Conversations: On writing for yourself, with Jen Elrod

Conversations: On writing for yourself, with Jen Elrod

Welcome to the first of what I hope to make a series! I’ve always preferred longform writing over tweets, and I wanted to do something a little more interesting than just piling all my own thoughts onto a page. So I reached out to my very cool, very smart friend Jen Elrod, newsletter queen and all-around advisor, to have a conversation about writing for yourself versus writing for the market, something I’ve been wanting to express thoughts on for a while–and now (coincidentally) even more so with how much we’re talking about the markets, and tropes, and the whims of commercialism. (Jen’s socials below! But first. The words.)

WEN: Through discourses about query burnout, self-publishing, trope marketing and ongoing discussions about what the industry does or does not actively support, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing for yourself and writing for the market–what either means for my process, the ways they are and aren’t a dichotomy, and the ways I try to navigate that while retaining the ambition of Getting Published in Places That People Will Read (and That Hopefully Pay Me Too). 

Especially in online spaces, where discourses are distilled and the works that garner the most hype tend to be highly pitchable and high-concept or highlighting popular tropes/canon/trends, I’ve found myself constantly keeping that in mind, occasionally at the expense of myself or the work. I actually think querying burned me a little, because it was the first time I was really fitting my work into neat genre, category, comp, and even identity boxes (that’s a whole other conversation), and I became extremely aware of the ways my work did or did not easily fit in. I wish I did not perceive the world and wrote in a vacuum, but unfortunately not. As someone also very in the online writer space who’s great at promoting your work even pre-querying: Jen, do you ever feel market pressure, or else what do you do around that? Where do you position yourself versus hopes to enter the market?

JEN: Hi Wen! Thank you so much for having me. I totally understand the pressure that you and a lot of writers feel when it comes to writing for the market. We are constantly surrounded by what is trendy/trending, and in this new age of social media where more and more industry professionals wind up online—writers can’t help but feel inundated to write for what agents/editors are buying or what the market is selling. 

I think subconsciously we may all feel a bit of pressure when it comes to the market. I do catch myself sometimes wondering if my story is sellable but honestly if the DOJxPRH trial is telling us anything—it’s that no one can truly predict what sells, or sells well. I am a firm believer in writing books that speak to you and for you. I am not the type of writer who has the issue of having too many ideas and not enough time to write them. Ideas come to me very, very slowly. I just finished drafting my third book-shaped blob & I only have one other idea cooking in my brain. My ideas are very far and in-between so I cherish when I am able to get an idea that I can fully conceptualise to book length.

I’m not entirely positive if this contributes to my relationship with the book market but since I am not a powerhouse of ideas—I tend to not even be able to think about writing for the market as I am unable to write stories that are simply to sell versus ones that come from my heart. I have to really have something to say to write a full story. And that’s not to say that the something to say is intellectual or has depth because I love writing simply fun books too. 

But one of the main steps I have taken to avoid this inundation of market and marketability is that I really curate my online space. Twitter is my main platform for writing and books & even there I try to keep my TL pretty clean. I try not to follow agents or editors, currently, as their MSWL can make me feel like I’m not writing the right books. TikTok is really big right now and BookTok is really driving sales but I actually have Booktok blocked. I think it’s important to not surround yourself entirely by the market and one of the ways I do that is curating how much information I’m allowing myself to consume especially as a writer who is very online.  

WEN: “Writing books that speak for you and to you” <3. It reminds me a lot of something one of my Clarion West instructors said that really resonated with me, which was that the market isn’t worth the pain entering for the sake of itself, but most of us write because we were going to do it anyway, and we may as well try and get something material out of it. I went to dig up a specific quote from Susan Palwick that I wrote down, because I liked it a lot: “When you were 5 or 7 or 9, you weren’t thinking about Locus bestseller lists. Stay in touch with your core reasons, with your inner child who just wanted to know what happened next. That is your writing origin story—remember that and value it, because that’s what got you started.” I do think that amidst market unpredictability, and even unfairness, sustaining that core joy of why you like to write is so important to keep you going, and a big part of that is making sure you’re writing what you enjoy.

Similarly it’s really cool that you brought up the intellectual versus fun, because that’s a really big thing I’ve been trying to teach myself recently. I also tend to need to go into a work knowing exactly what I want to say in it, which tends to be very specific themes or ideas that I’m trying to explore. As a result I keep getting caught up feeling that everything I write has to have a Big Meaning or specific intellectual arguments. I don’t know where this came from!! It’s maybe a preemptive deflection of YA or SFF getting dismissed when I was growing up as “not real literature”, and thus becoming preoccupied with writing things that felt important. 

