What happens when you feel like you’re on the wrong track?
In the course of researching the market, checking out agents’ requirements, keeping on top of trends in the publishing industry and all those other vital things that anyone who desires a career in writing needs to do, I come across a lot of scary information. I read articles which decry the upswing in children’s stories featuring magic – ‘Harry Potter is so over, people!’ – and some which say there aren’t enough stories like that. I’ve sweated my way through blog posts complaining about exactly the sort of books I love to read – and, by extension, write – and industry diatribes against children’s books which feature some, or all, of the things I’m currently working on. I have had a children’s book in mind for years, one I just haven’t found quite the right voice for yet, which – apparently – is so old hat as to be laughable. Agents and publishers all seem to be searching for something which is new, which is fresh, which is different, but if what I think of as new and fresh and different is boring as dust to them, then what am I to do?
I haven’t written a new short story for quite some time, besides one which I entered into a competition a few weeks ago. I feel like I’ve lost touch, somewhat, with what the market is looking for in terms of short fiction – either I’m churning out cliché, or I’m just not fashionable any more in terms of the subjects and/or style I choose to use, or something else, something I can’t put my finger on, is wrong with my work. I went through a golden patch of success with my stories when I was completely new to writing them – they seemed to fit the moment, and the readers to whom I was sending them understood what I was getting at, and could get on board with what I wanted to achieve – but in recent months, they’ve fallen on cold, stony soil. I wouldn’t even worry about this – taste is a subjective and amorphous thing, everyone is looking for something different in a short story, there’s room for all sorts of creative work, and all that – except for the fact that when I read short stories now, particularly award-winning ones, I just don’t get them.
In the immortal words of Jordan Catalano – they ‘just don’t hold my attention.’
I’m not for one split second trying to say that the short stories I’m reading aren’t good – clearly, they are, or they wouldn’t be winning awards – but what I mean is this: how have I become so out of touch with what’s required of a story that I can’t even read, and enjoy, an obviously well-crafted piece of work?
Of course, I believe it’s important to be true to your own voice and honest about what you feel when you’re writing a story. It’s pointless to write ‘to’ a market, because it changes so regularly. Having said that, it worries me that I don’t seem to be able to keep abreast of changes, and that the ideas I’m having are old, out of fashion, out of favour – unsellable, unlovable, dead in the water before they’ve even set sail.
Writing is a hard thing. Not only is it difficult, and time-consuming, and brain-consuming, to sit down and spend hours tapping away at a keyboard but it’s also hard on the soul to create something special and unique to you, something you love and want to share with the world, which then falls at the first hurdle. Writing fiction can be intensely personal; what you write says a lot about who you are. So, if what you write is out of touch, out of favour, unfashionable – or, if you believe it to be so – it can be a deep wound in a secret place, one which you carry with you but show to nobody. A person can’t help but be interested in what they love, and a writer will write what interests them, and what excites and motivates their creative brain. Creating a piece of work is an achievement in itself, of course, but realistically, spending months or years writing something which you love, which then goes on to sit on your desk gathering dust or which ping-pongs around from agent to agent for years without finding a home, is disheartening.
I don’t have an answer for all this. You can’t write to a market because by the time you’ve finished your book the market has changed, as markets are wont, and your carefully crafted story about canine vampires from outer space has been done to almost literal death. You can’t write to a market because that’s not being true to yourself as a writer, and it’s also a little cynical. Instead you write because you love it, and you love the stories you’re telling, and you write them as well as you can, and you try to improve your craft with every project you complete. All you can do is hope that, someday, the market and your talent and your idea and your submission will all align like planets in an intergalactic conjunction, and the magic will start to happen.
Sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
All a person can do is keep the focus on their own personal North. Write what’s true, and what’s real, and – while remaining aware of trends – don’t let yourself be swayed by what other people expect. Write what you love, as well as you possibly can. And – maybe – take some time out and do some reading, or remove your head from your writing space altogether in order to let some new ideas come sweeping in. It’s worth a shot.