Writers love to read. What we love to read, of course, varies widely. Yet how does that affect the writing and then, of course, the path to publication?
Q) I have written my first novel, and it's a story I believe in. Yet as I send it to agents, I'm getting a consistent question back: whom do I write like? To whom would I compare myself? The trick of it is, I really prefer non-fiction to fiction, so how do I figure this out?
Agents ask this question of nonfiction and fiction writers primarily to hone a pitch. Editors want to know this to sell your book to the house. If the publishing house can visualize your novel finding a home with a specific subset of readers--the bigger the group the better--you'll be more likely to be offered a deal.
Be sure that you make accurate comparisons. Resist the urge to shoot the moon by saying you're the next Stephen King or Ann Patchett. Instead it's best to make specific comparisons. I pitched Life Without Summer as Ordinary People meets Deep End of the Ocean. Later my editorial team fine tuned it to--Good Grief meets Deep End. Why? Because comparisons should be contemporary so a larger group of readers can relate and of course should be compared to books readers know, those that did well in the market.
How to come up with your comparison titles? Read. Read. Read. Doing your homework is more than half the battle in this business. Never stop reading.
Interesting. My first instinct was to respond to your obvious question about comparing your writing to a published work, but I think there's a more urgent consideration here: Why are you setting yourself on the fiction track if you prefer nonfiction?
Look, it's a tough business. You will not reap satisfaction in a $big$ deal, you will not discover contentment when you make the NYT's bestseller list, the reviews will give you no solace. The true joy in the writer's life is found in the writing. It is the only time you'll feel whole. Write what you love, write your passion, and then you'll know exactly where your work fits in relation to others. And from a purely business oriented standpoint, it's a heck of a lot easier to sell nonfiction than a novel. I like nonfiction too, I read a lot of it. But I far and away prefer novels when I want to cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea. So the ball's back in your court. Why are you spending precious hours of your life pursuing something you don't want?
My gut feeling is that you probably have a favorite author or two that you may be similar to. Given that you may not read much fiction, I'd look back to authors you read as a child or teenager, books you love. Are you similar to any of those authors? If you can't pinpoint yourself in regards to an author's style, then I'd recommend you think about genre and fit yourself comfortably in between books on that shelf.
One question to ask yourself is are they asking because they want a way to categorize you, or because they perhaps feel you need to define yourself, and thus in turn refine your writing? If you write fiction, it is important to read fiction, and what you should do is to go to the library and talk with those fabulous men and women who seem to read everything. Tell them what you like to read, what it is about non-fiction and the particular books you read that you enjoy. Give them a brief overview of what you write, and ask for suggestions. They will get you on your way. At the same time, read about craft, so that you can read as a writer, too. In time, you will find you are learning from fiction writers (Guardian Angels, in the words of Martha Southgate) who are most similar to yourself.