Category Archives: Writing Craft
I’m sure most people think authors are a calm and level-headed breed. Our bio and PR pictures depict us as well groomed and smiling, and we try to be witty and intellectual at dinner parties. Ours is one of the few professions where glasses and gray hair can actually improve our standing and charisma.
It’s all true (not), but you should sit with me when I’m editing or polishing, like I have been this past week. It’s true that I rarely need haircuts as the final draft takes shape – I’m too busy tearing out my hair. My expense sheets tend to fill up with purchases of coffee and whisky. There is a very good reason why authors have had a reputation of being manics or drunks, or just plain neurotic.
Editing is a love-hate relationship with my book. I’ve already lived with it for over a year and the honeymoon period is over. As I work my way through the manuscript, page by page, line by line, I suffer radical mood swings from “this scene totally rocks, this is NYT bestseller material”, to “what a pile of ****, I’m a terrible writer.” As the saying goes: Feel the fear and do it anyway, right?
Some of the things rattling around my head include: Plot arcs: Is this tense and dramatic enough, does it flow properly, is it exciting and believable? Characters: Will the reader fall in love with them, hate the bad guys, laugh with them, cry with them, dream about them? Structure: Are my paragraphs of varying length, am I overusing adjectives, or adverbs, are all my sentences “he did this, he did that”? Word choice: Should he scowl or frown, chuckle or giggle, is it a chill wind or an icy wind? And my own pet bugbear: Does she look, see, gaze, study, glance, peer, gawk, goggle… or a hundred other words that just mean “she saw something, dammit”?
You might not think that every word matters but it does. So does sentence length, and knowing when to interject a feeling, knowing when not to state the obvious because the reader will get it, when to foreshadow, when to trick the reader, when to layer in backstory… The irony of writing is that if an author does pay attention to all these things, the reader will never know because they will be swept along by the story without the mechanics of the written word getting in the way. Next time you are yanked out of a book because of how a sentence was worded, stop and think about it for a moment and you’ll probably understand what the writer missed. We’re human, mess up we sometimes do. (See what I did there?)
At the editing stage it is so hard to remain objective. I can agonize over a word choice or the form of a sentence only to come back ten minutes later and put it back the way it was. I’ve been known to kill masterful art because it is too verbose or intrusive at that point. On the flip side, I’ve added in horrible and clumsy explanations because I’ve convinced myself that the reader won’t understand without it. There comes a point at which I no longer trust what I’m doing – I’m fiddling with the manuscript because I’m afraid to let it go, let it fly the nest. This is where the beta readers and professional editor save my bacon by bringing fresh objectivity.
Thankfully, I’m a harsher critic of myself than others are. I’ll beat myself up mercilessly, but if my editor or readers give me constructive criticism I will hang on their every word and happily consider their changes. I’m quite harmless in that regard. I might be neurotic but I’m not an axe-murderer, so sleep well at night.
So if you ever consider me neurotic and overly-sensitive, with a tendency to flip-flop and waffle, then you know you’ve caught me editing and polishing. Just smile, back away, and when you turn the corner, run like hell.
Oh, did I say how much I love writing? Yes, even editing. Love-hate, remember?
Ah, the exclamation point, or exclamation mark as some call it… I believe it is seriously overused, and I like to think that most editors would agree with me. Don’t you hate reading a book where every piece of dialog ends in one? Commonly it us used to indicate a raised voice, shouting, surprise, alarm, etc. Lazy! (See what I did there?) As a writer, if you cannot show the reader a character’s emotions or tone of voice in any other way, then you aren’t being creative. Context should indicate whether they are whispering or shouting.
Am I being unfair? As a reader, do you believe that is exactly what the exclamation point is for – to indicate an exclamation? The dictionary would support this claim:
1. the sign (!) used in writing after an exclamation.
2. this mark sometimes used in writing two or more times in succession to indicate intensity of emotion, loudness, etc.: Long live the Queen!!
3. this mark sometimes used without accompanying words in writing direct discourse to indicate a speaker’s dumbfounded astonishment: “His wife just gave birth to quintuplets.” ( ! )
All right, but where does it stop? Often I see double marks, e.g. “Stop it!!” So how do we interpret this? If one mark is shouting, what does two mean? Believe it or not I have read a published book (whose author shall remain nameless) who frequently used up to 5 (yes five!!!!!) exclamation points. Now we’re just getting silly. Some authors fall into grammar traps too, such as “What the hell are you doing here?!” I do believe those two punctuation marks should never appear together.
