Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Playing the Market

Excuse me for my lack of postings - I've been on holiday and trying to deliver a whole set of revised chapters. I finally caught up yesterday with Nicola Morgan's superb blog post about the realities of getting published in the current climate. To quote her:

I've always known that if I wanted to write a best-selling novel, rather than a critically acclaimed one, I would have two choices:
  1. Come up with a great commercial idea and write it in a stripped back, fast style, leaving out what I think are the lovely bits - the meaningful ideas or powerful description.

  2. Hope for the Unpredictable Fairy to bless my book.
Now, however, there is something so rotten in the state of book-buying that the same applies even if you don't want to write a best-selling novel but just one that earns enough to stay in print for a reasonable amount of time and keep your publisher happy.

Now frankly, this floored me. Not just because I fit into category 1, but because this is the kind of stuff I want to write. How can this have happened? Is it simply a case of being in the right place at the right time, or have I unconsciously altered my style to fit the market? I mean, I hate Dan Brown's writing style as much as the next writer, so it isn't as if I'm trying to chase his "magic."

I felt the need to delve further into my own writing style to find the answers:
  • Pace - I'm bored by slow things. Sorry, but there you go. Give me a screwball comedy and I'm overjoyed, show me a Bela Tarr film and I'll be trying to kill you before the end of the first ten-minute camera shot.

  • Description - This is something that exists to get in the way of dialogue. I'll accept that some description is important to anchor the characters in the scene or when describing action. But no more than that. I am aided in my mistrust for over-description by the fact that I am a man, which means I never notice anything!

  • Brevity - Those who have met me will know that I talk. A lot. But writing has always provided me the ability to edit the verbal diarrhoea down to its barest essentials. I think there's a purity to that, trying to tell a story in as few words as possible and trusting the reader to fill in the gaps.

  • High Concept - Ok, I will admit to being guilty here. I did choose a concept that I thought would sell before I started the book. But on the other hand, a lot of other people have chosen to write about zombies as well, so my book has to work harder to get noticed.

  • Other media - I've said it before and I'll say it again, I learned much of what I know about writing from films and TV. While this initially hamstrung me in terms of constructing a novel, I think it now becomes a big advantage. Modern (i.e. young) readers are incredibly cross-media literate and they want books that reflect that.

Beyond this, I have to disagree that you can't include meaningful ideas in a fast-paced, stripped-back book. You just have to be prepared to wind those ideas much more tightly into the actions and motivations of your characters. Isn't that what story is all about? And as for description, sometimes the most powerful descriptions are the shortest. Let us never forget the enduring impact of "Jesus wept."



  1. I agree with your terminal disagreement, Nick.

  2. For all this, I think it's a real shame that the market/marketers can't accommodate a plethora of styles. Who's to say that my style of writing won't drop out of fashion just as quickly?

  3. Good post, as was Nicola's. I think pace, and to a degree, brevity are so important in holding the reader's attention. It only takes a paragraph of tedium for the book to be dumped! As for description, it's quite a fine line between leaving a massive void in the setting for the reader and forcing them to see every single detail your way!

  4. Hi Nick - great post. I also agree that you don't absolutely have to cut out meaningful ideas - I think what I mean is we may have to subsume them, make them more subtle, make them less the hook on which the reader is caught. Yesterday i had a long and frustrating conversation with a struggling-to-be-published author. I asked her what her novel was about. "Redemption" she said. Well, it may well have been, and it may well have been compelling to read, and redemption may be a very important theme in life, BUT it did not for one second make me want to read the book. At all.

    I also think all readers are different. I have in the past written for the sort of reader who does want to think (not necessarily to slow down and think, but to think deeply and passionately). But, these readers are not buying books in sufficient numbers at a high enough price, so, to attract more readers and therefore stay published, I have to sex up the pace. I will not write a book I'm not in the end proud of, but I may be proud of different aspects from before. I will adapt - I will not die. Unpublished authors would doget further if they would be as realistic as published ones. (Generalisation.)

    Love your blog - haven't seen it before. Thank you!

  5. @Nicola - thanks for your comments. I agree with you about adaptability - business (and writing is a business, like it or not) is about seeing those gaps and trends in the market and reacting accordingly. Which doesn't always mean following those trends, especially in an industry with such long lead times.
    Personally, I won't deny that I'm aiming for the mass-market, but I think there's a quality mass-market niche to be filled, especially amongst boy's fiction (and even more so amongst horror fiction). I see it as a process of juggling - you can have a strong voice, strong characters and strong ideas, but you have to keep all of those elements short and constantly in motion to inject the right level of pace. Again, this is probably all aided by my short attention span!