Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Economics of Fiction

Lots of fiction centers on money: Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (banking), David Liss’s A Conspiracy of Paper (how banking created the mess Dickens described), or the endless array of novels touching on wealth, power, class, and the interaction between them (Tracy Chevalier, Jonathan Franzen, Chad Harbach, Hilary Mantel, Fay Weldon, and on and on).

Aside from that, novels, like everything else in the world, have value. Time it right, and you can win it all with sharks, a boy wizard, a noble adolescent girl, or the decoding of a religious mystery.

But too early or late, too similar or different, and the market isn’t there. Neither are the readers. This makes second-guessing pointless.  If you could predict the market, you could publish not only your own novel but everyone else’s. Since you can’t, and since a novel is a lot of work, write because you love the work—not because you hope to love the result of all that work.

Keep your day job. Then assess credits and debits in your fiction.

Like any other account, put in more, and you can take out more. It’s just that this particular economy runs on details, ideas, and words used to capture them.

Of course readers disagree about credits or debits. Genre and voice play a huge role. Yet certain fictional elements consistently tend toward + or – .


  • Backstory. If it already happened, it’s slowing things down.
  • Setting. Unless it’s new and vibrant, it often competes with plot.
  • Speaker attribution. We have to know who’s talking, but “said” is no more invisible than any other word.
  • Psychological analysis. What the characters think and why—can flirt with “telling.”
  • Stereotypes. Been there, done that.
  • Explanation. Readers need context. But we don’t always love what we need.


  • Tension. It’s often the way to balance any item from the list above.
  • Characters. They make fiction fiction.
  • Clues. Engage readers in discovering what you tantalizingly hint.
  • Sex/romance. You already know why it belongs on this list.
  • Archetypes. Allusion adds depth and richness. It gives novels heft.
  • Electricity. This could be plot, characterization, scenario, voice, or all of them.

Most novelists have an ulterior motive, like roaming with dinosaurs, uncovering racism, celebrating Impressionism, making music, or condemning war. Want readers to follow wherever you want to go? Stuff the vault with scenario, plot, voice, imagery, and characterization .

Tip: Use your novel’s assets to balance whatever you want to express.

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