There is even a term for the overuse of the exclamation point: Bangorrhea:
1. Overusing exclamation points in a vain and failing attempt to make your writing sound more exciting. Trying to put more “bang” in your prose, but looking instead like you have exclamation point diarrhea.
My goal is to limit myself to one a page, and then only during intense dialog. I can happily go chapters at a time without using one. In the editing stage I search for them and play a game of seeing how many I can remove and still get the meaning across. Does this mean the reader has to work harder at understanding? Yes, but I don’t regard that as a bad thing, since your writing can be more nuanced without resorting to the loud “bang”. Avoid using them frequently, or they diminish in effect. Ask yourself whether the sentence is a true exclamation or is just a statement. In doubt err on the side of the period.
The simple truth is:
If everything is emphasized, nothing is.
Let’s end on a quote from an author who knows a thing or two:
“Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald —
What do you think? Am I being unfair to a perfectly acceptable element of punctuation. Please share your comments below.
Today, on the morning of July 4th, my book had its own Independence Day. My book has been freed. What am I prattling on about? Let me step back a week.
Last week I celebrated the completion of the first draft of my new dark fantasy novel. A major milestone, yay! I started preparing and collating my notes for all the changes and improvements to make in the second draft. The second draft is where the book really comes alive.
And this is where I ran into problems over the weekend. I began to find plot flaws, things I hadn’t noticed when writing it. In some places the reader has to make unreasonable intuitive leaps. I found situations where the hero or antagonist does things to make the plot work but that weren’t sensibly inherent to their character, or vice versa, they don’t do things that they ought to have. This usually comes about when you craft a book by plot points and not organically based upon a deep understanding of the relationships between all the characters, and their goals and motivations, internal and external.
Many authors are no doubt nodding their heads at this point, having gone through the same pains between first and second drafts. It’s typical to find such flaws, particularly in a book with a complex plot, but they’re all fixable. For me, the second draft is the most creative and fun (if frustrating) part of writing a book – this is where you mold 90,000+ words into a dramatic, tense and exciting plot.
But… I had another problem. Three secondary characters play a pivotal role in my story. They’re unusual characters, and I’ll give you a quick teaser by saying that at least one of the three is dead. I adored writing these characters and their inclusion is both fun and essential. What’s the problem? They never became embedded in the story at a fundamental level. I don’t like tenuous links
Back to the present day – morning of July 4th. I sat down and made a complete plot line on index cards and highlighted all my plot flaws and issues. I didn’t want to just shore them up; I wanted an over-arching way to fix them. And I found it. I now have a historical subplot that links my three important secondary characters both in the past and the present of the book. From that I systematically fixed my plot flaws in what I believe (read as hope!) is a consistent, organic way.
My book has been freed.
And to serve as the finale fireworks, my efforts this morning also built me a richer, deeper, more satisfying plot, one that should make my second draft significantly better than the first.
Happy 4th everyone!
A few weeks ago I had to design the huge, climatic scene for my latest book. Doing so had scared me for ages, and it’s amazing how long I can procrastinate for. I wanted every character from the book to play a part, thus tying together all the loose ends in what I hope will be an intensely satisfying finale! Well that’s what we authors tell ourselves, and only hope that our readers agree!
If you don’t know by now that I’m a geek and nerd, then you aren’t paying much attention are you? heh. As an anal engineer, I tend to utilize lists and outlines, but over time I’ve learned to merge this tendency with my creative side and indulge in freeform brain diagrams. What? Stop looking at me like that. OK, so they’re just scribbles on pieces of paper, but I can see the order in the chaos, even if you can’t.
So the first thing I did was jot down the names of every character and faction that would feature in this monumental scene. Take a look at the image below:
Here I have my scene-by-scene outline and my cast. Then I wrote down the goals and motivations of each cast member. What are they doing here? What do they hope to achieve? How do they win the scene or lose it? How do they relate to every other character/faction in the scene? Luckily this mirrored the relationship diagram that I had already drawn up for the entire book. Then I scribbled ideas about how everyone could achieve their goals. If A does this, how will B retaliate, and what will C and D be doing all this time? Wouldn’t it be unexpected if E sided with B? What if A thought C was on his side but C was really working for F? OK, so you get the idea.
