February 25, 2008
Writing and Publishing Fiction
by Dianne Highbridge
The first words I have here in my notes are: “No one reads fiction any more.”
In the world we live in, we are surrounded by stories. We consume stories. You look at the newspaper, turn on the TV, and there are stories, stories—some of them so outrageous that you wonder why you bother to write fiction at all. Fiction based on fact, fiction presented as fact, fact manipulated to look like fiction, fact that incorporates elements of fiction…stories, all around us. And yet, we hear again and again that no one reads fiction any more, that people will take their stories any way but between the covers of a book.
The argument goes further: we are told that hardly anyone reads books at all any more, that the Internet has taken over. And insofar as people do read books, so it goes, the books they read are not fiction.
I think we all know this is not entirely true. It is not even true that children, with all their computer games, don’t read fiction. Children have time to read, and they do—big, thick books. (And this is the only time I will mention Harry Potter). It is not true, either, that—as is sometimes claimed—only ladies in book clubs read literary fiction. As long as literary fiction does not look too much like literary fiction—that is, if it’s what is called “literary commercial” fiction—there is still a large popular readership.
Undeniably, there is a crisis of confidence in the world of publishers and booksellers. I think this has been brought about by the end of a brief, rather special era in the history of reading, an era when people in the developed world for the first time were largely literate, had leisure time and disposable income, as well as access to paperback books and public libraries, and were undistracted by ever-present rival media. Publishers panicking about their business slow-down don’t stop to think that there was a time in our own countries, not all that long ago, when most people couldn’t read, or were too exhausted to read, couldn’t afford books, and in any case had no good light to read by when the sun went down. We may not ever return to the golden age of popular reading, but we are not returning to that dark age either. Writers, publishers, and sellers of books need to find ways of coexisting with competing media, and no doubt we will.
Not that this helps the writer working on a novel right now, much less a book of short stories. Now if you want to write fiction you have to ask yourself certain questions, in light of the fact that you are, to a large extent, at the mercy of a publishing business that does not know where it is going. And at the same time, one must recognize that it has never been easy to sell a novel or a short story, any more than it is easy to sell a record, or a painting—and there’s no reason why it should be easy.
The first question, then, is: Why write fiction? During the recent James Frey case, the case of an untruthful memoir, I often heard the comment: “If you want to write lies, write fiction.” This perception of fiction, that it is merely a substitute for verifiable fact, shocked me—but it is only a blunter version of something fiction writers constantly encounter. Readers often ask of a story, “Is it autobiographical?” They can be disappointed to hear that it is not, as if a work of the imagination is somehow inferior to reality. Yet that question is in its own way encouraging, because someone has, for a while, believed in your story. Fiction is not lies: fiction is truth in its own context. And you write fiction because you want to find that truth.
The next question: What can I write about? People will say: you live in Japan, you’ve traveled, you have plenty to write about! But that’s not it. Some great writers of fiction have lived all their lives in tiny villages. In a sense, all writing is autobiographical, and your material is not only everything that has ever happened to you in your life, but everything you have ever heard about. It seems to me that the greater the cacophony of stories that surrounds us, the greater need there is to try to take hold of even one, and make sense of what happens in it—perhaps in the process making sense of more than that one story. In our own lives we try to do this, and it is one of the impulses that make us want to write. We all know about the unexpectedness of things; we’re constantly dealing with unanticipated events and ideas. Fiction can be a way of thinking about that apparent disorder of life, of coming to terms with it—for writer and reader.
Let me read a few words to illuminate what I am trying to say. In my novel, A Much Younger Man, Alyson is thinking about her own complicated life: “Out of all the things that happen, on all the journeys you make, in only a few will you ever see a meaning. You take them if you can or if you must, and let the rest go. The ones you keep, they’re yours.” (p. 206) That is true of fiction, as of life. They are yours. And the writer does keep these things— often seemingly very simple things—and writes them down, and then puts them out there, gives them to whoever will read them.
Maybe “gives” is not the right word—because there are other, immensely practical questions: Do I want—do I need—to make money from what I write? How can I possibly support the desire to write? And the question that’s the inevitable corollary: How can I find the time?
I remember reading a story about the ceramic artist Hamada Shoji. Someone who saw him brushing a design onto a pot remarked, “That only took a second!” He answered, “60 years plus one second.” I thought that was wonderful. And I envied him too, because for a writer it can never be like that. No matter how long you have been writing, you know you still must put one word in front of the other and it is still going to take a very long time—and that is just the beginning.
