Here's one of the many things I learned from fan fiction: you cannot predict what will be popular. Let me say that again.
You cannot predict what will be popular.
In fan fiction, things are popular for a variety of reasons. The characters or romantic pairings they feature, the shows they are about, the quality of the writing, the explicitness of the sex scenes, the originality of the idea, the experimental nature of the form, pre-existing popularity of the author...any of these (or a hundred other things) can dictate whether a story becomes a major story in a particular fan universe or not. Bad stories* become hits all the time over in the fan universe. It's one of the reasons outsiders make fun of fan fiction.
As a result of this lesson that I learned, I learned something else, a corollary, if you will: if you write for the audience, you lose. That's right --
If you write for the audience, you lose.
I don't mean by this that you shouldn't care about your readers. Of course you should care about your readers. (We can't all be James Joyce, after all.**) But when you come up with your ideas and craft your plots and characters and design your books around the readers? Well, that's a fool's game.
That's the writer's version of test audiences that churn out bad sitcoms or bad romantic comedies,*** and the problem with it is that a story that "has something for everyone" really has very little for anyone. It's the story equivalent of watery oatmeal. Sure, you can eat it, but it's never going to become your favorite food. So, if you can't program your stories to be major hits and rake you in lots of dough, but you still want to write books and have people read them, what can you do?
Really, the only thing you can do is write what feels important and meaning and emotional to you. Jennifer Stanley, in a guest entry over at Bookends blog, calls this coloring your voice with your personal experience, but I call it falling in love.
This occurred to me when I was re-reading The Outsiders this weekend. I don't know what she thinks of that early work now, but I can tell you that when she wrote that book, Hinton loved those characters. LOVED THEM. It's obvious in the way that she describes them. The emotion practically runs off the page when you open the book. It's why so many people still love that book today--it's certainly why I do.
Of course, different people respond to different things. For me, it's all about character, so I love books where the author loves characters. Some people love intricate plots, so they might love books where the author loves tough plots as well. Some people love the intricate play of language, so they might love Joyce.**** Some people love clean prose, so they respond to authors who love that as well.
In other words, if you write what you love, what you want to see in the world, then there's a chance that there's an audience out there with an appetite for what you're cooking. Now, maybe that audience isn't a commercial audience, one that you find through an agent and a publishing house. Maybe it's an audience you find through the internet. Maybe it's an audience you find through self-publishing. Maybe it's an audience of one.
But if you can't predict what will be popular, then you've got to write what you love and hope that you can figure out how to get it to the other people who might love it, too.
Oh, and a fundamental grasp of grammar helps. Even in fan fiction.
* However you define that term. Grammar, plot, character, objective, subjective...name it, and I'm including it.
** I don't often say this about an author, but Joyce? F##k Joyce. HATE HIM.
*** Leap Year? Really? ::eyeroll::