To The Author In Search of A Subject

Illustration of a scribe writing

In my view there are two conflicting strains of advice for authors regarding what they should write. One, which I’ll call the “write what you know” advice, claims that writers are most successful when they write about what they know intimately. Authors need to know a subject before they write, according to this advice.

The other line of thinking, let’s call it the “research before you write” advice, suggests that authors research carefully not only the subject but for the market for a book to make sure there is some kind of market for the book. Authors, this idea claims, should write what will sell, not just whatever they happen to know about.

If you ask me, both views are simplistic, at least.

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On The Financial Motive

There is something deceptive about success stories. You hear a story of someone else’s success, and it is sometimes hard not to assume that you can do the same.

Author success stories are no exception. For Mormons, Stephanie Meyer is the most recent example. She is just like so many LDS authors — a suburban housewife with kids who writes in her spare time. I’m sure she has a Church calling, worries about how well her kids are doing in school and probably finds inspiration in the people she knows. In fact, her life is just like that of half the women in my ward.

The problem is Meyer’s success — or that of Orson Scott Card, Dean Hughes, Rachel Nunes or whoever — is really very difficult to replicate.

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Finding Criticism

A prospective author I spoke with last week wanted to know what the next step should be in getting his manuscript published. The author told me about the project’s subject (a subject outside of what I publish) and explained that he had already written quite a bit of the manuscript, a non-fiction work, and wondered if he should approach agents or publishers about getting the manuscript published.

So I asked him who had read the manuscript.

No one, he admitted.

I’ve run into this situation before. Somehow some authors miss a critical step in preparing a manuscript for submission to agents and publishers — criticism. No author does his best work without feedback from others — feedback that identifies problems with a manuscript, that mentions its strengths and weaknesses and helps the author to decide what to change and what to leave alone.

In this case the author recognized the wisdom of getting criticism, and asked me to read and criticize his manuscript.

Of course, I said no.

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