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.

Tips for Writing Popular Fiction Part 1

Update: Click to read Part 2 or Part 3.

Tips for Writing Popular Fiction

The blog below will give you tips for writing popular fiction.  It is not meant to teach you to write the next great American novel.  Why not?  Read on…

There are a lot of truly great novels out there; books with deep meaning behind every carefully chosen word and a story that holds a special place in the heart of generations. Chances are, your book is not that book. That doesn’t mean that the talent needed to create such a work doesn’t exist in abundance, it means that today’s reader isn’t looking for the next great American novel. They are looking for an escape. Hear me out.

Many classic American novels deal very deeply with the human condition. The plot is secondary to the meaning the writer is trying to convey. There’s a lot of meaning behind Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but most readers just read something they think is about drinking your way across western Europe and bull fighting. The problem for today’s reader often lies with the plot. The older the literature is, the less likely it is to capture the readers attention with vivid action sequences and the like. Why do today’s readers enjoy blistering pacing and Michael Bay-esque action sequences. I blame it on Hollywood blockbusters that change great books into mindless drivel.

Still, this puts us writers at a crossroads. Do we sell out and write solely for an audience that eschews content with literary merit (See: Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.)? Or, do we spend years completing our masterpiece, only to have the Big 5 publishers tell us it’s garbage and they want more vampires and zombies to sell books? I don’t think it has to be exclusively one or the other and I’ll tell you why.

It is possible to write the plot of a story so that it will entertain those who want to be entertained, and provoke thought in those looking for meaning behind your words. It’s a fine line, but it’s something I’ve been working on for some time. Here’s how I do it:

1. Write at an accessible level. Twilight was written at an eighth-grade level, but sprinkled throughout are what scholars call SAT words. It’s as though Meyer is trying to assure her more educated audience that she is, in fact, intelligent despite the content of her books. In my opinion, I would bring up the level to perhaps tenth grade and still use SAT words as long as it doesn’t distract the reader (for instance, using a complicated word in dialogue that the character should never have known, like using anthropomorphic instead of human-like). A certain amount of making your reader stumble is necessary if you want their vocabularies to grow, but make sure using those words fits within the story.

2. The Art of Subtlety. In my first two novels, subtle was not a word I was familiar with when it came to writing. My plot was very heavy-handed, shoving opinions down the throats of my characters so they would spew my righteous dogma. No more. After years of reflection and reading, I learned to put much more content between the lines. Not only should the reader assume certain things, the characters within your novel should jump to conclusions like any regular person would. Just because someone hasn’t directly said something or you didn’t describe something directly, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen within the contents of the story. For instance, in my latest novel Nightstalkers (out in March), misunderstandings are central to the plot. My main characters are at each other’s throats for much of the story, and for what? Not just to get my jollies, I assure you. If you read deep enough, there are plenty of cues in the first two thirds of the novel that foreshadow what’s going to happen, but they are carefully inserted in prose that is accessible to a major audience. If you don’t read deeply then close to the end of the book you’ll find out why anyway, and while the timing works, it would read differently on a second read-through. Subtlety.

Do you know who a master of subtlety is? J.K. Rowling. She put in countless clues in the first six books regarding the true allegiance of the character everyone loves to hate. If you read it from the beginning knowing what happens, there are countless references that could have tipped you off. Also, Horcruxes! Most of them we’d seen at some point or another, introduced well before we knew such a thing existed. Subtlety and foreshadowing are close cousins.

I have a lot more to talk about regarding tips for writing popular fiction that will have to wait until future posts. For instance, why should we write for the masses? What’s the best genre to reach the greatest number of people? How do I get people to read X? Stay tuned for more.

Do you have any Tips for Writing Popular Fiction? Post your comments below and you could be mentioned in my next blog on the subject!