Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
July 3, 2015

Do you write to write? Or write to sell?

I’m not one of those people who always knew I wanted to become a writer, especially not a fiction writer. I took a couple of creative writing courses during college and grad school out of curiosity. Let’s just say it wasn’t a natural fit. My creative muse laughed her butt off at me with each attempt.

But I thoroughly enjoyed writing and editing, and my first job as an editor at a trade publication was a dream. Then I switched to marketing and corporate communications. After fifteen years in the corporate world, I came to a somewhat sad realization--I'd abandoned all of my creative outlets. I’d started college as an art major. But along the way I stopped drawing and the only time my camera came out anymore was to take pictures of my new-born son or the cats.

When I told my husband I needed a creative outlet, he suggested I take the story ideas I kept torturing him with, and write a book. Snort … me, write a novel? Seriously? But the idea was planted and the more I thought about it, the more appealing it sounded. After all, I had nothing to lose. I signed up for a workshop, wrote a first draft, and fell in love with writing fiction.

Writing that first novel turned out to be the best (and cheapest) therapy possible. I found that creative spark that had been buried under years of corporate deadlines. As the workshop came to a close, the topic of publication was discussed. Woah! I hadn’t actually thought about publishing my book (okay, not quite true—there was that little fantasy about seeing my name on the bookshelves next to the authors I read).

But, the idea was planted. I submitted. I even received requests and positive feedback. That fueled another manuscript and more requests and more positive feedback.

With each new project, I found myself staring at the brainstorming board and asking more pointed, business related questions. What is the commercial hook? Is it high concept enough to sell? What’s the underlying theme I hope the readers will take away from this book?

About a month ago, I read an article in The Atlantic. The writer interviewed novelist Andrew Dubus III about the challenges and joys of writing without pre-determination. Mr. Dubus said: “When I began to write, I was deeply self-conscious. I was writing stories hoping they would say something thematic, or address something that I was wrestling with philosophically. I’ve learned, for me at least, it’s a dead road. It’s writing from the outside in instead of the inside out.”

I was frustrated with a story idea because the “high concept” felt puny and I couldn’t get to the heart of what I really wanted to say. I was trying to write from the outside in. That’s when the idea of a summer “writing vacation” came about. I was going to find that creative spark again and NOT worry about writing for publication. Cool idea, right? (For those of you who read my June post, we’ll take a quick break until you stop laughing.)

Shiny, fun new idea? Check. Let the brainstorming begin. Then in the middle of a frustrated rant, Laura called me out on the burr I was sitting on—my brainstorming had shifted to “does this idea have potential for a sale?”

Mr. Dubuis, in that same article wrote: “I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave. I do not. I try not to think; I dream. It’s my mantra. I just get in there and try to be these people.

Granted, he has a writing career that, he admits, is how he makes most of his living, but what he said hit home. The creative spark burns best when I let myself dream. It took some mental bargaining and bribing but I finally managed to let go. And guess what? The new story started coming alive and the “people” are keeping me company everywhere I go. I have a bunch of what ifs and plot ideas on the white board that came from dreaming up twists. But I will confess that there are three words I haven’t erased at the very bottom of the board—“high concept enough?”

So, here are my questions to WITS readers:

1) Once you’ve decided you want to become a published author, can you write without that constant thought of “will this idea sell” coloring your story decisions? Should you?

2) Are you able to compartmentalize—career thinking only in the business cave, not the writing cave?

3) And here’s a twist, can you read a novel without thinking “what made this a best seller” or “what about this concept/writing attracted an agent/editor”?

About Orly

OrlyAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet. When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

38 comments on “Do you write to write? Or write to sell?”

  1. "Writing from the inside out" - I love that!

    I can tell you I went through all of the above before I sold. When you've sold (yes, WHEN), this settles to the background, Orly.

    Be of good heart. It'll happen.

  2. I wrote my first book as something I'd want to read. I just wrote. I hadn't connected with other authors. I belonged to a small on-line writing group made up of people who loved everything anyone showed them. I learned a few things along the way, but never came up with a 'high concept' (everyone was comparing books to movies and I don't go to the movies much). I want to have fun when I write. And if readers like what I've got out there, so much the better. Aside from learning a romance needs a HEA and a detective had better solve the crime, I'm not one for a lot of 'rules.' But no, I can't read a book for pleasure the same way I used to. My internal editor is omnipresent. However, I don't see 'high concepts' in the books I read, and I don't wonder how that author attracted an agent, because too often, it's only peripherally related to the writing. Sometimes I wonder where the heck the editor was, and sometimes I kick myself because I know I'll never be able to turn a phrase the way that author did, but it's all part of the learning process.

