When I think about the writing and selling of fiction in these times, I think of words like “online journals,” “hypertext,” “authoring software” and “branding.” I think of books “published” on bandwidth, by authors who never intended to place their words on dead trees. And I ask myself questions like, “Is anyone with a PC a potential publisher? With the ease of publishing and marketing on the Internet, do we even need traditional publishing anymore?”
I think of editors who don’t edit, of the rise of the book doctor, of the emergence of the agent as publishing’s power center. I think of the frenetic pace of merger-mania, of the swallowing of smaller houses by larger ones. I think of the rise of small and university presses that now publish some of writing’s freshest talent. Then I consider how writers, if their small-press book is lucky enough to become a hit, quickly make the jump to larger houses that can afford to pony up the advance money for the next book.
I also think I think about the business too much.
But the business isn’t all I think about. I also think about how I can be moved and inspired when I’m discovering a writer for the first time. And I think about the other ways I’m being moved: How I’m moved into the various worlds and lives writers are creating through the power of their voice and the power of their characters. And I realize that all the confusion that comes with a business in flux really doesn’t matter. That it’s still all about the writing, no matter the form it takes or the medium it chooses.
And that has become a sentiment I’ve grown fond of tossing out when beginning writers wonder if they ought to publish their first work on paper, on the Internet or perhaps try to invent a new form altogether. Slow down there, Skippy, I tell them. You’ve got some things to do before you start worrying about all that. Stuff like:
Follow the Rules
The first thing you must realize is that no one is sitting back waiting for your manuscript. Across every editor’s desk comes a flood of manuscripts each and every day. Most of these are rejected out of hand for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with the actual quality of writing. (This is a good thing.)
Watch and listen to life has it happens around you. Use the details and facts you learn and observe to improve your writing.
These are manuscripts like the romance novel sent to a mystery publisher. These are manuscripts printed in an italic font or written in pencil or on a typewriter ribbon so light it threatens to make an editor blind. These are manuscripts of 20,000 words sent to a literary quarterly that has an 8,000-word max. Such misdirected and rule-breaking stories and books make up about 40 percent of all submissions. So the first thing to do is to learn your market. If you’re submitting in the accepted format and within the accepted parameters, you’ve already beaten out 40 percent of the competition for the editor’s attention.
Think about this simplistic piece of advice for a moment. Name me any other kind of gambling—is it sacrilege to compare writing to gambling?—where just a little study increases your odds by almost 50 percent.
Open Your Eyes
My second piece of advice has nothing to do with the business and everything to do with the quality of your fiction. Keep your eyes open. Experience things. Travel. Get outside your sphere, your four walls, your preconceptions. Study and listen to the people you meet. Then use what works in your stories. That’s a permutation of that hoary bit of writer’s advice, Write What You Know; but in this case, it’s go learn things, and write about what you discover.
The best fiction is made up of facts, of real description. As readers, we want to know that we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what she’s talking about. Make up your stories, sure. But don’t make up the facts and details that make those stories resonate.
Read—And Read Some More
You know this, but it bears repeating: Read everything: essays, memoirs, poetry, screenplays, nonfiction, fiction. Pay attention to what writers both inside and outside of MFA programs are doing. Pay attention to what the bestsellers are doing, and what the genre authors are doing, and the small-press writers, too.
Do this: Go to the bookstore, stand in the middle of the fiction section, shut your eyes and twirl around for five seconds. Open your eyes, and grab the first book you see, and don’t even look at the title until you’re in the checkout line. Buy this book, and read it.
Learn to read as a writer; that is, learn to deconstruct what the author is doing through deliberate technique. Be aware of pacing: Can you tell when the writer speeds you up or slows you down? What details make you sympathetic to the protagonist? How are chapters structured? How does the author use dialogue to make her characters distinctive? Could you tell who’s talking without dialogue tags? And don’t be afraid to be critical, to say that something you’re reading is lousy. A lot of what you read will strike you as poor; thinking you’re better is just part of your maturation as a writer.
Before you tackle the noble goal of writing the Great American Novel, master the rudiments of telling a cohesive story, one that has a compelling beginning, a full middle and a satisfying end—one in which, when we close the story, we’re not left shaking our heads in confusion, or worse, yawning and committing your name to memory as a writer we won’t want to read again. The key to avoiding this is to understand plot. All stories have one.
