If you’ve been following this series, and applying its recommendations, you should by now have two sets of data.
The first is a broad-brush analysis of your preferred readership — covering aspects like their genre preference, age range, gender, location, and so on. The second is an equally broad examination of your own fiction in terms of its intended emotional impact.
Both the readership and the assessment of your own work may be a little fuzzy around the edges at this point. Trying to isolate who your readers are is not necessarily an easy task; and attempting to perceive patterns in your own work is even harder for most people. You might think that an external viewpoint is going to be essential to move forward on this — and I do offer my services in one-to-one coaching at this point — but it is usually possible to develop things a little more without having to have anyone else involved. Remember, your Author Prospectus is designed to be a For Your Eyes Only document, so you can be as freewheeling and as honest as you wish when compiling it.
Having said that, the prospectus is meant to be a sales document. The person you’re trying to sell yourself to, though, is yourself. As you read through what you have written, you need to see if you have done enough refining of the above to be convincing. The prospectus is supposed to excite you; it’s supposed to reveal things about you and your work that you didn’t already know; it’s supposed to make you believe that perhaps you do have something worthwhile to offer to the world.
The end result of reading your prospectus should be that you are all on fire to write, knowing that you are definitely going to be providing something valuable to someone who will pay for what you offer — not only that, but you should also have a pretty clear idea of who that person is and where to find them.
Right now, you probably have something along those lines, but chances are that it is unedited and a little ‘woolly’ — i.e. it needs to be more exact, more laser-precise, more refined.
So let’s take a deeper look at why you write fiction to try to focus things.
Why do you feel compelled to write stories? What are you trying to achieve? Yes, we’ve already taken a look at the effects that you are attempting to create with your work, whether negative, positive or nuanced — but why do you want to create those effects?
There are three levels of this for the ordinary writer:
1. Most writers begin with only a partly conscious idea of why they are writing. It seems to them that the fiction simply bursts out of them, or writhes around inside them until it finds an escape. They are merely a conduit or channel for a ‘Muse’; they feel a compulsion to write and are uncomfortable when they are unable to do so. So the first level of purpose for writing is simply to ‘get the stuff out and written’.
2. The second level is when the writer has an inkling of what it is that he or she is trying to achieve. Perhaps there’s particular cause which motivates them, or maybe there’s a definite kind of fictional effect or pattern, the effort to emulate which drives them forward and which shapes their work. In other words, they are emotionally impelled to write — creating emotional effects upon their readers through an emotional energy in themselves.
3. The ultimate level — the level that we are attempting to approach with these exercises — is when the writer is fully alert to what he or she is doing. This doesn’t mean that the whole thing has become totally ‘dry’ or ‘logical’ — far from it, in fact. What it means is that the writer steps back from partly conscious or emotional motivation and into a whole new sphere. At this level, the individual fiction produced by a particular writer streams out confidently and, because it is so clear, it attracts a definite niche audience suited for it.
To make this more lucid, let’s take a look at a ‘ladder’ by which the writer may move from one level to another.
i) on the first rung, the writer is pummelled by an urge to write and feels very much as though whole worlds of stories are trapped inside, struggling to get out and often not making it.
ii) on the second rung, the writer manages to get some fiction written but it comes out as a formless and usually complex work, not understood even by the writer, and usually fails to find any kind of readership.
iii) by the third rung, the writer has managed to generate some fiction which has reached some appropriate readership — but because the writer doesn’t really understand what he or she is producing, this success ebbs and flows: some stories are accepted, some rejected, and the writer can’t see the pattern.
iv) at the fourth rung, some awareness is dawning — the writer begins to grapple with his or her own work, to fine tune it for particular audiences, in a more comprehensive knowledge of what he or she is doing. Some concept of a cause which drives good fiction develops at this point, or the writer begins to link his or her own emotional drivers with the emotional effects in the work. Successes are achieved regularly, though there are still moments when a failing story or book is a puzzle.
v) the fifth rung indicates real progress. The writer starts to discern patterns and strengths relating to niche audiences for particular work; success follows success with only occasional failure. A body of work accumulates which is clearly belonging to that individual author, is not derivative and is inimitable.
vi) at this level, the level which these Author Prospectus exercises are designed to approach, the writer gains a full knowledge of and confidence in their own production of fiction. Not only that, but they also are able to determine who their readership is and how to market to that readership in such a way as to virtually guarantee sales.
No guarantees can be made, of course — the effectiveness of any methodology rests in the way in which it is applied, individual to individual. But the broad approach of compiling a prospectus is aimed in this direction: moving a writer into the ‘driver’s seat' with regard to his or her own work and its marketing.
How does this translate into practical action?
Well, you’ve probably automatically spotted where you lie on the scales above. The vast majority of writers for whom the idea of an Author Prospectus as described so far has any appeal would probably find themselves at around level iii) of the ladder: they have achieved some success, but it is sporadic and they aren’t really sure why some work is accepted and purchased while other work isn’t. That’s why analysing your own work is so important.
I can predict a couple of objections arising at this point. The first will be along the lines of not wanting to know, fully, what one is doing for fear of ‘disrupting the Muse’. In other words, the fear is that bringing the production of fiction fully into the light of day might disturb the arcane machinery of the imagination which produces it in the first place. Fair enough — if you feel that your career depends upon these shadowy inner workings, I won’t argue with you. But if you’d like to proceed to a more controllable and clearer methodology of generating both satisfaction and income, please read on.
The second objection is related to the first. If one ‘brings the production of fiction fully into the light of day’, surely this reduces the whole business of writing to a formulaic, logical, coldly scientific practice, rather than the soft-focussed, mystical indulgence to which most of us are used.
But here things get really interesting. Because it seems to me after decades of research that there is another level of artistic production which runs parallel, or above, or somehow alongside, that which we normally think of when we think of an artist making art. This isn’t so much a ‘partly conscious’ thing, in which the workings of fiction bubble away beneath our rational awareness and surface whenever they feel like it, or not — no, this is more to do with a kind of ‘super-conscious’ level of operation, in which the patterns, convergences and ‘happy accidents’ which at an ordinary level many of us experience while writing, take on a different characteristic. Instead of cropping up by accident, they appear almost upon demand.
By the time the writer reaches level v) and vi), he or she has begun to command such things as happened only by lucky coincidence or accident at prior levels.
How this all happens, and what steps you can take to make practical use of it, are what we will look at next.