So you want to be a Fiction Writer?
By Ujjwal Dey
Don’t we all? In a world where Information Age has enabled flow of communications at the blink of an eye, everyone is an author in their own rights. All of us posting our thoughts, ideas and opinions either in some blog, forum, as comments on popular websites, or even making podcasts and graphics to convey the same. So by the elementary definition of “writer”, any active internet user has already transformed into an “author”.
Yet, we all seek the glory and honour of traditional printed word. To see our name on a magazine or book-length work – to be associated in the exclusive cadre of “published authors”. Here then, the word “published” refers to having our fiction works accepted by a publisher who has made its name in literature. So, I will spare you my open-source ranting and not tell you that technology has enabled you to earn more and get a wider audience by self-publishing through print-on-demand with the only investment being your brain, your imagination and maybe a word processing software on a computer.
Refer also to my Writing Primer posted at Hamilton Institute long time back.
Here the “method” described is purely with the aim of getting your work published. Whether it meets your artistic integrity is something you have to find a way to fit it into the primary agenda of being “published”.
Creativity and Language
English is a fun language, ever growing and evolving. So if you are writing in English, already your fiction market is bigger than any other non-English fiction writer. But if you see an opportunity in creating works that will sell well locally in your local/ regional language – go ahead and get it done. This generation has proven that language doesn’t limit your market. My best and favourite example is Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author with global fame who was even holding a position as a writing fellow at PrincetonUniversity at the height of his fame, which still grows. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haruki_Murakami
Creativity on the other hand ensures equality in scope and opportunity to all the talented aspiring authors. What you can think, what you can imagine, what you can put into words – the limit is only what you put upon yourself. In fiction anything is possible, even the English dictionary can’t limit you for authors have created their own language/ words in their fiction. No I am not speaking Klingon here. “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess is an example from 1962. It is more well-known as one of many great movies made by Stanley Kubrick. The author created a fictional slang language called “Nadsat”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clockwork_orange http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nadsat
So you see, not just spaceships and alien attacks are possible, but dogs could talk to you or you could fit inside a rabbit hole. Maybe you see utopia in near future or dystopia in present. Maybe your characters are men of valour or they may have turned into zombies due to a strange government conspiracy.
Let your ideas flow. Note them down. Only notes for now.
Now we have to see feasibility, market expectation and publisher demands.
Writing to be published
One has to realize that businessmen don’t really need exceptional artwork to earn profits. But exceptional artwork definitely needs businessmen to make some decent money for their projects/ income.
So shun the hippie attire and know that without the marketing/ sales effort and acumen of these publishers/ agents – no one really knows your creation. And like with all creation, we think our baby is so special that it will stand and run all by itself. The truth is that we need the support of publishers/ agents to be able to make our work available to the audience who would otherwise never know what a delight it is to hold your creation.
How do you write to be published? Keep in mind that you are writing with the aim to be published in mainstream publications. At the same time, don’t insult them by hack-writing something you believe represents their catalogue. You need to pick a genre. See what is popular with the readers of that genre. Then see the list of titles your preferred publishers are trying to sell. Then you only need to adapt your ideas to meet such expectations from readers and specifications of the publishers/agents.
- Identify the market you want to be in
- Identify the exceptional and the popular works in that market
- Know your targeted readers, their expectations and preferences
- Document your target publisher/s’ titles in that market
- Is there a match, a common factor or point where your ideas meet the above?
You have to find some common ground. This without losing your artistic integrity. You need not sell your soul, but you need to understand the market before you sell any books/ stories.
So even before you produce or pen anything related to your great masterpiece – you need to first acknowledge, respect and understand the market, its key players and the scope for you in the same.
Exclusive or Saturated
We all complain how new authors never get a break. That it is some elite clique of snob-nosed phonies who congratulate each other and sneer at others.
If you however log-off Amazon.com and walk into a large bookstore, you will see that among the heavyweights, the prizefighters and welterweights are also some amateur people who have donned the gloves and stepped inside the ring. They too have promoters and backers who have made it possible for them to be there among the greats.
So clearly, there is enough flow of new authors every year from which some go on to publish second and even a third book. Best thing for you to do is to make a good first impression by putting your best foot forward. So if you have a range of writing and ideas – analyze it as per market as suggested to pick one and use it to pitch for your first novel length work. Your first novel should make the readers and publishers happy. This first impression will ensure if they wish to meet your future works.
So though the literary career may seem exclusive, it is actually saturated.
Saturated with a horde of people submitting novels and stories and a respectable publisher will get pitched a dozen book manuscripts by agents everyday for 365 days a year. So if you are one in those million people, you better make a strong case to prove your worth in their court.
Yes, you have to approach it like the interview for the most desired job. Or a legal case where you prove the merits of your book or have it tarnished in that agent/publisher’s records. So now you are a savvy charming lawyer drafting your case to plead in favour of your client i.e. the book. The book can’t do all this but if you do it, the book will generate the income and popularity for you. Not to mention the future career in writing. LOL.
