Write what you want to read

You may remember that Book Lover’s Club on Facebook published a really great review of RealmShift recently and, as part of the subsequent promotion, ran a contest to win a signed copy of the book. They asked people to suggest topics for me to blog about and the one I liked best would win the signed copy, and I’d write the suggested blog. I ended up choosing Alex Stoiche’s suggestion:

Id love to see his thoughts on writing for art or self satisfaction versus writing for a market. Obviously its a fine line and its crucial to please the audience to some extent, but Id like to hear an opinion on where it may go too far or about writers that have such conviction they won’t compromise.

I chose this suggestion because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

There are innumerable markets out there, with more cropping up all the time while others whither and die. The publishing industry is in a state of constant flux and part of the job of being a writer is staying aware of who’s doing what. There are the “big 6” publishers and all their subsidiary imprints that are fairly solid and not going anywhere fast. They certainly follow trends but, contrary to the views of some disenfranchised newbie writers, they’re not averse to new voices and styles. Orbiting those big names are millions of smaller publishers, for novel length and short story work, all trying to carve out their niche in a bloated industry.

With that in mind, it’s tempting to try to follow or predict trends. Marketers and editors are doing that all the time, but they’re also doing their best to ignore that and create new trends. You can imagine, for example, the inundation of wizard school books on publishers desks after the success of Harry Potter. I’m sure editors are still drowning in a papery sea of awful vampire romance after the inexplicable success of the Twilight series. People will always leap onto a bandwagon and try to whip some more mileage out of it. I think this is a fool’s path.

The same goes for short fiction. I love short stories – I love reading them and writing them. It’s tempting, with the plethora of short story markets out there, to try to emulate the style or subject of the more popular ones. You can look at Clarkesworld, for example, and see that there’s a distinctly literary bent to the spec fic they publish. Or you study any market you’d like to be published in and try to see the pattern, figure out what it is those particular editors are moved by. Indeed, most submission guidelines for these places will say something along the lines of: “If you really want to know what sort of thing we publish, it’s best that you buy and read a few issues of our magazine.” This is quite reasonable. It’s also a great way to generate some extra sales, because the magazine is suggesting that by reading lots of issues you’ll deduce some magic formula that’ll get you published there. It’s not really true. Sure, you should never send a vampire romance story to a science fiction magazine, but that’s just common sense. Then again, if your vampire romance takes place on a colony ship heading to Alpha Centauri, you might be in with a chance. I really doubt it, but you know what I mean.

The truth is, if you know a market buys a certain style and genre of story, that’s enough. Apex buys dark science fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies buys otherworld fantasy, Black Static buys horror and so on. A good solid read of these things will certainly give you a bit of a clue towards the tastes of the editors, but that probably won’t help you.

You see, the thing is that you can’t necessarily write like someone else. If you try to emulate a style, it comes across as amateur. The reason for that is simple – your heart and soul aren’t in it. You’re trying to co-opt someone else’s heart and soul. Personally, I want to write excellent Alan Baxter stories, not stories like those of [insert author here] written by Alan Baxter. The difference, to me, is enormous.

As a writer I’m constantly trying to improve my craft and refine my voice. The more I write, the more that happens. The more that happens, the more publishing success I get. There’s no secret formula to getting published. It’s all about getting good. Sure, there are those people out there that are really good craftsmen/women and can write to a style or requirement, but they took a long time getting good enough to do that. And they did that by writing their own stuff first.

I want to be recognised for my writing, my ideas, my style. When that stuff gets good enough, I’ll sell stories to the places that pay pro rates and have the big kudos attached. Hopefully I’m getting nearer to that all the time. If you constantly put aside what you want to write and try to churn out stuff that you think people want to read, it’s likely to be soulless and rather dull. And it probably won’t sell. If you do turn out to be good at it and it does sell, I’d wager that the sense of achievement will be rather tempered by the knowledge that it’s not really your thing. If that works for you, great. It doesn’t appeal to me.

For me, the best thing to keep in mind is that I should be writing the kind of stuff I want to read. If I look at a story of mine and, after reading it, think to myself, “That was a great story, I’m glad I read it” then I can certainly be pleased that I wrote it! I’m a voracious reader and I’d like to think that other people out there also want to read the kind of stuff that I do. Therefore, it makes sense for me to write the kind of stuff that I want to read.