    1. Oh, see Terry, that part about kicking yourself that you won't be able to turn a phrase the way an author did - I'm exactly the opposite. I jot down passages that catch my breath with their beauty, and when I'm feeling down about not being able to string three words together, I read those excerpts. They remind me that it is possible to create magic out of simple words. 🙂

  3. Such an interesting post, Orly. My early, unpublished, drafts were a joy to write, possibly b/c I'd never heard the term "high concept." It's different now, when my agent, who has my best interest in mind, is looking at commercial viability. I think the key is to find a high concept idea that we're truly passionate about, one that makes us race to our laptops each morning. When that happens, the world goes away and we can write from the inside out.

    Wishing you perseverance and patience as you continue to write and submit. Keep the faith, my friend!

    1. I love that feeling when the world goes away and we can write from the inside out. Beautifully said, Lori. BTW, I stayed up way too late last night reading Sweet Forgiveness. 🙂

  4. That's an interesting question. As mainly a non-fiction writer myself that sometimes writes (and sells) fiction, I would say: write only what you really enjoy. I found out that things that work in fiction are the ones that mean something to you. They might sell or not, but if you don't feel about them, chances are they won't be as good as they need to sell. Just my experience, for what it's worth.

    1. Couldn't agree more, Stephen. If we don't have strong feelings about what we're writing, the reader won't buy in to it either. And that goes for essays or fiction. Thanks for stopping by, Stephen. Happy Friday!

  5. Great post, Orly! To answer your questions...

    1. If I wrote wondering with every key stroke how the book would sell, I'd never get anything on the page. Nothing kills creativity like worry, self-doubt, and negativity. My advice to unpublished writers is be kind to yourself in order to set your imagination free.
    2. Compartmentalization is a must. See answer #1 for clarification.
    3. Great question and one I struggle with constantly. I have to say that studying craft, the publishing business, etc. has come close to ruining reading for pleasure for me. I still read for pleasure, but I have to beat down my internal editor, critic, and author in order to do it. I tend to be in critique/analysis mode all the time unless I make a real effort. Reading for pleasure has suffered since I've become an author.

    By the way, I love WFWA and was an early joiner. Keep up the great work!

    1. Agree with all of the above, Linda! I'm lucky enough that I can still read for pleasure. Although I admit that I'll stop reading a book much sooner now if I find flaws that drive me batty.

      And thank you for being part of WFWA. We wouldn't be here without our amazing members. 🙂

  6. Thank you for a great article. Although, I am always aware that I want to publish, when I write that is not my focus. Like most writers, I create in the dream. When I edit and revise, I rejoin the real world where there are limits, boundaries, and expectations. With regard to reading, it is very difficult to enjoy books with flawed plots or poor editing. Not because my work is spotless; I am still very much a novice. It's just that I am more aware of what could have been corrected before publishing. Still, if an author weaves a spell where the characters are active and the story is engaging, my editor goes right to sleep.

    1. I agree, the first draft for me is for dreaming. Revisions are for shaping those dreams. Thanks for stopping by, Debra.

  7. Orly, your questions really smacked me this morning. I had three published mysteries before I even realized what I was doing, other than writing the best way I knew how at the time. That was around 2003 (yikes) and times have certainly changed since then but I still try not to mix business and story telling.

    And here I allow myself a little rant moment. High concept is for the movies. It's what boys on Red Bull do. Hey what if Dinosaurs took over NYC? I get really not happy when all the talk about fiction is about high concept. Not every novel needs a high concept. Some of the most popular novels haven't had classic high concepts. They have deep emotional value. Okay finished.

    Some days it seems like we only think about numbers, and algorithms, and how many reviews it takes for a book to sit on the head of a bestseller pin, and very little time talking or thinking about writing. Or actually, writing. That's when I slap myself up side the head (or you do) and just write.

    You managed to hit several buttons, girl.

