This came up in another writer’s blog some time ago, was discussed roundly there, and keeps coming up so I’m going to talk about it here, too. The question was about whether to add a certain element — in this case a kitten, but it could as easily been something else equally dangerous: a certain character, explicit sex, non-standard gender roles — knowing even as you do so that it will make the story harder to sell. To emphasize the point, an editor pointed out how hard it indeed would be to sell any such story to him. Not impossible, but very very hard. My position is: if the kitten is required then put the kitten in and damn the consequences.
I can be dogmatic at times (Gee, ya think?), but I know there are times when compromise is required. We don’t live anywhere near Perfect, as the drug store ads used to remind us constantly. And yet…there’s a limit. There has to be. Trends fade. Today’s hot topic is tomorrow’s fishwrap. Prejudices morph. “Marketability” is a will-o-wisp if ever there was one, and trying to second-guess and anticipate it leads to bog-downs and hackdom.
This does not mean that we should be blind to the market, for pity’s sake. We want our stories published, and in the best possible venue. That requires discretion and a certain degree of tactical intelligence. For instance, I do know that, say, editors x & y are sick to death of ghost stories. Does that mean I won’t write a ghost story, if the story requires a ghost? Heck no. It just means I probably won’t waste my time or theirs sending a ghost story to editors x & y. I’ll send it to editor z who, I happen to know, likes ghost stories. That’s marketing. It comes after the story is written. Not before.
The thing is, I always feel free to ignore my own advice (remember, I know the source). For example, Shawna McCarthy of the late, lamented Realms of Fantasy has a well-known aversion to dragons. Can’t stand them. So what did I do? I wrote a story that featured a dragon very prominently. And yes, I sold it to her.The editor who hates dragons. So. Did I do it just to prove that I could? Take it as a challenge? Nope (Remember? Marketing after, not before?). I wrote the dragon into the story because it belonged there. And I sold it to Shawna because she knew it belonged there, too, and she liked the story. Even if she doesn’t like dragons.
The point is, don’t be afraid of dragons. Or kittens. Or anything the story needs, at least while you’re writing it. The story comes first. Worry about the editor later.