Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post about why the “Write to market” advice so many people get is…not as simple as it seems. I suggest you check it out, because – as the title indicates – this is a sequel to that. And, like that post, this one is going to reference Malcom Gladwell’s “Choice, happiness, and Spaghetti sauce” Ted Talk. You don’t need to watch it, but I suggest you do because it’s really good. Or you can read the original essay from What the Dog Saw, which is endlessly fascinating.
I’m also going to take some potshots at Game of Thrones because it’s kinda my thing, but in this case it’s going to be critical to proving my point. Promise.
Let’s say you read over my last blog post and decided that you do still want to write to market. Or, even better, you have an idea that you like that also fits into the market. That’s great! I never intended my post to say “no, don’t write to market”, the intent was “consider these things before you write to market,” and…hangon. I just realized I was about to write a second post where I talk about writing to market, without even defining what that means.
“Write to market”, at its core, means that when you are writing you consider the trends, tropes, and character archetypes that are popular within your genre and incorporate them into your story. It’s why in the wake of The Hunger Games’ success, we got an entire genre of “young adult dystopia.” It’s why every movie studio on the planet started doing cinematic universes after The Avengers made 1.5 billion dollars. It’s why for most of the early 2000’s, so many video games that were classified as “modern military shooters” got made in the wake of Call of Duty. You look at what is currently selling, and you write to try to capitalize on that success.
How it Happens
So, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Game of Thrones. In the wake of A Song of Ice and Fire’s success, long before it was even a glint in HBO’s eyes, the fantasy genre underwent a fundamental shift. Gone were elves and dwarves and hobbits and ents. It was all humans, all the time, unless the non-humans were super critical to the story. Also gone was any sense of restraint when it came to blood, gore, swearing, sex, and murder. It felt like, overnight, we replaced the elves with bloody murder sex. Some of these authors, I imagine, had always wanted to write books like A Song of Ice and Fire, and now publishers were willing to pick them up, because that was writing to market. Other authors likely felt like they had to, because publishers weren’t interested in other kinds of books. We’re seeing a similar shift start to take hold in the fantasy genre now, where people are ditching the bloody murder sex for hard magic systems, which – in my opinion – is a vast improvement, but it’s still writing to market. It just happens to be a market I enjoy more.
Now, quick question if you’re nodding along with my assessment of the post A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy genre – can you name a fantasy novel that chases the trends that book laid out, that wasn’t part of a series written before A Song of Ice and Fire got popular, that achieved any level of commercial and critical success? The only one that I can think of is The Blade Itself, by Joel Abercrombie. I’m sure there are others, but I really don’t like the Grimdark genre, so I mostly avoided it. What did I read during that time period?
Comics. And Comics had their own Game of Thrones, and that was Watchmen. As I mentioned when I reviewed that TV series, Watchmen’s popularity sparked a host of imitators trying to capitalize on its success, and they grew so rapidly and they threatened to strangle the entire comic book industry. I’m not even joking there – the decreasing quality of the Watchmen knockoff plotlines combined with the mess that was the speculator bubble (which I don’t have time to cover here) to literally crash the entire comic book industry. Marvel had to file for bankruptcy, it was so bad.
And this is where we get to Mr. Gladwell’s TED Talk and coffee. See, there’s a problem with focus groups. When you ask most people what they like in a focus group, they aren’t going to tell you what they like. They’re going to tell you what they think they’re supposed to like – the answer that leads to you judging them less. When, however, you look at what they actually do like, you’ll often find something different. This is best illustrated with coffee. When people are asked in a focus group what kind of coffee they liked, they would say it was a rich, dark roast. Because that’s what you’re supposed to drink. That’s what proper coffee drinkers drink. A rich, dark roast. However, when you give them a blind taste-test, you’ll find most people actually like a medium blend with some cream and/or sugar. Not the exact opposite of a rich, dark roast, but a far cry from it.
How’s this apply to Game of Thrones and Watchmen? Well, have you asked people why they liked those things? When it comes to Game of Thrones, I know plenty of people who mentioned the blood and nudity and violence. They talked about how “badass” and “brutal” and “realistic” the show was. For Watchmen, people talked about the same thing – after so long of relatively clean and sterile “kid friendly” fantasy and superheroes, they wanted a series that was “grown up.” One that was brutal, full of all that nastiness they couldn’t get before.
(As an aside, I’m going to do a full post sometime the problem with equating brutality and realism. This…is not that post.)
So authors listened, and gave them what they wanted. In spades. It was a veritable deluge of gore, a cornucopia of sexual exploitation. Their cup runneth over with viscera, and…ew, actually, my own mental image grossed me out there.
