How to Write Amazing Direct to Market Stories

The Gartner Hype cycle is one of those simple graphs that shows a lot of important information.

The downside to the Gartner Hype Cycle is that while it has great ad hoc and post hoc explanatory power, it doesn’t have great predictive power.  In other words, it’s not scientific in any sense.  It’s still a useful ad hoc description for how things look in hindsight, particularly when looking at market trends.

An example is looking at the Brutal LifeCycle of JavaScript Frameworks.  The cycle is pretty simple.  Every front-end developer is solving the exact same problems. A framework comes out that is supposed to solve all those problems.  After great initial hype, software developers find out that it doesn’t solve all their problems.  Then a new framework comes out and the cycle repeats itself.

1200px-gartner_hype_cycle-svg

A sarcastic commenter updated the Hype Cycle like this:

wailgumtechhypecycle2010

The other thing about the Hype Cycle is that it’s not a uniform phenomena.  Very few things are.  For example, during the Great Recession, several parts of the US (wetlands) were hit harder than the dry-land regions.  Eventually, that financial distress hit the entire US, leading to a long recovery process.  Macro-level details don’t translate into micro-level details.  Still, it’s always important not to miss the forest for the trees.

I predicted when I first started this blog a year ago that we were on a “trigger” phase.  The justification I used for that is simple.  “If this weren’t a LitRPG book, would it still be popular?”  If the answer is no, then you’re on a trigger phase. **

** Jason Cipriano, best selling author of The Pen is Mightier than the Sword, says this, (cleaning up because this was via Messenger, a messy platform for expression, so this is a translation of what he said, he’ll correct me if I’m misinterpreting this):

You can easily find a new genre that you like, read and analyze those stories, and think you can write a great book for the genre.
However, the market isn’t mature yet and you’ve completely missed the right tropes to focus on.  So  you write the book anyway because books take a long time to write fundamentally, and you don’t want a bunch of other authors and books to crowd out this great new genre you’ve just found out.
The kicker, because you picked the wrong tropes, you write a book that whiffs hard, even if it’s a good book by conventional standards, it fails to really address what readers of the genre want out of it.  You completely miss the mark.

I saw several books with high sales that frankly weren’t any good.  If they weren’t LitRPG, they wouldn’t sale.  For those less familiar with the life cycle of books, certain genres will pick up steam very quickly on a “trigger”.  Usually this is some book that has breakaway sales.  In the case of LitRPG, that isn’t hard to find.  It was when “AlterWorld” was released in the US.

Other genres that have undergone hype cycles:  Urban Fantasy, New Adult, Young Adult, Military Sci-Fi, Post-Apocalyptic, SteamPunk, etc.  For people who have been around the writing scene, they’ve seen some authors make huge, breakout numbers in sales and quit their day job, buy a new house, car, etc., only to see their successive books lose sales over time and they’re cash-strapped.

We can see same cycles persist in every other media:

  • Music: Glam Rock to Grunge to alternative etc.
  • Movies: Monster movies to Disaster to Superhero.
  • Games: Platformers to first-person shooters to casual games to open worlds to third-person shooters.

Interestingly enough, that actually happened to one of the authors I criticized on this blog.  His first book had amazing sales, so he put out the next one that was better than his first.  By all accounts, this should have been another top seller.  Instead, there were virtually no sales.

This story does have a happy ending.  The combination of my critique and the lack of sales on his second book made him switch to working on his writing technique and writing in genres that he loved, rather than trying to capitalize on the write to market trend.

Domino Finn writes:

I don’t have much to say about hype cycles other than people like to build things up in their head and hope for the best instead of being realistic. I think an author’s 2nd book not performing as well as their 1st is more of an indictment of the product than it is of purported hype. Which is funny because it skips the hype cycle idea and lands squarely to your thoughts on being a good writer.

We’ll get to that later, but if you want the tl;dr version of this, “hype” can get you a single good selling book.  The means of promoting your book to first can vary in both their fiscal cost and their let’s say ethical means.  While hype might make the first book a bestseller, it’s quality and craft that will make the second book.

