This is a tricky conversation we’re about to have. For years we’ve encouraged you to dig deep and tell your most personal, individual stories using your unique voice. But once you’ve honed your skills and excavated your most powerful voice—then what? What if you build it and nobody comes? What if the stories you’re driven to tell are quiet ones? Or don’t hit the current market sweet spot? Or have already been done a hundred times before?
Because sometimes the inescapable fact is, the things we love to write don’t sell. So then what?
Well, you can quit—which while a perfectly reasonable, legitimate life choice, is obviously not one we here at WU hope you make.
You can also self publish. And while this post isn’t about self publishing, the truth is, with the advent of self publishing you have the option—the luxury—of being able to tell your stories your way and still have them published and available to readers. Of course, the big question is—available to how many readers and how exactly will they discover your work? But that entire topic is the subject of a different post. I just wanted to acknowledge that was a very viable option once you have honed your craft.
Lastly, you can rework your stories to try and create a larger welcome mat, or you can polish your craft and skills so that your writing shines so brightly people will simply have to pay attention to it.
So this conversation we’re having is not about selling out your artistic vision to get a contract. Nor is it about watering down your artistic integrity in order to find readers. It’s about finding the largest, widest doorway into your story so that you can to draw in as many readers as possible, and then tell them exactly the core story you’re driven to tell.
A while back, Julia Baggott wrote a terrific piece about writing books of the heart versus more commercial books and pointed out that was a false dichotomy. Her point is a critical one (and if you haven’t read the piece take a moment and do so now)—we don’t have to choose one or the other. We can find ways to put pieces of our heart in more commercial ideas as well as find ways to make the books of our heart have a broader appeal.
There are a variety of things that allow a book to stand out and find a wide audience:
stunning reversals and sleight of hand
unique original voice
exploring the vulnerabilities and universal truths of the human heart
And of course, the best of the best often incorporate more than one of those elements.
If you write quiet books or books that go against current market conventions, that doesn’t mean all is lost. It simply means that some of these other aspects of your work will act as the wider doormat for your potential readers. And the good news is that widening that doormat does not have to radically alter the story you are hungry to tell.
It’s also important to remember that even though a subject has been tackled before—many times even—doesn’t mean you won’t bring something fresh and unique to that subject, something that will not only make it stand out, but allow it to shine. Vampires have been done scores of times, but someone always comes along every few years and brings a unique twist that causes their book to stand out in a wildly crowded field. Just ask Stephanie Meyers, Justin Cronin, or J. R. Ward.
Right as publishing was declaring that the angel book trend was OVER, along came Laini Taylor with her luminous Daughter of Smoke and Bone—a tale of an angel and a demon who fell in love, and for whom things did not end well. The familiar was made fresh and vibrant by her lyrical use of language and the stunningly original imaginative world she created. So even if the stories you are most driven to tell touch on a familiar landscape, there is always room to bring something fresh and new to a subject.
So, the first thing is to identify those elements that make your story yours—those things that are at the very heart of why you write in the first place. If you’re drawing a blank on what your core stories might be, poke around in your own work and your favorite books by other authors. Are there certain themes that resonate with you time and again? Redemption, forgiveness, self discovery, or the triumph of the human spirit? Are there stylistic choices that draw you in—taking the protagonist to the mat emotionally, a powerful catharsis, or transformative growth?
As you look at the components of the stories you’re drawn to tell, some elements will be absolute, non-negotiable. But others will be less set in stone, more fluid. Those are the elements you can play with and see if there are ways to use those more negotiable pieces to bring a more universal appeal or increased urgency to your work. That wider doormat that I talked about earlier.
One of the most helpful questions in identifying what’s is negotiable and what isn’t is to ask, Why are you compelled to tell this story? If you’re not compelled and just playing around with a cool idea, maybe that is part of the problem.
