On Writing for a Market

In one of the later seasons of the now-done-and-dusted 30 Rock, lovable idiot Tracy Jordan goes through an arc where he questions both the person he’s become and the legacy he’ll leave behind. Tracy made his millions with lowbrow nonsense like The Chunks, Who Dat Ninja, Fat Bitch II and Sherlock Homie (I suppose mirroring the career trajectories of Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler); now he wants to reinvent himself as a proper dramatic actor. To this end, he sets himself the goal of getting his EGOT, which is the quadfecta of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

Bear with me now…. Tracy’s first attempt at proving his legitimacy is the horribly misguided vanity project, Jefferson, a, uh, poorly casted Thomas Jefferson biopic. But this is only a minor misstep, for when he appears in the comically OTT Hard to Watch (think Eight Mile, or Vincent Chase’s Queens Boulevard), critics and audiences are enamoured, and so begins the reign of Tracy Jordan, Serious Artisté.


‘This honky grandma be trippin’!’

What Tracy Jordan’s example did – besides give me an ear-to-ear smile – was it forced me think about how I view myself as a writer and where I’d fit in the marketplace. I’ve been writing for years now, but when people ask what I write I often falter at the question. Short stories, mostly. But in what style? I don’t know – my style? I’ve always thought I’d leave that stuff to the marketers. I suppose literary fiction is my first love. It’s probably what I write most. But that label seems so … restrictive. If I embraced the title of literary author, I’d be denying myself the chance to write comedy or fluff. I love writing humour too, see, and I’m not at all opposed to trying some genre or commercial stuff, like horror, fantasy (albeit not high fantasy) and maybe even romance.

From a business perspective, it makes all the sense in the world that agents and publishers would advise writers to stick to a particular style or genre. That’s, of course, how you create a marketing identity, how you carve a niche. But geez I couldn’t think of anything worse than having to write every book or story in the same vein, especially if it’s just for brand recognition or in accordance with outside pressures. It’s both sad and funny that a creative writer would be advised to squash their creativity to engender sales. That’s not to say one can’t create a valuable body of work writing in just the one style or genre, but I do admire when authors have the audacity to leave comfort zones behind.

At the risk of sounding douchey, I’d say my writing is a reflection of my reading tastes and my reading tastes are wide and inclusive. Maybe that’s how I justify to myself the fact that I’m still not really sure what corner of the bookshop my work belongs. Naively, I try not to think about it. All I know is that writing in unfamiliar styles is fun, challenging and a great way to shake off the cobwebs.

This brings me to my main question, which is whether it’s okay to tailor stories to an individual market. As usual, there’s no definitive answer to this. It’s up to the individual to draw their own line in the sand. Doubtless, many would raise their hands and say, ‘Sure it’s okay! An opportunity’s an opportunity! There are so few available to us, so it’s our right to seize every last one.’ Others might say there’s something unethical about it, that writing that comes from somewhere other than the heart is disingenuous. Both views are valid.

Last week I submitted to Deakin University’s Windmills. The theme of the issue was subversive fairytales and the word limit was a paltry 1,000 words. Besides being brought up on animated Disney films (VHS, baby!), my knowledge of fairytales is far from extensive. I’m pleased fairytale adaptations have had a resurgence lately – particularly the darker stuff – but I wouldn’t say they’re a passion of mine.

So why did I bother writing something for the issue? To challenge myself. Honestly, to me, a story’s a story. Since I’m not well-versed in fairytale mythology, I just treated this set of characters like I would any others – that is, I tried to draw them as realistically and vividly as possible. The greater challenge was compressing a story into the word limit and not having it read like a vignette.

One might think 1,000 words is nothing, that it could be dashed off in an afternoon (the effort being worth the minuscule investment of time). That’s a major misconception, at least in my experience. Short short stories may be easy to write, at least ostensibly, but they’re a damn sight harder to write well. I have great respect for anyone who can pull off micro or flash fiction; it’s truly an art form unto itself. Anyway, whether or not I succeeded with my story remains to be seen, but even if the Windmills editors decide not to include it, I’ll still be grateful for the experience.

