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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