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Writing Tip #9: Passion vs. Market Trends

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

There are two pieces of advice you’re bound to hear at just about every writing conference or group you’ll ever attend. Write the book of your heart—and if you want to sell, make sure you know the market and if the genre you’ve chosen to write is selling. And that brings us to today’s writing tip:

Writing Tip #9. Write your passion—but keep an eye on the market.
This is a hard balancing act, which we’ve discussed many times. It goes back to the two types of writers Don Maass mentioned in The Fire in Fiction: the status seeker and the storyteller. Are you seeking merely to be published and chasing the market, or are you looking to tell the story that’s on your heart? Is there a way to do both? Yes. But one takes much longer than the other. If you have a good grasp of the market, of what’s selling, and you can write in a genre that’s selling—write from the heart, not just “knock something out”—and you have a good grasp of the craft of writing and storytelling, you’ll probably find success a lot sooner than someone who’s truly writing the story of her heart. “Heart stories” are typically those that don’t fall neatly into any existing publishing category. They’re not always easy to market. But if you hone your craft in addition to writing the best story you can, you may eventually be able to sell it.

The best rule of thumb when it comes to choosing the kind of book you’re going to write is to write the kind of book you would want to read. This is different than saying write a book that fits neatly into your favorite genre to read. You may not actually write the same genre you like to read—for example, you may be best suited to write bittersweet women’s fiction but your favorite books to read may be cozy mysteries. You may write Old West action-adventure but enjoy reading literary fiction. There is no rule that says you have to write the same genre you like to read.

As we’ve already discussed, even if it isn’t your favorite genre to read you still need to read a good number of currently published books in the genre in which you’re writing to keep up with standards and styles and what’s already been published.

If the book of your heart happens to fit neatly within the genre you like to read, you’re already a few steps ahead—because you’re already familiar with the conventions and recent publishing history of your genre and you know personally what readers are looking for in a particular book in that genre.

What you shouldn’t do, though, is choose to write a certain genre because you’ve been led to believe that it’s the “shoo-in” genre or one that’s easier to get published or easier to market.

Madeleine L’Engle explained it this way in Walking on Water:

The artist, like the child, is a good believer. The depth and strength of the belief is reflected in the work; if the artist does not believe, then no one else will; no amount of technique will make the responder see the truth in something the artist knows to be phony.

You must carefully balance the choice between “choosing your genre” and “choosing your story.” Don’t compromise the integrity of your story for the expedience of “writing a book that will sell.” If you don’t believe in your story, your readers won’t believe in it either. It becomes formula, dry, with a “dashed off” feeling. (You’ve all read books like that, I’m sure.)

By staying true to the story of your heart rather than chasing the market, it may take you longer to get published, but you’re going to have better success with the story that’s meaningful, that’s from the heart. But even a book-of-the-heart needs to be marketable if you want to see it published one day.

After you have some idea of the kind of book you want to write, you need to spell it out for yourself in some detail. You’re going to have to explain it to your agent and editor some day.

You will not have to give any reasons for what you want to write. You want to write your book because you want to write it. That’s all the reason you ever have to give. All you have to be able to do is describe what you want to write. Ask yourself the following questions:

• What authors would you most like to write like? Write down the names of two or three authors whose style is close to what you think yours is.

• What genres most interest you? You’re allowed to mix genres, but one should be dominant.

• What story elements interest you most? Complex story world? Deep characters? Fast-paced action? Snappy dialogue? Romance? Remember: Choose what you want to write, not what you think you should write or what people expect you to write.

• Where and when would you like to set your stories?

• What special background or life experiences can you tie into your novel?

• What length of books do you want to write?

• Who is your ideal reader? Religious or not particularly so? Education? Interests? Age? Gender?

~From Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

Don’t chase the market; write the best story you can and let the market chase you.

