Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Decision Making for Writers 2 - What could go wrong?

The decisions writers make shape their lives and their careers. They determine their opportunities and the impact of the work they do. But not all decisions are equally important, and one of the most common mistakes writers makes is obsessing over decisions that are reversible or have little consequence.

Determining reversibility should be easy. If I choose A, can I go back and choose B instead? If I can, the gravity of the decision is immediately reduced. I met someone who wrote a love story from the point of view of a gay best friend, and then rewrote the story from the female lover's point of view. There was a cost in time, but part of the investment came back in terms of a better understanding of the story and something special available online for fans of the published version. Reversible. No real problem.

Consequence is more difficult to determine. You don't always know exactly. And what one person considers trivial outcomes may be important to someone else. If you have specific consequences in mind, one question to ask yourself is, on a scale of one to ten, how much does it matter to you? I had an offer from a publisher for a novel I co-wrote. The publisher's other books had covers I thought were okay, but my collaborator hated them. Three for me was eight for her, so we never accepted the contract.

Of course, the best way to get a good overview of consequences is to write down your criteria before a decision is to be made. Let's try that.

Should I submit my novel to a traditional novel or independently publish it? Look at possible benefits or drawbacks of each.
  • Time investment - Traditional publishing brings in a crew of helpers (editors, designers, marketers), while most of the work (and all the decisions) fall on a writer who independently publishes.
  • Skill development - Independent publishers are pushed by circumstances to learn and understand dimensions of publishing that they might otherwise miss. Those who are traditionally published get an outside view on things from story development to word choice to fonts used for covers.
  • Exposure - Traditional publishers put books into markets and in front of critics independent publishers usually can't reach. But independent publishers can use their knowledge of audiences to direct placement and can time publication to their best advantage.
  • Passion - Traditional publishers can deliver on the dream of many writers for recognition, while independent writers get to tell exactly the stories they want to.
  • Money - Often, traditional publishers sell more books, but writers who independently publish get larger shares of the profits.
OK, your mileage may vary on these, but I hope you get the idea. It's only possible to evaluate the chances of each consequence and what these mean to you when you take a closer look. Ultimately, with something like this publishing decision, you can do your research and even may create spreadsheets and rankings that allow you to see the consequences in a glance.

Let's take on a more subtle decision. Should I write my romantic comedy as a novel or a feature film script?

First, look at a few considerations by asking questions:

  • How comfortable am I with each format?
  • What's my best guess on the marketability of one versus the other?
  • What are the time investments? Opportunity costs?
  • How does the money compare?
  • What opportunities might the work generate?
  • What might I learn that interest me? Enhances my skills?
  • Who might I work with (either specific people or people in certain roles)?
  • What research would I need to do? Will I need to invest money or social capital?
  • How passionate am I about the story?
  • Does the story represent work I want to do more of?

Out of these, criteria emerge less directly, and I might be able to guess how much each matters in terms of:
  • Time
  • Opportunity
  • Passion
  • Money
  • Experience
Note that this decision is a reversible. Both a novel and a script could be written.  Also, the decision could become a more informed decision by writing a few chapters and an outline for the novel or a few scenes and a treatment for the screenplay. Prototyping, especially if the time investment is limited, is a great way to reach good decisions.

Can you guess what might lead to bad decisions? Not having criteria. And, in particular,  the potential problem rise when you don't have criteria at a high level, like career aspirations. If you make a decision without knowing what you want, you can only get a good result if you are lucky.

Another problem is changing criteria. This happens a lot, especially when other people jump in to influence you. Once an editor sent me pages of text arguing against my criteria. She really wanted the manuscript, which was flattering. But ultimately, I didn't let her minimize what I determined were my priorities, and I held onto my own criteria. And I turned her down.

Other people, including other writers, will try to push their own criteria on you. I've seen traditionally published people claim their choice was the only reasonable one for everyone and I've seen independently published writers do the same. The only reasonable criteria for you are your criteria.

This is not to say that you shouldn't listen to other people. The ideas, experiences, and warnings of others can be invaluable. Talk to other writers (and agents and agents). Read advice. Check out sites like SFWA's Writers Beware http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/. As you do, look to your own values and use that to assess what you learn.

Research -- too much and too little -- can be problematic. Learning how to ask good questions, the ones that matter, is one of the best skills you can master. Don't make important decisions impulsively if you can avoid it, but watch your time investment. Get the answers you need, then stop and move on. However, the drive to be thorough is often tied more to fear than to being judicious. So don't get lost in your research, either. You'll never know everything and you'll never come up with everything that could go wrong.

Finally, a major wrong turn I've seen far too often is not accepting the answer. This usually happens when, in his/her heart of hearts, the writer has already decided and just wants to justify that decision. When the facts don't add up for the preferred choice, data is questioned, more information is gathered, people giving advice are judges as "not understanding," etc., etc. What follows is a miserable and harmful exercise in delay or self-deception. It's unhealthy. Better to make a decision and deal with the consequences than to create stress, abuse logic, and fray relationships in this kind of a game.

Last time, I looked at the value of a writer's decisions and questions that need answering. I'll continue this series next week with a start on a decision-making guide, complete with some good practices.

1 comment:

  1. Seems to me this thinking applies to many aspects of life, not just writing.
    Good post!