Last weekend, the largest writing organization in the world held its annual conference, which includes an awards ceremony honoring choices for novels of the year in various categories.
Since then, I’ve been flooded with questions about how writers should slant what they write, or choose what to write, based on increasing the writer’s odds of their novels winning awards and honors.
Let’s keep it simple. Don’t.
Awards and honors are lovely. They’re affirmations of honing craft and confirmation that others notice the extra pains writers take to choose just the right story, characters, details–all of the things that writers must choose to craft their best possible novel.
Some say to do this–to craft novels for specific purposes like contests or competitions, which is, at bottom line, just another way of saying: write to the market. And many writers who have done so, have been successful in their efforts. Many more, have not.
So how have the ones who have been successful managed to be successful?
If you examine the work closely, you’ll see that the writers who are best at this are ones who choose to write commercial fiction that is in line with their own author’s theme. Author theme. What does that mean?
It means the author is writing stories and characters that are natural to him or her down to perceptions like which details should be included in the stories and why. Every author, no matter how objective s/he strives to be, will gravitate toward and view every aspect of the novel through his or her personal prism. S/he can’t escape that because it’s ingrained down to the way the author thinks, how s/he structures, even his/her thought patterns. Cause and effect are run through the writer’s filters. Bluntly put, everything runs through the author’s filter. What s/he deems important, insignificant, worthy–heroic, villainous; personal philosophy is as ingrained as the author.
So if a story comes naturally to a writer, and its elements are aligned with a contest or awards program or a specific market, naturally odds for success in that competition increase. If not, the odds are diminished. It’s not a case of a better book, it’s a case of a more aligned book.
Aligned to what?
Aligned to the competition dictates and to reader expectations. Yes, judges are readers. If they’re judging a thriller, they expect thriller elements. If a mystery, then they expect mystery elements. Romance? You’ve got it–romance elements.
If a writer is studying craft and writing for commercial publication, early on s/he learns the golden rule: Never mess with reader expectations.
That’s not to say you can’t surprise a reader, but if that reader bought a mystery, there’d better be one in the book. Substituting a Nobel worthy literary piece isn’t going to result in a happy reader. S/he wanted a mystery, you published a “mystery” (or submitted a mystery to a competition) and there’d best be one in the book or fur’s going to fly.
If writing to competition expectations isn’t natural to you, and you aren’t wholly invested in the writing, you might do a competent job but the work will lack the magic. What’s that?
It’s all the intangibles that come together with all the novel elements that make the writing and storytelling special. The subliminal tapping of emotions that can’t be injected, applied topically, or faked. The writer has to feel it to include it, and either way–feel it or its absence–the reader senses it, knows it, and reacts to it.
That reader might not be able to tag it specifically, but s/he will be aware that something is missing and the work suffers for it.
So if you’re going to write for awards and honors, or for a commercial market, then make sure you’re entering the right competition and targeting the right market for you. One that is aligned with your author theme. One that fires your enthusiasm and your emotions. One that embraces the story you are burning to tell and celebrates the way you choose to tell it.
In other words, write for your readers.
I’ve long been an advocate of writing for a specific purpose. But that purpose has never been to win awards or be honored. It’s always been tied to healing. That’s my author theme. When someone reads one of my books, my hope is the reader who is suffering a similar challenge can be encouraged. If the character can survive, endure, find a constructive solution to his/her challenge, then a constructive solution exists. And if the character found it, then the reader can, too.
Note that this purpose impacts the writer on multiple levels. Emotionally, spiritually, and physically–all of which will be manifested in the story because they have manifested in the writer. By creative osmosis, they then will be in the book and available to the reader. That’s purpose with . . . well, purpose.
Now many of the books have won awards. But that wasn’t the driving force in writing them. And that’s worth noting.
I love quotes and sayings, as most of you know. I’m recalling one that goes something like Where the mind goes, the body follows. No clue who wrote it, but when I hear it through my author filter, what I hear is: Where the heart goes, the body and mind follow.
If you love what you write, it shows. It obvious ways and in ones that aren’t obvious to the eye but are absorbed with the mind and felt in the heart. Those are the books that touch the minds and hearts of readers.
Some times those books win awards. Sometimes they don’t but they touch the lives of readers. In my humble opinion, that is the best win. And the sweetest reward.
I hope this helps!
P.S. There’s an article on Author Theme in the On Writing Library on www.vickihinze.com in the On Writing blog.