Advice to Beginning Fiction Writers
By Lucy A. Snyder
This month, I'm taking off the lab coat (again) and talking about the business of writing. And what business have I got dishing out writing advice? Well, I'm the author of two trade paperback collections (Sparks and Shadows and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger), and I've made over 170 writing sales. I used to be an editor for Strange Horizons and other magazines. If that makes you think I might have something useful to say, keep reading; if not, there's lots of other cool stuff on this site you'll enjoy.
Everyone who sets out to become a writer wants to be seen as a "real" writer, not a wanna-be or never-gonna-be. It's basic human nature to crave acceptance, status and respect. And even the crustiest, most jaded authors -- despite their protestations to the contrary -- are human beings who are warmed by praise and stung by criticism just like everyone else.
Group hug, anyone? Sure, let's all have a big, fuzzy group hug. You're going to need it. Respect can be very hard to come by in the writing world.
Have you written seven epic manuscripts but not sold anything yet? Average Joe SFWA Active will snort and roll his eyes behind your back when you declare yourself to be a writer in his presence.
Excited because you just sold your first novel? Snarky Big-Name World Fantasy Award Winner won't give you the time of day.
Have you made a long, award-winning career selling dozens of horror and dark fantasy books? Professor Condescendor at the Great North American English Department will pat you on your head and tell you it's too bad you don't do any "serious" work.
And if you've made a solid literary and commercial career writing dark works of staggering intelligence, subtle lyricism and heartbreaking genius, Teen AOL User will be quick to write a negative Amazon review of your latest opus: "This book was teh BORING! There was no action in it at ALL!"
And if you manage to write bestselling works that magically combine high art, genuine chills and compelling storytelling, if you have Professor Condescendor and Teen AOL User and Big-Name Award Winner all clamoring for your next publication ...
... you'll go visit Uncle Insurance Salesman, who'll yawn when you describe your latest book tour and ask, "So when are you gonna quit playing around with that writing crap and get yourself a REAL job?"
The moment you set out to become a writer, no matter how good you are, you're going to meet people who'll put you in touch with your inner Rodney Dangerfield at almost every turn.
So you just can't win, can you? You might as well just write what you want and pay to publish the result at Lulu.com and not worry about what anyone else thinks, right?
Whoa. Not so fast.
You might not always be able to win at the writing game, but there's a right way and a wrong way to play it. And if you play well, you'll (probably) earn the respect of the people who might matter a whole lot to the progress of your writing career.
Because when you get down to bare boards, you want that career, don't you? Writing makes a fine hobby, but hobbyists just don't get the kind of respect pros do. And the beauty of making money at writing is that it enables you to spend your time writing instead of fixing leaky toilets or taking customer support calls.
But let's step away from writing for a moment. Let's talk about ... farming. (Don't worry, this isn't going to devolve into a metaphor about fiction and bull-derived fertilizer).
Let's look at two people who want to become farmers:
Jane Johnson takes agriculture classes at the local college. She studies the ins and outs of running a small business. After talking to local farmers and watching market trends, she decides that she would do best growing organic produce for gourmet stores. She starts growing vegetables in her back yard and learns how to drive and maintain a neighbor's tractor. Once she's pretty sure she can grow and harvest crops successfully, she researches the best land she can get for her money. She buys a modest spread, purchases supplies and equipment, and gets to work.
Joe Smith looks around at nearby county farms, and sees that farmers wear overalls and drive tractors and own livestock. So he runs out, buys himself some overalls and a couple of pot-bellied pigs. He hits the local John Deere dealership for his very own green machine, and plunks a down payment on the first farmhouse with 40 acres he sees for sale. He moves in, and declares himself a farmer.
Which of these people is likely to make it in farming? Which of them will be the subject of much snickering and head-shaking down at the local Farmer's Market?
Getting started in farming is hard: you need land and equipment, seed and help. Conversely, it's dead easy to get started as a writer: all you need is a pencil and paper at first. Anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of language can put words down on a page, right?
Many beginning writers are inspired after reading, say, a novel like Pet Sematary and hearing of Stephen King's wealth and fame. They think "Hey, I can do this!" They put pens to paper ... but quickly get frustrated at the indifference their first efforts receive. They expect instant or near-instant success and when they don't get it, they look around at nearby professional writers to emulate what they do.
And so they make the mistake of trying to adopt the trappings of Being A Writer before they've actually learned the craft.
I recently ran across the website of an aspiring dark fantasy writer I'll call Brad. He is neither a teacher nor an editor, and he doesn't have a writing degree. He's placed two short stories, one to a second-tier pro market and the other to a nonpaying magazine. In short, he's like a lot of other beginning writers, and it's certainly not a bad thing for a guy like him to have a website.
But from the tone and presentation of his site, you'd think he has Arrived. He has an Author FAQ, along with a big author photo. He has a section of writing tutorials with lots of advice to "newbies who want to get published like me". He has a page for each of his unpublished novels, complete with homemade cover graphics and detailed synopses.
At that point, I started picturing Farmer Joe strutting proudly through the market in his crisp, unsoiled overalls with a tiny pig under each arm.
It's one thing to stoically accept that your efforts will inevitably be scorned, but quite another to heedlessly fling yourself through the airlock into the deep space of Poserdom.
