Sunday, 23 October 2011

Dare to be different

As writers we're always looking for the next big thing. The next Harry Potter. The next Da Vinci Code. The next Sharpe. That mega-bucks super-seller that will catapult its author to literary stardom and have Steven Spielberg knocking at the door waving his chequebook.

Of course, these things are entirely arbitrary. Even if you write a brilliant book or create a brilliant character, there's no guarantee that it'll be an instant success. There's also the undeniable fact that if you create something different, unique and innovative, you'll have a harder job selling it to a publisher than a more commercial, mainstream book with a guaranteed audience. Publishers are much more risk averse than in the past, and with good reason.

Cast your eye across genre fiction lists and you'll find that it's actually very difficult to come up with something that's unique. When I started writing Caligula sometime around 2004 (it was a project then, I didn't dare call it a book) I had no idea how crowded the historical fiction market was. Deep down I wanted to be the next Bernard Cornwell and I knew the name Conn Iggulden. I'd never heard of a guy called Simon Scarrow or read any CJ Sansom. I had no idea that at about the time I sat down and wrote the first sentence another half dozen excellent writers were doing the same with books that would become The Forgotten Legion, Warrior of Rome, Ship of Rome, Gladiatrix and the Empire series. Or that my old mate Bob Low, from Daily Record days, had already had his first Viking novels published and that Giles Kristian was about to follow in his wake. Caligula in its original form actually covers the same timescale as the early Macro and Cato books and Manda Scott's Boudicca series. If I'd known that at the time I probably wouldn't have dared write it.

At the beginning of 2010 I decided I could write two books a year and I put together some ideas for the next big historical thing. One of them was a five or six book series on the English Civil War with a character I thought could well be the new Sharpe and with each culminating in one of the major battles. It really was a great idea, and unique, or so I thought. My editor loved it, but about two weeks earlier the publishers had been presented with an idea for a civil war series with a character who could well be the new Sharpe, etc. etc. So in 2012, it'll be Giles Kristian who begins the journey to Marston Moor and Naseby, not me, and he'll make a brilliant job of it.

Anyway, I have strayed from  the point, which was to celebrate a US publishing deal for a great writer who truly dared to be different. Guy Saville created an entire alternative Africa ruled by the victorious Nazis for his book The Afrika Reich, based on plans that were actually formulated under Hitler. It was an idea so innovative that at first he struggled to find a publisher, but once it was in print his perseverance paid off and it's been a huge success. Now major American publishers have thrown their considerable weight behind it, and that success is about to be deservedly replicated on the other side of the Atlantic.


Alan Hutcheson said...

Guy's experience is indeed a shining light for those of us who write "outside the lines". Of course, the fact that he produced an exciting pageturner is, no doubt, what convinced the publishing world to give his book a try. As someone who has a few dozen rejection letters all with some variation on "Love the book, no idea how to market it, gonna pass" it is good to see someone get past that. It means there is a chance.

Guy Saville said...

Hi Doug

Thanks for the mention.

In retrospect, and knowing more about the business, I can now see why I had so much trouble finding a publisher (both in the UK and US). To that end I probably wouldn’t recommend any would-be writers doing what I did as I think it’s only luck that has sustained me thus far! That said, all the pieces seem finally to be falling into place… though I’m still waiting for that call from Mr Spielberg.

Now the trick is to see if I have the courage (and luck) to pull it off again. Whatever my publisher and readers are expecting from Book 2, they may get a surprise as I’m taking it in a different direction. Whether it will work or not I don’t know, but there’s some comfort to be found in the title of this blog entry.

Best wishes


PS – T-shirt wrangling sorted!

Anonymous said...

Great blog Doug:
And Guy: its a little Luck but a hell of a lot of hard work and talent.