When I started writing back in 2006, I wrote horror short stories. I suppose that was mostly because of Stephen King. I’d devoured all of his collections and novels since high school, so it felt natural to try that. Over the course of a half-dozen years, I had some decent success selling short stories, and met a lot of other horror writers who became my friends and taught me a lot about the publishing world. Eventually though, I got tired of writing short stories and wanted to try a novel. The obvious progression was to continue what I’d been doing, so I spent three years (or four or five years, I can’t remember, but it was a long time) writing a young adult horror novel. LUCKY TOWN didn’t have traditional horror elements (i.e. no supernatural occurrences, no monsters, etc.), but was definitely dark–a kid’s father has a breakdown and relocates the family to the swamp where he is manipulated by a mysterious passerby into starting a cult that is headed for a Jonestown Massacre-like situation unless the kid can stop it. So yeah, pretty dark.
Ultimately, LUCKY TOWN was read and rejected by nineteen agents, and after cycling through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, I was left wondering what to write next. The logical choice was to write another dark YA novel. I also knew the horror publishers and agents, and felt I had come really close with my failed novel. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized something that pretty much changed my writing life — I hated writing horror. Yes, I’d sold horror short stories and had been to a handful of horror writing conventions, but I realized I didn’t like who I was when I was writing in that genre. Because the thing is, I’m not a dark person. I have a very dark sense of humor, sure, and can be gross with the best of them, but my overall personality isn’t that dark. And as much as I liked the concept of LUCKY TOWN, I didn’t find any enjoyment in writing it. The people, the mood and tone, the plot–all were bleak, and that’s not me. Hell, I really don’t even like horror movies that much. More than anything, I like being funny, or at least trying to be so. That’s when I decided to write something more fitting of me and who I am–a schemer, a plotter, and a smart ass. And with that in mind, two years later I’d written, gotten representation for, and subsequently sold DON’T GET CAUGHT.
Why I Succeeded Where I’d Failed Before:
I have every belief that DON’T GET CAUGHT sold because I loved writing it. Was it hard work? Yes, but it was fun work. I loved those characters, their scheming, and the world they inhabited. I was myself when I wrote that book, and I think it translated onto the page. I’m pretty sure anyone who knows me and reads the novel would say, “Yeah, that’s Kurt.” It’s my sense of humor – sarcastic, smart ass-y, and somewhat (okay, definitely) juvenile. The novel also reads super fast, which is what I like my books to do. I like plot and dialogue and twists and ensemble casts. The novel has all of that. Being myself, writing the book I’d truly want to read, is what made DON’T GET CAUGHT marketable.
But once I sold that novel, I again struggled with what to write. For awhile I thought I needed to write like the most popular YA authors of the day, writing serious, issue-driven novels that get write-ups in magazines and get taught in high school classes. I figured that was the next step–writing something “bigger”, more important, really trying to establish myself as an up-and-coming YA author. (Man, that sounds so pretentious, right?) And for a couple of weeks, I played with ideas that might fit what I considered “important.” Ultimately though, none of them stuck. And why? Because, you have to be who you are. Like with trying to write horror, a serious, issue-driven book was not me. I could probably fake a novel like that, but I wouldn’t like doing it, and I have no doubt it would be terrible because–once again–it wouldn’t be me.
If you’re just starting to write, I strongly suggest writing as the person you are, not as someone you think you should be. If you don’t like a certain genre, don’t write in it. It sounds simple, but it’s definitely something I forget from time to time. So instead of trying to force yourself into some preconceived notion of what a successful author is, write what you like to and hope it finds an audience. It’s a massive leap of faith that anyone who embarks in the arts has to take, but I think it’s the best way to ensure that you enjoy the journey.
TL;DR: Write who you are.