I have been having interesting conversations recently on the subject of writing more commercially. By which I mean writing with an intention to sell more books. There's been a revealing discussion in the comments of a blog post I wrote on my own blog, titled, SELLING OUT? In the post, I'd used the phrase, "Selling out? I call it selling."
Seems to me that we've got ourselves caught in a quite unnecessary, contradictory and damaging mindset. It goes like this: a writer's success is most often measured in volume of sales. (In the eyes of publishers and the public, if not by us.) Yet, at the same time, many people sneer at the idea of writing "more commercially" in order to attract more readers - ie more sales.We know that harder books will be read by fewer people, but we need to be read by more people in order to survive as writers. Yet we think that "harder" books are somehow "better".
Writers and other artists have always had to have an eye to what would sell. We don't produce art in a vacuum - or, at least, I would rather not. I write so people will read me. It would be pointless (for me) if no one did, and pretty pointless if only a very few did. Call me a mercenary - please - but what is wrong with us wanting more people to read our work? In my ideal world, lots of readers would choose to spend their time and money reading whatever I wrote; but it's not an ideal world so I have to think carefully about who my readers are, what they might enjoy enough to pay for, and how many readers I would like to have.
This week I spoke at an event in Glasgow for writers - Weegie Wednesday - and I talked about how all authors must decide what we want from our writing, whether we are in it for art or in it to making a living, and the possible and varied compromises we might need to make in either case. I gave a strident "take control of your writing lives" message. I said that neither writing for art's sake nor writing to try to make a living were positions to be ashamed of, but that we had to be clear about which we wanted and how we can achieve it - even if we end up doing a bit of both. (Which is my ideal.) From conversations afterwards it was really obvious that the published writers are being much more realistic, down-to-earth and commercial-minded than the unpublished. There's a lesson there...
What does this mean for me at the moment? Well, on my agent's advice, but also believing myself that it's the right thing to do if we want to offer it as a highly commercial, saleable venture, I am taking a machete to something I wrote about 18 months ago. I'm stripping out all the bits I thought I liked, all the bits that I thought made it special. Anything that doesn't take the story forward, fast and furiously, goes. Whole chapters are zapped. Lyrical pauses go. Back-story disappears. The philosophy and reasoning are subsumed. The gaps are injected with action and pace.
And you know what? Without all those "good" bits, it's better. I like it! I like it almost as much as I did before but - and this is more important for me than it is for the unpublished writers I spoke to this week - I think readers will like it better. And maybe that's the difference between arty and commercial: with arty, the artist likes it more; with commercial, the reader likes it more.
Well, I'm in this to write for readers and I am not ashamed if perhaps I can now write for a few more of them. If that's one measure of success, bring it on.
As an aside, I want to ask the writers amongst you something: have you noticed a recent tendency amongst publishers to want stories to be faster-moving, with greater "page-turnability"? Do you think they're right or are they over-reacting to the shorter attention spans which we keep being told people have? And have you felt the need or desire to alter your writing to accommodate it? If you thought that writing in a different way would gain you more sales, would you do it?
Readers, what do you think about this suggestion? Even if you still love to linger over a book, do you accept that many (more?) people want something more page-turning?
I'd love to know your thoughts!