This is not a blog about marketing a book. I’m not there in my career yet. It’s a blog about how marketing principles can help focus and sharpen my writing. Maybe. What do I know?
As I prepare to rewrite The Banner of the King, one of my primary goals is to cut unnecessary material. I consider the first draft to be a sort of “author’s cut,” with all of the character’s thought processes described in painstaking detail. The second draft needs to be a whole lot leaner. At the same time, I need to expand the level of detail in my descriptions, so I don’t leave my readers thinking they’re dealing with disembodied voices in a blank room. (To recap: I have written a novel that manages to be both bloated and sparse at the same time. I think that deserves some kind of prize.)
One way I plan to polish my scenes is to apply some marketing principles from my day job.
By Day, Mild-Mannered Desk-Jockey…
I work at a University in Japan, doing translation/interpretation/proof-reading, web maintenance, and international admissions. Aside from being one of the few jobs in the country that all-but guarantees that I will go home on time every night, my work has given me a few unexpected insights into the writing business. For example: since I’m in charge of dealing with applicants who are either too stupid or too self-important to follow application guidelines, I can understand how editors at publishing companies might deal with similar failures to abide by their guidelines. “Mild-mannered,” in these situations means, “forbidden from swearing at applicants due to employment regulations.”
Another situation that tempts me to discard my imposed mild manners is dealing with various Japanese administrators’ requests to update their English websites or documentation. They constantly want to add crap that nobody else cares about, such as:
“Since its foundation in 1950, under the guiding principles of “freedom and innovation,” determined by the university’s founder Prince [redacted] and the educational philosophy of “peace and democracy,” outlined by the first post-WWII university president, the Graduate School of [redacted] has offered quality education at a global standard to thousands of promising students.
Blah, blah, blah, who gives a crap? Nobody. This sort of garbage is just going to turn off applicants, no matter how important it seems to the school administrators. If I’m a prospective student, looking to invest my money and time in a graduate school, I do not want to know what you did in the 19th century. I do not care what philosophy drove your post-WWII president. I want to know what I’m getting for my money. What research fields do you specialize in and, most importantly, what is your alumni employment rate? I want to be excited about the possibilities available to me, not asleep on the keyboard.
So, where am I going with this? What does it have to do with my writing?
By Night, Writer of Big Important Ideas and Stories that Make You Forget to Sleep
I need to take that exact same approach to my own writing. Each paragraph needs to have value to my reader. I might be really interested in my character’s introspection and thoughts on an unfolding situation, but not all of my readers are going to put up with more than a few pages of that without putting down the book and taking a nap. Even if it’s important to me, if it isn’t important to the reader’s understanding of the situation, it has to go.
I hate the KYD phrase. So much so that I won’t write it here (go read On Writing, if you really want to know.) I prefer to say it this way: Get over yourself. I, the writer, am not important. Just because I want to say something does not mean that it necessarily needs to be said. If it isn’t something that my reader needs to know to understand or deepen his or her interest in the story, then it doesn’t go in the book.
My goal is that you read my story, enjoy it, and recommend it to someone else who might enjoy it. That’s it. That’s all I want (well, that and a million dollar contract, and a wall full of awards, and a summer home in the Hamptons, and a pony…) So, each sentence and paragraph needs to contribute to that goal. I can no more force you to like my story than the grad school pamphlet above can force a reader to enroll in the University. But I can keep you from losing interest. Or, at least, I can damn sure try.
My first draft is coming in at nearly 190,000 words. I need to add more sensory description and characterization, while also slimming down the overall total. One tool at my disposal is that marketing mentality: does each scene, each sentence contribute to my goal? At the sentence level, it’s best left for the editing process, but since I’m working on the scene-level outline (to replace the chapter-level outline from the first draft), I can begin to apply the broad strokes at that level now.
What do you think? Am I on to something, or am I on something? I welcome your thoughts, below.