I’m not the only author who has shifted from academic writing to novels, and I’m probably not the only one who has found the transition perplexing. I’d been publishing books and articles in philosophy for a long time before turning my hand to fiction. It took a while, but after several years tapping away at a story, I finally had a manuscript long enough to count as a novel. Hopefully, I started looking for a publisher.
The gulf that yawns between academic and fiction writing was unexpected. I knew that the size of audiences and the diversity of readers would be vastly different, but I thought the switch would be, if not seamless, at least predictable. After all, for both an academic book and a novel, one needs to assemble similar documents: a query letter pitching the work, an author bio that demonstrates how splendidly qualified you are to have written it, and a synopsis that will grab the attention of an eager acquisitions editor. However, my experience with academic inquiries hardly prepared me for approaching the gatekeepers of fiction.
I cannot count the number of missteps and the amount of time I squandered before achieving a foot—a toenail—in the door with my first novel. By that time, I had sought advice from experts that helped to correct my blunders. However, there was one piece of advice that surprised me and that prompted considerable consternation.
The problem area was the author bio. Of course, just because you can write an academic monograph, there is no guarantee that you can handle a fictional narrative. You could be a gripping expert in one field and bore a reader comatose in the other. Still, the ability to complete a book-length project is a credential of its own, right? Well no, not really. Academic credentials are not the thin end of the wedge into fiction writing. In fact, according to one piece of advice from an expert whom I hold in considerable respect, they can actually count against you.
In an earlier age, this discouraging tidbit might advise one simply not to mention previous writing. But with nosy search engines at everyone’s fingertips, that strategy doesn’t work. Moreover, it confronts another problem, and that is that these days aspiring novelists need a platform, even (gag) a personal brand. Which means hiding your light under a bushel is not only impossible, it would work against you anyhow.
The trick, as far as I can tell, is to present yourself as someone who can write the long game with dedication and versatility. But more importantly, disciplinary knowledge can indirectly—perhaps in the background, perhaps implicitly—deepen your story. I think this is true of philosophy, and I’ll bet that other academics who are shifting gears would say the same for their disciplines. The gears may grind for a while, but somewhere in the mix of previous efforts, there is probably a thin edge to be found.