In an interesting way, at least in how we’re talking about online spaces (as far as twitter is an extension of market re pitchability and beta audience) I think I’ve actually somewhat struggled to join in things like character prompts and fun gushing about WIPs. Firstly because I prefer keeping WIPs close to my chest, but then secondly because I get so caught up treating stories as a craft exercise or intellectual piece that I struggle switching to “my stupid CHILDREN whose HEARTS I AM BREAKING and their STUPID YEARNING I LOVE THEM” social media promo mode.

But recently I’ve been trying to teach myself to sometimes just have fun with a piece, vibes first, brain empty. For my last week at Clarion West, I pantsed a science fantasy short about a gang of monster killers on a road trip to save their friend. No big arc, no societal dissection, no big ideas, just kids. monster killing. I ended up having SO much fun with it—and people were telling me they could feel me having fun. I could probably go on about those characters; I could feel myself just enjoying being there. Which I think is how it should be! And readers can feel you having fun. But I’ve found that some of the stuff I have more escapist fun with are unfortunately not quite what’s easily sellable, and it’s not that I don’t love and feel proud of my more “serious” work.

I’ve kind of gone into a tangent, so bringing it back with a TLDR: I guess I tend not to write specifically for the market either. I choose WIPs on whatever compels me most at the moment, which are sometimes super commercial and are sometimes less so—which I am very aware of, even if I want to write it anyway. It’s how I end up writing a bunch of different genres without a specific brand, lol, and also how I end up writing cursed crossover spaces. 

But I’m trying to strike that balance between the fun and the deliberate. I think there’s definitely space within that to write what you want and then figure out how to sell it, by playing up certain angles if you have to or figuring out what you might be willing to tweak without compromising the story’s heart. It helps that I’m currently putting out most of my work in SFF short fiction, which feels relatively less boxed in by strict categories/trends. But then for novels, I guess the sticking point comes when I’m done writing and I want to get it out there (Hopefully Pay Me etc etc). I guess it’s like, you can create outside the market until you need to get into the market. Although, I think I’ve also accepted that I’m not necessarily writing stuff that would go viral, and that I’m not the kind of person that’s good at going/wants to go viral—and that’s fine. That does come with a certain level of mediating engagements with Booktok, actually, like you said :’)

JEN: I totally understand about wanting to keep your stories close to your chest. I can be an oversharer online, but what I’ve learned recently about myself and my process is that sharing work-in-progress tidbits too soon makes the story I’m working on lose some of its magic. I don’t remember where I read it but there was an article I stumbled across at one point where an author talked about not sharing your work early or before it’s finished because in doing so you release the most vital part of storytelling which is affirmation that the story you wrote is resonant. The last step in creating a story is having others read it and that’s when a writer finally feels like the story is “told” but in sharing too soon you give yourself that “told” feeling early which then causes some of the magic to crumble. I found that very interesting because it’s so true for me. If I ramble too long to someone about a new WIP idea the story may become bland and it takes some reworking and rethinking to recreate that excitement. A TANGENT but I swear this has a point. 

I feel that when we try to write a story specifically for the market we wind up trying to Frankenstein pieces of story elements together that don’t really speak to us but that we try to force to speak to us. I felt that a lot with my trunked novel that a lot of the community knew as MonsterBoi which is a loosely inspired Adult fantasy based off Rossetti’s the Goblin Market. Not to be all pop culture but I feel as if that book now “belongs to the streets”, in the sense that it garnered a lot of online attention and the story no longer felt like mine. There were elements that I was hoping to incorporate such as sexy monster steam and villainous brothers but as I continued to work on the piece I realized a lot of my starting elements no longer worked but the online sphere knew my book for those elements. I felt like I couldn’t change the book now because the community was expecting me to deliver this high heat, monstrous second world fantasy but by the third draft it was this really quiet story about a sick girl rediscovering her agency. Unfortunately, I have fallen out of love with that story. I’m not giving up on it but I do need some distance from it for the time being to re-inspire myself and make the story mine again. 

All of this is segueing into my next point harping off of yours is that readers can totally tell when you are writing a book that is just for you and for fun. My current novel is that “just for me” book. It doesn’t have any deep meaning (at least I didn’t write it with that intention). It was a WIP on the back burner for a long time that I actually put off writing because I felt that no one would like it. (OOF). But I loved it and the characters were screaming at me so I finally sat down and wrote it. It was meant to be just a side WIP as I tried to make MonsterBoi work but it was my CPs who told me that I should switch to this WIP entirely because they could tell it made me inspired to write and that they could tell I was having fun and my heart was in this WIP. And I’m so glad I did transition my focus to this new project because it reminded me why I love writing. And as a writer and reader myself, I can always tell when someone has written a story that is 100% speaking to them. The heart of the story is so much more alive. 

