You always hear writers and other creative people talking about "selling" something to the reader, or the audience. And it sounds terribly crass. What if you're a great artist, and you don't want to try and sell anything? This all sounds like... commerce. Or something equally distasteful.
But in fact, when people talk about "selling" something, they're talking about a key part of storytelling — maybe the most important part. Whether it's your premise, or your main character's motivation, or a key plot device, there's always at least one thing that you have to sell to people, or they won't buy your story as a whole.
So how can you become a great salesperson?
So let's say you've written a book, and someone's already paid actual cash money for it. Why do you have to worry about selling anything else after that? Partly, it's because you want that first reader to like the book enough to recommend it to all his or her friends, so you can move more dead trees or e-ink. But also, the reader signs a sort of contract with you when they plunk down their cash for your book, and making your reader believe in the story is part of fulfilling that contract.
Everybody has to worry about this stuff — literary writers as well as genre writers. Genre writers may have a slightly higher barrier to making the sale, because we ask people to believe in strange worlds and weird creatures, in addition to all the crazy decisions that characters have to make, in order for there to be a story. But no matter what, there's going to be stuff in your story that you have to get people to buy into, or they won't care about your characters or their world.
Look at it this way, continuing the commercial metaphor: You start every story with a certain amount of capital, and that capital is your readers' attention span. You need to spend that capital wisely. If you spend it well, on getting your readers to buy into what you need them to buy into, then you'll get an almost unlimited supply in return. But you have to spend your initial capital to get more — if you hoard it, you lose it — and if you waste it on the wrong stuff, people will give up on you.
What we're talking about is sort of similar to suspension of disbelief. But it also involves just getting people to care about whatever your story needs them to care about. And besides just believing in the plausibility of some plot twist, this kind of "selling" also means getting us to fixate on a detail or an idea enough that we'll remember it later. You need to get the audience to hold onto stuff that you're going to be coming back to later in the story. Anything that you're planning on putting some weight on, you need to reinforce. And so on. It sounds basic, but it's actually really hard.
A genre audience will accept certain things, just as a matter of course. Oh, sure, it goes without saying that an ancient vampire will fall in love with an underaged high school student, that's just what vampires do. But that can be a double-edged sword — if you find yourself not having to work so hard to sell something, it's probably a cliché of some sort.
And yeah, a lot of this stuff comes up in rewriting, not in the first draft. The first, and maybe second, drafts are where you're free to try out a lot of stuff without trying to sell it to anybody, except maybe yourself. You don't necessarily know what stuff you're going to come back to later in the story, and what's going to turn out to be vitally important. But by the time you're whipping a third draft into shape, you probably have at least some inkling of what you need to be selling — and hopefully, you know what you're failing to sell adequately.
So here are the steps to meeting your storytelling sales quotas, and getting a lovely plaque. Or at least, your audience's continued trust: 1) Figure out exactly what you most need to sell. 2) Figure out what you're not selling, as it stands. 3) Make sure you actually buy it yourself. 4) Utilize some time-honored sales techniques that will make you a sales master. Of sales!
So in order, here we go:
1) Figuring out what you most need to sell is often a matter of realizing what you don't need to be selling, quite so much. A common mistake that people make is expending too much time and energy on sideshows. Subplots, or random tangents. Or worse yet, your pet rants about politics or whatever. If you're busy trying to win us over to your side in the war on cigar-smoking or knee socks, then you're probably not going to have as much time to win us over on more important stuff. Of course, part of what you have to sell people on is your world as a whole, so any subplots need to feel at least thought-out and interesting.
And you could also fall into the well-known trap where your book actually begins on page 100, and you're wasting 99 pages getting us invested in characters or ideas that won't actually matter in the end.
But also, there's sort of a process of figuring out what your story is about, that often happens in revision. Like, identifying the main conflicts and the shape of the story, and so on. And there's usually some correlation between the most important stuff in your story, and the stuff you need to be pushing like crack. But it's also the stuff that underpins the story — like the steadfast friendship between your starship captain and her ship's doctor may not be the thing that motivates her to take action in the story, but it's important to us understanding her and giving a crap about her.
2) Figuring out what you're not selling right now requires taking a big step back, and can be the hardest part of the revision process. This is a big part of why you need to get feedback from people, and why joining a writing group can be invaluable.
You need to listen to people's critiques of your work, and bear in mind that they will seldom put their finger on your failure to sell something. They won't necessarily say "I didn't believe in this part" — instead, they'll offer you symptoms. Like, if everybody hated a particular character, that's because there's something about that character that you're not bringing across. Or if they thought the whole book should have been about a minor supporting character instead of the lead, or if they felt that nothing made sense in a crucial section, that means that you're failing to sell a crucial part of the story you're telling.
