Do you know what is one of the strangest things people say? (Besides “fundamental” — check out the word origins of THAT one).
Whenever someone tells a good or dramatic story, what do people say to them?
“Wow. You should write a book.”
Somewhere along the way in our culture we’ve adopted this belief that whenever someone has something dramatic happen to them they should write a book. I know people are being polite by associating a great story with the depth of a book, but I also think people genuinely mean they should go and write a book about it and get it published. I’m sort of mystified by this one. Not to be TOO cynical (it’s a rainy day in SF), but how did this happen? I don’t think many people go to the bookstore looking to find a book about someone’s crazy story about a root canal gone bad.
Life is really dramatic. People have some crazy, incredible, touching stories, and I am truly heartbroken every time I have to reject someone’s devastating, sad, real-life story. I have to pass on manuscripts by cancer survivors, people in prison, heroic veterans, people with terminal illnesses, and stories of crazy-horrible abuse and, hopefully, redemption from those depths. It’s really hard and depressing to send these people rejection letters, but I have to do it. Because in order to write a book you can’t just have a great story — you have to be a great writer.
Sometimes, yes, crazy things happen to a writer and they write a book about it. But it’s just not true that everyone has a book in them, or rather, that everyone can write the book that’s in them. Writers write books — not people with interesting stories to tell.
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original bran fan says
Okay. It’s official. I’m going to stop commenting on this blog because…
Nathan says it all!
There is really nothing more to add.
This is my “must read” blog every day. I hope you write it forever, Nathan.
Melanie Avila says
Since I technically fall into this category, I should just throw it all aside and find a new hobby, right?
Nah… I can string a few sentences together AND have had a lot of weird things happen to me. I just hope the early compliments continue once it’s out of my hands (and possibly in yours).
I found this particular blog quite interesting. In fact, I was in the middle of deciding whether my current book should be narrative nonfiction or fiction based on fact – and I think you have just answered my question.
Well, that and the whole platform thing.
BTW: What did you think of the Hills last night? I felt it was one of the less exciting episodes.
writers write for different reasons, readers read for different reasons. one of those reasons is to relate to people with a shared experience. but, the story still has to be written well, and i think to get enough people interested in your book you have to appeal to readers who read for all sorts of reasons. your book might be touching to a cancer survivor, but it also has to appeal to someone who’s more interested reading something with intrigue, and maybe also to someone who really enjoys a good twist of phrase and poetic image.
the hills: liz, i couldn’t disagree more… best episode this season. plenty of spencer – and whew, that phone bit at the end was hilarious!
Josephine Damian says
Nathan, excellent post!
Agent Kristin Nelson did a two part series on this months back (I asked her to link it in her blogroll but don’t think she did so), and it was such a much needed reality check that I copied and shared those posts with my local writers group.
Here’s just a bit of what Kristin had to say:
One of the biggest mistakes I see in query letters for the memoir is writers who spotlight how cathartic and therapeutic the writing of the work was and how they now need to share it with the world.
This is a big mistake. Why? Because writing a memoir is not therapy or shouldn’t be, so this is not a positive thing to spotlight. The truly terrific memoirists (ANGELA’S ASHES and THE GLASS CASTLE come to mind) understand that the writing of the work is an art form and only a certain amount of distance to the subject material can create that necessary objectivity so that the story can be crafted. Key word here is “crafted.”
I’d be really rich if I had a dollar for every time somebody in my writers group said of some personal tragedy that “this story needs to be in print” which justifies why they self-published their sad but melodramitic saga. I’d also be rich and bald because every time I hear this, I want to set my hair on fire.
Oh, how I miss Miss Snark.
I have an interesting life story. A kid born in the Soviet Union, moved to the States in my late twenties, managed to master English to a fairly sophisticated level, married to a black woman – mother of our three kids, who is currently battling a rare form of cancer. I’m managing a full time job as a computer programmer for a financial institution, taking care of my three kids when I come home, remodeling my 1873 house by doing all the work myself (including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc.), and in my “free time” I’m working on my second novel…
People say to me all the time – “When are you going to write your own story?”
I am not even remotely interested. I write sci-fi and urban fantasy.
I forgot to mention that I’m also a vegetarian don’t wear leather and I met my wife online. 🙂
I love this – “Writers write books”.
I hate it when people come up to me and say “I always wanted to write a book”, as if that’s all it takes. **sigh**
Here’s a cool link to C.S. Harris’ blog on the 12 things not to ask a writer. 🙂
Thanks again, Nathan!!
Great post. I recently read Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place about her experience with breast cancer BUT it was so much more than that.
