Ten Things for Aspiring Fiction Writers to Consider
Do you enjoy reading? Do you find yourself immersed in the fictional worlds you read about? Do you find written stories more satisfying than movies or TV because they allow you to understand the characters, their motivations, and their ideas far more deeply? When you read, do you often think you would like to tell your own stories? Is there something you really want to say, ideas you want to share?
If so, you should try writing.
If, on the other hand, you read fiction once in a while and think it looks easy, think you could do something similar and make money, then my advice is don’t write. If these are your motivations, you may publish and you may even make a little money, but chances are you’d be happier and more successful in a different job.
Writing has to be a passion for you but before you begin, here are ten harsh realities you should consider.
1: Writing fiction is hard work. You may have a great idea for a story but transforming this into a novel is far more than just starting on page one and banging out words on a keyboard. When you read, things seem to flow from one event to another smoothly and logically. You may think all you have to do to write your own story is start with an idea of how the story begins and ends, let the logical sequence of events unfold in your imagination and simply write them down. It doesn’t work that way. You will need to consciously develop characters, settings, and timelines and you will need to know more about each than you ever reveal in your story. The characters and settings are your raw materials. Know them well. With them you construct scenes that become components of the story you want to tell. You assemble your novel from scenes the way a builder constructs a house from bricks and lumber. Oh, and it helps to have a blueprint.
2: You first need a plan. Your blueprint is your outline, or your rough synopsis, or whatever you use to help you think out how to get from your first scene to your last. Some people are “pantsers” and essentially create stories by the seat of their pants but even they usually have notes to help them. I am more of a “plotter” and develop outlines for the novel, scene summaries, and other plans to help me make sure I know what I’m going to build before I start. Personally I think this makes for a better story and reduces the amount of rewriting that needs to be done after your first draft is complete. The time spent planning your novel before you start is time well spent.
3: It takes more time than you probably think. You can read a book in a day or a week in your spare time. How much longer can it take to write those words rather than read them? A lot longer–trust me on this. Sometimes the words don’t come; often they must be revised, replaced, or simply deleted. My personal goal for writing a first draft is to complete one chapter (normally 3000-5000 words) a week. This is not terribly ambitious. Some fulltime writers can accomplish much more. Part time writers should expect to be able to do less. At my goal writing pace though, I should be able to complete a full novel with twenty to twenty-five chapters in about thirty weeks. And I write almost every day. And then there is editing and revising. Aspiring writers must be willing to sacrifice a lot of their otherwise free time in order to complete a novel.
4: Don’t forget research. But I’m writing fiction, you say. Why do I need to do research? I’m just making this stuff up. Fiction must be believable and almost all fiction will contain elements that are real. If a scene includes people riding horses or fighting with swords, you need to know something about horses and swords. Certainly some of your readers will and if you make a mistake in describing some detail, they’ll notice and it will ruin the story for them. Fortunately the internet can make the author’s research job easier but it still takes time and effort.
5: You don’t get paid for your work. Unlike a salaried job, in which you are paid for every hour of labor, productive or not, as a fiction novelist your effort yields no money until someone buys the end result. You are likely to work for months or years on a project and never see a penny from it — ever. You hope your novel will sell eventually though, but you must be able to accept that yours will not. A simple fact is that most novels never find a traditional publisher so don’t quit your day job unless you have another source of income.
6: Prepare to be brushed off or ignored. After you’ve completed your brilliant novel, you decide you will allow an agent or publisher the privilege of seeing it. You send queries and you wait. You wait some more. If you submitted on line or through email, a response may come within days, sometimes hours. Other times it will take months and it will be a rejection. Statistically, your chances of acceptance are only about one percent. Don’t think this means you just have to send out a hundred queries. Each submission is a separate event. And the responses you get probably will simply say your work doesn’t meet their current needs, or something equally unhelpful. What those current needs might be and why your masterpiece doesn’t meet them will remain a mystery.
7: You can’t give up. You submit and resubmit your story and you keep getting rejections. Once in a while, you may get a request for a partial first. But ultimately it’s another rejection. You have to be willing to accept whatever advice the rejections offer or, more likely, be willing to accept that the rejections offer no advice at all and keep trying despite your frustration, confusion, and growing sense of hopelessness. I won’t offer any platitudes here and say that eventually you will find the ‘right’ agent or publisher. Odds are you won’t. You have to be willing to accept it and keep trying anyway.
8: Accept that you are not special. But, you might say, these gloomy anecdotes don’t apply to me. I’m brilliant and I can write a best selling novel in a month, which will be accepted by the first agent I query and immediately be sold to a major publisher. Sorry. This does apply to you because only exceptional people write novels and almost all agree it is a lot of work and almost all get rejections. In a world of about seven billion people, you are just another one of the millions of exceptional ones who write. Those who eventually – EVENTUALLY – find a publisher are a minority. Most novels remain unpublished.
9: Be willing to try again. You’ve completed your novel and queried every agent and publisher on your list (which takes even more research) but to no avail. Okay. It’s time to write another novel and go through all the work, sacrifice, and pain again. Chances are, you’ve learned something the first time and your chances may be a bit better with the next one. But you have to accept that the result may be the same as before.
10: Consider alternatives. With the rise of electronic books, self publishing can be a viable alternative for you. You can now publish e-books through Amazon, Smashwords, and other places. Publication is free, but if you want to actually sell copies, you will probably need professionals to edit your book, design the cover, and promote it. These services can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, which you can’t expect sales of your e-book to offset. Just having your e-book available on Amazon does not mean you will ever see any sales.
So how important is writing to you? Would you continue to write even if you found it difficult, even if it took up most of your free time, even if it never earned any money, even if it actually cost you money? Can you deal with rejection after rejection and still keep writing? If you can, you’re either crazy or a writer. Welcome to the club.