L. writes and I’m paraphrasing because the email is on a longer side,
“I was accepted into a prestigious MFA program. I excelled and my professors praised me for my writing. I’ve been trying for two years to break into publication and I can’t.”
Books are like sieves of different sizes. Each catches a specific kind of audience. Some catch many. Some catch few. We, as writers, have two forces influencing our fiction: ourselves and our audience. The ratio of these two forces is different for every author. Some write only to please themselves, others write only to please their audience, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
At a university level, you are an academic and your audience consists of other academics, such as your fellow students and instructors, who analyze fiction five days a week, eight hours a day. This is a very specific and pushy, opinionated audience. Sometimes, even in the best MFA programs, that audience exerts too much influence. To put it bluntly, they’ve seen it all before and they are bored. They’re looking for innovation and for layering of concepts, so they will push your writing in those specific directions. They want a writer to stretch, both intellectually and in terms of their craft. They often look for subtlety and elegance. As Heller said, many of them know “everything about literature except how to enjoy it,” because they’re doing it for a living. Some of them will sit and read the book purely for language.
This isn’t a dig against academics or MFA students; it’s reality. When you work with fiction for a living, you reach a point where your internal editor is on all the time. It’s very rare for me to find a book I can sink into and I’m not alone in this. Ask any working writer. The majority will say that they read less now than they did before they were published.
Commercial fiction is fundamentally different. You’re not writing for select few with advanced degrees. You’re trying to cast your net as wide as you can. With that in mind, there are several principles that are true for any commercial writing, no matter the genre.
Your audience possesses an almost unlimited capacity to learn, but it helps to start the book as if they know almost nothing. In reality, of course the audience has a basic level of general education. But they might not know much about 12th century France, for example. The more specific is your genre or subject, the more you have to explain. Think of it as a threshold, a step up the reader has to make to enter the novel. For example, when I first tried regency romance, I hit a vocabulary wall. What are hacks? What are cravats? How about hostler? Is that some historical version of hustler? How long is furlong, and why, in the name of all that’s holy, would anyone use fur as a unit of measurement? (It actually comes from furrow long.) Coming from another language, I had no coping skills. That was quite a threshold.
Keep in mind your audience. Make that threshold as minimal as you can. A person of average intelligence should be able to pick up the book and start reading without being immediately confused. If you start your fantasy novel with “G’durie Markor, the Grand Ferkor of Korwus, stood at the window watching his manchaks clash, their sharp orkies striking viciously…” you’re not adding flavor to your novel. You’re ensuring that nobody will read it. Clear communication is essential for commercial writing. You can teach your audience what all those terms mean in the course of the narrative, if it’s absolutely necessary, and by the middle of the book that phrase could make perfect sense, but at the start of the novel it will ensure that the book will fade into obscurity.
High Emotional Stakes.
This one is simple. We read for a emotion. Make the stakes high. Make sure your characters are put through the emotion wringer. But above all make your characters relatable, otherwise the readers won’t engage. Note, I didn’t say likeable. I said relatable. Find some common ground between the character and the reader. The easiest example is in the Insidious, which is a movie but will work for our purposes. The main character, Renai, is a mother trying to juggle getting every ready for school and work.
Her son FOSTER (6), tugs on her leg, holding a box of cereal.
I need a bowl, mom.
Renai rips open a box, rifling through newspaper, phone
wedged against her shoulder. She holds out a cup, flustered.
It’s too small.
Make it work.
Speak to an agent. Speak to an
agent. Speak to an agent.
I immediately identified with her, because I am that mother, who is trying to do all these things while yelling, “Associate! Human. HUMAN” into the phone. Sherlock Holmes is fascinating, but he desperately needs Watson to make him at all relatable, otherwise we wouldn’t understand most of what his superhuman brain is doing and get bored.
Now that you made your character relatable, do horrible things unto them so your audience becomes really upset and wants to find out how they are going to get out of that predicament.
A commercial narrative moves, and if the writer has done their job right, accelerates toward the end. Disaster strikes again and again. If you’re reading a mystery with people trapped in a Scottish castle while the storm is raging outside, the moment they think they are safe, a corpse falls from the ceiling. If this is a fairy tale, the carriage turns into a pumpkin. If this is a SF, the alien fleet arrives. The narrative moves forward. It’s not relentless – the reader must be given an opportunity to breathe a little between each disaster, but they do have to keep coming. Keep your antagonists proactive. They shouldn’t sit on their hands.
But this all sounds like I should dumb my writing down…
No, all those are tools at a writer’s disposal. What you do with them is up to you. You can still be brilliant and innovative. Look at MARTIAN. The amount of science in that book is staggering, but it is so much fun to read. 🙂