There’s a discussion over at Jessewave’s that evolved into a thread with wider interest to fiction writers in general, so I brought one of my comments (and a bit of what I responded to) back here. Rick Reed wrote the original post, talking about women in m/m romances, and of course the conversation strayed over to the question of m/f sex in m/m books. For those of you who aren’t into romance, or aren’t into m/m, there’s a fairly sturdy divide between readers who are willing to follow a character’s story wherever it leads, and readers who, in their own words, don’t want anyone getting “girl cooties” in their m/m romance. You can probably tell what side of the debate I’m on. [cough]
Anyway, Carolyne wondered in comments whether it wouldn’t be practical to just avoid story elements that readers have said they dislike, in the name of maximizing sales and reviews, then said:
I don’t say all the above in a cranky way, but in asking myself whether it simply makes much more sense to make a reasonable compromise in one’s writing, to be practical and give a story its best chances in the world.
My response got kind of long, as is often the case. I posted it there, but thought I’d put it here too, because it has a larger application than just romance:
This is a question each writer has to answer for her/himself. My answer is no. I won’t compromise my work because a few people are loud about what they dislike. They’re entitled to their opinions, but my writing is mine.
Another way to think about it is that every subgenre, and quite a few full-blown genres, started out as a writer here or there writing something completely different, something that nobody had ever written before, despite the fact that there was no sign or clue that the readers of whatever the closest genre was “wanted” that kind of work. Paranormal romance started back in the 70s, and IIRC wasn’t even considered romance half the time — you don’t find Yarbro’s Saint Germain books in the Romance shelves even now, and that’s the first I recall. “Weird” romances snuck into the mainstream through the occasional one-off — anyone remember The Elsingham Portrait? — and then in the 80s, time travel romance were huge for a few years. There were a bunch of books on the shelf with pocket watches on their spines, so TT fans could find them, while people who preferred “normal” romances just thought they were weird and dumb. Fantasy romances and SF romances (oh, excuse me — “futuristic” romances) appeared in the late 80s as subgenres, when there had been little or nothing like them before in romance. Enough people glommed on to keep them going, which people who preferred “real” romances about doctors and secretaries and cake bakers and decorators made snarky comments. As late as 2008 a columnist at a major romance blog (now defunct) was griping about how there were “too many” of those weird romances around, about how they were pushing out the “normal” contemporary romances. She was kind enough to allow that there should be “a few” of the weird romances published, but only the very best. (Nice of her to allow people like me a few of The Very Best of the subgenres I like most — maybe she’d be the one to vet them for me?)
What would romance — het or GLBT — look like now if writers who love writing about vampires and aliens and mages and interstellar ambassadors and shifters had read the gripes and snarks of people who only want contemporary romances, and thought, “Gee, if I write this stuff I really love, nobody will read or review it! I’d better toe the line and write about doctors and secretaries and dog walkers, because I want my books to sell and be reviewed!”
Will writing what you love yourself limit your market? Sure. That’s always true. If you write mystery romances, there are people who don’t like those. If you write about shifters, there are people who’ll eyeroll and move on. If you write about cross-dressing main characters, there are people who aren’t into that. If you write BDSM romances, plenty of people will avoid them. That’s their choice to make, and always has been. I know that no matter what I write, I’ll never capture 100% of the market. Not even the biggest, most popular NYT bestsellers capture 100% of their target market, no matter how many marketing weasels call something “the must-read book of the year.”
Will writing certain things limit your reviews? Sure. Again, that’s always true. If I put a m/f sex scene in a book, Wave won’t review it. She pays the hosting fees, so the site runs by her rules. That’s not a limitation on what I can or should write, though, and I doubt very much that even Wave thinks it should be.
I’ll write what I want to write, and let each book find its audience. Some audiences are going to be bigger than others — that’s how the business works. Trying to guess ahead of time what’s going to be huge or what’s going to be smaller, and then writing only what you think will be huge, is a fool’s game, though. Coincidentally, Dean Wesley Smith posted about something like this just a day or two ago — The Myth: To sell either to editors or readers, you must write what is hot. Dean’s answer to this question is, “Kick all the editor and agent and online board voices out of your writing office and write what makes you passionate or angry or excited.” That, right there — do that, or IMO there’s no point in being a writer. We’re certainly not here to get rich, right? If your number one goal is making money, there are a lot of easier, less chancy ways of going about it. [wry smile] If I’m not having fun, if I’m not writing what I want and what I love, then I have no reason to be here.