Thursday, June 7, 2012

Your Public, Your Self: Writing to Trends by Joanne Kennedy

I am very pleased to welcome Joanne Kennedy back to the blog as she announces the release of her newest book, Cowboy Crazy.

Joanne celebrates Wyoming’s unique blend of past and present in contemporary Western novels with traditional ranch settings. Her books include Cowboy Crazy, Tall, Dark and Cowboy, Cowboy Fever, and the RITA nominated One Fine Cowboy. She lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming with two dogs and a fighter pilot. The dogs are relatively well-behaved.


Your Public, Your Self: Writing to Trends by Joanne Kennedy

“Dark urban paranormals are on the wane. Contemporary romantic suspense is on the upswing. Epic fantasy is a tough sell, and cozy mysteries are holding steady.”

How many times have you heard this kind of speculation at a writing conference? Writers talk about trends the way old men talk about the weather. Everyone’s trying to figure out which subgenres are selling and which ones are in a slump.

But should you tailor your writing to fit the market?

British literary critic Cyril Connelly didn’t think so. “Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for your public and have no self,” he said. Cyril might have been a little on the stuffy side, but many writers agree that you should write the book of your heart rather than “selling out” to commercialism.

But it’s hard to reach readers if the book of your heart is a literary tragedy set in 4th-century Estonia featuring a bisexual raccoon. I mean, everybody knows raccoon books don’t sell, and nobody’s typing “Estonia” into the Amazon search box. So should you change your novel to reflect the market?


Take another look at your story. Would your raccoon could be equally at home in another place and time? It’s heartbreaking to ditch all the carefully-researched details about your obscure setting, but it’s even more heartbreaking to see that unsold manuscript gathering dust under the bed.

If the setting’s set in stone, maybe you could tweak your hero to make him more compelling. Raccoons are cute from a distance, but we all know they’re actually skulking nocturnal scavengers who prey on other people’s garbage. Wouldn’t it be more exciting to write about a wolverine? You could ride Hugh Jackman’s furry coattails. And think of all the potential for conflict in that rage-driven personality!

 Changing your work to make it more popular might sound crass and commercial, but if writing to trends is selling your soul, my soul is definitely for sale. Cheap.

It’s not about the money; it’s about readers. Writing is all about communication, and I don’t feel my books are successful unless they get read. Without readers, a novel is just words on a page.

When I first started writing, I was obsessed with farming. I’d raised chickens and horses in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to put my experiences in a book. Let me tell you, rural romance isn’t exactly a thriving sub-genre.

When I stepped back and looked at the world I’d created, I had to admit I could see why. A hero in overalls and work boots just doesn’t cut it, but once I dressed him in chaps and a cowboy hat, he became infinitely more appealing.

As my story developed, the setting mattered less and less. The heart of the story was the characters, the theme, and the tone. Everything else was negotiable. So my farmer became a cowboy, and I changed a lot of details in the book to reflect a Western sensibility.

I don’t feel like I sold my soul at all. I feel like I found my niche. As I immersed myself in the world of the West I discovered that it’s a great place to set a story, and the setting drew readers who otherwise would have passed the story by.

So take a look at that unsold manuscript from a reader’s point of view. Maybe a few small changes will help you reach your audience and find success. Yes, you should write the book of your heart—but keep your heart open and you’ll be more likely to touch the hearts of readers.

It’s not selling your soul; it’s widening your horizons. And more importantly, think of it as reaching readers with a story they want to hear.

What’s your subgenre? Would you change your story to make it more salable?


Thanks so much for being my guest blogger today, Joanne. I've started reading Tall, Dark and Cowboy and wondering why I haven't picked up Western romance novels to read before this, especially considering how much I love cowboy movies, cowboy music, and...well...cowboys.

Joanne loves to hear from readers and can be reached through her website.


Grammy said...

