Tantra Bensko is a talented writer and wonderful teacher. In fact, she taught me how to write experimental fiction at UCLA Extension. She is the author of numerous books, including her latest, Glossolalia, a psychological suspense novel that is part of her Agents of the Nevermind series. Below she shares her experiences in her shift from writing Literary to Commercial fiction, and gives great tips on how to succeed. Find out more about Tantra on her Facebook author page.
In the olden days, masses of people enthusiastically read poetry, Literary Fiction, academic criticism, and in-depth analysis of profound novels. Now? You’ve got to be kidding. No way.
Statistically, Literary interests have dipped so far down as to be arguably pathetic. What to do? If you grew up inspired by the geniuses taught in school, and you hoped to write books that would be classics included in anthologies of great American thought, you may have realized by now that emulating those authors is no longer likely going to get you many readers. That’s OK. But still…
Have you ever secretly considered switching allegiance from Literary Fiction’s beautiful language, artistic sentiments, profound subtle themes, startling metaphors, intensely unique narrative voice, conceptual brilliance and meaningful structural innovation to – just plain Genre entertainment? Fast action, pop sensibility, sex and death, splashy heroes and heroines and adrenaline-based excitement? I know. It’s like becoming a new person to make that kind of change. But it’s actually possible. I know because I did it.
Granted, my novels aren’t simple entertainment. There’s a political analysis and history there. But otherwise, they follow The Mighty Formula instead of veering from it meaningfully like my earlier writing did. They titillate. Things explode and there are chase scenes and fight scenes. The endings are not ambiguous and gray like real life. They’re victorious, straight up.
To make the transition, I made myself watch popular movies and novels in the genres I was exploring instead of my usual foreign art film and avant-garde literature fare. I no longer read Experimental Lit for fun. I embraced uber-conflict and linearity. I followed trends (God forbid.) I literally set out to change my taste and I had no idea it was actually so possible that a personality could be so malleable. And while I’m very glad I was the previous me—previously, I’m thinking the new me might possibly make more money—or, at least rationalize spending more money on advertising because there’s some chance the ads will lead to a reasonable ROI. Yeah, marketing jargon everywhere. Instead of creating a plot organized in concentric circles, I’m now “splintering the tripwire.”
I used to embrace my obscurity. Now it leads to gnashing of teeth. Bruxism was never a way of life for me before, but now, bring it on! Who needs sleep? I’m going to be “famous”: in other words, I’m going to watch my Amazon rank rise when the Kindle Select books are set to free for five out of every ninety days and they’re announced to the free-book groups.
I have a strong, solid reputation in the Innovative Literary Fiction world, have spoken on panels at conferences, guest edited a magazine, teach Experimental Fiction, had hundreds of publications and won awards. But if I offered the influential free-book groups about my previous books of short stories that subverted the dominant paradigm with kaleidoscopic perspectives and an avant-garde novella that collapses time, the group members would have made funny faces that could have gotten plenty of hits on YouTube.
Now, some people will still think the new books are too niche because they question US policy rather than just setting up the secret agents to be glorious good guys; instead, they’re the antagonists. But at least mainstream readers of my new books won’t be twitching, belching, backing away and staring out into the distance with their eyes unfocused while they regroup and try to forget what just happened.
My personality hasn’t changed completely. I still don’t go to the latest blockbuster movies in the theaters or read Stephen King. I have no idea what most people are talking about when they’re on the topic of current pop culture. I still do aim to veer the dominant paradigm of spy novels to ones that acknowledge the messed-up US policy. But I’m starting to allow myself to get that people like reading books that have a buzz right now, because they want to talk to people about them at work, at coffee houses, on dates. I can now even look at the covers of commercial fiction without a twinge of nausea.
I already knew the rules of all the genres well, as I’ve taught them for many years. I’ve had stories published in most genres, to at least demonstrate I know what I’m teaching. But I narrowed down to only one of them for The Agents of the Nevermind series and lo and behold, I actually like it. It’s not constricting at all. And it doesn’t feel shallow or like I’m selling out. In fact, it’s liberating to feel I’m an insider instead of an outsider with my nose pressed against the window of all the Genre authors networking, advertising, and gaining visibility on Amazon.
Lit Fic is known in the Commercial circles as “those books where nothing happens.” Or, “all the thoughts of academic professorial characters experiencing existential angst in middle aged crisis.” “Language being inexcusably flowery.” “The land where semi-colons go to die.” “Snob city.” It’s nuanced motifs and ambiguity. Depressing endings and lots of pondering.
Conversely, commercial fiction is happnin’. Commercial fiction is hip. It’s action; it’s triumphant battles of good vs evil. It embraces a predictable formula instead of fighting it tooth and nail to create something new and fresh and unlike anything ever seen before. The audience is wider and to really succeed, needs to appeal to people of average intelligence and lower as well as higher. This is the part I personally find most difficult, because the ideas I want to get across take a lot of brain-power to absorb, and guessing solutions to the mystery puzzles in the plots requires earnest conjecture. Getting my books requires going against propaganda and assumptions, stereotypes. They’re thrills for thinkers. I have to have faith there are lots of readers out there interested in the world around them, intrigued by going deep and using their smarts.
