A Different Way of Doing Things Part Six: Finding the Motherlode
We’ve been looking at the idea of you having a shop which sold your fiction. Not a bookshop featuring books by other authors — just your fiction, arrayed in shelves for people to browse.
I know, it’s an effort to imagine such a thing — partly because you don’t think you have a) the amount of fiction needed to fill a shop and b) the attractive power necessary to pull in customers, and partly because such a concept flows against the cultural and social ‘norm’.
In this norm, writers are the hungry outsiders, desperate for the attention of the publishers and bookshop owners who apparently own the keys to the kingdom of customers. In the default model for writers, distribution is everything and power lies elsewhere.
We’re looking at ways of changing that model.
What would attract readers to your particular brand of fiction?
When you go into Starbucks, you expect them to know how to make a cappuccino just the way you like it. When a customer entered your shop, they would expect your fiction to please them in a similar way each time. When a reader comes to you, you want to communicate to them that you know how to make the stories that please him or her, so to speak.
This goes to the very heart of your writing. If you can nail this, the quantity of fiction you produce won’t matter all that much, because you will have hit the deep motherlode which will attract readers again and again, even if you only write one book.
How do you mine that gold?
The writing of fiction tends break down into two broad categories:
1. Fiction that is written by the writer for the writer.
This is the biggest category, probably, and the one that is easiest to understand and is most familiar. The writer sits down to write and simply writes. He or she doesn’t know ‘where the ideas come from’, nor is that a particular concern as long as they come. Probably 80% of all fiction is produced in this way. Whoever it could be said to have pleased, the person it has primarily pleased has been the writer.
2. Fiction that is written by the writer for the reader.
This is probably in the minority, and for good reasons: it’s often hard to know what will please readers, and it’s often hard to write for any other reason than for oneself.
The saving grace is the overlap: what pleases the writer and what pleases readers will have some kind of overlap. Writers are human beings too, and share with all other human beings the condition of being human with the loves, fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams which that existence brings.
Isolating that overlap is one of the most important things you can do in your quest to find the motherlode which will attract readers to your work.
The process of writing is not very much like the process of manufacturing other things. With coffee, for instance, you could line up different blends and have customers taste a sample of each, then ask them which was their favourite. That’s harder to do with fiction — the ‘flavours’ involved in works of art are much subtler and harder to distinguish or describe, or indeed choose between. How does one exactly differentiate between a John Grisham and an Ian Fleming? There are clear stylistic and topical differences, of course, but from a reader’s emotional perspective how do you put the distinctions between the two authors into words?
Describe a Brontë novel in precise scientific terms which will enable it to be mass produced. You can’t.
And yet, to create a functioning and viable business from your writing of fiction it’s almost as though you have to have a conversation with a reader, and figure out the biggest need they have and give them some kind of potential fulfilment for it.
You would not do this by asking them ‘What do you want to happen in a story?’ That would be an example of acting in the default model in that you are writing according to someone else’s directions. Imagine noting down what the reader tells you: ‘Then I want something dramatic to happen and the cat to fall off the mat and then a big dog comes in and…’ Listen to the tales of a two-year-old child to get an idea of what the result might be. On that level, readers can’t capture what they want (otherwise they would probably be writers) and you would end up with a hodgepodge of randomly connected images and scenes.
But ask a reader ‘What's your goal? What's your biggest need? What problem in Life are you looking to solve? What emotional experience would you like to have?’ and you’ll begin to isolate the core of the fiction you need to present. Answering those questions will also give your writing new life in ways that you might not be able to imagine until they are answered.
In this new fiction writing model, things are different. Right now, the publishers and bookshop owners seem to be the ones with the expertise; they dangle before you their (often fabricated or exaggerated) access to your readers.
In the new model, YOU have the expertise, you lead the way, and you have a process for providing fulfilment. Leading with your process keeps everyone focused on what’s important: the outcome, the emotional effect, the pay-off, the oomph of a story. It allows you to manage and anticipate a career as a writer.
It’s an investment. It takes a little time to find the motherlode of gold within yourself. But once you do…