Finding time to write is an endless problem in our own era. Most writers have to earn a living, and to do everyday tasks themselves, as opposed to the way it was in the past—through the first half of the twentieth century, I think—when writers, however broke by their own standards, were generally drawn from the servant-employing classes. You could live in a garret, but you still had a little maid to run up the stairs with a cup of tea. And no-one expects that any more.
I’ve always been touched by what Raymond Carver said about starting out as a writer, poor and with a young family to support. He said he couldn’t write a novel, couldn’t “wait for a payoff that, if it came at all, might be several years down the road,” because he couldn’t see the road. So he wrote short stories that were great short stories and made his name.
There is no single answer. Leonard Woolf said that three and a half hours a day adds up to a surprising production of “buns or books or pots or pictures.” You might not have those three and a half hours; but if you want to do it, if you need to tell your stories, you’ll find a way. Even if you write only half an hour a day—you write, it adds up, and you get there.
And then there’s the big question: Why should anyone want to read what I write? You need to find your own positive answers to this one, answers you can believe in most of the time, in order to write confidently. And as often as not, before you find those answers, you will experience some of the further doubts that lie in wait for any writer—so you’re not quite there yet.
Even if what you write isn’t autobiographical, the words you write inevitably embody some very private thoughts, and the realization that your family and friends are going to learn what these thoughts are can stop you in your tracks as you set out to write. You might also worry about hurting people you know by what you write, or offending them, even unintentionally.
At the same time, you might suspect that if you were a real writer, you wouldn’t care about any of this—but that isn’t so. Some real writers genuinely don’t care; others care quite a lot. You have to think about what you personally can justify, and how to work around what you can’t.
The fear of criticism is common to almost all writers, as well as to the rest of humanity. And the fear of finally getting something written, and then having to show it to someone who might criticize it, is the basis of the avoidance strategies that many writers practice—making sure that activities other than writing fill all the time available, or spending that time talking about writing rather than actually writing. This can be the greatest time-waster of all—and besides, there’s no surer way to have a story go stale on you than to talk about it too much before you write it.
I personally believe that you are better off keeping your writing to yourself, at first. This at least frees you from “What are you writing now?” and “Am I in it?” and “That’s not how it was!” or even, “Very nice, dear”—all things that can have a disproportionately discouraging effect if they’re said at the wrong time. It sounds good to sit by the fire at night and share your day’s writing with your significant other—and sometimes it might really be good—but an awful lot of stories have come to grief that way, too.
You do need encouragement, you need someone to tell you that what you have written works—but the best people to give you that are people who come to your story fresh and without preconceptions about you, and about what you should and shouldn’t be writing. A good writing group might do it in the first instance; then an agent or editor; later, hopefully, reviewers; and finally, the people who spend their hard-earned money on buying your book: your readers. But readers take some finding.
And somewhere along the line, your work will be rejected. Being a writer inevitably means discovering, even if you’ve never been rejected in your life before, what rejection feels like. It can be even more painful than you imagined—and must somehow be lived with.
A great deal is said, and written, about the craft of writing, from the big things—the structure of a novel or story, the importance of a strong beginning, and of balance and pacing—down to the smallest detail, like avoiding the over-use of adverbs, where to put that comma. As a writer, I pay enormous attention to craft. I never want to misplace a comma, because that comma has meaning—I am one of those people who (as someone else once said) can spend the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out.
And yet—you can have everything in place, the talent and the skills, and if you are not writing freely and fearlessly, your story will die. I am not talking about the subject matter of what you write, about shock or transgression, although those elements may come into it—but simply about writing whatever it is you want and need to write. And only you can get yourself to this place of freedom. (One of the most useful books any writer can read, to this end, is: The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes, published in paperback by Henry Holt. Keyes understands and offers wise strategies for dealing with the fears I have mentioned here—and some I hadn’t even thought of until I read his book).
So you’re writing, as well as you possibly can, and you finish a story or a novel. What then? Do you want to publish? You should; you should want that very much.
Before I began to publish seriously, I was sometimes asked: “Oh really, you write? —And do you write just for yourself?” I was always very disconcerted by this, because for me, there is no such thing as writing just for yourself. There’s no writing that matters without reading. Even through the years when your readers are very few, or non-existent, you want them—and you have to admit to yourself that you want them, and that you want more.
But when it comes to getting published, forget what you’ve heard about million-dollar advances and movie deals for novels by beginning writers, or for outlines of great ideas for stories that haven’t been written yet. It’s not that these things never happen; it’s only that you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket.
How to begin? For those starting out as short story writers, a serious problem now is that the short story is harder than ever to place. In the 1980s I caught the end of the short story boom, when many magazines and newspapers still published short stories, and paid good money for them—and, I need hardly say, that was great encouragement.
