I tend to write pretty non-traditional stuff.
I also have a natural tendency toward wordiness which makes my work difficult to squeeze into the publishing industry’s proverbial Size 8.
So when I have issues placing it, and I whine about it (good-naturedly, most of the time), sometimes well-meaning people tell me I ought to just try to garner some popularity by writing what’s popular at the moment.
“Wouldn’t it be worth it?” these people say. “Isn’t it worth compromising a little in order to get a following and get attention for your serious work?”
Let me explain to you why I think this is kind of misguided.
First off, no, “compromise” is not at all out of the question. We writers tend to think our work needs little to no advice on its appropriate direction, but if we want our stuff to appeal to a wide audience, sometimes we do have to listen to what people want, and meet them halfway on certain things that don’t compromise the soul of our work.
That’s the key there. The soul of the work.
On advice from professionals and amateurs alike, I have severely trimmed word counts, changed points of view, adjusted endings, and added/deleted entire story elements. But I would not have done any of these things if I thought they ruined the story. If these requests and ideas do not destroy the reason behind my desire to write what I wrote, I’ll likely take even radical revisions into account. It’s about a story’s soul for me. The manner in which I bring that soul to the world might change—metaphorically, I might make cosmetic or even surgical changes to its “body”—but when a story is born for me, its soul is born first. I can’t remember ever deciding after the fact that I’m going to tell a different story than the one I originally conceived. Everything but the soul is just details.
So that’s part of the reason why I don’t decide what to write based on what’s popular. For starters, I often don’t like what’s popular; I’m never going to authentically conceive a story that’s deliberately constructed to be what someone else wants. I come up with ideas very organically, with little plotting or planning. I don’t write fiction to communicate a moral or make a point or explore a theme. I write fiction because I want to tell someone’s story.
And that brings me to the next point: I don’t want to deliberately write what’s popular because I don’t write just to write. I don’t write to say I’m a writer. I don’t write because I want to Have Written. I write because the stories suggest themselves to me and I love them and want to give them life. It wouldn’t work like that if I were asked to write a story that wasn’t conceived out of that kind of love. I’m a decent writer in terms of form and storytelling and voice (I think), so sure I think I probably have the ability to write a story whose core I am not in love with, but writing some story—any story, doesn’t matter what—isn’t the driving force behind my writing.
“So,” say the naysayers, “you expect to cling to your ideals and write stories nobody wants to read, but you’re not willing to even try writing to the trends for the sake of your career? What, exactly, is your idealism getting you?”
I would write even if I never shared it. I would write even if I somehow knew I would never get the piece published. I would write if every single other person who read my work hated it. And I accept that if those are my terms, I may be limited by some unfortunate aspects of the commercial world. I will say that people do respond to what I’ve written, and that I do think my stuff has the capacity to appeal to a large audience, but I believe I owe that to my connection with the story and characters, which translates directly to authenticity in the finished piece. But ultimately, I am not doing this to make money. What I’m already doing would be enough even if I never saw a dime.
So if the price I had to pay to enter the publishing industry would be to compromise the very principles that make me a writer, I would say that price is too high. Asking me to take criticism or accept drastic edits is not unreasonable. Asking me to accept some uncomfortable experiences in the name of getting my work out there is not illogical. But asking me to write something I don’t want to write to get commercial success does not tie in with why I write. I would not have achieved what I want to achieve through being a writer by getting soulless stories published. It’s the stories I conceive naturally that I want to share with the world.
But to those who still think I could use deliberately constructed “what’s popular now” stories as a stepping stone to what I “really” want to do, you’re still wrong, for two reasons:
- When you have commercial success, you aren’t then forever the publishing industry’s darling. You are rewarded with money and praise because you made something a lot of people love. Your job after that, according to both your fans and your publishers, will be to make more of that. You will acquire a following of people who may very well give your other work a chance once you earn their trust, but may very well hate it. You will have developed a fan base of people who want you to keep faking it. Sounds like Hell to me.
- Schemes like this backfire more often than not. “What’s popular now” has been done. “What’s popular now,” in fact, inspired plenty of writers to drown the desks of agents, publishers, and editors in more clones of these popular stories . . . which means that if something’s already popular, a bunch more of them are already on the way and scheduled for release over the next 16 months or so, which means you’re too late. The craze will either be over by the time your book would theoretically hit the shelves OR the publishing industry professionals will be so sick of seeing it that they won’t even consider looking at another one.
In my opinion, the best thing a writer can do is write the kind of story she would like to read—the kind of story that turned her from a Person Who Writes into a Writer—and just enjoy the ride, the process, and the hope of success. After all, we’re the ones who write the books that become the Next Big Thing. Instead of grabbing and sloppily babysitting someone else’s story, just give birth to the book you already had inside you.