Then came the blow-by-blow, or “I should have bought stock in the Post-It company”:
Working through every idea from my pages and pages of scribbles, I wrote one action or event per Post-It note and stuck it to my desk. It made sense to start with the villain(s) and lay out their actions as if no one stood in their way, then I went back and did the hero, working out how he could disrupt the antagonist’s plans. It’s super easy to shuffle these yellow squares around, and I found it easier than cutting-and-pasting on the computer. I learned this tip from screenwriting books years ago.
After that, I systematically worked through every character and faction and layered in their actions and reactions. I spent hours scratching out ideas, changing events and moving them around for greatest drama and suspense. Many times, a fresh idea sent a handful of Post-Its to the trash. Soon, I was forced to stack my Post-Its as I ran out of room on my desk. This one scene took over 100 Post-It’s of which nearly 50 stayed in the final version. It also took over a week of revisiting the sea of yellow and reworking it night after night.
Then things turned from geeky to nerdy, and I dug into my D&D figurine collection. (I warned you this got nerdy!):
This scene was so complicated that I had to act it out to make sure it flowed smoothly and that no characters ended up standing stupidly about for long periods. I assigned a figurine to each character and placed them in position. Then the fun began! After putting all of my Post-It notes in a single pile, I simply read through them and manipulated the figurines appropriately. This is where I found out that A couldn’t see B and C interacting, and that D and E would easily overpower A unless F was there to assist. Was everyone moving and reacting appropriately or was the scene too static? Was everyone getting their time in the limelight? Oh the headaches of being an author!
During this stage, more Post-Its got rearranged and edited, but eventually I’m happy. After putting my toys away, I returned to the keyboard and typed out the scene outline, enlarging on the few key sentences written on each Post-It. Now I had everything I need to actually write the scene, knowing that I can concentrate on the creative details and dialog because I know exactly how the scene will flow.
You can stop shaking your head now. No, I don’t do this for every scene, just a couple of crucial, complex scenes that I don’t trust myself to wing it at the keyboard. Now who said designing a scene couldn’t be fun?
As you may have noticed, I have an unusual spelling of the name Graham: it is in fact a Scottish spelling. This was never a problem for me when I lived in the UK where this spelling is almost as common as the usual form, but since coming to the US it’s been a constant battle spelling my name or listening to people butcher it. It’s actually humorous watching people read my name from a piece of paper, and wrestle with it in their mind, trying to figure out how to pronounce it. I never mind if people get it wrong, I just smile and enlighten them. It’s not their fault.
About a month ago, while picking up my favorite beverage at Starbucks, I decided to start a new game. I’d seen so many different spellings of my name on the cup, that I set out to collect the variations. I’ll reveal the results of my experiment at the end of this post, so if you can’t wait just scroll down and look at the picture.
This got me thinking about names in general and particularly names in books. Why are characters named the way they are? Why are some names distinctive and legendary, while others are forgotten a month or two after reading. It is possible that many authors just pick the first name that comes into their head, but I suspect that most are chosen with great care.
Contemporary fiction is easy, almost any modern name will do, be it Mary, Peter, Jonathan, Jon or even more exotic names like Jebediah. Typically the author picks names relevant to the culture of the character concerned or of the book as a whole, such as American names, Chinese names, or Viking names. This sort of naming is obvious and very easy for the reader to accept and think little of, until the rules change. If you’re reading a book set in contemporary America with characters such as Amy, James and Brian, the moment Mustafa enters the scene the readers mind goes to work. This can work for or against the author. Some writers purposely avoid names that offer symbolical or hidden meanings, so that the reader comes at the character with a clean slate, much as we do when we see an unknown actor in a movie. Sometimes the writer just likes the sound of the name. Other writers will choose a name precisely because it conjures an image. Such stereotyping is common and saves the writer a lot of work. Luke Skywalker sounds heroic, Jar Jar Binks sounds humorous, Darth Vader sounds ominous.
The most common reason for choosing a name is to fit the genre. Galadriel conjures the image of a gorgeous elf Queen. Fantasy names are normally made up to sound magical. Meeting Joan in Lothlorien just doesn’t have the same impact. In historical fiction aristocrats typically go by the moniker of Miss Haversham, Duke Wandsworth or Bertie Wooster, or double-barreled names like Wellington-Smythe or Campbell-Black, while commoners are often named for their trade such as Bob Carter, or William Tanner. What sort of character do you expect when you come across Basher and Bert? What genre do you think of if I list the names Black Lotus, Sly Dragon, Black Widow and Gray Shadow? Or Captain America, Superman or Wonder Woman? Which is the prostitute, Molly or Emily?