Genre fiction vs. literary fiction

One thing to note about the “write to market” idea is that it doesn’t work in literary fiction.

Fiction can be very broadly defined in two categories, genre fiction and literary fiction.  Genre fiction is generally meant to entertain.  Most of the works I’ve reviewed here are very entertaining, but only a few of them really scratch deeper issues.  Reboot touches on the idea of there being a digital afterlife, which was a prominent feature of the 2018 CES convention, and Awaken Online goes into the legal and political ramifications of artificial intelligence.

There’s a handful of genre fiction novels that go into the deeper aspects of humanity, writers like Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov amongst those who do that sort of writing.  In general though, most genre fiction is for entertainment rather than enlightenment.

On the flip side, literary fiction is meant to better understand the World around us and deliver an emotional response to the work.  Reading something like Brother’s Karamazov may be entertaining to some people, but it’s overall goal isn’t to entertain.  It’s to enlighten.

Because of this, and several biases I already addressed in another post, almost all of the most prestigious awards for fiction each year are given to works of Literary Fiction.  This makes it easy for people to say that literary fiction is the best fiction.

In reality, neither of the two categories of writers necessarily deserve the distinction of being better writers. Different writers is a better word choice.

There’s an old programming joke, “There are only two types of programming languages.  The ones that everyone complains about, and the ones nobody uses.”  You could apply to authors as well.

Domino Finn writes:

“Literary” is just another genre to me (that would probably be better labeled as “Life”). I personally prefer a Pulp-to-Pertinent scale, which skews anywhere from pure entertainment/escapism to a highly relevant commentary on a subject of import. Any book in any genre has a place on this scale, and the only inherent value or importance of pulp-versus-pertinent fiction is what the reader is currently interested in at the time.

The write to market people, most notably Chris Fox, have a different idea on how to do it. Really trimming it down here for brevity, he says that you should familiarize yourself with several different genres that you like.  Learn what makes them work, how to quickly turn that into a novel, and then find out which of those niches are most profitable.  Then write a book in that genre.

According to Fox, the two big mistakes he sees people make in regard to writing to market are:

  • Not liking the genre they’re writing.
  • Not studying the genre well enough to understand what makes it work.

If you fail on either of those accounts, you won’t be an effective author.  I think that problem one tends to lead into problem two.  If you don’t like the genre, you won’t understand it well enough to write a good book about it.

Writing is two parts, one part is logical.  Things have to happen in a certain order.  Words need to have clarity.  The second part is emotional.  You have to deliver some sort of emotional experience to the reader that makes them want to engage with the work, or it’s all for nothing.

At this point, artists have a choice.  Either they can reinvent themselves or they can keep going down the same path.

The general good news is that book cycles tend to be very fast and fluid, genres wax and wane far more rapidly than other mediums.   This means an author can probably get away with a low-selling genre if they’re willing to weather the storm for a while and wait for it to reappear.

What most authors do is a bit more flexible, they start branching out into other genres.    For some authors, they do this so effortlessly that it seems mystical.  M.R. Forbes, Michael-Scott Earle, Harmon Cooper, and Drew Hayes come to mind.  Others tend to stick to their guns and weather out the storm.

Bottom line is that if you’re just writing in the hopes of making a quick buck, it won’t work.  You’ll either need the talent to keep attracting readers to your writing or you’ll need the skill to be able to maneuver to other genres/series if one of them doesn’t do well.

How to be a good genre writer

The key to being a good genre writer is remove the genre adjective.  Be a good writer.  This is the reason that genre writing isn’t taught in most colleges. The argument goes that you can teach a good literary writer to be a good genre writer, but you can’t do the inverse.  Or put another way, Joyce Carol Oates could write something like Fifty Shades of Grey if she had an urge to for whatever ungodly reason, but E. L. James could never write Blonde. **

** Yes, I note that E.L. James has more money than Joyce Carol Oates.  This is true for movies as well, the top grossing movies are generally genre fiction, 3 of the top ones for 2017 were genre.

From there, the next step is to figure out a few things.

One is “What are the tropes of this genre?”  The second is, “Why do these tropes draw in readers?”  The third is, “How do I write in the style that readers of this genre expect?”

