I recently read several writing articles that had tried and tested advice from those writers who have been fortunate to make a living on their craft. You’ve probably heard it too:
Write for the market. Figure out what readers want and give it to them. Somewhere in that, write what you enjoy. Learn to cut, change, alter, all based on what sells best.
This advice is, to me anyway, just plain dumb. Not because it’s practical, but because it defeats the whole point of what writing is about.
Telling writers they should conform based on what they think will sell is like telling people they should adopt a diet of canned beans. “Every nutrient and vital substance is here in this can. You can now cut out all the garbage and eat only what you need.”
Readers have shrinking attention spans today, this might be true. But if writers only write for what readers expect, and what they expect readers will expect, then what a sad death to creative diversity.
Write from the heart. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with this.
Even if you suck at writing, writing from the heart will keep you coming back to the keyboard. It will keep you thinking, “How can I get better at this?”
Even if your book(s) flop(s), well, you keep coming back, because the heart never runs out of energy. It never runs out of ideas.
Even if you have to scramble and go in debt and your life is a mess, you’ll always know you’re living for your deepest passion. You’ll do whatever it takes to give the time you need to write and improve. You’ll have the drive to lose sleep now and again, knowing that sacrificed dream time went into actually bringing dreams to life.
Wouldn’t it be nice to make a living off book sales. When the winners write history, they’ll give you all sorts of tips, but those tips ignore the “losers” who are writing their own history, possibly a history of tomorrow. In my mind, we are the winners, and our day is coming, which is why I’m so passionate about writing to be true to you, to your vision, to your passion.
There are so many kinds of fiction being written that change the life, even if in small ways, of readers here or there. These are the largest piece of the pie. The writing that has a sticker attached to it is only the tip of the iceberg. The mass market bestsellers capture many and many and many, but so has the obscure, almost forgotten fantasy book that happened to be on a hospital bookshelf and captured the heart of someone terminally ill who found comfort in it in their last days.
The problem with a diet of canned beans is you fart a lot. The same is true if every writer pushed themselves to write only for market and get to the top. The farts in this case are figurative.
I say don’t waste your time chasing markets. Invest your time chasing your unique vision and passion. Self-publish. Screw the traditional model, unless it fits in somewhere. Self-publish because there’s no censor on your vision and your voice.
Being self-published doesn’t mean being shitty, like the stereotype goes. It doesn’t mean being hasty and popping out a half-cooked muffin. Take your time and hack the process. Hire good editors and beat the shit out of your manuscripts, however necessary, to get something that’s been well-discerned and honed. Forgive yourself if it still flops because not every pancake turns out perfect. Make a whole batch, because tastes differ, and the pancakes get better the more you get used to the griddle and its nuances. And remember: a flop isn’t necessarily a flop. 30 copies sold are still 30 people who might be changed, in some way you might never imagine.
The griddle isn’t just the act of writing a draft in isolation. It’s the cogs of publishing: editing, revising, formatting, designing, publishing, marketing, getting read and listening to readers. You don’t need a big company to do it for you. I run an editing company and have several amazing editors who help self-publishing authors (http://www.storyperfectediting.com).
It costs money, true, but you’re better to spend money getting your work out to readers so you can start mastering those pancakes than you are in isolation with no sense of who will read your work and what it will take to be ready. Writing draft after draft in isolation is like mixing the ingredients for a batch: mix all you want, but the batter is still raw.
Write, publish, repeat. You’ve probably heard this advice before because it’s the title of a popular writing book. It’s catchy for a reason: suddenly you kick your ass out of the expectation that you have to write one perfect book and break in, and instead realize that actually, this is like scratching through a steel wall. Instead of scratching, go around the wall and start searching for drain pipes. There is a way in and it doesn’t have to lead to bloody keyboards.
When I dream of the fiction of tomorrow, it’s a fiction that is so far outside any box you can’t even place it anymore. No more cookie cutters, except when referring back to the history of how fiction evolved, those “turbulent times in the 21st century when the novel went through various limiting expressions, stemming from postmodern movements in the 20th century, before finally becoming so tangled and branched that categories no longer make sense, as is the case today.”
In the context of this dream, I don’t aim to be anything other than a writer who chases wild visions, whose voice will be sharp and alive, honed and strong. And I will be an author, because I’ll go through the process of write, publish, repeat, every time. I will have readers, even if the party room with my name on it is small and I have to find other ways to pay the bills.
Wouldn’t it be great to make a living off writing. But meantime, it’s great to live for writing, with no other ambition than to keep telling stories, and never stop.