A question I often asking aspiring novelists, directly or indirectly,is "What are you trying to accomplish?" The response is often, "I want to get published."
I know we are dealing with genre fiction here, but many people probably remember their college writing classes and those boring dictates of the five-paragraph essay. Young writers are encouraged to consider their audience and their purpose. Without these considerations, the conventional wisdom goes, the piece of writing will lack focus and interest.
True or untrue? Very, very true, I would say.
Audience is a topic for another post (at a later date, if I remember to write it) but for today I wanted to opine about the importance of knowing what your manuscript's purpose is. What, exactly, are you trying to do? The answer can be simple or more complicated, but I believe that the books that get bought are usually the books whose authors can answer this question succinctly and provocatively. Here's a range of responses, some real, some made up, all good:
- I want to take people away to another world, where they can escape the stresses of their lives with characters they care about.
- I want to explore women's roles in law enforcement and some of the contradictions of feminism.
- I want people to race through my book in one sitting.
- I want to explore the difference between the way children perceive one another versus the way adults perceive those same children.
Do you see what I'm getting at here? At the heart of crime fiction we have, of course, a crime to be solved (in most cases), a set of characters, a setting, a protagonist. These make up the skeleton on which all writers build their novels. But for a novel to work (for me, at least) I have to have a sense of its deeper or underlying purpose--what the author was hoping to accomplish in the work. This need not be a "serious" purpose a la Vachss or Connelly, but I want to know (and I usually see very quickly) what authorial intent lurks behind these 70,000 words.
If you're writing a book or preparing to submit to agents, you might ask yourself this question, then answer it in your query letter. A good sentence or two on this could open a lot of doors.
GOOD: My plot's over the top, even a little outlandish, but if the National Enquirer has taught us anything, it's that sensationalism sells. My book is sensationalistic and gossipy, and while it's meant as a fast, juicy read, I like to think it will also make people think a bit about the excesses of celebrity culture and how we buy into it.
BAD: My 70,000 word mystery takes place in Wyoming on a sheep ranch. Why is someone killing Farmer Brown's sheep? Is there a crazed serial sheep killer out there?
GOOD: My protagonist, Mary Smith, is a Brownie Den Mother who turns Sleuth when someone steals her troop's shipment of Thin Mints. My audience will be primarily cozy lovers, but I'll also give some insight into the unseen, often-insane world of the contest to sell Girl Scout Cookies, and the lengths people will go to, to make sure their daughter wins that cheap plastic $5 prize.
BAD: John Franklin is a cop with an alcohol problem. He's considering suicide when a phone call from a former girlfriend gets him enmeshed in a bad situation. I have completed the manuscript and have it available to send at your request.