Before you even begin to decide what your story is about, I recommend you devote some time thinking about another important aspect of storytelling: genre. What genre is this story going to be? Labeling it as such is not intended to take away your options. Instead, it’s meant to give you wings. This points out yet another of the curious paradoxes of creativity: the more tightly defined your workspace, the more you can expand into it. Put another way, the stronger the structure you define for your story, the more solid it will be.
Put yet another way, to quote some guy named Mark Rosewater: “Restrictions breed creativity.” (Mr. Rosewater claims he didn’t come up with this, but he’s the guy who gets quoted saying it anyway.) When you have all possible options, you don’t need to get creative, because there is nothing that needs to be compensated for. When options are removed, that’s when human ingenuity kick in. If you don’t believe me, think for a moment about Harry Houdini, the famed escape artist. How creative did he have to get when he was suspended upside down in a tank full of water with a hood over his head and his hands cuffed behind him?
Another way to think about genre is simply this: what kind of story is it? Maybe this is obvious to you from the get-go, and you don’t need to spend any time thinking about it. You know, for example, that this is going to be a work of science fiction, and you’re ready to dispense with this part of our discussion and move on to the next stage. Great. Go. Your work here is done.
As an author of so-called literary fiction, one of the challenges I’ve always faced is not trying to figure out what kind of story I was trying to write, but what kind of story I had just written. I wrote, you see, based on what I felt like writing about. I am a discovery writer–I feel my way along, and can rarely see more than two or three steps in front of me. Only after I had completed my first novel, and was having conversations with publishing professionals, did I realize with something akin to stomach-churning fear that I needed to be able to tell people in succinct terms what kind of book it was. And then I realized something even more terrifying: I had no idea. It’s just a book, I wanted to say. It’s a book I wrote based on whatever mysterious processes are working inside me. In some ways, I felt as if I had no more control over it than I did over the functioning of my internal organs. It just is. It’s me. It’s who I am.
But you can’t say that to a publisher without getting a lot of eye-rolling. The reason they roll their eyes is because there is no section in bookstores called “Whatever mysterious processes were at work in the author when he wrote it.” And the reason that category doesn’t exist is because people won’t buy that sort of thing. Whatever you want to blame on publishers and booksellers actually comes down to that all-important creature known as The Reader. It’s The Reader who decides whether to buy your book or not. Readers like to know what kind of book they’re buying. Some of them will go for the vaguely-defined literary work, but not many. And if you’re not thinking about your readers at every step of the writing process, your work is not going to be marketable. This is one of the unpleasant facts about being a professional novelist. You don’t really do it for fun, the way you used to before anyone knew your name.
Literary fiction is often vague and devoid of focus; it might claim to be about the human experience, but this is too hopelessly broad. The most common experience for me has been that my books have ended up being a certain kind of story, and they have been notoriously difficult to pin down for that reason.
Literary fiction is actually its own genre, as far as publishers and bookstores are concerned. The closest I can come to explaining what that means is “Stories read for the sake of the writing rather than for the sake of the story.” I once believed that true writing, pure writing–whatever the hell that means–involved the author simply sitting down and expressing his purest essence on paper, in such high form and with such deep skill that it didn’t really matter what it was about. Implicit in this notion was my belief that I was special and different and, dare I say it, more precious than anyone else on the planet. Vanity, thy name is Writer. This, I can see now (thanks to some good therapy) was not only wrong-headed but counter-productive. The writers who impressed me most when I was young–Updike, Irving, Vonnegut, Atwood, Hemingway-were not trying to write about themselves. They were writing about their experience, yes, or some filtered version thereof, but ultimately they were trying to connect with their readers. Writers who do not make this the most important feature of their work are not going to find commercial success.
So, even if you don’t intend to write a work of what is typically called genre fiction–that is, something like dystopian YA, romance, Western, sci-fi, or techno-thriller–you should try to come up with some kind of label that describes it in a nutshell. I don’t tell people I write literary or commercial fiction. “It’s about a crazy family,” I might say about any one of my books, and people understand that immediately. In fact, it piques their interest. “Oh, really? Let me tell you about my family,” they say, and we’re off on yet another iteration of the endless round of storytelling that is human existence.
Learn more about William Kowalski at https://www.williamkowalski.com