Ask an agent or editor whether your next novel should have the themes or settings of whatever is currently popular (vampire romance, suburban porn, etc.) and they’ll invariably say: ‘No, just write what you want.’ They’ll justify this by saying the time to print of a new book, especially by a new author, is one or two years, that popular trends will change, and nobody can spot a winner. Then they go ahead and publish more vampire romance and talk about how they can pull a manuscript out of the slush pile and into the shops in just a few weeks now that suburban porn is selling like hot – um – buns.
So it goes. Publishing is a business, in the main it follows the fleet. It’s good advice but I don’t think those are the real reasons not to write to the market. Or rather, they may well be good reasons for publishers and agents – after all, what they want is what they want. However, those are not the primary ones for writers.
When I first started writing I decided the sort of stories I wanted to write were the ones I would like to read. It was an instinctive, gut-feel that this was what I should do. Later on I realised I’d fallen on my feet because the result was this: I wrote what I wanted to write.
The world is full of people who want you to do what they want you to do. If it’s the boss in your day job, fair enough. To be fair, publishers are not those people. Yes, they want you to work to a deadline, again, fair enough, but what they really want you to do is what most of them* can’t do themselves – write a brilliant book.
Writing for other people means you are going to do two things:
– Second-guess what they want you to do
– Not write the story you want to write.
You’ll never be able to get far enough inside another person’s head to give them exactly what they want. They’ll say ‘The same, but different.’ Your different will be too much or not enough. Pwimula Nesbytte is a rangy, determined blonde, they wanted petite vulnerability; she flies an undergound airship, they wanted hot air balloons. As for Battle Moles, forget it. You’ll focus so hard on that process you’ll be completely diverted from what you should be doing – writing the best story you can.
The best way to write the best book you can write is to tell a story you are passionate about – the plots and worlds and characters you simply cannot get out of your head. Ideas that fascinate and compel you so much you think about them all day and dream them at night, so in the end you have to write it all down just to get the damned things out of your head. Do that and you’re writing for just one person.
Of course if you can do all this and write to the current market – go for it, fill your boots and good luck to you. If you’re into a franchise and get the chance to write a spin-off book, why not? It’s not for me, I’d rather write about my own ideas and characters. If it excites you, enjoy.
Call this all self-centred egotism** if you like, but that’s part of being a writer. You’ll be beset by worries, crises of confidence, and crushing setbacks – and you’ll keep on going. Any artistic creation is driven by self-belief: that what you are doing will be so good that strangers will give a damn. That’s why you should write for the one person who really understands what you are trying to do – yourself.
* Though some do write very well (Rule #2)
** Will Self put it very well in an interview in the Guardian:
“I don’t really write for readers … I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer. I mean, I’ve said in the past I write for myself. That’s probably some kind of insane egotism but I actually think that’s the only way to proceed – to write what you think you have to write. I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I’m doing and in the world. And if people like it, great, and if they don’t like it, well, that’s that – what can you do? You can’t go round and hold a gun to their head.”