Copyright 2015 by Gabriel Connor Salter
Some writers have no trouble writing about what they love, and ignoring people who dismiss them for it. Others of us, especially those of us who write speculative fiction – as in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, all those genres – find it to be difficult.
It’s hard when you pour your heart and soul into a project, meld and polish it like a smith in his forge, and then submit it to publishers who say things like “Oh, it’s a… children’s fantasy novel. Well thank you, we’ll take it of course. Kind of a shame you couldn’t, you know, write a real book.”
These are the times when it’s really tempting to betray every intuitive bone in your body, and write what you think they want. Just quit writing about prophesied kings with magic sword or extraterrestrial grave-robbers and write a nice, dense, historical fiction novel. Something with long philosophical discussions that all the critics seem to ooh and aahh over.
It wouldn’t be so bad, would it really? I mean, it would just be doing is feeding publishers what they want to eat, right?
Actually, no. In fact, there are some very good reasons why we should stick to writing what we love to write if we want to succeed.
First, publishers are not looking for bandwagon writers. I recently listened to several talks given by four professional editors – an editor who currently teaches professional writing to college students, a nonfiction editor, a fiction editor, and a published writer who has edited manuscripts in both fields. They came different backgrounds and made different points, but all four of them mentioned the same thing: write stories that are unique to you.
Obviously, your stories should be well-crafted, and particularly in the beginning of your career they need to be stories you can actually market – try marketing a story pitch like “I’ve written a book about vampire hamsters, I’ve done the market research and no one’s done anything like it before,” and you probably won’t get anywhere.
But if you write about something you really care about, something other people can connect with on some level, then there’s a good chance publishers will want it. In a mass of books, the unique ones are what catch people’s attention.
Second, there really is a very simple reason where certain kinds of books make it big and become trends. It’s because someone wrote a book in that style, publishers took a chance on it, and it became a hit. J.R.R. Tolkien’s book Lord of the Rings was not expected to become a bestseller – it was too long, especially with England still suffering from paper shortages after WWII, and back then the fantasy genre was generally regarded as just “children’s literature.”
Eventually Tolkien’s publisher released Lord of the Rings as a trilogy and it became a phenomenon, influencing countless books that came after and proving that fantasy literature really was a serious genre that adults could enjoy.
Finally, while it may be hard to believe right now, if you write stories that are well-crafted and people can connect with, eventually people will look past how “silly” your writing is and admit you’re a good writer. I mentioned earlier that a story about vampire hamsters is not likely to get picked up; please note that I also said stories should be well-crafted. There is a slight possibility that someone in the future will write a story about vampire hamsters and their style will be so spot-on publishers will take a chance on it.
You don’t believe me? Let me give you a real-life example that isn’t too far off from that:
Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) was a journalist with several fantasy/sci-fi books in his name, none of which had generated much attention. Then in the early 1980’s he presented his publisher with a new book called The Color of Magic. Here is my own synopsis of the novel:
“There is a fantasy world known the Disc. It’s flat, like a giant pizza. The oceans surrounding the Disc perpetually tumble off the sides and land on four giant elephants who are holding up the Disc, and these elephants are standing on a giant turtle named Great A’Tuin. And Great A’Tuin is flying through space; various Disc theologians and scientists debate whether Great A’Tuin is male or female.
Anyway, one day in one of the Disc’s larger cities a failed wizard named Rincewind meets a tourist named Twoflower from the Agatean Empire, an extremely wealthy island kingdom. Actually, Twoflower is the first tourist ever on the Disc, mainly because all Disc inhabitants live in medieval societies that don’t leave much room to take dangerous journeys to exotic places “simply for the fun of it.” Rincewind agrees to give this madman a tour of the city, but their things quickly go downhill after Twoflower explains the Agatean concept of fire insurance to an indiscriminate bar owner, and the whole city is set ablaze.
Our heroes flee the city on horseback, following by Twoflower’s magic luggage cart that can walk by itself, and to Rincewind’s dismay they begin a long, exciting, and definitely dangerous adventure.”
You’d be very hard pressed to find a more ridiculous story than this.
But, because Pratchett wrote The Color of Magic as a satire – it was funny and serious at the same time – because he excelled at using grammar and style to good effect, and because he had an excellent sense of comic timing that makes his books incredibly fun to read, the book worked.
In fact, Pratchett went on to write 40 sequels to the Color of Magic, won major literary awards for several of them (including the Carnegie Medal and a knighthood for services to literature), and for most of the 1990’s (until J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series arrived on the scene) he was the bestselling author in the UK.
Now, not everyone can achieve Terry Pratchett’s level of success. But if you have genuine writing talent, are willing to find your particular niche in the writing world and stick with it, and develop your craftsmanship to the best it can possibly be, there isn’t any concrete reason you can’t be the next Terry Pratchett. Or the next (pick your favorite writer’s name and insert here). Better yet, the next you.