be rather silly, given my love of the genre. Oh, and there’s the SciFi Romance I’ve got going that would never work under either of my established pen names. It’s one that can absolutely be tailored to readers’ expectations without sacrificing style or voice. And after publishing enough books to gain a feel for the market, I know it will be a winner if handled correctly.

But that’s getting way ahead of myself. My biggest priority right now is writing the five and a half books needed to complete the series I’m working on. Once I’ve done that (hopefully by the end of the year), I can better consider the direction my career should take and plan accordingly.

The key word here being plan. Shifting priorities isn’t an excuse to run headlong in a new direction without thought for the consequences or road ahead. If I’ve learned anything over the past two and a half years, it’s that. Planning, prioritizing, and handling impulse are my biggest challenges as a writer. Mastering those will help me weather the changes I feel are necessary to fulfill my ultimate goal of continuing to earn a living from my writing.

Has your writing presented you with shifting priorities? Comment below and tell me how!

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