Writing a story, especially a first novel, is a difficult, hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, vein-popping, knuckle-scraping sort of thing. There are so many things to keep track of: character development, the main plot line, the subplot lines, consistent descriptions, pacing, voice, theme, and the list goes on and on. It includes audience.
Lots of people, especially well-established pantsers, will tell you not to pay any attention to audience as you write your book. There are reasons for that advice. There are darned good reasons for that advice!
Unfortunately, it’s, in my humble opinion, wrong. The thing about well-established writers is that they’re not competing as newbies in the contemporary marketplace. Things have changed. They always do. Currently, writing is a lot more market-driven than it was when many well-established writers started out. The intervening five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years have made a big, big difference. Publishing is a lot more market-driven, because life is a lot more market-driven. Life is a lot more market-driven, because the tools we use to live our lives are way more market-driven.
You use the web, Facebook, YouTube, your smartphone, you are filling your life with market-driven technologies. Each of these technologies reflects a new kind of market where free content is provided, because it’s funded by advertisements. It’s free, because they’re trying to sell you something else. All this technology has changed our culture in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that, inevitably, drives us to a more market-driven society.
In order to succeed as a writer in such a society, you need to produce a book that readers want to read—a lot of readers. That’s really the only way it works. And, unless you’re totally okay wasting your time, you need to have some idea that enough readers will want to read what you’re writing to make it worth your while. So, if you’re totally okay wasting your time—well, then, go ahead. Stop reading this and go write whatever comes to your mind. Good luck!
If you’re not at all okay with the risk that you’re wasting your time—well, then, get a different dream. There are absolutely no sure-things in the writing world. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something.
If you land somewhere in the middle, willing to risk wasting your time but not really okay with that, then you need to think about how to tell your story or a story you can make your story in a way that readers will want to read it. This is the way to stay true to your art and your craft, while also honoring your business.
Now, you can watch what’s trending, find a niche that’s going to trend and then write something nice and pulpy. Some writers actually like this kind of thing. Others do it to support themselves while working on their masterwork, often publishing under a pseudonym. Personally, I think it sacrifices too much of the craft and art of writing for the sake of the business of writing, but some would say I’m just too pretentious to understand. Others would say they’re sell-outs. But, the point is, if you do it well, you’ll laugh all the way to the bank. If you don’t, you might ruin your reputation. And only you can decide whether that’s a risk you’re willing to take.
If you want to stay true to your art and your craft and your business, then there’s another way: You can write what you really want to write (or a version of what you really want to write) and do so with the marketplace in the back of your mind. You don’t let the market drive what you write, just how you write it. It’s not as easy as selling-out. Staying true to the art, craft, and business of writing is never really easy. But it’s worth it, both financially and artistically. You can pay off your mortgage and feed your soul.
One example is a scenario I discussed over the course of several posts involving the writing of serials. As a first-time author, it’s best to start with a stand-alone novel, especially if you wish to pursue traditional publication. This may involve searching (and waiting) for a story idea that can truly stand on its own. Or, you may find that you’ve invested far too much of yourself in the first novel of a series to put it aside, but in that case you need to make sure the first book is satisfying in and of itself.
Another example is the tome. You know what I’m talking about! You come up with an elaborate tale and you tell it all in great detail. It’s complicated, intricate, layered, and all sorts of wonderful. It also breaks your print if you try to print all the pages at once, because it’s over a thousand (or two or three thousand) manuscript pages long. And you’re never going to sell it. Not as a single book. Not to a traditional publisher. Not in this day and age.
The sad truth is that books are getting shorter, because shorter books are less costly to print and distribute. Of course, if you go digital that doesn’t matter so much, but then someone has to sit staring at a screen through those thousand-plus pages. Now, you think your book is worth the extra expense or the mind-numb, eye-reddening experience of reading it on a screen, but those decisions are not up to you. They’re up to publishers and readers and we, as a society, just don’t tolerate that sort of thing.
So, yes, by all means, tell your story. The story that burns in your heart is probably going to be more valuable (in all senses of the word) then some piece of pulp you throw together to fit the market. BUT, at the same time, tell your story in a way that readers will actually want it.