18 Comments
  1. Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:38 am

    So I’m guessing we won’t be seeing any vampire books from you, eh? {grins}

    What do you do {or how do you feel} if your books aren’t as well-received as you hoped? When the timing of the book release isn’t right? How hard is it to put a book/storyline on the back burner…or do you just go ahead with it?

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:20 pm

      Nope, no vampire books from me. No Amish books from me either. I’ve never been one to chase trends . . . in fact, I’ve always been the kind of person who opposes trends. In junior high, I went out for volleyball rather than cheerleading, even though every girl in my (very small) class, including my two “best” friends, wouldn’t speak to me for a couple of weeks because I didn’t want to be a cheerleader. I guess I’ve always been the kind of person who has to do what’s right for me and not because it’s what “everyone else is doing.” (Of course, that did make for a somewhat solitary life in junior high and high school—because I wasn’t a “joiner.”)

      As far as the rest of your questions, I haven’t had time yet to have to deal with most of them, simply because of the quantity of books I’m writing and having to move from one project immediately to the next. I think that’s been really helpful for me, otherwise, I’d be obsessing daily over sales stats and reviews, and why aren’t my stats higher and why don’t I have more than 24 reviews on Ransome’s Honor, etc.

      Before publication, it can sometimes be hard to choose between stories, which one to write and which one to backburner. That’s when I’d recommend working on both. Write one for a while, until you come to a place where you’re blocked or just not feeling it anymore, then work on the other until you’re ready to go back to the first one. That’s a luxury that most published authors don’t have. Enjoy it while you can!

  2. Sylvia M. permalink
    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 7:27 am

    Commenting about that very last line you wrote in this post about chasing the market. Are that many authors interested in Amish lifestyle? What’s up with all the Amish books right now? I have been steadily avoiding them. I think alot of them are chasing the market. One area of Christian fiction books that I have hardly seen at all is on Colonial times. I think there’s a Heartsong author, Amber Stockton that has some Colonial books, but other than that it’s almost zero.

    • Kav permalink
      Tuesday, June 15, 2010 10:45 am

      I still haven’t figured out the whole Amish craze — but I just finished one that is amazing. ‘The Hope of Refuge’ by Cindy Woodsmall which is so much more than a ‘bonnet book’. It’s so applicable to our lives and church communities and individual relationships with God and faith. And it’s a fantastic life journey kind of story and a love story. Sigh. I think I have to read it again. The author has Amish friends so it’s very credible.

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 1:51 pm

      Laura Frantz is writing some awesome historicals set on the Kentucky frontier during the very end of the colonial period and during the Rev War. The Frontiersman’s Daughter, and her new release, Courting Morrow Little. Don’t miss those. I just finished reading Morrow. I couldn’t put it down. Wrote about it some on my blog today.

      My passion is also for 18C America, anything from Colonial to early Federal period, on up to the War of 1812. That’s what I’m writing.

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:23 pm

      Amish books are definitely a market trend that many, many authors and publishers have jumped on. I know that for some, their stories are heart-books, books written because of their passion for/fascination with the Amish lifestyle. For others, they’re writing them because their publisher has approached them and asked them to.

      The A-word has come up in a couple of meetings I’ve had with one of my publishing houses, but never in a “we want you to write one” manner. More along the lines of, “we love that our historicals and our Amish lines are doing so well.” Maybe it’s a hint, but it’s a hint I’m not taking.

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:24 pm

      J.M. Hochstetler also has a series out, which begins in Boston, set during the opening days of the Revolutionary war.

      http://americanpatriotseries.blogspot.com/p/books.html

  3. Tuesday, June 15, 2010 8:52 am

    And here’s ANOTHER question: What if you write something that you love, but then you are told that it’s “been done?” I mean, there’s a reason people like series romance. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar. I read all the Grace Livingston Hill novels and Essie Summers Harlequin romances I could get my hands on when I was younger – and still pull them out to read from time to time. Why? Because they are familiar, and I know I can count on a happy ending after all the angst.

