Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Post: Making A Commercial Novel More Upmarket Using Setting

by Stella Notecor

Upmarketing Your Novel!

Have you ever heard of an upmarket novel? Many commercial books with literary elements are now being called "upmarket novels." Nowadays, commercial fiction tends to be a bit... commercialized. Adding touches of literary elements to your novel can help your fiction transcend genre, resonate with readers, and become timeless. (All of which translates to bigger sales and more money in your pocket!) That doesn't mean your fiction needs to be that dry and boring stuff your high school teachers made you read. Upmarket fiction can be as entertaining as commercial fiction!

Often the literary elements that suffer the most in a commercial novel are the setting details. We don't want to bog down our readers by providing too many setting details that pull them away from the plot. The following three tips will help you give your commercial fiction more oomph without detracting from the plot.

Tip #1 - Make the description relate to the character.

Descriptions should come from your character's point-of-view. Consider an old woman observing the house her granddaughter is begging her to sell so she can move into a retirement home.

"I stared up at the house that had been my life. The porch swing swayed in the breeze coming off the lake, much more gently than it ever had when my two sons were the ones swinging it. Wildflowers filled the window boxes. I always picked a plant or two when we went away on family vacations, bringing them back much as we brought back memories. The steps sagged a little, testament to the many little feet that ran up and down them over the years, but all in all, the house looked just as it had when Henry and I bought it fifty-five years ago."

Now, consider her granddaughter's point of view.

"This house would be the death of Gram. The old porch swing shuddered at the slightest breeze, threatening to fall from its rusty chain the next time Gram took a seat. Wildflowers in window boxes required Gram to water them every day. Elise had watched her totter around the house once, carrying a heavy watering can, as she attempted to water all the flowers. She'd nearly tripped coming down those old, rickety steps and the uneven walk had practically begged her to fall and break a bone or two. She had no idea why Gram wanted to stay in this death-trap."

Descriptions become more powerful when we see them through our characters' eyes.

Tip #2 - Use bits of culture to give your story realism.

Using small cultural references can help your readers identify a character's age, race, personality, and socioeconomic background while adding only a few words to your word count. Consider the following descriptions.

"Jane grabbed a soda from the fridge, then headed out the front door. Sliding into the car, she turned on the ignition and grinned as her favorite song came blasting out of the radio."

"Madison grabbed a strawberry Fanta from the fridge, then headed out the front door. Sliding into her Scion, she turned on the ignition and grinned as her favorite Katy Perry song came blasting out of the radio."

"Stacy grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge, then headed out the front door. Sliding into her Cadillac, she turned on the ignition and grinned as her favorite song by The Monkees came blasting out of the radio."

Which descriptions were more engaging? Madison and Stacy's, right? And I'm sure you can guess which girl was born in the fifties and which girl was born in the nineties!

(A caution... pop culture snippets can also date your story. If used in a modern book, editors may ask you to remove or limit them so that you don't render the book unsellable after a certain length of time. A teenager who mentions "Bennifer" isn't going work as well now as it did when Ben and Jennifer were still dating!)

Tip #3 - Make your setting a character.

By this, I mean that your setting should influence the story as much as a character does. Reading about the barren desert is all well and good, but the desert can become truly interesting if you make it out to be a savage beast, tearing your character's life away from them.

"The sand crept into everything. It got into our shoes and wore away at our socks, filling them with holes. Then it attacked our feet, wearing away the skin and leaving behind raw wounds that ached with every step we took.

The sun beat down on us, burning our skin and evaporating what little water we collected. If it weren't for the sun's heat, we could have walked twenty miles a day. Instead, we barely managed five."

Now, isn't that description a lot more interesting than "The hot and sandy desert made traveling difficult"?

Obviously, making your setting more interesting can make your novel a lot more interesting too. And there are ways to do it without adding to your word count. So, I have a question for you. Do you think you will use literary elements in your stories now? Which ones? Why? Why not?

Stella Notecor believes that love knows no boundaries. She writes erotic fiction that reflects that, choosing to focus on her characters' stories, not their genders. Her first self-pubbed novella, The Broken, was released May 29th in formats for all major e-readers. Visit her website at http://tiny.cc/stellanotecor for more information and to read an excerpt.


  1. This is all great advice. I think the literary element I struggled with the most at first was setting. When I reread the first draft for my first novel, I realized that it was mostly dialogue. I had to rewrite it to include more actions and more information about where the story was taking place, so that it wouldn't be like one of those cartoons where all you see are talking heads.

  2. The most useful and interesting post I have read on this site! Loved it. I bet Stella's writing rocks.

  3. Great post! I try to flavor my settings with historical references that shouldn't go away any time soon and local haunts. Instead of gathering in a Starbucks, my characters will get together in a ma and pa establishment.

  4. Concrete examples of points being made are always welcome. Excellent!

  5. @Neurotic: Setting is what I struggle with the most too. My first drafts are mostly dialogue and actions, and editing takes me a LONG time because I have to go back and layer in the setting details. It's worth it though!

    @Cynthia: Aw! *blushes* Thanks!

    @Ann: That's a great way to add flavor without dating your story! I love reading stories with small diners or stores in them, especially if I look them up later and discover they are real. =)

    @Phoenix: Thank you! =)

  6. Great bits of advice, and applicable to all genres! I've been trying to incorporate things like this into my writing anyway, but after seeing this post I'll be more conscious of them when I start revising my current WIP.

  7. These are such great tips! I love the examples. Thanks for sharing :)

  8. There is some really good advice in here. I would be a little wary of Tip #2, however. Too much name-dropping/product placement can date you (as you said), but I feel it also makes for a somewhat boring read. I don't always care about every little detail of my characters. Saying simply, "Kelly grabbed a soda, jumped in her convertible and grinned as her favorite pop song came on the radio" prevents dating, implies wealth (with the convertible) and lists her favorite type of music without listing a specific artist.

    But that's just my $.02 :)

    YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward
    Adult: Shackled

  9. I knew I'd love this post from the moment I read the announcement last week. Setting is something I need to work on, and I've been trying to work on these exact points.

    (And then you mentioned The Monkees. That's eight shades of awesome right there.)

    Thanks for sharing!

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