I'd like to thank Ellie Garratt for inspiring me to write this particular commentary. Her recent post debating the merits of writing what you love versus writing to sell reminded me of my own experiences with that very question, and now prompts me to share a little advice on the subject.
Of course, everyone who writes wants to make money doing it. We all have dreams of being the next Stephen King, JK Rowling, or Robert A. Heinlein. However, there just isn't a big enough marketplace to make us all rich and famous, so most of us will not be hitting the big-time. In fact, most fiction writers will never be able to quit their day jobs and live entirely on their storytelling. But don't let that grim reality discourage you. The odds are always against us, no matter what we do (hell, your very existence is the result of a million to one genetic convergence, so never say a dream's not worth pursuing).
One question many fiction writers struggle with is "what should I write?" This question naturally arises: what can you write that will increase your odds of success? Well, when it comes to fiction, (and Sci-Fi & Fantasy in particular), there is no easy answer. It's tempting to think that we can boost our sales if we write something based on what's popular today, but from my own experience, that doesn't necessarily work.
There are a few reasons that I would advise writers to not go after the pop-theme story. One is the fact that there are a million other writers out there with the same idea; as in, they're going to write what's hip and cool today. So, you'll find your pop story in amidst a sea of similar slush, and it will be increasingly hard to get it to stand out. The second problem is timeframe. Often, by the time a particular theme is hot in the marketplace, the publishing community is already growing cold on it. It's been done before, and they've had enough of your teenage vampires and cookie-cutter zombies. They aren't interested in what is hot; they're looking for what will be hot next. Therefore, you're liable to miss the boat if you're playing catch-up and emulating yesterday's fashion trends.
As a writer, I've dabbled in trying to write stories "for today's market" before in the past, and it did not bring me any success. In fact, it sucked the life out of my writing, and defeated the purpose of fiction, which is to entertain. If the writer isn't enjoying the story, then the reader probably won't, either. That's fictioneering 101. Therefore, you need to like what you write, and write what you like.
As an editor, I've found that some of the best stories are those from writers who follow that entertainment model. They write something that they enjoy, in the genres they enjoy, and by doing so they create stories that have caught my attention and kept it. Some of the stories I've had to reject over the past year have been clear examples of "pop" culture; stories that are nothing new and clearly designed to emulate preexisting story models. I suspect these were written under the "business model" format, with an eye on marketing over creativity. That isn't to say that every rejected story was created this way, or that I haven't accepted a few stories written by authors with the marketing in mind, but I'm saying that most good stories written these days are created by people who are looking to entertain, not those seeking a fast buck.
When it comes to making money and writing, fiction isn't the clear choice. If you want to make a living with the written word, you might want to pursue a career in journalism, or write non-fiction books. Those are the "day jobs" that pay. Fiction is an art, and like most art forms it doesn't always pay. For the aspiring, unknown author, the best course of action is to write what you like. Only when you are better known and already making money can you increase your market share by selling out and writing what's popular.
With that said, there's no reason you can't find a magazine or anthology and write a short story based on their desired theme or prompt. The whole point of that is to make the theme your own, creating your unique take on an idea. And therein lies the comfortable middle ground between marketing and creativity. If you can write something that is marketable, all the better, but don't go into it thinking about the bottom line. The creation must be a purpose unto itself, or your passion will become a burden, and your chances for success may actually decrease. Like it, or leave it; that's my writing philosophy.