Give your literary novel an edge
Published: March 31, 2010
|You take a look at the bestseller lists and you peer at the front tables in bookstores. Both are crowded with titles either in nonfiction or genre fiction in the mystery and thriller categories. Your heart sinks: How will I ever sell my literary novel? And, once it has reached the marketplace, what would I have to do to make it stand out among the heavy-hitting competition?|
The standard answer—write the best book you can—is still valid. And, it’s preferable that you write it in your own way, carving a new path as you go.
“[E]very moment in every work of fiction has its own singular context and considerations,” says David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars and The Other. “No overarching rules govern.”
Still, you can improve your chances by following these tips:
Reading critically. “Read a favorite book as though you were examining the construction of a house,” says Kim Barnes, author of A Country Called Home. “Understand its structure, its concept, the style of its décor. Learn from the authors you admire. Practice their schematic as though it were a form letter—fill in your own words.”
Voice. Reading critically will also help you clue in to an author’s voice—an indispensable element in literary fiction. Voice is reflected in the tone, vocabulary, grammar and feel of the story. It can be chatty, formal, leisurely, lyrical. Pick up books by authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Salman Rushdie or Gabriel García Márquez and note their distinctive voices.
Audience. Consider the prospective audience of your novel. You don’t need to change the theme or your writing to fit the audience; simply be aware. Let’s say, for instance, that teen angst is a subtheme of your novel. A literary agent might view it as a crossover title, making your submission a more attractive proposition.
Plot and conflict. How important is plotting for a literary novel? Literary agent Andrea Hurst sees it this way: “As an agent, if we get past the query letter, what I find missing is the lack of a cohesive and engaging plot from beginning to end. Often the idea is good, the execution is not. I want to be drawn in and be taken to another place that makes me think, feel and be happy I took the time to go there.”
Another essential element is conflict, which heightens the drama, drives the plot, and sustains reader interest. Conflict puts your protagonist under pressure and reveals character.
“Everything that is introduced in the first 50 pages,” Barnes says, “should contain some kind of tension: dramatic, emotional, and/or intellectual complication and conflict that will then be resolved and released by the end of the book.”
Setting. Many authors, such as those with a Southern sensibility, have made their novels stand out with setting. They make the locale so vivid and the characters so influenced by it that you believe the story actually happened. A place is, however, not just the physical surroundings. It also entails weather, economy, geography and the socio-political climate. In other words, a place has a personality and you need to bring it to life. Ponder this oft-quoted saying from Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it.”
Nonfiction angle. If your book happens to deal with issues of current interest—social, cultural or political—so much the better. Media hosts often shy away from interviewing a literary author, insisting that a literary novel is difficult to summarize. But there are exceptions. Take, for example, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s novel A Theory of Relativity, the story of a custody battle involving an orphaned child. The underlying issues provide enough fuel for media discussions.
Bharti Kirchner, of Seattle, is the author of four novels and four cookbooks. She has also written many food, travel, fitness and lifestyle pieces.