This is me talking as an ex-bookseller, one-time editor with a mass market SFF imprint, and a fantasy writer with a commercial deal. This is not me spouting rubbish about how to write, because, well, there’s something distinctly awkward about giving such advice. You do what you have to do.
So I sometimes use these notes if I’m talking to groups about increasing your chances of publication – because being able to write well is often not enough to succeed. This might sound dirty, but for a moment, put art and style and craft to one side. That comes when you’re writing the damn thing, and for me, personally, those are hugely important qualities.
There’s a lot to think about before you even put pen to paper. You might know a lot of it already.
So before you write anything seriously:
• Read ferociously, various types of fiction, especially what’s selling at the moment. Understand what makes a story work at the commercial level. Read out of the genre, read in the genre – it’ll all be useful.
• Be savvy as to what’s going on in bookstores. It’s the business end of things, where trends occur. Look at books, what’s being published. Look at the backs of books and see what they’re about. Get a feeling for what publishers are looking to buy. You’re not writing novels from the Sixties or Seventies.
• Understand your genre. Links in to the above, but more specific. When you know what you want to write – SF/fantasy/horror/crime – take a detailed look. Spend some time in big stores. Look at the promotions. This is useful so you don’t end up copying what’s been published completely. It’ll act as a guide as to what you think you can write. It shows you what is also expected. Follow what each publisher is taking on and moreover, follow this up online – there are a list of great genre news sites which give constant information.
• Be aware that sometimes similar books will sell. Look at chick lit, for example. Some clichés are useful in this publishing business, when given a unique spin. Many science fiction and fantasy novels at the moment are very similar. Cover art is designed to capitalise on this. (Yes, to cash in – publishing is a business.) Understand what it is that certain books have in common; and how they differ. This doesn’t mean you write a clone novel – Banks, Reynolds, Hamilton, they’re all writing widescreen space opera, they’re all different.
• So, when you sit down to write a project, you should have some awareness of where it’s going to fit in the market. This is crucial, because publishing is a business and I can’t say it enough: publishers exist to make money, as well as promote good art.
• Know what is selling well (and what’s selling too well). These are the things that, in your synopsis, you want to compare the work to (unless in the selling too well category, then don’t compare to these writers, because Pratchett and Rowling are industries in their own right).
• Many new novel decisions are made not just by editors, but by marketing departments. Their job is to make money. They too have pressures for results, and the bigger the company, the more commercial decisions they will make, so marketing and sales people have a large say in what gets accepted. You might not like it, but I wouldn’t want to lie about the realities of publishing.