The Commercial Novelist

By James D. Macdonald

Hello. My name is Jim Macdonald, and I write books. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, technothriller, and non-fiction, mostly. Upwards of thirty, total, over the last fifteen years.

Jenna asked me to write a column on “Writing the Commercial Novel,” so that’s what I’ll be doing. I can’t guarantee that what I say here will work for you; all I can say is that it works for me. As Kipling put it, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And every single one of them is right!”

First, let’s talk about why you want to be a novelist. Just as every way of telling a story (per Kipling) is right, every reason for wanting to do it is right. Commercial publication isn’t a requirement. You put words on paper? You’re a writer. Your reasons are your own.

Let me say, though, that if the reason you want to write is to send a message, there are better ways. If you’re interested in impressing other people, there are better ways. If you’re interested in making pots of money, there are better, easier, faster ways.

On the other hand, if the reason you’re a writer is because writing is what you’ve always dreamed of doing, because you’re the sort of person to whom words come trippingly, and because the idea of not-writing fills you with dread, perhaps you’re in the right place. If you want to share your writing with others, and you want to have a few laughs and make a few bucks along the way, so much the better.

All writers love their books. (I’m big on making flat universal statements.) Sure, you can find one or two miserable exceptions, writers who hate their books. Pretty much every writer goes through a stage or two of hating his or her particular book. If it doesn’t happen during the interminable mid-book slog (when you’ll hear writers calling their Work In Progress the “Gosh-Darn Farking Book from Heck” or something similar), then it comes right after finishing it, when the same book which had been so bright-shiny-new, original, and delightful in concept suddenly seems to be the biggest pile of cow-poop ever assembled, and the thought of reading it One More Time fills the writer with a desire to clean the toilets instead.

Still, writers love their books. The difference between a writer and a commercial writer is that the commercial writer has convinced someone else to love his or her book. Someone other than Mom. Someone called an “acquiring editor.”

Here’s where Art and Commerce meet. And here’s the hill that lots of would-be commercial writers never crest. You’re asking total strangers to bet tens of thousands of dollars of their boss’s money that other total strangers will want to read your book so much that they’ll plunk down money on the counter in bookstores where the bookstore owner has never heard of you either.

Egos of steel, that’s us. We believe that we lie so entertainingly that other people will pay money to hear us lie. All writers think that their books are that entertaining. Most writers are wrong. Sad but true: Most of the books in the slush heap (I’ve seen slush heaps; I’ve read slush) aren’t bad books. They just aren’t very good. They’re dull, they’re formless, they never get going or they lose traction half-way through, they don’t so much end as stop.

I’m going to talk about ways to lift your book out of that gray morass of nice-enough but not good-enough books. I’ll also make you a couple of promises.

First, if you write a page a day (that’s 250 words), at the end of a year you’ll have a book-length manuscript. A writer writes. If you’re a writer, you write.

Second, if you have a compelling story compellingly told, in workmanlike prose with standard spelling, presented in standard manuscript format, it will sell. Perhaps not to the first place you submit it, nor to the second, but it will sell.

Figuring out what is a compelling story is the next part, of which more anon. For right now, start writing.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.

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