Once again, the answer is to poke around and ask yourself questions. Maybe you simply haven’t dug deep enough to recognize your own literary bone and sinew that runs through the cool idea or premise. Why does the cool idea appeal to you? Why are you so itching to play with this premise?
Still coming up blank? Since one of setting’s roles is to echo and enhance theme—chances are the setting or premise that appeals to you will have left a trail of breadcrumbs that will lead you to your deeper connection to this story and your thematic elements. Really drill down and identify the elements of that setting that call to you. Is it the thin veneer of civilization? The usurping role of technology? The brutality of the times? Or the contrast between social veneer and the teeming personal ambition? The never knowing who to trust? Conspiracies in high places? Once you’ve identified what intrigues you about the premise–what resonates with you–you will begin to see what is negotiable and what isn’t.
Setting can also be used to compare and contrast thematic elements, so if your core story is a more familiar one, a fresh new setting allows it to shine in an entirely new way. Marissa Meyer did this to stunning effect with her Lunar Chronicles, a series of fairy tale retellings set in the future with an android Cinderella, which brought an entirely fresh angle to these fairy tales. That lunar milieu came from Marissa’s crazy mad love of Sailor Moon when she was younger. So, and this is important, instead of watering down her individual vision she doubled down on it instead, combining two of her loves for something wholly unique.
I read an article recently where Joss Whedon talked about having read a fascinating book on the civil war just before writing the science fiction TV show Firefly. And while Firefly was set in space, Whedon brought a familiar, human feel to his world by bringing all the familiar elements of the Civil War to this more unusual setting.
So maybe step back and ask what would happen to your core, non-negotiable story if you set it in the old west? Or space? Or medieval China? What fresh new layers and nuances could that bring?
Or what if you took all the elements of a particular setting you loved and created something new with it? Dig deeper, as Joss Whedon did, and identify the elements that draw you to the Civil War. A country divided? The noble cause of fighting for others’ freedom? Brother fighting brother? Consider creating a new, alternate world using those elements. What would that newfound freedom allow you to expire within the context of your characters lives yet still touch on resonant chords with your readers?
The trick is that that unique angle or stamp you give a subject must stem from your own fascinations and passions.
Sometimes a more gripping plot or a fresh new setting holds little appeal for an author OR it is not the right answer for a particular story. Oftentimes ‘quiet book’ can be a byword for ‘anticipating small sales numbers’, but it doesn’t have to be.
Something important to remember is that just because your writing or story telling style is understated, doesn’t mean the emotions or issues you’re exploring have to be as well. It can be hugely effective to explore emotional upheaval with a quiet sucker punch as well as high drama.
So another way to play with the oomph of your story is through the interior landscape. Is there some way you can ramp up the emotional stakes in your mss? Explore a deeper theme? The emotional stakes of our characters aren’t only conveyed by our actual writing at the scene level, but can also be determined by the brainstorming and story choices we make early on in the process.
With quieter books/subject matter I think the trick is to make them so utterly human that readers connects almost in spite of their inclination to dismiss a book as quiet. This is where your skill and finesse at plumbing the human spirit and heart will have a chance to shine.
It can help to look for your own deep personal connection to the themes you’re drawn to. Are you longing for forgiveness? Is there someone you should forgive, but can’t? Has someone in your life shown great self sacrifice that inspired or benefited you in some way? If so, you know these themes as well as anyone and have the ability to weave that into your book in a way that no one else can, and that is where its power will come from.
Which is why it is so critically important for us writers to remember that trends are essentially irrelevant, and good—no, great—writing trumps all. Fantasy was DEAD before Harry Potter. And contemporary realistic YA fiction has been DEAD for a while. Until now, all of a sudden, it’s not.
Tastes, styles, fashion, and the zeitgeist all change over time. If you’re in this writing gig for the long haul, there’s a good chance that what you love to write and the market will eventually line up. And even if that doesn’t happen, if you write well enough, you still have a good chance of breaking through.