(Taken from the chapter 'You as a Writer' in 'Write On! - the writer's help book' - Accent Press)
A subject which occasionally pops up whenever writers gather together in furtive huddles and talk about the art of putting words on paper, is ‘writing for a market’. Now, if you’re new to the business and taking your first tentative steps onto the page, this won’t mean much. You may, after all, still be wondering where the heck the market is, let alone trying to write for it.
The term simply means aiming a feature, story or book at a specific type of publication or genre, depending on readers’ interests. Thus, a short story featuring love and romance would usually find a home in women’s magazines. A non-fiction piece about cars would generally be best targeted at one of the motoring publications. (That said, depending on the slant, it might be of interest to other publications where an element of the same story – perhaps the personal experience of the writer – could make it more of a general-interest piece).
With any market, the most important thing is to study the available guidelines. These will tell you how many words to use, the style to follow, the ‘do nots’ as well as the ‘dos’, and how to submit your piece. Ignore these basic requirements and the editor will likely have an attack of the vapours and set fire to your manuscript.
It makes absolute sense for anyone trying to make a commercial go of their work to get used to writing for a market in this way. They may, after a while and a few acceptances under their belt, find themselves being commissioned to write more, ending up concentrating on a specialised market for which they feel comfortable writing.
Penning novels is somewhat less precise. Like pregnant elephants, they go through a lengthy gestation period accompanied by a lot of fuss and noise. They take longer to 'sell', edit and publish, and may finally hit the bookshops anything up to two years after acceptance. Many an eager writer has taken note of what is currently ‘hot’ in the best-seller lists and rushed home to feverishly thrash out their version, convinced of sure-fire success, only to find at the end that tastes have moved on and everyone is going bananas about something else entirely.
It’s essential for any writer to keep an eye on what is selling, whether producing a 1,000-word story or a book of 90,000 words. Choose a topic which hasn’t been in vogue since papyrus was the big thing, and you’re wasting your time. Magazines cannot use them, agents can’t place them with publishers and bookshops may have a problem categorising them. And in this compartmentalised and fickle world, if something can’t easily be labelled, it may be all too quickly ignored.
In effect, these are basic market rules that are as old as the hills. As Confucius might have said: ‘He who loads barrow with stuff nobody wants is dumb bunny’.
The only way round this is to study your target market. Haunt the racks in newsagents, browse the bookshops and see what's in vogue. Find out what keeps on selling and you stand a better chance of success than simply pitching any old story into an envelope and hoping for the best.
There was a time eons ago, when I used to write stories I knew my mother would like. (Not as weird as you might think because my mother used to inhale magazine fiction, and it seemed like a good idea at the time). It was also a great training ground. I didn't run my stories past her first, as early experience showed it merely led to doting smiles and being told to finish my tea. But I knew what subjects she liked and sometimes used her as a sounding board - until she turned to reading hospital stories, in which I had no interest whatsoever. It's a tough call when your own mother loses interest in your work... but character-forming.
This leads neatly onto an important proviso: be wary of writing anything that goes against your instincts, or about which you don’t feel comfortable. If romantic stories are what float your boat, then why not stick with what you know? If you prefer reading crime or fantasy novels, and are comfortable with the terminology, pace and style, then go with them.
The easier it is to begin writing, the easier it will be to finish.
Along with studying a market or genre, you first have to please yourself. If you aren’t happy with what you’ve written, ten pence to a pound of old kippers, neither will the agent, editor or reader. You should enjoy what you’re putting on the page, because if you like it, it will have a more genuine, fresher feel than if writing about something in which you have no real interest. Equally, creating characters you don’t really like will come across as cardboard cut-outs, lacking depth. (They may be thoroughly unlikable to the reader, but that's a different thing altogether).
They say it’s a poor comic who laughs at his own jokes. I take the view that if I’m not pleased with what I’ve written, why should anyone else be? Yes, most of us will feel at some stage that we could have structured something better, or approached a story from a different viewpoint and so on. But that’s the learning process, and how we become better writers.
TOP TIPS· What market do you really want to write for? Having a focus is a huge help.
· Writing against your instincts can be frustrating and off-putting.
· Try to be pleased with what you have written.
· Have fun with your writing – suffering for your art is an urban myth.