Friday, August 7, 2009

The nonfiction writer's guide to the fiction business

When I started writing fiction, I expected that my many years of experience as a professional magazine writer would translate into no learning curve in fiction.

Boy, was I wrong. When I began to submit, first stories and then queries for novels, I discovered many rules and practices I took for granted did not apply in the fiction world.

Major lesson number 1: Fiction publishing lags behind nonfiction publishing in technology. I was shocked to find that I often needed to send queries, and sometimes even short stories, by snailmail. I hadn't submitted nonfiction on paper since 1994.

Major lesson number 2: Fiction publishers are much pickier about margins, typefaces, spacing, and other formatting matters, sometimes posting on their Web sites long, detailed lists of rules for formatting a manuscript. Nonfiction editors, on the other hand, are usually happy if a manuscript arrives on time, complete, double-spaced, and close to the right length.

Major lesson number 3: Different work environments have created different sets of manners. Fiction book editors and short story magazine editors seem incredibly overworked compared with the editors at the many nonfiction magazines I've written for. Probably as a result, fiction editors sometimes answer emails slowly or not at all, and they tend to discourage phone calls. Unsigned form-letter rejections, complete with typos, are common and not considered rude.

Major lesson number 4: "New and different" doesn't mean "new and different." An editor who says she's looking for a fantasy novel that's "new and different" actually wants yet another dark novel with a Tough-Talking Kick-Butt Vampire Fighter in High Heels, but with a slight twist.

Major lesson number 5: Most short-story venues reject stories rather than ask for edits. In the nonfiction world, writers expect magazines to edit their pieces and ask for changes. Short-story magazines, being understaffed (see lesson number 3), instead often prefer to reject stories that need tweaks in hopes that the next story in the slush pile, or perhaps the one after that, will be perfect.

In no way am I bashing the fiction market. The nonfiction magazine world has its own unspoken conventions that confound newbies. I discover new ones each time a friend asks my advice about submitting a nonfiction article to a magazine and her assumptions surprise me.

Nonfiction writers who want to write fiction should seriously consider joining a professional association (such as Women in Crime or Romance Writers of America) as well as a critique group that contains a more advanced fiction writer. The differences between nonfiction and fiction publishing are sometimes great, sometimes subtle, but they definitely exist, and the best way to learn the conventions and practices of the fiction world is to have someone with more experience as a guide.


My next Novel Spaces post will be August 23. Come back then and learn how the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop creates better writers. See you later!

Shauna Roberts


Maria Zannini said...

I don't know if I should laugh or cry, but all these tenets are absolutely true.

I came from a nonfiction background. Getting published in fiction has been an extraordinary education. They're totally different animals.

KeVin K. said...

I've known a few fiction editors in my time and have learned the process is seldom what writers imagine. The paper manuscripts are needed because first and in some cases second readers (interns) have to okay the ms before it reaches the editor's desk. (A fiction magazine with a dozen story slots each month receives 20 to -- in the case of markets like The Atlantic and New Yorker -- 200 mss a day. Filtering is essential.) A lot of unsigned form rejections come from English majors who haven't found work yet. That's why an actual note from an editor is a big deal in fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent column. I too have found it generally easier to work in nonfiction than fiction. I tend to have to work to keep my more fictional type style from creeping into my nonfiction. The pay too is much different. Nonfiction is way better.

Shauna Roberts said...

MARIA, thanks for confirming my experiences. BTW, I think the cover of Touch of Fire is absolutely gorgeous.

KeVin K., thanks for explaining those perplexing customs.

CHARLES, Ditto to all your comments, especially about the problems keeping the styles separate.

Liane Spicer said...

The non-fiction arena seems far more straightforward and SANE.

Hard to believe, but it's true that many agents still don't accept e-queries. And the response lag in fiction is downright scandalous. I've read of publishers taking two years to respond to manuscripts they requested.

Jewel Amethyst said...

If you think writing fiction is insane, try publishing data in peer reviewed science research journals. It can be even crazier (at times).