Apparently, however, most people don’t want to think too deeply about what’s behind the scenes in politics, details that call into question popular memes, international economic realities, and true history which has instead been changed by the Pentagon in its presentation in popular movies. But then, most Literary readers don’t either. Not really. Some people do, however. And I want to give them something to revel in. Just like I did with my Lit Fic, in a different way. And I want to make it fun.
What’s a simple universal formula for Commercial/Genre Fiction? The main character, who is usually the protagonist, is seen at first in regular life, with a hint of a flaw that makes the reader wish the character would grow up, get a life, and listen to her ideas about how he should change. Good. OK, then, the inciting incident, bam, the requisite hesitation, the First Plot Point, in which he decides to take the plunge and enter the adventure, after which there’s no going back, and bam, the story has begun in earnest. The tension builds, of course—we all know that. But how it builds has been carefully analyzed by many authors, including the midpoint in which there he actually or symbolically looks in the mirror to assess the reality of who he really is.
The Second Act (out of four) has him reacting to the events and the Third Act shows him becoming more proactive, but he’s still learning from his inevitable mistakes. He’s in a pickle because of that particular tendency for mistakes, so he makes lot of wrong decisions, and learns from each one. Each encounter with the antagonist teaches him new lessons and he veers off on his approach, creating Plot Reversals. There must be plenty of zigs and zags as the protagonist learns the skills he will be called on to come out of the terrible Crisis and successfully fight the antagonist in the Climax in Act Four, ideally making a difference to the world at large.
While Literary Fiction can target only above average English skills because there’s little hope of being a best seller, anyway, obscurity being an acceptable status, fiction meant for a large audience statistically needs to be able to be understood by people who have average and below average as well as above average IQ, education, reading abilities, and understanding of the English language. Prose accessible by ninth grade reading level is generally recommended. Showing rather than telling directly is good, so the readers can figure things out on their own, but some amount of hand-holding can help people who are a little slow follow along with enjoyment.
Literary Fiction can get away with lots of internal dialogue, plots resting on epiphanies, long descriptions of landscape, older main characters, language-driven or character-driven material, Genre Fiction needs action. Thriller/Suspense, which my series falls into, needs explosions, chase scenes, fight scenes, sex scenes, lots of twists and turns, a ticking clock, urgency of solving the problem to save the world or at least a life. Murder is almost inevitable. However, Psychological Suspense is the closest to Literary in that it explores issues such as identity and self-delusion, is focused on a complex personality, requires long suspension of understanding, and has to be character-driven to some degree. Suspense is slower paced than Thrillers, which is an accepted trait of Literary as well, and while in Thrillers, something big needs to happen, in Suspense, the dread of something happening, even if not much ever does, is key. So Psychological Suspense is a good move for Literary authors trying to branch out for a larger audience.
Advertising the books is completely different. Before, I networked with the Literary Community, such as at local readings and on Facebook, where we shared and commented on each other’s links, reviewed work we loved, interviewed authors we liked, all for small press magazines.
Now I use Facebook ads, for example, bringing attention to my new Tantra Bensko Author page, and entice people to my newsletter with lead magnets of the first chapter with illustrations of the characters as well as videos, slideshows, and more. I create sleek images for the ads, Twitter posts, etc. with Canva, using the 20 % text rule, instead of painting avant-garde works on actual canvases. I used to make surreal trailers for my books myself and now I hire professionals and license the music.
I spend a lot more money on the Genre writing than the Literary, based on continually studying marketing, especially for authors, and I make sure to use the right color CTA button in the location on my website proven to get more clicks. I analyze the different interest groups I target in marketing for who signs up for my newsletter most often. I’ll be setting up ads, targeted to the specific audiences, that say “Fan of Barry Eisler? You’ll love Glossolalia.” “You liked Eyes Wide Shut? Read the book that finishes what that movie tentatively started.” I feel like a businesswoman my father would have been proud of while maintaining the integrity of my art that my mother would have been proud of. It’s actually possible to do. I know I’m facing competition of authors putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and box sets to give away as lead magnets. I’m competing with authors who outsource all their books and put out new ones in popular genres every month.
People who want to support my efforts to write about the reality of US foreign policy, corruption in intelligence agencies, media lies, and heroes who expose propaganda will buy my books and if they love them, word of mouth will set the novels free to make a difference to the world. In the Literary community, controversial political topics are taboo but in Thrillers/Suspense it’s becoming a possibility now indie publishing means we don’t have to kowtow to censorship by the domination of the Big 5. And I like that. I like the new me, and I like my new readers and fellow Genre authors. I still like the Literary crowd too. My world just expanded, is all. And that’s a good thing.
Tantra Bensko, with an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, teaches fiction writing at UCLA Extension Writing Program, Writers.com, Writers College, and her own Online Writing Academy. Her Agents of the Nevermind series begins with Glossolalia: Psychological Suspense, about the lives of secret agents who are so secret, even they don’t always know that’s what they are. http://www.insubordinatebooks.com/
Editor’s note: This post was originally published on July 14, 2016.