Sunday 10 August 2014

Your Debut Novel is About Ancient African Scissor Collecting

Signs of a problem: people glaze over when you mention your novel; your research took you to an obscure library floor infested with bats.

The symptoms: isolation; loneliness.

There’s a lot to be said for writing about things that inspire you, and perhaps ancient African scissor collecting really cuts it for you, but will anybody buy it?

Perhaps you could write your historical stationery masterpiece for your own benefit. Writing a novel can help you relax, improve your writing skills and get scissors out of your system. Then, once you’ve mastered the basics of novel writing, you could apply your skills to a more marketable product.

Publishing a book that nobody reads is unlikely to directly harm your career, but it may damage your self-esteem. Imagine excitedly running down to your study every morning to find that, yet again, your sales reports are empty. How will you maintain blind faith in the face of such damning evidence?

Yes, indie publishing is all about diversity, self-expression and breaking away from the market trends that drive traditional publishing, but there are limits. If becoming a bestselling author is your goal, then research your target audience before putting pen to paper, or indeed, fingertips to keyboard. A book with no audience will still be a book with no audience, no matter how well it is written.

If you are determined to keep the scissor-collecting component, consider broadening your story. Perhaps your protagonist’s scissor collecting is a quirky hobby that leads him to uncover a body, spurring a vast investigation that results in the suicide of the oldest scissor collector of all time – the only man with the key to unlock the chamber of answers. Yes, I have just turned your unique story into a cliché, but I’ve also suggested something that might be bought by somebody outside your PhD field.

Once one of your more mainstream books has hit the headlines, then you can teach the world about the history of third world cutting devices.

Additional Blog-Exclusive Advice

By Alex Roddie

I’ve been guilty of everything mentioned above. Five years ago I found myself in bat-infested libraries more than once, and I’m talking literally here: one of the archives I visited had recently been flooded and bats had moved in. I thought I was as cool as Indiana Jones and even had the hat to match. This feeling lasted until I, too, starting making people glaze over, and that’s when I realised I had a problem.

My particular brand of Ancient African Scissor Collecting is mountaineering — specifically, alternate history with strong mountaineering themes. It’s actually a fascinating topic, but the problem is that most people don’t know this, don’t care, and immediately think this isn’t for me. Let’s face it: the average reader doesn’t know the Matterhorn from Bidean nam Bian, has never heard of Edward Whymper, and has absolutely no interest in pitons.

I had no luck pitching my great idea to traditional publishers. Mountaineering fiction is a tiny genre, and mountaineering alternate history is just about as niche as it gets.

I cut, rewrote, re-branded, and re-thought huge swathes of my work. I put a lot of effort into making my ideas appeal to historical fiction readers. The result was The Only Genuine Jones, a novel about how radical change affects a small community of sportspeople in the late 1890s. It’s marketed as adventurous historical fiction and the climbing is more or less incidental.

I refined my approach with my new Alpine Dawn series. My work is now historical fiction first and foremost. I haven’t lost my focus on mountain culture, but I have learned how to insert these themes into my books in a more subtle way. The results: greater interest, increased readership, and better sales.

If you have an obscure subject you want to write about, I’d urge you not to sacrifice your dreams — passion is important, after all — but you are going to have to compromise if you want your book to sell. Listen to advice, examine the market, and think about how you can make your idea appeal to a broader audience.

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