So you want to be a fiction writer? Congratulations but so do a million others. All of them don’t make the grade. It is easy to get carried away with the images of huge success. Everyone dreams of churning out best-sellers that feature on the New York Times, getting that incredible advance that make eyes pop out and wallowing in luxury as you write from your exclusive writer’s den in some exotic place.
If you don’t think of these things, you might not make it as a fiction writer at all because it can be the most frustrating job at times. You do need that burning ambition to succeed and the passion to win, to make it big. We are talking of writing fiction as a career and not as a part- time hobby you might indulge in a couple of times every few years.
I wrote my first book when I was nearly 59 so it isn’t at all too late for you to make up your mind and go for it. But it doesn’t come easy. Not by a long shot. Writing fiction is hard work! Let’s look at what you need to succeed in a career as a writer of fiction:-
- Fearlessness: If you are scared of what people may say about you, your choice of career, your writing, about what may go wrong or whether your work will be rejected, you can pack up your laptop or whatever you use to write, right now! You have to face situations and failures without fear. You need to accept the fact that rejections are part of the game. Without resilience, you are bound to find it a very distressing profession. Nervous energy is fine. Fear is not. Get that fear out of your mind, before you even think of writing fiction as a career option.
- Imagination: The great writer Irving Wallace once said “Your greatest strength as a writer is your imagination. Use it. Leonardo da Vinci did not have to attend the Last Supper to paint it.” It’s your imagination that will set you apart from the crowd. Success comes from your ability to think of interesting themes, story lines, characters and plots. I started by talking of how we use imagination to think of what success will bring us. Use that imagination to better your stories. A successful fiction writer has to be a great story teller.
- Characters: Develop the ability to form characters who are interesting, credible and to whom your audiences can relate. A fabulous plot is wasted if your have poor characters. It’s the characters in your story that readers relate to and identify with. If they are weak, the story becomes insipid and your novel could well sink without a trace. If they are strong and captivate the reader, they will ask for more from you.
- Theme: Fiction writing by itself is an immense canvas, with so many genres to choose from. You would do well to reflect, even before you start, and decide the genre in which you will write. The theme you choose will depend on your own interests, your writing style and your ability to build stories in that realm. If you write thrillers for example, like I do, you may not find it appealing or indeed easy to write romantic novels. Hitting upon the best theme for you is a step often forgotten by aspiring writers. They then drift from one theme to another, from one genre to another, hoping they will make the grade somewhere or the other. Some times they do. More often than not, they don’t. In management speak, we say “Stick to the knitting”. This means stay with the themes you are passionate about and can do well. If the theme doesn’t interest you, it’s very unlikely to interest any one else!
- Industriousness: Sure some day you may get the urge and you could dash off a few hundred lines and feel happy about it. Being a fiction writer calls for doing this virtually day in and day out. Believe me, that’s not easy. It calls for a very high degree of motivation to discipline yourself to write almost every day. You end up spending hundreds of hours, not only in writing a story which often is not easy as it sounds but in refining it, in editing it and in improving it. I often say “write in haste, edit at leisure”. The best of writing is often spontaneous but editing and refining what you have written is grunt work. There are no short cuts. It calls for hours of commitment to make what you write the best you are capable of. You won’t pay good money to read poor writing, would you? Then why should others?
- Observe: God, they say, is in the details. Terrific writing covers the smallest of details. This comes in turn from your ability to observe. Your readers identify with the characters and the plot when you describe them in a manner which they can imagine quite easily. Readers should feel that they can actually see the characters do whatever they are doing. Such writing stems from the author’s ability to observe. Often, we would file away observations to be used some other time in our writings. Attention to detail is also shown in the meticulous research you do to prevent anomalies from slipping in. The character cannot be blue-eyed in Chapter 1 and become brown eyed as the story goes along. Observation not only helps you write better but indeed is essential for you to edit better and get your facts right.
- Never Say Die!: For every one who gets that knock out advance we started this story with, there are millions who don’t! There are many who might not get a decent advance at all. To be a career writer of fiction, you would need to be resilient. Rejections are a part of the game. Every story you write will not become a book. Every book you write need not be published and every book that hits the market may not be a best seller. These facts are indisputable. The sooner we digest them the better. But that doesn’t mean we should give up even before we start! The never say die spirit is a must for writers of fiction. If the characters in your story demonstrate a never say die spirit, is anything less expected of you?
There you have it. My take on what’s essential for you to become a successful fiction writer. Are they more things necessary? Sure there are. This is by no means an exhaustive list. This list only covers those points without which you can kiss those dreams of a yacht or a cabin on the Pacific seafront good-bye.
So the next time you get the urge to flirt with the idea of taking up fiction as a career, remember F-I-C-T-I-O-N and what they stand for. I hope this will provide you with fresh perspective of the challenges ahead and make you more determined than before to succeed. My best wishes and I look forward to seeing your name in the Best Sellers List on the New York Times.