This one is for the other fiction writers out there, whether already practicing or still just “loosening up.”
It’s a question many of us never face squarely.
I’ve known people who were avid for what they imagined as the “lifestyle” of a writer. Seldom did their imaginings bear much relation to reality.
I’ve known people who wanted to memorialize certain events through a fictional lens. They found those events to be supremely important, and they knew that fiction is better than exposition at expressing the underlying themes of human action and human nature.
I’ve known people – including one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever met – who merely saw fiction as a way to augment their incomes. The great majority of them have been bitterly disappointed by the returns on investment.
And I’ve known people who just wanted to see their names on the cover and spine of a book: the “now I’m somebody” syndrome that more often plays out in the context of one of the performing arts.
But why do you want to write? Is it one of the reasons above? If not, then what?
You really should know, and quite clearly, before you set your fingers to the keys. It will determine everything.
One of the foremost science fiction writers of the Twentieth Century, Robert A. Heinlein, said on several occasions that he wrote “to buy groceries:” i.e., simply for what he could earn that way. You sure as hell can’t tell from most of what he wrote! They’re replete with insights of all kinds: into government and politics, social structures and their evolution, religion and human speculations about the supernatural, human motivation, the limits of the achievable, and so on. A few of his books might seem lightweight at first. A couple of them, toward the end of his life, were self-indulgences (e.g., I Will Fear No Evil and The Number of the Beast). But by far the greater part of Heinlein’s oeuvre is rich with thematic content of the sort that renders them usefully instructive – intellectually durable – memorable for the best of reasons.
I could name other writers, alive and producing, who claim to be “in it for the money” but whose stuff has the thematic heft and solidity of Heinlein. A dear departed friend who sought to make his living from fiction discovered that he couldn’t do it. He cared too much about the quality and thematic content of his stories to pour out saleable hackwork. And I will tell you something I’ve never told anyone before: I couldn’t do it either. My first agent encouraged me to “lighten up,” to write stuff she knew she could sell because it was already flying off the shelves. I tried...and gave it up long before I could produce even one novel-length tale.
At this point I’ll stop circumnavigating the shrub and tell you baldly what you need to know, fellow storytellers and storytellers-to-be:
And there is not one single thing you can do about it.
Fiction writing is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort. It’s frequently frustrating, too. No one can dedicate himself to something as prolonged, arduous, and intermittently maddening as the creation of a novel unless he’s getting exactly what he wants from the process and its products.
Storytelling can be like mining coal, or it can be like searching for diamonds. The market for coal is much, much larger and steadier than the market for diamonds...but you must be willing to accept the grime and the drudgery of coal mining to reap the profits available from that market. And what you get for your labors is weariness, black fingernails, and coal. There’s no kidding yourself about that.
So know, clearly, explicitly, and beyond all possibility of self-deception, what you care about sufficiently to embrace the labors of the storyteller. I’m here to tell you: storytelling is the hardest work I’ve ever done.
I have no doubt that you’ll feel the same.
You might be wondering why I chose this topic for today. Simple, really: I’m serving as a countervailing voice to a writer I like personally who apparently feels otherwise. Sarah has a lot of books available. I haven’t read most of them, and most of the ones I’ve read have failed to affect me. However, Sarah is a respected figure, at least among speculative-fiction writers and fans. For that reason a lot of aspiring writers and newly fledged ones will take her sentiments to heart. That makes it important that other perspectives are available to them.
This one is mine. Make of it what you will.