I wish somebody told me this when I started writing. I wish somebody explained to me why some books sell, and some don't. I wish there was a manual written for every beginning writer that was something like Writing 101. I wish it were easy to learn the very simple truths I'm learning after blindly stumbling around for four years, teaching all of this to myself on my own. I'm happy that's it's only been four years, and not fourteen, or forty, which is the case with many writers who eventually give up, tired of having another job or two to support themselves, tired of their manuscripts being rejected, tired of their self-published books not selling. Tired of their friends and family shaking their heads and patting their backs and saying in kind, pitiful tones: "Well, you gave it your best. At least there is that."
It doesn't have to be like this. I'm about to give you a wild theory that struck me while reading Shawn Coyne's THE STORY GRID, the first book on writing I'm reading that's not written by a writer but by an editor, a professional editor with over 20 years of experience. I wish I read this book earlier. I'm happy I stumbled on it now.
And my theory is this.
EVERY ELEMENT OF YOUR NOVEL MUST TURN.
Here is what this means.
There are largely two types of fiction: literary and commercial. And, of course, everything in between that blends the two. For the purposes of my explanation I will keep these two primitively simple, so don't get all hung up on me making this claim. Also, remember, I'm not an expert at this. Like I said, it's a wild theory.
At its basic level, literary means character-driven, and is about internal struggles; commercial means plot-driven, and is about external struggles.
An internal struggle is about emotions. Emotions need time to change from one to another. That's why if you write about a character who is gentle in one scene, and angry in another, it makes no sense to readers. We don't change that way. We change slowly. Well-written books take a whole book to have their main characters change emotionally from one state to another. Yes, even their emotional outbursts that seem to make them change quickly are based on the path of the overall big change.
An external struggle is about action. Action doesn't need time to change from one thing to another. Action can happen every second. That's why if you don't make things constantly happen in your book, your reader won't turn the pages. What for? It's boring. We love to be jolted by surprises. We want surprises. Surprises help us learn how to survive in the real world. And so, well-written books are packed with surprises, with many of them on every page. Remember that spot where you stopped reading and put the book down? The writer failed to surprise you.
Where am I going with all this? I'm going to show you a way of writing your book that will make it literary (if you choose so) or commercial (if you choose so) or a blend of the two (the degree of which you can choose as well).
What is the basic novel element? A sentence. You can argue it's a word, of course, but a word doesn't tell a story. And every element in a novel or any kind of a narrative is something that pushes the story forward. A sentence. A paragraph. A scene. A chapter. An act. And finally, a whole novel. Or, if you're writing a series, a series.
And how do you make a novel literary or commercial or a blend of the two?
You make each element turn or not. When you make it turn, it's commercial. When you don't make it turn, it's literary. And by every element I mean EVERY ELEMENT STARTING WITH A SENTENCE. Every sentence—read this again—every sentence must turn if you want your novel to be commercial. And every paragraph. And every scene. And every act. And every sentence mustn't turn if you want your novel to be literary. And every scene. And every act.
But wait. There is more. What I have outlined above is taken to a theoretical extreme. There is hardly a book you will find that is 100% commercial or 100% literary. They're usually a blend of the two. Except with this theory you can choose the percentage of the blended parts.
By choosing how many and which elements turn, and which don't. And what does that mean, anyway? The whole turn thing? It means that every element must start with one idea, and end with the opposite idea. Again, borrowing from Shawn Coyne and his acting experience he talks about in his book, there are only four turns, which I slightly paraphrased.
- From good to bad.
- From bad to good.
- From good to better.
- From bad to worse.
Think about it. This is really Writing 101. This is how we tell stories. Every story turns. Or it's boring and we stop listening. This is what plotting means, all those acts and character acts and complicated terminology (of which there are a gazillion examples, most of them summarized here) comes down to one simple question.
DOES IT TURN?
