The following story is a cautionary tale. It’s a cringe-worthy true story that is basically me offering advice about writing couched in telling tales on myself. There are a few morals to this story. One is “Do your research before you start writing.” The other is “Follow your writer’s heart.” Here it is.
So. Historical Romance and Science Fiction, right? Those are the things I write. I love all of it. I particularly love the stories that have been rolling around in my mind for years now. This summer I finally published the first two books in my Grace’s Moon sci-fi series. Yay! I’ve had those stories in me for years. I actually have a major portion of the entire history of that world in my head. Fun stuff.
This month I’ve been writing the third book in the series. It involves the children of the main characters from the first two books, particularly Grace’s son, Grayson (see what I did there?). A major focal point of the third book—in fact, the central object and plot device that provides the core of the action, the climax of the book, and all of the intent from the beginning of the story through to the last word—is the discovery and rescue of a massive spaceship that has sunk to the bottom of a lake.
Okay, so giant spaceship (capable of transporting a thousand people), a great big lake, and people trapped but still alive in the ship eighteen years after it sank. Very cool, right?
Aaaaand this is why you should do your research before you start writing a book. When I got to about 65,000 words of what was shaping up to be a 75,000 first draft, while Grayson and his buddies were devising and carrying out all sorts of plans to dive to the ship and discover the keys to a lot of plot threads and motivators, it dawned on me that I should probably Google the question “How deep can you dive without any equipment?”
The answer? Your average human who has not trained as a diver can only go down about 15 feet before the pressure becomes painful. (Although the record for free diving is about 600 feet, which is kind of ridiculous if you think about it) Translation? There is no way my characters could dive deep enough to reach, let alone rescue, a submerged spaceship. And there is no way I could place the ship in a shallow location without bringing up questions of why its inhabitants haven’t tried to get out on their own.
So basically, I have to not only rewrite almost the entire book, I have to reconceptualize just about everything about the external plot in order to make it work. I’m working on it. I’ve got a few vague ideas, but this opened a giant can of worms for me.
Research is one of the most fun parts of writing, but as I’ve just learned, the time to research technical questions that you know you’re going to run into is before you start. Now, I knew that you can’t dive particularly deep without equipment. The thing is, I didn’t realize it was THAT hard to dive. But when you’re researching, sometimes it’s hard to grasp what you don’t know that you don’t know. I’m beginning to think I (you?) need to create a spreadsheet or a list of possible technical questions that I have before I start the drafting process.
And now we come to the second moral of the story.
Now, I hate it when things that people have told me for years turn out to be true. I want to be iconoclastic and buck the system so badly. Maybe it’s hubris, but there’s that part of me that wants to be the exception to the rule. In this case, it’s all about the challenges and pitfalls of writing outside of your genre.
So as I finished publishing Saving Grace and Fallen from Grace and geared up to write book three, something unexpected and wonderful happened to me. I met a bunch of really great fellow western historical romance writers. Not just met them, I was accepted into the fold of both writers and superfans of the subgenre. I’m actually going to be part of a box set called Wild Western Women this fall! (You heard it first here!) I am totally in the western historical romance zone right now. And I had a miraculous brain-flash for a series set along the Oregon Trail in the midst of all this. We’re talking a half dozen specific romance stories and subsequent characters showing up in my head at the same time singing halleluiah.
At the same time that my sci-fi story was experiencing utter breakdown.
My heart said, “Hey, let’s set the sci-fi aside for a few months and work on this really cool western historical idea!” My head replied, “Dude, that sounds a little too much like quitting for my comfort.” But then my heart said, “You’re supposed to write what you love, though, right?” And my stubborn head said, “I love Grace’s Moon too.” And my heart countered with, “Yes, but your fans are primarily in historical romance, you are hot in historical romance right now, and odds are that you’ll sell more historical romance than you will sci-fi.”
I asked some friends, writers and non-writers. The response was pretty much unanimous. Set the sci-fi aside and work on the western historical romance. Listen to your heart.”
So what have I learned from this nails-on-the-chalkboard painful reversal of the momentum I’ve been trying to build all summer? What advice can I share coming out of the situation? Write the books you want to write, but put things into perspective as you write. If your goal is to publish the books you’ve always wanted to publish without any care for reception or income, then work on whatever feels right. If you want to write for both yourself and the readers you already have and/or if you’re hoping to generate income from your writing, consider directing your efforts to the tastes of the fans you’ve developed.
And above all else, strike while the iron is hot. If someone hands you a hot iron, you’d be a fool not to strike it.
So write on! (But research first) And don’t make the same mistakes I did.
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