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View Full Version : For novelists, writing nonfiction considered harmful?



netwriter
02-28-2007, 07:38 PM
I just got a strange rejection by a popular agent. Listen to this ...

Background: here I am, working diligently on my fiction for years, wrote 3 practice novels and now this big one that I'm selling. In the meantime ya gotta eat, so I wrote easy stuff (nonfiction) and chalked up a few decent credits along the way. Nothing blockbuster, I didn't become a superstar, but that was never the point: the point was I had to eat, and I was able to hold down the fort with it while I slaved away my fiction at night -- it was either that or be a teacher, so I felt that actually being paid to write would be a better plus than teaching class. I figure my story is common enough, seems like a lot of writers take this route. (I think?)

But check this out: now this agent, who's got a pretty decent track record, I think, declines my query by saying that novels written by nonfiction authors are never as good as those by writers who are just novelists. As if I'm not dedicated to fiction or something ...

I think my query makes it clear that I've *always* been working hard to be a novelist, you know, that my writing jobs were just to bide time... my heart was never in it for a second. I do have a few fiction credits for short stories but they're pretty miniscule compared to the brand name of my job, so I play up the latter.... but my heart is only in my fiction, always has been.

I'm shocked to know that some people (well, at least this agent) thinks that writers who actually find employment writing nonfiction don't make good novelists. Is this a normal opinion out there, or just one agent's bizarre pet peeve? It just doesn't make sense .... I know it's rarer than porterhouse for a novelist to get published immediately out of school, so most of us have to line up some other kind of work until that first novel breaks. Actually, most of us will have to continue work other jobs even *after* the novel comes out! So here I am, trying to be diligent, figuring that work as a *published writer* would set me ahead, at least help me get better at my craft, and learn the industry, even if the writing isn't the fiction that I love.

Could it possibly be true? Could my decision to find nonfiction writing jobs have possibly been a bad one to make? Could my job, which supported me for all these years and even got me some good marks (even though, like I said, I never put any heart in it), be something that's actually being held against me?

???

veinglory
02-28-2007, 07:45 PM
Weird. Is this a legit agent? Because it sound like some silly prejudice to me. If agents do think like this you can always just drop the non-fic from your query?

Mae
02-28-2007, 07:48 PM
:popcorn: good question - and relevant for newbies.

I will be watching the expert answers/opinions on this one!

Judg
02-28-2007, 07:54 PM
I would suspect that this is a personal quirk on the part of that particular agent, not an industry-wide prejudice. I certainly hope a real agent or two will come along to confirm that.

netwriter
02-28-2007, 07:57 PM
Weird. Is this a legit agent? *Very* legit. This guy sells a lot of stuff, and not for peanuts. He's one of the top.

At first I thought, 'Ok, cool, maybe you don't like me, or you don't like my storyline, it's just not for you ..... but you don't like that I've published stuff because its nonfiction?' And then I thought, 'Uh oh, does this mean I've got to totally rework my bio?'

popmuze
02-28-2007, 08:09 PM
As a published writer of both fiction and non-fiction, let me chime on with a few questions:
Are these non-fiction credits with major publishers?
Would you say the non-fiction you've published is in any way inferior work?
Have you gotten good reviews? Good advances?
Are you still getting published?
If you've done quality work for quality publishers, then keeping it off your bio is unwise. You're a professional writer.
As far as your fiction, it's probably a different beast. If it doesn't measure up, then it has nothing to do with your non-fiction pursuits.
Although...I've had this discussion with myself many times...let's say you'd followed your fiction muse (to the poorhouse) all these years. It's definitely possible you'd be farther along as a fiction writer by now.
Then again, writing is writing. And I'm sure you've learned a lot through your published books about craft and pacing, etc., depending on the nature of that non-fiction.
Besides, you can't erase the past (except in fiction).
Agents are always looking for any excuse to turn something down. That's why many people here are grateful for the standard boiler plate rejections ("I just didn't love it"). They ultimately cause less confusion.
But to sum up, unless you've done hack work, just for the money, that you're not proud of, play up your credits proudly. If it's all hack work, then you have to be more selective.

netwriter
02-28-2007, 08:29 PM
As a published writer of both fiction and non-fiction, let me chime on with a few questions:
Are these non-fiction credits with major publishers?
Would you say the non-fiction you've published is in any way inferior work?
Have you gotten good reviews? Good advances?
Are you still getting published?
If you've done quality work for quality publishers, then keeping it off your bio is unwise. You're a professional writer.
Some of it is ok and got very good reviews, but some of it's blatant hack work. To be blunt, I know that none of it's my best work, not close .... I look at it as experience, writing practice, and a job. With a few exceptions, it's inferior to my fiction.

