Writing ball keyboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So lately, I’ve been wrestling with a question. It’s one of those obvious questions that you think you should know the answer to, but when you look deeper you realize you might be as smart as you think you are.
Who are you writing for?
I always thought the answer to that question was “myself!” – which I do hold to be the right answer. But when I stepped back and took a long look at what I was writing, I realized something: a lot of what I’d been writing wasn’t for me. Some of it was just emulation, trying to write stories like the ones I enjoyed reading. Some of it was (indirectly) influenced by what’s in the market. What it was all missing was that spark that got me excited when I first started writing.
I want that spark. Come on baby, let’s light my fire.
Don’t write what you enjoy reading.
The wording in that is ambiguous, because as fiction writers, chances are good we’re always going to be writing what we enjoy reading. We enjoy works that compel us, enthrall us, entertain us, and fill our minds with images and worlds only imagined. Why wouldn’t we want to write something similar?
All of that is great, and I don’t know a writer out there that isn’t compelled to write stories that tick off those checkboxes. What I’ve come to realize is that rather than just take inspiration to write a grand tale, I find myself caught in that most novice of mistakes – I’m not telling a story like the one I enjoy reading; I’m telling the story I just read. I don’t mean plagiarizing. I mean that if I just read a really compelling story by Daniel Abraham about dragons and market politics, I would find myself telling a story that in the end involved dragons. And something akin to markets and politics, but not market politics. But close.
This isn’t something I’ve been doing intentionally. Under the auspices that there are no original stories, we’re all just retelling one meta story over and over, so my effort and the book I just read aren’t even related. Except they are, because I’ve also fallen victim to the thought process that just because I enjoyed reading a story, I’m now capable of writing it. As anyone who has attempted to write hard science fiction and kept themselves fact checked can tell you, those two are not directly equivalent.
This sounds really discouraging for me. Wait, I’ve got more, but there’s a bright end to this tunnel.
Don’t write to market. What’s being read in the market today was bought six months ago.
You hear this advice repeatedly, but what does it really mean? What’s writing to market? Why wouldn’t you if you wanted to be able to sell what you wrote?
At it’s simplest, what you’re reading today isn’t what’s currently being bought. The average short story (and I’m basing this on graphs from duotrope.com when I had a subscription there, and reported feedback on the (submission) grinder) takes anywhere from a few months to half a year from when it was submitted, to when it gets accepted, *plus* any time needed for edits, prep, and print. A novel? You’re looking at a lot, lot longer than that, assuming we’re talking traditional publishing and traditional submission processes. [A different kind of ruleset applies if you self publish, which I'm not going to broach here.]
So, what you see on the shelves or in the Table of Contents today was actually written six plus months ago. That’s not the current market, that’s the market that was when the piece was being sold. You could still try and write a story that fits this market snapshot, and if that’s the story you have to tell,then by all means! But don’t try and limit yourself to what you see in the market, because what’s being bought today has already changed.
So what do you write?
This has been hard for me to figure out – until I realized I needed to stop trying to write for publication. That isn’t to say that I don’t want to publish, or that I won’t submit. But I’m not writing a story with the thought in mind, “I’m sending this out!” That’s an evaluation I’ll make later; right now, I’m more interested in getting the stories down.
I’m writing for me.
I’m writing what I enjoy telling. I started with trying to remember what got me excited as a kid. What fantastical things did I believe in as a kid that adult me would scoff at – and what if they were true? In my head, I’m referring to this as the Bradbury Method, not because he ever expressly said this was how to write, but because foggy memories from the last time I read “Zen in the Art of Writing” says that this is a lot like his word association lists.
I’ve written three stories in the last two weeks. All of them are only first drafts, and at least two of them are unlikely to find publication homes (though I might try). I wrote a story called “The Sasquatch Howls at Midnight” that’s all about werewolves and bigfoot and such; an untitled fantasy piece about a priestess and her apprentice deciding to give back the gift of their goddess (its still really rough around the edges, though I really like a lot of the world building that formed around this one); and “The World is a Vampire,” a story in an alternate timeline where the kaiju threat is very real, and one man’s decision to fight back with the pathogen that causes vampires.
OK, so those stories are a little…odd. But to be perfectly selfish, I didn’t write them for you (although I did write them for your enjoyment, if that contradiction makes any kind of sense). I wrote them because these were the stories I wanted to tell, the stories that were occupying my mindspace. That’s how I’m busying myself writing these days. How about you?