The last one may seem weird, but Harmon Cooper and Jeff Hays have a podcast interview that’s insightful.  One of the things that Harmon discusses is his literary style.  He likes literary fiction and high-diction, which he mixes with crass humor to create a literary hodgepodge of high-sounding toilet humor.  Examples of people that do this often are Dennis Miller and internet persona Razorfist.

Naturally, this style of comedy and diction has its fans, but it’s not exactly common in the fantasy genre trope.

Another example is Michael Scott-Earle’s Lion’s Quest.  It’s a phenomenal book, and you should read it. No seriously, go read it if you haven’t.

But it throws people off because there’s a lot of setup and build prior to the meat of the story.  (Yes, I’ll review it one day, when Lion’s Quest four comes out), but the fact that it was written against type made it difficult for some readers.

Action books are fast-paced, romances are slow, each genre has its own internal rhythms that don’t directly translate.

I think the second part can be analytically determined, but if you don’t have a gut-level, instinctual feel for the genre, you probably won’t be good at it.  There are specialized development editors who do have this gut-level feel, and you can also crowd-source it to beta readers, Royal Road, or other early access groups to make sure you’re on the right path, but IMHO, if you can’t feel when a scene is missing something, you probably won’t make it.

The next thing you need to be able to do is understand these elements well enough to draw in readers and create something new, a distinction that Brandon Sanderson calls “the difference between a cook and a chef.”

An example of not understanding the genre

Generally, I prefer concrete examples rather than theoretical ones, so here’s a concrete example.

Many authors have started transitioning to GameLit/LitRPG from Urban Fantasy.  They are similar in numerous regards, but completely different in others.  Trying to write a GameLit story like an Urban Fantasy is a recipe for disaster.

(* I will update this after I talk to some friends about this who have done the transition).

One of the formulas to writing quick UF is to get to the action very early.  The MC will generally be an attractive, quick-witted male, who is erring on the side of cocky and/or arrogant. He will generally be a risk-taker and have a streak of anti-authority running through him.  He will also typically have immense supernatural powers that he will not be able to tell anyone about.

His job will be something like a police investigator or private eye or magic authority or some other job that puts him in a position of authority. He will have to work with a female character who is incredibly attractive and competent, but who is typically a mundane/normal person and suspicious of the supernatural World.

The female character will be initially hostile towards the MC, usually because she stumbles across the magical World as a result of encountering the MC, but grow onto the MC as his resolve/wit makes him beat the odds to save the day.

The story will take place in a modern big city environment, places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.

So, the important question to become a writer, “Why does all of that work?”

Well, the fact that the author bases it in a modern-day city means that (s)he will not have to do any work at establishing a World.  We know what Los Angeles and New York look like. Very little of the World is actually described, maybe a handful of paragraphs in the entire works.  This means the books technically take place in a land called “NeverWhere”, a designation for books that avoid mentioning any definitive details about a location.

In my article on tropes, I point out that tropes come in lots of different types, and using a modern day setting allows an author who doesn’t like descriptive settings a way out.

Likewise, having the main character be a cop or an investigator gives a reason for them to be in conflict with the antagonist.  That’s their job, after all.

Having the female character initially resist the MC makes for a feasible love interest, since building up a love interest is all about putting barriers in place for the lovers.

They also utilize the superhero arc, where the character is flat. Usually the MC is older, Yancy Lazarus in James Hunter’s series is in his sixties, Harry Dresden is in his late 30s, Atticus O’Sullivan in the Iron Druid is in his 2000s.

In the Superhero arc, minus the origin story, the superhero is already at the peak of their powers.  They don’t really progress as a person or character, we just enjoy reading about their adventures.  Six books in, the character is still essentially the same person they were at book one.

Artboard 2 The heroes powers are generally explained ahead of time, we know what Spiderman can do and we know what Wolverine can do.  In mystical books, the author explains what powers the MC has and what the limitations are on them.

All of these tropes work very well for the quick action book.

All of these tropes are disastrous when writing a LitRPG/GameLit novel.**

** I used the absolute tense here, but as Robert Bevan shows, execution is king.  You can go against type if you understand why that type works for a story and how to subvert it correctly.

