Even if your main interest is in writing novels and/or short stories, you should still consider writing some non-fiction pieces.
If you’re a beginning writer, getting a non-fiction piece professionally published is usually a lot easier than getting paid for fiction. Essays and articles are also a great way to draw attention to your novel. Let’s say you’ve just had a vampire novel published. If you had an article published about the differences between vampires from different cultures, you could include in your bio information that you’d written a vampire novel.
So how do you work out what to write about?
One way to start is to work out what your favorite magazines and web sites are. What kind of articles could you write for them?
You can also work out what broad areas you’re interested in. For example I’m interested in: science fiction, books, movies, travel, photography and computer games.
That gives you a broad area to work in, but you need to give your article a specific focus or slant. What I Think About Movies isn’t the kind of article you’re going to sell (unless you’re already famous). It needs to be more specific. Why China’s Reclaiming of Hong Kong Led to a Decline in the Hong Kong Film Industry.
This is particulary true for travel writing. Some editors will tell you that a destination is not an idea. Travel magazines have already published articles on just about any place you could care to think of. Instead of My Trip to Paris, you could try selling The Ten Best Museums to Visit in Paris. Many editors are particularly partial to Top Ten kind of articles. (The Ten Hottest Clubs to Meet Vampires?) Not everyone likes top ten articles though. Clarkesworld’s non-fiction guidelines explicity state their dislike of “articles that purport to provide 10 rules for success/failure in a particular endeavor.”
Does your job give you any special qualifications that you could write about? A friend of mine is a psychologist and counsels adolescents. I used to work for the computer games industry. We co-wrote an article providing an overview of some of the studies that had been conducted examining the effects on children of playing violent computer games. We sold it to an Australian parenting magazine and got paid 50c a word. That’s 10 times the rate I’ve been paid for fiction sales.
Maybe you can’t think of any areas that you feel qualified to write about. What personal experiences have you had that others might be interested in? I attended Clarion South (a science fiction writing workshop) earlier this year. I sold an article about my experience as a student to The Internet Review of Science Fiction.
Even if you don’t think you’re an expert on a topic, the Internet makes doing research so much easier than what it was 15 or 20 years ago.
So what are some ways of generating ideas for articles?
Reading articles can give you ideas for your own articles. You read an article about how vampires represent the lust women have for gay men and think that’s nonsense. You write an article about how vampires really represent our fear of dentists.
What topics are popular right now? This can include the bleeding obvious (e.g. vampires). The trick is to give a different perspective or compare it with something else. How are Asian vampires different from Western vampires? (Chinese vampires like to hop!)
Another easy way is repackaging a topic for another market. I read an interview with an Australian potter in an Australian local newspaper. I don’t know anything about pottery, but it mentioned that the potter’s tea bowls had been graded by Japanese tea masters. I interviewed him by email and sold anarticle to a Japanese magazine that was interested in what foreigners thought of Japanese culture.
You can also write about different works (movies, books, etc) that have a similar broad theme. I sold an article to Salon.com a few years ago that looked at books that had been linked to controversial murder cases. I got the idea when I read a book about the Aum Supreme Truth cult in Japan and how they had been influenced by ideas from Asimov’s Foundation series.
Another way is to look at upcoming events. The World Expo will be in Shanghai next year so people are going to interested in articles about Shanghai. Upcoming anniversaries are another source of ideas. It was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall recently and there a lot of articles about the Berlin Wall in the media. It would be a good chance to try and interest editors in your exclusive scoop of how vampires secretly brought about the fall of Communism.
Most of the more prestigious publications already have their own reviewers. But writing reviews for smaller web sites can be a good way to get your first publication. Maybe you won’t get paid, but sometimes you’ll be able to get some free books out of the deal. Just remember that writing a summary of the plot doesn’t equate to writing an interesting review.
Science Fiction Markets
A number of online sf magazines are interested in non-fiction submissions.
Non-Paying SF Markets