What his mind can't remember, her heart can't forget...
It sounds like it should be easy. You like a line, your story has characters of the kind they print and they have some adventure of a like type as well. BINGO!
Not even close.
It took me roughly four years to learn how to target properly. And that was to one line. I’ve now expanded my approach to three. We’ll see how it goes.
It’s most difficult to know where to begin.
If you ask a lot of writers–particularly the Unpubs–they will tell you to write the story of your heart, find a place for it later. I used to feel this was true, but I have to say, I think it’s only half-true. I read somewhere where an author asked, “If it’s not the book of your heart, why are you writing it?” I laughed good and hard at that because that question certainly puts it into perspective. “Write what you know” is an equally unhelpful instruction. The reason I don’t recommend either one of these as first steps to targeting is that they are misleading. A writer should only invest time in a story they care about–a book of their heart. If it comes from anywhere else, you won’t like writing it and no one will like reading it. Don’t waste your time. Writing what you know is vague and difficult. Have you ever tried to catalog how much you know? You’d be surprised. (I sure was.) But in list form, it’s boring as hell. Write what INTERESTS you. If you’re interested in the theme, the topic, the internal conflict…it’s a book of your heart. In any event, if you plan on building a career with your writing, you must accept that it’s a business. No one wants to pay taxes, but if you plan to make that business last, you need to know how to take care of setting the money aside. Likewise, if you want to write with any longevity, you’ll need to learn to aim your writing not just for what you like most, but also where the market heads and for your line’s specific needs. Otherwise, they find authors who can.
If you ask any editor, the first step is to read the line. That what you like to read might be what you like to write. But I’m going to have to disagree with that one, too. What you eat is not necessarily what you are. I love to read regencies…I was not meant to write them. Add to that, not every person is a born writer and that has to be taken into consideration.
What you need to think about first is YOU.
If you have always written, you have a style, a voice; however undefined or untrained. What kind of stories do you naturally come up with? Romantic comedy? A murder mystery? Do you like dark and foggy tales or smart, wicked quick plots? Did you keep pairing couples up? Or repeatedly come up with ways to kill someone? Do you write in concise sentences, staccato in rhythm? Or do you find your writing has always been descriptive, every sentence designed to be evocative of a particular atmosphere? These are important aspects of writing to consider when choosing a line or imprint to approach. All writers train to write for a line, but if you force yourself to write against your grain, you’ll end up with bumpy, choppy flow and you’ll be unhappy writing it. To be sucessful, your heart must be in the story, no matter how commercially you come up with it, and you have to respect your own process. No one writes the same or “the right way”. A better writer is the one who knows where they flourish. Remember, there’s a reason plants turn towards the sun.
If you have never written a word before, or have always daydreamed stories but never attempted to write, things are much more difficult for you. You’re approaching writing having abandoned the spectators chair. You’re well aware of what you like to read, but writing comes from an internal place. Your first job will need to be finding that. Begin with what you enjoy reading most. Or an author you enjoy reading. Emulate. This doesn’t mean copy. It means ask yourself what you like and why. Take those things–”I like how her hero’s do this..” or “Her heroines never take any crap!”–and try to come up with a short scene or two that incorporates one at a time. When you feel you’ve mastered that, try to combine elements. Keep doing that until you have a short story. Then look at what you’ve done and ask yourself the questions posed above to the experienced writer.
Now that you have a genre, narrow things down by looking for a line there that appeals to you. Then read up on it. I had a mad passion for Harlequin Superromances. It was a large story for a decent cost and given how much and how fast I read, it was the best deal. When I finally considered sending an ms in, I immediately gravitated to Supers. I spent several years banging my head on the wrong wall, reshaping my stories to fit their tone and erasing my own. It took me further and further from publication. Finally, a wonderful ed there told me that I had to choose between a serious tone and the comedic tone underlying every page. It was a gentle way of telling me I was writing against the grain. I was targetting unclearly. It was time to see if the comedy aspect of my writing could lead anywhere–low and behold, I found a niche I fit into at Temptation. Writing for your voice is just as important as knowing what is out there. One tends to lead to the other.
Next, you’ll find that several people tell you disect the books you like. To my mind, this is a lot like disecting your pet. Please don’t do that. I’d suggest picking up books you’ve never read to disect them. This will teach you to separate your reading mind from your writing one and give your various approaches to the same line. It’s important to be able to retain your ability to taste apart from your own cooking. I saw a french movie once where a man cooks for a chef. She asks him if he used a particular brand of sugar. He says, “There’s no way you can tell which kind of sugar I used.” Her reply? “No, but I can tell what kind you did not.” You will hopefully become this adept with a line, but not if you stick with the things you enjoy. Taste to find what you do not and learn to avoid adding it.
Once you have factored in your natural voice and then researched lines to which that voice might lead you, you’re all set to plot. Pantser or plotter, you still need a general idea of what you’re going to write and who you will write about. Targetting involves lining your writing elements up in a certain order. Tone, action, characterization and language must all match, like suits of cards. You CAN create a straight flush with unmatching suits, but something will be off about the compilation to the reader’s eye. An example would be a smart-mouthed, one-lining detective in a serial murder case that isn’t remotely a comedy. It could be a great plot, a brilliant mystery…but that off-suit characterization will unbalance the entire thing and leave it discordant. If the elements harmonize, you give the editor a better reason to believe this is a story they want.
If you’ll forgive one more metaphor, targeting your writing is much the way a lawyer puts a case together. The editor is your judge. The burden of proof is on you to provide evidence that you know what you’re doing. If you aim your elements, your story and your writing in a particular direction, you build the case word by word. Leave something important out, add something that doesn’t belong, and the ruling goes against you. Conscious targeting–at any stage–makes you a better writer and takes you several steps closer to selling. Or…you could always do what I did and spend years knocking on the wrong door.