GameLit novels typically do not use the Superhero arc.  They use the every person story arc.

EveryPersonArc

The every person story arc is vastly different.  The protagonist starts off incompetent at something.  In the case of GameLit, that’s usually denoted by starting off at Level 1.  That character is the lowest of the low.

In the first act, that character starts to gain powers very rapidly after overcoming obstacles.  Act 2 starts to introduce us to what the overall plot of the book is and leveling tapers off.

At the end of Act 2, we get a final confrontation with the antagonist of the story, where the hero temporarily is hurt or unable to use a certain power until they find a way around the problem and overcome it.  The Mana Void problem in Ascend Online, the destruction of the final hero battle in Awaken Online, and when Henry and Jason get knocked out at the end of Delvers LLC are good examples of this.

At Act 3, the plot is resolved, the hero becomes stronger and wiser, and it leads up to the next book where this cycle will repeat.

Thus people want to see a story about a character progressing, in the same way that we all remember playing a game where we started off as a pipsqueak and rose to become the baddest person on the planet.  The flat/superhero arc doesn’t work.  Watching someone play a game on “God mode” isn’t very entertaining.

Additionally, GameLit readers want to be transported to another World that’s different from this one, which is why portal fantasy type books tend to be popular.  So using a generic “NeverWhere” landscape for the story doesn’t work.

The MC is typically young because young people are just learning about themselves and the World, symbolically representing someone at the beginning of their journey.

Finally, the MCs generally want to enjoy the game World they’re in.  Books where the MC actively dislikes the World they’re in do worse than books where the MC likes the game World in because escapism is definitely part of the genre. **

** As are harems.  For some reason, “harem LitRPG” is the most common search term that brings you to this website.  Which is why I wrote that previous sentence, to drive that sweet, sweet organic search traffic to me.

In short, it isn’t as simple as rewriting a book to include game elements, it requires a deeper analysis about why someone is interested in the genre in the first place and why certain tropes and elements work.

Domino Finn writes:

On to Urban Fantasy authors transitioning to LitRPG, which is probably what you’re most interested in my opinion about: You break down common tropes of what I call Tough-Guy Urban Fantasy, of which the Dresden Files is the current poster child. I think you make a few incorrect assumptions:

– Some Urban Fantasy is very descriptive and evocative of its setting, to the extent that it is sometimes part of the genre’s definition and described as one of the setting’s main characters.

– Lots of Tough-Guy Urban Fantasy does begin with a very competent hero, and lots of LitRPG does start with an everyman hero, but I think this is partly due to the immaturity of a LitRPG genre still in its infancy. Epic Fantasy settings are no stranger to the everyman-but-annointed farmboy, after all. Books like Luck Stat Strategy show how already competent heroes can work.

– It’s unfair to characterize power scaling in Urban Fantasy as flat, especially when the titular wizard Harry Dresden starts as a down-on-his-luck PI, shifts into the burden of trapping a fallen angel until becoming blessed with soulfire, takes on a fae mantle and becomes the winter knight, and is becoming more and more important to the salvation (and possible destruction) of mankind.

All of which is to say that your trope advice (like all writing advice) is solid for beginning writers initially learning the differences of the genres, but it’s not an applicable limit to an experienced writer’s arsenal (which you later admit to be the case in regards to Robert Bevan). Basically, understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, be intentional about it, write something that resonates, and the book can do well.

He is right that some authors make the city part of the landscape, Richard Kadrey definitely uses Los Angeles as a major part of his story in the Sandman Slim series.  Kevin Hearne also likes to include local details in the places that Atticus visits during the chronicles.  However, I’d also say this is atypical of most urban fantasy that I’ve read.

For Harry Dresden, he also takes out the most powerful wizards and creatures from book one onward, admitting that he’s always been a heavyweight bruiser when it comes to raw magical power, but a featherweight when it comes to magical control.

He learns control of evocation under the tutelage of Queen Mab, but during a conversation with Butters, he finds out that most of his new powers are temporary. As soon as he loses the mantle of the winter knight, he’ll be paralyzed and unable to use winter magic.

