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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER XLI The Value of Experience and Timeliness

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER XLI The Value of Experience and Timeliness

If a single individual could carry in storage all of the book learning in the world, and had a memory which would retain everything, from columns of figures to historical dates, he would not, from the possession of this knowledge alone, be a good producer of anything save that pertaining to the purely technical or statistical, and even then I doubt if he could produce any work worthy of publication.

Experience, with the fundamentals of education as a working basis, is of tremendous importance, and without it learning has little or no usable value.

While a few writers, like a few actors, leap into almost instantaneous fame, comparatively few ever meet success until they have passed through years of hard experience, and have not only seen, but felt, conditions.

A single ocean trip in a floating hotel is not sufficient for the writing of a nautical story. A personally conducted tour into the catacombs does not give the traveler a sufficient grasp upon ancient history to enable him to write a historical novel.

Experience of the broadest kind is necessary for every result of more than ordinary accomplishment; and with it, special experience, if the subject be out of the ordinary.

Further, one must not only experience experience, but he must be able to put the result of experience upon paper in a way which will be satisfactory to the reader. He has two things to do:

First, he must become familiar, not by hearsay, but by actual contact, with the things which he is to write about; and, secondly, by experience of them and among them, he must learn how to write about what he knows. The mere accumulation of knowledge, or of experience, is insufficient. There must be that further experience in handling experience.

While all of the later books by an author may not show improvement, the chances are that the last book, or one of the last ones, will be his best, unless he overwrites and is too prolific, which condition occasionally occurs.

I have in mind two writers of boys' books, who obtained international fame from their first dozen volumes, and lost half of it by continuing to write when they had outwritten themselves. Their later works so closely resembled their former books that they received little commendation. Their plots became alike, their characters the same. They simply produced a conglomeration of words, set in short paragraphs, with conversations liberally interspersed, but said nothing and made their characters do nothing, except what they had said before and what had been done before.

Both for fame and for money, it is better to produce a fewer number of books or stories, than to attempt to flood the market with similar productions.

It has been said that there is just so much in a man, that the brain contains a limited number of cells, and that, theoretically, all of them may be exhausted. While this is not true scientifically, it would seem to apply to prolific writers, and to take away from them the fame of their earlier productions.

Quality, rather than quantity, pays the best dividends.

Let us suppose, for example, that a certain author has obtained a great success because of his mystery stories. Primarily these books sold because the public thought them worth reading. This writer may have little difficulty in obtaining the publication of a manuscript much below the average grade, provided it does not wholly lack in merit. A large number of readers will buy his book because of his reputation. By intrinsic quality, he has gained their approval, and because of it, the public will purchase and read everything which he writes. But it is obvious that his best books will sell the best. Still the sale of his second quality will be sufficiently large to justify its publication.

The seasonableness of the book is an important item. If, for example, the newspapers are filled with accounts of the loss of several hundred lives by the foundering of a great ocean liner, every one is reading, or has read, these accounts. A book, then, describing an ocean disaster, would have a sale, because the subject is opportune; and this book, although rather indifferently written, may be a greater seller than it would have been if it had not had the advertising value of the recent ocean horror.

Another example: Let us suppose that trade unionism is being discussed in every newspaper, that legions of lecturers are commending or condemning the organization of labor; the subject is timely, and the public will read almost anything fairly well put together, which presents the relations of capital to labor.

It is difficult, however, to anticipate these events, and almost as hard to produce a book before the excitement has waned; but if the author has a manuscript completed or nearly so, he is likely to find a market for it, which would not as readily meet him under ordinary conditions.

The production of something new, or an original treatment of a pertinent subject, often creates a market. The very originality of the manuscript will give it a prestige even beyond its literary merits.

It has been said that the average editor or literary adviser or reader is biased in favor of the well-known or popular author, and will accept a manuscript from him, and turn down one equally good, or even a better one, from an unknown writer. This is probably true, to an extent, at least, partly because many so-called readers of manuscript are incompetent, and, further, because it is extremely difficult to weigh literary values. Then, commercialism comes in, and plays havoc with the young or unknown author.

So long as many readers will refuse to purchase a book unless it is written by a popular author, or by one of reputation, it is evident that the publisher takes less financial risk when he publishes a manuscript of ordinary quality by an acceptable author, than he would take in putting out a better book by an author entirely unknown or little known.

There appears to be no remedy in sight. So long as financial profit must be considered, the publisher will give preference to the manuscript which will sell, provided its quality is not low enough to injure his reputation.

Thousands of manuscripts, representing years of labor, and containing matter of great benefit to the world, never see the light of publication, because they would be unprofitable financially. They must be published, then, at the author's expense, or at the expense of philanthropists or friends. Of this I have spoken in another chapter.

I would suggest, at this point, that here is a truly philanthropic opportunity, for men of wealth to endow a publishing house, so that it may publish manuscripts of unusual merit, which would be of great benefit to the world at large, and yet would be unprofitable as money-makers.

Many books would receive an enormous reading at the libraries, and yet would not sell to any large extent. They would be available to those who needed them and yet could not afford to purchase them. For this reason they are not profitable publishing propositions.

The thought of the world should be concentrated between covers, but so long as commercialism must govern the publication of books, just so long will much of the inner brain of man be unable to find typographical expression, especially those thoughts which appeal to the higher instincts, and not to the pocketbook.

Therefore, do not hope for recognition until you have experience. With it you may accomplish much; without it there is little to be expected.

Experience goes hand in hand with ability. Either by itself is insufficient to produce acceptable result.