Monday, December 31, 2012

Be Careful What You Write

At the forefront of my earliest years of writing and publication I queried quite a few professional authors for advice and guidance. I wanted to know the easiest, less painful ways of achieving publication with full size books. I had a plethora of old-timers and experts from which to gain any hints or tips that would cut through the crap and get me off to a good start. These contacts came primarily from the Science Fiction Writers of American. They had some standard warnings and insider information for me, which has served me in my later years. I was first told that non-fiction books (at the time) outsold fiction 3--1, and if I had anything near a respectable platform, then to produce an informative non-fiction title. I did so--twice in a row--and was rewarded with almost immediate publication, with nice advances and global bookstore presence. I couldn't believe how dead-on their advice was. I was also told what not to write in a fiction or non-fiction format, since the chances of certain types of books hadn't much of a chance of acceptance or publication. I was warned away from several types, and these books are often the target or favorites books of brand new writers. Herein lies some examples with "danger zone" written all over them:

Memoirs and Autobiographies 

Writing is expression and passion put to paper. It's an outlet that can convey frustration, deep, inner feelings, conflict, anger-rage, concern and even accomplishments and joy. One of the first attractive stories a fledgling writer is apt to gravitate to is a story about themselves. It could involve growing up in a difficult or dangerous family setting, overcoming a divorce or job change, the formative teenage years, battling cancer, sexual abuse and domestic violence, the death of a family member or pet, a stint in the armed get the idea. What often happens in the prose department is that stories like these become blatantly self-indulgent, egocentric, rife with personal opinion, spiritual or religious in nature, politically motivated or even preachy. And this is the worst kind of author intrusion you can commit. They usually end up with entirely too much "I,I,I," and "me, me, me." Almost always, First Person POV is the default writing style. And it seems everyone n terra firma has a story to blow off their chest.

Your biggest obstacle here is platform and notoriety. Common folk, like you me, are apt to write the same boring story, and the only thing that might be different is the byline and plot. The themes have been thrashed to death--man against man--man against God--man against nature--and man against himself. You're nobody, really, and why oh why should your story be any more relevant than any other? Unless you're an A-list actor who has gone through rehab, a serial killer that needs to confess, a star athlete with a checkered past, a past president, a madame that has a little black book, or one of the other socially exciting figures who everyone has heard of, swallow a couple of aspirin, go into a dark room, lay down and wait for the feeling to pass. You will get rejected more times than you thought possible.

Granted, in just the last three or so years, memoirs and autobiographies have seen an upsurge and comeback, even from some perfectly unheard of authors. Opra's Book Club might have had something to do with this--but there be dangers, toils and snares there too since some recent titles have been fabrications and tagged frauds. I wouldn't suggest that you bury your notion about writing your personal memoir, but you better be damn certain there will be a likely market for it. And there just aren't that many publishers looking for them, which will hamstring you from the starting gate. A good question to ask yourself: what are you famous for and how many people already know about it?


There is a very small market for this type of writing. The markets that do exist pay very little or nothing, other than a contributor's copy or two. There must be a 100 million poets out there that first began their adventure in this style whilst in high school. If you don't have any poetry credits, say, some literary clips, you're not likely to impress a publishing house that is serious about poetry. Oh, and did I day it doesn't sell? Poetry is very difficult to master and there are several styles. If you insist on writing it, master the styles that teach you rhythm, beat, tone and nuance. Poetry is a great teacher of emotion and extended narrative where words are used to paint and describe. There's nothing wrong with writing poetry for your own enjoyment and satisfaction. But beware that it's uphill battle and the competition is fierce. Money? There is none. Did I say that?

Short Story Collections

Lots of writers start out writing short fiction and end up trunking most of it. It's difficult to write, since it requires lean, mean prose where every word counts. You have to read tons of it in order to learn how to write a pound of it. The competition is staggering. Unlike poetry, though, there are thousands of anthologies, journals and magazines looking for the stuff. We're talking about single, standalone short stories. If you can sell a dozen short stories to some the of the semi-pro and pro markets, you stand a slight chance of landing a deal with a publishing house that might take your collection to print. Might. And there's only a few such publishing houses out there for collections from unknowns. I think I could name them on one hand. So odds are very much stacked against you. Compared to novels and nonfiction books, SS collections are terrible sellers. Submitting them is hardly worth the effort unless you're a brand-name author in one of the popular genres, like science fiction, thriller, horror and fantasy. The best short story collections for the new writer are probably horror, what with the recent popularity of vampires, werewolves, ghosts and zombies. We're going through a zombie phase at the moment--they can't seem to get enough of the stuff to the readers. 

Nonfiction Books

You better have a platform here, or have precious writing credits in the field in which you write. That includes degrees and working experience. If you're writing about science or health, make sure you are a master in the field with lots of experience and years to your credit.. The only other job vocation that might help you, is if you're an award winning journalist, TV commentator, or top-notch reporter. There you can objectively report, as long as all your facts and research is inline and spotless. Because you will be fact-checked. You might be responsible for your own artwork and photographs, in addition to some celebrity blurbs, an extensive table of contents and footnotes up the wahzoo. Non-fiction books that explore any facet of the core sciences are horrendously difficult to write and get right. The money is very, very good here, though. Chances for publication are very high, with good advances and distribution. Even niche or regional titles do surprisingly well. 

Stop and think before you lay fingers to keyboard. Know the risks and pitfalls. If you can't be deterred from writing any of these types of books or collections, I bid you good luck and God's speed.


  1. Great post! Many people toy with the idea of writing an autobiography at some time or other but I'm not one of them. My own life is so boring that I'd much rather write fiction so I can make things up! Happy new year.

  2. Thanks, Carroll. At least when I'm writing fiction I'm lying for fun and everybody knows it and loves it. If I lie or exaggerate in my autobiography, I'll be horse-whipped and drummed out of the social lime light.