The premise of the 2 analogies suggested above (interview/ court-case) is to get you to see the seriousness required in your approach.
Your approach – right at the beginning, before you even write the book.
- After having narrowed down to the ideal idea for the ideal market/publisher
- Note the points that makes your book appealing to your audience
- Note the points that makes your book the best pick for your publisher/agent
- Now create a Proposal for your fiction novel
Proposals before Writing
So this is your case to support your book before it’s written.
Why? No, not for anyone else!
This proposal is for you! This is so that you can see in black and white whether you have a good idea for a novel at all. If not, go back to previous steps and rediscover your idea, your marketed audience and your agent/publisher.
So when you have collected these pieces to form a Proposal, you will be able to see for yourself – the feasibility of that fiction novel to be a real worthwhile product.
Proposal Pitch contents:
- The Title
- The tag line or blurb text within 2 sentences. Yes, you should be able to grab a person by maximum 2 concise sentences to intrigue/ interest them to read the rest of the proposal
- Why are you proposing this novel?
- Purpose/ Subject Matter/ Genre
- Your contribution – what makes a novel so special when coming from you?
- Intended audience – maybe even the demography/ geography of the audience. Have you ever seen how Amazon.com suggests other relevant books when you view one book. You could also think about how your novel fits in a genre – which readers of particular books or fans of which authors it can be related to.
- The competition for your subject matter/ theme/ genre/ market
- Length – expected word count
- Chapter Outlines – each with their plot outlines
- Timetable – plan out how you will make this novel-writing happen
- Publishers – list of established publishers who deal with the theme/ topic of your novel. Maybe even list agents who have done well in that genre.
- Background information – your relevant professional credits first. Then educational. And then very briefly your personal contact details. No need to list hobbies and memberships unless it can be leveraged to pitch your book to anyone. The best thing about a writing career is that even people who are in blue-collar professions can have wonderful tales to tell. So don’t downplay this “background information” section of the proposal.
So this is your first document even before writing a novel.
You need this only for yourself – not to share this with any agent/ publisher at his point of time.
Read what you have filled and then analyze:
- if this looks like a good investment of your time/ energy – a profitable venture for you.
- if this is enough to convince you to start writing the novel
- if your idea/art can be adapted/ modified to meet this document’s expectations
Then you start writing your novel!
So you have reversed the way you go to a publisher/agent. You have done the groundwork first and know how to meet the demands. So now – you have an “artistic product” (not an oxymoron). You will have a novel that is saleable to both the audience and the publisher/agent.
And of course you have a ready Proposal for them, which you defined and can reuse now to send along with the manuscript to agents/ publishers. Because your fiction novel is based on a sound feasible Proposal. No more pains of having written something great and then hunting for a way to make it useful for a reader/ agent/ publisher.
Pragmatic way to get Practice
Ghostwriting may seem poor choice for authoring a book. We all want to put our fabulous name to the books we write. But again, you are thinking in a conditioned way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghostwriting
Practice! Practice they say makes you perfect. But who will give you practice in writing a novel that is published and distributed and read? How will that practice come? Do you want to risk ruining your author “brandname” when an amateurish, not so popular book of yours comes out, by not making a good first impression?
Ghostwriting is a good way to write for the market and also earn a decent income for your effort.
- Helps you understand the market better – since the publisher/ agent or person would give you the readymade description of what is to be done.
- When the book comes out, you don’t need to worry about the results – you need to analyze how the publisher/agent’s formula clicked with the market – how they made it happen – or maybe what was missing that limited its popularity
- You get crucial practice in writing as per reader-expectation,
- You get crucial practice in understanding how agents/ publishers are convinced of a book’s worth
- You are able to hone your creativity and get feedback on your writing and on your style from a professional editor from a publishing house
Actually this list could go on and on depending how much you are able to grab out of such an opportunity. The efforts you make to learn “the trade” – will make you a professional writer.
And of course, these ghostwritten books would be proof of your skills – so do it well and make a portfolio of novel-length published works – before even having written your own first novel.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a ghostwriter who wrote music for wealthy patrons.
- Robert Ludlum wrote only 3 novels dedicated to Jason Bourne character (Bourne Identity, Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum). How many do you see in the bookstores using his name long after Ludlum’s demise? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Ludlum
Another opportunity is trying out varying genres. As a newbie, it is always good to be open to writing in multiple genres and styles. I have written macho Motorcycle Adventures such as “Wayfarer series” http://www.bikernet.com/fiction/PageViewer.asp?PageID=2329 and then also been able to present the same publisher with a Western Cowboy Adventure in “The Railroad” http://www.bikernet.com/fiction/PageViewer.asp?PageID=3100 . And as you can see Bikernet.com is a magazine primarily for bikers, yet I found a connection – because modern bikers are just an adaptation of the way old west had horse-riding men and posse, etc.
If you don’t know where you are sailing to, you are lost at sea. Know the market and navigate it to reach your audience.
Too many analogies here, but well, hope you get the gist of its concept after reading it.