So what, exactly, is commercial? And, does one have to give up writing beautifully in order to achieve it?
I’ll answer the first question last. In a nutshell, no. Commercial does not deny beautiful writing – it may curtail it to some extent, but it doesn’t deny it. And I’ll come back to this.
As for what is commercial – all one needs to do is look at the big successes – think of The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, The Twilight series, The Hunger Games. Commercial, by any other name, is a best-seller, and if the supermarkets and big chain bookstores are driving what is to be published then there’s a pretty clear recipe.
1. Create a story with a big universal theme to which everyone can relate.
2. Work with archetypes and stick to the basic plots – Quest, Adventure, Pursuit, Rescue, Escape, Revenge, The Riddle, Rivalry, Underdog, Temptation, Metamorphosis, Transformation, Maturation, Love, Forbidden Love, Sacrifice, Discovery Wretched Excess, Ascension, Descension.
3. Have a strong hook.
4. Keep it pacy and/or gripping, make every chapter ending a cliff hanger or a critical question.
5. Ensure the stakes are high.
6. Ensure the characters are relatable and engaging.
7. Write so that everyone “gets it” – make sure the story is easily readable.
8. Pull at heart strings, make the reader gasp, make the reader shiver. Engage the readers’ senses. Involve the reader.
So, coming back to writing well, focusing on craft and creating beautiful books. I don’t believe the commercial has to be to the total exclusion of literary. Sure, the truly literary book may never have mass appeal, but there is absolutely no reason why a commercial book can’t be beautifully crafted, well-written, full of artistic “magic”. I believe the trick lies in marrying a commercially appealing theme with quality writing, vivid words (you know, that show not tell thing), a distinctive voice, and a strong hook. All the things that, as writers, we are constantly told to do.
And if all that still fails, and you’ve written a quiet and beautiful book, which the likes of Tesco wouldn’t touch, then I do believe that another space is opening up for writers: e-publishing ventures led by respected names in the book industry – because that’s where the difference between self-publishing and quality e-publishing lies – in the gatekeeping. If there’s truly no space for writers of quality fiction within traditional publishing (and I don’t entirely buy that, I just think the goal posts have moved that much further), then it’s time for writers to band together and create their own destinies. The truth, however, remains in this reality – you still need to have a good hook, a high stake and a compelling tale in order to sell your story to anyone.
It’s not time to be discouraged. It’s time to up our game and to think laterally.
Glass half full, remember?