Write What You Love, Or Write What Sells?

Got another email that spurned a response from me that I thought I might share, both because maybe it’s useful thought-meat for my fellow wordivores, but also because maybe you have a differing or more nuanced opinion you might share. The email below, and my response after:

Hey Chuck,

So a buddy and I have this ongoing debate with a group of our author friends.

The gist of it is: If you’re going to be a writer, what’s better? To write what you love and make money eventually… or to write what sells and support your dream right now.

So I thought I would ask an expert. 😉

Your name came up because your work is pretty diverse, so in theory you would know a fair bit about how to earn a living from your writing. 

At any rate, I would love to get your opinion on the matter, and hopefully settle things once and for all.

Thanks very much.

And my YMMV IMHO response:

The truth is, every writer is going to come at this differently.

And no wrong way really exists.

A writer who cares first about money — not just in a “I want to buy a jetboat made of unicorn horn” greed-hungry way, but in a “I’d like to pay my mortgage regularly and occasionally afford things like meals and new shoes” — may choose to examine the market and see that certain things seem to sell well and other things don’t and then try to aim his arrow for the bullseye scrawled with dollar signs.

Another writer who cares about money in a secondary fashion — or even not at all — might instead choose to say, “Fuck that, this is my craft and my art and I’m going to write exactly what I want to write.”

Again: you’ve no wrong way forward. Famous artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo worked on commission to create work for other people, but they brought themselves into the art whether that was what they wanted to create or not, leaving behind a legacy no matter the origin.

Other artists and authors have succeeded financially by acting without financial interest.

For my mileage, I think finding the way to do both of these things is the real magic trick. The shared space in the Venn diagram between STORY I WANT TO WRITE and STORY EVERYONE WANTS TO READ is the real miracle mile.

And I think the way you get into the space is by writing first what you want to write. When you write the thing that truly speaks to you — where you rip out your own heart and squeeze its blood on the page, where you smear your mind across the story in order to leave a slug’s trail of memories and arguments and ideas — you’re likelier to plant a more fertile garden, narratively-speaking. Write what you want, and you’ve a greater chance, I suspect, of putting passion and power into the characters and into the story. If you like what you’re writing, and you’re affected by it, you stand a greater chance to affect the audience in the same way. Surprise yourself. Make yourself feel something. Tell the story you want to tell.

That’s not to say you can’t engineer it a little the other way, too. Writers rarely have one idea, or one story, they want to tell. They often have hundreds, or thousands. I often say that the question you should ask an author isn’t “how do you get your ideas?” but rather, “how do you make them stop?” And so, from that overgrown garden of possibility you may choose to pluck the flowers that you think your readers will find most attractive. If young adult appears to be selling very well and one of your ideas is a young adult idea — well, there you go.

Further, you can take a genre or an idea or even a work-for-hire assignment that didn’t originate from you and still put yourself into it. You can still love what you write even if it’s something meant to support your dream right now.

At the end of the day, writing can be a way to make money. And pretty good money, too. But if money was your only concern I’d say — go be an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, an assassin. Writing is an uncertain enough career that even trying to write for a market or chase trends is tricksy business and still offers you no guarantee. And so I lean more toward it being better to commit your desire to the page in order to write what you want to write first and foremost. Even if that means writing one thing that’s commercial, then writing another thing that’s more personal.

Don’t bend to the market. Make the market bend to you. Fuck chasing trends. Why not be the trend everyone else is chasing?

34 comments

  • Personally, I love writing for money! Yep, I said it. My zombie series for Severed Press came about because I lost my day job and had become an accidental full time writer. I asked Severed what they were looking for and they responded they wanted a straight-up Romero-esque zombie series. No bells, no whistles. I thought about it and inspiration hit! Bam! Z-Burbia was born. I get to write for money, while also writing a series that draws from my own life and experiences. And, like Romero, I’m able to incorporate some serious social satire into the series by basing it in a subdivision. Which is where I live.

    Coming from a theatre background, and always loving improv, I have no problem being given a prompt and going with it. I know this is different than writing a spec manuscript thinking it will sell in the marketplace since I already had a publisher set and ready to run with the series, but it’s a great example of how the market dictated what I wrote next.

    Oh, and Z-Burbia is my biggest success as a writer. The series is kicking ass! So there’s that.

    Never be afraid to write for money. It can surprise you what happens.

