3 Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Writing Fiction

This post originally appeared in January 2013 in Not Another Food Blog.

A couple of years ago I joined the ranks of newspaper journalists who became ex-newspaper journalists earlier than planned. Since the newspaper business had for years been becoming less and less fun, I decided to move on and not look back. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to teach and write novels someday, (I know. Apparently I have some sort of deep-seated psychological aversion to getting paid.) so I enrolled in Seton Hill University’s Master of Fine Arts program in Writing Popular Fiction. I entered the program with a first chapter I’d been rewriting for years, a vague idea of where I wanted to go with it, and not a clue about writing fiction or what happens after you finish a novel.

I’ve learned a lot. For one thing, I was a bit dismayed to find that I’d left newspapers, where no one knows what’s going on anymore, to enter the world of fiction publishing, where no one knows what’s going on anymore, either. To make matters worse, my timing is terrible. I used to complain that I got into journalism too late for the flask-in-the-desk era. Now apparently I’ve become a novelist when “Gone are the days of Hemingway where writers could power drink, chain smoke and hide away writing books … .”  That last quote is from a March 2012 post by blogger and author Kristen Lamb. Lamb helps writers navigate a new world of publishing in which they’re expected to use social media to get out among the readers and promote themselves. This is great, but nobody seems to be working on reversing the no-drinking-at-work trend. It seems to me that if writers are going to be forced to socialize, somebody should give us back our flasks.

Anyway, here are a few other things I’ve learned:

It’s harder than it looks. I never set out to write War and Peace or The Great American Novel. I don’t particularly care what professors think about me a hundred years after I’m dead. My goal was to write fun little mystery adventures that made people laugh. I’d read plenty of them. Surely it couldn’t be that hard. I envisioned myself sitting at the keyboard like Jessica Fletcher, tap, tap, tap, then I’d type “The End” and whoosh, out would come the manuscript, ready to go. There’d be a couple of rejections, of course. I wasn’t completely delusional. But then I’d land an agent and pretty soon I’d be packing my bags for the book tour to promote my bestseller. After that, I’d buy a nice little cabin where I would tap out the next bestseller in blissful solitude, listening to the sounds of the river flowing by and the occasional mail truck dumping off big bags of royalty checks.

All of this was desperately wrong, starting with the process. Nobody tap, tap, tap, whooshes out a novel. At least not a good one. There’s an often repeated quote, “Novels aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” This may or may not be paraphrasing André Jute, who said, “Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites.” Hemingway put it more bluntly: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

As far as that little cabin by the river? Well…

We are not alone. I confess I was relieved to learn that writing fiction isn’t all about sitting in a room alone with a computer. Sure, there’s that, but there is a lot of interaction going on in the fiction publishing world.

I’m used to working with a team on creative projects. I like getting feedback on my work. I learned as a newspaper writer and designer that the more eyes you can get on a page before it goes out means less chance of epic embarrassment. (Newspaper owners don’t understand this and are laying off editors in droves, so keep an eye out for more epic embarrassment. Actually, that might be a good reason to start reading newspapers again.)  This perspective turned out to be an advantage in critique workshops, which are a part of the MFA program and also, I think, a helpful step in the writing process. I look at critiques as an opportunity for fresh ideas, not as personal attacks.

Authors go to fun conventions and workshops and network online with each other, providing moral support and sharing knowledge about the craft and the industry. Okay, some of them say nasty things about other authors on Amazon, but we aren’t going to hang out with them.

Finally, the reason authors aren’t alone anymore is that they are now responsible for much of their own marketing, as I mentioned above. This is where you set up a website or blog, try to figure out something to say on Twitter, and go along with whatever Facebook is doing to us that week. This involves interacting with readers, which Hemingway and those guys never had to worry about much, but then again, they missed out on a lot of moral support from their fans. Also stalkers and trolls. I guess that’s what you’d call a downside. I’m just starting out, so I’m going to hope that stalkers and trolls are in the minority.

You may want to put off shopping for that beach mansion. Or the cabin by the river. The last figure I heard was that the average author advance these days is about $3,000. Sure, there are people who break out and manage multiple bestsellers, but there are many, many more, mid-list writers with multiple books published, who still can’t quit the day job. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Hey, if you want to get rich quick, write a novel!” If anybody tells you that, don’t listen. (I’m not going to get into self-publishing here. That’s another area where nobody knows what’s going on.)

So there you have it. The real life of the modern author. I’m relieved to find that I’m not alone, yet nervous about the whole process. Of course, I’m not going to have to worry about all this if I don’t do the most important thing I’ve learned, which is: Plant butt in chair. Hands on keyboard. Finish the book.

Do you have a favorite author blog or website? Authors you like to follow on Twitter?

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