Careful selection of names add to the authenticity of the book, and poor choices can be disastrous. There used to be a trend in science fiction for alien names that were totally unpronounceable with lots of K’s and Y’s and apostrophes, like Klak’Lk’Krazzj. Thankfully we seem to have grown out of this! The author must follow through on his choice of names, since the reader is likely to be confused should the character named Mae Fairweather turned out to be the heinous villain at the end, unless this is part of the plot twist of course.
Names can be used as a plot device too. Imagine a story about a character called Alex where the reader doesn’t find out the gender of the character until the end of the book. That could be clever. Some characters don’t have real names at all, and are just known as captain or doctor. This too can be a plot device: not knowing the real name of Dr. Who makes him more mysterious. JK Rowling was careful to give her real-world characters conventional names, like Harry, and use more fantastical names for the characters associated with the magical world, such as Hagrid. Alliterations in names go in and out of vogue, like Bilbo Baggins or Severus Snape, and roll off the tongue nicely.
In my book Ocean of Dust, I wanted the kids names to be familiar and innocent, like Lissa, Alice and Pete, while the sailors bore rougher names, like Grad, Farq and Jancid. I kept my names short, as if they could be nicknames or shortenings of their true names. The cook is simply known as Cook, while we never hear the Captain’s real name until the end. Farq sounds like a villain (hopefully!), while I thought Lyndon sounded more stuck up, more slimy, than Pete. My favorite fantasy names are those that sound almost Earthly and familiar, yet with a fantasy twist.
As promised, here is a collection of names courtesy of the wonderful baristas at Starbucks:
Somebody recently asked me how much the final draft differs from the first. Great question! Here is a snippet of the first and final drafts:
She sat up, her head held high. Alice wasn’t going to win! She thought of Mampalo, and the physiker and the klynaks. They all believed in her, and there was one thing that she was determined to master. But first she had to prove Oban wrong. That wasn’t going to be easy, but she would start now!
When she emerged from the hatch onto the outside deck, there was a strong wind that blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously, reminding her of a nest of hive bugs. They had stowed the canvas awning that had shaded the deck, and men were aloft handing down globe lights, securing ropes, and lashing equipment to ladders and rails.
They seemed oblivious to the dust blowing around them, whipped up into eddies and finding its way into just about everything. Hazy circles, low in the sky, marked the position of both suns shining dimly through the overcast. Storm clouds threatened the aft starboard side of the ship, as if chasing them. Lightning crackled above her, arcing with a bright flash into the dust ocean. Her head began to throb once again.
She jumped in surprise, and then darted amongst the crew to the stairs. She ran up them two at a time, even though the ship pitched heavily. She turned her back on the flying dust, and knocked on Oban’s door.
Upon his command she marched boldly inside and shut the door behind her. The noise of the wind subsided immediately. The rear windows had been fastened shut and the drapes pulled closed, as if such an act could end the storm biting at the ship’s heels.
Oban looked up at her and scowled. “Are you going to annoy me every time you see me?” he said. His eyes flicked to her hands as if expecting a tray. “What do you want now?”
She took a deep breath, and dared look him in his black and purple-blotched eyes. “I want to fix your book, sir. It was my fault that it got wet, and I intend to repair it for you.” His glare and pursed lips drained her courage. Her shoulders dropped, and she almost ran from the room.
She bolted upright and blew all the air out of her lungs. Alice wasn’t going to win. Mampalo and the physiker believed in her, even the Klynaks did. The navigator didn’t, but she would prove him wrong.
She jumped up and headed topside. When she emerged from the hatch, a strong wind blasted her with dust. She coughed and turned downwind. The crew worked furiously like a nest of hive-bugs, as they took down globelights, secured ropes, and lashed equipment to ladders and rails. They wore bandanas against the swirling dust, but their skin was bright red. Sheets of the grey powder lashed over the ship and swept across the deck to pile up in the corners.
Hazy circles marked the position of both suns above the overcast. Inky clouds chased the ship, flickering white as lightning stabbed within them. Thunder crashed, rumbling across the sky like the Gods at war. Her head throbbed.
She clasped one hand across her nose and mouth and ran up the aft stairs two at a time, gripping the rail as the ship pitched. She knocked on the navigator’s door. Upon his command, she marched inside and the wind slammed the door behind her. The howling of the wind subsided. She brushed a thick layer of dust from her clothes. He had fastened the rear windows shut and pulled the drapes, as if doing so could deter the storm biting at the ship’s heels.
His head jerked up. “Are you determined to pester me at every opportunity?” His eyes flicked to her empty hands. “What do you want?”
