Let me start this month’s essay with an anecdote.
Everyone knows Elton John, right? The Rocket Man. He rose to fame in America in the early 1970s after a successful appearance at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles. He churned out hit album after hit album during the seventies and eighties, and continued to chart singles into the 1990s. His last few albums haven’t been as commercially successful as the work he produced during his heyday, however.
He had an epiphany a few years ago. Instead of trying to make pop albums with tracks that could be released as singles, he would do things that interested him. He certainly doesn’t need the money, and he’s had his time in the spotlight. Time to be self-indulgent.
Nostalgic for the days at the Troubadour, when he first met a young turk by the name of Leon Russell, who he considers a major influence, he decided to reconnect with the musician and make a duet album. Russell had a successful career as a session musician and a recording artist in the 1970s, but then he faded into obscurity. He has a small but dedicated following, and popular artists continue to record his songs, but his name isn’t familiar to many people these days. The concept behind the collaborative album The Union doesn’t have “commercial success” written all over it.
What was the result? The Union is Elton John’s biggest hit in decades. It debuted on Billboard in the highest position he’s attained since Blue Moves in 1976. That was the album that featured “Sorry Seems to Be (the Hardest Word).” The Union is his 17th top ten album and Leon Russell’s third, though Russell’s most recent was in 1973 and Elton John’s was a compilation album a few years ago. Billboard ranked The Union the #3 album of 2010.
What’s the moral of the story? Create for yourself and you may end up reaching a wider audience than if you try to create what you think your audience wants.
It’s a well-known fact that if you try to jump on the bandwagon by writing what’s hot now, you’re probably too late. This is especially true in mainstream publishing, where the best-case turnaround time from manuscript to book on shelves is on the order of 18 months to two years. Some people whipped out self-published mash-up novels trying to capitalize on the success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but these books didn’t stand much chance of becoming bestsellers because astute readers recognized them for what they were.
Sometimes we elect to write what someone else wants us to write. I would never have produced The Stephen King Illustrated Companion on my own. The publisher conceived of the project and asked if I would write it. Because it was something I thought I could do justice to, I agreed. In other cases, we write certain kinds of stories because that’s what a particular anthology wants. If inspiration strikes us to write a zombie story, it’s not going to be well received by the editors of a vampire anthology, for example.
My first published stories were horror or dark fantasy, and I still write a fair bit of horror fiction to this day, but primarily because that’s where the publishing opportunities for short fiction are, mostly. Truth be told, I think of myself as a crime and suspense writer, because when I sit down at the keyboard, those are the kinds of stories that occur naturally to me.
All my life, I’ve been steeped in crime fiction, so now it permeates my writing, consciously or subconsciously. The story I wrote for the modernistic vampire anthology Evolve was really a detective story. My science fiction story “Ten Little Phobias” was inspired more by Agatha Christie than Isaac Asimov. An editor recently called my story about a monster in the closet “noir.” When challenged to write a story inspired by the songs of Warren Zevon, I wrote “Wake Me Up For Meals,” published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. My caper about a bunch of goofy friends planning a bank robbery recently won the Al Blanchard Award. If I had an upcoming deadline that meant I had to choose between writing a horror story and a crime story, I know which one I’d concentrate on. Those are the stories that speak to me and I usually try to listen.
As 2010 comes to an end and we prepare for the arrival of a new year, my challenge to you is to heed what the little voice in your head is telling you to write. Listen to it more often than you listen to the one telling you to jump on the latest bandwagon.