The temptation is to answer the first with ‘who knows’ and the second with ‘who cares.’
‘Write for the market’ is such common advice that any writer over the age of twelve who hasn’t had this drummed into their head must be living under a rock.
Like all advice there is a grain of truth in it, but is that grain enough to cause you to write in a genre you don’t like?
Many people now appear to believe that not only can the average writer understand the market and its forces, but that those same average writers can use such information to come up with a bestseller – just like that.
I use the term average, not in a derogatory sense but merely to demonstrate that not all writers are great at business concerns, in the same way that not all business people are great at writing. There are some who are, but they are not average.
SCRAP YOUR NON-MARKETABLE IDEAS
The idea that you can tailor your writing to what the market wants is even more widespread now with the advance of digital technology spreading this and other ideas as though they were some global truth that writers simply need to hear, before scrapping all their non-marketable ideas and getting on with the serious business of writing what people want to buy.
Pleasing focus groups and hitting the top ratings has become an aim in itself. This aim can often be held above good writing. If you have been to a few meetings with producers, publishers, or agents you’ll know this.
I have been writing a long time and I have been to quite a few meetings. To be honest, I now find myself wishing I could get back the time I wasted preparing for, and travelling to meetings that I can now see were a complete and utter waste of what limited time I had available between my day jobs and single parenting; time that I could have spent writing, writing more, and writing even more…
TOO MANY WORDS
One memory that stands out in my mind is of a meeting with a film producer. The meeting was at his request. He had expressed an interest in my story so I was pitching the script.
But it was soon apparent that he was more interested in telling me about his ideal film script – the film he hoped I was writing.
It didn’t take him long to explain his amazing idea. The film was, in his words ‘a commercial romantic comedy’ that was ‘funny’ with a ‘bare script’ as he didn’t like to have to read too many words.
The next meeting was with a producer who told me he wanted a ‘created by’ credit for a very marketable and commercially viable idea for a series he was developing. The idea, he told me in all seriousness, was ‘medical story.’
I waited for the rest of the idea, with a view to perhaps hearing what made this any different to the many medical stories already on TV but the self-satisfied look on his face told me there was no more.
This producer was looking for someone to take his ‘medical story’ and write it into a fully developed proposal and script, for no money until it was ‘financed’ and then settle for a scriptwriter for hire’s pay while he gave himself the lucrative ‘created by’ credit.
Another film producer told me that the film I was pitching was the sort of film he and his friends would enjoy but not the type of film that ‘got financed.’
STRAIGHT TO VIDEO
Does any of this surprise you? Go look in the video shop and count the films you would love to rent.
An executive in the Irish Film Board once told me in a meeting that my proposal was excellent – oh how my heart sang – for a second, before he went on to explain they’d financed a film set on an island already.
This was a second meeting about the same script. At the first meeting he had told me he thought the idea was great and to be sure to develop the story and send in a proposal. I hadn’t changed the location between meetings. Writing and developing proposals, by the way, is hard work – if you are serious about them, as I was.
The same executive also sang the praises of another writer, a male, not surprisingly – this being the Irish Film Board, of whom he said he would finance anything he wrote – without reading it.
I wish I could say meetings like this were rare…
And then there’s television. I once had a meeting with a television executive so joined at the hip with his ratings and polls that he couldn’t tear himself away from the graphs on his laptop to even look at me and pretend to listen to the story I was trying to pitch. In fact he didn’t listen.
He didn’t need to listen as had already read my script via email and had very much liked it, hence this meeting. But he had only called the meeting because he wanted to meet me in person and to tell me he/they never developed scripts with writers unless they had written for their soap, and by the way, women writers usually wrote soap and didn’t usually write the sort of stuff I wrote.
Perhaps it was something to do with the neural pathways in his brain but whatever the reason, he was wedded to his ideas.
If female television writers didn’t write soap they were writing themselves out of the market.
He could have saved me the six-hour round trip by telling me this via email but maybe he had a gap to fill – or maybe he was looking forward to bragging to someone about his ‘crucial’ role in developing the successful television show his station had produced, because that was what he spent the rest of the meeting talking about.
The show had been successful because of his input, wisdom and insight and he demonstrated this to me by explaining how he would regularly tell ‘his’ writers to ‘make it good’ or ‘make it better.’
Of course, producers would argue that making television and films is so expensive that they have to be sure that audiences will like it. I might argue that going by the amount of crap films in the video store and rubbish on the television that their judgement of what audiences want isn’t always all that sound. But that isn’t telling them what they want to hear…and there are plenty of other writers who will.
THE AGENT OF IDEAS
Are publishers and agents any different? According to my agent he himself was possessed of many commercial ideas that being a generous sort he would distribute among writers he deemed worthy of writing them.
How my heart sang (again) as I heard that there was a whole file of marketable ideas and that my agent owned it.
I waited a very long time for him to open his file and then one day he finally said he had some important advice for me and we should meet.
The meeting for which I had waited for another embarrassingly long time took place in London but at that time I was so eager I would have happily traveled from Ireland to Greenland in a pedal canoe if it helped my career as a writer.
Sitting in the crowded cafe my agent explained how important it was that since my first novel had been optioned for film that my second novel should follow its path. He said this as though this wasn’t something I would have hoped for myself.
I could see he was waiting for me to ask the question, and so I did (well I’d traveled a long way) ‘How could I do this?’ ‘Think film as you write,’ he said. ‘Think Film.’
BUT YOU’RE A WRITER
I have more of these stories but I think you’ve probably got the point at this stage. But you are a writer, enthusiastic, hard-working and maybe even talented and so after reading this you’re probably still wondering if there is a way you can interpret and write for the market?
If you are, maybe you should give it a shot. Knowing the market sounds like a good start and maybe the thing to do is to analyze the best seller list, or the current most popular films and find out what is selling.
But think about it, let’s say you work out that the most marketable story you could write is one that is set in the future with a male protagonist: a scientist living on a remote island in the arctic, who has replaced love with alcohol and fantasies of finding the last lost dinosaur as the ice melts etc.
Thing is, if that is current now and people want to read books about that now, can you write a book fast enough to catch the coat tails of this current trend?
Or, will the market have changed by the time you have finished writing. Will next year’s trend be for a female protagonist who becomes a private detective after ditching her waitress job where she had served steak to the main players in a major criminal gang.
BUT, WRITING FOR THE MARKET IS A GREAT IDEA
Okay, so writing for the market is a great idea in theory and who doesn’t wish they could do it. But in practice can you write about any subject, in any style or genre and do it all exceedingly well?
If you can write anything then great – go for it. Analyze the market and write for it Or you can write what you are good at and write it more and more and more until you achieve flow and get so good at what you are best at that your audience finds you – trending…
As always, my opinion is just another opinion in a world full of them. It’s up to you and whatever you do – keep writing and I wish you the very best of luck with all your work.
P.S. If you are thinking about giving up the day job you should read this post.