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I write professionally. I have over twenty published books and nearly one thousand pieces printed in magazines, newspapers and online sites (counting only online stuff I have been paid to write). I can write fiction. I even have perhaps four short stories published. I think my fiction is not half-bad. (Read The Cards and tell me if you agree.) But I do not write novels. All my published books are non-fiction. All my planned books are non-fiction.
It is not that I am opposed to writing novels. I have the outline of three series of novels drafted. Not three novels – three novel series. (A set of mysteries set in East Texas, a series about an Age of Fighting Sail naval officer, a la Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubrey, and a series rooted in Arthurian legend – ending in 1940.) Plot outlines, lists of characters, scenes.
So why not write them?
First, I write for money. I do not write a book until it is sold. For non-fiction this is easy. Write a book proposal with an introduction (sales pitch), outline and sometimes a sample chapter or two. Send it to the acquisitions editor. They let you know if they are interested. If they are, a contract arrives, both parties sign it, and I start writing the book. I know I will be paid, and know the minimum I will receive before I write one word of the book.
With fiction? As a first-time author, you must write the book first. A novel starts at 80,000 words. At 2,000 words a day that is a 40-day minimum commitment to complete a rough draft. One thousand words a day is more realistic. I am really looking at a 90- to 120-day commitment –devoting myself to it full time. With no guarantee of return. None. I have several dozen unsold short stories. I have virtually no unsold non-fiction articles.
I agree with Samuel Johnson. No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. You can write 1000 words here and there and give it away, but 80,000 words? Yep. You are either a blockhead or have nothing better to do. (I can write non-fiction.)
Let’s say I am quarantined for a month with measles, cannot do anything else, and actually, do write a novel because I am bored. (If that sounds implausible, that is how Neville Shute Norway’s book Pied Piper was written.) Now I have a manuscript. Next hurdle, get it published.
Getting a novel published by a mainstream press requires an agent or lots of patience. Most big publishers will not look at an unagented manuscript or relegate unagented submissions to an abyss called the slush pile. It sits there until someone, typically an unpaid intern in their early twenties, reads it and Pronounces It Good. (Most slush pile manuscripts are enervatingly bad. Reading them is given to someone so desperate to break into publishing that they are willing to work free. No one else will.) Nowadays most twentysomething interns cannot think in more than 144 words or think Facebook defines culture.
But you have over twenty published books, you say. Surely you have an agent?
Nope. You do not need an agent for non-fiction. You deal with acquisitions editors directly, if selling to publishers outside New York City. I have never had an agent.
Finding an agent can be finding fairy gold. Just ask El Colonel.
What about self-publishing? Some people successfully go that route. Larry Correia, Andy Weir, and E. L. James got their start self-publishing. Some people win the Powerball lottery, too. The odds of succeeding through self-publishing are about the same as winning the lottery.
Ever hear the expression that any idiot can write a novel? It is true. Any idiot can write a novel. Just not a good novel. A lot of idiots write them, self-publishing because no publisher will come within a league of their stinker. E-publishing makes self-publishing even easier; even more idiots self-publish at less expense.
There a lot of good writers, really good writers, and even great writers who self-publish. Correia and Weir are examples. You have to break through the background noise created by all the bad writers self-publishing, however. To put it the other way, you must find some way for your (hopefully) adoring public to discover you amidst a mire of wretched books.
Some folks can do this. I cannot. I lack skills as a publicist. I am pretty good in front of an audience, but pretty awful at finding audiences. I do not want to do publicity. I just want to write.
There is a final reason I prefer non-fiction to fiction. Fiction, more often than not, dies with the author. Remember Frank G. Slaughter? How about John Fowles? J. S. Fletcher? Anton Meyers? Those were monster-selling authors back when they were writing. Guaranteed best-sellers. Forgotten today.
Once a fiction author dies, his or her books soon go out of print, never to return. Eventually, their books get culled out of libraries (to make room for this year’s Harold Robbins or Jaqueline Susan), and they vanish.
A few break through and are remembered. But for every Arthur Conan Doyle, there are a dozen R. Austin Freemans. Have you tried to find books by Ellis Peters recently? Or Dudley Pope?
Non-fiction often has a longer shelf-life. Not politics, but history often does. History is what I write, even with fiction. Some of my stuff is the first book on a particular topic. (Many books were written about the Space Shuttle, but mine was one of the first to examine its DoD career.) People will be reading it when I am dead.
I am not saying do not write novels. You might have time to write them. You might be successful. I am explaining why I have never written one, and will likely never write one.
Unless you offer me a book contract, with an advance. You could change my mind. Like I said, I have three series outlined.