Not in the right hands and it would have been a same old same old story but not Kellys.
I get the impression you’re venting these days, Nathan. Maybe trying to shake a few writers at their core.
Writing compelling stories IS difficult. It’s not something everyone can do, no different than people who have a natural ear for music or a steady hand in drawing, but I think years of practice can change that. Maybe that’s why many writers keep plugging away for decades; they’re getting their methodology down.
Nathan, I’d lay money that it has to do with the general cloak of secrecy around how publishing works. It’s the same reason that, when I mention I just finished a book, intelligent people say, “Oh? Is it published?” It’s ludicrous: if I said I just got done playing tennis, would they be asking if I’d been to Wimbledon? The public doesn’t see thousands of unpublished writers and millions of rejection slips, it only sees finished books. Based on that, failing to be published seems like only a failure to have written something. Anyone could do it.
Then you start learning about the process, of course, and it becomes crushingly difficult instead.
What? Did no one else go check out the link you provided?
I happen to adore the definitions 2a and b. That goes into the “I learned something new today” file.
I’ll play a little Devil’s Advocate here since it appears everyone else ‘s comment has agreed with you so far. Good storytelling is an art, and throughout history we have used the oral tradition to pass down stories. Then Homer decided that the Iliad and the Odyssey deserved to be written down for posterity.
It took the possibility of variation with each telling and each bard’s memory out of the equation. (Later the variation would fall in the translators’ laps.)
If someone has a story that entertains others and elicits the comment, “you should write that down,” I would consider that to be a compliment. However, the anecdote might not be sufficient enough to flesh out into a full length book. Instead, the material might best be served as an essay form.
People don’t usually say, “that story would make a great essay to submit to an anthology,” instead they say book.
In order to provide you with a salve for your conscience in rejecting heartrending stories, you might suggest in your rejection that they consider submitting to places such as Tiny Lights. It would also help to give them some literary credits for their platform.
Here’s a link to that journal founded by my friend Susan Bono:
Have a good day, and may the cloud of depression created by rejecting these stories pass by without needing therapeutic administration of Captain Morgan.
You forgot the importance of research by a trained writer. I’ve written true story that were published, and, much to my surprise, I discovered so much unknown or uncovered material to put into the book, once the contract is signed. Stories and incidents I had no idea existed until I plunged into the research. The book would have been interesting with the known facts — generally that which is reported in the press (that should be a book) — fleshed out and made fascinating with the many little nuggests that you polish to go into the setting of the story, much like dismonds in a ring.
So, you’re right. It takes a writer, but it also takes a research with an eye for the dramatic to mine the little things that are drawn together to create a sparkling whole.
I really enjoy your blog and find you wise beyond your years.
I sign as anon because I can’t get the system to accept me.
Sorry for the mispelled words. It was the 13th comment. What else can you expect?
I will agree that a great deal of writing is misunderstood by the general public. The attitude is “Write, and then it will eventually become book-length. Then the story ends. Then it magically becomes a published book.” A lot of these people can’t revise or take criticism. They cannot believe no one would want to publish their “book” (come on, their friends and mom says its great! How could they lie?). Some of them can’t keep a basic plot or make realistic characters, and won’t listen to advise.
Writing is a harsher reality than what most people think. It’s probably easier to become a docter than a novelist.
Sam Hranac says
Experience adds grist and depth. I think people are reacting to that component when they spout the offending comment, “You should write a book.” Either that, or they’re hoping the braggart will shut up.
Life stories are snippets I draw on as a writer. They can be twisted until unrecognizable. That root canal can be a great scene in Little Shop of Horrors.
It is kick finding the spots in my writing where my experiences fit.
Ideally, writers with interesting stories to tell write books, but whatever.
I was talking about this with Hans Dekker of wordsy.com – the tension between having something to say and telling a good story to say it with. It’s equal parts of each, I think.
“…It’s just not true that everyone has a book in them, or rather, that everyone can write the book that’s in them…”
I love this quote, Nathan. When certain people hear I’m published, they get that look in their eye, like — we’ll if SHE can do it, how hard could it be? Then they decide to write a book, and find out it’s damn hard. Months later, when I ask how their writing is going, I get the, “Well, I just don’t have the time to write,” response.
Mmm Hmm. Because that’s all it takes, right, is the TIME?
I’ve been a constant reader (though commenting infrequently) of your blog for a while. And though they’re all greeat (q Tony the Tiger), this post is your best. I was just talking to my dad about this crazy and hilarious friend of mine and no less than ten minutes later of my reading this guess what he said? Yep. “X should write a book”. Ironic. Haha.
