Tips for Writing Popular Fiction: Part 2

Update: Click to read Part 1 or Part 3.

Writing Popular Fiction: Part 2

Last week I talked about writing at an accessible level to expand your audience and the art of subtlety in writing. This week, I’m moving on to two new tips that I’ve found to be really successful in my own writing. Perhaps you already use them, perhaps you’re only now being introduced. Either way, using these tips for writing popular fiction are a great start toward pushing your craft to the next level.

1. The Cliffhanger.  Everyone has been reading that book that always seems to be begging you to read one more chapter to find out what happens. Why is this? Usually, it’s a factor of the author using psychological tools to leave the reader, you, wanting more. How do they do it? You’ll often find that chapters end in the middle of a dramatic scene or right before something big happens. In television, this is known as the commercial break. It’s something that’s been used on the small screen for decades to build anticipation to ensure you won’t change the channel when you’ve seen your third Charter Spectrum commercial in a row (This actually happened to me once and the theme song is still in my head. Curse you Charter!)

How can you as a writer build this into your story structure? It’s simple. As you’re writing your scene, imagine it as a TV show. If you were watching a TV show, where would the producers pause for a commercial? Use this trick as a basic guideline and it will take you a long way. The key here is not to do it every single time because it can be a bit formulaic if every chapter ends in the same way. This is where it’s good to throw in some twists. Instead of ending just before a big reveal, end a little further back, but put in some choice words so that the reader knows it’s coming, whetting their appetite to continue reading. This method is how you get readers to pick up your book and be unable to put it down until they are finished. In case you haven’t been paying attention, that is rarely a bad thing.

Note: If you are writing in a series, it is paramount that you put in at least some kind of cliffhanger to get the reader to click ‘buy now’ on the next book in the series. This doesn’t have to be epic, but the reader must know that there is more to the story and that they would benefit from continuing on this journey with you. Readers who have already read one of your books are incredibly more likely to read more of your work, especially if there is a series involved. Why? If a reader has already invested time in an author and if that author is any good, readers would rather read more work by an ‘acceptable’ author than to venture into unknown territory. Prior readers should be one of your main target audiences.

2. The Audience. Literary Fiction has its function. It is meant to be thought-provoking, but at its core it is all about the author. The author is expressing a feeling from deep within and is writing a story without regard to the reader. It is, perhaps, the loneliest genre an author can write. Popular Fiction is a different story. Popular Fiction exists because of the reader. The story and the emotions of the characters are far more important than what is under the surface in popular fiction because it exists for a different reason. Popular Fiction exists to evoke emotion in the reader, to get them to care about a character or situation, and to spin a story that will live on in their memory as though it were their own. While Literary Fiction can manifest some of these traits, its purpose is not to do so. The reader’s desires are under the surface. When writing Popular Fiction, it is important to always have your audience in mind. Why are they reading this? Are my characters likable, and if not, is that intentional? Your audience can differ depending on what genre you choose to write (or combination of genres), but truly it doesn’t matter, as long as you know who you’re writing for.

Very few people write a novel without the expectation or desire that someone will read it (mostly academic types). A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself as you’re writing if this is something you would read as an objective reader. If it is, great, keep it up! If you aren’t sure, you might want to take some time and read a few books from the genre you’re writing. I don’t say this so you can write a carbon-copy of something that’s already out there. Instead, you should see what elements worked and what elements did not work for you. Find out what drew you into the story, or perhaps what did not draw you in. Perhaps you’re writing in a genre because you haven’t found a story (say about vampires) that you really enjoy. Maybe the book you’re writing is exactly what the market needs to freshen up that genre, giving birth to a new sub-genre. In that case, you won’t know until you publish (and likely years after you publish).

For example, a novel I published five years ago has recently seen a second life and the sales have spiked. It’s taken a while (without much of a marketing plan) for it to begin to shine. That novel is particularly polarizing, where many people like it, but the writing is not for everyone. I drum this up to some experimental styles I used with an interrupting narrator that is a subconscious voice within the head of my main character, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut. Was it commercially smart? Probably not, but it sure was fun. The point here is that writing for your audience is generally a smart thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the right thing to do. You see, maybe that strange thought in your head is just crazy enough to resonate with that very same audience. Maybe they don’t know they want it because they’ve never seen it before. The only way to know for sure is to publish and engage in what I like to call “The Long Wait.”  If you’re not interested in waiting, I’ve learned some great marketing techniques that can help to boost your sales.  I’ll update this post with a link when I’ve written that post.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for next week’s post, Tips for Writing Popular Fiction: Part 3, in which I discuss the Fallacy of the Love Triangle and the Red Herring.