Now literary journals are the main publishers of individual stories. These can be hard to break into, and the satisfaction of having someone pay for your work is mostly missing too, leaving you with the distinct possibility of being rejected by a small journal that was only ever going to give you a couple of copies by way of payment anyway. Nevertheless, being published at all is worth it—it builds confidence and credibility, and can attract the attention of agents, who (luckily) are among the few people who read literary magazines.
However, the chance of a new writer’s being able to publish a collection of short stories today is a slim one. It is actually somewhat easier to publish a first novel. And—this might seem strange—it is easier to publish a first novel than a second. Publishers will often take a chance on a new writer with a first novel they don’t have to pay very much for, driving the hardest possible bargain. Then, unless that one is sensationally successful, the second or third will be an even tougher sell. These are good reasons why you need an agent, at every stage.
I’m often asked, “Isn’t it difficult to get an agent?” Yes, it’s difficult—and essential. There are many horror stories told about agents, but the one you’re looking for is a good one, who reads your work as you want it to be read and will honestly and enthusiastically support you—and his or her willingness to do this is an indication that you might be on the right track.
A good agent will submit your work to places where he or she has access, as you alone would not. He or she will get swifter responses, help you keep the distressing ones in proportion, get you more money than you could get for yourself if the book is accepted, ensure that it is paid on time, and take care of subsidiary rights (foreign and film), all of which makes the commission worth every cent. Never begrudge an agent’s 15 percent—it looks like a lot, but it is 15 percent of something, which is a whole lot better than the next to nothing you would have got without him or her.
In theory, the agent works for you. In practice, the good ones are so much in demand, and their services make so much difference to your chances, that they generally get to choose. An agent won’t take you on without personally liking your work (and they’re people who see a lot of writing, so they’re not easy to please) and without seeing a real chance of selling your book. So finding one is half the battle.
In finding an agent, the Internet is useful, but what it comes down to is making it easier to use the old-fashioned methods: most reliably, sending a chapter or two of your book and a cover letter to an agent who represents authors you have something in common with. This takes time. Use whatever you’ve got—if you know an agent comes from your home town, or if there’s any other connection, use it.
There is a personal factor, the wavelength factor, so if an agent rejects you—and this is the front line, the first place where you can be rejected—don’t take one answer as final, no matter how dismissive. This is all very subjective. Go on to the next. But if you keep on being rejected by agents, you will need to stop and think. Agents aren’t infallible, but still, they have a realistic idea of what they can sell. You might rework the book, or forget it for the time being and begin again, taking into account any criticism you’ve received. It’s hard, but many writers have done it.
Then, the first thing that usually happens is that you have to change your title. The bigger the publisher, the more likely it is. You could turn up with War and Peace, and they’d want a new title.
New writers are sometimes surprised to find how little input they have in anything to do with the design of the book. Readers often think you have control over your cover art, and will even reproach you if they don’t like it. But you don’t have that control. Maybe you’ll be shown more than one design, maybe not. Even if you are, it will very likely be pointed out that the marketing department likes this one—and nothing you say after that will make much difference.
You’ll be lucky if you get the full attention of an editor. Cutbacks at publishing houses mean fewer editors, which is why many publishers look for books that require as little editing as possible. This, in turn, is why agents, if they see potential in a book, will sometimes give editorial advice—proposing major restructuring, or questioning the necessity to the story of a character or scene—before it is even seen by a publisher.
If you get an experienced fiction editor, you’ll be very lucky indeed, though it doesn’t always feel like it when differences of opinion arise. Those of you who are editors will know already that the interests of editors and writers are not always identical, although some editors have become writers, and have seen what it’s like on the other side. One thing I can tell you: it’s not as helpful as it sounds to say soothingly to a writer, “I just want to help you make this the best book it can be.” Even if it’s true, and it usually is.
If you’ve done something for a good reason, and your editor doesn’t like it, you have a tough decision to make: to compromise, or to stick to your guns. Creative conflicts can be unnerving, but a good editor usually will give the final word to the author, on the principle that it is the author’s name, not the editor’s, on the title page—and in the reviews.
The trade reviews—in the United States, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal—come out before the book goes on sale, and are crucial, because they are marked up and used by booksellers and librarians when ordering books. They have an enormous influence, and if they’re good, everyone will be thrilled.
Then come the major newspapers and magazines: The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, and so on. Just getting into them is something, because they receive review copies of many thousands of books a year, and review a fraction. Then national glossy magazines—a very long shot. Following close behind are regional newspapers, and although you mightn’t have heard of many of them, a good spread is necessary for solid sales.
