Genghis Khan Shops at Nordstrom’s
This is the republication of a blog that had 2/3rds deleted by cybergremlins.
· You are Giotto di Bondone. Your only education is what you learned as an apprentice under the great artist, Cimabue, and what you learned from life. Your paintings suddenly have become famous, but your fame still is limited to Florence. The pope has sent a courtier to your home, telling you to supply drawings for work in the Vatican. You know the pope wants to emphasize the philosophy of St. Dominic, who stressed conformity; you follow the philosophy of St. Francis, who stressed compassion to the point of resisting Church dictates. What do you do – forsake what you wish to paint and become internationally known; or paint what you want, and risk dramatically curtailing what audience you reach? Your job: figure out how to satisfy both demands.
· You are Genghis Khan. Your only education consists of what you learned from the difficulties of life in Mongolia, along with the ideas your father passed down. You must conquer a Chinese city or risk losing all momentum. You have besieged the city for a long time, and it doesn’t look like it will capitulate soon. You ask for a meeting with the city’s officials. You tell them that if they will pay you a symbolic tribute of 10,000 songbirds and 1,000 cats, you will leave the city alone. The officials gladly comply. Four days later, you conquer the city without losing hardly a man. How did you do it?
· You and your uncles own a couple of small stores together known as Nordstrom’s. You want to expand nationally. You already are bringing in excellent merchandise, but your biggest problem is customer service. You cannot afford to pay workers more than competitors do. But soon you are famous for excellence in customer service. How did you do it?
The questions: The situations, all of which are real, involve people who thought outside the box at critical points in their careers. What did they do? Want to know? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll tell you what those people did.
Obviously, as writers it should be part and parcel to think outside the box. But there is a more career-oriented corollary point here.
There are basically two ways to make it in our profession: maintain status quo, or rock the boat. If we maintain status quo, then we stay within the confines of what is selling. The field has numerous examples of people who consciously followed writers who had pioneered new genres or subgenres: in horror fiction, for example, R. L. Stine and John Saul come to mind, following the path Stephen King blazed.
Other people shake up literature by creating new types of literatures or revitalizing and popularizing those that have fallen out of fashion. Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and J.K. Rowling are three examples.
Status quo vs. rock the boat greatly affects us as writers. The Net is flooded with people trying to write like their favorite authors. Establishing a niche has become more important than ever. I’m not advocating either position; I just think it’s essential that as writers we consider them closely. For example, according to an interview he gave years ago, John Saul says he went to the supermarket, looked at who had the most books on the rack – Stephen King – and consciously set out to follow King but appeal to a less literate readership. Soon he was making $6000 per HOUR. Notice the zeroes. And that was in late 1970s’ money.
With my own work, I chose to rock the boat. It wasn’t always easy. For example, my first novel – a western with a 15-year-old retarded gunslinger, the kid with snake speed – was called “brilliant” and “groundbreaking” by editors . . . who then didn’t buy it. Too off-the-wall. I explained that the West wasn’t settled by the Marlboro Man (who later died of lung cancer, as you probably know). It was settled by misfits. Billy the Kid was a sociopath from back East. The greatest sheriff in the West wasn’t Wyatt Earp, a con man who ended up running a whorehouse in Juneau, it was an ex-New York City policeman and prizefighter who accidentally shot a teenager in New York, then left the East because of the tragedy and refused to wear a gun thereafter. He “settled” three major cow towns purely by using his fists, including facing down a mob of gunmen alone and barehanded. Why there’s never been a movie about him I don’t know. (He was later shot in the back, incidentally.) But my argument got nowhere, because the American public has its mind made up about the West. I later sold the book, but not to a major publisher.
Could I write them something more like Louis L’Amour did? the editors asked. By the time I started to do that, the publishing industry for westerns had tanked. (Even my friend Earl Murray, who had bestselling westerns, switched to writing horror.) So the question went unanswered.
I am not wailing about this. I really wish I could write status quo. But I don’t do it well. A friend once said that if someone put a gun to my head and said to write like others, I would say “Absolutely,” but then absolutely couldn’t do it. Not wouldn’t – couldn’t. It just doesn’t seem to be in my makeup.
So: status quo, or rock the boat? Which are you? Do you do what others are doing, or are you going to try something truly novel, to use a bad pun. Again, for the answers about those historical figures, write me at email@example.com