Monday, April 5, 2010

Should I write to a market?

If you spend a lot of time visiting writers' forums, you may encounter differences of opinion on whether to "write to a market." For those who may not know, writing to a market essentially means letting the market you wish to sell to dictate how the story you write will work. This can happen either before or after you have actually drafted the story: some writers will read quite a bit of material from a particular market to get a sense of what those editors might like, and then attempt to craft a story that fits those parameters; others will have an idea, sketch it out, then pick a target market and (again on the basis of reading what has sold to that market) tune the story to fit. The fit can be stylistic, content-based, or even one of length.

The argument for writing to a market goes something like this: "Of course you should be aware of what a particular editor likes before you send something to him or her. If you don't keep those editorial tastes in mind as you write, your chances of a rejection will go way up."

The argument against writing to a market goes something like this: "Of course you should be aware of what a particular editor likes before you send something to him or her. But chances are you'll be less true to your story, or lose touch with your Muse, if you try to cater to editorial tastes too directly. Your chances of a rejection will go way up."

Both of these agree on two points: 1. It's good to be aware of what an editor likes, and 2. Your chances of a rejection are quite high.

I confess I have difficulty writing to any particular market. When a story idea jumps into my head, I have to write it the way I have to write it. Some story ideas demand a higher word count for me, and others a lower. Some story ideas call for more description, and some for less. Some call for lush voices, and some for spare ones.

You could say that I write to a market now, because I do design stories specifically for Analog magazine. On the other hand, the fact that I wrote a story that Analog wanted to buy was pure coincidence. It was a story that asked to be told, and I had a great tip from Sheila Finch on where to send it. It was only after that that I decided I should deliberately look around for stories to tell about language and culture for the purposes of sending them to Analog. Fortunately for me, I find that alien design, and language and culture stories are incredibly inspiring. The fit is natural.

If you are not going to plan to write to a market, then finding a place to get your story sold will be a little like the process of finding an advisor for a Ph.D. At that point in your studies it's no longer a question of whether you're a good enough student (feel free to substitute "writer"), it's a question of whether there's someone out there who wants to work with you. It is a question of fit between what you can do and what the writer or editor wants.

I can't say I don't envy those around me who talk about writing to specific markets, particularly when they appear to be able to do it successfully. I suppose one could look at submission guidelines for clues, or read a lot of material from the magazine, or find editor interviews online. After that, though, a lot of guessing is involved until you actually manage to make a sale.

Be careful that you don't lose your convictions in your efforts to do what an editor appears to want. Many editors have idiosyncratic, eclectic tastes - you never know what may appeal to them. It could be that if your story resembles some they've seen before, that they'll love it - or it could be that it will strike them as derivative.

I believe that there is wiggle room. If you have a great story with a dynamite core conflict, and you manage to keep its drive going all the way through, then you can play around with thematic and textural elements to give it a somewhat different flavor.

I have a friend, though, who told me something quite fascinating about a discussion he took part in about international science fiction. Several of the people involved came to the conclusion that international sf was often more exciting precisely because people weren't writing to a market, and thus were pushing their ideas further than they might otherwise.

I encourage people to look for highly original ideas, no matter how they execute them. Originality can be tricky, but one thing I've found useful is looking around in my personal experience for story ideas rather than looking for them in stories I've read. Of course, taking traditional story tropes and turning them on their heads is another favorite hobby of mine.

In the end, I think it's important to write what inspires and excites you. Because if you can't get excited about a story, it's hard to imagine how anyone else will. Yes, I do rather believe in the Muse, though I think she's less intractable and more cooperative than many others do.

I wish all of you the best in selling your work, wherever it happens to land. Because I love reading good stories.


  1. Stories and book proposals, just like grants and non-fiction work, have to find the right reviewer if they're to have a chance in today's micro-niche climate, in which the reading habits of both readers and editors are increasingly narrow (Tolkien's work would have zero chance of publication today).

    This is why it's crucial to find an editor whose tastes are congruent with your work, instead of sending the submission generically marked To the Editor (for a book, this judgment falls to your agent who presumably knows the terrain). It's even better to have a well-connected friend put in a good word -- which doesn't guarantee success but at least takes you past the slush pile and ensures semi-careful reading of your work. And this is also why getting your grant assigned to the right study section is literally a life-and-death matter.

