What Shelf Are You On?
What shelf in the bookstore do you see yourself on? The first time I was asked to answer this question my heart rate sped into overdrive and I became really angry. It was a valid question for sure, one that every writer needs to ask themselves, but I didn't have an answer, and the fact that I didn't have an answer brought me to scream at my professor in front of the class, "I DON'T KNOW!"
My professor wasn't trying to provoke me or embarrass me (I was good at doing that all by myself), he was simply trying to convey that in order to understand what it is that we as writers are doing, we first need to understand what other writers are doing and how we are going to approach the ongoing conversation on the particular shelf we want to be on. In other words, before we take pen in hand, we need to ask ourselves several questions if we truly want to be successful writers:
1. What shelf do I want to be on?
2. What other books are already on that shelf?
3. What is the conversation the other books are having on that shelf?
4. What is my book going to do on this shelf: Add to the conversation by bringing in a new voice? Change the direction of the conversation? Be critical of the previous conversation? Forge new territory?
I've spoken with many writers who say they want to write a book, or have already written a book, but don't have a clue where it fits into the grand scheme of the universe of books. Effective writing contains many elements such as clarity, beautiful prose, organized thought patterns, logical thesis, etc. The number one mistake however, is writing without knowing where your book is headed.
If you are unable to quickly tell yourself what shelf you want to be on, then take a fieldtrip to your bookstore and follow these simple steps:
1. Find the section of the store that you think you want to write in.
2. Find the bookcase that contains your area of passion or expertise.
3. Find the bookshelf that you want to see yourself on.
4. Choose three books from that shelf, one that you deem successful (maybe an award winner or top seller), one that you deem a total flop, and one that is very similar to your own work.
5. Read all three books cover to cover, making notes in each about what is good, what is bad (i.e., what is it that these books are doing), how do they function, what is their structure, and what you will do with this new information in your own work.
6. From your notes, write down what the books are saying to each other and how your work fits into that conversation.
For example, let's say you are writing a children's book. How many different genres are in the children's section? Try naming them: mysteries, classics, fantasy, literary, fairytales, picture books, first readers, etc. etc. What if you are writing a self help book? Try naming the different world views these books stem from: Buddhist, Christian, Secular, Atheist, Unitarian, etc. etc. Get the picture? It isn't enough to say you want to write a cookbook; you should be able to say that you want to write a cookbook for people who don't know how to boil water but have been struck with a disease such as hypoglycemia and are on a limited income. Know what it is that you are doing! So, what shelf are you on?
Related Tags: writing, books, publishing, self publishing, editing, book doctor, editorial advice
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