Experimentlessness (Mistake #103)

Experiment, argues Simon Whaley, in one of his recent posts, in which he called for writers to submit contrasting and distinctive entries when intending to submit more than one to a writing competition.

It was such a good idea, I thought the principle – or a version of it – could be applied to pitching ideas to editors too.

Here’s one personal experience.

A decade ago, I learned that a book publisher, Sheldon Press, was looking for new authors and new books for its health catalogue. The existing books tended to be called “Coping with [health condition]” or “Living with [disease]” so I put together a list of short proposals for a number of books on conditions absent from their lists. It amuses me now, but one was Living with Chronic Bad Breath, and several others concerned ’embarrassing’ personal problems.

It occurred to me that I needed a wildcard of some kind – an idea distinctive in some way, even if merely presented to make the others look better, or to court attention, or to be, as Simon has it, ‘experimental’.

That idea was Living with Food Intolerance – a subject I knew nothing about at the time (far too busy swatting up on halitosis …), which was a little more ‘fringe’ then than it is now, which was very different to the other four ideas … but which I figured couldn’t be that tricky to write about. Not that that mattered, of course, as that was the ‘bad’ one, the black sheep, the rotten egg; it was the throwaway pitch which wouldn’t get picked up on, as I put so little effort into fleshing the idea out, and which was a bit odd, not like the rest, and probably not that interesting.

Three guesses which idea got commissioned.

Why have I not used the tactic more often? I think partly it has to do with the fact that I often pitch ideas one at a time – as some editors prefer – and partly as I imagine I just thought the above to be a one-off fluke event.

I don’t know why the book was commissioned and in some ways it doesn’t matter. The point is that experimenting – or just slipping something different into the mix – can work. I’m not suggesting you tag draft ideas to all your pitches to editors. Neither am I advocating submitting incompletely thought-through work as a competition entry or speculative submission.

What I’m saying is mix it up occasionally, don’t be afraid of variety, avoid religiously sticking to the safe, or the same-old-same-old. Experiment! You may well learn more by doing this, and you may increase your chances of appealing to an editor with specific tastes.

And if that unorthodox, leftfield or even car crash of an idea you chucked in at the last minute ends up being the one commissioned by the editor, don’t be a tiny bit surprised …

Comments 7

  • Well, I'm certainly glad you experimented and were commissioned to write the food intolerance book, because I'm sure that's what led to you being commissioned to write the Coeliac Disease one (which I found immensely useful this year).

    As for Living with Chronic Bad Breath, is the intended reader the person with halitosis, or their partner? 😉

    Here's to more experimenting in 2016. Happy New Year!

  • Ha – yes, that's exactly what happened!
    I daren't look up the proposal to LwCBB … but imagine it was for both parties! I just looked on Amazon and note there are several books on halitosis – mostly recent ones – so perhaps the idea was just ahead of its time … 😉
    Thanks Simon for your ongoing support this year – happy new year to you and best of luck with that novel and agent in 2016!

  • Awesome! You must have convinced the editor that were an expert on the subject, well done, considering the opposite was true, lol. I'm guessing that you had to 'swot up,' on the topic before starting the book? Happy new year to you. 🙂

  • Well in truth they did ask me to resubmit a fuller proposal on the subject before the commission, but yes, a lot of swotting indeed to convince them that I could handle it!
    Thanks – and likewise to you!

  • I think I'll be experimenting this year too!

  • And I wish you the best of luck with it!

  • Thank you, Alex! Good luck and happy experimenting.

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