How To Use A Bookstore To Become A Better Writer

Bookstores are an incredible asset to anyone who writes. This is true whether the person is just putting pen to paper for the first time, or has already published several books. In fact, every published writer I know spends a great deal of time in bookstores, whether independents or large chains such as Barnes & Noble. I happen to have worked for Barnes & Noble for years, and every day marveled at how going to work was almost better than attending a graduate program in writing. Not only did I avoid paying tuition, but I even got paid.

Indeed, the value of bookstores to writers has seemed so obvious to me that it never occurred to me to mention it to aspiring writers until a few years ago, when I was Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Abington. At that point, I became aware that many students rarely set foot in a bookstore, and so were utterly unfamiliar with the resources they offer. As a result, I began to incorporate bookstore trips into my class syllabus. This article is a stripped-down version of what I've told them. I hope these tips give you a better sense of just how much you can develop as a writer simply by making use of bookstores.

Let's start by breaking down this topic into two categories. The first is the craft of writing, and the second is the business of writing.

I. The Craft of Writing. Otherwise referred to as technique or skills.

All writers, whether beginning or published, need to develop their craft so they can communicate more effectively. The very beginner sometimes thinks that this is unnecessary — if I can hold a dinner conversation, I can surely write a novel, right? And on occasion a long-published writer might give into the same delusion — if I've pulled off several pieces before this, then I must be at the top of my game, right? But all those in between, as well as beginners and published writers who are wise, know otherwise. Novice concert pianists don't just sit down at the piano and boom, they're at Carnegie Hall. And even those who have been at Carnegie Hall don't stop taking lessons and practicing. Learning one's craft is a lifelong commitment. So whatever your skill level, I hope you can see how much this applies to you. Here are three tips for using the bookstore to help develop your craft:

1. When people are looking to learn about writing, they usually make a beeline for one part of the store: the Reference section that focuses on Writing and Publishing. It is true that there are some excellent How-to books in that section. I'm particularly fond of Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner. (In fact, most published fiction writers are intimate with both of those books.) However, it is also true that there might be many books that are too simplistic for your needs, or perhaps too sophisticated. I recommend that in the Writing and Publishing section, you give yourself at least a few hours to leaf through the many possibilities, and even read a chapter or two of the top candidates. You'll have a better idea of how each book speaks to you, and if it's worth the investment.

2. Reference books. I mention this to people and they respond, "Oh, yeah, like a thesaurus, right?" It's as if somehow they think a tool like a thesaurus is too simplistic, or not really meant to assist them. (I've actually heard students say, "If I can't dream it up on my own, it doesn't count." And I say, "Count for what?" Writing is enough of a challenge without arbitrary, self-imposed rules.) A thesaurus is only one kind of reference book available to you, but, to stay with it for a moment, if you spend a fair amount of time with a thesaurus, you'll learn that it's not about giving you a synonym, but about helping you follow a breadcrumb trail from one vague concept in your mind to something far more precise. That is, you think you're just looking up another way to say, "It was a bright day." You look up "bright," and come up with a number of possibilities — but if you look at the words clustered around at least a few of those possibilities, or maybe even switch to nouns instead of adjectives, you might come up with far better words, or even stronger images, that otherwise wouldn't have come to you. Think of it as a way to get your mind reaching far beyond where it would have gone otherwise, rather than just to places you already knew before you'd opened the book. I've spent whole classes on how to use a thesaurus. I write with one on my lap.

There are many other reference books too. Here are some:

Visual glossaries

Myth encyclopedias

Nature compendia

Pop culture books

Top 40 Hits


3. The most fruitful way for you to use the bookstore to learn craft is for you to hunker down in the section that has the kinds of books you're interested in writing, and to do very close readings of as many as you possibly can. This sounds obvious, but it's amazing how few aspiring writers do this. Sometimes this is because they say, "Well, I read a lot of mysteries, so I know I can write them." True, but there's a huge difference between reading widely and reading deeply. To learn craft, one must look with a microscope at what one is reading, and dissect it as a writer would, asking such questions as, "Why did the writer begin with this scene and not that one? How did the writer get me to cry here and laugh there? What devices is the writer using to develop the characters?" In other words, to use each book as a textbook of craft. Sometimes, of course, you'll see wonderful examples of how to, say, move a character from the kitchen to the bedroom. Other times, you'll see it handled clumsily. Either way, you can learn from these examples. To do this, you need three things:

A. Lots of time — both during each visit to the store, and over the months, or even years.

B. Notes. Should you actually purchase the books (always a nice thing to do for the bookstores, and all the nicer so you can support your fellow struggling writer), I recommend you mark them up, noting as you read through the first time what you're feeling and understanding, and then, when you go through again, trying to figure out what the writer did to make you feel and understand those things there.

C. A focus on contemporary books (especially if you want to publish). What do I mean when I say contemporary? If you focus on books from the 19th century, you'll have a great learning experience, but you'll be underinformed about the styles and approaches that are more acceptable now. Writing has changed a great deal since 1850. Indeed, it has changed a great deal since 1970.