Science Sunday: Virtual Driver’s Licenses

Virtual Driver’s Licenses are coming.

Delaware is looking to become the first state (again) by adopting a secure mobile app that will allow users to use their cell phone a virtual driver’s license at traffic stops.  It actually makes a lot of sense given that these days people are more likely to forget their wallets than their cell phones.  There are already 30 states that let you show your proof of insurance electronically, and that number is growing.  Why talk about this on my first Science Sunday?  I’ll tell you why.

Years ago, there was talk of implanting an RFID the size of a grain of rice in between people’s thumb and index fingers for tracking and various purposes.  Apart from a very small number of people, Americans rejected this idea.  Privacy wonks abound, Americans have vocally rejected ideas that inhibit their privacy, yet hypocritically demand more safety by way of increasing video surveillance and the like.  Here’s what I’m concerned with: the app Delaware is talking about is a secure app, likely created by the state.

It’s been known for some time that a lot of apps make you agree to absurd conditions before being allowed to use the app.  I wonder what kind of privacy the users will have to give up when they accept the terms of this app.  There’s really nothing stopping them from using your cell phone to find your location.  With a warrant they can do it already.  It’s possible this app would give them this ability without a warrant, something the Patriot Act has also already been doing in ‘extreme’ cases. However cool this technology is and however convenient it is to carry your phone as a virtual driver’s license and perhaps as a method of payment, it’s worth noting that the potential benefits are marred by the potential risks.

Those who know me know that I’m no Luddite.  I use some of the latest gadgets and I love imagining the future.  What I’m concerned about is aloof consumers who don’t question the government or the companies selling them these products.  Without asking these kinds of questions, becoming a victim of a society run amok is not a possibility, but an eventual certainty. I spoke of some similar issues in my dystopian thriller Memory Leak.  In my book, technology could be a great defensive weapon or the catalyst for my characters’ destruction. You’ll have to read to find out which way it goes.

What do you think about using your cell phone as a virtual driver’s license?  Am I being too paranoid, or is there merit in moving forward in this area with caution?

Writing From the Opposite Gender’s Point of View

Writing from the perspective of a woman (for me) or a man (for a female author) has to be one of the more challenging aspects of putting pen to paper.  Though I acknowledge, it could certainly be easier for women to write male characters because of the bias of growing up in a world where most protagonists in stories are men.  When writing, you don’t want to let your own gender perspective bleed through, so it takes a lot of forethought to get it right.  One thing I’ve found that’s helpful is to write in third person limited focusing on the opposite gender subject.  I say this because after extensive research (read: romantic comedy binges) I would say I’m no closer to being able to write the thoughts of a woman than I was before.  However, third person limited allows you to get into the character’s head without necessarily reading their mind word for word.  The reader gets a sense of what they’re thinking without have to come up with an authentic internal monologue.

I’m not writing this piece to suggest writers shouldn’t try to write opposite-gender internal monologue.  In fact, I think it would be a great exercise.  Rather, I believe it’s just easier to sound authentic if I don’t.  In my upcoming Sci-Fi novel, Symbiote, there are two main characters of opposite sexes and I switch perspectives between them, sometimes mid-chapter.  I do this for multiple reasons, not the least of which is to view the other characters in the room from the perspective of the character on which I’m focusing.  The way my male character would describe himself is skewed in comparison to how my female main character would view him.

Another thing to think about is what stereotypes we place on the characters we, as writers, create.  My male protagonist is what many people would call a meat head, but he actually does have some brains underneath it all.  My female protagonist may look small, but she’s strong and has a mouth on her that puts many of the male characters ill-at-ease.  She’s a tough character who doesn’t take crap from anybody.  It’s rare in my novels that you’ll find a weak woman.  They are there, simply to get a cross-section of society, but they are not the norm.  In the 21st Century, I think it’s becoming very common to see headstrong women who don’t fall into the archetypes we were used to seeing in 20th Century Film and Television.  Consequently, I also show that my male characters are capable of emotions and are not the unfeeling automatons typical of the past, though I wouldn’t call any of my main characters weak.  At least not to their faces.

Note: Symbiote, my new Sci-Fi Thriller, comes out this month!  Stay tuned for details and extras!