It’s a Gas: Economics, Publishing, and Fiction

Well, it looks like we’re heading into another dip in the recession. Sunday night as I was lying in bed contemplating what was to come after the events of the weekend, I got to thinking: what can I learn about writing from this situation? As always, there are multiple layers here. There is the effect of economic situations on characters in fiction, the effect of economy on the writer, and the effect of economy on the publishing market.

I think I’ll go backwards through that. The first thing that occurs to me is that, as complex as the reasons for this recession may be, you can point at a few core elements as the cause. Irrational exuberance (or greed, if you want to put it another way) would be one. Lack of planning is another. Both of those can be a problem in publishing.

Say there’s a hot new idea – in the financial world that would be CDOs, which ultimately led us into the mess we’re facing, and in the publishing world it would be the Twilight series. It’s a huge hit when it first comes out, so everybody tries to jump onto the idea. Everybody wants a piece of it, so they begin creating more and more derivative forms of the idea (or in the case of CDOs, diluting the packages with even more questionable debt forms). People will make their money off of it, suck it dry until it collapses in on itself.

In publishing, I think without question that it’s damaged the market. I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but I know quite a few readers who have the impression that most of the market is built upon clones these days, and traditional publishers sure aren’t helping the situation. But the point here isn’t completely the analogy, which I admit is not a perfect 1:1, but rather the importance of staying ahead of trends rather than just following along. You know, instead of thinking “it’s Twilight but with ghouls” or “it’s Harry Potter but with Greek gods,” try to pull something from your heart. Okay, if your passion is the Greek gods, that’s cool, maybe you’ll bring something original to it. But why not write something that’s outside of that structure?

Unless, of course, you are trying to cash in. Which brings me to the next thought: finances and the writer. Obviously things are rough right now, and we have no idea how big the ebook market is. It could be larger than it is currently, but I have a feeling it might actually be a little bit smaller than it seems right now, as every person you bring on with a Kindle has a burst of buying books but then they waver when they discover that the cheaper stuff is not so good and a lot of the traditional stuff is too expensive. I’ve seen this happen a few times now. The importance of this to the individual writer is that there is no safe thing in writing, but if you want to pursue something that’s a little bit safer, write something original and put some quality into it. You may make some money off of a clone at first, but it won’t have legs.

In the market, sometimes following trends will bury you if you don’t stay ahead. It’s analogous to a bubble, whether in publishing or finance. By the time everyone knows, if you’re getting tips on that subject from someone completely unrelated, whether it’s tips in investing in real estate from your cousin who’s never shown an interest in investing to getting a Harry Potter-style story idea from someone who doesn’t even read, that’s when you know it’s a bubble. There likely aren’t many original ideas left out there for you to explore. It’s time to think of something else.

Obviously, this isn’t a perfect analogy, but what I’m trying to tell you is that it helps to be aware of the market, but you also can’t let the market dictate your plans. Because the market, whether it’s the stock market or the publishing market, is ultimately irrational. People talk about how difficult it is to predict what’s going to be popular in writing? It’s very similar to investing. You can do a lot of research, something can seem like the safest of bets, and next thing you know you’ve lost all your money. That’s why, as writers, I think it behooves us to pursue what we really like so that we don’t have to worry about seeming like a sound-alike.

That brings me to the subject of economics within fiction itself. This is something that I’ve never seen covered in a writing book, which made me want to write all the more about it. A character’s economic “class” is very important. Going back to some of the books of the 80s – Bonfire of the Vanities, Less Than Zero, American Psycho – they were commentaries on the greed and disaffection of the era, but they wouldn’t have been the same if the characters were blue collar American workers. Although upon reflection, the idea of trying to transfer Bonfire of the Vanities into that setting is vaguely amusing.

Going farther back…Grapes of Wrath? Imagine that taken out of the setting. Wouldn’t be the same at all. The Great Gatsby. That one might kind of work, but would miss the point. There are so many other examples, and yet the financial landscape of a story is almost never spoken about, and I’m not sure why. One of the first things that I decide about a character is what they do for a living and what it means for their lifestyle. Matty in Corridors of the Dead was originally a night-shift motel worker and became a graveyard shift convenience store clerk in extreme rural Northern California. Noah in Entanglements, on the other hand, is a software engineer for a government contractor in Northern Virginia. Their financial and lifestyle situations are very far apart, thus so is the background of the story.

For example, Matty’s not completely unaware of modern technology, smartphones, etc., but they’re pretty much irrelevant to the story. In Entanglements, technology is practically a second protagonist. A character who works at a convenience store would not necessarily (though it is possible and allows for a lot of interesting twists) be talking in a story about changing the DNS settings in their router. It’s really about the tone of the story.

It’s important to consider a character’s economic class, as well as their overall education and interests. A more dynamic job might make for a more dynamic story, while you’ll have to find more creative ways to invest in the drama of a sedentary job (not impossible, just a little more difficult). You’ll also have different challenges for a character who is struggling to stay above the poverty line in contrast to someone with a six-figure salary. The differences in those struggles can make for some compelling plot issues and even compelling subplots in genre fiction. It’s just an important element of character to consider that seems to get short shrift.

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