And I totally understand the sentiment that you can create outside the market until you get into the market—but I’m totally going to go off the beaten path and say that I still think agented and on-sub writers should write books that speak to them and for them because books that have heart will find readership more organically and have the ability to sustain longer. BUT I also know that writing heart books may also get your own heart broken when they don’t sell. I haven’t had to deal with that heart break, yet. But I’m sure it’s going to come at some point—especially since I write stories with marginalized identities and characters. >.< 

WEN: As someone who’s read some of your fun WIP: can confirm!! And you maybe even subconsciously inspired me to dip back into scifi for my fun WIPs. I think I’m personally wary enough of heartbreak and sunk cost that I try and find safe market angles even in self-indulgent projects (I also don’t feel cut out for self-pub), but a) that definitely doesn’t have to be everyone and b) I don’t think that’s mutually exclusive with writing books that speak to you!

We’re both ramblers lol, but to ramble about some important stuff before we start wrapping up: it’s even more vital to be able to plant your feet in the heart of your work once you do start working with other people. It doesn’t even have to be an agent—it can be a mentor, magazine editors, beta readers, or even just online perception like you said. While being receptive to critique is important, letting someone else’s vision take away from why you wrote the story in the first place is a fast-track to burnout. I’ve thankfully never experienced it, but I’ve had friends get told by agents to make huge, “more marketable” changes to books, mostly pushing marginalised identity angles (identity commodification is also another conversation), or, in one case, changing the setting from Asia to the US. (Luckily they ultimately didn’t end up with those agents)

And, yeah, on your note, it’s hard to talk about writing for market without caveating that sometimes the market isn’t written for you—or at least, hasn’t been. If the market is built on what it already knows, how do you position yourself toward it when all the stories like yours have been systemically excluded? Logistic and interpersonal barriers aside, it can sometimes be personally hard to remember that the entire weight of history—entire centuries’ worth of cultural canon and literary tradition—can be wrong, and that you have the right to be there. Sometimes marginalised creators* can’t write for the market if they’re the ones who have to build it.

5 years ago, I wouldn’t have had a single book comp for a 20th-century Asian urban fantasy featuring secret societies—now Jade City and These Violent Delights exist. Jade City was one of those “wait, you can do that?” books for me, one that also felt the most true to my experience of being diaspora Chinese in Singapore: the roots, tensions and structures in a small island that’s also global and urban, as opposed to identity crises or vast ancient Chinese fantasy aesthetics I don’t always resonate with. Anyway, cutting off my insurgent Jade City essay. We are, slowly, steadily, expanding the stories that new books can sit at lunch tables with. But it’s still far from complete, and in the meantime I guess all you can really do is write out your heart and demand someone sees it. (But I hope you don’t have that heartbreak, obviously.)

JEN: Such great points! There will come a point in every writer’s career where they must decide what sacrifices they are willing to make and which they aren’t. My last thought about the market is that it’s always changing and what is selling now doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be selling by the time you are ready to present it to the world. Another reason why I am a firm believer in writing for you first. The market is so volatile that if you chase trends you could also wind up with your heartbroken if the trend moves on without you. 

This doesn’t even really scratch the surface of marginalized creators and our works and how we should be able to continue writing for a market and trends that publishing may mark as oversaturated, but just a general consensus to the way we see the market move quickly. But I also want to caveat that if you do happen to be writing a book of your heart that is trendy now—don’t stop writing it in fear the market will move. Niches will always thrive. And there will always be readers who need your stories. And no project you work on is ever dead—it can always be revived. It’s only dead when you say it is. 

So, follow market trends or don’t. There is no right way to write—the only right way is what speaks and works to you. 

WEN: I don’t really think I can end off better than that, but I think one realisation slash mindset that’s been really helpful for me re wading through variously favourable market tides is that you always have another heart story in you, even if the first one doesn’t get where you hoped it would go. And that even if it doesn’t, you will be grateful you wrote it anyway, because it was what you needed to write at the time. As I hover between my book on sub and my current, buzzier WIP, I’ve held on to that and something I saw someone say once–that it’s okay if the one person a book saves is yourself.

JEN ELROD is a speculative fiction writer residing in NYC who’s in love with the sun. When not writing, you can find Jen basking in a sunspot or walking around new neighborhoods. Connect with her on Twitter @mouthyjen and sign up to her newsletter.

WEN-YI LEE is a Clarion West graduate from Singapore who likes writing about girls with bite, feral nature, and ghosts. Her fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Anathema and others, and is forthcoming in various anthologies, while her non-fiction has appeared on Find her on Twitter at @wenyilee_ and on her newsletter here.

*I generally avoid self-labelling as marginalised, just because I’ve never had that perpetual lived experience. But used here for the broad colloquial category in terms of systemic exclusion, and for the specific Western industry context.

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