The Business of Writing: Editing to Suit Market Demands by Brad Windhauser
When I watch a movie or read a book and then encounter a forced happy ending, I get annoyed. There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending; however, when it doesn’t suit what the plot and characters have set in motion, it feels forced. More specifically, it feels tacked on, as if the powers that be mandated content designed to satisfy what they believe the audience wants. In these moments, you can almost feel an editor or producer’s hand working their influence: you need to change this or else it won’t sell.
When people shape a work to fit the perceived demands of the market, this renders a work (often) dishonest. When I engage with the story, I want to know what the writer thinks, the way he or she sees the world. When an outside force exerts pressure in order to make the story conform, it feels too manufactured, thus distorting the work’s vision.
So “true” artists should pretend the market doesn’t exist and write their truth, right? Well, yes and no. Basically, you can’t pretend the market doesn’t exist. Furthermore, understanding the market and allowing certain constraints to reveal untapped elements in your work can be beneficial—towards getting published as well as creating a stronger story.
First, I suggest ignoring what you think will sell or someone will want to publish. Here I’m talking specifically about short stories. Screenplays REQUIRE an understanding of market, in part because of the amount of moving elements involved in getting one produced, the least of which is not money. Novels, likewise, call for more attention to the market because of the amount of production costs involved.
Short stories, however, provide more freedom, but not necessarily a blind eye to the demands of the market. Since writing short stories requires a lot less time than a screenplay or novel, you can take more chances, and if they don’t pay off and the work sits, you’re not out all that much of an investment (in terms of time, emotions, etc.). So, I suggest that you write what you know, write what you feel is your truth without thinking about the market. Then, once you revise it, you’ll have a better understanding of what you have. This complete picture is important, for it will dictate whether you leave it alone or move it into a different direction. It will also inform your search for a home for your work.
For example, if you are writing an experimental love story, you’ll find journals that cater to such a market—your work might need little in the way of revising in order to be able to submit. However, you may find that what you have doesn’t seem to suit the needs of any publications at the moment.
This is where searching for market demands is handy.
Let’s say the search for a home for your at-the-moment-unmarketable-love-story leads you to a publication that is running a baseball-themed issue. Hmm. One of your two love birds is a baseball fan, you notice, but it’s an insignificant detail you didn’t develop or really consider all that important. But here is an opportunity: Can you return to the story and think about how you could revise so that baseball is a much more significant element in the story, one that makes sense for your characters and would, perhaps, enhance the story? If so, revise.
This type of suggestion can work for plot, setting, and/or character.
Allowing this type of market influence isn’t always appropriate—your story will dictate how useful it can be. But if you give it a chance in some situations, it can produce an interesting version of your work that you might not have otherwise considered. Caution though: Don’t eviscerate a story and turn it into something completely different than you feel comfortable with just to conform to the potential of finding a home. If you do, it will likely feel forced and won’t feel true (i.e. won’t be accepted and it won’t reflect your vision). When this happens, you’re not advancing your career in a healthy way.