However, he also loses his magical partner, (Bob), who taught him some of the more impressive spells that he used. He never takes up the female demon on her offer to learn more powerful magic, and she forms a separate skull that lives with Bob.

Over the course of 15 books or so, he gains importance in his role, but not so much actual power. Dresden 1 vs. Dresden 15 would be a pretty close match in terms of raw power.

For Luck Stat Strategy, the MC already starts off competent, but he definitely goes through a tremendous power arc as the story progresses.  In fact, his unique class is given at the beginning of the book, so his power arc is much earlier than other works, but it’s still a power arc.

In fact, I don’t know how well I would classify that as an example.  ** The book really focuses on the repercussions of being given a unique class, so much so that it pushes the main character into reactivity for a large part of the book.

**  The book has sold incredibly well and has its devoted fans, so I’m the odd duck out on this one. I would definitely read the next book, but I wouldn’t be as excited as I would be for Delvers LLC 4, which Blaise really nailed at book 3.  **

Bottom line is still the same though.  You can go against type if you understand what the type is for and what problems are going to arise from going against type.  That’s high-level craft and neither I nor anyone else can teach it.

Did I just say that?  Of course not.  I can teach you how to write a best-selling novel for just $10,000. **

** Author of this article retains the right to define a best-seller so as to always have written a best-seller.

Recap?

Bottom line?  You might be able to make a quick buck off a write-to-market style, but if you’re not a fan of the genre, don’t have the requisite writing skills, and don’t understand why it works on a fundamental level, it won’t work for you.

1 thought on “How to Write Amazing Direct to Market Stories”

  1. Okay, this is a long one. I commented on both the Facebook feed (where you asked for feedback) and the blog post (to attach it to the article). Feel free to delete the blog comment if you’d prefer to incorporate it.

    I don’t have much to say about hype cycles other than people like to build things up in their head and hope for the best instead of being realistic. I think an author’s 2nd book not performing as well as their 1st is more of an indictment of the product than it is of purported hype. Which is funny because it skips the hype cycle idea and lands squarely to your thoughts on being a good writer.

    “Literary” is just another genre to me (that would probably be better labeled as “Life”). I personally prefer a Pulp-to-Pertinent scale, which skews anywhere from pure entertainment/escapism to a highly relevant commentary on a subject of import. Any book in any genre has a place on this scale, and the only inherent value or importance of pulp-versus-pertinent fiction is what the reader is currently interested in at the time.

    I write Science-fiction/Fantasy with a healthy mix of escapist fun and meaningful themes.

    Which is all a way of agreeing with you that the genre/literary distinction when referring to good fiction is meaningless.

    On to Urban Fantasy authors transitioning to LitRPG, which is probably what you’re most interested in my opinion about: You break down common tropes of what I call Tough-Guy Urban Fantasy, of which the Dresden Files is the current poster child. I think you make a few incorrect assumptions:

    – Some Urban Fantasy is very descriptive and evocative of its setting, to the extent that it is sometimes part of the genre’s definition and described as one of the setting’s main characters.

    – Lots of Tough-Guy Urban Fantasy does begin with a very competent hero, and lots of LitRPG does start with an everyman hero, but I think this is partly due to the immaturity of a LitRPG genre still in its infancy. Epic Fantasy settings are no stranger to the everyman-but-annointed farmboy, after all. Books like Luck Stat Strategy show how already competent heroes can work.

    – It’s unfair to characterize power scaling in Urban Fantasy as flat, especially when the titular wizard Harry Dresden starts as a down-on-his-luck PI, shifts into the burden of trapping a fallen angel until becoming blessed with soulfire, takes on a fae mantle and becomes the winter knight, and is becoming more and more important to the salvation (and possible destruction) of mankind.

    All of which is to say that your trope advice (like all writing advice) is solid for beginning writers initially learning the differences of the genres, but it’s not an applicable limit to an experienced writer’s arsenal (which you later admit to be the case in regards to Robert Bevan). Basically, understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, be intentional about it, write something that resonates, and the book can do well.

    Like

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