To answer a couple of questions that have come up:
‘Does my writing have to be different to everyone else’s in a particular genre in order to be commercially successful?’
That’s a tricky question, because it contains a couple of assumptions that might throw someone off. Firstly, in many ways that you may not have spotted, your writing will already be different to anyone else’s. You might not have looked closely enough at it to spot the differences; perhaps you’re not sure what ‘differences’ to look for exactly. Rest assured, though, that your writing will contain enough idiosyncrasies and individualisms to make it unique, probably without much effort on your part.
But the main point behind the question, I think, is a mistaken one: the person asking is probably afraid that they are going to have to do something to their writing in order to make it stand out. That fear of having to tamper with something that they love doing and deep down don’t want to change is misplaced: the path to success lies in precisely the opposite direction.
To succeed you need to go down the road of what you absolutely love doing — and do more of that!
Trying to alter your style, or write in a way which doesn’t feel right to you or doesn’t flow from somewhere inside you is inauthentic and will come across as such. Write what you love. Look deeper into your work and find out what exactly it is that you love about it and do more of it.
‘What if my writing is basically highly imitative?’
This follows on from the last point: what if the stories that you write are very much like others’ stories? In fact, what if the thing that you love about writing is precisely that it enables you to write like an author you love?
I understand the concern. But again, I think any fear of this is misplaced. If your writing purposefully imitates the style or themes or material of another, provided that you are not directly plagiarising others’ stuff, the above point can still apply.
If writing imitatively is authentic to you and your approach to fiction, that may be the thing that is distinct about you within your genre or field. ‘He’s the guy who reads like Burroughs!’ people may say; or ‘She’s the one who has totally mastered Austen’s style!’ That in itself may be enough to carve out your own niche.
Once you find the treasure at the heart of your writing — whether it’s a unique difference within an established genre, or a particular ability to duplicate the style or manner or writing of a famous author, your next step is to make it your own. And don’t be shy about it — take whatever it is and magnify it and put it all over your website, your Facebook groups, your pages. Make the exact treasure that radiates at the core of your work visible to all. Dare anyone to defy you.
That might sound much too ‘extrovert’ for many of you. You would rather just quietly get on with writing and leave the ‘daring’ to others. One underlying truth in all of this is that, as soon as you clearly define who you are and display your colours, you’ve also defined precisely who you are not and sent out that signal to the world. The intention is to fire up a beacon that will attract potential fans and superfans from all over the planet — and it will. But a side effect is that some people aren’t going to like it, get it, or support it.
The corollary of being loved by some is that some will walk away, or even dislike, the exact same thing in you.
Organic marketing takes guts at precisely the point where it starts to be successful.
That’s the name of the game. But if your writing is authentic to you—if you are doing it with the genuine, heart-felt goal of being excellent at what you do—then you will attract a loyal following of ideal readers who relate to and appreciate exactly that authenticity.
Let’s say you set out to follow all the above. You’ve been writing short stories in the horror genre for a couple of years and you want to try to achieve viability as a writer. So far, you’ve modelled yourself around what you have read in various magazines and tried to follow the exact submission guidelines laid down by the publications that you know of. You’d had some success, but nowhere near the recognition you need to truly ‘make it’ as a writer.
Now one impulse many, many writers have at this point — and which they are even advised strongly to follow by some guides — is to adapt to a marketplace and write more of what they see being accepted, while at the same time cutting back on the things which, while the writer may love writing them, simply don’t get the same acceptance rates. And by all means you can follow that impulse and take that advice and go down that road, achieving a modicum of success on the way, as many jobbing writers do.
But if you really want to apply the principles of organic marketing, you’d do something like this:
1. Choose your readers. Which reader group do you think you would really appeal to through your writing? Who amongst the reading population is going to throughly enjoy your stories? Even the ones which editors have been rejecting?
2. List out what qualities, attributes, characteristics your stories have: are they funny? Do they have similarities to some other well-known pieces of fiction?
Are they dark? Sexy? Poetic? Nostalgic? When looking for readers, you need to narrow down the interests into genres, sub-genres, similar authors, preferred plot lines and so on. The more specific you can be, the better.
3. What is your writing’s personality? What is it about your writing that makes it stand out from the crowd?
4. What is it about your writing that you particularly enjoy? What exactly do you get the most buzz from when writing?
5. Having taken on board any comments from editors about obvious things you need to fix like grammar, punctuation and so forth, put aside your rejection slips and say to yourself ‘Anyone who is rejecting my work is marking themselves out as being in the group of people who are not my readers.’ That’s fine; they like other stuff. But they are not your public.
6. Go through the list of publications to which you have been submitting work and divide them up into those who might suit your new-found writing treasure style and those who might not. This will definitely cull your list down, probably quite considerably. But now you’re thinking correctly: you’re finding your market, and not falling for the hype that you want the ‘biggest market there is’. You don’t want a huge, largely indifferent market — you want a small highly interested market.
7. Explore further afield to find more publication opportunities that more precisely fit your writing model. Instead of adapting your writing to fit the publication, try discovering the publication that fits your writing. This might take some work, but possibilities will present themselves over time.
8. Write what you love. This is the main thing. Focus on elaborating those things in your writing that you have always loved and want to see more of. ‘I think your characters are far too verbose for our magazine’ says a rejection slip —but your characters’ verbosity is one of the things you especially love about them! So go for it — stretch their lexicons! And find the editors who love them as much as you do.
You don’t find a perfect partner in life by researching what a single person should do when dating and training yourself to do that — you find them by learning how to be yourself in any situation. The partner who is perfect for you won’t be attracted by anyone else you might be trying to be.
Same for writers: be yourself, find your writing personality and display it, and the opportunities will come. What’s more, when your writing personality blazes out from between the pages of published works, your readers will come too.
What exactly should you give them first?
We’ll look at that next time.