    • I hope I didn’t miswrite this in a way that suggests I’m somehow against writing for money. My whole career is here because I’ve written for money. But I put myself on the page and always found a way to make it something I cared about, or even loved.

    • This is a great story. That’s exactly how John Saul started writing horror–it filled a need for his publisher. I love the you were able to take a bad situation and turn it into a profitable career. I’m cheering for you.

  • Spot ON, Brother Writer. Every once in a while I have a mini-identity crisis about being a freelance writer who doesn’t have as much time as I’d like to work on my own books and blog. Then I receive a check, pay my mortgage, buy some groceries and find new shoes for my growing kids, and I get over it. The key is to make time for writing what you love despite the daily grind.

    Staying involved in the market as a reader, writer, and industry watcher helps identify trends, but as you so eloquently put it, “Fuck chasing trends.” It’s about that sweet spot in the Venn Diagram. Luck, skill, tenacity and “who you know” will help you nail the target. Above all, keep writing, keep reading, and keep wooing the market by submitting work for publication.

    Write on. After all, writers write.

    Be well, and use your powers for GOOD!

    • Yep. This here. There are ways to make money writing that have nothing to do with fiction or love. But they provide cash and a chance to practice important basic skills. And in my limited experience they also provide energy and inspiration to go write what you love (why do I want to write a novel after working on advertising copy? I don’t know. But I do.)

      So why not do some of both? Pay the bills with words. Also produce the novel you’re passionate about. And then hopefully you hit Chuck’s Venn diagram intersect where you can receive additional money for writing things more interesting and full of love than product descriptions.

  • Great post. This is a weird coincidence, because I just wrote about the same thing this week. http://www.thekickboxingwriter.blogspot.ca/2013/11/the-dirty-business-of-making-money.html

    I’ve often found it astounding how most of the world expects writers to write only for love, with never a thought, care, or expectation that they might be able to make a living at it. It’s one of the only professions where people fully expect you to work for free, forever.

  • While I am currently not making my living as a writer, I have to agree with the idea that you have to write the story or idea that gets you excited as a writer. Crafting a piece of fiction is a big investment of time. You have to love what you’re doing, first, I think. On the other hand, I do love being prompted to come up with something with a specific theme or trope in mind. In terms of craft that can be a really fun challenge, it can help you stretch and learn new writerly skills. But back to the original point, if you love your story, or idea, chances are there is someone else who will, too.

  • November 22, 2013 at 11:56 AM // Reply

    It may be a moot point for some of us. I’d love to make money writing. But I don’t think I’m necessarily going to get there by chasing trends. I might get there by being a different person who could go looking a little hard for the sort of thing jakebible talks about in the first response. But I’m pretty sure I could write a werewolf-vampire young adult dystopian love story and still not sell enough to pay the bills unless I got very lucky.

    Not that I’d have a problem with doing some freelance work for bread and butter (or latte money, or whatever). But that’s not about inspiration. That’s about doing the legwork to find the work, and so far I’ve been too lazy, or, by your courtesy, too introverted.

  • Okay, so I rambled at Chuck on Twitter and he wanted me to come by and sum up my Tweeting shenanigans. I think the post is pretty much spot on.

    The problem with trying to write to market to break in is that usually by the time you get your book polished and ready to go, the market has moved on. So you’re stuck with all these trunk books that didn’t make the cutoff. Now it’s possible that once you’ve broken in, you’ll be able to sell some of them (or maybe the market will circle around again, who knows?) But generally, it’s best to write to your passion when you’re first trying to break in.

    However, like I said on Twitter, it is also possible to write good books when you’re not 100% emotionally invested for whatever reason. Maybe you sold the project on proposal a year ago, and now it’s actually time to finish the book and you can’t remember why you thought it would be so awesome to write about blackmarket smugglers in 50s Russia. Maybe that was kind of a mini-fit of interest but you’re not so enthralled with the premise anymore. But crap, you have a contract, and it will hurt your reputation to try and get out of it, and plus, money, so you write the book about smugglers in 50s Russia. There you go. You didn’t bleed out genius onto the page, but you did the best you could, you did you research, and made sure your plot was tight, characters engaging. Your editor loves it! The book sells incredibly well. Now you’re TIED to 50s Russia. They want more books. The money is OMG good. Readers are saying they can TELL you poured your heart and soul into this book, unlike your others (which may well piss you off since it’s not true). Are you gonna turn this down, even though it’s not your heart and soul? Probably not. A few people might, of course, if they don’t need the money or they don’t care about money.

