We have been talking about best seller vs. low-sellers. Now let’s discuss fiction vs. non-fiction and what sells best. By now, you probably know that novels are the hardest sell for unknown writers. So why do I write them?
Abraham Verghese, MD and medical school professor, says, “Good fiction can achieve a higher kind of truth than non-fiction. Good stories are instructions for living . . . a great novel can transport you to another planet, let you live vicariously a full life, and when you come back, it’s still Tuesday, and yet you’ve learned the lessons of a lifetime. That’s what everyone, doctors included, could get from fiction, and God is in the details.”
People often ask how much in my novels is true. I usually give them a percentage. When they ask about Home Light Burning, a novel that takes place just after the Civil War, I tell them it as about as true as your average history book. Actually, in some places, it’s more accurate than many history books.
G. K. Chesterton’s book Everlasting Man influenced C. S. Lewis to return to Christianity. Chesterton said, “It’s not enough to be told about something that happened or a historical fact. We want to know what it felt like. So long as we neglect this subjective side of history, which may be more simply called the inside of history, there will always be a certain limitation on that science which can better be transcended by art. So long as the historian cannot do that, fiction will be truer than fact. There will be more reality in a novel; yes, even in a historical novel.”
Pat Conroy said, “A novel is my fingerprint, my identity card, and the writing of novels is one of the few ways I have found to approach the altar of God and creation itself. You try to worship God by performing the singular courageous and improbable favor of knowing yourself.”
Fiction or non-fiction, we should realize that reading for pleasure and reading for knowledge are not mutually exclusive. Novels have changed the world—because we learn from stories. We can gain knowledge and pleasure in the same book.
My point in making the comparisons between our writing and best-sellers is to illustrate that you might write a very good book that does not sell well. Most don’t.
But I can promise based on my own experience that you will grow wiser and stronger through the reflection required to write a book—that you will meet dozens of new people and will rekindle dormant friendships. You will gain pleasure and a sense of accomplishment for your efforts, and you will contribute to posterity—if not for thousands, at least for your closest circle of friends and family.
Write your book not because you want a best-seller, but because you have something to say, something to pass on to future generations.
No experience? Afraid of making mistakes? How does one get experience? From making mistakes and from deliberate practice. So just write. Be yourself. Find your voice. Write how you talk and express how you feel.
The bad news is that, after more than twenty years of writing, my doubts about writing have still not disappeared. I told someone once that I write because I can’t sing. When my doubts return, I hum the words to “Why Me, Lord?” written by Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson (whose ambition was to be a novelist). I knew the first few lines by heart, but when I looked up the lyrics, I found this verse:
“Try me, Lord. . . if you think there’s a way—I can try to repay—all I’ve taken from You. Maybe, Lord, I can show someone else—what I’ve been through myself—on my way back to You.”
Also from Ravi Zacharias: “the day that each person willingly accepts himself for what he or she is and acknowledges the uniqueness of God’s framing process marks the beginning of a journey to seeing the handiwork of God in each life. Trying to mirror someone else’s accomplishments is one thing. Trying to be someone else in distinctive capacity is unhealthy and breeds insatiable hungers. Not everyone is a Bach or an Einstein. But there is splendor in the ordinary.”