Is My Book Idea Worth Pursuing?

November 5, 2011 at 3:57 pm 3 comments

I am often asked by hesitant, would-be authors if I would take a look at their manuscripts and then tell them whether I think their idea for a book is “worth pursuing.”

Sometimes the manuscript in question is coming out of a drawer where it has been hidden away for a little while or a long while, never seen by anyone. Sometimes it has been out into the world, made the rounds of several publishers and come back rejected. Sometimes the life story of the manuscript lies somewhere between those two extremes.

I always do look at the work before answering the question. But, to be honest, I have never yet answered that question with a “no.” And it’s hard for me to imagine the circumstances in which I ever would.

This is because I believe that anyone who is serious enough about themselves and their writing to devote a significant amount of energy to putting their thoughts on paper, and then to approach a professional editor with their work, and to have the courage to ask that editor for their opinion of their work, is someone who has an idea worth pursuing and the courage needed to pursue it.

When people ask me this question, I believe they are usually actually hoping to learn the answers to other questions that they are afraid to express (“Do I have any talent? Is my story worth telling? Is it publishable? Will anyone care to read it? Do I really want people to know this much about me and who I am?”)

So I thought in this post I would take on those questions one at a time:

Do I have talent? I don’t think talent matters very much. Having talent means, mainly, that writing comes easier for some people than for others. But even for very talented writers, writing a good book is still an awful lot of work. People who have little talent may have to work harder in some parts of the process, but people who have books in their hearts/souls/minds and who want them to come out are going to be so busy making those books be the best they can be that I think the energy expended on wondering about the question of talent is simply a distraction and a waste of time.

So I like to just ignore the whole issue of talent, and say that the really important question to ask is how hard you want to work on your book, how much time/energy/money you are willing to commit to making it happen.

That is a very different question, and it is an important question to consider, because that is the question that will determine whether or not your  book moves from dream or desire to reality.

Brenda Ueland, a writing teacher I admire a great deal, approached the question of talent in a very different way.  In her classic book If You Want To Write, she said “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.”

I don’t believe everyone is talented, and I suspect Brenda Ueland didn’t really think so either. I think she was just tired of seeing wonderfully unique, original, sensitive people who had a desire to tell their stories being discouraged from even trying by wondering about whether or not they were talented. So I think that was the way she chose to deal with the question of talent.

Either way you look at it, it’s not talent that counts, it’s hard, persistent, and sustained effort over a long period of time. That, and belief in yourself, and the importance of your story. Which leads to the next question…

Is my story worth telling? The answer to this question is very simple: yes! I believe that every person’s story is worth telling. Without exception.

Is it publishable?  This is a question that used to be very hard to answer, because it was almost impossible to know whether or not a book could be published, and the outcome had so little to do with whether or not the book was any good.

Fortunately, we are living in a time when the answer to this question has become rather simple, because now, thanks to incredibly democratizing changes in technology, anyone can publish a book. (And for most authors self-publishing is a very attractive option to consider, and very often the best choice.)

Of course there is the question of quality, and how to turn out the best possible work without putting books through the traditional publishing process in which editors help shape, refine and (usually) improve books.  (Unfortunately, throughout the history of publishing editors and publishers have also been famous for failing to recognize brilliant work and rejecting it.) Today, a publisher’s rejection is not the end of the story. With appropriate care taken, and most often with the help of professional editors and designers, self-published works can be and indeed are being produced at a very high level of quality. (There is much more to say about all this. That’s for another post!)

Will anyone care to read it?  Most writers know that they have a certain number of people who will be not only willing but eager to read their work when it is finished. The question is, will anyone else? This is something of an imponderable, and also touches on the question of self-promotion, and how willing a person is to devote time and energy to letting people know about their work. But the basic answer to this question, I believe, is that when someone writes a book honestly and from the heart, there will be someone (probably many someones) in the world who will be not only receptive to reading that work, but who need it to be there for them, in some fundamental, critically important, and mysterious way. And finally…

Do I really want people to know this much about me and who I am? As I have said about my Writing from the Heart workshops, “Writing from the heart is a bold act: it is not for the faint of heart.” It takes a lot of courage and grit to write from the heart, especially if you take the additionally bold step of publishing your work and exposing yourself and your most intimate thoughts/beliefs/experiences to the world.

This is a question that each person must answer for him or herself, though good editors, writing coaches, therapists or friends can help writers think this question through and find their own best answers.

I believe that writing from the heart is healing for anyone. Publishing that work may or may not be important or right, and that is a very individual decision. Writing is private: publishing is the act of making writing public. I think it’s important for writers to think about what they hope to achieve through their writing, what their writing (and/or publishing) goals are, why they are doing it, and what they would gain (or possibly lose) in publishing their writing.

Of course some work is more self-revelatory than other work. But all writers who publish, whether they are writing fiction or nonfiction, are exposing themselves to public scrutiny, and that in itself takes courage.

As for those who dream of writing a book–and who are ready to roll up their sleeves and gird themselves for the hard work, and the emotional ups and downs they are sure to encounter along the way–I believe that it is always–yes, always!–a dream worth pursuing.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and literature who divides her time between France and the United States.  She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and Writing from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.

Entry filed under: About Writers and their Work, About Writing from the Heart. Tags: , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Valorie Webster  |  November 5, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Great thoughts shared here, Janet…Thanks!

  • 2. Joanne M. Lozar Glenn  |  November 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Fantastic post. This will be of great interest to writers I know, and I’d love to include a link to this post in my next newsletter.

  • 3. Janet Hulstrand  |  November 18, 2011 at 3:23 am

    Thanks to both of you, glad you liked the post! And Joanne, I’d be very pleased if you feature a link in your next newsletter.


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