Chip MacGregor

January 5, 2009

And still MORE fiction questions…


Continuing our discussion about fiction in today's marketplace…

Rick wrote to say, "I recently read a nonfiction author with excellent writing skills… but then I read her fiction, and found it atrocious. How rare is the ability to write both fiction and nonfiction? Why can't some NF writers transfer the skill over to a novel?"

In his National Book Award-wining memoir, Growing Up, Russell Baker tells the story of winning a Pulitzer Prize for his political column in the New York Times, telling his mother, and having her respond with, "That's great Rusty — maybe now you can write a novel and become a real writer." Ouch. I don't know why it is some writers don't see themselves as "complete" until they've published a novel. I made my living as a NF writer for years, and never felt I had to do fiction in order to justify my writing. But many do… and with the growth of fiction in recent years, many have felt pressure to write a novel. Frankly, I think it's self-imposed pressure, or maybe just egotism, and it's stupid – akin to the lead singer of Great Big Sea deciding he's got to sing an aria from La Boheme in order to be "a real singer."  

Writing a novel and writing a nonfiction book are different tasks. Each requires voice and content and clarity, but one is basically telling a good story, and the other is basically sharing information. (It's a fair argument to say that writing a NF book also requires telling a good story, but there's a difference — a NF book is not just a story. It's often sharing history, or encouraging life change, or offering insight and principles to do something more effectively.) I'd argue that the two tasks require some different skills. When working on a NF book, I didn't have to think about characters or setting or story arc. And a novelist doesn't have to think about scope and sequence, or clarity of action, or summarizing the principles. So you're right — not many writers can do both well. Most writers are better at one or the other — either writing fiction or writing nonfiction.

Jim asked, "These days there are books, conferences, DVD's, independent editing services, critique partners, etc. — all a huge assistance to help aspiring authors learn their craft. How did the masters such as Twain and Dickens achieve their skill without these same resources?"

Ha! Jim, you can really be a rabble-rouser, can't you? Okay, I have it on good authority that Mark took correspondance courses from Cecil Murphey, and the rumor has long been around that Dennis Hensley ghosted most of Chuck's books.

Look — some people (a VERY few people) have amazing talent. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens are in that category. So are Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway. Contemporaries in that group would include Tom Pynchon and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Some people just have the gift for seeing the world through unique eyes and capturing it on paper. (I'd argue there are plenty of great writers currently who do that and have yet to find big fame.) Still, passing along knowledge and training is a good thing, and all those things you mentioned can assist younger authors in their growth. But you raise an issue I've talked about for years: I think it's possible to make a case that we over-edit writers today. There wasn't much editing done to Twain or Dickens, and their voices came out. Sure, nowadays we'd consider their works wordy and in need of tightening, but you've got to admit — the way you see the words on the page is the way the authors intended them. And maybe there's something to that sort of freedom. I think that's why the blogsophere is going to create some great writers — they can put their words onto the page, and nobody is going to edit or change them. (And, yes, that will also mean there will be a HUGE pile of crap that writers will claim as their "art." That's life in the world of publishing.) Great question!

And Renee wrote to ask, "In today's multi-media world, with traditional publishing going through so many changes, should a novelist look for an agent who has ties to the movie industry as a way to sell their ideas and stories? And if a novelist is with a traditional literary agent who is not connected with TV and movie producers, how does the author get a story idea into the right hands? How critical is this today? Should we be looking for agents with connections beyond publishing houses?"

I'm a traditional literary agent. Been at it for years, and have sold a lot of fiction. (Can I toot my own horn? Publisher's Weekly has basically listed me in the top ten of their "dealmakers" list for the past year. It ain't a perfect way of evaluating agents, since it's basically self-reporting, but it's one of the few ways we have to gauge the ability of an agent.) I've also optioned several manuscripts to production companies (though I've never actually had a movie made). Here's what I say to those who ask about all this: Books and movies exist in separate spheres. I know most of the players in the world of books, have done deal with every major house, and while I can't guarantee a deal, I can probably get someone to look at your proposal. But when it comes to movies, it's a completely different set of relationships. You have to know the production companies and the people in them, and that's a different set of folks, largely on a different coast. I've sold some to them, but I more frequently rely on a co-agent who I trust, and who works exclusively with dramatic properties. In my experience, the literary agent who claims to be well-connected in both worlds is usually full of BS. Many of the dramatic rights deals I've done were reactive — the phone rang, some reader for a production company had read a novel I represented, and wanted to talk about optioning the rights. The others were done with a co-agent who specializes in selling dramatic rights because this is a guy who has lived in that world for years, and has all the relationships he needs to make it happen. I don't represent screenplays, so I have no direct relationships for selling those.

So, in my view, it's not a matter of a novelist leaving his or her current literary agent, so much as adding another agent who specializes in selling movie rights. And the problem with that? It will make your literary agent feel threatened, because you can bet that the movie agent will try to convince you to drop your literary agent and let the movie agent handle the whole thing. (That's a stupid move, by the way, since I have never meet a group of people who were more full of it than movie agents.)

True story: Years ago, I lost a big client once to a fast-talking movie agent. I had an offer on the table from a major publisher for $250,000 — that's big money for a book, no matter who you're talking to. Mr Movie Agent was going to take the dramatic rights and sell them to a production company… but then he met with the author, convinced him that the quarter-of-a-mil was too small, and promised the author he could much better. Huge talk. Movies! T-shirts! Games! Your picture on New York billboards! So the author, who was a trusting sort, turned down the quarter-mil in order to go make a fortune with a guy who had never before sold a book. No kidding. So what happened? Nothing. They never sold the movie rights. They eventually got the same $250,000 offer from a smaller publisher, who the author had worked with in the past and had a bad experience with, and who the author had said he never wanted to work with again. And I'm sure Mr Movie Agent had some way of explaining why this was considerably better than what I'd lined up.

Look, if you have a foot problem, see a podiatrist. Don't talk with the dermatologist who convinces you that by curing your dandruff he can also make you walk again. Work with a good literary agent on your books, then ask questions about "who is going to shop my dramatic rights to Hollywood?" That's fair. Your agent might sell them directly, or might work with another person who specializes in them. But don't assume you need to leave your literary agent because some Hollywood type is convinced he or she can do it better. Most of them don't know the book side, don't know who to talk to, and won't help you in the world of publishing.

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