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Investment Tips For the Aspiring Writer

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Publishing is abuzz with the recent announcement from Tin House, a respected independent book publisher, that it will start accepting unsolicited manuscripts--a very rare thing these days. However, there's a catch; each submission has to be accompanied by a receipt for a book from a bookstore. "Buy a book, save a bookstore!" is the catch phrase, and it's a darn good one.

But what really tickles me about this is the implication that if you want to be published, you need to be reading, and this is a not-so-subtle way for a publisher to know whether or not an aspiring author is doing this. And let me tell you right now, not a lot of them are.

Once you're published, you're going to have a lot of unpublished authors asking you for advice. Which is great; not only do you get to help others, but you have an opportunity to share all your hard-won knowledge and experience with a new audience since your relatives, by this point, are weary of hearing about it.

I love it when authors ask me for advice. But the first thing I do, when approached by someone with a manuscript and a dream, is ask, "What's the last book you read?" You would be surprised by how many blank looks, gulps, head scratches I get in response to this question. You would be surprised by how many people answer with To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, or something similar; obviously the last book they read in their high school literature class and that was published over fifty years ago.

You would be surprised, in other words, by how many people who want to publish a book haven't actually read one. In a very, very long time.

There are so many things wrong with this scenario. Does a wannabe fashion designer not know what's being designed today? Does an aspiring filmmaker not haunt movie theaters, watching every film being made? I doubt it.

And while not everyone wants to be a fashion designer or a filmmaker, seemingly everyone I meet has a notion that "someday, I thought I'd write a book." Which is swell, in principle; after all, that's how I first started out.

But I also read everything I could get my hands on. That is how I learned to write in the first place; by devouring books until I somehow absorbed the knowledge I needed to craft one. I learned how to construct a plot, how to write believable dialogue, how to create compelling characters. Not by taking a fancy MFA course, but by reading.

And by reading books that are published today, in the genres in which I aspire to write. I know my colleagues' work; I know what's selling today, what modern audiences are lining up to buy. And I know that because I spend a lot of time and money in bookstores.

Which is another, not too fine, point: If you want people to buy your books, shouldn't you be buying books yourself?

And I think that's the problem today; too many authors, not enough readers. So many people dream of seeing their book on a front table in a bookstore; so few people actually buy books that are on front tables--or back shelves--of bookstores. So few people even know where their closest bookstore is located.

So I have no problem with a publisher requiring an aspiring author to show proof that he's read at least one book lately. Wouldn't it be great if every writers' conference required the same thing for all applicants? Wouldn't it be wonderful--if not strictly ethical--if every literary agent did this, too?

Heck, if every aspiring author read ten books a year, this industry would not be having the problems it's having today.

Plain and simple, writers need to read. It should be part of our job description: Spend four hours writing today, spend two hours reading. It's on-the-job training of the very best kind; other people have to attend dry, boring seminars. We get to read wonderful, amazing books and call it "work."

But perhaps even more importantly these days is the fact that we need to support the industry that we hope will support us.

Buy a book, save a bookstore. And invest in your career, as well.

Melanie Benjamin is a pseudonym for Melanie Hauser, who has written two contemporary novels. Alice I Have Been is her first work of historical fiction and the first under this name. Benjamin lives in Chicago where she is at work on her next historical novel.

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