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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.)

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.)

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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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