Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#15: Follow Your Bliss

by Seanan McGuire

While the thought at the core of today's essay is a bit more publishing-oriented than many of them have been (or will be), it can still apply to writers of all stripes, whether you're writing for fun or writing with the goal of eventually becoming the next big best-selling author. This is another essay that's just as much about being a reader as it is about being a writer; hopefully, if I write enough of these, people will realize that I genuinely mean it when I say that without reading, writing starts going a little bit stale. Here's today's expanded topic of discussion:

Write what you want to write. I don't care if it's a total cliche, if that's honestly what you want to do, do it. You may never get it published. You may strike it big and wind up in a position to publish all your trunk novels. Either way, refusing to write what you love just because it's not commercial enough is going to do nothing but turn you bitter and angry at the whole industry, and that's no good for anyone.

'Write what you love' may seem like an odd piece of advice on the surface, but considering how often people hear 'write what will sell,' I think it's important to say it. The pressure to write what's hot and popular is always present, no matter what sort of an audience you happen to be writing for. How many fanfic authors get notes that say things like 'wow, this story was great, but you know what would have been better? If it had my favorite characters instead'? Most of them, that's how many. And that's what we're going to talk about today.

All set? Excellent. Let’s begin.

All you need is love.

Everyone who writes has some story they love, some story they're just bleeding to get down on paper and distribute to the world. Maybe that story is a complex political drama, packed with layers of symbolism and meaning. Maybe that story is a fluffy romance about a beautiful heiress and the rugged, manly plumber who steals her heart. Maybe that story is something you dreamed when you were six years old, and have been silently embroidering inside yourself for the last twenty years. It really doesn't matter. Your story is your own, and nobody gets to judge it. The story you carry in your heart is the story that the critics aren't allowed to touch...at least, not until you put it down on paper.

The thing about the story you love is that you don't get to choose what it is. Is it a princess in a tower? A mysterious orphan? A government conspiracy? It doesn't matter. Is it a teenage girl dying of cancer? A werewolf who yearns to be human? It still doesn't matter. You don't pick the story that you fall in love with; that story picks you, and you basically have to live with it.

Sometimes the story you love will change. I'm always head-over-heels in love with whatever book I'm planning to write next, no matter how silly or serious that book happens to be. Unless I love a book, I can't write it...but once I fall for a book, I can't refuse to write it, either. This means that sometimes, I put serious amounts of work into books that make people look at me cross-eyed, books that I may or may not be able to sell in today's market. At the end of the day, that's honestly for the best, because I'm writing out of love.

Somewhere about halfway through a book, I start thinking about the sequel. All that lovely new relationship energy ran out somewhere around page one hundred, and now I'm being forced to deal with the long slog of handling all the problems my careless scribbling has created for me. But I still love the book, even if the love isn't burning as brightly, and I can still make it out the other side.

Wait, so I shouldn't do work for hire?

Work for hire -- the art of writing a book in someone else's universe, like the media tie-ins or the occasional novels set in various RPG universes -- is an important factor in the lives of many writers. Sometimes, that's how you keep your head above the water. (Think of it as being something like writing for a fic-a-thon. You sign up for whatever motives, but in the end, what you write is what somebody else asks you to write.) The people who write those tie-ins may or may not feel any love for the project. They may or may not really care about the quality of the manuscript they're intending to turn in. They're writing for a paycheck, and that's okay. There is nothing wrong with putting food on the table by using the talents you've honed so carefully in a commercial way. If someone offers you a paying gig, and you have the time, the drive, and the desire to do it, by all means, do.

What I'm saying is that you shouldn't give up being in love with your story just because it's not what's selling right this minute. Consider the Bachman Books: four early Stephen King novels published under the name Richard Bachman. At least two of these were 'trunk novels' -- books that he'd written and put away, because they were considered impossible to sell. Once the market changed, and once he possessed enough clout within the market to get what he wanted from it, he was able to publish these books for a wide audience. They're pretty good books, too. Their failure to sell wasn't about the quality of the work, it was about the timing of the stories that he loved.

If you're lucky, what you want to write is going to be perfectly suited to the market's needs. It's going to be that next big thing, the thing that's just now getting ready to explode on the scene, and you and your agent will make a million dollars. Most people do not get lucky in quite this fashion. Maybe the story of your heart was the big thing five years ago, or maybe it'll be the big thing five years from now, or maybe it's never going to be big at all. I don't care. You need to get that story out before it dies inside you and starts to smell funny, because nobody loves an author with internalized necrosis.

What if nobody loves it like I do?

Hard reality that I had to face before I could really start to grow as a writer: neither the fact that I love something nor the fact that I put the time and effort into bringing it into the world obliges anyone else to love my story like I do. It doesn't even oblige them to like it. Nor does their refusal to fall in love with my baby make them bad people, or stupid people, or any of the other fascinating things I've seen and heard authors say about people who 'just don't get' their beloved books. I don't have the right to force anybody to do anything just because I sat down and wrote a book.

But here's the other important thing: their refusal to love my book doesn't mean a damn thing, because it can't make me stop loving it. It doesn't matter if it never sells, or if it sells and get remaindered, I will always love it. I will always know that it was beautiful and perfect and nested inside my heart until I just had to let it go. It won't have died inside me; it'll be right there for everyone to discover, and maybe someday, for everyone to fall in love with.

We have to write what we want to write, because that's what makes it possible for us to keep wanting to write, to keep falling in love with the stories. Don't spend your writing time thinking about the need to sell; that's what editing is for. Spend your writing time thinking about your story, and how much you want to tell it right.

I think you'll be pleased by the results.
© 2009 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue will be published by DAW in September of 2009.

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