    I just want writers to feel free to realize this is a business. It’s a creative business, but there’s no shame in wanting (or needing) to make a living. You don’t have to be OH MY ART about every single book you write. Sometimes it’s enough to do your best work and bring your A game. In that case, you can feel proud of being a pro.

    That said, for me, it’s always better when I love the work. It feels more like WHEE I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS IS MY JOB instead of, Jesus, I can’t believe this is my job. *writes more about smuggling in 50s Russia*

    (no harm came to 50s Russia during the writing of this comment)

    • I should just let you answer all the blogs.

      *hands you the blog keys*

      *runs away*

      Ahem.

      Anyway.

      I wonder if there’s an axis here that’s about your voice. Like, maybe “love” is too loaded a term — I mean, holy shit, writers often HATE what they’re writing at the time they’re writing it. I pinball between love and hate on a minute by minute basis.

      But when I often say “bring yourself to the page,” I mean that no matter what you write — freelance, genre, literary, to market, to your personal desires, whatever — you should still be owning it, making it yours, slathering your voice all over the thing.

      Hm.

      — c.

  • This. Exactly this:

    “Writers rarely have one idea, or one story, they want to tell.”

    If you’ve got five outlines sitting on the backburner, and you’ve just finished your latest manuscript, profitability can be a ruthless but efficient choosing mechanism. And it’s better to keep writing each day than agonizing for weeks over which one of your babies gets born next…

  • No, Chuck, you didn’t miswrite. I was just adding my real world experience about my series that started as a need to be filled for a publisher. Kinda a hybrid of writing for the market and writing what I want. If I didn’t like the publisher’s need I would have passed.

  • I think you have to make a choice. If you’re lucky you write for both love and money. Otherwise, write what you love – there’s always the chance that you might be writing for money a la Hugh Howey.

  • I ghostwrite for the money, but as you say, I put myself on the page. My client realized that, gave me bigger assignments and eased up on the micromanaging and now I have free reign within the genre her clients want (romance and erotica). I’ve changed the way she looks at my writing and I’ve changed the way I write. She gets all of me in every story and I get the freedom to create characters I love and put them in situations that challenge me. (A romance between a werewolf and a stripper, because, you know…why not? Strippers and werewolves need love too.)

    I’ve started my own novel now and I’m 100% on the page in that as well. All the ghostwriting I’ve done, and continue to do, has made me a better writer, given me feedback from a client, and from beta readers that she hires…it’s been a tremendous opportunity.

  • As an adventure travel writer I write two pieces to thank my hosts which are commercial and one piece to please myself that goes into my travel collections. You will find a string of those pleasing essays in my book Lost Angel Walkabout One Traveler’s Tales. My historical novel Wai-nani High Chiefess of Hawaii became a 20 year obsession that is my proudest achievement in life. I have fun with my writing and pay my mortgage selling real estate…works for me

  • Wanderer, just DIY if you want it done right. Think of it as “going indie” 😉

    On the topic of writing what you love versus what sells, YMMV but here’s my take:

    You could be lucky or unlucky in your tastes.

    If you are lucky, what you love to write will also resonate with enough readers that it can sell decently, as long as you’ve honed your craft and produced a polished product.

    If you are unlucky in your tastes–meaning no one else enjoys reading what you truly love to write–then commercial fiction probably isn’t the ideal career choice for you. Keep writing as a hobby and keep loving it, while you do something else for money. There are a lot of easier ways to pay your bills.

    But I think that most of us, once we’ve learned how to write professionally and well, will end up falling into the first category. Readers are a diverse bunch, and there are a lot of them. No matter what weird shit we choose to write, there is a unique audience segment out there whose tastes match ours with eerie similitude. They will enjoy our books once they discover them–and, nowadays, there are ways for us to help them do that. It just takes a little work.

    A couple months ago, I wrote a guest post on J A Konrath’s blog about how to find readers and reviewers whose tastes match yours, and who will be predisposed to love your brand-spanking-new novel. Before throwing in the towel with your current book and saying “Okay, fine, I guess I’m gonna have to write a dystopian YA zombie BDSM romance called Fifty Tastes of Brains” *head desk*, try finding your own audience the way the Konrath guest post describes.

