Writing is a constant struggle to maintain the balance between something intimate and something marketable. We put our soul into our work and then we turn around and have to sell it. It doesn't matter if you writer fiction, non-fiction, for movies or for books, you have to sell your writing, your soul, to someone else.
Today I stumbled across a book that deals with that singular point, selling your work. Blake Snyder takes an interesting tack on it in Save The Cat. While he is a screenwriter and his book is geared toward his industry specifically, there is a lot for any type of writer to learn. Snyder focuses on something that had crossed my mind on several occasions in the past years and that is you need to know what you are writing before you write it. Not the whole story, but the premise. To do that he asks that we answer one question BEFORE we ever start writing - What is it? He, of course, focuses on what that answer should include to be successful in Hollywood, a far tougher market than the publishing world or the self-publishing world. He focuses on irony as the key thing that draws in potential producers.
We writers of novel length fiction have different audiences with different interests. Irony is a very good hook, but it may not be the most important for every genre. Know thy genre is the critically important mantra that will help you hook the readers you want. Ultimately, not matter what you write, it has to be sold to the public, either by you or by someone you sold your work to. The public will ask "What is it?" and you need to have the answer.
The first step, before you even name your characters or pick your setting, is to get to the heart of your story. Craft a simple one line sentence, commonly called a logline. You aren't interested in who at the moment, just what. The what is the foundation of your story, even if you are writing a biography.
Once you have the what is it is time to add in genre and who. Genre colors everything. You can have a story about a ship captain, but knowing that it is a modern cruise ship in a murder mystery, a future spaceship, a nineteenth century whaler, or a ship carrying a magical item to save the world. Genre colors the conflict and the characters. Then the who gives us a frame of reference, a way into the story. Who is this story about and why should we care about them. We novel writers have and advantage over Hollywood screenwriters in that our characters don't need to be as relatable. They don't need to be vehicles for stars and they don't have to be simple.
Next is structure and pacing. Snyder writes specifically about movies and gives a very set pacing (a tad dictatorial for my taste - but his pacing works). Novels flow at a different pace. A move screenplay is just a fraction the length of a novel (under 20k and only about 150 words per page) so there is less room to play with pacing. In a novel we have 4 or more times the length to work with and can weave much more complex stories so the structure is not nearly as set. But the pacing needs to be just as consistent. Movies are commonly considered to be structured in 3 acts. Novels are more like 9. You can have multiple highs and lows that build to the final climax and denouement. There is more time to delve into characters, large and small. Still, you don't want to get side tracked. You still need to stay focused on that idea you crystallized in the logline.
The nice thing is that this works for planners and pantsters. For planners, you can go a step further and plan out your structure and fill in the details. For pantsters, you have only created the kernel of the story and are free to wander to your ending, but you must keep pacing in mind as you do so. Some of the suggestions Snyder has can help, even if you don't want to preplan where you are going, you can set goals, such as in an 80k story, by the time you reach 40k, you should be halfway through your story and should be well into the problem. On the advice of Isaac Asimov (the essays from Gold), I always plan my ending so I know where I am going, but I leave how I get there up in the air.
But no matter what you write or how long it is, if you are serious about making writing your profession you will need to hawk you wares once you have your project finished. To do that, you need to have a clear image of what your story is about, who it is about, and what genre it fits into. One trick that I have learned but not yet mastered is that in trying to find a taker for your story, you don't have to be very precise in your logline/hook or summary. You want the person on the other end to read your story and everything needs to be designed to do that. These aren't skills that come easy to most writer, but doing these things up front will give you a better chance. If you create the basic logline first and then embellish it with the who and genre of your story (and then stick to that as you write), you will have the best possible tolls to gain the readers you want. This piece of your soul called a novel needs to be read and the better you can explain the what and who to potential readers, the easier it is to sell to them.