Blogger: Mary Keeley
Lately I’ve been thinking about special challenges nonfiction authors face. Since so many novelists are away at the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference (ACFW), today is a good time to focus on nonfiction. But stick with me, all you novelists who couldn’t make it to ACFW. In recent conversations with editors I gleaned information that will interest you too.
For Nonfiction Writers
I remember when Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz released in 2003. The word-of-mouth buzz spread like a hyperactive virus. Why? It was a surprising different approach to the topic of Christian spirituality, unique in its presentation and voice in a way that perfectly matched his message. He tackled the subject not by means of a theological discussion, but by taking the reader along on his very personal search for God.
Surely the controversy this book stirred was a big contributor to the buzz, but that alone isn’t what eventually raised this book to New York Times best-seller status. Imagine if he’d written his message didactically. No, it was a combination of timing—there was a growing disillusionment with institutional religion—and writing about it from his personal experience—his story—told in his fresh voice that made his book distinctive.
This is what I’m hearing editors are looking for from newer authors: personal experience told with a unique voice about a timely issue. For years we’ve been hearing that nonfiction authors must have a huge platform to get a nod from publishers. This is frustrating for many fine new writers because it’s a circular argument: a published book helps build your platform. No doubt about it, you have to work hard to build your platform, but employing some tips from the Donald Miller example may help to bridge the gap to getting noticed.
For Fiction Writers
Speaking of story, I have interesting feedback for novelists too. A few editors I’ve heard from say it’s all about the story. Nothing really new there, and they are continuing to invest in their established genre authors because of the secure rate of return. BUT they also are looking for new novels that are outside of genre. One editor referred to them as “outlier (as in non-conformist) books” that tell an exceptional, captivating story.
Here is an opportunity for unpublished novelists. Bring that unusual story you wrote long ago out of electronic mothballs. Stop suppressing the unique story idea rolling around in your mind, the one that doesn’t fit into a current genre. Or come up with a brand new idea. Let your creativity soar unrestricted and come up with a concept.
I want to insert a word of caution here. If you have an agent, talk this over with him or her before moving forward on the writing or rewriting. Knowing you as a person and your strengths as a writer, she may want you to stay on track with your current WIP. Your agent’s job is to guide your career and advise you from a long-range perspective. If you don’t have an agent, enlist the help of your critique partners or an editor. “Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success” (Proverbs 15:22).
What takeaways did you get from this editor feedback? How do they challenge you?