Hi, some of the first books I read as an adult were the Zane Grey books. I have been in love with romantic westerns for many years. I love mysteries as well. Certainly, I'll be looking for these books at the library next time I go. (I am a faithful library patron, don't cha' know?) Best regards. Ruby

Lynn Proctor said...

loved this so much--no i wouldn't change my writing--because i don't even think i could and it would become too much like drudgery---i guess my other style of writing would be poetry--really it was my first love!

Joanne Kennedy said...

Grammy Ruby, some of the first books I read were my dad's collection of Zane Grey books. I still think Lassiter from "Riders of the Purple Sage" is the hottest cowboy hero ever!

Joanne Kennedy said...

Lynn, I don't think anyone should change their writing so much it becomes work. But for me, opening my mind to something new really helped me find my voice and my place on the bookshelves. I'll probably write that farming book someday, but for now I'm happy to stick with my Western setting!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I think of Sandra Dallas, Nancy Pickard, and Jane Smiley when I consider authors who've turned country/farm stories into great novels. The secret might be in seeing the setting as just one character in a bigger story.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Good examples, Pat! The problem for me was breaking in. It's a lot harder to sell as a debut author with something a little different. The funny thing is, I could probably sell a "farm" book now, but I love my new subgenre too much to switch!

Elizabeth Haysmont said...

Joanne, you present such compelling arguments. And in today's speedy ETA to market with the smaller, faster indie presses and self-pubbing, it's easier to get in while something is still popular. No doubt there are many writers who can write to the market and still have heart in their stories.
I probably don't qualify. I have to write about places and people I feel for deeply. Dunno if it's going to be successful or not, but The High Bridge is out there with my heart stuck right into the middle of it!
Lovely, thought provoking post. Thanks.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Thanks for stopping by, Elizabeth:) I totally agree that we need to write about places and people we feel for deeply. That's why research and authenticity are so important if you change your setting. I couldn't write Westerns if I hadn't immersed myself in that world and fallen in love with it. Writers can't just willy-nilly decide to write whatever's selling, but they should keep an open mind toward the kinds of books readers want.
I wrote this post because I know so many talented writers who write in a subgenre that is a very hard sell, and I hate to see them hitting that barrier again and again.

D'Ann said...

Hi, Joanne. Super post! I love contemporary western suspense. I heard over and over, RS was dead. Lucky for me, I found a publisher who doesn't beleive that. I just couldn't see myself writing anything else. It's who I am.

Joanne Kennedy said...

D'Ann, congratulations on the success of "Wild Horses!" If you write a good enough book, I do believe it will eventually sell. It's just hard to wait for "eventually" when a little change could make all the difference!

Rena and Denny said...

Great post. A lot of what I write (or want to write) is from my experiences growing up in the 1970s. I've often wondered if I should continue that or simply try to make the story modern day. I'm pretty hung up on nostalgia.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great post!

The story I'm currently working on falls into subgenre Dystopia and has elements of military SF. I suppose I would change it to make it more salable, though I'm terrible at figuring out trends and probably wouldn't have a clue what to change it to.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. It is so true that characters are the heart of a story.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Rena, I grew up in the 70s too and love that time period. You don't see many books set in the relatively recent past (well, recent to me, anyway!) but I think it sounds good! It could make it a little bit of a harder sell, but if you write something great it will create its own market!

Joanne Kennedy said...

Golden Eagle, that's a perfect example. I think there will always be a market for military sf (like David Weber, for example). But right now, military themes (SEALs and even futuristic super-soldiers) are popular in romantic suspense, so if you had some mushy stuff in there it might open up more possibilities. I don't know if that's at all your cup of tea, but it's something to consider.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Donna, thanks! I do think characters matter most, at least in the kind of emotional fiction I write. I've set stories in the West, in the East, and even in Hell! What matters is that the characters strike a chord with reaers, and that they face conflicts that force them to change.

lizy-expat-writer said...

I would only change m story if it retained its heart. Tweaking a time or place is one thing, a complete change is another. One "expert" advised me to change my hero to a heroine, and that was in a book where the hero fights in WW2.