    1. YES, YES, YES to the high concept rant!!!! One of my greatest fears is that authors are going to be ever more limited in their content due to the extreme focus on what shouts the loudest in the entertainment world. Quiet introspection and emotional richness sometimes feel like dying virtues.

    2. Ha! Love that rant, Shelley. I had a similar one that led to this post. 🙂
      You need to come to the retreat so we can talk writing. No head slapping though!!. 😉

  8. I go back and forth. I can write for weeks without a thought about saleability (sp?) but at some point, usually when I'm revising, I start thinking about it more. I guess that's the right time for me to think about it. How can I make this killer idea that excited me when writing and excited me when I talked about it into something that hooks and keeps readers hooked. I guess now I do a bit more thinking about that before writing anything in the first place though, so maybe it's like bookends.

  9. If find it impossible to separate the two. No matter how much we tell ourselves we're writing for ourselves, I think pretty much all writers are hoping to be published and to be read. That's why we have critique groups, writing partners and developmental editors. That's why we write query letters to agents and why we get in the dumps when the email inbox is filled with rejections. If we weren't thinking about potential readers and were just writing for ourselves, we wouldn't want or need any of them. I'm not saying to ditch our voices or not to write from the inside out and to reach only for the high-concept golden ring, but I think it's somewhat disingenuous for writers to say they don't consider readers when they're writing. That's my two cents. Okay, let the bashing begin. 🙂

    1. No bashing here! I think you're spot on, Densie. I'll never forget a workshop that Darynda Jones gave a few years ago when she flat out said she thought about what would sell and jumped on it. Her writing is brilliant, her concept unique, and she's a glowing example that writing to sell can work. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. As you said, all writers are hoping to be published and read. okay, not all, some are absolutely happy just writing for writing with no interest in the commercial aspect.

      For me at least, that very first manuscript was writing for fun. I had no though about selling. But once you've made that mental transition into wanting to sell or you've sold and want to keep selling, is that when your mindset as a writer changes?

  10. Wonderful post, Orly. And I totally agree with Shelley's comments regarding "high concept." When I begin writing a novel, I ask myself whether the idea is emotionally compelling. I ask myself what the story is really about. What secrets are the characters keeping and why? What lies have they told themselves?

  11. Easy questions and short answers.

    No, no, and no!

    It's been a long time since I was able to write for the sheer pleasure of it. And I can pinpoint the moment when the change began.

    Summer, August 2008 and my first ever writing workshop. Since then, memberships, courses, how-to books, crit partners, beta readers, and everything to do with them have turned my focus from writing to writing well.

    There's nothing wrong with writing well.

    But there has been such a deluge of craft, crit, and commentary that almost every idea is doomed to failure before it's more than an a few minutes old.

    I like the idea of a writing cave; a place where I can go to just write and have fun, the way it used to be.

    It's such an encouragement to read that you, Orly, and all of my fellow commenters seem to have experienced the same thing. It's also encouraging to see most of you have gotten through it!

    1. *patting the seat next to me* Come sit, Carrie, there's plenty of space in the writing cave. 🙂

      One thing I had to do a couple of years ago was actually pull away from a crit group. Not because the feedback wasn't good or the critters weren't helpful, but the story was still a baby story and the feedback completely derailed me. I stopped sharing chapters for a while and let the writing happen. Once I felt more grounded with my story, I started sharing with one of my crit partners again.

  12. Orly, this is a super post!

    1) I can't really justify the time I spend away from all the other demands without considering whether the idea might sell--but I have to love it to sign my name to it. It's RIGHT to think of story decisions in terms of engaging your audience! (Also, I'm always struggling with my "supportive" sister. The one who said, "I've always thought of writing as self-indulgent."
    2) The first draft is the place to let all the story ideas flow on to the page. The second draft is full of--hmmm, did I reveal too much too soon? Do I need another scene to build a logical bridge between this part and the next? Would the 4th grader next door think this is fun to read?
    3) I love analyzing books that draw me in. And when I read something that strikes me as not so great, I analyze that, too. What is it about this novel that has broad commercial appeal?

    I also agree with you about criticism. These days, I finish a draft before I let anyone read it. I'm such a pleaser. It takes more effort for me to say no to a suggestion than to rewrite.

    Happy writing, and thanks for the discussion!