    As for the Colonial stories, Sylvia, Laura Frantz’s “The Frontiersman’s Daughter” and “Courting Morrow Little” are set in that time period! And in Kentucky, no less! :D

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 1:52 pm

      You beat me to it, Regina. I didn’t read all the comments before piping up about Laura’s books!

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:30 pm

      That would be a good subject for Rachelle G. to cover on her blog this week—she’s blogging all week about mixed messages in the publishing industry.

      I’ve talked many times about how I started writing Ransome’s Honor at a time when all of the editors/agents at conferences were saying that they were not looking at proposals for historicals, that historicals were dead-dead-dead-dead-dead-dead. (This was around the time that we started seeing the rise of Chick Lit and Amish novels.) But I wrote it anyway, because it was the story I was passionate about at the time. When I was finished with it and it came time to start pitching it, all of the editors were saying that they were looking for historicals but not European settings and NOT REGENCIES. They wanted American West, covered wagon, bonnet historicals. Again, I put it out there because it was a story I was passionate about.

      And look at what happened. The “trends” in the CBA market swung back to historicals to include European settings AND Regencies (because those have always been perennial best sellers in the general market, so those of us who read/write them didn’t know what the CBA publishers were on about when they were saying they weren’t acquiring them).

      Imagine if I’d listened to those editors when I was working on my historical/Regency. I wouldn’t be giving away signed copies of Ransome’s Honor and Ransome’s Crossing to five winners tomorrow!

  4. Kav permalink
    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 10:36 am

    Sometimes I get so cafuzzled I don’t know which way to turn. (Cafuzzled is a state of fuzzy-headed confusion, if you’re wondering.) Anyway, like Regina says — editors turn away books because it’s already been done (ignoring the loyal reading fans who avidly read everything ‘that’s already been done’ because it’s so good that’s why it’s been done!). Then there are the editors who reject what hasn’t been done…because, well…it hasn’t been done (as if readers are stuck in a rut and will only read what’s been done…but oh, wait…that’s right publishers aren’t accepting what’s been done right now so that means…um…they’re going to stop publishing books?) You see the way my mind works? It isn’t pretty.

    I guess when it comes right down to it the only sensible thing to do is write from your heart, because trying to chase the market is just going to leave you miles behind. You’ll never catch up!

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:45 pm

      Again, another great “mixed-messages” topic for Rachelle G’s blog.

      How many times have you seen the storyline in a historical in which the female is newly widowed and pregnant and the hero offers to marry her and take care of her and the baby in exchange for her taking care of his home and possibly his young child(ren)?

      Been done? Hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in novels that are published and who knows how many millions of manuscripts over the years that have been written with that storyline.

      Arranged/forced marriage/marriage of convenience? Yep.

      Couple fell in love when they were young, they broke up, there was bitterness, and then, many years later, they find themselves thrown together again and end up falling in love all over again? Uh, hello Persuasion, Ransome’s Honor, AND Love Remains.

      The only editor I ever pitched the Ransome series to face-to-face passed on it because they had just signed another author to a three-book deal for a “similar” series (M.L. Tyndall’s Charleston Belles series). Another house said they’d publish the series if I took “all the ship stuff” out.

      The two things we need to keep in mind when it comes to the “been there, done that” messages we get from editors and agents are:

      1. What is the unique spin I have put on this story? Why is mine not the same as every other young-widow-accepts-marriage-proposal-from-young-widower-on-the-frontier story that’s been published? What is different about my writing/my book/my approach to the market that will set me apart from everyone else?

      2. Editors can get jaded about certain storylines, and sometimes there are too many of that certain storyline coming out on the market at the same time and they don’t want to be known as the publishing house that publishes only young-widow-accepts-marriage-proposal-from-young-widower-on-the-frontier, which is why it’s important to stay on top of publishing trends and know what books the publishing houses you’re interested in have just put out and have coming out in the next year so that you know if your young-widow-accepts-marriage-proposal-from-young-widower-on-the-frontier romance is going to be “same-ol’-same-ol'” for them or if it’ll will add a new aspect to their line.

    • Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:52 pm

      As far as the “it’s too different,” “it’s never been done” fear that can come on unique storylines, again, that means the author needs to do some work . . .

      –It’s always a good idea to include a marketing plan with a proposal like that. Since it’s new and different, how do you plan to reach this publisher’s existing audience with it? How will you draw in a new audience? This is where having an already-existing platform/name recognition will be crucial.

      –This is one of those areas in which having the best crafted, polished, and engaging writing and strong storytelling is of vital importance. If your writing draws them in—the story, the characters, the plot, and the well-polished technical aspects—they are more likely to take a chance on it.

      –If you can show them that it’s on the cusp of a new trend, that they can be the leader of this trend instead of bandwagon-jumper-on’ers, they might take the risk.

      The bottom line is, everything in publishing is about making a profit. If you can show them how your book will be profitable for them, you’re more likely to get a contract.

  5. Tuesday, June 15, 2010 11:50 am

    I’m wrestling with this so much right now. (I even wrote a bit about that on my blog today.) I know what I like to read but I like to write a wide genre of things. I have ideas that are crime thrillers and others that would almost qualify as romance.

    I’m wrestling with questions and now the one from Randy that you mentioned is eating at me: “What authors would you most like to write like? Write down the names of two or three authors whose style is close to what you think yours is.”

    Well, I’d like to write like Robert Ludlum or Steven James or Clive Barker…but I don’t know if I can get there or even it’s my style. I’m not sure what my “style” is because my first draft looked nothing like what I re-wrote for Genesis or critique at Blue Ridge. Is the first draft I wrote my real voice? Is it what I did for Blue Ridge? Where do babies come from?

    Ugh. My brain is tired and hurting.

  6. Tuesday, June 15, 2010 6:14 pm

    Jason has already seen this, as I left this comment on his blog post today, but I thought the rest of you might find it helpful, too.

    Trying your hand at writing multiple genres can be one of the best learning experiences you’ll ever have. Just because you enjoy reading action/adventure/serial-killer/super-spy books doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the genre in which you were meant to write. You are at the most wonderful point in your journey as a writer at which you can explore different genres, different types of storytelling, which published authors can’t—either because we don’t have time to or because we’ve gotten locked into writing one genre. And for authors who chased the market and wrote in a specific genre because “that’s what’s selling” rather than because that was the kind of story they liked to write, they’re now stuck writing books in a genre they may not necessarily like (or like anymore) because that’s the brand they’ve built for themselves.

    Write the baseball story if that’s the story that’s sticking out to you right now as one you might like to write.

    While it’s unusual, there are a few authors who have been successful at writing across genre lines, like Angie Hunt and James Patterson (though his cross-genre books are usually those he’s coauthored with others).

    You don’t have to brand yourself as writing a certain genre before you’re published. Again, you’re at the best point in your writing journey to try writing any and every story that comes your way, no matter what genre it may or may not fit in.

    Don’t pigeon-hole yourself and close doors that God may be opening for you to write in a variety of styles and genres because you’re “not supposed to write more than one genre.” Remember the motto of MTCW—THEY’RE NOT RULES, THEY’RE GUIDELINES. And if you’re anything like me, which I think you are in this case, when it’s running through your mind that “everyone says you shouldn’t/can’t,” your reaction should be, “who do they think they are, anyway? It’s my story, I’m going to write it.”

  7. Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:44 am

    As I mentioned, most of the questions you raised here would have been great for Rachelle G.’s current blog series on mixed-messages in the publishing industry. So great, in fact, that it’s exactly what she blogged on today:

    http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/06/write-from-your-heart-or-follow-trends.html

Trackbacks

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