The Fallacy of Writing for a Market and Further Thoughts

So I got a rejection a couple of days ago. Nothing new. I’ve had up to 130 of them in a single year. So what, right? But every time I get a rejection, unless I’ve already thought about where I want to send that piece next, I immediately begin thinking “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Where the hell do I send this now?

And that’s a dangerous place to be in, because it opens one up to thinking not about the work itself, but about markets, and how a given piece fits a market.

Speaking as an editor, here’s the problem: No piece ever fits a market. Markets, and the editors behind them, seek brilliant work that matches some tangential understanding of their stated objectives. The editorial work entailed in selecting work for a market is often about finding out where the borders of the world you have established actually lie, and how far you can stretch them without the entire construct collapsing.

But when you, as a writer, try to discern those intangible boundaries from the outside looking in, you’re always going to make the mistake of assuming that there is a quantifiable basis for a market’s assertions about itself, and what that market claims to want. But guidelines about content are just that: guidelines. (The other components of a market’s guidelines are intractable rules though, so please don’t confuse the two.) Everyone is making it up as they go along, and the work an acquiring editor does is always based in looking for new territory they didn’t actually expect to find within the terra (in)firma their publication has staked out for itself. That’s the intrinsic nature of the beast, and it’s never going to change.

Despite knowing this, I still think about how anything I’ve written fits in with what a market potentially wants, and wonder just how far I’m going to be pushing those highly permeable, yet still potentially defined, boundaries with whatever I send.

And then, in an interesting confluence of events, Leah Bobet was talking online about the fact that she is attending the 2013 Nebula Award Weekend (because her novel Above – which is absolutely exquisite and if you haven’t purchased a copy yet you should do post haste – has been nominated for a Nebula Award, specifically the Andre Norton Award), and also talking about the cost of doing so, and methods of recouping monies spent, which involved, among other things, writing and selling fiction (this is Leah, who is a talented writer for whom this is actually a viable option – please don’t try this at home, kids).

Which, of course, led me to think “Right, I should finish revising and send out some of the things not currently in submissions queue anywhere.” And from there, of course, the first thought is “Well, where would I love to sell a story to?” So, I ended up swinging by Strange Horizons this morning to see what was new there this week.

While I do tend to write and read fairly dark literature, I read across a wide number of genres and aesthetics, and one of the magazines I like reading is Strange Horizons, though for a long stretch I was going there more for the poetry than the fiction. Right now though I actually quite like what the new fiction editorial team is doing very much. But you came here to listen to me actually have a point (I assume so, in any case), so let us move away from digression …

While I was looking at the Strange Horizons website I was thinking about what I might next write that would fit their aesthetic so I could send them something (I very seldom write anything that actually does fit Strange Horizons‘ aesthetic).

And then it hit me, and I thought “Wait, why am I thinking about writing for a market instead of writing the next story I already want to write and finding a home for that?” (Which is, actually, what I do generally.) But, of course, this all ties into what I was saying earlier about trying to find a way to make one’s work fit a market, and the point of the thing is that I initially thought about writing for a market because, as anyone who sells their fiction regularly can tell you, aside from any monetary gain (or the hope thereof) to be had, there is an immense sense of satisfaction that comes from making a sale. Especially to a market you like inordinately, otherwise respect, or consider to be a benchmark of some kind (be it a personal or career benchmark). And that sale creates a deeply compelling sense of satisfaction; a repeatable sense of satisfaction:

Someone wants your work. And they’re willing to pay you for it. Why wouldn’t you want that sense of satisfaction? And want it as often as possible?

And every once in a while I will do this; I will swing by a market I like, or respect, or would like to work with, and I think about what kind of story I could write that they might take. Then I sit back, mentally slap myself across the face, and move on. Because I don’t actually want to write for a market. I want to tell the kind of stories that intrigue me, or the stories that hurt like a motherfucker until they are birthed into the world kicking and screaming, all amniotic fluid and kicking legs and great sharp teeth. And writing a story explicitly so that a market will take your work is a fool’s game. There are people who can do it, and cobbling together work that specifically speaks to what an editor wants to see solely so you can sell something to that market is a quantifiable skill, but you’re working to what someone else wants to see, not to what you want to create. (Though it should be mentioned that there is in fact a longstanding tradition of writers doing this specifically in order to make a living at one’s writing and, thus, survive, and I am not belittling the work that that entails, I simply think the entire process is bad for the writer in the long run.)

The … more or less … exception here is anthologies. The wonderful thing about anthologies with an interesting theme (note the caveat) is that they act, not as a goalpost, but as a springboard for whatever ideas you want to work with. Writing for an anthology provides you with either the option to create something from whole cloth, or to expand your already existing ideas and carve out new territory with them that you might otherwise have overlooked without the theme the anthology provides to act as impetus.

It’s why I, actually, quite like writing for themed anthologies. A fair share of my sales thus far are, in fact, to anthologies operating with some kind of theme.

