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?