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Muse vs. Marketplace

I've been teaching an online class this week, and today one of the students asked a great question about how to write something that will appeal to readers in the marketplace while still being true to your muse. Thought I'd share my response here, since it's a question that often comes up.
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I think the key to writing a manuscript that sells to a traditional publisher and the book buyers responsible for getting your masterpiece in stores involves a balance between knowing/loving/richly imagining your characters and story and studying the market segment you want to target. Absorbing and understanding reader expectations for each area makes a lot of difference.

I'll give you an example. After writing a number of American historical romances, I was faced with the hard truth that that segment of the market was in severe decline. My reading taste had changed as well; I was glomming gobs of romantic suspense, straight suspense, and mystery novels and loving them. Rather than trying my hand at British Isles historicals, which I like reading well enough but don't have the right voice for, I went with my interests and my penchant for writing dark. Then I made a concerted effort to figure out the differences between the sometimes-overlapping genres of thriller, mystery, suspense, romantic suspense, and contemporary romance with suspense elements. I just read and read as I played around with my own plot and character ideas, until I decided that the stories I wanted to tell were a pretty balanced blend of romance and suspense, with a strong mystery element.

Once I zeroed in on romantic suspense, I focused my reading on newer books by newer authors in the subgenre and asked myself, what do they have in common and what new element does each author bring to the table? I also asked myself what I found dissatisfying as a reader about many of them, what "lack" would I try to address in my story. For me, the balance of romance and suspense seemed off in many, with the romance feeling forced/rushed at the book's end, so while writing, I paid particular attention to smoothing out the characters' emotional development (internal conflict) while keeping the mystery/suspense pot moving forward (external conflict.) Plus, I brought my love of Texas--particularly the West Texas desert-mountain region, and added that to the mix.

All that sounds pretty clinical, but in real life there was a lot of floundering around as I felt my way forward. Fortunately, because of my track record writing historicals, I was able to sell my first romantic suspense off of a proposal (which I'd rewritten three times since the first chapter initially bombed in contests) and the editor gave me some solid input on the emphasis she wanted. That part was just plain lucky (and the result of having a good agent.) Most of the time, you have to figure out the story you want to tell on your own and write a full manuscript when changing genres or trying making a first sale.

An analogy I like to use for the balance between targeting your market and being true to your story and characters is that of an artist who wants to create a beautiful painting that she can also sell. If it's a paint by number, it's not going to feel like art. However, you still need to try to keep your work within the frame. Yes, some subgenres have way more rigid expectations (anything to do with Regency England, for example) but a really talented writer can get away with shattering them, provided she knows she's doing so and has a good reason and a strong enough voice.

How do you balance the demands of the muse with the demands of the marketplace? Does anyone have a favorite technique to share?

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