Again, all this might seem obvious to you. But one thing might not: that by doing this, you can not only learn craft, but also become more aware of professional standards of writing. One of the most common encounters I have as a writing teacher is the person who has been writing a story or a novel, perhaps for a few months, perhaps for years, and who gets in touch with me to ask how to get it published. People don't get in touch to ask if I think it's ready for publication; they almost always believe that it's ready to go to a publisher. Every time this has happened to me — and it happens all the time — what I discover when I see the manuscript is that the writer has overestimated the quality of the work, and that it is not yet up to a fully professional level. Some manuscripts are closer than others, but I have yet to see one that is truly there. This seems to happen because too many aspiring writers aren't doing their homework to see how their work stacks up to what's actually out in the stores. They have this notion that the editor will clean it all up for them, or will somehow give them the instruction that they have not gotten for themselves. Or they think that the work is far more developed than it is. This is because they have nothing to compare it with — they haven't really, truly, deeply grasped the difference between the standards of a professional, and the standards of an apprentice.

Recently, for an example, someone contacted me about finding an agent. I asked about the state of his book, and he assured me that it was ready to be sent off. I asked if he'd studied other books that were like his, to make sure that his was as crisp and tight and well-constructed as theirs. And, in a rather defensive voice, he said, "My answer to that is that I teach ten classes." Oh. Well, that might be the excuse he gives himself, but no editor will care about that or any excuse. (Think about it — if you heard of a hair cutter who was too busy to learn how to cut hair professionally, would you go to that person? Not when there are so many others who, busy or not, have learned how to cut hair professionally.) Be careful not to let your impatience deceive you into overestimating the quality of your work.

As a corollary, be careful not to let your impatience tempt you to believe that the high approval ratings you receive from friends and family are the same ratings you'd get from publishers. Your friends' compliments might feel nice, but your friends are probably not in publishing, and so just can't know how those in the business will view the work. As of the year 2002, there were about 135,000 new books published every year, and no doubt at least five or ten or a hundred within your area of focus. So there are always many books that you can turn to, and 135,000 good reasons to make your work stand up to the best.

One more thing about craft and patience. It is said that the average apprenticeship a writer goes through to get to the point of being truly professional is 10 years. And that doesn't mean 10 years of writing without pushing oneself to learn. So push yourself, and use all the books around you. That will make the 10 years go faster, and maybe even take less time.

II. The Business of Writing. Or: Using the bookstore to grow wiser about getting published.

Again, some people think that the only way a bookstore can really help with this is in the Writing and Publishing section of the Reference Department — Writer's Market type books, or How To Get An Agent type books. These can be of some use, but it's not enough. Remember when you were applying to college? If you looked up your prospective schools in some college guide you got some insights, but you didn't get a real feel for the differences. You might have thought you did — until you actually began college, and got to know yours well. So how can you educate yourself about publishing using other bookstore tools? Here are four tips:

1. Look at how the store is laid out. Publishers have to think in these terms to sell the book to the bookstores. In many stores you might notice that, in terms of fiction, Literature is shelved separately from Romance, which is also separate from Science Fiction, and sometimes Mystery. This is to separate genre writing from the literary. If you don't know the difference between genre and literary, look at the books to discern this for yourself. Then figure out which section has books most like yours, and look through them to see what's getting published these days. You can apply this same approach no matter what you're writing. In the Children's Department, books are separated by age levels, among other divisions. At Barnes & Noble, the Psychology section — which is where the more serious or even academic books are shelved — is separate from Self-Improvement, which is for the more commercial or pop psych books. Understand the different markets by spending time in the actual aisles, looking at the differences in the kinds of books.

Then spend time looking at the major displays in the store. The octagon in the front of a Barnes & Noble is for new fiction and nonfiction, usually the first week they're out, and usually includes the books that are getting a lot of press that same week (which is why you'll always have heard of at least some of them). The Discover New Writers section is for literary fiction and nonfiction by emerging authors. Use these displays to see what seems more likely to get attention. This can help you make decisions about what you want to do with your ideas — or how much you might be able to expect given how you've already decided to handle your ideas. One of the things that upsets a lot of writers is when their fantasies of success aren't met by reality. You can reduce this pain by just facing the reality, and then making your decisions or adjusting your expectations accordingly.

Along the same lines, notice in the stacks which books are face out. This means the store has purchased multiple copies of that title, which means the store expects it to be more popular. At a large retailer like Barnes & Noble, books end up in the stacks usually after a few weeks of initial display in the front of the store, so they might still be fairly new books. However, don't expect that, once the book has been in the stacks for some months, there will always be the same number of copies facing out — or even available. Most books have a very short shelf life — I've heard as little as three months. Then they get shipped back to the warehouse. If the writer has been lucky enough to get a paperback sale, then you might see it again in a year. But not all books get paperback sales, only those which have received great critical or popular acclaim, and sometimes even some of them don't. And, as an extra note, most hardbacks go out of print within 1-2 years or so. See what books have a long life, and what books have a short one. Again, this can help you with expectations.

