Writing a Novel People Want to Read

Over the years—before the release of my debut novel, A WALK ACROSS THE SUN, and in the months since—I have heard aspiring writers say, “I don’t write stories for an audience. I write for myself.” When I was an aspiring novelist penning stories that no one wanted to publish, I used to say the same thing. The rejections piled up, but I dismissed them as unenlightened or obtuse. In truth, without knowing it, I was the one who was unenlightened.

GIVEAWAY: Corban is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: jvdbednarz@aol.com won.)

      

Guest column by Corban Addison, who holds degrees in law and
engineering from the University of Virginia and California Polytechnic
State University, San Luis Obispo. His debut novel, A WALK ACROSS THE SUN
(Jan. 2012, SilverOak), addresses the global trade in human beings
and is endorsed by John Grisham. In researching the book, Addison
spent time with officials and activists in the field and went undercover
into the brothels of India to meet trafficking victims firsthand. Addison
is an avid supporter of human rights causes, including the abolition of
modern slavery. To find out more, visit his website and find
him on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

Then I stumbled upon a story idea that, in its very conception, had an audience in mind—a novel that would address and humanize global human trafficking (modern slavery) for readers around the world. As soon as the idea came to me, I knew that I would fail if I did not write a story that people would want to read. Indeed, I had the sense that to write effectively about such a heavy topic, I had to be conscious of my audience from the first scene to the last.

At every stage of the writing process—story building, composition, and editing—I asked myself the question: am I advancing a narrative that will reach the widest possible audience? For me, it was not a matter of fitting into the Procrustean bed of genre. If anything, I wanted to transcend genre barriers to access a broader readership. I wanted to fuse the pacing and story arc of an edge-of-your-seat thriller with the atmosphere and dimensionality of something more literary. My paramount concern was not to advance my vision of the good or to win critical acclaim. I wanted people to pick up the story and find it impossible to put it down.

(Do agents Google writers after reading a query?)

By way of example: A WALK ACROSS THE SUN tells the story of two Indian sisters who are swept into the international sex trade after being orphaned by a tsunami, and of young American lawyer who risks all to rescue them. Among other things, the book deals with the forced prostitution of children. It is a grisly topic. Yet it is one of the most compelling human rights issues of our time and must be addressed. In writing the novel, I was ruthless in avoiding graphic description. I wanted to expose the horror of child trafficking but not to overwhelm people with it.

In addition—and this was critical—I wanted to leave readers with a sense that all is not lost, that hope is real as long as the heart beats. To accomplish this, I wove in a love story between the American lawyer and his estranged Indian wife and emphasized the deep familial bond between the sisters—their emotional lifeline in the face of sustained abuse. In addition, I ended the book on a redemptive note—not the saccharine stuff of melodrama but a humane vision of broken lives moving toward restoration.

The beauty of my reader-oriented approach is that it worked. Not only did John Grisham agree to give me a sterling endorsement (the first he has ever given to an unpublished author), but the novel has sold in 20 countries and will be distributed in many more. Publishers from North America and Europe to Brazil, Turkey, India, Australia, and Korea have invested significantly in bringing the book to their audiences. More personally, quite a few readers (mostly parents of young children) have thanked me for showing restraint in my depictions of sex trafficking. John Grisham was one of the first to say this. “Corban,” he told me, “this story could have been gross, but you made it tasteful.” I will never forget that statement, for it confirmed my intuition in the beginning—write for the reader, not for myself.

(What to write in the BIO section of your query letter.)

Having failed for years to get published and succeeded at last with A WALK ACROSS THE SUN, I am convinced that solipsistic stories will never amount to much. The only stories that will have lasting impact are stories that ordinary people want to read, that compel readers to turn the next page, that generate conversation among friends and strangers, and that create the expectation of future works. Publishers prefer this, of course, because they (rightly) want to sell books. But writing with an audience in mind is not just about the bottom line. It is about dignifying the reader by treating him or her as indispensable.

In the end, what novelist desires his or her work to gather dust in a drawer? If we want people to read what we write, we must write our stories for them.

GIVEAWAY: Corban is excited to give away a free copy of his book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: jvdbednarz@aol.com won.)

