The new issue of Wired magazine includes a nice article on Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and the just-published Anathem. The article talks about Stephenson's love of gadgets, about the millennium clock that the Long Now Foundation is planning (it's supposed to last 10,000 years), and about Stephenson's books. One paragraph in particular caught my attention.
Stephenson told the interviewer (Steven Levy) that his first two books were positively received but didn't sell particularly well. He then set out to collaborate with an uncle on a few political potboilers in a deliberate attempt to emulate Tom Clancy's success. This did not work. In 1991, Stephenson is quoted as saying, his career "was moving along at low rpms." So he decided to forget aiming at a large audience and "just go for broke, write something really weird, and not be so worried about whether it was a good career move or not." The result was Snow Crash, the book that catapulted him to SF fame.
The reason I was so interested in this account was not because it was new to me, but because it is so familiar. I've heard from so many writers that only began to sell when they abandoned attempts to please "the market" and wrote stories they genuinely connected with, cared about, were interested in, and were written it in their own unique voices. In my own case, I have two unpublished novels and a few stray stories that were dead sets at what I thought of as a "bigger and better audience." All now are merely dead.
I tell my students this all the time. However, not all of them listen. They should listen -- if not to me, then to Neal Stephenson. Career moves may work in, say, corporate finance, but in fiction, passion works best.