  2. I don't think it's possible to know. I've written several stories I thought were perfect for Analog. Stan Schmidt disagreed, as is his right and duty. Recently I also had two stories rejected from Asimov's; somewhat surprisingly, Sheila Williams liked much better what I thought was the lesser of the two stories. Finally, I sent one story to Strange Horizons, and the editor complained, Ow! Ow! Too much science! Head hurt! Next story to Strange Horizons, editor said he didn't find the science convincing.

    All of which is to say, you can't predict what an editor will think of your story. (And noting that most prominent magazines, such as the ones mentioned above, get between 15 and 30 stories per day, and generally only publish 5 or 6 stories a month, I don't really think badly of the editors. They have to make a choice, and getting down to the final ones probably feels a bit of a coin toss, even to them.)

  3. I rather agree - with both of you, in different respects. I tend to think it's good to have a ballpark idea of what markets/editors like. There's definitely such a thing as sending to a market where your story would have no chance. On the other hand, I don't think editors are predictable, and I never, ever, count on success with anyone I send to. I think the most important thing for any story is whether it "works" as a story for the editor who reads it - and that's much harder to control than organizational or setting details. I don't have as much experience as you, CWJ, but I can totally see how that would happen, and I'm glad you can share your experience with other authors. My gut always says I should write what inspires me and keeps me writing - because if I'm not inspired, I won't create a good story and then I'll have no chance.

  4. Juliette, I forgot to say I am coming to the same conclusion as you, that one is better to write a story that one likes, rather than trying to write a story that is marketable. Ideally the two should coincide. But I've wasted a lot of time trying to force stories into the mold of what I thought as marketable, rather than simply a story that compels me. For example, many markets prefer stories under 4,000 or under 5,000 words, and I find the kind of worldbuilding I like to do just requires longer stories. I am slowly accepting that. Unfortunately I tend to write long, dark, and science-heavy stories, which really makes them hard to sell--Analog likes science heavy stories and is open to novellas and novelettes, but much prefers more positive, upbeat stories. (In a recent rejection Stan Schmidt said, "Keep in mind our readers look for fun in our stories, and I'm not seeing much of that here." Ouch, but there was truth in it. Unfortunately that same story was rejected by another magazine as not being dark enough. Sigh.)

  5. I wrote a flash fiction piece mocking a certain Mr Dread Cthulhu.

    After I submitted it to a market, I noticed that their guidelines included the words "Don't send me anything with Cthulhu, I can't stand H. P. Lovecrap."

    Don't know how I managed to miss that. I resigned myself to another rejection.

    Instead, it was my first (and so far, my only) sale. The editor said "You really bucked a trend with this one. I can't stand Cthulhu, but your story was a hoot."

  6. CWJ, I've spent a lot of time stressing over story length, but as you know, I'm big into worldbuilding and complexity of premise... which means that I typically write longer stories. Luckily I don't usually stray far over the borderline into novelette territory.

    btw, I think I saw you over at the "Science in my Fiction" blog. That was a pleasant surprise!

  7. David, there you go. There's no telling sometimes. Congratulations on your sale!

  8. Well, both Athena and I are contributors at Science in my Fiction (which I announced on the Analog forum but which you might have missed...)

    Link on my name...

  9. I completely agree that we have to write what inspires and excites us. Because of my dislike of genre boundaries and such-like fences, I have resigned myself to seeing my fiction published in small, idiosyncratic venues, if at all. Which is fine with me, as long as I can retain my academic position -- or win the lottery! *laughs*

  10. My first attempt to write to a market was the Shimmer Pirate Issue.

    I thought for several weeks, came up with a story line, researched my butt off, and then wrote the story. I sent it in well before the deadline.

    And then came the waiting....and waiting.

    After 153 days, they bought the story. Whew!

    But the lesson I learned? For me, writing to a market doesn't work, because I lived in terror that the story wouldn't sell...

    (And like you, I tend to write the story that comes into my mind, even if I spend the entire process wondering 'who would buy this?')