The most straightforward way of gaining respect in the genre of your choice is to write and sell a lot of excellent work in that genre. Straightforward, sure ... but not very darned easy. Writing well is hard enough without considering that the average paying publisher might accept less than 5% of the manuscripts submitted to them.
It can take years for talented beginners laboring in anonymity to land first story or novel sales, particularly if they have decided to limit their submissions to high-profile pro markets.
So what's a newbie to do? Fortunately, there are several para-writing activities you can engage in that can both improve your skills and positively raise your profile and respect in the field (and thus your likelihood of getting published).
1. Go to Clarion or the Borderlands Boot Camp. These workshops are often described as "boot camp for writers". Borderlands Press' workshop is held in Towson, MD over a long weekend. There are three of the six-week Clarion workshops in San Diego, Seattle, and Australia. You'll have to compete to get in, pay to stay in, and it's an intense experience that galvanizes some writers and traumatizes others.
At Clarion, you'll work with established pros and other up-and-comers; the networking contacts you make can be invaluable. And if you graduate, you may find that a Clarion credit is enough to lift your submissions out of the slushpile and onto the editor's desk for closer consideration. This golden period only lasts for a year or so after you graduate, but many graduates have made publishing hay from it.
2. Get an MFA in writing. Pursuing a graduate degree of any kind can be quite expensive, and an MFA takes time and work. On the plus side, it gives you a socially acceptable way to spend a few years focusing on your writing. On the downside, MFA programs are rarely receptive to horror or dark fantasy, so you'll have to bleach your genre roots and learn to put up with a lot of tedious (and potentially discouraging) lit snobbery from your instructors and classmates.
Writing practice aside, an MFA gets you an academic credential -- one that some people may be impressed with -- but not much else. However, having an MFA is a prerequisite to getting a job as a creative writing instructor at most big universities, and becoming a writing professor is a pretty good gig if you can get it. Academia is not for everyone, and MFA programs crank out many more graduates than there are waiting positions, but a professorship is more suited to a writer's creative life than most 9-to-5 jobs.
2a. Or, go to Seton Hill. Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, runs a unique low-residency MA in Writing Popular Fiction. The goal of the program is to have you graduate with a publishable novel manuscript in your hands; Nalo Hopkinson and Mary Sangiovanni and others have sold the books they worked on in the Seton Hill program. Can you get published without going to school? Absolutely. But if you want to get a Master's degree and you want to work with pros like Michael Arnzen, Gary A. Braunbeck, Lawrence C. Connolly, and Tim Waggoner, you should check out the program.
3. Become an editor at a paying publication. If you're buying fiction and poetry, you get instant credibility -- as long as you make good decisions.
Fortunately, you don't need to shell out the money to start your own publication. There are hundreds of established publications out there, and the vast majority of them are understaffed; they will gladly accept competent volunteers for proofreading and slush-reading.
You'll get to see the submissions process from the other side of the transom, and the experience can be tremendously educational. Hard work and good taste will help you rise in the volunteer ranks until you're a recognized editor. But beware: you may find yourself with so much work on your hands that you no longer have the time or energy to write.
4. Don't ignore the small presses. Yes, the small presses are small. Many don't pay well, if at all. But there are good, respected small press magazines that will get you a bit of pay and a bit more recognition in the genre. No, they can't compete with top-paying markets in terms of exposure. But competition for the best markets is fierce. The writers I've known who've written stories or novels, sent them out only to the biggest markets and given up on the manuscripts when they weren't accepted have all ultimately given up on writing.
5. But by all means, submit to the top markets. A single sale to one of the top markets will instantly raise your profile in the genre and give you much more credibility as a writer. So, if you think your work's solid, give it a shot; just don't fall into a depressed I'm-no-good-I-should-just-quit funk if you miss your target.
6. Write nonfiction. Editors at paying magazines are deluged with fiction and poetry submissions, but nonfiction submissions are sometimes just a trickle. So, your odds of placing a book or movie review can be pretty good. An article credit doesn't "count" the same as a fiction credit ... but it still gets you a bit of pay and gets your name on the Table of Contents.
7. Follow the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Or, phrased a bit differently: "The best way to get respect is to give it." Or, even more simply: don't be an ass.
Yes, we all know certain big-name writers who are famously caustic, obnoxious, or just plain unpleasant. Some people unfortunately find a great deal of entertainment in watching established authors snark at the expense of "lesser" writers. Consequently, some beginners mistakenly believe that they, too, can get noticed and get published if they're nasty as possible.
This tends to backfire in a bad way. One talented writer I know who kicked up a lot of dust and got himself banned from forum after forum eventually felt he'd damaged his career so much he needed to legally change his name. No one ever succeeded as a writer because they acted like a huge jerk; the huge jerks in the field have succeeded because they write like angels.
So, go forth and write like an angel and work like the devil. And remember that everyone in this business is only human.
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Order a copy of Lucy's fiction collection - Sparks and Shadows
Order a copy of Lucy's humor collection - Installing Linux on a Dead Badger
Lucy A. Snyder has a degree in biology, which she mainly uses to help people cut down on their snack consumption at parties. She's the author of the upcoming collection Sparks and Shadows and her work has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Chiaroscuro, Masques V, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. You can learn more about her at her website.
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