How do you know if your novel is commercial or ‘marketable?’
I recently completed the first draft of my latest manuscript (#8!). It has the working title, The Perfect Sister. Even though I know there’s a lot of redrafting and editing ahead, I’m feeling pretty happy with the overall story. But, had I been asked 25,000 words in whether I was excited about my story, I’d probably have told you no. I was excited when I began but it soon wore off and I was left feeling really stuck.
Then I listened to Fiona McIntosh’s interview on the So You Want to be a Writer podcast and I discovered my problem. I’ve written seven manuscripts prior to this and every single one has straddled genres. Okay, this wasn’t particularly new information to me, but it did make me see it more clearly from a marketing viewpoint. Fiona is very candid about how her books fit into the market, and how she uses this to her advantage.
Personally, I’ve always been a bit confused about where my writing fits. I’ve written young adult, romance, crime fiction, and psychological thrillers. When I’ve sought manuscript assessments and even a professional editor the feedback has been much the same, especially in recent years. I’m no longer getting negative feedback on my writing, it’s about where the story would (or wouldn’t) fit in the market. It’s about how my work would be sold, not about the writing itself. Though it’s nice to hear that my writing has improved over the past decade, it still leaves me with seven unpublished manuscripts and no readership.
Last year, I hired a professional editor with industry experience to edit my psychological thriller manuscript Secrets That Bind Us. This is what she said…
"You’re an excellent writer and you’ve clearly put a lot of work into the manuscript.”
From mid-to-late 2018 I put this manuscript out on submission and for the FIRST time ever I received some personalised (and positive) feedback from a couple of agents. One agent said
“I’ve now had a chance to review your work and I’m sorry to say I don’t feel I’m connecting wholeheartedly with your writing, despite its many charms."
and another said this:
“We’ve now had a chance to read through the extract you provided and, while I did admire much about this project, I’m afraid we’ve decided not to make an offer to represent the project...I think the premise of this story is very strong, and feel the exploration of violence against women is both timely and critical in the current Australian context. Sadly, however, we are a very small literary agency and have to be extremely selective about the projects we choose to take on. Currently we have a few thrillers on our books and I'm afraid that I don't feel we could give your project the attention it requires at the moment."
There was this response too:
"Thanks for sending this to me. I’m afraid I don’t think I’m the one to champion this, even though the subject matter – violence and trauma – is very current."
Soo..No one said YOU’RE A CRAP WRITER or STOP WRITING!! But the overarching theme was, we like your writing but we’re not sure about the story.
And the editor I’d hired also said this (after providing a rather realistic and depressing rundown of the current publishing industry):
"As I said you have an excellent writing style and I don’t doubt that you’ll become a published author with this or another book."
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the underlying message I took away was that maybe my writing was at the right level, but I’m not writing the right story.
So I listened to the podcast and Fiona’s down the line approach to commercial fiction, then I downloaded her book How to Write Your Blockbuster.
What did I discover about my writing? It’s not commercial enough.
I’m not telling the right story.
What is a commercial fiction novel?
So what is the right story? And do I want to write a novel that fits a particular mould? I guess a better question is, do I want to get published and write novels for a living? The answer is YES. And that means being smarter about what I write and how I write. Or I could get another five years down the track with another 5 novels sitting on my hard drive… and feeling completely miserable!
When I started out with manuscript #8, I’d thought it would go down the psychological thriller line again. I’d just finished one and had some encouraging feedback, so I thought, maybe this is my thing? But the story didn’t quite go down that line. It didn’t have the big plot points or a crime scene or a completely unreliable narrator. Was I to rewrite it all so it fitted into the genre better?
So I took a step back from my manuscript with my ‘Fiona McIntosh lens’ on and really examined what story I was trying to tell. And it’s the same story I tend to tell over and over again. A story about women, relationships, social issues along with a thread of suspense or mystery. If I label my story ‘psychological thriller’, then agents and readers will probably be disappointed as the story doesn’t fit all the genre conventions. However, if I label it commercial fiction or ‘women’s fiction’ then I can take advantage of a category that offers a broad spectrum of stories from a variety of voices.
So what to do next? I didn’t want to change the essence of the story, but I did want to make sure I hit the mark. So I did a bit more research and reading and then came at my story from another angle. Instead of the narrow lens, I decided to widen the lens, bring in more characters and make the story BIGGER.
I particularly liked Fiona’s chapter on tension and I have since sought out more resources on this. I think the suspense I was trying to create (in a thriller) was actually tension. I found that I could increase the tension in every scene, even when there’s not much happening, and that tension in relationships and that underlying sense of doom is enough. The sense of uncertainty can be enough to lure in a reader to keep on turning the pages. And when I started to focus on that, along with broadening my character list and strengthening my setting- I found I was excited again! The story has now come to life.
It still needs a lot of work, but the early feedback I’m getting (on the first few chapters) from my critique partner, writing group and my husband is that my writing feels more confident, the tension is luring them in and they want to find out what happens next. I hope this is a good sign. It might mean an agent wants to read more too!
Some people may not agree with keeping the market in mind when you are writing a story, but I haven’t given much thought to the market before and unfortunately, it has not served me well. I think my writing has developed and I have grown enough as a writer to ensure my writing style doesn’t change, my voice is authentic and I can shape it into a story that may just be marketable.
I’m meeting with an agent next month for feedback on the first few chapters and to see where it may fit in the ‘market’- so I’ll keep you posted on the outcome.
Fingers crossed all this hard work pays off!