She met his gaze. “I want to fix your book, sir. I allowed it to get wet, and I intend to make it good.”
Several things to notice here:
- The final draft is less verbose, with much of the filler removed. I hope you’ll agree that it is easier to read
- The verbs in the final draft are more active, more exciting, e.g. “bolted upright”, rather than “sat up”
- The final draft is more dramatic, with greater atmosphere
- The dialog is snappier
I think this is a good example of how the first draft is meandering and definitely not polished enough for publication.
Well, all right, not the real world, just the world I am currently writing about in my second book. “Oh,” you say, disregarding the whole thing, but for an author this is a big deal.
When it comes to planning, there are two types of authors: “Pansters”, so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They have a rough idea of their characters and where the plot is heading, but essentially make it up as they go along. Then there are “outliners” – my camp. We plan everything in advance, scene by scene, often in spreadsheets or on index cards. We carefully craft how the plot unfolds, the foreshadowing, who does what, when and to whom. It’s all there before we write, like directions from Google Maps.
Am I painting the impression that outliners are superior? *Laugh* Not at all. There is no correct way, and many authors take a hybrid approach. Actually, I envy the freedom that “pantsers” enjoy, and admire their ability to pull a book together on the fly. I’ve tried their approach and it didn’t work for me. I’m an engineer. I don’t think that way. Oh, all, right, I’m anal. It’s true!
So, here I am, happily half way through writing my current book, and bang! It falls apart. In a moment of total horror, I realize that the whole second half isn’t going to work – it will be confusing, unbelievable and probably very unsatisfying for the reader. Arg!
This happened on my first book, “Ocean of Dust“, too. I suspect that it happens to many authors. That first time, I panicked: “I can’t write!” “This book’s too hard,” “I should just give up and shred it all.” But I persevered, (obviously because my book is published *smile*) and went back to the drawing board. At the forefront of my mind was “what would entertain the reader?” I re-planned half the book, rewriting as little of the first half as possible.
What makes a book go off the rails like that? Many, many things. Plotting an entire book before you write a single word is a challenge, and that is the chief drawback of being an outliner. An outline is just a sequence of scenes with a few paragraphs of notes about each one. Sure, I can imagine the character’s goals and motivations at each stage, consider what they learn, how they adapt; but it’s just not possible to think of every angle.
As I actually write each scene, I’m in the moment with my characters. Suddenly, it might make more sense for them to do this rather than that. As the sentences flow, I consider that another idea is more entertaining that my current one; maybe it would add more tension, more drama. Setting this in an inn is clichéd, how about a street market? That’s silly that my hero could defeat the guards so easily, how about this…? All the time, I am making small deviations from my outline.
These minute deviations act like a Butterfly Effect. Before I know it, the ripples moving through my book have become tidal waves, waves strong enough to break future scenes, to rip a hole in the fabric of space itself! Well, a hole in my outline, anyway.
At the same time, I might be making changes that are more sweeping. There’s a flaw in one of my story-arcs, perhaps because my character did something different than my outline told him too. His act made sense three scenes ago when I was in his head. Sometimes my writing group or beta readers will hate a character or a scene. Maybe it was… shock, horror… boring!
When you think about it, almost nothing in life goes according to plan. It requires constant course changes in light of more recent information. Maybe those pantsers have something after all? Sometimes, you have to head in a different direction entirely. So why should writing a book be any different?
And it isn’t, of course. It just seems like a catastrophe because creative pursuits like writing tap more into the id and superego. An artist in any field will describe similar feelings of baring one’s soul to create their chosen form of art. We are no longer hiding behind our everyday mask, but bringing forth inner imaginations and showing them to the world. When this goes wrong, when my plot falls apart, it is a direct blow to my id.
Such are the challenges of writing a novel. It hurts to have hit one’s writing stride only to come to a screeching halt, and have to rethink everything. But it’s a great excuse for revisiting the plot in light of what has been written, and using all that extra knowledge to build a stronger book, a more exciting book, with a richer, more powerful second half. The caring author thinks not of the extra work, but delivering a better experience for the reader.
Today I am guest posting on this subject over on Novel Rocket. This is a site well worth following regularly – full of great advice about writing, and fascinating author interviews.
Can you write more than one book at a time? I asked myself this recently.
I have a bundle of outlines for books that I want to write, and not surprisingly when writing on my current book slows down, I start dreaming about the neat ideas I have for my next one. Oooh, I want to write that! Years ago, I learned the discipline of completing a project, whereas I had spent most of my youth stuffing filing cabinets with half-finished novels, always lusting over my next “awesome” idea. Heh. So awesome that I didn’t finish it, ay?
