When you start a novel, should you start out writing it with intent for publication? I have heard many schools of thought whether it is best to write what you love and then try to publish or research the market and find a niche for your book before putting in all of the time writing. I enjoy writing fiction just as a cathartic activity but now that I am getting to the point of graduating college and seeking a career I wonder if I should also begin focusing my writing on a more professional and pragmatic path. ~ Tom.
HAHAHA, funny you should ask that. Well, funny to me, because I was just having that very conversation with my partner. He’s a successful photographer, but twenty years ago, he was a successful screenwriter (which just goes to show that life is art in progress and we are all wondering about these career things all the time), and now he is contemplating writing a book. Maybe even, as a memoirist friend and I call it, a “MemWah.” So the other night my partner was pacing around the living room in front of the fire (because we actually do this), saying, “Well, here’s the thing. I don’t know if I should write about X” (“X” being this subject that is very near and dear to his heart and that I’ve heard him talk about for at least 9 months) “or write for an audience. Figure out what sells and play to that. What do you think?”
At this point I was attempting to appear neutral and supportive but was probably giving him a look like this:
because that’s just the kind of gentle and supportive person I am. What I meant to say by this look is, “Please, please don’t do that.”
What I said instead was, “That’s a sucker’s game. Writing to please other people. Writing for an audience. Writing to SELL. Because guess what, by the time you do your due diligence and figure out what’s popular and write your book, the public’s taste will have moved on and you’ll be left holding yesterday’s cold leftovers.”
I utterly, utterly believe this, and it’s true from a pure, cold marketing perspective. My partner had been thinking like the screenwriter he once was, not the MemWah or novel-writer he was considering becoming. A screenplay, he told me, had generally taken him three months to write. This astonished me. A short story takes me three months to write. A novel, anywhere from three to five years . Most writers I know require at least a year to write a book, and those are the speedy ones. For many of us, it takes longer. And then, it takes time to alchemize your manuscript INTO a finished book: anywhere from a year to a year and a half.
Let’s say you are Speedy Gonzales
and therefore one of those writers I smile widely at but secretly try not to resent because they write so well so quickly. Let’s say you look at the market and say “Hmmm, books about dogs / written by dogs/ with dogs on the covers are superpopular right now.” (Which they indubitably are.) “I like dogs. Well, actually I don’t know any dogs, but I petted one once. I’ll write a book from the point of view about a shelter dog who lives in an ice cream truck.”
A year later, you have your dog book. You then query several agents, who tell you that dog books were very, very hot in 2011 but the new thing now is cats. Or parachutists. Or MemWahs about recovering-alcoholic streetcleaners. You take your Ice Cream Dog book and slink away from the desk with your tail between your legs. How were you to know?
On the other hand, let’s say you’re facing that scariest thing of all, the blank page + an undecided future. You think, What am I going to write about? You think about the advice you probably got in college, highschool, writing classes stretching back into infinity: Write what you know. You massage your mind. Topics start coming up like messages from the Magic 8-Ball, but nothing seems all that appealing.
Try this, then: To the formula Write what you know, add: Write what you love.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the first thing that comes to mind is your first dog, Lunatic. Lunatic may have had an unfortunate habit of drooling. Of hiding under the Christmas tree and leaping out at unsuspecting passersby, then sinking his teeth into their calves. Of gastronomic emissions that could clear a room in 30 seconds, even if he was sleeping peacefully. But he was your Lunatic, and he stayed by your mother’s side, for instance, during her chemo. And you loved him.
What a stupid idea, you think. To write about a dog? Who’ll read that? Besides, dog books are so hot right now. By the time I get this novel written, the new thing will be cats. Or parachutists. Or recovering-alcoholic clowns.
This is precisely the point at which you should Write what you love.
When I was writing my 1st novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US, I was told point-blank, by a gravelly-voiced agent who said she’d represent the book and then changed her mind, “Kid, I can’t sell this. It’s too depressing. Holocaust books don’t sell.”
When I was writing my 2nd novel, THE STORMCHASERS, I was told, “This is going to be a tough sell. Mental instability always is.”
Both the books got picked up and are doing just fine out there. (Thank goodness.)
So write what you love.
A quick backtrack, because this is also how I roll: This advice does NOT mean you should NEVER consider your audience. Au contraire. The point of writing a book is for people to read it, right? You don’t want it to fall in the Amazon/ Indiebound forest without making a sound. Therefore, when you’re done with your first draft, you must consider your audience. That’s when it’s time to take your manuscript to trusted readers, for instance your workshop friends at grub street, and ask them what’s working about the book and what isn’t yet–i.e. how to make it better. How to get it ready for your audience. Definitely seek a writers’ community. Definitely find a workshop. Definitely take classes. Definitely plan to get published and work toward that goal!
But when you’re first sitting down to write, when you’re choosing a topic, keep doing what you’re doing: writing as catharsis, writing what means most to you. As my partner said two days after our initial discussion: “I think it’s all about the story. If you’re a skilled storyteller with a heartfelt tale to spin, it doesn’t matter what the platform is. Your story will find the platform.”