It’s an often-debated question: should you write for the market, or write for yourself?
In other words, should you write an Amish romance because they’re hot right now?
Or should you write that first contact story where the alien visitor has to prove he didn’t murder the head of the United Nations as a prelude to invasion while also wooing the Earthling of his dreams?
It’s tempting to try to write to the market. From the unpublished perspective, it seems like it would be easier to write a bestseller if you’re writing in a category that’s already selling well.
But not only is it harder to write something you don’t care about, it’s also inevitably too late–by the time a trend has crested and it’s clear that vampires or medical romances or zombie epidemics are the big thing, you’re a few months to a year behind the trend. By the time your Harry Potter-ish story is ready to submit to an agent or editor, readers are looking for the next big thing. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be submitting to an agent or editor who’s already been inundated with copycat stories for months.
Writing to the market is a little easier if you’re self-publishing and you write fast. If you can write a novella that rides the coattails of someone else’s success and get it out there just after the trend has crested, you have a chance of getting in front of readers who are looking for the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games. Then they’ll be primed for more work for you in that subgenre.
But that’s a big risk. And it supposes that you can produce high-quality fiction on a deadline that’s enough like the trendsetter you’re following to satisfy fans without feeling derivative. Unless you’re very good, you can spend your whole career chasing the market without ever catching a spot on the bestseller list.
Writing for yourself is a big risk too. It’s easy to end up making the story so specific to your own personal interests that it’s difficult for others to get into the story. Who else wants to read a story about a chocolate-chomping, bellydancing, needle-pointing detective who tracks down abducted children while falling in love with the CEO of an ecofriendly publishing company?
Um. I think the answer to that one is obvious.
A lot of experienced writers recommend that you write for a particular person–someone you know who represents your target readers. If you don’t know someone personally who would be your target reader, imagine someone who fits the bill based on what you know about your intended audience.
That’s better. It makes it easier to identify who you’re trying to make happy.
But even writing for your target reader, you run the risk of toning yourself down to meet that person’s expectations–which can limit you from breaking new ground and creating a story that blows readers’ minds.
In other words, you may find yourself writing what that person is going to expect to read rather than being true to your creative vision and creating something really new and different.
So are you screwed? Do you have to choose between writing stories that very few people want to read or writing stories that everyone wanted to read last year?
No. Not if you write to human nature.
What great authors do is they create strange new worlds for readers to explore–but they make those worlds accessible to the reader by writing to human nature.
Before Harry Potter, “kids at wizard school” was a small subgenre read by a few hardcore fantasy fans. J.K. Rowling not only wrote a fantastic story in this subgenre, she made Harry’s world so accessible that millions of readers–many of whom were NOT fantasy fans–found their way into that world.
How did she do it?
She made the main characters accessible by:
- Using techniques that caused readers to have both sympathy and empathy for them
- Giving them backstories and personality traits that explained their actions in the present
- Showing their emotional reactions to events clearly, so that the reader knew how to interpret those events
- Depicting familiar relationships and emotional dynamics embedded in her fantasy world, making even the mysterious characters comprehensible to the reader at an emotional level
She made the world accessible by:
- Piquing the reader’s curiosity, then giving the characters a reason to explore what the reader was curious about
- Showing the reader how things worked in this world instead of telling us
- Including familiar elements along with the strange and magical elements, so that those familiar elements served as a gateway to the unfamiliar
- Feeding one new thing to the reader at a time, so that the reader didn’t get overwhelmed with strangeness
In other words, she skillfully utilized techniques for writing immersive fiction to make it possible for people who’d never read a fantasy book in their lives to understand Harry Potter’s world.
Rowling understood that you can’t just plunk readers down into a completely foreign environment and expect them to connect to this new world. She gave her readers a myriad of familiar elements that helped explain the unfamiliar, and she gave the reader likable, interesting, sympathetic characters–characters that the reader was willing to follow deep into the world.
She understood that we are intrigued by the new, the strange, the mysterious–but that we also need a starting point for exploring it. Harry Potter’s world has plenty of windows for us to peek in…and doors to walk through.
You can do this with your own fiction.
Don’t ask yourself, “What does the market want me to write?”
Don’t ask yourself, “What does my target reader want me to write?”
Write what you really want to write, and ask yourself, “How can I make this accessible to my target reader?”