Then, when you know how to go from point A to point Z, work on your characters. Learn to make them drive the plot, make them the reason we want to turn the pages.
And get your characters outside of their own heads: Constant character—introspection and self-analysis can become deadly dull on the page. (Well, yes, of course there are exceptions; look at Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. There’s some dialogue, not much you could call plot.) So move your characters around. Put them in interesting locales, talking to interesting people. Let readers find out things about them through their dialogue. Readers want to listen in and learn things for themselves. We don’t want you telling us everything.
And on that note, learn to get exposition across without being obvious. Nothing’s worse than a reader feeling the writer is pulling him through the pages, saying “See? This is what I mean. This is how I want you to see my point.” Be aware of it always, when you’re reading and when you’re writing.
Throw It Away
Learn to love your garbage can. I have a friend who likes to say “revision is hubris.” He doesn’t mean that his first effort is so fantastic that revision is useless, an affront to his inspirations. Just the opposite: He means that his first effort is so poor that revising it is like taking aspirin to cure cancer. Chuck the whole thing, and start over.
For every page you keep, you should be throwing out two—at least. Learn to spot what’s mere throat-clearing in your writing, and cut it. T.S. Eliot once sent his manuscript for “The Waste Land” to Ezra Pound. Pound sent it back all hacked up and a red arrow pointing to the famous line “April is the cruelest month.” He said, “Cut everything up to here.” See my point? All of your words aren’t gold, and those that you think are, are probably just glitter, no substance. Learn to write words that are more like coal, words that are doing the hard, burning work of propelling your fiction forward.
Voice Is Everything
Always and forever work on your voice—it’s all that you’ll truly own when it comes to writing. Editors and readers want writers who are distinctive, who have a new way of looking at the human condition. And if it’s not in a new way, then it’s in a funny way, a wry way, a sinister way, a sneaky way; it’s something that goes beyond the “everyman’s” way.
Expect to serve an extended apprenticeship as you work on your voice. There will be times when you read over a piece of writing only to realize that you sound just like Ernest Hemingway or Hunter Thompson or Nora Roberts or Raymond Chandler. That’s okayimitation and then the discarding of imitation are necessary stops on the road to developing your own voice.
Voice takes time, and none of us should think we’re there yet. I think it takes a couple of books for an actual, consistent voice to really settle in. And some writers—more than a few of them best sellers—never get to that particular clarity of voice. But these folks usually compensate with great dialogue, great plots or great some other thing.
So what must you do to make it? Tell a story. Give us the insight and truths in a way that only you can. Entertain us. Make us think. Learn the rules so you can either play by them or at least know which ones you’re breaking and why. Study the business. Get to know people. Ask questions. Pursue connections.
And write. Set a quota, a page count or a time period. Try to stick to it. But don’t set goals that you don’t have a realistic chance of meeting. That’ll only discourage you. You don’t want writing to become a chore. If you know you can’t write every day, don’t force it. Don’t follow someone else’s schedule. Figure out what works for you.
I’ll leave you with a story, one that might apply to where you may be in your writing lives. I was 19 when I took my first writing class. We sat in a circle and took turns reading and critiquing each other’s work.
Forget that none of us had the verbal skills necessary to provide meaningful criticism. Forget that the professor would’ve rather been anywhere but inside that circle. Our stories were something shy of extremely amateurish—and that’s being kind. But what did we expect? We were 18 and 19 years old. What did we know about anything? I remember thinking, as the professor spoke about what we could expect when “we become professional writers,” who is he kidding? Writers aren’t us. No one sitting in this room, I thought, will ever be able to produce something someone else would want—let alone pay—to read. Writers come from … Well, I didn’t exactly know where they came from, but I was reasonably sure they didn’t come from this classroomor any classroom like it.
But I was wrong, wasn’t I? We learned, we grew, and most of all we wrote and wrote and wrote. And we kept getting better. And eventually some of us sold a poem, story, essay or article. Or we got into the business, or went on to make our living or part of our living with words.
So it can happen. Even though the dream seems like a reality too many horizons away, know that new writers are published for the first time every day. Why not you?
Peter Blocksom is a freelance writer. Some people wish he’d never signed up for that first writing class—he’s sometimes one of them.