Which Comes First: Project or Market?

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With Easter just around the corner, there are bunnies, bunnies everywhere, and Cadbury chocolate eggs lurk in every store. They are temptation itself in colorful, foil-wrapped packages crying, “Pick me, pick me.”

Since I’m currently trying to shed my winter, ahem, insulation, I’ve deliberately shifted my attention to non-chocolate eggs and the age-old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

For those of us in creative endeavors, this question changes somewhat. When you start a new project, which do you focus on first: the story or the market?

There are good arguments on both sides. I remember going to a writer’s conference years ago and hearing Elaine Wright Colvin ask why a writer would spend months and even years working on something if there’s no market for it and they have no idea what they’ll do with it once it’s finished.


On the other side of the debate are people like Vicki Hinze who, in her book, Writing in the Fast Lane, says she decided years ago, “I will only write stories I love.”

Also true. And that has paid off for her, big time.

I think, as with most things, the answer is a bit of both. If you write a wonderful, lyrical1000-word novel, chances are you will never sell it to a traditional publisher. It’s too long. So a smart writer makes sure his or her novel fits somewhere within acceptable market guidelines.

When you go to writer’s conferences, you hear all about the current trends. Editors, agents and industry insiders will tell you what’s “hot” right now. Every year it changes. Paranormal, suspense, historical, inspirational. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. But they are giving you a snapshot of what they’re seeing now, this minute. If you sit down to right your story, what’s “hot” may have changed by the time you mail in your submission.

A friend of mine who writes romantic suspense recently had her agent recommend that she try her hand at historicals. The idea made her break out in hives. She doesn’t read historicals, has absolutely no idea how to write one, nor does she want to know. For her to do this would be to doom herself to writing something she doesn’t love. That will make the writing drudgery and will show in the finished product

Beyond all the wisdom and all the trends, editors, agents and readers want books that grab them on page one and don’t let go. A key ingredient is the author’s passion for the story.

Certainly check the trends. Study the markets. Know the guidelines, so you’re not shooting yourself in the foot before you start.

And then sit down and write your story, the one only you can tell. Dive in and pour all your passion and excitement into this story you love.

It’ll be sweeter than a dozen Cadbury eggs.


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    The Conversation

  1. Celia Yeary says:

    Connie–excellent topic, well worth the time to study the problem. However, probably most authors have encountered that during their writing career. I only began writing in 2004, and ChickLit was the thing-the pink and turquoise covers with skinny young women having some sort of grand life. I bemoaned to my two wanna-be-authors like I was, that I couldn’t write those–I was no where close to that age group. I didn’t know the lingo, the clothes, the shoes. One had a daughter who wrote romance, and she said–“don’t worry…chicklit is already on it’s way out.” Whew! I wrote Western Historical Romance, and yes, at that time, the message was, “WHR is on its way out.” Again, I moaned. What to do?
    My decision was made for me because of my love of WHR and I didn’t want to give it up. And I didn’t…I kept writing.
    Now, I have some Western Historicals and some contemporary. The WH are far out-selling the contemporaries..In fact two are on the Top 100 Best Western Romance for the Kindle.
    Me? I’d stick with what I love. Besides, I couldn’t write about a vampire or a flying creature if my life depended on it.

    • Connie Mann says:

      Well said, Celia! You are living proof of “write what you love.” Thanks so much for sharing your story. I know it will encourage others who are wondering what to do when their favorite genre isn’t what’s “hot” right now. And congrats on having TWO books in the top 100 Best Western Romance for Kindle. 🙂

  2. diane burke says:

    What a wonderful, thought-provoking and WISE blog. Knowing your market for book length, voice, editors, etc. is essential. BUT nothing is more important than writing the stories inside your heart. If you write what you care about, what moves you, then it will find an audience and it will move them. Those that write to trends will some day be replaced by computer software programs that can crank out stories to match editorial guidelines. The important difference is that (so far) computers don’t have hearts—and readers will know the difference.

    • Connie Mann says:

      Diane–what a truly frightening prospect–computers writing books–but I think you’re absolutely right. It’s the writer’s heart and soul and love for the story that makes the difference! Write YOUR story. Not the next trend. 🙂

  3. Jamie Janosz says:

    Very well said, Connie. I agree. I find (as a professor) – that my students write FAR better when they love the topic. The writing digs deeper and communicates more passionately. I tell them to write what they know and feel and love – not what they think people want to hear. That always works best in the long run.

    • Connie Mann says:

      I’m so glad that’s what you teach!! How often have we all tried to come up with something that we *think* we should write? Go with your heart, every time. Thanks so much, Jamie!

  4. I have to love what I’m writing, but I do research what lengths are appropriate for submissions, so I can at least find some publisher willing to take what I write. Most of my historicals are set during and just after the Civil War. Not a popular genre for readers right now, but I’m hoping historical romance trends will change. I’m also grateful my publisher is willing to take on my stories. Right now, they want shorter lengths, thinking readers of ebooks will be more willing to take a chance on shorter, cheaper ebooks. So, that’s what I’m working on right now. But I’m not changing genres, because I can’t write what I don’t read and don’t love.

    • Connie Mann says:

      I like your approach, Susan. You’ve found a way to that elusive middle ground. You’ve adjusted length to market trends, but still write the stories you love! That’s wonderful!

  5. Lilly Gayle says:

    IMHO, if a writer doesn’t love the story he/she is writing, it shows. There’s a particular NYT best selling author I’ve loved for years. She writes romantic suspense and the occasional historical. Her characters never have sex before one or both of them are in love, even if the character doesn’t recognized that emotion as love. One of her early 2000 books had the heroine jumping into bed (or onto the sofa as it were) in chapter 2 before he even knew her name. This was at a time when kick ass heroines were coming into vogue and apparently, her agent and/or editor insisted on an earlier sex scene where the heroine takes charge. It was totally out of character for the author and the character but it was the current trend. I almost didn’t finish the book. It was the last time the author ever pulled this “stunt.”

    Trends change. An author’s love for writing shouldn’t. I believe in writing the story that comes to the mind or heart and then making the “necessary” alterations to sell that story. The classics weren’t written to trends. That’s why they endure the test of time. I’m not looking to write the next Gone With the Wind, but I don’t want readers to sneer at my books twenty years from now either.

    • Connie Mann says:

      Good example, Lilly. And glad that author has gone back to her true self. We all need to make “necessary alterations” to sell a story. But selling our heart and soul is not one of them. 🙂

  6. Ruth says:

    Great article, and one very dear to my heart. I am definitely in the ‘love what you write or stay home’ camp, but there are limits. However, as far as 1,000 word books go, I know one writer who wrote the ‘tome of her heart’. She was told it was too huge to market, and it was–unitl a savvy agent and editor helped break it into two books, both of which hit the NYT bestseller list. I’m just sayin’.

    • Connie Mann says:

      Ruth, great story that illustrates another writing truisim: for every “rule” there is someone who has broken it with huge success. 🙂 I’m with you– know the market, but make sure you write what you love.