During some casual reflecting on my writing career yesterday, I had the realization that is has somehow been nine years since I decided to sit down and properly learn how to craft a novel well enough to fully realize the Voyage series that had been rumbling around in my head since high school.
Even though that series didn’t go at all to plan (I discontinued the arc after the first book), it did turn out to be the launchpad into a fruitful and productive career of writing and publishing fiction, one which, somehow, became a decade-long endeavor without me even noticing.
Once I’d had this realization, my next thought was to consider what I had learned in that time. What takeaways would be the most useful to others just starting out in the journey of writing fiction?
1. Books are better instructors than people.
In order to unpack that, I’m going to have to back up and explain something about my experiences with writing. I dabbled in writing stories throughout high school and particularly during my undergrad years while getting a degree in English literature. During that time, I wasted a ton of energy and social capital telling other students and my professors how wrong they were about realism and SF (the latter of which most of them thought to be “inferior” to the former). When I got to my late twenties and decided to sit down and truly write Voyage, I realized just how hard writing was and how many questions I had about writing and publishing both. It would have been nice to be surrounded by people who maybe knew a thing or two about the craft and could direct me toward resources about publishing, but by my mid-twenties, I had become fully inculcated in corporate work life. I realized that I would never again be surrounded by people who loved fiction and were simultaneously able to dedicate a significant portion of their life energy toward it. I’d wasted all that early opportunity by telling my professors how wrong they were when I could have instead applied just a tiny amount of political finesse and come away with so much more.
I set about the process of finding writing groups and deciding I would truly listen and incorporate all their feedback. Long-time readers of this blog will know by now just how well that went. Far from the attentive, careful readers I had met in my undergraduate years, I was confronted with people who could not even bother to pay attention to the literal words of the text, and in one extreme case, a “reader” admitted to ignoring elements of the text entirely.
It took me many years to have another realization. Around the same time that I started writing Voyage, I made it a goal to close a number of gaps in my own bucket list of reading. Sometime around 2015, I realized that everything I had learned in spite of my undergraduate social debacle and my soul-rending writing group experiences was a drop in the bucket when compared to what I had learned about writing from reading fiction.
Reading a book attentively impresses upon a writer, via contrast, what they say in their own writing and how they say it. Even the works of other writers in my writing group had value, if only by way of counter-example. At the very, very bottom of the hierarchy of my learning lay the things other people told me. That feedback still had a useful function in a writer’s development, but I realized that I had been mistaken in prioritizing learning from others over learning from my own experiences with fiction.
2. Writing is not just craft. It is also, and is primarily, art.
Another aspect of my undergraduate years that I failed to appreciate was how my classmates and professors took it as a given that writing fiction is, first and foremost, artistic expression. Yes, it takes skill to do it, but developing the skill isn’t the point. The point is the art that results.
Once I began developing my writing skills in my late twenties, I began to encounter another way of understanding the writing of fiction. This other model sees the skill of being able to compose words in a such a way that they are comprehensible to other humans as the sole determinant of value. In science fiction, such individuals see the expression of scientific ideas as the sole measure of a work’s quality. In fantasy, the complexity of a magic system or plotting often play this role. The way that writing practitioners express this value system is to focus entirely on star ratings, sales, and Amazon/Goodreads reviews, linking something’s social likeability to its quality, and its quality to its craft.
It is not always clear whether this is an application of a value system that prizes skill over art, or money over both skill and art. Either way, to my mind, it is the art that is the point, not money or even necessarily the technical skill that results in smooth, accessible prose. Good fiction is an artist’s expression of their view of the human condition. Smooth, accessible prose is part of that, but in and of itself, it is insufficient. Popularity and marketability are wholly separate concerns.
For too long I operated under the misconception that traditional publishing shared my values. The traditional publishing industry has done a good job of pushing this belief onto authors. You can see this in the myriad reasons given not to self-publish: that it supposedly reduces the quality of one’s writing, it is not self-sustainable, etc. These may have been valid arguments once upon a time, but today, in the United States, all such arguments made by traditional publishing are either verifiably false, like the first, or equally true of both traditional and independent publishing, like the second.
3. Forge a path that is in line with your writing goals.
I went through three distinct phases in my attitude toward publishing. In the beginning, I published independently because it was new and exciting. There was a lot of energy around it. The idea of becoming a breakout success was admittedly a motivator.
By the time I had accumulated a few years of writing experience, I had grown confident that my story-telling and print production ability would be able to hold up to other professionals, and so I decided to make my own publishing company, Fuzzy Hedgehog Press. However, I had two big things working against me. The first was that I had vastly underestimated the scale of monetary investment required to get such a concern going. The second was that I had not yet learned lesson number two above, and as a corollary, the goal of a business in this day and age cannot be art. The exclusive goal of a business must be the generation of profit. Far from creating an optimal space for me to focus on what mattered in my writing, becoming a publisher not only distracted me from the most important work I needed to do, but created further pressure for me to pursue craft over art.
If your goal as a writer is to write, then I recommend developing a critical eye for how various organizations, achievements, and accolades will affect your writing. If you get an agent, and that agent’s job is to sell you to a publisher, one whose editors’ jobs are to make your work salable in a certain genre space, what will that do to your art? If you join a “professional organization” whose measure of your merit consists of units called “paid sales” to “approved markets,” what will that do to your art?
If you believe those things will make your writing better, then by all means, proceed with my blessing. However, it cannot hurt to take a step back, throw out all the assumptions about publishing that the industry wants you to believe, and analyze, honestly and truly, whether or not the path you think you want is or is not in line with your long term goals.