You can also gauge what you're not selling on your own, though. One of the things I try to do with manuscripts is read through, and try to see the story from each major character's perspective. Try to follow each through-line and see if there are gaps. And try reading it aloud, and see if you're getting bored or disenchanted with a particular part. Oftentimes, a section may feel perfectly serviceable on the page, but when you read it out or look at it from a particular perspective, you suddenly realize that it's lacking.
3) But do you actually believe in what you're selling? This is worth asking, even if the answer turns out to be yes. You may have a rock-solid story that you've hashed out in a couple of drafts already, and you feel deep in your heart that the hero's transformation is well-grounded, and the world is well sketched out. You may have done endless notes on the world and the history of every part of it. You may have obsessed over the color of the carpet in your space captain's "ready room."
But do you actually buy into all this yourself, or are you just telling the story that you think is expected of you? Are you trapped by an outline that made sense originally, but now doesn't actually work with the characters as they've grown in your head? Do you, perhaps, have a bunch of lively, fascinating supporting characters, and a main character who's a cinderblock with a cool outfit? It's never too late to stop and realize that a key part of your story is just not convincing you personally, deep down. (Actually, scratch that. It's too late, if and when the book actually gets published and you're standing up in front of an audience, reading from it.)
You should definitely invest some time and soul-searching into this question, because if the answer turns out to be no, then no amount of sales wizardry will save you. You have to step back and do some serious rethinking, instead.
4) The part where you actually bolster your selling involves a whole range of techniques, from structural to cosmetic. Partly, it depends a lot on the problems you identified in steps one and two.
It could be that you need to tear up your outline and build in 100 more pages devoted to a particular plot thread that you want to emphasize. You may have to tear out a whole bunch of distracting stuff that buries your major story elements under a layer of fuzz. It's possible that you should introduce something a lot earlier, or foreshadow it somehow, so that it's planted in the reader's mind right at the start.
But also, this is the part where writing becomes a lot more like music. In music, you have themes or particular instruments that rise up above the rest of the sounds, and either form part of the melody or some kind of contrapuntal response to it. And a big part of how music evokes an emotional response is both in the stuff that the composer/arranger emphasizes, and in how it all comes together. Every instrument is not as important as every other instrument, every section is not equally important.
So you, as the "composer" of your piece of music, have to arrange things so that certain notes rise above everything else.
I was sitting with some writers at Worldcon, and somebody talked about description of physical surroundings, and how it can convey a particular character's state of mind — even when you're using a third-person narrator. If a tree looks ominous or forbidding, it inadvertently shows that the character who's looking at the tree is full of dread. And so on. In that way, lots of details can help to build up a character's credibility without having to resort to showing us stuff directly. Just the way a character eats a piece of cake can make a powerful statement about that person — do they knock it over, or carefully carve thin slices off it?
Pour storytelling energy into the stuff you most want us to buy into — and energy includes things like beautiful language, clever dialogue, great scene-setting, and charged emotional moments. Obviously, you want your whole book to be well-written, but you especially need to make sure that any part that you've decided needs more selling should have your most lovely, memorable prose and cleverest notions.
You can sell anything, if you pound it over and over again — tell us a hundred times that a particular character is handsome and resolute, and we'll eventually accept it, because it's easier than doubting you. But you risk alienating or annoying your readers that way, and you'll wind up with kind of a boring book. The maxim "show don't tell" is sometimes oversold as a commandment — but when it comes to selling important stuff, it's more vital than ever.
At the same time, when the reader receives independent confirmation of an idea or viewpoint from multiple characters, the reader is more likely to accept it as a fact. And if you're concerned that something in your story may seem implausible or just too messed-up to the reader, absolutely do not have multiple characters comment on how it doesn't make sense or seems wrong. You may feel like you're covering yourself by having characters acknowledge the implausibility, but you're just hanging a sign on it.
And finally, there is quite a bit of a difference between selling your basic premise (say, a world where all vampires are blues musicians) and selling emotional/psychological stuff within that premise (one blues-playing vampire decides to do klezmer music instead.) Selling your premise requires absolute conviction on your part, and a lot of fleshing out of the world and history that sets it up. Selling a particular character's decisions or emotions, meanwhile, requires a ton of attention to character, and a willingness to push that particular character's arc above others.
Don't worry that by choosing to sell a particular aspect of your story, you're trying to ram anything down your reader's throats, or not leaving room for the readers' own interpretation. They'll still create their own version of your story in their heads, no matter what you do — it's just that a good job of selling the basics will leave them more excited to do so.