Karen Duvall says
(Waves hand in the air) Me, me, me! I did that. My very first book was based on my true life story. Ha! 8^) Fictionalized, of course. And of course it was never published. Puhleese! It was a piece of crap, but you know what? I learned so much from writing that book.
I think new writers need to get that first autobiographical book out of their system before they can go on to something serious. Plus, it’s a powerful learning tool. “Write what you know.” Well, what do any of us know better than our own lives? But we should also know better than to try to have it published.
That first book was an excellent teaching tool. It kind of ended up like one of those picked-apart cadavers medical students use to practice on. The skeleton’s still there, but the guts are all over the place.
My life is not all that interesting, believe me. I’m adopted and the story I wrote was loosely based on my birthfather having been in the seminary studying to be a priest until I was conceived (and then he became an electrician instead), my birthmother was a cocktail waitress in Vegas (at the old MGM before it was torched), I was the middle child and the only one given up for adoption, one of my older sisters (a twin) was murdered in a burglary gone bad, and my younger brother died in car crash the day he graduated high school. Tragic and mildly interesting as all this is, it’s more the stuff of a soap opera than a novel. 8^)
The Anti-Wife says
Great post and good advice, Nathan. Thanks!
Many years ago a friend and I were talking about the latest John Grisham book (back when he was writing legal thrillers) and my friend said, “I could have written that book if I’d had the idea.”
This was wrong on so many levels!!
It was a lightbulb moment, though. I thought, I’m not going to go around saying “I could do that.” I was actually going to do it, because, like running a marathon, you never know if you can until you do it.
I’m afraid I am recently guilty of novel encouraging. But not really…
sex scenes at starbucks says
I must run in different circles than y’all. Whenever I say I’m a writer, people sigh and look impressed and say “I could never do that.”
Stop laughing! It’s true!
But, when I say I’m an editor, they immediately have a story they’d love for me to look at sometime…
Oh, and teacher?!? Nathan said BUTTOCKS!!
Dave F. says
way off subject –
I think the New York Post just named Spencer from The Hills the THIRD dumbest person in Hollywood.
Merry Jelinek says
Oh, Sex Scenes and Starbucks!!! **Waves**
I get the same wide eyed response when I tell people I’m working on a novel. It’s like they think writers are exotic animals or something… you see the book at the store, but an author, they must live in a palace somewhere away from everyday peoples…
I don’t hear a lot of, ‘I should write a book…’ though I know a lot of people who can spin a great tale, they don’t really think of putting it down on the page.
The thing that annoys me, since we’re all ranting here, is when a writer says that they don’t have time to read – this kills me!!! How can you want to write, spend your time with words… how… hmmm… I just don’t get it, it’d be like an artist deciding not to look at the Sistine Chapel – seen one brush stroke, you’ve seen ’em all… what is that?
Oh, and Karen Duvall,
Me, too… my first novel was God awful, and I didn’t even recognize it as autobiographical until I pulled it out a long time later, and slapped my head repeatedly for being that terrible, and actually querying the thing… ah, well, that one’s over – live and learn. It did teach me an awful lot, and I’m still going… and so are you I see, so hearty back pats for us both.
I’ve never had the slighest urge to write my life story.
Is there something wrong with me?
Nathan, I don’t want to change the subject but I had a question for you that I posted earlier, but I think it was already after the blog had moved on … this was back on the Thanksgiving topic where you were talking about queries you automatically reject because of the length and other things.
I’ll ask again here so hopefully you’ll see it:
So what length is your maximum for a literary novel? What’s the magic cutoff number?
I know a lot of agents automatically reject long manuscripts. But what about those writers who think of themselves in terms of, say, David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, etc? For those unpublished writers who think that they *are* as good or better than any of the above, can you suggest the names of any young, actively-seeking agents who would look at a long first literary novel?
Josephine Damian says
Merry and Sex Scenes (Merry Sex Scenes? :-0 Sounds like a new porn holiday – lol): When asked, I used to say I was an “aspiring” writer (I did not call myself “writer” until after I got pieces published), and the reaction I got was: Would I have heard of you? When I said, No, they said, Oh, and lost interest.
Now when people ask, I say, Grad student studying forsensics, and they say, Wow! Cool!
Only the people in my writers groups, and who know me online think of me as a writer; to the rest of the world I’m a budding criminal investigator.
Karen: Ditto for me. And totally agree on writers needing to get those autobiographical novels out of their system. Seems that the ones who recognize that those early books are mere rites of passage, un-publishable learning exercises, and NOT the book that will land them an agent are the ones who will succeed in this biz.
