Since jumping into the world of genre writing, one thing that’s caught my attention is the pressure on authors to treat our writing like a commodity. Make it fast, make it cheap, and make it interchangeable with dozens of other books out there about werewolves/spaceships/cowboys/gay men in love. Know a writer who’s successful? Well, just emulate her style, her plot devices, and her marketing techniques, and you’ll have success—right?
Not so fast. When you write something that could just as easily be written by someone else, the name on your books doesn’t really matter. It will be hard to build a fan base who comes to you because they like your voice and your storytelling. To get readers for your next books, you’ll need to keep jumping on hot trends before they grow cold. That takes a lot of energy, and a few authors are great at it. But for the rest of us, it’s a recipe for disaster. Not only will you have a hard time finding loyal fans, but for many writers, trying to be a carbon copy of someone else is a sure way to lose one’s love of writing.
So what’s the answer? Sonni de Soto, my guest author for this week’s Pen to Pen column, argues that the key to success is to emphasize what makes you different. Sell based on what makes you special. Your work isn’t a commodity. It’s one-of-a-kind. And that’s what most readers are looking for.
Sell Your Special
by Sonni de Soto
What makes one story stand out over another? Why does a publisher pick up or pass on a given submission? What makes a reader interested in knowing more about your characters and what they’re going through?
These can seem like unanswerable questions. And they kind of are. Who knows why anyone does anything?
But a friend of mine once asked me why I seemed to be having more luck with story submissions than she was. I thought about it for a moment and realized that, despite my awkwardness and inability to get people to like me in most social situations, I’m really good at grabbing someone’s attention in a letter to an editor.
Because I know who I am as a writer.
I know exactly what my stories are.
I can clearly articulate what makes me and my stories stand out in an oversaturated genre like erotica.
I’m a feminist, queer kinkster of color, with real-life experience with a plethora of kinks and dynamics that most people have only fantasized about. While there are a lot of great kink stories out there, much of which is written by actual kinksters, there’s still a lot of porn, erotica, and romance stories in the mainstream that treat kink like it’s less of a sexual fantasy and IRL lifestyle and more like it’s a literary fantasy. Some mystical, unreal phenomenon that doesn’t require research, realism, or respect. Same goes for LGBTQ+ and interracial relationships.
My hands-on knowledge and first-account experiences make me a unique voice in the genre. I can tell more true-to-life stories because of the places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had. And I like to think that, because of all that, I can bridge that gap for many readers between the unreal fantasy we’ve been fed for so long and the more complex reality that many of us live.
And that’s an asset that stands out among a deluge of submissions. So, when I write to an editor, I want to make sure to highlight that as a reason why they should pick up and read my story. It’s a pitch that promises something they may not see very often.
Now, it’s not a guarantee of acceptance, of course; I receive rejections just like everyone else. But at least I have their attention and, without that, your chances of acceptance end before they begin.
If you want to be published, understand that, while writing is an art, publishing is a business. Writing your story; that was the fun part. Selling it is a completely different story. If I had to give one difference between writing as a hobby and writing as a profession, it’s learning to write for an audience. Sure, we all want to write stories that we personally enjoy and have fun with. But, if you’re trying to sell your story somewhere, you have to accept that you’re trying to sell your story to someone. And, not just your story, but also you as its teller.
I remember my friend, after hearing my answer, worried that she didn’t really have anything that made her or her stories special. She doesn’t belong to any specific community or identity groups. She’s lived a quiet life in one place, her entire life. She’s never really done anything adventurous or gone very far outside her comfort zone. Most of her most thrilling experiences were experienced through fiction, the stories she’s read and the movies she’s watched.
And, you know what, that’s okay.
We all start somewhere and have to struggle to find our way. But the great thing is you can always learn.
Don’t feel like there’s anything special about you? Take a class or a trip. Make new friends and join communities. Do some soul-searching and make more social connections. Learn about this crazy world we live in, how you look at it and how it looks back at you.
