I’ve been thinking about my ‘fluff’ writing I’ve been doing for my own enjoyment and sanity. On the one hand, it makes me happy, keeps me writing every day and de-stresses me. On the other hand, I could be writing salable stories instead. That’s a big other hand. I’m not going to go all New Years Resolution-y but I do want to write more serious stuff and sell it.
What makes a story serious? Well part of it is content. Writing a space opera story about a former stripper and amateur pornographer turned professional thief is FUN but I really don’t know who’d buy it. That’s something to consider when you’re in the brainstorming phase of coming up with story topics. That doesn’t mean any given concept can’t be made serious. Even stripper pornstar sci-fi thieves could be written in a compelling and entertaining way. (Or at least I’m going to try that during revisions this month.)
Identifying the market you want to sell to, say Asimov’s or a themed anthology, and the writing stories tailored to that market is one way to write seriously. Duotrope.com used to be the go-to website for finding markets that are open for submission. Since they went to a pay model, I don’t know if that’s still the case but it’s still worth checking out. Checking Amazon.com for electronic and paper subscriptions for your chosen genre also works, plus you can check sales rankings on them.
But a bigger part of writing seriously is taking what you’re writing seriously. That means writing dialog that is appropriate to the character. A 18th century romance novel should not contain modern slang….or modern thinking.* A swordsman for hire will feel different from a conscript from a city impressment. A famer will think differently and speak differently from a lord. A Captain of a ship has different responsibilities and pressures than a stowaway. Treat each character as if they were a real person. Put yourself in their shoes. Then add them into the story.
It goes for your action scenes as well. Do the research into what violence actually looks like. Most gunfights take place at less than 15 feet and there’s a lot of missing that happens. Most serious fist fights are over in seconds and then it’s just one guy being beaten down**. Most stabbings take place without the victim even knowing they’re about to be attacked, etc. “Meditations on Violence” and “Stressfire” are two examples of modern combat analysis that I’ve read. For Fantasy and Historical stories, look to the classical writers like Xenophon, Tacitus or modern revivalist movements like http://www.thearma.org/. Think about how a battlefield differs from an alley fight or formal duel.
Take your plot seriously. Think about the motivations of each actor that moves the plot forward. Are they internally motivated? Are the character’s wants and needs internally consistent? Do their plans make sense? What does everyone know and when do they know it? What is the goal for each character, each scene, each chapter? When something goes wrong or gets worse for your protagonist, does it makes sense? Is it due to their actions or is it plot-motivated dictates? (the latter is not good, in my opinion)
Finally, take your story seriously. What is your story about? What theme are you trying to get across? What emotion do you want your reader to feel? Beware of ‘cool’. Stuff that looks ‘cool’ or sounds ‘cool’ to you may sound silly or ridiculous or unrealistic. You want to make a ‘cool’ character? Then show that in their reactions, not so much in the situation you’re constructing for them. You want a ‘cool’ sex scene? Build up to it, make the motivations clear and believable. Elmore Leonard talk about ‘leaving out the parts everyone skips’ and there’s a lot of truth to that but you can’t just jump from ‘cool’ stuff to ‘cool’ scene. Leonard’s novels work because he takes his characters seriously, he takes his story seriously. Not because he only has ‘cool stuff’ in it.
Anyway, this has been me preaching to myself. Hopefully I’m listening :)
*A little modern sensibility is important but a little goes a long way. Think of it as salt. Add a pinch for better flavor but don’t dump in a whole handful of 21st century baggage
**Though a LOT depends on how motivated or drugged/drunk the people are. Sometimes it take a whole lot of people to take down even an average-sized crazy person. Sometimes a fight is over with the first punch (and the guy who lands that first punch is usually the winner).