I just finished a residency at the West Vancouver Memorial Library, where some lovely new writers came to ask me for help on their projects. They were all very different, both in terms of how far along they were in the writing process, and their goals for their projects. But one thing that kept popping up was the question, “Do you think what I’m writing is what publishers want right now?”
That’s a question that sometimes makes me laugh and sometimes makes me mad (although, to be clear, I am never laughing or raging at the writers themselves). The publishing industry is a mercurial beast. It’s often driven by trends: vampires, mash-ups, fan fiction, speculative literary fiction, and so on. But, at the same time, it’s slow to accept change and slow to bring anything not branded with timeliness to publication. From the moment I sold each of my two novels, it was another eighteen months before the editing, marketing and design were developed and the books were on store shelves. It’s a tension that can be confusing (after all, many books, like celebrity memoirs or books that thematically piggyback on previous bestsellers appear to be written and published overnight) for new writers and for more established writers, like me, whose work doesn’t depend on which dog memoir is number one on the Booknet lists.
Not that I have a hate-on for dog books. I have a dog! But I will never write a book about how she taught me the value of conscious living. She’s the best, but she’s really not that spiritually aware.
I’ve been publishing for a while now and I’ve realized, probably much later than I should have, that writers just need to write what they want to write. It sounds obvious, I know, but what I say to new writers is that we need to find the story that lights the fire under our asses. Partly because you need the passion to finish your project, but also because the more emotion you bring into your novel or poem or memoir, the more compelling that writing will be for your readers. Readers are smart. If your story is bloodless or cold or indifferent, they will know and stop reading. If you try to write to market, you risk losing that investment in your story. And without that, there is no audience. Besides, by the time you finish your book, the trend will have died, gone to that place in the sky where it will soon be joined by twerking and shirtless selfies.
The zombies will pass. The inspirational memoirs by women who travel by themselves and stare at trees will pass. What will never pass are compelling stories that are written sensitively and passionately. Good writing always finds a home, even if it’s not the home you imagined.