 

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journey to securing an agent, don’t forget to check
out my personal Instructor of the Month Kit, created by
Writer’s Digest Books. It’s got books & webinars packaged
together at a 73% discount. Available while supplies last.

 

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

 

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84 thoughts on “Writing a Novel People Want to Read

  1. QPGirl

    I think writing for your audience takes practice… and I’m not quite there. Thanks for the nudge in the right direction.

    Thank you also for writing about this atrocious issue. I was so disappointed with the movie “Taken” because it used human trafficking as the basis for the story but then dismissed the issue. I’m looking forward to reading your story. I hope it helps people see how important this topic is.

  2. Dean Kutzler

    What a great way to open people’s eyes with such a riveting story. I read this article for the advice and I agree 100%. If you want to be a write for just yourself, then fine. So be it. But do not expect people to want to read it. Keep it in that drawer. But if you want readers, you better write for THEM.

    Oh, and I’d just like to say: Your picture on this article is SMOKIN’ HOT! Sorry, just had to add that!

    Thanks for the great advice!

  3. Su@dreamweavernovels

    Corban, thank you for this article. This definitely makes an impact on how we write. My manuscript Dream Weaver deals with the subject of rape. I tried to be very tasteful in how it was presented and still show the brutality of the situation. Many people balk at the idea, but in my research I find that 1 in 4 women has been assaulted by college age. They will definitely ‘get’ the character. Thanks again for the perspective. Su

  4. peden101

    When I started my first novel (in progress) I also was determined to inject a new brand of literary, atmospheric prose, with all its descriptive, heart-stopping brilliance, into an action story of intrigue and suspense. My word pictures were graphic and artistic, word melodies of sheer genius that I was sure would cause agents to gasp and the reading world to marvel. Unfortunately, my super-word-smithing got in the way of story. When I finally realized this, and went about killing so many of my babies, I was astounded as how much better it read. More importantly, it helped me bridge the genres between suspense and psychological upheaval and, if my hunch is right, find a way to a broader audience. Why write a song that no one will hear? It really is ONLY about the reader.

  5. FunkyGal

    Even in fantasy, where reality is bent, contorted into unnamed shapes, there can be those broad strokes of “everyman” with depth and heart and passion. Sure the grime might be a deeper shade of purple on my planets, but struggle and desire are universal languages.

  6. Marian O'Brien Paul

    What you say makes sense. I’ve read books that have “grisly sections” or one sort or another, that I may not have liked, but those sections are an integral part of the “universal truth” that makes literature immediate and necessary.

  7. pkhrezo

    This is so super inspiring. I jotted down this quote: “Hope is real as long as the heart beats.”
    It now hangs over my desk. Love that.

    And wow, can’t wait to read this book. Sounds like an excellent Book Club selection if I ever heard one.

  8. troyfarah

    While this article was helpful to me, it overlooked a lot of important details, I feel. First of all, writing unpopular books is important too. Some books that I’ve read wouldn’t resonate with the average person, but they resonate with me and plenty of other people.
    Second, writing a book that has an intended audience, even if it’s a broad one, doesn’t mean you have to kill your darlings. It’s as simple as having likable characters and something to take away from it. You don’t have to sacrifice your personal taste or shelve an idea just because you thought it wasn’t mainstream.
    Otherwise, great article.

  9. ratstar1001

    This article is very helpful. It makes a lot of sense to think of your audience from the beginning. I would love to read this book!

  10. Wendy

    Thank you for your insight on writing for an audience. I am currently struggling with my intended audience as I research my first novel. It definitely makes sense to write so that the reader cannot put down your book. I look forward to reading “A Walk Across the Sun.”

  11. kkr

    Thank you for this post. I love hearing about how other writers do it & how their minds work. I especially appreciate the casual tone and personal examples. One question: how could I possibly know who would buy my book (if I were industrious enough and fortunate enough to sell a book)? Target marketing has always baffled me.

    I can hardly wait to read your novel. It sounds gripping.

