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I wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go–or chopped–per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode–lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient–sea urchin–thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.
  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.
  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning–a heart–then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.
  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.
  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.
  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.
  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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According to Wikipedia, the term literary fiction came into existence around 1960, to distinguish serious fiction from the many types of genre or popular fiction (these latter are categorized as commercial fiction).

Literary fiction is more character-driven while commercial fiction is plot-driven. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the former does not have any plot (or is not at all genre-based) or that the latter doesn’t have strong characters. It’s just that one is more dominant than the other in each of the types.

From my research into this subject, here is my summary of what makes a particular book one or the other type of fiction:

What marks a work of fiction as literary?

  • Maturity of style/voice
  • Content that is more serious and thought-provoking
  • Deeper analysis of characters’ psychology
  • Richness in imagery

What are the more distinguishing features of mainstream commercial fiction?

  • Specific genre(s)
  • Fast-paced narrative
  • Compelling plot-lines
  • Wider mainstream appeal

It is safe to say that commercial fiction tends to have faster pace and beat and heightened drama, while literary fiction delves deeper into situations and the characters’ responses and reactions to them.

Some opine that literary fiction should be considered a genre in itself.

As with anything else related to the field of writing, what sets literary fiction apart from commercial fiction is somewhat subjective.

Here are my questions for you for the day:

  1. Do you believe that commercial fiction sells more easily than literary fiction in today’s market?
  2. As a reader, which do you prefer: a literary piece or a story with commercial leanings to it?
  3. If you’re a writer, which side of the spectrum would you place your work?

Here are my answers to the questions above:

  1. Yes.
  2. I think the classics I like to read are considered literary pieces, but I also read a lot of mysteries, whose genre makes them commercial fiction.
  3. Hmm… this is a toughie. The novel I’m currently working on is historical fantasy, which is a legitimate genre. It has a strong plot, but also a protagonist who drives that plot. And, my style tends to focus on imagery among other things, which means that my WIP has characteristics and elements that are specific to the definition of both literary and commercial fiction.

             So, basically, my answer is: I’m not sure!

All I know is this:

I aim to be true to my original vision and write the book so it entertains. Hopefully, it will also leave the readers thinking about it at least for some time after they have finished it.

Fair enough? :0)

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You pick up a book at the library, because you read an excerpt about it somewhere. You’re very excited about reading it, because you can’t wait to see how the author has handled the plot, how she has sketched the characters, and how well she has balanced action and dialogue with description. And, that book is very close in genre and age-group to the one on which you’re currently working.

You come home and start reading it. Your heart begins to race, because whaddaya know? The book begins very similar to how yours does. Now, isn’t that amazing? You continue to breeze through the book and as you go on, your heart rate slows down until your heart begins to slowly plummet. Why? Because the book is telling your story!

That’s not fair! It was your brainchild. How dare someone else not only have the same idea, but execute it well ahead of you and publish it, too?

Has this (or something similar) happened to you? I’m sure as writers, every one of us has confronted something along these lines at one time or another.

What do you do when faced with such a debilitating experience?

You take a deep breath, shake your head, and finish reading that book. At the end you go: “A very good book, but I’m sure mine will be better.”

Writers are eternal optimists, if not anything else, especially when it comes to their stories and plotlines. Aren’t they?

They have to be, or they couldn’t proceed to put down their inner-most thoughts on paper day in and day out for everyone’s perusal, could they?

If you have faced such a situation, take heart! There are over six billion humans inhabiting this planet of ours. Isn’t it highly likely that any time you’re having a thought, at least one other person on this Earth is having the exact same thought (even if they may be thinking it in a language completely foreign to you?).

That is why many also opine that no story is ever completely original. There are only so many original ideas in the world, in human psyche at least, and every one of them has already been explored. So, whatever story you’re working on right now, you’re trying to tell one that has already been narrated; be it via the written word or by word of mouth.

So, what keeps your effort apart and makes it genuine? The fact that you are trying to tell the story in your own voice.

