Guest Blogger Katherine Sparrow: On Writing What Sells

grant-writing (1)I’ve been thinking a lot lately about marketing, financial success, and sustainability in writing. Not necessarily in a “how to dominate everything” kind of way, but in the quieter way of thinking through what it means to be a writer and an artist working on her craft and telling the stories she thinks are important, and at the same time making a living at this kind of work.

On the one hand, I am and will always be a starry-eyed dreamer. I think stories can change how we live and view the world, and thus how we are in the world. And humans need to change, a lot. That’s my deepest truth about where my stories, and my drive to write and fling it out into the world, comes from.

On the other hand, I am a mom of two young kids, who is engaged in the hustle economy of trying to get the bills paid. I am a writer who has been working diligently on her craft for fifteen years, and if there’s a way I can do my writing and make money at it rather than get some other job, that would be amazing. But how do I write stories that are commercial and marketable and still write my kind of stories?

Some thoughts on how I can do that, and how you can do that, too.

  1. Be well read in your genre, so that you understand where your writing fits in, and where it doesn’t. For the past two years and counting I’ve been a juror on The Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. Which means I’ve gotten to read many of the genre’s newest releases. Without this, I might not know that the multiverse is currently hot, while dystopias are not. I am not saying that one should only write toward the industry’s desires, but be educated about it. For example, in one of my (as yet unpublished) novels, there is a theme about gods living in San Francisco. I can name half a dozen other well-received young adult books recently published about gods living in the modern world. However, those are all Greek or Nordic gods, and mine has the God of the Earthquakes and the Goddess of Art, among others. So it fits in some ways and is unique in others, which I think is the sweet spot.
  1. Consider writing to a form. I love mysteries. People love mysteries. Lately I’ve been writing urban fantasy novellas that are mysteries. Now, besides them being mysteries, I also happen to be doing all kinds of other heart on my sleeve kinds of things in them, (the protagonist is a lefty who has a fondness for misunderstood monsters), but I think the fact that the stories are written within a mystery form helps the reader be grounded and take a chance on a new writer. Other forms that you might write to are: screwball comedy, romance, space opera, hero’s journey, or really any form of book that you personally love.
  1. You can love what you write, but you don’t always have to write what you love. Meaning, it is okay to not always be writing your magnum opus and to be writing something fun and/or more commercial, but never ever forget to love it. Never forget that you have a sacred pact with anyone who reads your words, and that they are giving you a piece of their finite life, so write things that are worth it.
  1. Consider writing a series. Or, write a book that starts and ends within itself, but if it’s possible, give it some extra world and breathing space so it could keep going. These days, so much of youth fiction is made up of series. I’m not sure if that holds true for adult fiction, but I figure many of the people reading this blog are YA and MG readers and writers.
  1. When all else fails, remember no one knows what the hell will sell. Does that help? Nope. But if you are bummed out and confused about how to make your way in the writerly world, throw away everything else and just write your thing, you strange little rabbit, and see what happens. For reals, all the advice above? At the bottom of it, just write.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKatherine Sparrow writes speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers as well as (very) quirky picture books. She was nominated for a 2012 Nebula Award for her novelette The Migratory Pattern of Dancers. Her short stories have been published online and in various anthologies, and you can find her contemporary Arthurian novella series, The Fay Morgan Chronicles, for sale at Amazon. A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, Sparrow is also on the jury of the Norton Award for best young Science Fiction and Fantasy. Visit katherinesparrow.net and @Katie_H_Sparrow.

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3 responses to “Guest Blogger Katherine Sparrow: On Writing What Sells

  1. Great advice for everyone to keep in mind. Thank you!

  2. “Never forget that you have a sacred pact with anyone who reads your words, and that they are giving you a piece of their finite life, so write things that are worth it.” Wow. Just WOW. Great advice, thank you!

  3. Nice, Katie! I love and hate the truth of #5, sentence one. So much.