Everyone knows (or should) that copying plotlines and character types is a recipe for rejection. It's not just a plagiarism issue; no one is at his best writing "like" someone else. As Irving Berlin is said to have told an up-and-coming George Gershwin when the latter applied for a job as Berlin's musical secretary, "If you take the job, you may develop into a second-rate Berlin. But if you insist on being yourself, someday you'll become a first-rate Gershwin."
Nonetheless, it's possible to be a first-rate version of yourself while building on your enjoyment of others' writing. You can write about their stories through book reviews; commentaries on classics or themes; author profiles; and how-to-teach-literature articles.
No, it needn't be boring "high-school-English" stuff. Says Megan Friel, Founder and Editor of classic-children's-literature resource Sparrow Tree Square, "There's always a link between literature and life—find that link to start. Find what's compelling and frame your work around that."
Adds Roger Sutton, Editor-in-Chief of The Horn Book: "What I look for most is that the person has a point, that s/he tells me something I don't already know."
Book reviews are accepted by nearly every magazine genre. Most other "writing about literature" has a more limited market, mostly educational and (naturally) literary publishers. "Often, literary magazines are a training ground for new writers," says Deborah Vetter, Senior Contributing Editor of Cricket and Executive Editor of its teen counterpart Cicada. And the most "literary" stories usually offer the most to write about: "A story is literary when the author has a sense of craft. The story doesn't veer away from nuance or opt for predictability. Voice is crucial, both the author's voice and that of the main character."
To Market, to Market
Don't assume, however, that all "literary" presses accept "about literature" nonfiction—or that no "popular" publisher would. Don't even assume that only fiction and poetry are "literature." The Horn Book, the "about literature" paragon among youth-oriented periodicals, gives plenty of space to nonfiction—and to most writing styles. "I like a nice mix" of material in every issue, says Sutton, including reviews, profiles, interviews, and trend analyses.
As with any topic, know what your target market does publish. "Each is different," says Vetter. "Study the market. Pay attention to voice and craft."
Sutton states emphatically: "Make sure you've read [at least] the last year's worth of issues" before submitting. "We get a fair number of submissions every month about how wonderful children's books are. Our readers already know that." And "sometimes I'll get submissions from college professors [along the lines of] 'my student did this excellent term paper.' I hope [Horn Book] is an intelligent journal, but it's not an academic one. Be aware of your audience. Wherever you're submitting, read the guidelines."
And whatever you do, don't be the egoist who knows from official guidelines that his dream market does not publish commentaries on YA literature, yet still tries to convince them to give his commentary a chance. A square peg won't fit in a round hole even if dipped in gold.
Poor fits aside, "writing about literature" opportunities cover a wide range. "You can find pieces from a wide variety of magazines and presses," says Friel. "The market could use more for general readers. Books and articles aimed at scholarly and professional audiences are easy to find, but pieces for parents and enthusiasts are scarce."
Both Sutton and Michelle Parker-Rock (award-winning teacher and creator of the Authors Kids Love series) note the potential influence of the Common Core Standards and their emphasis on nonfiction. "Over the past ten years," says Parker-Rock, "there has been a lot of attention given to the loss of 'high quality literature' in curricula. Now it would seem there will be a great deal of interest in writing about what, how, and why we read. As an educator, it is important for me to encourage readers to not only read literature but to read about literature. Reading about literature deepens a reader's experience and helps a reader make connections to an author's work."
And the Research Goes On…** **
Don't stop your research with the aforementioned publisher guidelines. Read others' "writing about writing." Check out websites on authors and on experiencing literature. And definitely read the actual books, authors, or genres you're writing about. Be sure to pick a topic you like; if dystopia sends you into a blue funk, any manuscript you try to do on the subject will make readers equally miserable. Don't be afraid to write on your favorite genre even if it seems no one is interested in it. Many editors in the mid-1990s had relegated fantasy and 200+-page books to the "nobody reads that anymore" shelf—then along came J. K. Rowling to trigger what Sutton calls "the biggest change I've seen" in publishing.
And if you can't find a single recently published bestseller in your chosen genre, there's always the topic of historical trends. Popular styles and genres have always reflected the political, social, emotional, educational, and scientific norms of their times. (It's telling, if a bit sad, that dystopian and zombie stories are so popular with the current generation of teenagers, who grew up in a culture that is highly conscious of terrorist and environmental threats—and finds it as easy to air cynicism to a thousand social networkers as to gossip among a small circle of friends.)
But whatever your own literature preferences, do read the book(s) in full. Don't even be tempted to settle for "Cliff Notes" research—you'll only set yourself up for the humiliation of being found the amateur trying to teach experts. As Friel notes, "People who read about literature are often very informed and passionate, so they'll pick up on any inaccuracies."
You want them to instead be advising their friends to pick up your work.