That is also why, even if there’s a book already out there with a plot line similar to yours, there’s nothing earth-shattering about it. Your book, when it’s done, will still be different from that one, because:

  • Not every twist in the book’s plot could be similar to those in yours
  • Your voice is your own, which makes your book different from every other one out there
  • Your character development is bound to take its own unique path
  • Your setting will have aspects that belong to you, your experiences, and your past and present, which makes it original in its own right

And look at the brightest fact of all:

If a book similar to the one that you’re writing has already been published, then it can only mean one thing…

There is an audience out there that is ready, with its appetite already whetted, for your book.

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PART A

I got to chat with literary agent Mark McVeigh for fifteen minutes last Friday! Mark was direct and professional in the way he dealt with my questions and was immensely approachable. For someone like me, who is new to the publishing industry and has not been hitherto privy to firsthand information about how things worked, that in itself was very encouraging.

The McVeigh Agency (http://themcveighagency.com/) handles writers, illustrators, photographers, and graphic novelists for both the adult and children’s markets.

The agency web site says: “THE McVEIGH AGENCY does things those others think can’t be done”. Check out the web site for more information about what the agency’s vision and goals are.

I have recorded my conversation with Mark here, and I hope you all can get the same value out of it as I did when I talked to him face-to-face via Skype. (Btw, Skype is really cool – you should all try it out, if you haven’t already.)

Note: The text in blue within the interview is my commentary/impressions as the author of this blog; I added them whenever I felt the need to emphasize a point.

Current Publishing Industry:

Hema P.: With the economy the way it is currently, are publishers willing to take risks or do they tend to go more with trends?

Mark McVeigh: The publishing industry has always done both. Trends such as: vampires, werewolves, angels have come into vogue and are in various stages of publication. I think  Steampunk as a genre will be increasingly in vogue.

(Are you stumped as to what Steampunk is? I would have been, too, had I not read a post about it in Mark’s blog. Check it out.)

Hema: Do new authors have a harder time making a breakthrough into the industry today?

Mark: Yes, the industry is a tougher place today than it was even five years ago.

Hema: Is that because the publishing industry tends to play safe and go with established authors?

Mark: Not necessarily. Publishing houses are cutting down on the number of books they publish per year. If they were doing 100 books previously they’re only doing 75 now. As a result, fewer manuscripts are acquired, and so fewer new authors will get a break.

Hema: How are multicultural and historic fiction faring these days — especially in middle grade?

Mark: Historical fiction will always have an audience, be it middle grade or young adult. They aren’t typically blockbusters, although there are exceptions like Libba Bray’s gorgeous A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY, but they find a place in the market.

Hema: I understand that this question has a lot of variables in it, and may not have an answer, but I’ll ask anyway. What is the current average time between a manuscript being acquired by an agent and it getting published and available on the racks?

Mark: I have no answer to this question.

Hema: Do you see the publishing industry going towards E-Books in the future? Is this good or bad for the industry?

Mark: Yes, I do. And it is going to be a huge help! I see tremendous potential in that direction; E-Books are going to revolutionize the industry.

Hema: Do you see traditional publishing going away completely?

Mark: Traditional books will never go away completely, just as vinyl record stores still exist despite the fact that most people buy music online. We are very lucky as an industry to have this innovation available to us: E-Book technology is going to be big.

New Authors and Career Promotion:

Hema: In addition to attending conferences, blogging and being part of a critique group, what do you suggest aspiring authors do in order to get noticed in this industry?

Mark: Those are all very good things to do for aspiring authors to promote their careers. Authors should be well aware of market direction and current trends in the industry. They have to make sure they study those using resources such as Publisher’s Marketplace. You should also blog about industry news, so other authors start following your blog for the valuable information that they can get out of it. It is also important to Twitter, to put yourself as a branded individual out there.

I will post Part B (Edit: 3/14/2010 – link to Part B added retroactively) of this interview on Wednesday. It deals with questions related to Critiquing, and specific practices at The McVeigh Agency regarding Clients and Query Process.

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