- By Harry Bingham
- Published 09/10/2011
The first crucial rule in writing to sell is a simple one: Know Your Market. It’s such a huge, obvious and often-neglected rule that I’ll repeat it: Know Your Market. I see a lot of first time manuscripts and I’d say that a good thirty percent fail before they even start. They’re books which are mish-mash constructs, neither one thing nor another, pleasing no one. To understand the market is simple. You need to go to a bookshop. Buy lots of book in your area. Then read them. I’m a crime fiction author, for example, and I read dozens of crime novels every year. Some of them I don’t like, but I read them anyway. A big job? Yes and it should be. Nothing is more important. It’s also crucial to read widely. It’s much better to read 1 book by 20 authors than 20 books by the same author. You also need to read currently. Having a wonderful knowledge of the classics is good for the soul, but you need to write for the market as it exists now. That means reading the stuff which publishers are selling today. You can also make use of online resources (crime blogs for crime fiction, etc) to help guide you to books and authors you might not have come across otherwise. Aside from simple ignorance of the market, the next killer mistake is to write a book which is an awkward hybrid of two genres. If you write a memoir that is full of ‘how to’ material, it probably won’t satisfy any audience. The memoir audience will be annoyed that you keep leaving your story. The how to audience will be annoyed at the amount of back story. Choose what you want to write about, then deliver that and nothing else. The same is true in fiction. Take, for example, sci-fi. If you produce a science fiction novel which every now and then features unicorns or witches or other elements of traditional high fantasy, you probably won’t please either the SF or the fantasy audience. Genre-bending is OK if done right – but you’ll only know what works and what doesn’t if you have read widely to begin with. Other errors to avoid include: Writing literary fiction which isn’t truly literary. “Literary” doesn’t mean “a bit boring”; it means wonderfully written. It means teasing, deep and memorable. If you are really wanting to write for a literary market, you need to deliver on the quality of your prose and your thought. Many supposedly literary novels get nowhere close. Writing for your creative writing teacher. By all means do please your writing teacher – but it’s publishers who hold the chequebooks in this industry. So please them first. Rewriting classics. How many times have I seen a Lord of the Rings rewrite? Probably at least a dozen, maybe more. Don’t do it! If people want to read LOTR they’ll read it; they won’t read your karaoke version. Not giving it va-va-voom. If you write a thriller, make it thrill. If you are writing a rom-com, make it funny and romantic. If you are writing historical fiction, make sure we can feel the breath of the past.
Not setting your standards high enough. If you allow yourself excuses for not giving your novel your all, you won’t sell it. Agents take 1 in 1000 books that come their way. Many agents will only sell 1 in 3 or 4 of the books they take on. So if you are being soft on yourself, don’t expect the industry to embrace you for your potential. That won’t happen. Sorry!