* * *

Despite all this positivity, there’s a niggling feeling in my gut. I don’t think it’s indigestion. Does writing something for a pre-existing market make me some kind of sell-out? I mean, if a musician did that sort of thing, the public would hang them by their entrails. Is credibility an artist’s most valuable commodity? Why do we have this innate need to respect the writers, musicians and actors whose work we admire? I mean, it’s not like we know them personally; experiencing their work isn’t some kind of prospective friend interview.

I don’t know, man … I don’t know …

Deep down, though, I think I must be comfortable with it – writing for markets, I mean. For one thing, I know the story I wrote for Windmills is quintessentially my own. It’s still honest; it still sounds like me. The only thing different about its genesis is that I wrote it from a prompt. Responding to prompts is considered a legitimate writing approach. It’s an exercise creative writing classes use all the time. So what makes it more honourable than, say, ghost writing? Is it the lack of commerce? Is it the fact that your response to a prompt is still yours, still genuine, whereas a ghost writer’s impetus is to follow blueprints and adhere to far more rigid terms? It’s interesting to think about

To sum this up, I’d like to confess my own EGOT-esque writing goal. (Hopefully doing so will keep me honest about following it through.) After a bit of soul searching, I can finally admit that I’m just not that interested in writing novels. I’ve tried to be; I understand that writing novels is the most viable and practical road on an otherwise impractical career path. But alas I just can’t sustain interest in a single project. At least not right now. I just want to write short stories. I suppose compiling some of my favourites could be on the cards: y’know, down the line. But for now, I’m content sending work to journals and entering short story contests.

Like the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, I’d love to be represented by all the major Australian journals: Meanjin, Overland, Going Down Swinging, etc. Of course, I’m still wearing my ‘emerging writer’ badge, and there’s an almost tangible sense that those journals are for Serious Writers, the ones with experience and something valid and substantial to say. It’s a dumb insecurity, I know. And though it weighs on my mind, I’ll still pitch to these journals regardless. A publication credit with any of them would do wonders for my confidence. Also, I tentatively admit, it would legitimise me, my writing, all of it. I genuinely hold those publications in very high esteem – probably as high as American writers hold The New Yorker.

Still, right now I don’t feel ready, don’t feel good enough. I know that when I finally get around to hitting Send, it’ll be with complete terror in my veins.


4 thoughts on “On Writing for a Market

  1. While I agree there is pressure to write for a particular audience – and therefore, in a particular style – I feel as though making decisions about the type of writer you are this early in your career is counter-productive. You’re trying to make a name for yourself right now; getting the attention of publishers and editors is difficult in a world of would-be writers and Twitter enthusiasts who think a few sarcastic jibes will eventually turn into a book deal (even though it sometimes does).

    You shouldn’t limit yourself in any way, right now. You should write in different styles; you should use prompts from literary journals as inspiration; you should pursue all of your ideas, and chalk them up as practise if you decide a certain genre, for example, isn’t for you. If you’ve decided you don’t want to write novels, it’s all the more reason to focus on establishing Tom O’Connell the writer, as opposed to what type of stories Tom O’Connell writes. I’ve never been accused of being an avid reader of literary fiction, but my perception gives me the sense that writers within that bracket are followed by readers due to their style, not their stories, necessarily.

    You mention having ‘wide and inclusive’ reading tastes, which is wonderful. I think writers need a balance in the type of things they read; it exposes them to the idea that there is something beyond the niche they love – something that may, in fact, inspire a clever twist to their own genre. Obviously I read a lot of YA, but within that marketing-devised category is a lot of genre stuff. Genres like fantasy and paranormal romance sell well in YA on the back of other similar successful novels. I have no interest in genre writing myself, but I would never rule it out. During my studies I was forced to read and write new things and they were just as inspiring to me as the books to which I regularly cleave. What’s my point? I believe it is not an accident that certain ideas come to specific writers, and as writers, we owe something to the little glimmer of inspiration that comes to us. We at least owe it a chance to become something. Down the track, when you are published, it’s really your agent and publisher’s marketing team’s problem to sell you to the widest audience. Your loyal readers may be a smaller group but they’ll go wherever you lead them.

    It’s so funny that you have a similar feeling about respecting musicians or artists, and feeling a sense of … betrayal, almost, when they do things differently. For me, this all boils down to honesty. I whole-heartedly believe that all artists, no matter the medium, are saying something about themselves through their work. If your favourite singer/songwriter decides to ‘branch out’ and cut a pop record out of the blue, it’s difficult to admit to yourself, as a fan, that what they’re saying this time is, ‘I’m interested in making more money/being more popular/being re-signed to my label.’ Call it the romance of being a writer/artist; if someone isn’t showing me their heart, I find it near-impossible to invest my energy in their work.

    I love your EGOT-esque writing goal. What would you call it? MOG? Include all the journals you’d like to be published in and get back to us, please. My favourite part is that it’s totally acheivable. There is no reason why you couldn’t be published in all of them. I’m concerned, however, about this particular quote:

    ‘Of course, I’m still wearing my ‘emerging writer’ badge, and there’s an almost tangible sense that those journals are for Serious Writers, the ones with experience and something valid and substantial to say.’

    You went on to say that it is a dumb insecurity, but with all due respect, I think you’re wrong. What makes you think anything you have to say is any less valid or substantial than an established writer?

    Personally, I like your story ideas and your style, and I have a lot of faith in your ability, and while I understand self-doubt, you have to believe in what you’re writing – especially if it’s saying something about you. I’ve come to understand that deeming my ideas unworthy is the same as deeming myself and my ability unworthy, which is tantamount to negative self-talk. People – even I – have tried to work out the formula for success in the publishing world, but there isn’t one. Stories float around until the audience, and the publishers, are ready to receive them. Just write, Mr O’Connell; what will be, will be.

    I’ll get off my soap-box now. 🙂

    – V

    • Wow! What an incredibly thoughtful response! Sincerely, I appreciate the time and effort.

      Self-confidence is likely something I’ll always struggle with. That’s what’s at the heart of this post, and it was astute of you to see that. On a conscious level, I’m more than aware that worrying about marketing at an unpublished level (well, anytime, really) is energy wasted. All of that is so far beyond the writer’s control. Deep down, I know that.

      • Oh boy. Replying on my phone was a bad idea… To refer to what you wrote means losing my place. For some reason I can’t get back to the bottom of what I’m typing, so I have to start a new comment. Smart phone, indeed!

        * Just typed a paragraph out only to misplace the cursor and lose everything. Sorry, but I think it’d be best if I respond to this properly when I have proper computer access!

    • Right! Let’s try again:

      Again, thank you so much for the generous comment! You’re completely right: I ought not to worry myself about things which will only be issues in the distant, distant future (if at all). They say that’s the cart getting ahead of the horse. A friend and I (Neal of ‘Wet Paint’ fame) had a different name for it (here comes a digression!):

      When I was eighteen/nineteen, I, like many young men before me, flirted with the idea of learning the guitar. I practised a lot on my roommate’s guitar but, as happens, ran into an early roadblock: namely, that I couldn’t tune the thing by ear. To help me out, my roommate recorded .wav files of what each string ought to sound like. The idea being that I would use these as references when I felt like the guitar had fallen out of tune. A novel idea, really, but it didn’t factor in that I was not discerning enough to match up the sounds on the computer with the sounds coming out of my guitar.
      I became obsessed with rectifying this, subconsciously convincing myself that this tuning issue was the reason I was struggling with learning to play. With hindsight, I realise I was just looking for excuses to avoid the hard work of practising. Or maybe I was just finding clever ways to justify my lack of natural talent. Whichever the case, I went into a music shop with a different friend (Neal) and rescued from the bargain bin a peripheral that I thought would help: a guitar tuner holder. (Just to be clear: I mean a guitar tuner holder — the little plastic brace that holds the tuner to the neck.) I think, in my naivety, that I made this purchase because I mistook it for an actual guitar tuner. I didn’t realise until after I’d left the store, but what I’d bought was just a superfluous accessary — one I’d bought before the more necessary purchases of the guitar tuner and, y’know, the actual guitar. From then on, Neal and friends would use the words ‘guitar tuner holder’ (no context required!) whenever I was getting ahead of myself and ploughing into some zany scheme. It was our esoteric version of the ‘cart before the horse’ idiom.

      This post (‘On Writing for a Market’) has ‘guitar tuner holder’ written all over it. Although I’m several years older, I’m still finding ways to disguise my insecurities in these wild excuses. That’s not to say that the issues I’ve brought up aren’t true (author branding, etc.), but — as you rightly pointed out — they’re hardly of any concern to me: an unpublished nobody. I will continue to experiment with styles and genres. I think, on some unconscious level, what I was saying was that I KNOW one must (should) commit to a particular style or project in order to move forward with their writing career. I fear that by justifying my decision to be a literary chameleon (my ‘flipfloppery’, as I’ve dubbed it), I may be wasting time on experimental endeavours that ultimately won’t amount to anything. In a sense, it’s like instead of giving literary fiction writing a red-hot go (sending something finished and substantial to a publisher, etc), I’m pissing about with these genre-hopping short stories, under the guise of ‘experimenting’ or ‘finding my voice’. That’s a very Freudian analysis (one I’ve only made because you contested some of what I’d written), but the insecurity is definitely there.

      That’s what appeals to me about writing short stories: the smaller investment of time/effort not only means that my interest can be sustained, but also that my fears of being ‘not good enough’ can be cast aside just long enough to emerge with a finished product. It’s not like I hate the idea of writing a novel. It’s just that I believe I physically can’t do it — not without some sort of divine intervention. I know myself; I know that I would shut down on a longterm project and it wouldn’t get seen through to fruition. If my options are to try and fail at writing a novel, or to put myself through the emotional meat grinder and come out with a bunch of finished short stories, well, I’d pick the option that doesn’t leave me feeling like a complete failure.

      This is getting awfully harrowing, so I’ll move on. I’m glad you could relate to that sense of disappointment when an artist lets you down. I find I really question my allegiance to bands that make the jump to favouring commercial success. As you say, it’s dishonest. You want to be able to put your heart wholly into the music. You want to relate, to feel some sense of kinship with the souls on the other end. When following trends becomes more important to the songwriters than having integrity, well then it feels like a betrayal. It’s stupid, in a pragmatic sense, but it happens. Some of my friends – the casual music listeners – can’t understand it. They think I’m fickle, and maybe I am. I don’t get worked up over ALL bands; some I just listen to for fun, and have no expectations of them either way. But bands that’ve proven to me that they’re capable of creating music of substance can’t go back. They can’t suck me in with their message, then contradict themselves.

      Glad you approve of the EGOT (I’m sure I could construct a more appropriate acronym, but EGOT just sounds so right!). It is achievable, you’re right. I’m trying to find a way to become more proactive about submitting and was struck by the relevance of Tracy Jordan and his wisdom.

      Finally, in regards to readers following authors regardless of stylistic shifts: I hope that’s true. Truly, I welcome the authors I admire trying new things (provided it doesn’t reek of shark-jumping), but I fear the masses think differently. There are plenty of times on Goodreads or last.fm when I’ve seen users give thoughtless, dismissive reviews based on a writer or musician trying something that doesn’t align with their expectations. Not selling out, necessarily, but experimenting with different genres. Melina Marchetta’s ‘Finnikin’ series is one that springs to mind. That series mightn’t appeal to her usual readership, but is that justification for snarky one-star reviews? That’s what’s distressing about it; that’s why publishers dissuade authors from going against their ‘author brand’. Nothing to be done about it, really; I just wish people weren’t so close-minded or quick to judge.

      Thanks again for the kind words. Hope you enjoy reading my diary … Opps! I mean, this comment!

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