Isak: After getting 7 million queries during the Thanx break, Nathan has every right to vent – these past two posts have been among my faves.
I might start saying to people:
“Wow. You should write a song!”
“Wow. You should write a radio play!”
“Wow. You should write a comedy sketch. Seriously. I’m not joking!”
I had someone tell me that they wanted to write short stories about all the hobbies they had had since they were little.
It might have been fun to read if it had been things like collecting snakeskin jackets or temple-hopping in Southern India.
But no. It was going to be about jumproping and postcards.
death and destruction.
Well said! Personally I write to create my own moral universe where life is good and gas is still under $2.00 a gallon.
Dave Wood says
Half the people in my writer’s group are working on memoir. Each of them has a story that is potentially pretty interesting if handled right, but none of them seems to be giving much thought to why the story would appeal to a broader audience. As a novelist and someone who doesn’t read much memoir, I used to worry that I didn’t have anything useful to say on their projects. But I’ve come to realize that I see the same issues in their work that I see in starting fiction writers: lack of focus, immediacy, tension, etc. If anything, those problems are often worse in their memoirs because they haven’t given any thought to those requirements.
I often suspect they have chosen memoir because they feel they won’t have to think about the elements that make a story a good read. It’s as though they think, “I’ll just tell everything that happened to me and it will be inherently interesting because it’s true.” But, despite having had some pretty interesting experiences, I don’t believe I could write memoir because I think the “truth” is a constraint within which you still have to achieve immediacy, character, coherency, and the rest — not an excuse to avoid thinking about those elements. If anything, narrative non-fiction generally seems harder to me than standard fiction because the author usually has less flexibility to work with.
Nathan, I always enjoy your blog! Thanks for the entertainment! 🙂
The discussion about non-writers’ perception of the business reminded me of something that happened last week.
Last month one of your colleagues was kind enough to accept my first novel and, of course, since then I’ve been bouncing around like a deranged kangaroo telling everyone I know, “I’ve got an agent! I’ve GOT an AGENT!” Usually they say, “great! So when’s your book coming out?” Well, last week I was talking to a little old lady named Billie and we had that discussion. I explained to her that I have an agent, not a publisher, and she said, “well, you know what you should do? Send it to that place in Independence. Harvey’s? Is that the name of it? They publish books! I bet they’d publish it for you.”
I thanked her and said that I was pretty sure my agent knows where she wants to send it and Billie said, “well, tell her about Harvey’s. Have her send it there!”
The memoir format is an interesting one, to me, because if done well you have a work that lies somewhere between first and third person. Your voice is not an omniscient one, but it is also not too deeply personal.
Having said that, I can’t imagine most writers could do their own memoir all that well, even if the perspective has its own value. I’ve had far more things happen to me than most people, and I wouldn’t tackle a memoir. How can you write about your own life and not blow the perspective into a first person narrative, thus wrecking the main value?
The only memoir I’ve really liked is “Makes Me Wanna Holler” by nathan McCall. I think he needed a better editor than he had, but as a writer he was the only one I’ve seen pull it off.
That is very true. So obviously you would scoff at the people who say anyone can write a book!
Liz is “The Hills” even real? I think it is a syndicated sitcom masquarading as “reality television!” I think that is the appeal. All my friends from work watch it, it is an event when the new “season” drops.
This brings up an interesting dilemma. I read two books lately, one the memoir of Marco Pierre White, “The Devil in the Kitchen,” which was ghostwritten and handled, interestingly enough, by an agent at Curtis Brown.
The other book was “Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen,” by Gordon Ramsey. This one he wrote himself. They’re both great books, in my opinion. They both have interesting stories to tell, they even worked together in the same kitchen at one point, so there are some similarities in the two stories.
But if I had to pick one over the other I’d pick Ramsey’s because his personality shines through in his writing style. He pulls no punches and never misses the opportunity to throw in a four-letter word. This isn’t gratuitous, it’s simply the way he thinks.
The book on Marco Pierre White, however, was obviously filtered through someone else’s brain, someone with a very different sensibility and world view than White himself, and the result is a watered down version of many of the same things — the goings-on in a professional kitchen.
I was satisfied with “Devil” before I read “Hell’s Kitchen.” Now I see the difference it can make when the person telling the story is also a gifted storyteller.
The Bag of Health and Politics says
I disagree. Say somebody had something crazy happen to them, and they think it’s a good story. First, writing can help them deal with their unfortunate turn of events. Second, they can give their book to their friends and family to explain what others thought was unexplainable.
