What can fiction writers learn from non-fiction? by Tim Havard


The immediate reaction from writers to the title of this blog post might well be ‘not a lot’! Anyone who has written both fiction and non-fiction will know that the two mediums are very different. Faced with a new fiction project, the writer often has a blank piece of paper in front of them on which they need to frame a story, create characters who move and interact realistically in a world constructed from the imagination of the author. This is where the art and craft of the writer come together to produce something original that will, hopefully, delight and entertain the reader.

With non-fiction, generally you are looking to explore a topic, to explain and/or inform the reader. When setting down to write a non-fiction piece, the writer usually has a known structure. Certainly some research will be needed but much of the content will be known, at least in outline. Whether you also entertain depends on the audience you are writing for; Horrible Histories are factual, after all, and they contain rather more laughs than you get in an average academic paper! Even so, I think most people will accept that the two forms of writing are markedly dissimilar.

There is also one other big difference that those who write both fiction and non-fiction books experience; the experience of getting published!

With fiction, for an author who is not a ‘name’ the process is both tortuous and obscure. To get published for the first time your book has to be complete, proofread and edited and presented in a neat, clean, double-lined format. This will qualify it not for publication but for it not to be immediately rejected but to take its place in a slush pile of an agent or publisher where it might be read at some point over the next 12-18 months. It is a soul destroying, depressing process and there are well-known tales of some best-selling novelists who were rejected hundreds of times before getting lucky. And I am afraid it is often a matter of luck rather than talent.

With non-fiction the process is much easier. It is very rare that you will have written the work first. Instead you submit a proposal to a publisher who specialises in the field that you want to write about. This proposal goes before their editorial board and they tell you yes or no within a few weeks. If they say yes they will agree a timetable with you and appoint an editor to work with you and keep you on track. When the manuscript approaches completion they will give you a proof reader and copy-editor to prepare the work for final publication. In the words of an annoying meerkat: ‘Simples’!

So given these differences, what can a fiction writer learn from non-fiction? Well actually quite a lot.

One of the reasons why the non-fiction publication process is the way it is, is that the publisher makes the author address whether there is a market for their book. They do this in a number of ways: the author(s) has to set out their aims, define who they are writing the book for, lay out the content to be covered and also to say what its distinctive selling points are and how it differs from the competition. An example of what publishers require from a proposal is given below (this is from the publisher Routledge).

  • Statement of Aims
  • Definition of the Market
  • Table of Contents/Chapter Synopses
  •  Selling Points
  • Distinctive Features
  • Textbook Suitability
  • Professional Readership
  • Length and Schedule
  • Review of Competition
  • Potential Reviewers
  • Materials to Include
  • The guidelines are intended to clarify what your proposal is about, who it is for, and why it’s different from existing books or other sources of information on the market. Please fill out the guidelines in their entirety and provide all requested materials. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions as you prepare these materials.

The completed proposal is reviewed by the publisher and also sent out to a number of professionals or experts in the field to get their opinion on the proposed content. Only if all tallies is the book accepted for publication.

This in itself explains why the process of getting published as a fiction writer for the new author is so difficult. Publishers will only publish books that will sell. That is a simple, stark truth. That is why they go for ‘names’; names sell, it is what buyers of books look for first, a familiar author that they know and trust. If you are unknown then there is an immediate investment risk for the publisher. They know that they will have to spend more on marketing to get that work of the unknown author out there. The work is going to have to be bloody good and the prospect for sales pretty much assured before they will take the plunge. When you look at it this way the difficulties of getting through the filtering process of agents and publishers is quite understandable. Publishing is a business. Business is all about risk. The risks with a new author and a new work are extraordinarily high.

But this is where the lessons from non-fiction can help. How many of us, when setting out to write a novel, ask ourselves questions similar to those in numbers 1,2, 4 and 5 in the list above? I know I haven’t sufficiently in most of the works I have written yet. If you think about it, it is just what we should be doing to increase our chances of professional publication. Before we write we really should ask ourselves what we aim to achieve with the book, what the market will be, who will be the main type of reader? What will make our book distinctive, what are its main selling points?

This may sound mercenary; writing is, after all, meant to be an art and many of us write for the simple pleasure of story-telling. However, if we want a wider audience and more readers to entertain we need to be published. Agents and publishers, even if they work in these fields because of their love of the written word, are not charities. Their primary question when looking at a submission will invariably be ‘will this sell?’

So, if we can show that we have addressed this question at the beginning of the writing process then I believe we will greatly increase our chances of making that breakthrough and getting published. Success is still not guaranteed, it never can be in fiction, but anything that improves the odds of getting published has got to be worthwhile.

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