One of the more difficult and important tasks in writing a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, is figuring out its place in the broader literature. How does your book stand out? What makes it different from all the others? What voice do you bring?
Sometimes the uniqueness can be obvious: You survey the books in your genre or field and find a hole you can fill. That happened with my first nonfiction book Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities. As the title suggests, this book focused on the impact of illegal drugs on U.S. cities and neighborhoods. (It won an international award.) In other cases, positioning may not seem to really matter because you’ve been commissioned to write it (as in my second book on urban planning and land development in Hong Kong).
For me, finding that voice for nonfiction has become second nature. Where I struggle is with fiction, in part because the writing style forces me way outside my comfort zone and because I think it’s just harder to position works of fiction as unique contributions to literature. With the Pirate of Panther Bay, I wanted to fuse a historically accurate characterization of pirates with a lead character as a pirate captain with distinctive 21st century sensibilities. I ended up doing that by putting a female ex-slave at the helm of a pirate ship. This seemed to “work” for critics and readers.
I’ve struggled somewhat with A Warrior’s Soul. My independent positioning analysis found the content was well placed within the middle-grade fiction and martial-arts literature. The theme of bullying makes it highly relevant to current times. But what really makes this story unique?
I think I finally figured it out after reading The Cutting Season, a decidedly adult martial arts novel by Arthur Rosenfeld. (The book is very good, and I recommend.) In what I think is a common element of most novels in this genre, the character is heavily vested in the martial-arts culture which is very spiritual and mystic. Reincarnation, balance with the universe, contradiction and paradox are crucial for moving these stories along. And that’s where A Warrior’s Soul is different..
Because A Warrior’s Soul is targeted toward teens, and Western middle schoolers in particular, the story is gritty and practical. The intent is to be relevant and contemporary, not historical and spiritual. (Hint: Spiritual balance and intentional self-discovery are not an articulated center of a typical U.S. teen’s life.)
So, as I’m developing my marketing plan, A Warrior’s Soul is positioned outside the mainstream for martial-arts fiction in that the focus of the story’s struggle self-doubt and lack of confidence, and how the lead characters approach practical problems revolving around real and potentially life-threatening events. Self-awareness is there, but the story is driven by a very western idea of self-actualization to drive the plot and climax. Martial-arts serves as the primary instrument through which my characters move along this arc.
We’ll have to see how readers respond to this approach to marketing A Warrior’s Soul. Stay tuned and I’ll report on our progress as we move toward the release date in July 2011.