People are sometimes confused about the phrase “writing to market”. On the one hand, it sounds like tropes and elements, that are unique to each genre. That’s half of it. Tropes should be sustained and elevated, same same but different: it’s about meeting reader expectations and requirements – this is what they wanted and paid for. If you don’t deliver, they will question whether they’re in the right place at all.
The other half, however, involves plot points which are pretty universal in commercial fiction: establish ordinary world before call to adventure, etc. You can hit a dozen very specific plot points without it ever seeming planned or contrived, because what happens can be unique to your story.
Then there’s stuff like conflict, suspense, intrigue, which are absolutely essential to get right and more than just what happens; this is craft level that should be in every scene – and is usually done the same way, but never feels repetitive.
If you only focus on including genre elements, you’re missing 2/3rds of what it takes to keep readers reading, which is usually what I find when authors say writing to market doesn’t work for them. (Obligatory disclaimer: there’s no ‘right way’ to write a book and this is my humble opinion).
I made a video walking through the 3 important things most authors miss, which detoured into a deep dive of my revision process and work in progress. Writing to market is about satisfying readers, and making sure they read till the very end, so getting the conclusion right is critical.
“Write whatever you want!”
Recently I saw a post on a writing blog that included a little permission slip to write whatever you want, however you want, wherever you want. That’s great marketing, because it’s the feel-good content most authors are thrilled to discover. But it’s bad advice.
It leads to the ideation that success is a coin flip. You don’t know who’s going to like what, there’s no rhyme or reason to what books are successful, so why not just do what you enjoy and see what happens?
Because it’s not a coin flip.
Books are a consumable medium. There are very clear patterns and strategies behind engaging books that hold readers’ attentions, and very clear signs of weak or amateur writing. It’s a myth that writing books is a modernistic exercise in nihilism, that can be “great” even or especially when no actual readers enjoy reading them.
Nobody owes you their time, attention or support when you’re producing things they don’t care about or enjoy. In fact, you are choosing to create things they won’t like without caring enough to consider your readership.
I understand writing can be exhausting and overwhelming, but it’s not a mystery. It’s a learnable skill. That doesn’t always mean you should pressure yourself to do what’s uncomfortable. By all means, take it easy when you need to. Change things up if you need to. You don’t have to be writing: there are lots of other fun things to do and lots of other ways to make money.
But if you want to write books readers love enough to pay for (read that phrase again slowly) don’t assume your absolutely untrained, feel-good enthusiasm as you stumble through another broken manuscript is miraculously going to turn out OK.
99% of books don’t sell because they are not well written.
And many books that are “well-written” don’t sell because the story isn’t interesting or engaging. Writing GOOD isn’t enough, because most authors focus on the small stuff and don’t learn the really big, important stuff. This isn’t hard to learn, if you’re skilled at recognizing patterns and reducing them into frameworks and replicable strategies.
This doesn’t ever mean copying, at all, of course.
Personally my books are pretty insane, full of unexpected twists, and steeped in heavy literary references from myth and history. It’s what I enjoy writing, and what I’ve written, and I’m slowly building an audience around it. But I’m completely willing to abandon projects that nobody is interested in, and focus on understanding how I can reach and satisfy larger audiences.
I’ve been called a hack (and much worse) as if that’s a bad word: someone who is looking to quickly master the fundamentals enough to succeed fast by taking short cuts and focusing on results; not doing it the right way or the traditional way; excelling at the basics so I can innovate new paths forward.
I consider myself more of a slow, plotting artist, and I recognize I may never be as gifted as some other writers I admire (however: never compare your first draft with other’s final polish!). But I’m not competing against others. I’m only trying to improve my own capabilities.
And I can only do that by having a clear, fixed unit of measurement for things like “quality” – if the definition is “quality doesn’t matter as long as I’m happy” or “quit writing when it gets frustrating because I don’t know how to do it differently” – those definitions will never allow me to improve or prosper as a writer.
Mental health is important. Confidence is important. Don’t beat yourself up over it (while also recognizing that personal frustration and dissatisfaction with your writing isn’t something to avoid or outgrow, it’s always going to be a necessary and integral part of the writing journey).
If you’re ready to take a small step forward, check out my list of common writing mistakes, or my plot dot novel template. If you’re ready to take a big leap forward, get my overwrought manual to writing fiction or my free fiction writing masterclass.
If you’re looking for something more fun and practical, check out my breakdown of Tomorrow War or Snyder’s Cut Justice League.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.