Defining Your Territory

While authors in both fiction and nonfiction need to be aware of their competition on the bookshelf, a lack of knowledge by a neophyte author in nonfiction is more likely to doom the book’s sales. For a novelist, stirring characters and a finely wrought writing style can overcome a reader’s niggling doubt that he has read a similar story. Factual prose does not have the same advantage.

I frequently receive submissions from nonfiction authors that contain strong elements: a striking concept, good organization of topics, well-written chapters. Yet my first question is always the same: how is the book different from what’s already out there? I go to Amazon or a bookstore immediately if the author’s field is well established.

What am I looking for? I’m not about to read an entire book, you can be sure. I would waste hours of valuable business time that way. No, I read the copy on other books’ back covers or inside flaps. A browser won’t commit to buying a book if he thinks it’s too much like another book he’s already read. So he reads that copy to see if new, unique selling points are being made. That’s what I’m doing too. Please bear in mind, you novelists out there, this is a useful practice for you too.

If you are writing a book on sales, for instance, you do want to have a catchy name for your method, along with a tagline. But there are hundreds of books on sales, and some of those authors are among the biggest names in publishing. So you need copy that will fill up that back cover. As a reader I have to be convinced that you have fresh ideas that could really help me out. If I’m on a plane and I’m reading the same old stuff, I’ll be spending most of the flight asleep.

Buzzwords are not enough. New ideas you read in another book are not enough. You need a unique selling proposition. It’s the same process as writing an elevator speech. In a limited amount of space you need to sell your idea. Don’t automatically assume that readers want to read a new book. You need your best writing just to get them to open the front cover.

Exercise: Creating good copy is not the same as writing a report of the book’s contents. Examine the manuscript and pick out five points that you know are making a new contribution to the field. Place your best first. The entire time, think to yourself: what would make me want to read this book, this one right here in my hand?

“Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.” 
—David Ogilvy

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


Among the Many, One

Singling out examples among a general trend is a standard practice in journalism. Look at any feature article, and it begins with a personal example. The opportunity that such a practice affords to a fiction writer is even greater, because a novel is constructed by braiding relationships. The example that is pointed out to the reader can then become a means to enhance the development of a protagonist.

Such a strategy works when your main character is part of a group that is acted upon by evil forces. In a historical novel, this could be a pilgrimage. In a dystopian novel, it could be a medical experiment. The members of the group may well be split out into individual actors that assume their own identities as the story unfolds. Yet how do they stand in relation to the main character?

Let’s assume that your heroine is plucky, adventurous, swashbuckling—whatever qualities you choose in order to make sure that readers are drawn to her. Such a character, in breaking the social mold, may need to be abrasive. You don’t flout the norm, after all, by being nice. The cumulative effect that such elbow swinging has, however, may start to sour the reader on her. She may spurn good people, such as a brother, who are just trying to help. You want her to be fiercely independent, but that stance has consequences.

This is where the singled-out crowd member comes in. That person is more vulnerable to the power of the villain. He is more like us, in other words. If he can develop a relationship to the heroine whereby she repeatedly helps him out, that abrasive quality of hers is tempered—by the good she is doing for this one person. It might be that by the end, the victim turns around and provides the heroine with valuable help, even if it consists only of imparted wisdom.

The consequences of long-term involvement can impact the novel’s depth as well. If the good-friend victim ends up dying later in the book, we feel badly for him. We join the protagonist in her grief and anger that such evil was perpetrated upon him. We not only like her better; we’re rooting for her as she rights this terrible wrong to her fellow victim.

Exercise: If you have already completed a draft and find yourself in this situation, comb through the crowd scenes. You’ll usually see a succession of victims. See if you can find one character you’d like to elevate. Then put him in each of those crowd scenes, allied with the protagonist, talking to her, participating with her. Over a run of scenes, his value to her will continue to increase.

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
—Helen Keller

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


The Weight of Novelty

Many novels focus on a chosen field in which the author has developed expertise. This allows readers to explore an unfamiliar realm, expanding their knowledge of the world at large. The areas in which such fresh discoveries can occur encompass a wide range. The world of technology is frequently probed, as is the sphere of medical advances. An author is cautioned, however, not to rely too much on the gee-whiz factor.

The compulsions that drive the human species, even the cell phone–bearing version, have not changed much since we descended from trees. That is the continuing paradox of civilization. How can we still be ruled so completely by our base instincts? Those same urges govern the reading experience as well. Love, death, and their spinoffs such as titillation and fear of physical harm bring out the animal in us. That’s what we crave.

In a world populated by barely hairless creatures, an author who strays too far into intellectual abstraction runs the risk of being arid. A degree of drama can be achieved by performing a risky operation, such as one that will bring hearing to the deaf. The afflicted patient can be made sympathetic, the procedure can be described masterfully, and the suspense of waiting for the results provides tension. Yet the outcome does not provide that much of a bang. After all, what if the operation failed? The character was already used to being deaf. She’s not going to die because an impossible dream wasn’t realized.

In other words, you cannot let your own fascination in a subject rule your plotting. It may be cheap, but the fact is, if you put that deaf character in an isolated house where a madman outside will use his knowledge of her deafness to torment her, you’ll achieve greater suspense. A reader understands being vulnerable. We all fear the unknown assailant, especially in a world where young men can so readily stray beyond social bonds.

You can explore how great it would be to achieve an uber ability. You can really make us understand that patient. But you have to harness the opposing sides of our nature. That’s a tough feat to pull off, achieved by literary, not scientific, acumen.

Exercise: Be chary about explanations of difficult scientific procedures. Even readers of Michael Crichton have only so much patience. If I start feeling like a baffled student in high school chemistry lab, I’ll skip the rest. Readers aren’t necessarily stupid, but if you think of holding them by the hand as you walk them through dense material, you’re on the right path.

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
—Gertrude Stein

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.