If I Knew Then
I often say I learned the business of writing uphill both ways in a snow storm.
There are advantages of doing everything at least twice. You learn it really well, which makes you a great teacher later on. The disadvantages are rather more obvious though, and they’ll come to you when you try to pay for your kids’ college or major medical care or something.
One of my favorite daydreams is of going back in time and telling young
idiot me what she needed to know to succeed higher, faster and better. Alas I can’t. But I can tell you.
We’ll assume here you’re writing to sell, not to “educate the public”, advance your political agenda, show your mommy how smart you are, impress your college teachers, or any of the myriad things you could be doing by putting words on screen (or paper, if you wish.)
It’s not that there is anything wrong with any of those purposes, but holding fast to one or more of them will make it harder for you to sell vast quantities of books, which, frankly, if you do, will also help you advance any of those purposes if you have them. Now, you’ll need to finesse it more and make it fun and interesting. Yeah, I know. But… It will pay off, both literally and metaphorically.
1- Write for a reader
This one was very difficult for me, first because I think my “dark” and “icky” filters are broken, and second because I was, of course, a stranger in a strange land. So I had no clue what was in the heads of the people I was trying to engage with.
Yes, I know that publishers will tell you they’re looking for the new, the fresh, and the diverse.
It’s not PRECISELY that they lie. It’s more like they’re so immersed in the status quo and what crosses their desk everyday that what they consider new and/or startling different is something not very far off.
When I started writing I set everything in Portugal. Makes a certain sense, right? I knew nothing else of anywhere else. So, when I was starting out I was doing that thing that every editor later would want me to do “write authentically Portuguese fiction.”
O, brother. (Can you spare a dime.) Yeah, it was authentically Portuguese fiction. Which would sell to an authentically Portuguese audience. Mostly it just puzzled an American audience. And it wasn’t even the big stuff, like pastries being kept on a counter unrefrigerated which led an editor (I kid you not) to call me a narrow minded and xenophobic pain, for thinking other countries didn’t refrigerate. No.
It gets back to base assumptions and things that you haven’t even noticed are not common here, yet. 20 years of living in the US and I wrote a story set in Portugal in which someone is burning all the family papers after her grandmother dies. This got interpreted as the character being crazy. Uh… no. Portugal has been inhabited since before humans were humans. What it’s mostly built on is Portugal. You don’t save every precious scrap of old letter/ paper. You’d be trying to grow corn on them by now. But I had no clue and the throw away line startled my writers’ group almost to death.
So, be aware of who you’re writing for. Be aware of what they expect. Yes, reading a lot in the field you want to write in helps, but also get your butt out there and meet people. Yes, this might mean a job or volunteer work, but you’ll be better off for it. Forget write what you know. Write halfway to what the reader knows.
2- Don’t Fight Stereotypes
This one is very difficult for me. I’ve been known to write one-line walk on characters with fully developed stories. One of the things that caught my husband’s eye in my first (thoroughly unpublishable) novel was that my walk on kitchen-cleaning slave had a personality.
Yeah. It’s not a good idea. Look, it’s like being original. You want a bit of it but not a ton. Sure your main characters have stories and ideas and original quirks. But what do you gain by making the tavern master skinny and sour faced? Oh, sure you can do it, once, and it’s amusing. But must you do it in everything? It becomes a tiresome schtick after a while, if your German is excitable and not punctual at all, your Spaniard is disciplined and runs like clockwork, your cat chases your dog, your rat isn’t afraid of anything, etc etc etc.
Know what the stereotype is in your readers’ mind and play to it or opposite it, but don’t mix and match.
3- Don’t fight genre.
Yes, I know, you have a unique idea, uniquely yours. Uh. Bet you a dime it isn’t.
Yes, yes, genre is an invention of booksellers in order to know where to shelve books. Guess what? We’re not past that yet. The idea of shelves, the idea of lumping similar books together is so that you can find a book “sort of” like the last one you saw, so you can read it again but new. (Yes, that is how most book addicts read.)
Thing is, your romance might have a little sci fi and a little mystery, but if you class it as one of those, you’re going to upset the devoted readers of the genre. And if you class it as romance, you’d best know what you’re doing. It’s not JUST having a couple in it fall in love.
And if you have a mishmash of the three of them, you’ll please no one. At best you can sell it to “literary” readers, and honestly, as an indie you’re not what they want. They want the writers their professors raved about.
Pick a genre. Learn its touch stones. Mix in other genres cautiously and sparingly. “Cross genre” is mostly a myth. It can happen if you mist two genres in exactly the right proportions and cater to both. But even then mystery readers will resent fantasy in their mystery, and fantasy readers will get impatient with the interrogation round. It’s very difficult to do right. While doing primarily one genre with a nod to the other will get you all the cross genre plaudits, and far less work.
4 – Tone down the depression.
No, really. Even if it’s a sad book, have some wins. No one wants to be battered to death with despondency. At least not in a novel. Certainly not in a novel series.
Stay away from no-wins, no one is clean, etc. Unless your book becomes an HBO series, your chances of selling are low.
So try to leaven the dark with some sparks of light, at least.
5- Beware people have different ideas of ick and horrible.
This is particularly important if you’re an historical fiction writer.
Take the custom of beating women, which pervaded most places in most times. You might have grown up in a village where this was still “normal.” And you might want to show how brutal times were in say Elizabethan England that this was considered perfectly normal even by a decent guy.
Having him make an off-hand mention of slapping an hysterical woman will MAYBE work. Having him beat the tar out of his wife, won’t unless you’re going to kill him in the next ten pages, and want the reader to cheer.
And that’s minor. If you’ve been doing research, you might think human sacrifice or cannibalism are just local color.
Your reader is unlikely to. It’s not that you can’t use these, particularly to deepen the threat/horror. It’s that you should be careful you only use them for that. You should realize some things are very strong notes and if you put them in, people won’t even hear the other ones.
5- Don’t Make it a Futile Ending.
The caveat to this is that you can have a futile “it was all a big cosmic joke” in a short story, the shorter the better. In a novel? A series of novels?
Well, if you do it well, you might sell them, but I hope you didn’t intend to sell to those people again.
I’m not saying you can’t end a book or a series on a defeat. — look you, for popular fiction, I’d not make a practice of it, but… — I’m saying you should make it worth it. Sure, the last panning of the battlefield shows all our heroes dead, but over the rise a farmhouse is doing fine, and it wouldn’t have if our heroes hadn’t lay down their lies to stop the dread overlord.
Make it worth while. The reader just invested hours (or days) of his life on your story. Make the reader feel it was worth it, somehow.
Let a ray of light in.
Make your readers happy. And they’ll buy you again.