When I was struck by this, I told Royce about it, and he suggested I make myself a t-shirt that says, DOES IT TURN? And underneath it, in smaller font, Don't ask me what this means. I just might do it. Because today I have started write TUBE, Draft 5, after abandoning 4 drafts which amounted to 375K words and 1 year of work. After throwing it all out the window. After thinking I couldn't save the book and considering chucking it. Well, I'm about to make it into a grand experiment and my very first commercial novel. I mean it theoretically, as I outlined above. I don't actually care very much about it selling well as much as I care about learning how to write a novel that sells. A paradox. I know.
Who knows what will happen? I might fail. I might not. But I won't know until I try. I do know one thing. I have very little credibility. After all, I don't have agents pounding on my door. Nor did I make it to The New York Times bestsellers list. Yet. But I will one day. That's my goal. And we will all remember this blog post and laugh (because you're all invited to a huge vodka party when that happens, and I'm not kidding). So. To prove my theory, I picked up the book I just read and loved, CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith, opened the first page...and guess what happened.
MY THEORY WORKED.
I think I squealed and then laughed and peed myself. I had what religious people call a touch of God. My God being my Art. My Art being Writing.
I saw my wild theory at work. Mind you, it's not my theory at all. It's a combination of theories developed by writers for millennia. I simply have found a way to see it, and that's what I'm sharing with you.
I will unpack it here for you, and I suggest you pick up a book from your shelf, the one that you love, the one that blew your mind, then open it and make your own analysis. And if you see what I see, you owe me chocolate. SEND IT HERE.
Here is the first paragraph of the first scene of CHILD 44. I have typed it up in separate numbered sentences with a word at the end that indicated if it turned (commercial) or if it didn't (literary).
- Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself. TURN.
- She'd already cared for it far beyond the point where keeping a pet made any sense. TURN.
- Rats and mice had long since been trapped and eaten by the villagers. TURN.
- Domestic animals had disappeared shortly after that. TURN.
- All except for one, this cat, her companion which she kept hidden. TURN.
- Why hadn't she killed it? TURN.
- She needed something to live for; something to protect and love--something to survive for. NO TURN.
- She's made a promise to continue feeding it up until the day she could no longer feed herself. TURN.
- That day was today. TURN.
- She'd already cut her leather boots into thin strips, boiled them with nettles and beetroot seeds. TURN.
- She'd already dug for earthworms, sucked on bark. TURN.
- This morning in a feverish delirium she'd gnawed the leg of her kitchen stool, chewed and chewed until there were splinters jutting out of her gums. TURN.
- Upon seeing her the cat had run away, hiding under the bed, refusing to show itself even as she'd knelt down, calling its name, trying to coax it out. TURN.
- That had been the moment Maria decided to die, with nothing to eat and nothing to love. TURN.
Did it just blow your mind? It blew mine. Notice how the entire paragraph turns too, the first sentence leading up to the last sentence, both of them stating the same idea, but turned.
Your turn. Got do it, then come back. I'll wait.
Back? Share your finding in comments. And now, the promised little tidbit on how to write a logline for your novel applying the concept before.
Your logline is one sentence that is the answer to the same question:
DOES IT TURN?
It's a sentence that starts one way, and ends another. And it summarizes the book by including both sides of all fiction: literary and commercial. Which is, character and action. Because all fiction is the blend of the two. So it's very simple. You write who is your main character (character) and what they're doing (action). And depending on whether or not you want to go more literary or more commercial, you either make it turn or don't.
- A single mother struggles to feed her child during the war. LITERARY.
- A single mother struggles with hunger during the war and eats her child. BLEND OF LITERARY AND COMMERCIAL.
- A single mother kills the man who has eaten her child during the war. COMMERCIAL.
The more concrete you are (a villain is more concrete than hunger), the more action-driven is your book, the more commercial it is. Period.
If you do this exercise and apply it to books you love and it works, tell me what you learn. I want to learn from your findings. Since there is no Writing 101, let's create it. We will teach each other. And send each other chocolate as a reward. And socks. I love socks. And vodka.