On Writing: Choosing Your Subject Matter

Warren Adler has generously consented to host my blog today and to share his expertise. Adler is the world famous author of 30 novels, including The War of the Roses and his latest, Funny Boys. Adler says:

Subject matter is an important element in novel writing.  What, who and when are issues that can determine the impact a novelist makes on the publishing community. For a publisher, marketing issues are paramount. Since the public is notoriously fickle in its interests, the publishing marketer often has to anticipate what will most engage the public mind in the twelve to eighteen months it will take for a mainstream publisher to produce and market a book. For non-fiction it is a lot easier to anticipate. For fiction, publishers need to consult a psychic. 

It is an antiquated system and much debated, but not on trial in this space. For the novelist, basing one’s work on marketing prognostications, can, I suppose, be useful for one’s career prospects. I wish I could be helpful in this regard, but, alas, I admit surrender. Unfortunately, I have taken the path less traveled. I guess my compass is not set to the magnetic north of commercial blockbusting. 

Getting published and staying publishable is based primarily on other issues. A publisher’s first question is “will a title sell?” At times he will base his bet on what has sold before or check the computer numbers of an author’s track record assuming that after one or two outings a novelist who has not developed a base of readers will never find a niche. It is highly unlikely that a publisher will nurture a novelist through more than two, maybe three, books if he or she does not meet the bean counter’s goals. To a publisher a book is a commodity and we all know that a commodity, a product, must make a profit. I am not being critical of the process, merely realistic. 

The fact is that I cannot write a novel based on a publisher’s marketing systems. My choices of subject matter are too eclectic. I write what I must write, based on my own instincts and inner navigational system. Since I believe that writing is a calling, I heed the clarion of my interior compass. I write to meet my own needs to tell stories and base the menu of my choices on the bedrock proposition that human nature is constant and unchanging and real stories cannot be made to measure.

Nevertheless, by dint of pluck and luck, I have managed to attract publishers to 27 novels, with translations in 30 foreign languages so far and through my pioneering electronic publishing enterprise, I hope to expand my coterie of devoted readers. I ply my merry way, having stumbled upon a comfortable place for such a counter intuitive writing journey. 

For the budding novelist hungry for fame and fortune, I am probably not a very good role model. Forgive me not providing a magic bullet for recognition and mass readership. And who knows? Lightening might strike, and you will find that your novel fulfills your hopes and dreams for recognition and, with luck, lots of money. 

Indeed, the most commercially successful novelists have branded themselves by hewing to the boundaries of various genres. Writers have made millions following the rules of creating stories that fit into preordained slots. Sometimes they have invented new slots such as “the woman in jeopardy,” a genre pioneered by Mary Higgins Clark, or “the good lawyer,” a genre practically invented by John Grisham or the “strong woman family dynasty,” genre stumbled upon by Barbara Bradford Taylor. Or the wildly successful Christian based series Left Behind. Cheers and congratulations to them. They have found the secret of a successful and sustained novel writing career. 

My effort here is far more parochial, advising how to create a novel that is as important to its creator as it is to the potential reader. Above all, the reader must be engaged, from beginning to end of the writer’s effort. I am assuming, of course, that a pipeline from storyteller to story reader exists. Constructing that pipeline is a related subject that will be dealt with in another time and place. My website is a prime example of finding an alternative road to readership. 

Thus, you will find my discussion about subject matter for a novelist inconclusive. I will not resort to clichés about writing what you know, since intuition often trumps experience. Having written what many have cited as the most realistic and accurate divorce novel in recent memory, The War of the Roses, the point is made. I have never been divorced and am happily married to the same lady since I was barely out of adolescence. But whatever the subject be sure to choose wisely before too much effort is expanded on the work. 

Sometimes it takes writing many words before a novelist can be comfortable about the story path he has chosen. I have often abandoned an effort after a hundred or more pages, having discovered that the subject, the plot, the characters, the emotional mood, the idea itself can no longer engage my interest. 

My advice is to think long and hard before choosing the subject matter of your novel. I have found that a story grows in one’s mind like a potato in a water glass, creating many sprouts that are always popping up. Indeed, even as the novel takes shape on the page, ideas continue to sprout setting off new paths to revision and rewriting. I will often think about every element of the story long before I begin the act of creation. Even then, the work might pale as it progresses. 

The trick is to embark upon a writing road that sustains your interest and keeps you excited and engaged throughout the process. If you can’t wait to get down to work every morning and approach your composition with excitement and enthusiasm you are on the right track. If not, as the saying goes, don’t give up your day job.

23 Responses to “On Writing: Choosing Your Subject Matter”

  1. Dana Says:

    Thanks for posting this, especially as a host on Pat’s blog. I would rather read about someone’s success writing what they feel like writing about rather than a ‘how to write a best-seller by the numbers.’ And I very much like the potato in a water glass comparison….

  2. Lori S. Says:

    Excellent article Warren!
    I am by no means as experienced with any of this as you and I appreciate all your tips and advice. I have found over the years though that the ‘subject’ usually picks me instead of the other way around! I hope to someday know exactly what you mean about the trials and errors of publishing a novel.

  3. Kathryn Says:

    Warren, I like that you tell the story of what publishers want, then say that you have to write what is in your head.

    Good, wise words here. I will read War of the Roses, as I have a great love/hate with the subject matter and am enamored of your style.

  4. TerryAnn Says:

    Excellent article Warren. You’ve aided me in choosing to throw out a few chapters of my latest book. I’ve been stalled because I don’t feel they are up to my previious writing. This morning I awoke and thought “Just throw them out and skip ahead in the time line.”

    After reading you here today I am certain I will reclaim my zest for writing this book after a hefty pruning.

    I knew what to do, but you gave me that extra little nudge I needed.

