Finding my way in the thicket of advice for new fiction authors
There’s no shortage of advice online for fiction writers. Indeed, rather the opposite.
I see novice writers on Twitter obsessing over whether they are telling when they should, in fact, be #showing? What about adverbs: are we allowed adverbs? How many per paragraph? Does my inciting incident have to come before page 10? Is my writing sufficiently inclusive — but not culturally appropriative? What’s my genre? How many comps do I need for a synopsis? Sex in YA fiction: yes or no? Is 250K words too many for a first novel? Can I write it in the second person, future perfect tense?
There’s nothing wrong with this seeking and proffering of advice. The problem lies in the corollary: sifting, evaluation, often rejection.
Any piece of advice offered to a writer needs to be viewed suspiciously from all angles like an apple in the supermarket. Unlike with the apple, the writer can — must — take a bite, give it a good chew before maybe spitting it out on the figurative floor of the metaphorical Fresh Produce Department. Without the cashier calling Security to deal with a disturbance in Aisle Two.
Do you ever find that your creative projects take you to unexpected places? I get that all the time. It’s one of the reasons I’m a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ in my fiction writing. When I start writing a story, I never know how it’s going to end.
I don’t want to know yet: I’m telling myself a story. If it turns out okay, I’ll refine it and tell it to others. The ones which turn out too odd, too personal or too grim — I keep those to myself.
Thus also in the visual arts. In woodcarving I had many ‘happy accidents’ where the timber ‘wanted’ to go in a different direction to where my eye and hand directed the gouge or chisel to take it. (Some unhappy ones too, of course. We don’t talk about those.)
Last night I was exploring ideas for a masthead to my new monthly newsletter for Tall and Tiny Tales — my Substack fiction project.
On the occasion of my wife’s birthday, we’re in Melbourne for the week. For the first time since COVID hit our shores, we find ourselves in the CBD with time on our hands.
Suze likes to spend hours poking around markets; I’d sooner stick wasps up my arse, frankly. Luckily, we’re accustomed to giving each other space to do our own thing, rather than approaching every outing as a joint activity.
Fear not: we also have a shared calendar of events with multiple highlights and points of interest and time spent with friends – those who haven’t contracted COVID in the last couple of days. I’m not leaving the poor woman entirely to her own devices on the august occasion of reaching three-score years and ten.
So anyway, this morning, Suze was buying music-themed socks at the Vicky Market (hey, it’s her birthday) and trying to work out the location and name of that pub she went to with the girls that one time that sells Belgian cherry beer: an absorbing task for a woman with scant sense of direction and a love of Kriek.
Launching a Substack storyletter — progress and plans
I decided towards the end of last year that I was going to launch a fiction newsletter on the Substack platform. Tall and Tiny Tales went live on 1 February.
Substack seems to be rather the flavour of the month, although evaluations differ, and some, if I may say so, miss the point entirely. Substack isn’t really a community like Medium. It’s primarily a publishing platform. Your potential readership isn’t other Substackers: it’s anyone who likes to read your genre online. (Truly: forget about other Substackers. Stats on them are irrelevant.) The snag is: you have to do all the publicity for your publication yourself. No friendly algorithms are going to carry your word to the masses.
It’s just 10 hours before my new storyletter Tall and Tiny Tales goes live with its first episode and podcast.
I think I’ve done my groundwork well: it’s a good concept well-executed, with some strong material … I think. My attempts at promotion have been moderately successful: I have over 60 subscribers on board. That’s not a bad start!
But what if it’s crap?
Will I see my subscribers desert in droves?
Who am I to think that I can reinvent myself as a fiction writer anyway?
Am I making a fool of myself?
Similar thoughts are often at the back of my mind when I try to do something that I haven’t done before.
Self-promotion doesn’t come naturally to me. I am, after all, British by birth, and my natural inclination is to mumble disparagingly about my accomplishments.
‘I … err … write the odd short story from time to time … Nothing much, and you probably wouldn’t be interested … but if one day you don’t have anything better to do, then maybe … ?’
This is a recipe for not getting read until I am dead. In my obituary I will be hailed as a literary genius and riches will be showered on my bemused heirs. Heirs, I might add, who never showed the faintest interest in a darned thing I wrote …
Meanwhile, in the real world: I’m not a literary genius, but I am a half-decent teller of short stories (laying British modesty aside), and it is something that I enjoy doing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy it more, though, if someone actually reads my stuff. If they’re not my wife or my mum and I haven’t had to employ emotional blackmail – bonus points!
If you’re an indie author like me, you’ll already have made the discovery that ‘Write it and they will come’ does not work. It will never work.
It doesn’t matter how good your writing is: how gripping your plots, relatable your characters, polished your prose. Your writing will languish unread, unless you find ways to get readers to clap eyes on it.
Fortunately I like a challenge, and I like learning new stuff, so this doesn’t bother me much. In the past year, I’ve had more than a few ‘Eureka!’ flashes of inspiration which quickly turned to ‘Meh …’ realisations. I pick myself up, dust myself off and try something else.
… but also I keep doing what I’m doing – constantly refining and trying to do it better. Building an audience requires dedication and commitment. It ain’t gonna happen over night.
Who needs video games to keep them entertained? This stuff is FUN!