Well, the fantasy genre turned in on itself and didn’t actually get a renaissance until The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films pulled it out of its grimdark spiral. Meanwhile, the comics industry imploded so hard it lead to marvel selling off character rights which accidentally birthed the modern superhero age – which, you’ll note, isn’t even remotely grim or gritty. People said they wanted brutal stories of awful things happening, but when you look at their buying habits, those weren’t what was selling. The Avengers didn’t make 1.5 billion dollars because it was grim and gritty. It was, in fact, the opposite of those things – it was about as lighthearted as a story featuring mind control, alien invasions, and massive destruction to New York can get while being taken seriously. People were saying they wanted the rich, dark roast, but they were buying the medium blend.
Yet, it’s clear that those grimdark stories can and do sell well. Both A Game of Thrones and Watchmen are cultural touchstones at this point, both in and out of their genres. So what gives? How do you figure out what the market wants so you can write things that will actually sell, instead of languishing in obscurity.
I mentioned that I knew the people who said they loved the brutality of Game of Thrones? The “Rich, Dark Roast” folk? These were also the same people who turned on Season 8 the hardest. They are the ones who are still happy to see me talking about how terrible the last season of that show ones, long after everyone else has started politely nodding along and waiting for me to get to the point.
Believe me, I was very surprised to find common ground with you all. No shade! We just like different things.
Or…do we? Because the blood and gore and nudity were still there. The world was still brutal. Everything they said they loved was still in the show.
But they weren’t talking about that. They were talking about the characters being one-dimensional now. About the clever dialogue being replaced with cheap jokes. About entire character arcs being derailed for shock value. In other words, they’d been drinking the medium blend and thought that was the rich dark roast, but when they actually got it they found it far too bitter for their liking. Because while they enjoyed the violence and sex – I would never claim they were lying or wrong about what they liked – they enjoyed it because it was happening to characters they cared about, because it was exploring themes that resonated with them. They loved the flavor of the rich roast, but only tempered with cream and sugar.
This is the same mistake the entire comics book industry made, but in a different way. After decades upon decades of some of these characters being popular, it was definitely not the strength of Watchmen’s characters that made it so popular. Comic book audiences are notoriously resistant to new characters. Instead, what made it popular was the thoughtful and not at all mean-spirited deconstruction of the superheroes they loved. Watchmen didn’t say “You’re a bad person for liking superheroes,” it said “can we all agree superheroes belong in fantasy only?” But, since the later comics didn’t have that thoughtful deconstruction, what they accidentally were saying was “This stuff is stupid and bad, and you’re stupid and bad for liking it.”
No, seriously, read any grimdark comics from the 90’s that didn’t sell well – so really, any grimdark comic from the 90’s – and tell me that it doesn’t just drip with contempt for its audience.
Gee, I can’t imagine why that didn’t go over well.
Bringing it all together
If you want to write to market – no, I didn’t forget the point of the post – it’s not enough to ape the market. You have to go beyond people’s initial, visceral reactions to the popular stuff, and look deeper into what they are actually enjoying about it. In one of my own genres, for example, if people who read Urban Fantasy were asked what they liked about Harry Dresden, I imagine a lot would mention they like the action and his sarcasm and his powerful magic. However, if you wrote a book with a hyper-competent, billionaire wizard that also was sarcastic and powerful, you would alienate a lot of Dresden Files fans. You’ll still pick up some people, but you also will lose a ton, because they didn’t mention they liked watching Harry struggle to make ends meet, or stress because he was in way over his head and had no idea what to do next.
Indeed, most other popular urban fantasy series aren’t about powerful wizards, but are about other fantasy archetypes – druids or changelings or werewolves or vampire hunters – that are also down on their luck and often get in over their heads. There’s outliers, of course – the protagonist of Iron Druid is not impoverished and doesn’t really get overwhelmed – but he still lives modestly because druid and nature and stuff, and while he’s never overwhelmed he’s always up against beings that still pose a credible threat to him. If you want to write to the urban fantasy market, you’d be better served picking a new fantasy archetype and putting them in the modern world, making them constantly broke, and overwhelmed while still being competent enough.
In short, when writing to market, listen to when people say they like the rich dark roast, but also watch to see what cream and sugar flavors they add to their coffee. Listen, yes, but also investigate. Don’t just ask people what they like, read and see what you like. You’ll have a better understanding of the genre, you’ll be able to focus on the parts that are really important…and you’ll definitely enjoy your own writing more.
There was no established market for gods having math fights for the end of the world, but I wrote a book about it anyway. You should check it out! And the sequel! And the free prequel! Also, if you want to help support me in other ways, every link to a book is to one I would recommend, and happens to be an Amazon affiliate link – if you pick the book I linked or really anything on Amazon through those links, I get a little bit from Amazon at no extra cost to you. I’d appreciate it if you’d try them out!