Writing Nowadays–Lesbian Vampires on Star Trek

Over and over I hear the same piece of writing advice touted around: Write what you want to write, not what you think will sell.


Let’s face it: writing commercial fiction is a business, and writers are business people. As a business-person, your job is to create a product that people want to buy.

In other words, you can create what you want all you like. It doesn’t mean anyone’s going to buy it.

As a non-publishing example, let’s look at the automobile industry. For years, American auto makers tried to tell their customers what they wanted, and they only made cars they figured people should buy. Japanese industrialists listened to the customers and created cars people actually wanted. And they creamed the Americans. Still do, for that matter.

What if you want to write about lesbian vampires on Star Trek? Or an eighth Harry Potter book? Or a book of blank verse poems in an alien language you created? (I swear I’m not making any of these up. People have pitched all these ideas at me and asked what I thought.) You can have all the enthusiasm and writing skill you want, but no one’s going to touch your book.

Writing what you want is not the golden ticket to getting published. What happens is that what some authors want to write happens to be what lots of people want to read, and those authors enjoy commercial success. There’s no cause-and-effect between writing what you want and commercial success.

Having said that, it’s definitely a bad idea to run in the opposite direction and try to write only what you think people want to read. Your scorn (or at least your lack of enthusiasm) will drag your writing down, and it won’t be any fun to read. You’re not enjoying yourself, so your readers won’t either. It’s also extremely difficult to second-guess the book market. By the time you write your own Jane-Austen-With-Zombies novel, the reading public will have moved on to something else.

The key is to find a balance. Your story idea needs to grab your enthusiasm and be something that will appeal to a large number of people. Avoid ideas that are too narrow or will turn off most people when they hear the concept but do include things that people will like. Some elements that help make an idea more marketable include:

–a likeable protagonist (this is probably the most important)
–some kind of romantic relationship
–an interesting setting (it doesn’t have to be exotic, just interesting)
–a little humor now and then
–plot elements normal people can identify with

That last one is key. You can be enthusiastic about your necrophilia-for-fun-and-profit story, but normal people ain’t coming along for the ride. Same goes for a story in which children are tortured and killed in grisly detail. Make your story neat or cool or fascinating for lots of people. Shakespeare did.

What else makes an idea worth using?

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–Lesbian Vampires on Star Trek — 13 Comments

  1. Your idea can be wacky if you like. But your job is to seduce me into it — convince me, with excellence or brio or SOMETHING, to love it. I speak as a person who would have sworn that it was impossible to musicalize LES MISERABLES.

  2. I can believe six impossible things before breakfast–which is to say, as a reader I will give the story a whole lot of latitude before I throw it against the wall. Give me a scenario I would not otherwise have thought workable with good characters, internal logic, and decent writing, and I’ll string along. But the minute my attention begins to fray, a bad idea starts glowing like neon.

  3. Besides, there’s nothing more unpleasant that wondering whether you’re incompetent or just writing something that no one else would want to read.

  4. Except that Shakespeare’s contains oodles of grisly violence. This is rather obvious advice, given the readership of the blog, and increasingly irrelevant given today’s burgeoning of the niche market. People write “eighth Harry Potter” books galore — they’re called tie-ins (aka sanctioned fanfic). The car analogy is inexact, given that a car has concrete repercussions on a wide spectrum of things in one’s life, from gas usage to parking spot size to price of repairs. Finally, “neat” and “cool” remain and will remain matters of individual taste.

  5. Athena, I have to disagree. No one is going to publish a Harry Potter sequel except Rowling herself. Shakespeare did use quite a lot of violence, and it was violence his audience =wanted.= However, he could only go so far. He was unable to have MacBeth kill the king on stage because it would have squicked the audience. He had to limit his idea to what his customers wanted.

    “Neat” and “cool” are indeed matters of taste, but large numbers of people tend to find similar things neat and cool. (This is why some books become best-sellers.) If no two people liked the same thing, no one would buy the same book. If you want your work to reach large numbers of people, your ideas need to match what those people find neat and cool.

  6. That’s why I’ve liked the e-book market, because I can write what I want, stuff that a print market wouldn’t take. Though as far as “plot elements normal people can identify with,” I keep missing the mark on that somehow. . .

  7. When I teach my writing workshop, the pupils are astonished to discover that readers have well-defined expectations — even when the readers are themselves. There is a nearly universal demand for plot resolution, for consistent characters, for rising tension. Any failure elicits whining and complaint: “But, why did she suddenly sleep with him? It makes no sense.” “But how can they fall into an ambush six times in a row? Are they born stupid?” “But, what happened to the invasion of Gondor? Why did all the characters go off to have coffee instead of defending the city?”
    It’s all in Aristotle — the Poetics, to be exact.

  8. Totally relate to the poor guy writing vampires for Star Trek. I like things to be DIFFERENT. I don’t want the same, which is why I end up writing mysteries that more about characters than dead bodies. It’s possible to meet all the criteria for appealing to the mass market and still miss the mark, I promise. I’d add “it needs conflict to keep pages turning” and “it needs to meet the expectations of the market you’re writing in.”
    And even while we try to find the right formula, there are still books like Dexter that really don’t fit any genre. So the story has to work for a large number of people, but how is always an open question.

  9. As Le Guin says, you can try for excellence, in which case you may produce anything from excellence to trash. Or you can try for trash, in which case success is guaranteed.

  10. Steven, bestsellers are random and can never be repeated (hence the abject failure of authors and publishers who try to “ride a trend”). My point about sequels was general, not specific to Potter. I’m with Patrician and John on this. Try to create passable mediocrities that are calibrated to “please” and that’s what you’ll end up with — at best.

  11. Another point, pertinent to e-books: editors, especially today, are timid and recipe-prone because publishing has indeed become a business with focus on the bottom line (most memorable authors, from Woolf to Tolkien, would never ever have been published today).

    As one result of this, editors underestimate the intelligence and curiosity of their readers. Certainly, they will always be people who want to read the next Robert Jordan toe-bruiser or the next Star Wars fill-in. But there are also people who want the new and unusual — or who appreciate the unexpected when they see it.

    Editors could start intellectual shifts once. Now they are managers. In fact, I know from the time I wrote my book that many call themselves acquisition managers. A sad devolution.