The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
(The right words in) the right order

Whores, dishes and crackly feedback

A while ago a US writer said that if you allow any thought of the market to affect your writing, then you're not a writer, you're a whore (and the comment made me so cross that I'm not going to try to find dates or names). And now I see that my post The Market for Ropes has been picked up as expressing my strong views about writing for the market. Well, I do have strong views about lots of things, but that wasn't quite what I was getting at in that post. What I was trying to express there was that thinking about product, at the wrong moment in your practice, really screws up your writerly horse sense, your intuition, your instincts about what your writing needs and how it works.

But it's true that whether you should write for the market is a hardy perennial of most writers' talk. That US novelist, who'd better stay nameless otherwise I'll want to make a wax figure to stick pins into, is talking bunk. Because the market really doesn't have horns and a tail, still less fishnets and a basque: the market is another word for readers. Who else are we writing for? If we were really writing 'for ourselves' then we wouldn't go through the pressures and tediums and panics of getting published: we'd be quite happy sitting at home, scribbling away, and then stashing the notebooks under the bed: it wouldn't even matter if no one could read your writing. Yes, the writing process is actually a constantly revolving writing-reading-writing-reading cycle - we are our own first reader - but storytelling is fundamentally a communicative act. It needs a teller with a story but also an audience, and, to date, the only way to get lots of people to hear your story (and to feed and clothe yourself while you write the next one) is to put your words out into the market, which for better or worse is only the size it is because it can pay people to write, publish, print and sell books as a day job. (And no, sorry, giving away work on the internet is not the answer. What am I supposed to live on while I'm writing?)

What the art Calvinists don't acknowledge is that as soon as you clothe the ideas in your mind in words, and put them on paper so that others can read them, you're actually writing for a market: you're playing by a set of highly sophisticated, extremely evolved conventions about how storytelling works in our culture. In placing so much as a comma, let alone in describing a character, we're taking account of how readers read commas and characters: how they will affect their experience of the story. On the larger scale we use conventions of plot, ideas and prose as a carrier signal for what we're trying to say. And for a carrier signal to work, we have to know what equipment will be receiving it at the other end: who our readers are.

On the other hand, it's perfectly true that we all know the kind of routine rom com or spaceshipiana or plotless, overwritten faux-lit, which has been written to tick exactly the right market boxes, (it seems - you can never be sure of any writer's real intentions, but then neither can the writer) and for no other reason. Usually they're me-too versions of books which did do something new and interesting in either plot, ideas or prose, however dire the other elements - fourth-rank Bridget Jones, fifth-generation Dune, wannabe Roth. So it's no wonder that most of us, who live and breathe the breathtaking ideas, strange new worlds and new-minted words of good fiction, recoil in honest horror (or unappealing but headline-grabbing snobbery) from the notion that we should be ticking boxes. We will write for ourselves, and no one else! Fine, but don't blame me if no one else wants to read it: why should I want to read what you've written, if you've taken no account of me in writing it? All writers are egocentric, by definition, but some are positively narcissistic.

One problem, of course, is that while we writers have 120,000 full-frequency words with which to tell our stories to readers, the feedback from readers to writers is pretty crackly: narrow in dynamic range and full of static.

  • Feedback from rejections is often just kind and trying-to-be-helpful ways of saying "It doesn't do it for me", but imagine being turned down by a potential boy/girlfriend because they prefer blondes - most of us would know that the answer isn't a trip to the hair-dresser for a lot of very expensive work which looks awful with the rest of your colouring. "Trust me," your best friend will say "It's just that he's not that into you,'" and s/he's right.
  • Reviews don't help much - they're aimed at entertaining and informing the reader, not telling you what you should write (besides, it's just been written)
  • Talk of 'the market' is often hugely over-simplified. It's partly so because the book trade is always desperately trying to get some working definitions - aka labels - stuck on who buys what, so that tight budgets and overworked marketing assistants can be best deployed in persuading them to buy more of it. And editors and therefore agents who take this stuff on board too simplistically are not good or fruitful to work with. And it's partly because, actually, there's not a reader in the land who doesn't fit some stereotypes of their age/gender/income/class/domicile, and utterly escape others. Of all the extremely satisfactory number of thousands of people who bought A Secret Alchemy in its bestselling week, I don't suppose a single one had exactly the same reaction as a single other one. There's nowt so queer as folk.

So what do we do with anything we know about 'the market', or are told by our agent, or are shocked to find on a forum, or stumble on when guiltly sneaking a peek at The Ropeseller? We don't want to churn out little boxes full of ticky-tacky, but we do want to know what the best carrier signals will be for what we want to say. And we would quite like to sell more books - i.e. have more readers...

I think you just have to treat information about the market with as much open-minded scepticism as anything else which might go into your work. Jessica Ruston nailed it very nicely for me the other day on a forum debate: ideas for your writing come from everywhere, she said, and there's nothing different about one which comes from The Ropeseller. The mistake is when you let the conviction that it's the key to a fortune, or the work of the devil, overrule your ordinary writer's instincts about what this book needs now. A love-triangle from Shakespeare, something your teenager says about girls, the news that readers love books set in India, a profound thought about revenge while you're hanging up the wash, the news that Bridget Jones is now putting the toddler's name down for secondary school... Some of these go into the queue for the pot of the work in progress, others into the bin, some into the Tupperware box in the fridge labelled 'the next novel'. It's your cook's common sense which decides, tastes, chops, fries and transforms. The result will be full of flavours people know and - with luck - love. But it'll be your dish, and no one else's.