For the second year now I’ve been working with my friends in the F+W Media family, helping to judge a contest. Though I’m not generally a huge fan of writing competitions—many of them are just plain scams—this is an organization that I have tremendous respect for and they do a terrific job of helping aspiring authors get noticed. And if there’s anything harder than actually writing a novel it’s getting that manuscript noticed in any real way.
In my more than a quarter century in the publishing business I’ve read a huge number of manuscripts, well into the thousands, and what continues to surprise me about the state of the “aspiring author” in America isn’t how many really terrible manuscripts are out there, and not how many really great manuscripts are out there, but the overwhelming majority that are not bad, not amazing, but actually surprisingly good. I think this forms a bell curve, with only a few percent being laughably terrible and a few percent on the other end that are empirically works of undiscovered genius.
So what are all these people in the middle doing right, and what are they doing wrong? What pushes some back in the direction of terrible, and might push that same manuscript more toward genius?
There’s a very old piece of advice for writers: Write what you know.
This, like most generalized advice given to a community of strangers, should be taken with a grain of salt. I could give you this advice, but I don’t know you, have no idea of your personal situation, and so on. Nathan Englander speaks rather eloquently on this subject over at bigthink.com. I agree with him 100%
What I’ve been noticing reading a number of self-published novels in the past couple years is that a lot of you out there are taking this advice to heart, then, unfortunately, pretty much stopping there.
Indeed, your personal experience will inform your fiction. In fact, I dare say, it will do that anyway. No one writes in a bubble any more than we exist in a bubble. Your personal experience tempers everything you think, feel, and therefore write. Just like Mr. Englander said.
But where too many aspiring authors go off the rails is by taking that advice way too literally. Most if not all of us came into writing while also working some kind of “day job.” I worked in retail, mostly, in my formative years before landing the full time editing gig at TSR in 1995. But during that time I was publishing the indie micro-press magazine Alternative fiction & poetry, and writing as much as I could, both fiction and role-playing game stuff.
That “write what you know” advice did inform my own novel Completely Broken, which features characters who work at a record store, and a few of the less violently grisly bits were based on actual events and people from my experience in the music retail biz. But that’s background—a reason why this set of characters knows each other—the rest of the book, I didn’t “know” at all, thankfully. My parents were never part of some kind of Satanic cult and never raised me to commit acts of ritual murder. I made that stuff up.
What I’ve been reading in the indie pool, though, are a rather large number of books that do the opposite. From the author’s bio we find that that author used to work in Industry X and is now retired. Bored, I guess, he/she decided to write a novel, was told “write what you know” so we get an in-depth look at Industry X.
The problem is that many of these “industries” aren’t inherently interesting. Working at a record store is a fun job for a music fan in his twenties, but is that all you need? A few anecdotes and a mountain of detail as to the day to day operations of that store?
No, you need characters and conflict.
That’s what a story is, after all: characters in conflict.
And as Nathan Englander pointed out, it’s not necessarily your experience in Industry X that will bring in readers of fiction, but characters. It’s a question of balance. And my advice to my worldbuilding classes holds true here too: What do you need to know to tell your story? To move that story forward? Do you need to create a system of weights and measures for your fantasy world? Probably not. Similar question: Do you need to drag in every detail of the daily operations of Industry X to move your story forward?
Of course not.
If you get a chance to read Completely Broken (ah, what a wonderfully underhanded plug that was!) you will get a glimpse into my experience in the record store business, but you will not be able to use that novel (not memoir, text book, or non-fiction how-to but novel) as a guide for opening and running your own record store. You may or may not like the story, but I put it first, and left Industry X in the background.
If anyone is reading this while working on a similar retirement project, please don’t let me stop you. You very well may have the Great American Novel currently in progress, but if the first thing you think of when you think or your work, or describe it to someone else, is that it’s going to blow the lid off Industry X or provide a first-hand account of life in Industry X or show everybody how fun, miserable, boring, exciting, or sexy it was to work in Industry X, then you mention the characters and then you mention the conflict . . . stop right there and make a decision:
Would you rather write a memoir?