  12. BIJones

    Dear Corban,

    Human trafficking is a horrific crime. I am sure you, above all others, are aware of this after taking the initiative to go beyond the comfort zone of humanity and see the ugly truth. By your efforts of kindness and compassion through the publication of this book, many eyes will be opened to a world which is hidden within the darkest places of the world, and in which most people are not aware even exists. Of all crimes people commit in the world, this is by far the worst and most inhumane. I admire your devotion to the extinction of suffering for the victims spoken of in your book. I wish you the best in your endeavors, and look forward to your next creation.
    BIJones

  13. Pauline Logan

    Corban, I admire your courage in writing a novel about a difficult but important topic. I recently attended a “Women’s Leadership and Development” conference at the University of Montana. One of the problems addressed was international sex trafficking. An American speaker shared a personal story of riding up in an elevator to her hotel room in Bangkok. Several men in the same elevator were heading to their rooms with pre-adolescent Thai girls. A Thai speaker at the conference, the Coordinator of Women Networks Reshaping Thailand, discussed the efforts that she and other influential Thai women are making to stop sex crimes and empower women.

    As a writer, I will take to heart your counsel to write for your audience and not for yourself. I wish you good success on your book’s outreach, Corban.

  14. Namzola

    “Parents with young children” is a very good niche to have. For most struggling writers, that’s probably the biggest question: Who do I write for? When my short stories are posted on Storywrite, I’m often surprised at the comments and reactions in relation to their demographics. You don’t have to be a teenager to have them as your audience just as you don’t have to be Italian to make a fantastic Bolognese. Point taken – I enjoyed your column thoroughly.

  15. MichelleAntonia

    I have no doubt this book is a compelling read, the research alone (undercover in India, impressive!) guarantees authenticity, which is imperative in my opinion. I’d love to read it!

  16. ArcherWings

    As someone who lives in a border state I see the sad and horrifying reality of human trafficking on the news each night but a 20 second snip-it amongst a number of other horrible stories does not address this issue the way it deserves. Thank you for choosing a subject matter that is important for us all.

    I just recently realized that writing for an audience did not need to take the form or feeling of “selling out” or hurting the intergrity of my voice, rather it takes my message and voice and shapes it in a way that my audience can understand it, follow it, digest it, etc. Thank you for the reassurance!

  17. Audrey123

    Your article was inspiring – I’m trying to do what you suggest. So far I’m unpublished, but something good will happen one day thanks to people like you and the subscription I have to Writer’s Digest

  18. Judith

    It really is a question of whether I’m writing to publish or writing to entertain myself. When I write to publish, I publish. When I conceive the idea, that’s out of my personal interest. But when I begin to write I keep in mind the requirements of the form (story, article), the publishing medium, and the audience. It makes writing so much more fun. Creation, talent, and expertise (putting all those hours of studying to use) all rolled together makes for a kick as job.

  19. Mattwm

    Sounds like an interesting book. I just finished my first novel, and it touches on this subject of human trafficing. It’s due out by the end of the summer. I will have to read this one.

  20. cjcaruso

    I doubt that “ordinary people” (a term I object to in reference to readers, especially coming from an author) would be interested in anything we write if we weren’t interested in the subjects ourselves. While, yes, it’s important to consider our audiences, writers have stories to tell and if there’s passion in the knowing and the telling, an audience will find them. Continued success, Mr. Addison.

  21. ChiTrader

    It sounds like you’ve figured out how to combine art and business: write a book that everyone will want to read, and make it so compelling, universal in its truth, and timeless that it will survive as a great piece of literature. Good luck.

    Chris

  22. Angelia

    This book is intriguing to me, would like to read it! The phenomenal story of what the lawyer goes through, risking everything for these girls, is amazing!

  23. Rosalinda925

    “I wanted people to pick up the story and find it impossible to put it down.” This is something I strive to do and admire your perseverance during the writing process. I look forward to reading your book!

  24. mindbuilder

    This sounds like a phenomenal book and definitely a subject that most of us should care deeply for – so I wish you the best in reaching wide and far and opening the eyes of people to the trafficking that occurs daily. Unless a problem is in front of us, we tend to forget, but if we do not eliminate this problem, it minimizes humanity.
    Thank you for writing on this important issue. I’m sure the process was difficult and heartbreaking, so it’s a testament to your strength as a writer and human being!

  25. Rosalinda925

    “I wanted people to pick up the story and find it impossible to put it down.” This is something I strive to do and admire your perseverance during your writing process. I look forward to reading your book!

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