Monday, September 5, 2011

The Sweet Spot

We're keeping a sharp eye out for that person who becomes our 300th follower. If that's you, you'll win our delightful recipe book: Novel Tips on Rice: What to cook when you'd rather be writing. And vice versa. We appreciate all of you who follow Novel Matters and especially those of you who comment on our posts. This would be a dull place without you!

Seth Godin is a guru. He, of course, is the author of a dozen international bestselling non-fiction books, from Tribes to The Dip. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages. There are blogs -- dozens of them -- devoted to "memorable quotes by Seth Godin." Who knew? My confession is that until a few weeks ago if given a quiz where I had to link the name of the author with the title of one of his books, unless I'd come up with a very good guess I'd have failed the quiz. I obviously haven't read Seth Godin, though I probably should.

This all came up because a writer I know recently mentioned that one of the key elements of one of Seth's books (I don't even know which) is this: if you don't identify and write to your niche, it may mean that you satisfy no one. That in itself is an intriguing concept, but on that very same day our own Karen Shravemade wrote the following comment to my post, What is True and Right:

"What I'm most interested in ... is the "sweet spot" between literary and
commercial. You know -- books that are beautifully written, but have such a big
premise and/or gripping plot that they hit a note with a broad audience.

I wonder, though, if in trying to find some middle ground between
literary and commercial, I'll end up hitting neither. That I'll write a book
nobody knows what to do with."

The coincidence was too large to ignore. So let's talk about this. Let's talk about boxes, because it seems to me both Seth and Karen are alluding to firm boundaries that we should keep in the forefront as we write. To maintain those boundaries, does that mean we must always create the same type of protagonist? Always write in first person or third, and in the same tense? Must our plot points be comparable? Is there no room for experimentation?

You hear a lot about branding at writers' conferences these days, which is sort of a new term for an old concept. It just means that you should be very identifiable as an author. For example, if I say John Grisham, you think legal suspense. If I say Elizabeth Berg, you think women's fiction that includes subtle humor and an in-depth look at relationships that are vital to women. Jamie Langston Turner has a unique style of writing that includes lots and lots of narrative. Though her novels are short on that all-important "white space," she is one of my favorite authors. We could talk all day about writers who have done an exceptional job of branding themselves. But I'd like to focus on Karen's comment.

As I read the first part, I found myself asking, "Is Karen saying that literary fiction is the "beautifully written" novel, while the commercial one has the plot and appeal that literary fiction doesn't have? Is it that well defined, or is it possible to blend the lines between the two? Can literary fiction have a dynamic plot, or commercial fiction be thought of as beautiful? Does anyone do that, and do it well? With all my heart, I hope the answer is yes.

As I read the second part of Karen's comment, I asked myself, are those of us who are trying to blend the two wasting our time? Are we writing books that, indeed, no one knows what to do with? Funny, but I just pulled a Jodi Picoult novel off my shelf -- Handle with Care -- and this is what a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Picoult is a rare writer who delivers book after book, a winning combination of the literary and the commercial." I could have searched a month for a suitable quote and not found one, but there this was, right at my fingertips, when I wasn't even looking. So the answer is yes, the two can be blended -- and perhaps that in itself defines Jodi Picoult's brand. But as the reviewer said, it's the rare writer who can pull it off.

Now please understand, I'm not comparing myself, or anyone else, to Jodi Picoult. She truly is an exceptional writer. What I am saying is that it's not only possible to find that "middle ground" that Karen talked about, but there's a huge audience for it. Ms. Picoult, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Charles Martin and others have bridged the gap, and done so very convincingly. So those of us pursuing literary ficton can take hope in that. But we must hone our skills until we're the best we can be; and we must find our own unique place within the industry. I don't believe in luck; I do believe that God guides us with a steady hand. If we follow what we consider to be the call He's placed on our lives, then we'll fulfill the purposes He has for us. The results are His. Always His. And that's the bottom line for those who call themselves Christians.

What is your opinion of literary fiction, either as a writer or a reader? Who else would you add to the list of authors who have successfully bridged the gulf between literary and commercial fiction, whether in CBA or ABA?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

You named two biggies, Jodi Picoult and Elizabeth Berg.

I've thought a lot about this blend, the bleeding of literary into commercial and commercial into literary. I tend to be drawn to books written this way. And I'm all about finding your own niche in the industry.

(I'd like to thank you ladies for believing in me. Received some good news not too long ago and I'm partnering with an agent. Prompts me to thank you for all the teaching you've done here!)

~ Wendy

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

YAY WENDY! I was hoping we'd get to celebrate with you on here. If you didn't say anything I was gonna brag on you a little. Love that we have that sort of writing community here that we can share each others' successes. :) So happy for you!

And Sharon - I'm so honoured that you quoted me! I feel kinda famous now. :)

I love this blog topic. (Obviously! LOL) But it really is something I think about so much. Jodi Picoult - YES, absolutely. She's been an enormous influence on my writing for that reason.

Other successes I could name - The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini... I could go on and on.

Beautifully written books, all. But they're also wildly compelling reads. In contrast, a lot of literary fiction tends to be so character-driven that it moves very slowly, with little suspense.

Yes, writing is an art - but it's a performing art. The writer's first duty is to entertain. I have to believe one doesn't preclude the other. That it's possible for a story to be lyrical and gripping at the same time.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Actually, it's funny you bring this up. I've been working on my new website this week (still not done with it) and I've just finished writing something pretty similar on my home page. It seems this is the concept that sums me up.

