Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Clicking Tags and Taking Names: If you can't write what you love, what's the point?

Recently, I was chatting to Dustin Ashe (@DustinAshe) on Twitter about whether authors should talk about their politics in their platform, and it's sparked off a chain of thought which has led to this possibly-unwieldy blog post. I want to talk about being who you are and writing what you love, and about genre and trusting one's audience.

Right now, I'm quite glad just to be writing at all. For those of you who've skipped reading all my other whining (can't say I blame you), on Friday of last week my left elbow blew up with tennis elbow. I'm left-handed, so this has proven quite a handicap; it gets quite sore with even pretty light use. I was all set to write this blog post yesterday, but by the time I'd finished showering, brushing my teeth and shaving - and I didn't really finish shaving - the elbow was too sore for me to do anything besides lie on the sofa playing videogames one-handed. This morning, I'm skipping all that personal hygeine stuff to bring you this blog post (don't speculate too hard on the implications of this sentence).

Sidebar: I never thought I could be this irritated by an enforced 5-day spell of videogaming. I want to write!

On which note, my position on politics in your platform: honesty is the best policy. If politics matters to you, don't lie about it for the sake of popularity. It might bring in a few more sales short-term, but your politics will have gotten into your books (unless you aren't writing what you love; see below), and those sales from people who are put off by politics won't turn into long-term author-reader relationships. Same goes for anything else that might turn people away.

Think of it this way; the people you turn away by being you probably aren't worth your time anyway. Your time is - or should be - devoted to being yourself and valuing the things you find important. People who aren't interested in the things you find important aren't likely to have very much to add to your life. Don't worry about them. We're constantly being told that niche is the way to go in the new e-book market; go for your niche and stay there. If you end up writing thrillers about Sumerian basket-weaving, so be it.

Which brings me to the main point of this post; writing what you love. The way I look at it, if you're a writer, it should be because you love writing. If you don't love writing, for the love of God pick a different job. Writing is too much work, hassle and insecurity to do unless you really love it.

And if you love writing, then you're going to write what you love regardless of what else your life involves. If you love writing and what you really love writing is, say, sci-fi (or thrillers about Sumerian basket-weaving), you're going to write sci-fi whatever else you end up writing.

My point is this: if the way you approach writing as a career ever comes between you and writing what you love, stop. Go get an office job, settle things down, and get back to writing what you love at evenings and weekends. If you can't write what you love, there's no point writing at all.

Now, I'm not saying you should never take a writing job just to pay the bills - a couple of friends of mine are planning to cynically cash in on the urban-fantasy-with-vampires bubble before it bursts to put some money in the back pocket while they work on what they really love - and you should also write things you don't love for practice, but the moment any of that gets in the way of writing what you love, it's not better than an office job, and an office job has a regular paycheck. Maybe even insurance.

For my own part, I'm writing what I love and simply trying to make money off that. Given the lukewarm reception I'm getting from some of my beta readers for 'The Death of John Collins', I think I have a fair way to go before a lot of money will be involved, but hey - I loved writing it. Money is a bonus.

The problem I have with writing what I love is that what I love to write, really, are idea-driven novels. Many of my projects have started from an idea - often an abstract concept - and sprouted characters, settings and plots later, and that means my first three novels are all completely different genres; one contemporary romance, one sci-fi and one political thriller (sort of).

Now, I have faith that I have the philosophical skills to justify writing these books. I'm starting to believe that I can develop my writing ability to the point where I can justify selling them to people as something they might want to read. I definitely don't have the kind of literary chops and credentials to allow me to hop around genres in this way without ruffling a few feathers.

Which brings me to my last point, which has to do with trusting your audience; and this is why it's important to be yourself in your platform. The reason we're told as writers not to mess around with genre too much is that readers use genre as a filter; they like particular things, those things fit a category, so they don't read outside that category. If you brand yourself as writing a particular genre, readers who like that genre know they can come to you for what they like - and if you write something else, you break that trust.

Genre is therefore both a useful tool and a ball-and-chain to a writer like me (and I'm pretty sure most other writers, too). Reliance on genre is all well and good, but I think it involves patronising readers a little, particularly when it comes to authors changing pen name to write different genres. Can't we trust our readers - those who have become fans and are therefore likely to care - to check whether a new book is their kind of genre before buying? Can't we trust them to be intelligent people with open minds?

Building a strong platform based on who you really are as a writer can help with this; if your relationhip with a reader isn't based on a genre but on them having found you through some issue you have as a common interest, I think you're more likely to get them to engage with other work from your own sphere of interest. Particularly since you'll build better relationships with people you share more interests with; better relationships means a stronger niche and a better word of mouth overall, and that's a tremendous business asset, assembled out of nothing more than being yourself and trying to find people who share your interests. If your interest is Sumerian basket-weaving, then maybe it's not going to be a huge money-spinner, but at least you'll be doing the best you can out of your interest and making some new friends.

So, in short; with the changes that seem to be happening in the ebook world, and particularly if the new business model is niche-based, be yourself and be honest and open about it in your platform. You want readers who share your interests, because they're going to be better for your career than customers who don't.

And no, my next book after 'The Earth Trembles' isn't going to be a thriller about Sumerian basket-weaving. I'm much more into the Sumatran style anyway ;)

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