I’m happy to take editorial advice. Whenever I’ve had an editor give me suggestions about a piece of work it’s invariably ended up a better story. I always try to run my stuff through crit groups or at least have a couple of trusted friends read over it and I pay close attention to their criticisms. This is how we avoid being precious about our stuff. If something I’ve written strikes me as being the dog’s bollocks and then a few people read it and say, “Nah, this isn’t working for me” then I’ll listen to them. But I’ll still try to apply my voice and style to any rewrites or edits. I want people to tell me what they like and don’t like, and why, but not tell me what I should write. There’s a big difference.

Compromise is always on the cards. If I have an editor say to me, “I’d like to buy this story, but I don’t like this aspect, can you change it?” then I’ll change that aspect in a flash. Even more so this becomes an important factor in novels. Selling a novel is bloody hard, so if I have to make some editorial changes to get one sold, I’ll do it. It would have to really affect my sense of my own art for me to refuse. There would certainly be some things that I’d be disinclined to do just to sell a story or novel, but not many. I can usually see the merit in editorial suggestions like these and it’s important to develop that ability to kill your darlings. As writers, we’re the worst critics of our own work. Of course we think it’s good – we wrote it and are trying to sell it, so we must think it has credit. Of course, if we really baulk against the advice then we have to ask ourselves this: Am I being really precious here, or is this publisher just not right for me? It’s most likely to be the first one, but you need to stay aware of what you’re trying to do with your art and only compromise within boundaries that you’re comfortable with.

I want to sell stories, get published and, in the process, get better as a writer. Usually, as I mentioned above, editorial advice always makes the story better. But I still want it to be an Alan Baxter story. I want it to be my art that’s got good enough for someone to step up and buy it and for other people to take the time to read it. And hopefully enjoy it. That’s always going to be my aim.

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9 thoughts on “Write what you want to read

  1. Nice post Alan. I’d been wondering about this a while and it sounds like you have a good system for handling changes/edits. I like that it strengthens your work rather than inhibits and changes it. Cheers!

  2. That alone was a good read! And is the appeal of short stories the notion that brevity is wit? It could be that the drive to write, and read, a searing insight or wicked little twist is its own reward?

    Just putting it out there.

  3. I think the short story is a particular art form that, done well, is equally as engaging as novel. But it doesn’t necessarily need a twist or a searing insight. I just love the brief delve into another world or life, especially if it leaves me wanting more.

  4. Great post, Alan. The article popped up in Twitter at a
    time of year when, like many, I’m mulling over what my writing is
    all about and where I want to go with it. I quit writing every few
    days. I quit because of the overwhelming business and technical
    parts of writing, which is especially frustrating to me because I
    see volumes of stories, tales, vignettes, quips, etc. that almost
    constantly whirl through my mind. It’s like I don’t know what to do
    with it all and I hit a very solid wall when I start thinking about
    marketing the material. Reading your article helps me realize I
    need to get focused and then write what’s on my heart so the rest
    will follow… Thanks!

  5. Cynthia – quite right! There are so many markets out there. Write what’s in your head and then go find a market that fits.

  6. I really liked this post. Honestly, I haven’t thought about it that much before recently. I usually write what I want and look for a market afterwards, but the little bit of editorial advice I have gotten has always improved my writing imo -made it tighter and better.

    What I worry about more is unconsciously emulating other writers I admire. I’ve read so much Douglas Adams, that I think Hitchhiker’s Guide is a permanent part of my psyche now. I like humorous speculative fiction/scifi, so that’s what I tend to write, but I still try to do it with my own voice. πŸ™‚

  7. Great post. I’ve tried to write to fit a particular audience or market, and those pieces always came out sounding mediocre. When I write what I want, in the way I want it to sound, the prose is much more engaging.

  8. ganymeder – I don’t think any of us can NOT channel the writers we admire to some degree. We’re all a product of what we’ve read. The best option is to read so widely that no one can tell who you’re emulating!

    Tony – That’s my experience exactly.

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