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Marginal Notes

Writing to Market


If you were around and literate in the 1980’s, you knew Jay MacInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City. You remember thinking the second-person narration was exciting, cutting edge. You lost yourself in its directness, its ability to pull you right into the story. You fell in love with the technique.

You haven’t seen much of it lately.

Every once in a while, the writing market is hit by a fad, like MacInerny’s second person narration. Epistolary novels, where the story is told through a series of documents, were big at the turn of the last century. A client who writes noir novels tells me that, at the moment, the genre is dominated by a cocktail of extreme violence and mindless profanity imported from England and known as Brit Grit.

So how do you respond to fads? Do you take them as a sign of what the public wants and try to buy in? Do you ignore them and follow your own vision? Or do you do something in between? How much should you be writing to please the market?

Of course, in some ways you can’t help writing to market. The point of writing is to give readers something they’ll want to read. This is especially true if you’re writing in a particular genre. Readers of romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy all expect their novels to deliver certain tropes, and it’s up to you to provide them. If you give your readers a mystery without a crime, detective, or denouement, then you really aren’t giving them a mystery.

But even within the most tightly-defined genres – time travel romance, for instance (an actual category on Goodreads) or dinosaur erotica (don’t ask) -- you are far more likely to be successful if you offer something more than the conventions of the genre. When you bring something original to the mix – an approach to your characters that stretches the boundaries of the genre, a plot that doesn’t simply string together the usual twists and tropes – then you are more likely to reach across genre lines to a larger market. When Agatha Christie had the narrator commit the crime in The Murder of Roger Ackeroyd, she created a classic in the genre by breaking one of the genre’s main rules.

Besides, there isn’t much room in the world any more for pure, professional hacks, who crank out works entirely molded to the market and unencumbered by the creative process. There was a time when you could make a good living producing disposable, paint-by-numbers genre novels that gave readers a quick, familiar, forgettable read – check out now-forgotten writers like E. P. Roe (Victorian moralistic romance) or Frank G. Slaughter (historical fiction and medical thrillers). But the market is now flooded with self-published novels that are as good as and often better than the hackwork of yore.

Completely ignoring the market can be as dangerous as pandering to it. If you deliberately turn away from your readers to follow your own, eccentric vision, you might wind up with something no one else will understand -- or think is worth the bother. I realize that a lot of readers have enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, to the point where it won a couple of major awards. But I couldn’t finish it because of the excessively-creative absence of quotation marks – a practice McCarthy says he picked up from Joyce, whom I also cannot read.

So how much attention should you pay to the market? How do you hit the right balance between your own creativity and giving readers what they want? I’d say, don’t think about it at all.

I’ve written before about the dangers of focusing on other things besides your story -- stylistic rules, say, or your writing process. Paying too much attention to your prospective readership – consciously writing to market -- can trip you up just as easily. The best way to actually reach that readership is to ignore it and put all your energy into your story and characters. If you’re like most writers, you’re well enough read in your genre to have absorbed its conventions, so following those conventions will just feel natural. And paying attention to your story and characters will almost certainly introduce originality that will lift you above simply hackwork.

As you look beyond what’s happening in your market and start creating real, sympathetic people, you’re more likely to create something timeless – or at least something that won’t feel as dated in thirty years the way Jay MacInerny does now. I suspect that the characters in Brit Grit would be far less profane if their creators listened to them rather than the market demands of the moment. One of the reasons Pride and Prejudice still feels fresh after more than two centuries is that Austen’s characters are well-rounded individuals rather than simply creatures of their time.

But what do you do if you’re attracted to a particular stylistic technique -- either the latest fad or something so eccentric that no one has ever used it before? After all, people still write very effective epistolary novels, from time to time – Maria Semples’ Where’d You Go, Bernadette comes to mind. And every technique we take for granted now was shockinglyquirky at some point.

Again, the trick is to pay attention to your story and listen to your characters. One reason I couldn’t stomach Cormack McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks is that I constantly had to stop reading to figure out what was dialogue and what wasn’t. His creativity got in the way of his story. I had a similar problem with Hilary Mantel’s vague or missing speaker attributions in Wolf Hall, enjoyable as the book was otherwise. And she apparently listened to readers who had a problem with it, because she corrected the problem in subsequent novels.

I understand the temptation to focus on the market. If you’re having a hard time breaking into print, the siren song of the hack – boil down readers’ expectations to a formula, then never color outside the lines – can be hard to resist. But bending your story to the market’s will is a shortcut that won’t get you where you want to go. The best way to reach the market is to throw everything you’ve got into telling the story you want to tell. If you do that, then it will find its own market without any help from you.