I remember an old man, a writer-wannabe, who stood up in a session at the very first conference I attended years ago. "I got into this gig because I wanted to be creative," he raged. "I refuse – refuse – to use a formula."
|The crusty old newbie had verbalized the frustrations of all potential novelists.|
"Me either," a young woman in the back of the room called out.
The beleaguered instructor tried to talk about structure, readability, and editing. It was too late. The crusty old newbie had verbalized the frustrations of potential novelists. Dreaming of the millions being raked in by the likes of King and Rowling, they wanted success on their own terms – and who could blame them?
We all want to control our destinies. Writing seems like a way to rid ourselves of demanding bosses, schedules, and rules. We want our internal clocks to wake us. We want to sit down at our computers when the mood strikes. We want to write what we want to write – and we resent editors who suggest that we have too many adverbs. We want to pursue personal projects – and we want those books to pay handsomely. We want publishers to hire fawning publicists to shepherd us to events where crowds of adoring fans queue up to shake our hands. Is that too much to ask?
I've been writing for forty-five years. So far, my coffers aren't overfilled with cash – but I've gotten my share of positive reviews, fan mail, and awards. I've met a lot of interesting people – and somewhere along the way, I faced the fact that compromises are required in any industry. Still, I haven't resorted to the proverbial "formula" that seems to aggravate new novelists. Instead, I am guided by a contract with my readers – to give them a heart stopping, touching, enjoyable ride. Face it. People want the rolla-coasta.
So, how do you do that? Here are a few suggestions.
Pontificating, painting, and poetry can get tedious after the second or third page. Fiction is show business. The plot must move along at a snappy clip – like a rollercoaster. The characters must be engaging – and either likeable or hate-able. Not even your mother will endure pages and pages of pointless back-story.
Something For Everyone
We all like to think we are clever, but even if you use all kinds of symbolism, the story has to work. Even if the reader doesn't grasp your hidden meanings, the superficial has to be charming or exciting enough to satisfy your shallowest fan. Not everyone appreciates Freud.
Faith In Your Reader
Sometimes an author can get so wrapped up in his own logic that he sounds like he's reasoning with someone about to leap from a tall building. Your reader isn't stupid. After all he's giving your book a chance. It's best not to insult his intelligence. After all, some people do enjoy the classics.
Confidence & Humility
Quality fiction runs the gamut from commercial genres to literature. Just because you write literary novels doesn't mean that your work is better than that of authors who focus on Romance, Horror or Mystery. Just because your work was picked up by Penguin doesn't mean that it's inherently better than the book of a self-published author. Confidence and humility aren't mutually exclusive concepts. Even though it's a pretentious industry, pomposity will turn off many readers.
Keep It Tight
Your book should only be as long as it takes to tell the story. Get in, make your point and get out. Don't pad with endless descriptions. Take out any word, sentence, or paragraph that doesn't support character or plot. If you prefer six hundred page novels, make sure your story is big enough to support that length.
The broader your audience, the more you should focus on stories that are human. Niche work allows you to add the philosophies and politics of the narrower group. For example, if you want to attract a general audience, being labelled "New Age" or "Christian" might cause you to lose readers. On the other hand, you could do very well in the Christian or New Age submarkets. War stories attract more men than women. More women than men read romances. Understanding the interests of your target should impact the stories you choose to tell.
It's common sense really. No formula is necessary. You aren't writing for you if you want to sell your work. You are writing for your reader. It helps to know who they are apt to be. It also helps if you like them. However, regardless of how you feel about your audience, live up to your promise to entertain them – and they will come back to you time and again. Everyone loves the rolla-coasta.
Joyce Faulkner is the author of Losing Patience (Red Engine Press, 2004) and In The Shadow Of Suribachi (Red Engine Press, 2005), winner of the Military Writers Society of America Gold Medal award for historical fiction for 2006.