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.