The Tuesday craft lecture for this year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was geared for the poets among us, so we prose writers–at least from my workshop–decided to spend the extra time reading workshop submissions and doing our assigned homework from that morning. Since it involved writing down our dreams, a nap seemed like a good idea, all in the interest of the workshop, of course.
Wednesday’s lecture was probably one of the most anticipated of the week. Barbara Jones, executive editor at Henry Holt, had chosen the topic, “Writing a Book for Publication: Approaches to Authenticity and Timing.” The description of the lecture called it “A dual narrative–the writer’s ongoing work on the book and, meanwhile, what’s simultaneously going on in the publishing world…. how do you prepare your organism to thrive in that agar?” Exactly what a writer seeking publication would be interested in, right?
And, indeed, Ms. Jones gave us a vivid glimpse into a publisher’s conference room where editors have to sell a project to her, the marketing staff, the sales staff, the publicity staff, and ultimately the publisher him- or herself. Her opinions were honest if not a harsh reality–if your first book doesn’t meet the sales department’s goals you don’t get a contract for a second one., for example. She did, however, talk about making your writing “stand out” to attract an editor’s attention, so he or she will push hard for your book at that conference table.
She then described her editing process, i.e., “eliminating words to free the story.” Frankly, she seemed to be describing an ideal book, in her opinion, as page after page of “subject-verb-object” over and over. However, she did emphasize she edits literary fiction. This was a great insider’s view of the part of the publishing world we writers are–or were–happily ignorant of, and Ms. Jones may have inadvertently discouraged more people from submitting their work to Holt or anywhere else than she encouraged.
On Thursday, my workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, did her lecture on “Bringing the Sizzle: Five Ways to Add Genre Appeal to Your Writing (Without all the Heavy Breathing.)” Benedict opened the lecture with the question, “Is popular fiction inferior to literary fiction?” She didn’t wait for a reply and responded with, “No, of course not!” She explained that she is not a traditionally trained writer–she started out in marketing and public relations for Anhauser Busch–but when she came to writing she wrote stories she wanted to tell. She made a conscious decision to write genre fiction with supernatural elements because she wanted her work to be entertaining.
The key to genre writing is simple, “Something has to happen in every chapter.” Genre writers, she says, should strive to produce “upmarket” work, i.e., a compelling story with attractive language.” Good genre fiction, Benedict says, “is for a literate reader who loves a story but who doesn’t want to read crap. Bad writing, whether genre or literary, makes me angry.”
Benedict provided her personal definition of the differences between popular (genre) and literary fiction. Literary fiction, she says, “is character-driven. Style and language are more important than plot. Popular fiction is driven by the plot, but popular fiction can be as good as literary fiction when a writer successfully merges good characters and writing with a superb plot.”
Her “Five Ways” are as follows:
- If you want people to read your book and enjoy it, raise the stakes–don’t be quiet, go for the awesome factor, not the quotidian epiphany. Make sure people care about your characters but put them at risk, i.e., in situations where they might lose something or where bad things can happen.
- Mind your setting for all its worth. It’s okay to use tropes because that means you can concentrate on story.
- Keep the story moving; don’t dwell so long on an image you lose the reader. Start by having a clear sense of what your story is about. Use the 3 X 3 exercise: Describe your current work in three sentences of three words each. This is the start of–or is–your elevator pitch.
- Create characters with emotional and moral intensity and definable value systems, whether the value system is good or bad. This is especially true for your antagonist or villain; make him or her as three-dimensional as the protagonist.
- Enjoy yourself in your work. Genre writers love their jobs because they’re writing what they love.
Great words of advice from one established genre writer to a hopeful one.
Part 3 – Fred Leebron’s take on creative writers using post-modernism.