That sounds like a simple question, no?
And it’s one that’s discussed a lot. You’ve surely heard a hundred arguments about this, taking one side or the other. I most certainly have. The however is, as with all things regarding writing, the devil lives under the surface. And what the best book editors know is that new writers come to this endeavor from both directions.
The majority of people setting out to write a book want to tell a story that tweaks them. Especially with memoirs and autobiographies this holds true, because, of course, the book is about the writer. But even with novels (not only first novels, but on down the road), much of a writer’s own self winds up in the characters.
And this isn’t a bad thing at all. Isn’t it funny how your villain often has pieces of your own shadow side? That is, after all, a shadow you know . . .
On the other hand, a lot of writers come in saying, “I’m going to crack this nut and write a bestseller. They want YA Dystopian? I’m down with doing that.” Even if said new writer has never actually read a YA Dystopian.
I know this because a), I can tell if someone is writing in a genre he doesn’t read. And b), I subsequently ask him :).
So what’s the issue? If you can successfully get there from either direction, why are we having this discussion?
Because, if you’re weighted entirely, or even mostly, from either side, the book isn’t going to be any good.
Heresy! “Everybody’s going to want to read my story!” Or, “Look at all the genre writers out there who specifically write for such and such market, and are bestsellers!”
Um hm. While there can be truth in both those statements, from an either/or approach, the odds are against you.
First off, if you’re writing only for yourself, only to get your story out there because it pleases the heck out of you, often the elements of great writing either get lost, or aren’t even addressed.
That your parents arrived at Ellis Island in the 1800s and moved to the mid-west with nothing but the rags on their backs, and raised ten children who became doctors and lawyers and whatever else, most assuredly would be of great interest to your immediate and extended family.
But why would anyone else care? Unless one of those decedents became president of the United States (and if so, his life-story has been or is being written anyway), your unique family history isn’t going to jazz many other folks. And this holds true whether you’re writing narrative nonfiction, or disguising the work as a novel.
That doesn’t mean your very story can’t be fashioned into a page turner. It’s all in the development.
The passion may very well be on the pages. The love of your characters may shine as well. But unless you take all of that and learn the elements of fiction, and what memoirs and autobiographies need to make them fabulous, none of the rest matters.
Can your family history, starting in the old country and coming to present day, make for a great read?
Just ask Frank McCourt. Then again, he taught high school for 30 years and learned his craft from the ground up. Not to mention his prose is as beautiful as any novelist’s.
In novel form, ask Norman Maclean (who taught English for decades at the University of Chicago), and also took his family story and forged it into one of the most beautiful novellas ever written.
And yes, I do of course know you can’t exactly ask them, except through the ethers 🙂
The point being, yep, they successfully wrote their family stories, about which they were passionate to the bone.
But they also learned what the heck they were doing, honed their writing over decades and decades, and published their books in later years . . .
On the other hand, what about coming into this crazy endeavor deciding to plot that blockbuster bestseller, diving straight into a hot genre, perhaps even mimicking famous authors?
The best book editors see that a lot as well.
And, we have no problem with that route either. It can work (I’ve worked with such writers more than a few times, to wonderful success).
These writers are often intent on learning the craft, as that’s their ticket to victory. And, learn they do. So much goes into penning a great novel, I give day-long workshops on just the high points.
Great students, they study and practice and write and study and practice and write. Which is often the prescription I give for success.
So what’s wrong with this approach?
Not one danged thing. As long as you have the passion behind it to back it up. And if you’re writing in a genre because it’s hot, but for pleasure you read Literary Fiction, that predilection fairly glows from the pages.
I know, because I see this a lot as well.
Long, long ago, I had two good friends in a writer’s workshop I attended, who both wrote Traditional Westerns. Both were very good. Both became very successful.
Both began by wanting to write something that would sell.
Neither had ever sat a horse. Nor had they ever worked cattle. Both lived smack dab in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, where life on the range was a figment of their imaginations.
Oh, but what imaginations they had! And, both men lived and died for the Old West. That’s what they read. That’s what they studied. Both dressed entirely in Western attire.
They lived, ate, and breathed everything Western. And it showed in their bestselling books.
So what’s the point of all of this? Is it best to write for yourself, or write for an audience?
The best authors, and the best books, combine both. The author is writing for himself, because his passion directs him to, and for an audience, because he’s learned his craft, learned what makes for a great book, and implemented those skills.
Passion and Skill. That’s what drives achievement in any endeavor, no? And being a successful author is no different.
I often have writers who want to work with me, who’ve written many manuscripts, many times in different genres, ask which one we should begin with.
My answer is always the same:
Which one are you most passionate about? Because that passion will sustain you through the long process of learning the skills.
And those skills can be learned.
It’s those authors who go on to huge success.
Don’t you want to be one of them?