I can’t say it better than Stephen King does, but I also can’t find the quote. So I’ll have to tell you the story the way I remember it. He confesses that people often ask him… less frequently, perhaps, than they did when he was starting out… “Why do you write that stuff?” And the question stymies him. Mostly because (he says) “They seem to think I have a choice.”
In other words, Stephen King writes what the muse sends him.
Oh, anxious young writer, desperate to produce something that sells, I see you. I see you at writers’ conferences, studying the latest publishing trends with a seriousness and a concentration that should be reserved for prayer. I see you in bookstores, frowning at the shelves with a mixture of contempt, jealousy, and longing rarely experienced outside of high school. And I promise you from my heart: writers who chase trends are like those guys who wander through haunted houses with video cameras, forever disappointed. Trust me. You, too, are chasing a ghost.
Whatever is on the shelves in that bookstore, publishers purchased at least a year ago. By the time it hits the store, it is only an example of what publishers used to like. Mimic it at your peril; they are buying something else today, and by the time you complete and submit your masterpiece based on the trend you see before you, it will be next year (if you’re lucky), and the wave you hoped to catch will have long ago spent itself upon the sand.
So write what the muse sends you. Listen to no one else. Write what you love. Write the story that resonates with you, and trust where it leads you. And it will lead you. Outline bedamned; you’ll know you are doing it right when the story slips off its dockline and heads for the rapids, dragging you in its wake.
I worry about you, fledgling writer taking copious notes at the conference. I mislike the intensity of your expression. Do not trust your notes if they send you north while your muse whispers “east.” Nod and smile and thank anyone who gives you an “industry tip,” but take every tip with a gigantic grain of salt. Many of the tidbits are good to know, and some will come in handy. But none of them will matter if you ignore your muse while following the advice of People Who Know.
The thing is, nobody knows what sells books. If publishers really knew what readers would buy, there would be no bins of deeply discounted remainders at the front of your local Barnes and Noble. Each book in the bin represents some editor’s roll of the dice, his or her best–and demonstrably wrong–guess at what readers want.
You can’t write a sure-fire bestseller, so you may as well write what you love. Your muse knows as much about what readers want as anyone else does. Probably more. It knows what you want, and aren’t you a reader?
No matter what you love to write, if you love it enough to do it well, there are like-minded readers out there. Ten years ago, you had to get past an editor at a publishing house before your work could reach anyone else. No more. So it is the best of times to stop chasing trends and write what the muse sends you.
And yes, I just gave you advice after telling you to listen to no one but your muse. The irony does not escape me! Oh well …