    I so admire your writing. When I “am the king” I will own all of your works. And savor them!

  5. Margay Says:

    This is the way I write, too. I have discovered that whenever I try to follow trends or write what publishers supposedly want, I get hopelessly blocked. But when I get waylaid by an idea (which is usually how it happens for me), I can write 39,000 words in 5 days. Call me crazy, but I think my method works best for me. So what if it never gets published? It was a heck of a ride and I enjoyed writing it.

  6. Simon T. Says:

    True words of an experienced writer with conviction and wisdom could not have been said better.

    Author Mark Glamack told me that his closest friend gave him the best advice to take that first step.

    1. Find your own voice. What made other writers great is what set them apart and unique. Being different and original is an important factor that can make your work great and popular.

    2. Follow your heart.

    I might add, when you get older, don’t put yourself in a position to ask the question – what if?

    Life is too short – always follow you bliss.

  7. Sharon Pribble Says:

    I write Science Fantasy because it’s what comes easiest to me.
    I chose witch and vampire as my heroes, and demons as their foes.
    It works for me.

  8. Michelle Says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I agree that we must follow our inner navigation system and follow our heart.

    Thank you!

  9. Wanda Says:

    Your words always give me pause to think, to reflect. I am working on two projects right now, one is a story close to my heart and the other is a P.I. series character. I work on one and then the other. I honestly don’t know if I have the skill to write the one close to me, but I want to tell this story. You have given me inspiration to continue with it and see what happens. Thanks, Warren.

  10. DJ Ledford Says:

    Thank you so much for your wise advice, Warren. Your words to us about writing what we want/must is a comfort–and a reminder to heed our inner voice.

  11. Delores Snider Says:

    thanks for the tips and inspiration

  12. JanCoad Says:

    Thanks Warren for hosting Pat’s blog!

    I always enjoy reading your words of wisdom and encouragement. I will continue to write the stories as my characters related them to me … not with publication in mind. The inner voice is usually right. Maybe one day I too will find a publisher willing to take on my work!

  13. Barbra L Says:


    I loved reading every paragraph!! I thought this particular paragraph from your writing above was outstandingly poignant and full of beautiful language:

    “The fact is that I cannot write a novel based on a publisher’s marketing systems. My choices of subject matter are too eclectic. I write what I must write, based on my own instincts and inner navigational system. Since I believe that writing is a calling, I heed the clarion of my interior compass. I write to meet my own needs to tell stories and base the menu of my choices on the bedrock proposition that human nature is constant and unchanging and real stories cannot be made to measure.”

    Thank you, Warren. It has been a pleasure. Thank you, Pat, for this wonderful blog. I’m planning on revisiting often.

  14. Tracy Fabre Says:

    Or, in other words — “follow your inner potato!”

    I have always been skeptical about that “write what you know” business… lots of people who don’t know anything at all write just fine. 😉

    Great post, Warren — good catch, Pat!

  15. Aaron Lazar Says:

    Warren – it’s lovely to see you here on Pat’s blog!

    The topic is relevent to all writers, and hit home. When I started the LeGarde Mystery series, I didn’t have a real genre or audience in mind. I wrote it for me, because there was no choice. Period. And all the things that wove their way into the “mysteries,” became essential to the series. Illustrating how one deals with loss and trauma; jumping feet fiirst into life by nurturing one’s family with huge feasts; playing Chopin etudes to soothe one’s soul… These things aren’t normally part of a mystery series. But they’re part of mine. And so – I think I’ve drifted into a sub genre I now call “country mysteries.” They’ve been called “literary mysteries,” too.

    The important thing is, although I “should” have done the upfront research and written for the market, I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had to get the stories out. So – if they create a new market, wonderful. If not – so be it. My circle of readers content me and validate me as is. ;o) Thanks for your insighftful piece.

    And thanks, Pat, for having Warren host the blog today!

  16. vickey Says:

    I love your style of writing and thanks for this inf..

  17. vickey Says:

    what does your comment is awaiting moderation mean?? Leave it up to me to mess something up…

  18. Bertram Says:

    Vickey, you didn’t mess anything up. The first time someone comments, wordpress sends me an email asking me to accept it or decline it.

  19. jalex Says:

    Inspiring article. Now if I only knew how to write!

  20. Paul Allen Leoncini Says:

    Hello Warren:
    I think the best way to become a better writer is to write, and write alot. I think you touched on that, not is so many words.

    Years, ago I used to get this writer’s magazine, every week they had an article that read ‘The best cure for good writing, is writing’ There’s no substitue, like anything else, practice makes perfect.

    Hello Pat, you’re the best!

  21. Shawn Michel de Montaigne Says:

    “To a publisher a book is a commodity and we all know that a commodity, a product, must make a profit. I am not being critical of the process, merely realistic.”

    As J. Krishnamurti alluded to, though in a different context, such is not the thing any more. It isn’t writing, in other words, when we, via “realism,” succumb to such unfortunate logic, declare, as Margaret Thatcher did famously, that “there is no alternative,” and then blindly, willingly fall in line.

    There are other ways to publish, and there are other ways of looking at success as a writer, and manifesting those ways, and being great.

    Nice blog here. I look forward to reading more soon.

  22. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Glad I found your blog Pat. And glad I found this article Warren. Hope to be back to read more soon.

  23. Kevin J. Bitter, Sr. Says:

    I spent a decade writing my first book. I shelved it on and off because one, it wasn’t where I considered to be ready, and two, I couldn’t afford subsidiary publishing. Finally, a friend got published and recommended I send to his publisher – so I did – and was accepted. Everybody needs a break if your work is interesting and getting published is important to you. My second work gets released on November 17th, 2015, and I am understandably excited.

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