Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it.Jesse Stuart
The fact that I have made a living in the world of publishing for some thirty odd years is proof that I have acquired, written, edited, published, and sold what others wanted and asked for many times. I have helped publish a number of very successful books and series that were not necessarily what I might be looking for as a consumer and reader myself—a new devotional for mothers is a good example—but I knew that the material would meet a real need for many others.
I believe in focusing on others and will continue to do so for my “day job”. So don’t get me wrong. I believe in the discipline of marketing as applied to writing and publishing and business development, especially the early part of the science when you scan and closely observe the world to see what people are looking for and buying, trying to spot new interests and trends.
But having said that, there came a moment in my publishing career that I decided to ignore everyone else and write something for me—to go with my gut feeling and instinct that if I like it, others will too. No way was I going to revert to form and gather focus groups or put out surveys. I decided to go with a jury of one. Me.
My first step was the rule of the obvious. I asked myself the simple question: What do you like to read Mark?
I can tick off a small library of all the devotional, historical, political, theological, and biographical books I’ve read, but in many cases, I read those because they were assigned to me as part of course work or I was attempting to exercise discipline for personal or spiritual growth or to keep my mind challenged. The reality is when I read for pleasure I have always defaulted to character-driven mysteries and suspense thrillers. Detectives, spies, private investigators, good guy vigilantes – and even a few bad ones (click here to see my Pinterest board on the topic).
That’s where I started with Cuts Like a Knife. I wrote something I personally would go out of my way to buy. Now I didn’t throw marketing out the window and do something crazy like kill my main character in the first novel. But even my decision to write Detective Kristen Conner as a series character was selfish and self-centered. Again, I went with the rule of the obvious. What authors do I come back to repeatedly? Series authors. The ones that have created fabulous personalities that keep us hungry for their next adventure over years and even decades – characters like Spenser (he’s been solving crimes and eating donuts for almost 35 years and still hasn’t put on a pound), John Rebus, Jim Chee, Richard Drury, Gabriel Allon, George Smiley, Jack Reacher, Eve Dallas, and too many others to name here.
I was having a conversation about this very topic with a group of friends and one of them challenged me, “If you were writing for yourself, why did you pick a woman as the lead character? And why in the world did you write her in first person? That seems like a marketing decision to me.”
I can get in a lot of trouble with my answer but I think I can stay consistent with my assertion that I was writing for myself. I don’t think that the gender of the hero is what has made me or others love certain characters more than others, though no doubt I have gravitated more toward male heroes in my own reading. But what really has made me fall in love with a character is the mix of strengths, weaknesses, successes, failures, commonalities, peculiarities, self-awareness, self-blindness, wonderful and messy relationships and more that make the character step from the page and become real.
I might also add that as the father of six children, my three daughters have provided me with more “dramatic” material to write my lead character than my sons. See—I told you I could get in trouble with my answer.
The long and short is I wrote what I wanted to read and was delighted to discover that reviewers and readers liked my debut fiction offering and the follow up. Jesse Stuart was right. Write something to suit yourself and many others will like it.
I’m sure some don’t and won’t love reading Detective Kristen Conner as much as I enjoyed writing in her voice, but that would be the case no matter what my starting point.
Many reading this are writers and I know many if not most of you are far ahead of me on thinking through this topic. But I’ve watched many writers veer from a project they love into a project they don’t care much for based on the first negative criticism or the perception of greener pastures.
I’ve been around the world of publishing as long or longer than most of you, but the question of who to write for is still top of mind for me as my novels were the first time I took on a project while consciously identifying myself in my mind as an author, not a publisher or marketer or editor or ghostwriter or some other role of facilitation.
I can only speak for me, but to develop my novel required a shift in my thinking away from others to me. (Might be time to check out the Toby Keith video of I Wanna Talk About Me to get in your groove.)
Here’s a good exercise for the next time you hit print on your latest business scheme or something you wrote; rather than run to friends and peer evaluators to see if they like it, take a couple days to ask the question of yourself: Do YOU like it? Don’t get me wrong, I carefully listened to peer reviews and submitted to a rigorous editorial process where I didn’t get everything I wanted – and you should too – but I am talking about the inspiration stage. What would you read? What do you like? What do you think?
Being other-centered is great. But sometimes it’s all about you. You might just increase your impact on others by thinking of yourself.