I agree that there isn’t a mass market for most of these stories. though I wonder whether that would be the case if A Million Little Pieces hadn’t shattered into a million pieces. It’s unfortunate that a liar and fabricator can nullify the importance of an entire genre of books and relegate them to self-publishers.
That said, I don’t blame agents for passing on the “personal story.” The chances are that the story submitted to them won’t sell a lot of books. Though we just won’t know until the “personal story,” is given a chance by a major publisher again. For now, people are still gun shy about such stories because of the A Million Little Pieces fiasco.
And because people are shy about it, agents (rightly from a business perspective) reject those queries, and most “personal stories” end up being self-published. Still, it isn’t an agent’s job to tell us what is good and what is bad literature, it’s an agent’s job to tell us what will sell and what will not. There could be a great personal story that won’t sell, and there could be a crappy mystical book that would sell millions of copies. Which one is the agent going to choose? The latter of course. And that fact doesn’t mean that the former is a “bad” book. So people should write their stories, but they should do so with the understanding that it probably won’t sell, and that the writing process itself can help people cope with crazy things.
It only gets worse when you HAVE written and sold something. Everyone who knows you tells you what happened to them or is happening to them and how important it is that you write THEIR story. It doesn’t seem to matter that what you normally write is a far cry from the story they think you should write. People expect you to be able to write just about anything. All you need is their idea.
Even though I am a far cry from Nathan, I’m going to try to tackle Anonymous ofDecember 5, 2007 6:44 AM ‘s question:
If you really are as good as or better than David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, et al, then you won’t need to be directed to any special “will-look-at-long-first-novels” agent. They will take you on the strength of your brilliant work.
If not, lots of luck with that 300,000 word manuscript.
How did I do, Nathan?
Extreme gratitude, Nathan. Can you get this put into a TV commercial where all the people who say
“you should write a book” will actually see it?
As a published NF writer, I’ve had five different people come to me with awful, long things they had written because someone told them they should write a book. The experiences they had were actually intriguing…an undercover agent who hung with the Weathermen in Chicago in the 60s, an elderly gent who had been on a manhunt for his son’s murderer for 20 years, a retired Mafia/FBI double agent, an autistic girl who took on the personas of wild animals, and another I won’t even mention. Each one thought their story was great as they had told it, and just needed mild “fixing.” Would not hear of allowing their story to be retold. Each ms was totally unreadable. And each would-be author was extremely disappointed that I failed to pounce on the opportunity and make him/her wealthy.
Which leads to something else that drives me crazy; people always assume that if you have had a book published, you are rolling in dough! I’d love to hear your comments on lifestyles of the rich…and authors.
I love reading your blog because you so obviously ‘get it’. And so many people (agents or not) just don’t.
JonnyBoy, anon here. It’s not that easy when the agent’s assistants are instructed to automatically reject works past a certain length. How can they know what the manuscript holds if they refuse to look? I did get a response from Binky Urban, however, and I think it was pretty brilliant, too. Also got offers from 3 NY Times bestselling authors to blurb it based on sending them just a couple pages of the work. I’m being read by ICM, Janklow & Nesbit, Writers House and three other big agencies. But most agents reject my query IMMEDIATELY based on the length, and everyone who has had it is sitting on it for months and months.
When you query you include the first five pages, right? If the assistant thinks your first page is amazing, I bet they don’t not pass it on to the agent just because it’s long.
BTW David Foster Wallace’s first novel was around 150K words, Franzen’s was 180K, and Eugenides’ was only 65K. How long is yours?
Is your first page readable anywhere? Since you’re so sure of yourself, I’m curious. I admit skepticism, but you could be right. Maybe you ARE better than all these dudes.
In any case good luck.
What did Binky say? Why did she reject it?
Luckily for agents everywhere and in all times, there have been (admittedly rare) situations where a unique story with mass appeal has occurred in the life of a true writer who possesses a matching unique voice and has mass writing appeal.
Unfortunately, these opportunites are sometimes missed by agents who are overwhelmed with people who have been told they should “write a book”.
Those who are writing a piece based on events they have personally lived must remember: it’s not so much the story as the telling.
John Elder Robison says
I don’t know, Nathan. I did a lot of bizarre stuff, just in the course of existing.
People told me I should write a book, so I decided to give it a try, and I turned out to have a talent for it.
So I guess sometimes you could also say that people who have “different” lives also have the ability to be writers.
Joanne Michael says
Hi I have just completed a thriller set in Wales, United Kingdom. The book is equally plot and character driven. An essential part of the protaganist’s character is her inability to speak Welsh or empathise with the parochialism in the area.
As few people have heard of Wales would an American agent even consider my work? Thank you.
Thanks for sharing Nathan.