Q: Is there anything wrong with incorporating real live events that have happened to me in a nonfiction love story? Is this a stupid question?
A: A question is a question, without any qualifying terms. If you don’t know the answer, it’s not a stupid question. We all start somewhere, and we will go nowhere if we don’t ask questions, get answers, and keep learning.
First, though, I think there may be some confusion between fiction and nonfiction. Nonfiction reports actual events, so incorporating real events in nonfiction would be expected.
Perhaps the intended question was whether it is okay to incorporate real events into a story that is otherwise fiction. If that’s the question, trust me – almost all fiction writers begin by fictionalizing real stories. We take events we have experienced or heard about and turn them into plots or scenes in our fiction. You won’t be the first to do it or the last. Many dramatic television shows are based on stories from the news.
I encourage people to start their novels and short stories from real-life experiences, because those are the events we know, the ones we feel passionate about, the ones we want to understand. We lived those scenes, so we can describe them in action and dialogue without difficulty.
If you have concerns about offending someone, change the names and circumstances enough to disguise them, but keep writing.
Q: This isn’t so much a question as a statement. I’ve decided to unsubscribe to your newsletter. It’s not that your newsletter is not helpful. It’s that the only writing I’m doing now is a weekly column in a local newspaper. I wrote a play that was produced once locally, but I don’t know the contacts to get it produced again. I’ve written three self-published books and sold enough to get my money back—barely. I’m just tired of the downside of publishing.
A: I feel your pain. I’ve been in the writing business since the 1960s, and it’s always up and down; mostly down. As I am sure you are aware, though, writing is a passion not driven by money. When your passion dissipates, it could be a sign of illness or depression. If such is not the case with you, I hope you’ll turn again to newsletters and conferences for inspiration and information.
Oh, and don’t forget that depending upon the rights you sell, you can collect your weekly columns and turn them into a book, too. Here’s to finding your passion for writing again!
Q: I’m thinking about writing a controversial book regarding something I’m passionate about. There have probably been a number of books already written on this subject, and there is a ton of information about the subject on the Internet.
I have two concerns. One, could plagiarism be involved if I take information from the Internet? My next concern has to do with the market. I wrote to some of the Internet websites for permission to use their material, and a person wrote back and claimed that books of this nature do not sell well, even if you are an experienced writer. Any thoughts?
A: By definition, plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s words or ideas without giving credit to the originator. Although I am not an attorney, I interpret the definition to mean that we writers can use statistics, data, and research from any source, as long as we credit the source. We cannot, however, copy narrative information word for word; we must present the information in our own words.
As to the issue of marketability, obviously the subject goes against popular thinking, which means one of several things can happen. It could hit a controversial note, catch a publisher’s eye, get published, get a great deal of publicity, and sell many copies. A few controversial books have done so. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be too controversial and not unique, and no traditional publisher will want to touch it. How can you guess which it will be?
Here’s the thing to remember: Only one percent of all manuscripts written ever get traditionally published, but people keep writing books, and publishers keep buying them, so people who are passionate about their subject and diligent about polishing their writing and using good editors are still being successful. Self-publishing means you take all the risks, but you could reap all the benefits if the book becomes a hit.
Because of your passion for the subject, my suggestion is this: instead of writing the whole book, write a proposal. Traditional publishers want a book proposal for nonfiction books, and proposals make the author research the market and estimate the size of the market as well as the size and toughness of the competition. Get a book on how to write a book proposal and perform all the research a proposal requires. Study the size of the market for yourself; don’t count on hearsay from naysayers. Find other books on that subject and find out how they fared. Don’t listen to one person’s comment, which may have even been said out of jealousy. Go to the publishers of similar books and ask for sales statistics.
See what, if anything, you can do to make your book unique, better than others on the market, and more appealing to a broader audience. If you can’t come up with a unique selling point, you may decide not to write the book, or you may decide to self-publish a small quantity and test the market, if you have an outlet for your book – that is, if you can find a way to reach into the niche market to which the book is geared.
Send your questions to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.