Passion, the market, and you
Last week, I spoke about fashion and literary hemlines. I talked about the overreaction that tends to set in during these swings and suggested some techniques for ensuring your work has the flexibility to adapt.
I got a lot of interesting responses, as I always do, but one theme stood out. I’ll put this in the eloquent words of DM Costa, who commented on Townhouse thus:
I don't think it is advisable to "write to fashion trends" because there are so many variables and a non-static timeline. The target audience is also a moving target: always shifting opinion and taste.
Some professional writers try to write to trends, but how many do succeed? Most of the novels that have jumped on that bandwagon have missed the train completely or if they manage to get on it briefly, they don't stay "fashionable" for long. They quickly fall off into the depths of oblivion.
On the order hand... some of those who dare to write the novel they absolutely want to write, and write it the best way they can and with all their passion, do tend to succeed. Even in this fiction-crowded world.
And, look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:
You have to write what you love. It’s that simple. Write what you love.
I’ve almost never written a book I haven’t wanted to write. (The exception? The second book in a two-book non-fiction deal for Fourth Estate, when they were unbelievably slow about actually defining what they wanted. I wanted to get that second delivered, so I could move onto other things, and honestly, I’d have written about anything at all. A history of teaspoons? The life cycle of tapioca? I’d have written about anything at all.)
There are chunks of the self-pub market – in romance especially – where books are written by people who just don’t care. Those books are often expertly marketed and sold and the principals involved make money, but that’s an exception. On the whole, DM Costa is absolutely right that successful books emerge from passion. As they should.
So write what you love.
But most of you will also want to get published and sold and find readers. That’s a good ambition – and it’s one I completely share. The ambition is liberating too, because if you make enough money from writing, you can give up your day job and then your hobby becomes what you do for a living. That’s the dream – and it’s one I’ve lived.
But publishing is an industry. There’s a market for books. If you write without any thought of what the market actually wants, you do risk being stuck with something beautiful – but unsaleable.
So I’d urge you to think more broadly. There isn’t just one project you love. There are dozens. First-time writers can sometimes get so close to the nuts and bolts of the project they’re working on right now this minute that they forget all the other amazing stories that could occupy them.
If I were to list the books that I’d love to write, or start writing, in 2021, they’d certainly include:
- Fiona Griffiths #7 (almost done. Really loving it.)
- Fiona Griffiths #8 (probably the series finale. Looking forward to that.)
- A totally mad book to be called The Most Excellent and Lamentable True Historie of the Sailor, Gregorius. (A title which, by the way, will be my second title to contain punctuation.)
- A Fiona Griffiths series spin-off to be voiced by Lev, her mysterious Russian friend.
- A psychological thriller with a courtroom aspect, to be voiced by an elegant and compulsive liar
- Something big, bad and geo-political. Something that involves Russian missile commands, and cyber-warfare teams based in Langley, and an inept British minister, and submarines gliding beneath the ice north of Murmansk. It would be like a 2020s era Gorky Park (only not as good, because Gorky Park was amazing.)
- A non-fiction book about story (which I started before once and really, really want to do properly.)
And that’s the short version of my list. That’s the list of books that I actually want to start (or finish) writing without delay. I don’t even let myself dream too widely, because I could so easily get hooked on other projects as well. (I have a brilliantly mad project about Donald Trump that I actually started writing at one point, but it was really pretty bananas and, in any case, the time for it has passed. Oh, and I’d love to do a somewhat fictionalised biography of somebody famous, but written in dozens of different contributory voices. And I’ve got a lightly magical children’s book that could easily entice me. And …)
How will I choose which among these projects I should pursue?
Mostly, I’ll let the market guide me. If I think I could make proper money from the Lev story, I’d write it. If that book were to end up being just for me, I probably wouldn’t bother.
So as well as this rule – write what you love – I’d like to offer you this one too:
Write what the market wants.
Personally, I wouldn’t ever compromise on either thing. And I never have. Not once.
And some of you will already be hurling peanuts at your laptop and yelling, “You just said you wrote a book for Fourth Estate simply as a way to satisfy a contract. You told me with a straight face that you’d have been willing to write a history of teaspoons as a way to get out and move on.”
And yes. I did say that. And the book that they asked me to write – a book about global capitalism – wasn’t one that had ever figured in my lists of books I wanted to write. But within about half a day of starting the project, I got really into it. I loved writing it. My agent loved the manuscript when I delivered it. My editor too. I was very fond of that book for a while.
So write what you love.
And write for the market.
Don’t think of that as a compromise. It’s not a compromise. Every book you write should have your heart and soul and personal artistic spin on every page. And you are a big enough person – a broad enough artist – that you have multiple projects inside you. They’re all wonderful. You have the capacity to love each one. But how you choose among them? It’s OK to think about the market. That’s not selling out. That’s giving yourself space to make a career and make a life out of this game.
That’s all from me. You’ll hear from me again next week, but then not until January, because I shall be making a mince pie bigger than my head and then eating it.