2. Learn how to look at a published book. Pick up several books that are in your area of interest, and, by learning how to read their covers like someone in publishing, learn about the specific corner of the industry that handles the kind of stuff you're interested in. Here are some of the things to look at:

- Publisher. Learn the differences between the publishers, as well as who is owned by whom. Each publisher, and each imprint at each publisher, has a different personality, much as colleges do. With familiarity, you'll have a better sense of what kind of books get published by Houghton Mifflin as opposed to Simon & Shuster.

- Blurbs, or quotes from famous writers on the back jacket. The content of blurbs might mean something to a browser, but what really matters with blurbs is who wrote them, since it is the name that helps sell the book. For those in the know, however, blurbs are little more than codes for people the writer, or the writer's associates, already know, since very few of the most famous writers give blurbs without already having a personal connection. So blurbs are a way to see the circles in which this writer travels, or the company with which his publisher would like him to be seen. It thus makes it easier to know if this book is being positioned as minimalist, or post-modern ironic young male writer, or what. I knew of few writers who actually read the blurbs they see on books — though they note who wrote them.

- Flap copy, or the description of the book on the inner fold of the jacket. Usually read by browsers. Rarely read by writers themselves, since they're sales pitches and often filled with hyperbole. Most writers just open up to a random page to see what the writing is like.

- What the cover is communicating about the supposed audience. Big letters for author names indicate that the author was a recent (or recurrent) best seller, and it's the author, not this individual book, that the reader is buying. I've heard that many of the romance lines follow a specific set of guidelines that indicate such things as how racy the book is.

- Copyright page. Look here to see where the work has been previously published. If the author's work is like yours, this can show you magazines where you might find a receptive editor.

Once you've started to do all this, study the writing in the books in a way similar to what you did when looking at craft. This time, however, you'll be concentrating more on figuring out the kind of writing these particular publishing houses, and even editors (whose names might appear in the Acknowledgments), appear to like. Sometimes it's as simple as a kind of subject, especially if it's a nonliterary nonfiction book. But often the editor will have some preferences in terms of the style (such as whether it's hip, folksy, formal, conversational, packed with factual information, filled with breezy dialogue, or whatever), how original the idea and its execution are (some editors like a high degree of originality, others prefer that books are close to — though not exactly like — books that have come before), how long the book is (some editors are willing to take on long books, others want short ones), etc. You'll also see that there are excellent books that don't get much attention, and lousy books that do. We all know this, but what a lot of pre-published writers don't know is that just because a book is good doesn't mean an editor is going to acquire it. The publisher has certain preferences, needs, conflicts, and beliefs that might force her to say no to something that might well be quite publishable. This knowledge can help you deal with rejection much more calmly.

3. Turn to magazines. The major one is Publisher's Weekly. You can learn a lot about the business of publishing this way, such as their sections on Hot deals, Forecasts, and Author profiles. You can also learn more about distinguishing the individual publishing houses.

While you're in the magazine section, take a look at all the other ways it can help you. Yes, there are some general magazines on writing. If you're writing literary work, the main one is Poets & Writers; if it's more commercial writing, then Writer's Digest or some others would be better. But there are also all kinds of other magazines. Each one has a slightly different market of readers that it's trying to reach, and so the editors at those magazines are more apt to buy work that will appeal to their specific reader. How can you know how to look at a magazine to learn this?

- Ads — Who do they see as their readers?

- Other articles — What kind of work are they interested in?

- Bylines — Are there any free-lancers?

4. Spend time watching people do their shopping. Look at how they decide whether to pick up a book, especially if they are browsing, or are allowing themselves to consider some impulse purchase. Notice what they look at (often the sales pitches, like the blurbs or the flap copy, that don't mean what they think). See how long they'll hold the book. And then see what it takes for them to buy it. It's very, very hard for them to buy it — books are a lot of money. See what tempts some readers to make that impulse purchase — and then think about how you could draw that reader to your book. Again, this might not make you alter what you want to write, but it might help you adjust your expectations.

Remember that your own shopping habits are worth examining. If you're writing a book for a reader like yourself and you never buy books, then you might be able to surmise that many of your potential readers will not buy you. This is a major problem for writers, many of whom live on very tight budgets so they have more time to write. If you're one of those people who never buys books — BUY BOOKS. Maybe set yourself the goal of one book a month that's in the area you're interested in writing about. Try to make your purchases new, hardback books, not remainders or used books or even paperbacks. A hardback is much more likely to get a paperback deal if enough copies sell of the hardback. Besides, by buying books, you not only help other authors who have your same dreams, but you send out good karma, and that's always a good thing in this world.

I wish you well with your bookstore adventures. I can guarantee that they'll be surprisingly fruitful, and that they won't seem like work since they'll be so much fun.

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