Patti Hill said...

Wendy! Congratulations! I''m doing a one-legged happy dance for you. You're kind to thank us, but you offer just as much to us. Thank YOU.

If you like historical fiction, Geraldine Page is a Pulitzer Prize winner, literary and compelling. Try Caleb's Crossing, Year of Wonders, and March. Those I've read. Also, Tracy Chevalier. I've enjoyed The Girl With the Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures. I just listened to an Anita Shreve interview. The host described her as literary suspense. In that category, add Chris Bohjalian with Skeletons at the Feast and Midwives.

Great post, Sharon!

Jack G Hardy said...

I'm new to your blog. But for years a marketing columnist. My thoughts on marketing adapted...
Imagine pitching a baseball while blindfolded. A voice calls out, “Hey, Jody, I’m over here!” But you never connect with Jody’s glove. With luck, you might come close. It’s exactly the same in marketing a novel. Communications can’t be focused if you’re blindfolded.
Clearly defining your target audience is the first step. Set your target down in writing. Avoid those frequently used, broad sweeping generalities. Develop a clear, specific identification and understanding of your target market. Who are the key readers you want to attract? Do you have a clear insight to their reading preferences?
Developing insights is key to removing your blindfold. Insights are invaluable but hard to identify. They are a “truth” that hasn’t been identified, one that adds leverage to your communications, generates additional revenue.
They are credible, actionable and practical ideas that make a real difference to sales development.
Consider which insight will enhance your prospects and customers ability to identify them with your writing. A powerful insight signals not just which touch points to use, but how to focus your communications.

Bonnie Grove said...

Wendy: Congratulations! A hard won step. I couldn't be happier for you. Well done!!!!

*commencing happy dance*

Sharon, in your post, the phrase 'sweet spot' stood out. It's the phrase Amy Einhorn (the publisher of THE HELP) uses to describe the kind of books she looks for as a publisher.

In an interview she says, "What I wanted to do was establish an imprint that hit that sweet spot between literary and commercial books – because that’s the place I as a reader find myself. And I think it’s a place where a lot of other readers reside as well." (read the interview here:

I believe there is a massive market for this reader friendly version of literary fiction: stories that are introspective but also have well defined/faster moving plot. That is how I understand the 'sweet spot'. Literary is deeply introspective stuff, sometimes a single action from a character can trigger a 20 riff on the nature of that action and its ramifications. Sweet spot novels curb the riff and keep the plot moving, but still offer a banquet of food for thought.

Melissa Hambrick said...

To me, that sweet spot is quite simply, my book club--and, I imagine, a whole lot of other clubs like mine out there. What we want is a compelling story that moves, is beautifully written, and with enough meat on its bones for a good conversation. I'm working on my first bit of fiction and I keep these eight girlfriends of mine in my head all the time when I write. I know from our conversations what members of our group will alternately love, hate, and make them ask questions and debate. These are smart women--a couple of graduate degrees and teachers among them--that can fall in love with a fun piece of Fantasy just as easily as they will dissect symbolism and allegory. I think this blend of literary and commercial is just the thing that has Target's "Bookmarked" encaps half-empty all the time.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, I'm so happy for you!!!! Congratulations, and keep us informed!

Karen, the moment I read your comment on the other post I scribbled it down on a post-it note to use for my next post. Wow, that's a lot of "posts" in one sentence. I need a good editor. I agree with the titles you added to the list. I'm jotting down the ones I haven't read, because I certainly plan to. I love your line that writing is a performing art -- that a writer's first duty is to entertain. That's certainly something we've talked about here on many occasions.

Patti, thank you for your contribution to the list, too. My reading list grows.

Jack, how nice to have you join us, and thank you so much for your brilliant insights. I plan to print your comment and keep it close at hand. You've given us a terrific analogy (it helps that I'm a HUGE baseball fan -- Go Dodgers!!!) But it takes work to get away from the sweeping generalities in identifying your target audience. I'm still working at it.

Bonnie, thanks for the link to Amy's interview. I'm going to read it again.

Melissa, I think your points are right on: compelling stories that move, are beautifully written, with enough meat on the bones for compelling conversation. Well said!

Thank you all for joining us today. I hope those of you who live in the US are enjoying your Labor Day.

Dina Sleiman said...

I love historical fiction, literary fiction, and romance. When I set out to write my first novel, I wanted to please all those audiences. Feel free to read my Dance of the Dandelion and let me know if I succeeded. LOL. And Patti, mine has actually been compared to Year of Wonders in an amazon review. Love the term "sweet spot." I'm going to remember that.

Marian said...

Charles Dickens is the perfect example of someone who wrote commercially to produce literature.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love literary fiction. I agree with the example of Charles Dickens--very commercial, but absolutely literary.

I'm glad I found this blog, and I would love to be entered in your teeth and bones contest. (TABEC)

Lynn Dean said...

To me, literary encompasses an "exceptional" quality as distinct from the sorts of commercial novels turned out in quick succession. If you will, it's the difference between "A Wrinkle in Time" and a Nancy Drew mystery where all that changes is the location and the name of the miscreant.

That said, some of my favorite authors seems to have written novels that appealed to a significant fan base while possessing the qualities that identify classic literature:

Ellis Peters
Norah Lofts
Louis L'Amour
Madeleine L'Engle
Francine Rivers
Bodie and Brock Thoene

That's what I want to be when I grow up! ;)