Ask yourself about what things excite you, interest you. What are you passionate about? What do you already know and are good at and what things do you want to be better at? What challenges do you face and how do you deal with them? Who do you know in your life that can help you? Who are the people and what are the opportunities that can help you grow?
Figure out those answers, then go out there and do that. Live that. Gather as many life experiences as you can. Because every interesting story is ultimately about conflict and taking risks. And even the most speculative fiction ought to be grounded in some kind reality to feel believable to your reader. Think about it: how can we honestly tell stories about characters having interesting experiences, without having a few of our own to draw on?
So figure out what makes you different. What story or perspective can you give that others can’t or haven’t. What makes you and what you have to say standout.
Then own it, hone it, and pitch the hell out of it because, in an oversaturated market, special sells.
About Sonni de Soto
Like she said, Sonni de Soto is a queer kinkster of color who has two novels published as well as several short stories in quite a few anthologies, including one in Coming Together’s anthology Moving On, which was featured in Rolling Stone’s “Trump Erotica: How Smut is Getting Political Again.” An escape artist at heart, de Soto also enjoys consuming stories of all kinds and cosplaying the fictional loves of her life.
For more from her, check out her:
5 thoughts on “Pen to Pen: Selling your Special with Sonni de Soto”
Thank you so much for this. I write what’s in my head, what I like, and what I want to read; hopefully there ‘ll be a few that think the same. I can’t write for the market. I’ve tried, and it rings hollow.
I think there’s a potential for balance between writing what you’re interested in and writing for an audience. Just like you say, if you’re solely writing to sell, what you write will likely feel dishonest because the writing process is…well, a little dishonest.
But I think everyone is capable of finding something about themselves that they can market. Like I said, I am, whether I ever chose to write or publish a book or not, a feminist, queer, kinkster of color. That is who I am. And, turns out, that’s the kind of story I like to write. I take those innate parts of me and bring them to my writing.
And, because I do, when it comes time to sell my stories, I can now sell them using those same innate qualities. My stories, like me, are feminist, are queer, are kinky, and come from a perspective that is different than the norm. They are, by virtue of who told them, different than what most other authors in the genre have to offer. And that’s, I’ve found, incredibly marketable.
I also know other authors who were experts in certain time periods, who did the necessary (and likely the thoroughly unnecessary) research into those periods to make their stories about those times completely immersive and believable. I know other authors who have traveled the world and can write from first-hand knowledge about places most of us will never physically see. I know others who’ve had professions–like being a cop or a doctor or a lawyer–and can give insider knowledge on that experience that no amount of outside research can give.
If you write for you, then, yeah, of course, write where your heart takes you. You are your only audience and the only person you have to worry about capturing the imagination of is you. There is nothing wrong with that. There is, in fact, a lot right about that. Writing as a hobby can be cathartic and fun. It can be a place of self-discovery and a way for us to better understand the world we find ourselves in or the world we wish we could. I have a bunch of stories that I’ve written, after the death of a family member or after a really bad breakup or just after a really awful day at work, that will never see a publisher’s desk because they were written for me and were never meant to be widespread. That is a perfectly valid form of writing.
But, if you’re aiming for a publisher, who is often drowning in countless other submissions, or a wider readership, who has access to an unimaginable library of stories thanks to the internet…yeah, you want to stand out. You want to be able to tell someone, “Hey, this is why my story is something you want to read instead of that other story.” And, I think, learning to navigate that difference is what turns one’s hobby or even one’s passion into a profession.
Wonderful post, Sonni! I really agree with you. The stories that really seem to grab my readers are the ones fueled by my personal passions. That’s one reason why my first novel, written 18 years ago and republished four times since, still sells better than any other book. The energy in RAW SILK came from my personal fantasies and my life-changing initiation into BDSM. The writing isn’t nearly as good as my more recent work, but readers pick up on the authenticity.
Thank you so much! So glad you enjoyed it!
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