Saturday, December 01, 2012

New Rule for Writers: Be Knowledgeable

Imagine for a moment you are applying to be an extra in "The Hobbit"
The casting director asks "what makes you special?"
Your answer "I'm the only person available for the job."

The casting director looks out the window to see this:

People lined up to apply for the job.

The casting director says "NEXT!" and you're out the door wondering what the hell happened.

I mention this because all too often I'm seeing queries from writers saying there aren't any/enough books on their subject.

Since one of the things I look for are holes in the market,  I turn to Amazon and search for books on that subject.

Too many times the search turns up more than 100 books.  Obviously not all are good matches.  But you don't need to find 100 to know that "I'm the only one" isn't on the right side of the truthiness scale.

What does this mean for you?

It means Know Your Field.  If you want to write a picture book that reinforces a certain concept, you better have read every picture book in your library, and all the ones your librarian tells you are a good match for that idea.

That way, your answer to "what makes you special" is not "I'm the only one" but "I do this better than Title X" or "my book is more current than Y."

If you want to write a novel about world war two spies, you'd better know who Alan Furst is. And David Downing. And Ken Follet.

If you tell me there aren't any good books about being a cop, I'm going to bop you on the noggin with a copy of Edward Conlon's BLUE BLOOD.

Every single time you write "there aren't any books about this" I double check. EVERY TIME.  If you get this wrong, it's game over.

How do you get knowledgeable about your area or topic? You read. A lot. If you haven't read at least 100 books in your area, you're not ready to start writing.  This obviously is an on-going effort and keeping a reading journal or list is a good idea.  I maintain a list of the published, non-client books I've read on Library Thing.

Read the books that are reviewed in PW, or the magazines that serve your genre.  I subscribe to Crimespree, Mystery Scene and several others just to keep track of what's out there.

Almost all publishers have their catalogs online now. Go to their websites and download them, and see what they're publishing that you've never heard of.  Read those. Keep notes.

And if you think this is a waste of time, let me remind you of this: one of the keenest readers of genre fiction is a guy named Lee Child.  Heard of him? Before he was a writer, he was a reader. When he sat down to write his first book, he knew a LOT about what was out there, what worked, what didn't and most important, what he wanted to write about.

I saw this firsthand at Bouchercon three years ago when I walked through the book dealers's room with him.  He knew dozens and dozens of authors and books. He'd read them and had opinions on them.

I vowed then and there to make sure I kept up on my reading. It's part of the job.

Any questions?


Anonymous said...

Love this!--> If you haven't read at least 100 books in your area, you're not ready to start writing.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

And then keep reading your genre (and other genres, too)! It's an ongoing process. And is there ever a down side to reading a good book?

Anonymous said...

BLUE BLOOD is a great, great book. Everyone who lives anywhere that has police officers, should read it.

So far, I've only found two real perks of being a writer. One is silencing at least a few of the voices in my head. The other is getting to read tons of books and claiming the time spent is "work."

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! I do the Amazon search thing on a regular basis (and make frequent 'emergency' runs to my local library as a result), receive Shelf Awareness and other publishing news.

I did not think to look at actual publishing house lists, nor do I have a sub to Crimespree. I just asked my husband for a subscription as a Christmas gift!

With the very good books, I read them at least twice. First as a reader, then as a writer - trying to see how the author handled tension, setting or anything else so brilliantly.

If I find myself putting a book down after a few pages or a couple of chapters, I ask myself why - then make sure I don't do that in my own writing (or attempt not to).

This post was really so very helpful - it gave me a push in the right direction.

You provide so much guidance to writers - something you do not have to do, but clearly are called to do. Thank you.

Michael Seese said...

I can't read 100 books in my genre. There aren't 100 books in my genre: pretty virgin falls for hunky vampire, but then gets all hot for a werewolf.

Janet Reid said...

Michael, if my sister wasn't already dead under a house with a Kansas address, she'd have died laughing with me as I read your comment...being careful not to spew water on each other of course.

Unknown said...

I've heard a lot of published authors/agents/editors/etc. say that the best way to improve your writing is to read. Never would've put 100 books as the number, but it makes sense!

Bonnee Crawford said...

One thing that I'm very self-conscious of is that I haven't done enough reading. I know that I have read a lot, but I sometimes questions if it's ENOUGH or THE RIGHT STUFF. I guess the main thing is to just KEEP reading, even if you've already started writing. It's very unlikely that someone hasn't already come up with the same concept you're writing about, so making that claim won't get anyone anywhere.

Ashes said...

Thank you, Janet, for this.
I believe that all aspiring authors should be readers first and writers second. Sometimes this view is met with 'where would I find the time to read more than I write?' You make time. You make time because words carry importance and meaning in your life. Because you want to use words to be successful, and successful words are readily available for you to study, analyze, and enjoy.

Shaunna said...

I appreciate the sentiment expressed in this post, and Ii'm sure the Shark knows what she's talking about, but I'm going to play devil's advocate for a moment. Few of us are professional writers without day jobs. We have families and careers and a lot of demands on our time. I love to read. I got a Master's degree in English so I could spend more time reading and call it homework. But now I have four kids and precious little time for myself. When I do have an hour to spare and I'm not so tired that I fall asleep before I can even brush my teeth, I choose to write. A hundred books in my genre? I might be able to, if I totally ignore my children and husband and spend all my spare time reading. But after a year I would not have written a single word, which is what I want to do. So where does that leave me? Can I ever get published? How do I get out of the "writer's rat race?"

scaryazeri said...

This reminded me of a very old Russian anecdote that was very popular in my home country.. They used to always make jokes of the northern area of russia, where chukchas lived. And so the joke was about one chukcha who decided to become a writer. He brings his first novel to a publisher, who looks up at him and asks: 'excuse me, but have you read any books in your life? Have you read big guys, like Pushkin? Dostoyevskiy? '
And chukcha replied proudly ' chukcha is NOT a reader! Chukcha is a WRiTER!'

Elissa M said...

I am always surprised by people who say they are writers but haven't read a book in months, even a year.

@Shaunna- you can do it. Have faith in yourself. Get an e-reader. Read during your commute (if you're not driving). Read at lunch. Read in the bathroom. Read to your kids (maybe that's not your genre, but it's still reading).

If you really can't find any time at all to read, you should take a hard look at your life and priorities. Maybe you should consult a "life coach" or other professional who can help you carve out the time you need for yourself. Everyone needs time for themselves, whether to read, write, or just breathe.

Freda Cameron said...

When I begin writing a new book, I stop reading material in my chosen genre until my first draft is finished...because I don't want to be overly influenced by the voice of a favorite author.

This works well because I use the hiatus to read nonfiction (economy, investments, technology, travel, health, etc.) and doing so sparks ideas that turn into research that can be used in the plot for current WIP.

Laura Mary said...

I have a question… Even if your book truly is one of a kind, nothing to compare it to…simply not enough books on the subject…yada yada yada…

Is that a necessarily a good thing?

Maybe my book about feeding puppies to sharks is one of a kind because, well there’s no real market for mass puppy death, no matter how inventive.

As an agent, if you receive something that does not neatly fit into a category – does that make you more inclined to turn it down (as in ‘this is great but I can’t sell it’)?

PS @shaunna great tips from Elissa there – I struggle to find time too. Try setting aside 30 mins every day for yourself. You may read at a slower pace but it’s better than nothing at all!

Stacy said...

So based on this post I've mapped out my reading list for 2015. All ready to catch up on the 2014 ITW award winners and finalists. I can't think of any other kind of "research" that's more enjoyable. Thanks, Janet.