However, I also know that unless a theme actively interests me there’s no point writing for it because I won’t enjoy trying to shoehorn my work into someone else’s ideas. Effectively, I’ll be putting my own ideas on hold while I try to create what someone else wants to see.

And I’ve learned, after the more than a dozen years I’ve been writing seriously (though, admittedly, I only actually started trying to sell my work in 2006 – before that I was writing more for myself then anyone else), getting better as I go (thankfully), that it’s not as important to me simply to be published as it is to have the stories I want to tell published.

I initially thought, as the vast majority of beginning writers just starting out (you know, the really vocal ones in online communities, the ones who give their work away for free to anyone who will have it) seem to, that the act of being published itself was important. It’s a natural conclusion if you’ve never been published because at first glance that act appears to be the summit of the proverbial mountain. But being published is simply the method for disseminating the work, and should not, itself, be the goal. To further the metaphor, the act of publication is a waystation on the ascent, a point at which you plant a flag and keep moving.

Let me put it like this:

Writing, like any other profession, can be approached two ways. You can either create what you want and seek out those who want to share your vision, or you can create what others want from you at the expense of your own desires, wants, and needs.

The first option is the decidedly harder, but ultimately much more satisfying option – not least of all because it will eventually allow you to find a community of people doing the same thing, and having that community to live in/be a part of is solid fucking metaphorical gold.

The second option provides immediate (potential) gain, sure, but in the long term it will leave you hollowed out, and perpetually unsatisfied.

Now, writers should not, in this instance, be confused with wells. We do not run dry. And because our tools are imagination we can never actually be left without something to catalyze the act of creation. But writing, like any other long-term pursuit is about finding ways to apportion your time in order to actually create new work. And because many writers must work at more than one job/profession in order to, you know, make a living, whatever else you are doing with your time must allow you some measure of space to create your fiction as well. Freelancing is always an excellent option for this, because it allows you to flex many of the same muscles you need to utilize in your fiction, and you are actively writing, so the proverbial muscles don’t atrophy. Not to mention that most freelancing work requires a distinct level of precision in your writing that teaches you to wield a sharpened scalpel in your fiction writing as well.

But that balance has to be there, because here’s the thing: if all you are doing is attending to what someone else wants, you never get to what you want to do.

And in the end you can boil it down to this:

All writers leave legacies, be it the words themselves, or what is embodied, created, or given rise to through the people who read the words and ran with them.

And the question all writers ultimately have to ask themselves is will the legacy they leave behind, to inspire and catalyze the work of future generations (we can but hope), be their own vision? Or will it be someone else’s?

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4 Responses to The Fallacy of Writing for a Market and Further Thoughts

  1. Charlotte says:

    I was going to get all indignant until you got to the bit about anthologies and springboards. ;) I think writing for a market vs for yourself is also a balance that varies depending on the process of the writer. I LOVE being given criteria (“Three mittens, Leanan Sidhe and the 14th century – GO!”) and letting them rattle about my head until they collect into some brilliant idea. It’s inevitable that anything I write is going to be the sort of thing I want to write – that’s all I can write – so any given set of guidelines are always just going to be a springboard for me.

    My great desire is to write certain types of characters and about certain issues: but these can be applied to any genre, any setting, and any set of props. Why should a given market be a constraint?

    (Unless you’re talking about some very specific kind of market that wants only specific types of characters or ideologies! But I haven’t seen many [any?] of those…)

    • When I was writing the post I was thinking more about the sinkhole of trying to create a submission perfect for a market solely because you want to sell to that market. That, as an end goal, is problematic, especially so because it gives rise to seeking out the mythical “silver bullet” that so many beginning writers try to create from whole cloth, and then ultimately end up shooting themselves in the foot with (yes, I went there).

      Conversely, the position *you’re* working from, Charlotte, (knowing what, and who, and how you want to write, and using that as the core of whatever you’re creating) is the ideal approach :)

  2. I get writing for a market as springboard; sometimes fun to think, “Hey, what would my story for a Zombie anthology look like” or whatever.

    But worse even than our trying to figure out what we could write to sell to this or that market, are the armies of pundits and self-appointed experts telling you (or at least naive beginning authors) how they have to write to sell. It drives me crazy watching these morons telling earnest young writers that you have to change the gender of the hero or the race or sexual preference or the setting from Canada to New York or whatever stupid thing pops into their head… All nonsense. You have to write well is the only criterion. Everything else is up for grabs. Giving up your voice to try to copy the voice of Dan Brown because Dan Brown sells is the worst sort of betrayal of both one’s muse and one’s own long term sales — we have Dan Brown (too much Dan Brown) so we do not need more second rate Dan Browns. We need more of those earnest young writers working their own voice, not trying to find th voice that sells…

    • I quite agree. I never did understand why people actually think that there is a magic fix for any story (or, indeed, one *universal* fix for *every* story). All markets are different. All writers are different. When they intersect it’s wonderful, but trying to force that marriage? Never works out well.

      Also, the takeaway from your comment absolutely should be a highlighting of the notion that the only important thing one needs to attend to as a writer is write brilliantly, and in one’s own voice. Everything flows from that …

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