    You might be surprised at the positive reception you get.

  • Chuck, I love how you take the time to write back to those who write to you. Not many writers do – you’re special in that way.

    I agree with most people here – you can certainly do both. But I think the key to doing it successfully is ‘portion control.’

    You can – and certainly should – write Your Novel (y’know, that one bouncing off the walls in your head, screaming to get out, and that’s why you love it but it’s also why you hate it when you’re trying to do things like, say, pay your mortgage.) But a novel is a big undertaking. It’s a huge, towering Death By Chocolate Cake – and you wouldn’t sit down to one of them and say “I’m not leaving the table until this baby is nothing but a pile of tiny crumbs.” For one thing, you’ll be at that table a looonnnggg time – and you’ve probably got other stuff you should be doing in the meantime. And two, you’re gonna get pretty damn sick of Death By Chocolate Cake before you’re even halfway through (even if it’s your favouritest cake in the world.)

    So, to pay the bills, you decide to write Stuff That Will Make Money as well. If you can find said Stuff AND it’s also what you happen to enjoy writing – Bingo! No dilemma. But I think if you just put on your Ker-ching Head and say “I’m going to write that weird stuff that everyone seems to want at the moment – I don’t really get the appeal myself, but I reckon I can follow the recipe…” be aware that you ARE making life more difficult for yourself…

    ESPECIALLY if it’s another novel, but just in a different, trend-of-the-moment genre – that’s just Death By Cake of a Different Flavour. Now you’ve got TWO giant-ass cakes to eat – and one of them you don’t even like much. You’re gonna get majorly sick and porky.

    So, if you’re going to write stuff your heart’s not really in, think cupcakes. LITTLE cupcakes, not those things the size of a small child’s head (I’m looking at YOU, novellas…) Cupcakes are smaller, so they won’t make as much money – but you can eat lots of cupcakes before you get sick (so I’ve been told *looks shifty.*) Short magazine articles, poetry, readers’ letters – that kind of thing. Then you can combine the two, kind of like the Slim-Fast diet – cupcakes for breakfast and lunch, and then a proper chunk of Death By Chocolate for dinner. Well okay, that probably wouldn’t work too well as an actual DIET, but… you get the picture.

    And there is no underlying reason why I’ve used cake as an analogy here. None at all.

  • All good Chuck, but you forgot option #3 – Write what you hate. Go ahead. Free yourself. The world has been waiting for your “Encyclopedia of Baseball Mitt Threading Styles and Their Connection to 90s Romantic Comedies.”

  • Chuck, wise answer as always. I wish I could make money with my writing right now, but hopefully I am building to it. Even if you do not 100% love the topic, if you enjoy the writing, why not? And getting paid? Even better. So long as the subject is not one that goes against your values or your ethics, you’ve got to make a living somehow, and if it’s as a writer and that’s your dream, you’re winning.

  • Yes, this is it. I write a mix of things, paid and unpaid, for love and not. I recently got asked to come on board as a columnist for a website that pays relatively well. It’s not a subject I’ve written about much before, nor is it my speciality, but I know enough and I’ve got free rein to put personal stuff in the columns, so I enjoy it it, but it’s also all about the money.

    I also write erotica and so far, while that’s brand new, it’s beginning to sell. Are these things I thought I’d be writing two years ago? Absolutely not. I always expected I’d be doing urban fantasy and thrillers. Not erotic romances. But, you know, it all works. And I still enjoy it. I originally started with the erotica because of the money, but discovered I actually like writing sex. Who’d of thunk it?

  • Mwah ha hahrgh, unfortunately I’m the trend nobody else is chasing. BUT… I do absolutely get what you are saying there. I write what comes out. Unfortunately it’s really difficult to categorise. which makes it hard to sell and therefore dead in the water when it comes to my getting an agent. Even worse, it commits the number one cardinal sin of being funny. But if I want my writing to be true, I have to write what’s in me. If I want to sell my writing with any conviction, I have to write stuff I like. I don’t think I’ll be moving out of the garret any time soon.

    Cheers

    MTM

  • Making money with my writing is a the same dream as driving an Alpha Spider at top speed down the Autobahn. So far, both dreams are just crazy shit in my head. But I still write what I want to read and what keeps me sane. j x

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds