Do You Write for Market or Write for Heart? Is it Possible to Do Both?

May 24, 2011

I’m a sucker for talent shows, especially singing-based shows. I love the idea of a kid from some obscure corner getting his or her shot and making it big. The moment they stand in front of a roaring crowd covered in confetti is the moment their dream comes true…and everything changes.

Sure, they go on to sing. But sometimes they sing crap. And often times, nobody hears from them for a few years until in an interview the once next-big-thing says, “I had to step away from the scene for awhile. I had to write my own music and really fight to sing it. This new album is all me, and it’s my proudest accomplishment.”

The album goes on to sell a few hundred copies, and the kid complains his or her record label didn’t provide enough support. A producer may say something about the kid being difficult or not having what it takes to make it in the industry, and we all shrug and say, “Who’s right? Who knows? Who cares?”

Because unless you sing and plan on becoming America’s (or Britain’s) next big musical talent, it’s irrelevant to you. Right? Not so fast.

If you write for publication, the musical contestant scenario isn’t too far from the decisions you may face. We aren’t talking whether or not these singers are talented enough to be singing. We’re talking whether or not these singers are talented enough to make it big on their own—as their own person, singing their own songs—versus singing someone else’s songs marked for commercial success. It’s the age-old battle of marketability vs. creative control.

My first three manuscripts were written without any input—not even Steven King On Writing, no Donald Maas putting fire in my fiction. I thought up some characters and wrote the stories the way some distant voice told it to me. I enjoyed the process and getting to know the “people.” But truth be told, like the singer who sounded brilliant in her lower registry but sucked when she jumped octaves, my moments of grandeur where outshined by massive amounts of suck. Still, I love those stories. They provided me with so many wonderful moments of release and rapture. They were the stories of my heart—suck and all.

But something happened when I finished my fourth manuscript and started looking for agents and publishers. I read a Harlequin Blaze and decided to look closer at the line. If I tweaked this, toned down that, pumped up the sex and cut about 20,000 words…Wa La! This manuscript becomes suitable for Blaze.

So I did it. I massacred my manuscript for marketability. (MMM)

MMM isn’t an easy thing to do. I don’t advise it. In the end, the story wasn’t exactly a Blaze at all. I went through a few other identity crises with the manuscript, slaughtering it further for different lines. In the end, I stuck with the shorter word count, but I left the heat level the same, kept the swear words and figured someone somewhere needed to love it “as is,” because I was done trying to make it something it simply wasn’t.

Sound familiar?

I’d like to say I learned from the MMM process enough to move on with my writing enlightened and without market pressure, but it’s not true. For my next manuscript, I decided to write for market from the beginning. I took an idea, read a dozen books from my chosen line, and I built the idea around the tropes and rhythms I was reading. It was easier than MMM, but difficult in a whole new way.

My characters started veering off the beaten path. My hero wanted to be free with vulgarities. My heroine wanted to try on meek for size. And the entire time I’m pounding on the keyboard, trying to “talk” sense into them.

“No! Absolutely not. This is NOT the way an H&H behave in a ________.”

More than once I thought about ditching the constraints and writing from my heart—for my heart—but the market pull is strong.

Where am I now? Still in the middle of this psychotic pinball game where I bounce back and forth between marketability and heart. I tell myself, “Self, when you sell something, then you can pick and stick.” If I sell to a certain line, I’m almost guaranteed one more book with that line. My career—and my decision—will be made.

But let’s be honest, it could take awhile. I guess I’m stuck in this pinball machine. Am I stuck with you? Do you write for your heart or for the market? Is it possible to do both?


2 Responses to “Do You Write for Market or Write for Heart? Is it Possible to Do Both?”

  1. Joanne Robinson Says:

    i write from the heart… my crit group try to keep me on the straight and narrow, not always (Well not often) successfully. the problem is, I write what I want to read….. maybe, one day ….

  2. I, too, prefer to write what I want to read. I think that makes writing to market even tougher, because while I’m reading for market, too, there may be things about the story I personally don’t like.

    It’s much easier to write from the heart AND not care if you ever get published. 😉


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