What if I didn’t abandon my current book, but worked on two at once? Can you do this? I tried, and found that I couldn’t. Like most writers, I get absorbed in my characters, but just couldn’t hold two sets of unique characters in my head, and feel like I could do them all justice. Even with totally different genres.
I know of authors that very successfully work on multiple books with incredible results. Obviously, their brain is wired differently. I’ve heard them say that it is helpful to flip to another book when ideas dry up on the first, or they need a change of pace, or that what they write depends on their mood each day.
Another of my concerns was would I end up slowing both books down. If I could write a book a year (I can’t… yet) and if I wrote two simultaneously, would I have them both done after two years or longer? Does time-to-market matter if I could have fun and be more creative?
Let’s say I had two books completed after two years. Is it an advantage to unleash two books on the world? Two books spaced a couple of months apart would maximize my marketing efforts. A kind of two-fer. But would two years between releases, rather one year, allow my audience to forget about me? Oh, the dilemma.
Less than a month from NaNoWriMo, I find myself wondering if I should start a new project while continuing on my current. Ironically, I asked the same question last year. The answer was No. NaNoWriMo sounds like a ton of fun, but I believe that my inner voice knows best.
Like many things in life: know thy self. No matter what others do, or I would wish to do, I can only do justice to one book at a time. So be it.
What about you? Can you multitask more than one book? How do you do that? Do you write a bit to both books each day, or alternate, or…?
Most non-writers assume that to be a successful author one must write New York Times bestsellers, or contemporary novels that appeal to all readers. Of course, we know this isn’t the case. Certainly, best selling authors can count copies sold by the millions or tens of millions, but many writers are achieving recognition and a decent income by only appealing to tens of thousands of readers. That’s a tiny population of the US, let alone the world.
On the purely mercenary side, receiving $1-2 net per copy (either traditional or Indie publishing) brings the author an average of $15,000 per 10,000 readers. That’s selling less than 1,000 copies per month. Now if you can repeat those sales year after year (which is possible if your book remains in print or ebook, and we figure that readership audience expands each year, worldwide), even simple, non-compounding math brings the author $15,000 per year per book. You have 5 books? That’s $75,000/year. Ten books? Now we’re talking! I’m not suggesting that every author achieves those sales figures out the gate. Some surveys suggest the average Indie author sells 500 copies a year. But it’s not impossible either – remember this is a long tail game.
But I’m not in it for the money, you cry! Fair enough. I would argue that an audience of 10,000 happy readers is enough to justify one’s passion and goal as a writer. These days an author is more connected to his readers than ever before via social media. I would be very happy to chat and interact with even 1,000 readers, rather than have a million readers that I never hear from.
The conventional genres are bifurcating like crazy. Cyberpunk begat steampunk, and now biopunk, nanopunk and others. Thrillers come in medical, military, political, terrorism, paranoia, psychological, and other flavors. Romance has always had a multitude of sub-genres, but recently has expanded into planetary romance, gaslamp romance, etc.
Many would argue, and I agree, that it is easier to build a loyal readership in a small, niche genre than write a book to appeal to the masses. I consider it much easier to keep such a readership happy and buying book after book. It’s a win-win. You like writing in your specialist field, and your fans, starved of material, are happy to read (and we hope enjoy) every one of your books.
You can invent your own niche. We all know of a writer whom we just can’t seem to classify. I don’t mean one that writes in multiple genres, but one whose writing is unique enough to defy an accurate label. It’s probably difficult to go about this deliberately; more likely, your writing just stands alone, or blends genres. For example, Suzanne Lazear combines steampunk with faery.
A writing colleague of mine recently expressed concern because she couldn’t classify herself. She worried that fans wouldn’t discover her, or would be confused. This is definitely a risk, and increasingly so when more book sales are the results of Amazon’s classification and recommendation engine. If you can’t easily tag your book, where will it end up? I regard this as a temporary problem for the new author, for once you build a brand and a readership then you may even be able to benefit from writing in a unique field. Many niches straddle conventional genres, allowing you to appeal to both, or several. This happens a lot.
I still think the sound advice is to write what you enjoy, and not try to force yourself into existing labels or trends. Write it and they will come.
Do you write in a niche? Would you like to? Are you trying to appeal to millions or a smaller, perhaps more passionate group of readers? Please share.