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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.

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Comments (14)
  • Yes, I do get your point Harry. But for me writing is a very interesting and enjoyable hobby that complements my love of all things bookish and I do want it to stay that way. I'm glad that I don't need to make a living out of it.

    I don't expect to be published because I don't think I'd be able (or want) to put enough energy into getting published (assuming of course my work would be of publishable quality). But I'm always pleasantly surprised when people show interest and want to read more. Maybe I should take it more seriously...

    Thanks for quoting 😃 

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    • Well good for you! Joy should be at the heart of everything. Me, I certainly want readers too and I do quite enjoy most of the bits around publication. But writing itself - the act of creativity and the joy which that brings - that's the heart of it al, or should be

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    • Thank you for those words, Harry - but what if what you love isn't what the market loves?  What's more, if we always write to the market, how can it ever change?  It does change from time to time, when new genres emerge and begin a trend.  It might be rare but it could happen for someone whose work doesn't fit a mould, although that does depend on a publisher being willing to take a chance on something different.

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      • That's all very well but how is one to know what the current market wants when it is so huge, and fickle? AND. What if you only have the single brilliant masterpiece (a little like Margaret Mitchell)... do you have to wait a lifetime until the market is right... 

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        • The market isn't that fickle though. It just isn't. Read lots of books that are on the front tables now. What will editors be buying in a year? Books like those, but a bit different. And the market changes in that evolutionary way. There are exceptions of course (Twilight! 50 Shades), but mostly not. Mostly, if you want to write stuff that is commercially appealing you need to:

          1) Read lots of contemporary fiction in your genre 

          2) Find a subject you're passionate about

          3) Write about that.

          If you have done step 1 properly, the chances are very high that the thing you select in step 2 will be a good sort of response to the same-but-different injunction.

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          • Show me a flawed character overcoming their flaws for the betterment of a person or cause they grow to love more than themselves – and I’ll read the book regardless of whether its scenes are illuminated by campfire, candles, gas, electricity, or the twin moons of Zaag.

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