Wednesday, March 17, 2021

"Write What You Want" is Often Terrible Advice

There are a lot of misconceptions about what it's like being an author. From how much money we really make, to the hours we work, to just how much of the job is promotion to how much is actually writing, those are all things that can be corrected (if people listen to those of us who actually do this for a living). However, there is a piece of advice I keep seeing that I'd like to address today. Because it is both unhelpful, and it can actually be harmful to both your career and your mindset if you embrace it too hard.

The idea is, in short, that when you sit down at your desk to start up a new project that you should just do whatever your little heart desires! No matter the genre, no matter the length, no matter the style, you are the master of this ship, and it will sail wherever you want it to go!

Just grab an idea! I'm sure they're all good ones.

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Why This Advice is Misguided

To be clear, there are two circumstances where this advice is relatively harmless. The first is if you are here primarily for the experience of writing, and if your only real goals are to finish a project and enjoy the ride. The folks who just want a book out there who wouldn't say no to a juicy royalty check, but for whom that is a bonus, not the goal. The second is if you are an author who already has a dedicated fan base that will read anything you put out, so you can basically guarantee there's going to be a certain amount of support for your book no matter what it is, or where it goes.

For the rest of us, though, this phrase plants an idea that I've found can be toxic; it's the idea that you are always right, and it's your readers who need to get on your level.

The crowd decides... not you.

The advice Maximus was given in Gladiator is perhaps the best advice you can take to heart as an author. It isn't your skill with a blade that matters. It's not how fast you can complete the task. It's the show you put on, and whether you can win the crowd to your side.

Now apply that to your books.

Because you might be a proficient author with a flair for drama... but if you don't turn that skill toward telling a story people actually want to read, then nobody's going to buy your book. And to add insult to injury, someone who may lack your technical skill as a writer will probably have more success than you have if they are better at pandering to the mob.

Because at the end of the day, once you cut through all the faff and chaff, that's what your job is. Entertaining the masses, plain and simple.

So I'm Supposed To Hate What I'm Writing?

To get out ahead of the bold, italic text here, there's a big difference between working on projects you don't enjoy, and tempering your enthusiasm with an understanding of where the market is going, what drives reader interest, and how much energy it's going to take to turn what you're working on into a reliable seller.

As an example.

To be clear, I had a lot of fun working on Marked Territory... but it was not my first pick for my next project when I sat down to sketch it out. At the time I was considering working on a sequel for my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or perhaps writing a modern-fantasy story where a recently-reanimated Chicago detective has to solve the mystery of his own murder (while simultaneously allowing the readers to explore the bizarre underbelly of the world of the undead).

But then I brought copies of From A Cat's View to Windy Con, and that basically decided me.

For those not familiar with the novel, Leo is my heavy with a heart of gold who ends up getting his whiskers involved in other people's problems in New York City. But I debuted him in a short story titled Stray Cat Strut in the anthology of cat stories. I brought 10 copies or so to the con just because it was the newest book that I had, and within a day they'd all been sold. I didn't even have a table at the con, but they were out of my hands faster than I could say, "Film noir cats."

That's what I'm talking about in this case. My sample size was pretty small, but I asked around in writing groups, various social media groups I was in, and tried to read the room. The amount of interest people showed not just in the short story, but also in hearing more about Leo, his adventures, and the weird world he inhabited, meant that the smart money for me was to focus my energy on writing stories about him. Lo and behold it was that rather unique genre mash-up that got me noticed by a publisher, and at time of writing I've completed a second tale (pun very much intended) following our bruiser through the mean streets of NYC.

So while I still have other ideas and projects trying to catch my eye, it's important to hold your ideas at arm's length, and examine them critically. Don't just ask what would be fun to work on; ask which of them is going to get you the results you want. Because it's a lot easier to work on passion projects once you have an audience listening, and enough earnings rolling in that the next book doesn't have to make a massive splash in order to help you keep your lights on.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my noir thriller Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

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