    1. Thanks for joining the discussion! I love everything you said.
      Interestingly enough, I seem to analyze the books I don't like more than the books I do like. 🙂

      And the "supportive" family/friends. Another reason to crawl back into the cave.

      Happy writing to you too! And have a great weekend.

  13. My crit partner gets the first three chapters and then eventually the entire book. I don't allow others to steer my story. The questions about saleability are a non-issue for me (much to my agent's chagrin). I write what's in my heart. After the book is published, I market like crazy, but I keep writing and business separate otherwise it puts me in a creative straight jacket.

    Thanks for getting the brain firing away.

    1. Love hearing that someone makes the separation work, Susan! I'm glad you joined the discussion.

  14. If I had to pay the mortgage with a book, I'd think about whether it's high concept enough. And then I'd probably produce something that half a dozen other people have gotten to faster than I did. I'm old enough and self-sufficient enough at this point to be thinking "What do I want to say before I die?" Life's too short and the payoff too uncertain to waste serious time on anything else.

    1. “What do I want to say before I die?” <-- I love this. Sandra! And yes, life is too short and payoff way too uncertain to waste time. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  15. I always think of writing for publication. It may sound crass, but I don't mean I do it for the money only (although money is very fine indeed - I want more!) rather, I want others to read my stories. That is what my thrill is - when others read the outpouring of my thoughts. The only time I don't write for publication is when I scribble in my private journals or poems.

    Thanks for a great post, Orly!

    1. I don't think it sounds crass at all, Deb.
      I so admire that you can write journal and write poems for the beauty of writing.
      Thanks for stopping by. Have a great weekend. 🙂

  16. When I wrote my first book, I never dreamed of selling it. Then my husband talked to a mystery-writer friend of his and learned about royalties. He's so supportive he went out and did a sea-trial on a bigger boat--after telling me I should sell that book.

    I haven't been motivated to keep with trying to sell (three queries per book has been my limit), but I feel change in the air this year. Since I write science fiction, I don't write to trends. I write society "what ifs" and that doesn't change, although in the middle of a YA dystopian, The Hunger Games hit big. Then agents and editors said dystopian was finished. And Divergent hit. Who knows? After I sell, then I'll worry about the market.

    1. Okay, you know I have to ask ... three queries per book? Fae, honey, we need to talk! 🙂

  17. Great post! Hit home ;). For me, the answer is complicated. I can't "write to sell" exclusively. Meaning, if I wanted to do that I'd write erotica or something. But that doesn't come naturally to me. HOWEVER, I absolutely consider the market and my place in it when developing a new story idea. And I can't remove that from my brain when I read either. I ask those questions: what is the draw, what was the selling concept? But I'm trying to switch careers in my mid-thirties with two little kids and a mortgage.
    That being said, I work hard to not question every sentence I write. But I do try to review my pages like a reader would: does the chapter end on a hook? Is there enough micro-tension? How can I build in more nuance?
    I have thrown out story ideas that are too similar to ones I've read, or heard about. And I do worry about getting all the way to the end of novel, handing it over and having someone say, "Ummmm this is exactly like that famous book from three years ago...."

    1. Reviewing your own pages with the eyes of a reader. YES! After an edit or three, I save my ms as a pdf and read it in iBook on the iPad (I'm probably the last holdout without an actual ereader). But I force myself to read it straight through with just a notepad handy for those "what were you thinking here" moments.

      Thanks for stopping by on a Saturday morning, Kate!! 🙂

  18. Hi Orly
    Maybe when I sell a book my priorities will change but right now I only think about what my characters tell me to write down. I'm a pantser. In the last month I read something that address all this sell, appeal to agent/editor etc. and I hadn't a clue what any of that meant and don't know if I'm going traditional, indie(don't even know what this is), or self-publish so how do I know what I need to know to adjust my stories to fit? As far as a trend, I only read what I like so how do I know what is selling now and what will be selling in a year or two when mine will be ready to go on the shelf? Got to go firecrackers are going off and i'm typing with one hand and holding my 6 yo puppy with the other, not easy.

  19. I think the key really is just writing for your audience, which initially is you. People who love your work will gravitate to it with the right marketing, and that's all you can ask. I've read too many stories without a heart because someone had a deadline or contract. I don't like heartless stories--even when seasoned editors shape them up.

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