Love What You Write, Don’t Write What You Love; or, Be a Hack, Take Every Paying Job, and Maintain Your Artistic Pretensions

There are writers who go their entire careers writing nothing but original, creator-owned material that they’re deeply passionate about. Most of these writers never earn enough money from their writing to support themselves; they maintain other jobs unrelated or tangential to writing no matter how many brilliant novels they publish or awards they win.

Many exceptions exist, of course, but for writers in video games, comic books, and film (so I’m told, anyway–it’s not my medium of choice) in particular, earning a living as a writer means sometimes writing things you didn’t create, you don’t own, and you maybe aren’t that interested in to start with.

The questions of how to approach another creator’s intellectual property and how much to invest emotionally in a project you don’t control are worthy of separate posts, but for now, let’s focus on that last part: writing for a project that doesn’t interest you.

Maybe you’re out of work and need to take the next job that comes along. Maybe an editor you’ve always wanted to collaborate with offers you a project you’re not keen on. Maybe you’re in-house at a game studio and as the last project ships, a new one goes into pre-production–and despite you pushing your favorite genre, the higher-ups decide on something else. These are commonplace scenarios, and while it’s okay to sometimes say “no,” take a risk, and look for alternatives, if you do that every time your dream job isn’t available you may run out of people to work for.

So you like writing funny science-fiction and you’re stuck writing 1920s detective stories. Maybe you keep your head down, try not to complain too much, and do the best you can. Maybe you try to inject as much humor as you can and throw in references to 1920s pulp science-fiction magazines, bringing your favorite toys to the playground.

Neither of these approaches, in my experience, is ideal.

While it can be important to carry some of your own interests into new projects, trying to hammer a story or a setting into something it’s not may only disappoint your intended audience and dilute the project’s strengths.  It’s also not likely to provide you with the driving passion you need to make the final product “great” instead of “good.”

It’s my belief that great writers who take on work-for-hire gigs are writers who can look at a wide variety of ideas and see what other people see in them. Not just on a surface-level reading, but by ferreting out the core themes that appeal to the target audience the most. Separate out the tropes–period slang, femme fatales, and so forth in our pulp detective example–from the true appeal. Are people drawn to the contrast between solvable mysteries and unsolvable character dilemmas? Are the 1920s a safe place to explore the vast gulf between rich and poor in America?

Figure out the true appeal of an intellectual property or a genre and don’t be dismissive–something is being effectively communicated, if not to you than to another demographic. It wouldn’t be popular otherwise. Working in an unfamiliar or less-favored genre gives you a chance to use a whole new set of tools and challenge yourself to tackle new ideas. Unless your interests are especially narrow or the genre is particularly unsuited to you, you should be able to find something in there to ignite your passion.

And speaking of demographics–working with a new genre or intellectual property may give you an entirely new audience as well. It’s a chance to communicate your ideas beyond the usual fans of your type of work, which ought to be exciting. You’re in this job to communicate, and if, say, women aged 50 and up aren’t your normal audience, then you should prize the chance to reach them.

Lastly, it’s a cliche to say that great writers tend to have a passion for learning–a desire to absorb new ideas about people and the world that can be incorporated into their work–but there’s some truth to it, and working outside your comfort zone is a great excuse to do research on a variety of new subjects. And even if the specifics of the research can’t apply to your subject matter of choice, maybe some of the principles can. The only way to avoid repetition and getting mired in genre tropes–even in your favored area–is to find fresh ideas to inject. Maybe your next funny science-fiction story will feel a lot more novel and intriguing with the structure of a pulp detective story, or by drawing on the mayoral politics of 1920s San Francisco.

None of which is to say that everyone is suited to every genre. I don’t write much horror because the core themes largely don’t speak to me. On those occasions that I do accept a horror-writing job (which does happen on occasion), it’s because I’ve found something in the particular project I’m enthusiastic about or because I expect the client and the audience are willing to accept a project that isn’t firmly set within the genre boundaries.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with having a tightly focused set of interests. My goal here isn’t to pass judgment on anyone, but rather to address an important skill of the working writer. If you can’t take on a wide variety of subjects with genuine passion, then you’ll have a more difficult time finding enough work to get by–or you’ll end up producing substandard work on projects you dread.