As far as your fiction, it's probably a different beast. If it doesn't measure up, then it has nothing to do with your non-fiction pursuits.
Agent in question didn't even want to see it. AFAIK he didn't look up my nonfiction either, he knew right away it would be no: he told me that he's read a lot lot lot of fiction by journalists and that it never holds up to the work of 'pure' novelists, so sorry.

But to sum up, unless you've done hack work, just for the money, that you're not proud of, play up your credits proudly. If it's all hack work, then you have to be more selective.

Ok, it's good to hear that this isn't a universal thing against previous credits. I think I'll revise to make it a little more selective though, or make a stronger point that it was just something to hold down the fort....

JanDarby
02-28-2007, 09:09 PM
That strikes me as odd, to make such a broad generalization.

I can see where there might be concerns. I had to unlearn a lot of writing habits when I switched my primary focus from legal writing to fiction writing, and I still have to watch what I'm doing as I switch between them. They're really very different. I can see some concern about lack of focus, and I've seen examples of writers who are very good with non-fiction and just can't make the leap to fiction, probably b/c it's just not where their interest really lies. I think, too, that there may be some legitimate concern that the author may be trying to present an agenda of some sort, or a lecture on whatever topic the non-fiction has focused on, disguised as fiction.

But the blanket generalization, that's just weird. If nothing else, the non-fiction credits prove that you can complete a project, that you've got the basics of clear communication in place, and so on. Maybe that would be a way to spin it -- "I've learned/honed the necessary writing discipline and fundamental communication skills in the non-fiction arena, where I've written ....."

JD

CaoPaux
02-28-2007, 09:49 PM
I think my query makes it clear that I've *always* been working hard to be a novelist, you know, that my writing jobs were just to bide time... my heart was never in it for a second. I do have a few fiction credits for short stories but they're pretty miniscule compared to the brand name of my job, so I play up the latter.... but my heart is only in my fiction, always has been. This may be your problem. Does your query focus on your book or your background/ambitions? The query needs to convince the agent that your book is worth reading on its own merit. Mention only your best pub credits, and leave out any "but I always wanted to be a novelist" stuff.

popmuze
02-28-2007, 09:50 PM
Some of it is ok and got very good reviews, but some of it's blatant hack work. To be blunt, I know that none of it's my best work, not close .... I look at it as experience, writing practice, and a job. With a few exceptions, it's inferior to my fiction.

I would summarize it for the most part like, "author of 17 non-fiction books" and then include the ones with the best reviews.

maddythemad
02-28-2007, 10:44 PM
Do you want to maybe post your query so we can see what Agent read?

JerseyGirl1962
02-28-2007, 10:48 PM
Do you want to maybe post your query so we can see what Agent read?

I agree. Netwriter, do you think you can post your query on Share Your Work so we can get a looksee?

Writing queries is so tough.

~Nancy

netwriter
03-01-2007, 06:26 PM
Ok, since you asked I put it up in S.Y.W. In retrospect I know this agent wasn't right for me because he doesn't sell exactly the kind of book I have, but I love his sales track record. Anyway, I appreciate comments, because I'm still stumped and stymied about this.

JerseyGirl1962
03-01-2007, 07:30 PM
Ok, since you asked I put it up in S.Y.W. In retrospect I know this agent wasn't right for me because he doesn't sell exactly the kind of book I have, but I love his sales track record. Anyway, I appreciate comments, because I'm still stumped and stymied about this.

Thanks, netwriter. I'll check it out.

I admit that this doesn't make sense to me, either.

~Nancy