For being such free thinkers, the Disney Channel, Dove Chocolates, and D.H.T. all seem to have an opinion about how I’m living my life. And, for being such radically free thinkers, they all seem to be saying the same thing: Listen to your heart.
Whether “he’s calling for you,” you really want to eat more chocolates, or you’re a teenage mermaid being called back to the sea (Door prize for anybody who can name the movie in the comments section.), there is a dubious message weaving itself into the threads of our cultural fabric. It’s a message of tolerance, freedom, and the liberty of expression. It’s a message of courage, faith, and self-reliance.
While the “listen to your heart” movement has given us all the warm fuzzy of empowerment, can we go ahead and be honest with ourselves? Do we dare to peel back the veneer?
“Listen to your heart” is a very euphemistic way of saying, “Do what you want.” Do what feels right. If it’s sloggin’ through your noggin, it has obviously bubbled up from that thumping muscle in your chest that (somehow) dictates all notions of morality and nobility.
For an author, this translates very simply: Write what you want to write. Write what makes you feel good. Write what makes you proud.
And I agree. Write the way you want to write. Never let anyone tell you what style works best for you or how you can steamroll your way to success.
However… (How can we have a blog post without a big ol’ “whatever?”) Turn your face from the Disney-esque simulacrum, if only for a moment, and acknowledge that purity of heart does not translate to marketability.
“But Hannah!” you cry. “For shame! You blathering trollop, you’re saying that I should sell out the dream in my heart for something that sells?”
Yes. And no.
This is a touchy subject for authors—a subject I, to be honest, have not yet stomached in its entirety. While it is true that your best writing will be the writing you love—writing that is true to yourself—there is something to be said for “da rules.”
Of course, rules are made to be broken. “Middle grades cannot be more than 70,000 words,” they said. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets comes bursting on the scene at 85,000. “BDSM/blatant domestic abuse is far too egregious to sell mainstream.” Enter, 50 Shades of Gray.
Certainly, being creative and shaking up the game can yield incredible payouts. That’s the concept of gambling, mais non? Big risks for big rewards. Writing a book, regardless of its attributes, is a risk. It’s a risk to query—a risk to sign and sell. But, just like gambling, there are things you can do to load your odds.
Like anything else in life, all “surefire formulas” fall through. Just because you write something avant-garde does not mean that it won’t sell. Just because you follow a “market formula” doesn’t mean that it will. However, biddies and mavericks alike, there is something to be said for knowing your audience.
When I first began writing, I had no concept of genre or marketing. I would never say that my first endeavors were a waste of time, but they certainly did teach me a lot about what I was doing wrong. Needless to say, the book didn’t sell, and I can easily identify two big rookie mistakes.
Firstly, the novel wrapped itself up at 400,000 words. (To put things in perspective, that’s almost twice as long as The Shining.) My audience was young adult readers. Had I done my research, I would have discovered that most young adult novels range anywhere from 85-120,000 words with the 120 on the far side of acceptable. To expect that my audience would sit down to read it, much less heft such a tome off the shelf, was mental.
Secondly, I started marketing it as a “thriller.” I went on Writer’s Digest and researched every single agent that represented the genre, only to be bombarded with a mountain of rejections. Later, after many tears and angry flash dances, I realized that my book was more Suzanne Collins than Dan Brown. I had been querying in the wrong genre the entire time! My book fit better as an “urban fantasy” or a “post-apocalyptic noir,” and had I dug more into agencies that represented those genres, perhaps I would have had better luck.
Lesson learned? You need to look at your book as a product. It has to fill a market need, and it has to do it well—better than the competition. You may want to write a 300-page, time-warping behemoth in twelve different POV’s,  but is that going to be something that your audience wants to read? If you’re writing middle grade fiction, can you really expect parents to buy your book for their children if it begins with a racy sex scene?
There’s a lot to be said for marketing your book correctly. If you’re writing about little men with fuzzy feet, you probably shouldn’t pitch it as a memoire. If you’re recounting your sordid history in Amsterdam, you probably shouldn’t query an agent who represents children’s books.
My advice, when thinking about how to write the book you want to write, is to find books of similar taste. Research authors who did well and study them closely. How long are their books? Who is their audience? What is their plot structure, and how did they pace the story? What about dialogue? Violence? Action? Who agents that author, and what publisher picked them up?
To be a good writer, you have to be a great reader.
Consider it training. “Research,” of sorts. By studying someone better than you, you’re bound to get better yourself. Why do you think dancers still insist on exhuming Michael Jackson?
Before I write any middle grade fiction, I study up on my favorites: J.K. Rowling, Cornelia Funke, and Neil Gaiman. By studying “good” authors (Arguably, some of the best.), I hone my craft. Obviously, these writers create products that their audience loves (Ergo, the commercial success.), so they must be doing something right.
Writing is an art, and art is a study just as much as it is a pratice.
Each Newberry is a professor; each title on the Best Seller List is a textbook. Certainly, no one can condone plagiarism, but the only way to get good is by reading good books.
Keep your own style, and speak in your own voice; but also be ready to listen and learn.
In summation, you should always write what you love. I would go as far as to say that you must write what you love. Write the version you want, how you want it, and then soak up all the satisfaction your masterwork warrants. Writing in a voice that is not your own will never be as good as something true.
However, understand that what you love might not be what sells. Certain genres have certain expectations, and you would do well to study up on the literary market. It’s up to you to find the gossamer line—the line between following the rules and breaking free. I’m not quite there yet. When you arrive, let me know.
Listen to your heart, but proceed with caution.
 There are many other reasons why this book isn’t ready, but we’ll delve into those later.
 POV: “point of view.” Writing from the perspective of a specific character.
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Photo credit: Donovan Reeves