So you learn that you are passing through a series of barriers—and as book review pages become more and more slender, or in some cases are dropped altogether by newspapers, in favor of features that attract more advertising, those barriers become ever higher.
I think most writers go a little mad at review time, looking for mentions everywhere, taking bitterly to heart passing criticisms in the smallest papers—which can seem very embarrassing in retrospect. You can never guess what your reviews are going to say, and it’s natural to be nervous about them. They are important—very.
But when you’re writing, you need to put thoughts of future reviews aside, and simply write about what is meaningful to you. And you might be surprised (as I was, by a review for In the Empire of Dreams, that said, “She even finds something new to say about cherry blossoms”—because, as any anxious inner voice will tell you, you can’t write about cherry blossoms, it’s been done!).
The advertising for your book will never be enough. You always feel you could sell more copies if the publisher would spend more money, and indeed, this is a business that is used to seeing sufficient results with remarkably little outlay. All too many books are left to sink or swim, hopefully just to break even, although we know that isn’t how most businesses are run.
For some time, the book tour has been the main way for authors to play an active part in promotion, but it is subject to many unknowns. For the author, it is an exhilarating and harrowing experience. You arrive in a new city to be met by the professional escort your publisher has hired there—you’re exhausted, your schedule is insane. All the way into town your escort reminiscences about how charming your predecessor was, how funny, and how much better known… Then you learn that the bookstore sent out its newsletter before your visit was arranged, and three people are there for your reading (and one of them is your escort). You can only hope the next place will be more fun—and often enough, thankfully, it is.
In recent years publishers have begun to doubt that the book tour really pays, and have cut back; authors have taken to hiring their own publicists and organizing and paying for their own tours; this works best if it happens within a limited area where the author has friends and family who will turn out to boost the effect.
One way or another, the fact is, you don’t just write the book. Depending on the situation, a great deal is required of you after publication, even if the publishers are doing their best. With very small publishers, there will be minimal promotion—but on the other hand, your book has their attention. With a larger publisher, the possibilities are there but you can get lost in the crowded corridors. Where you stand is partly a matter of the work you are doing—so keep asking those questions: What kind of writing do I want to do? What do I want from it?
That first sale to a publisher may not be all. Again, if you have a good agent, once you have a publisher in the original language, there is always the possibility of translations. The sale of foreign rights is a complicated process, and again, you have little input. Publishers who have bought translation rights also like to keep the author and the translator of their choice apart; only the most insistent bestselling authors get to consult. In just one case, that of my Japanese translator, Masako Sasada, have I spoken with a translator—at her suggestion, because I was living here. (Otherwise, that transaction was handled the same as any other sale of foreign rights, through my agents and their Tokyo sub-agents).
Film rights are potentially very valuable. Only potentially. Many books are optioned and a small option fee is paid, but very few are filmed—and in many cases only after a period of some years. So when you read that film rights have been sold for an enormous sum, you should know the author has not yet received that sum, and won’t receive it until filming begins—or, as most contracts specify, on the first day of principal photography. Which may never happen.
The film business is the most complex and difficult of all. To write a book with the aim of its becoming a film is tempting, especially as one of the first questions people ask about your book (after “Is it autobiographical?”) is: “And will it be a movie?” They are happy if you say yes, and downcast if you say no, because, although once upon a time being adapted from a novel made a film respectable, now the film is thought to validate the book. There isn’t much you can do about this; you can only write what you need to write for its own sake, because even a story you feel sure is filmable may not be, for reasons—mostly to do with financing—that won’t be apparent to you at the time and most likely never will be.
Teaching Creative Writing
It both is and is not possible to teach writing. It’s not possible to give someone a feel for the rhythms of language, for example; that is intrinsic to the individual. But, just as it’s possible to teach the principles of musical composition, it’s possible to teach certain things about the craft: about how to begin a story so the reader gets interested, and stays interested; how to pace a story so it keeps moving along—and believe me, there is less tolerance now for a story that doesn’t move along than there used to be, and “slow” is the second worst word you can hear applied to your story; how to write directly, so that the story doesn’t become remote from the reader—and that’s the worst word: you don’t ever want to hear an agent or editor call your story “remote.” How to write dialogue that sounds natural—but really isn’t. All these things are teachable.
And for the writer, to be able to try out work in a receptive setting, on people who are not family or friends, but who value writing, and approach yours with open minds—that can make a writing class or workshop all the more worthwhile.
In spite of all the difficulties, there has never been any doubt in my mind that writing is the most enthralling work. Not a hobby—there are easier hobbies, that require less sacrifice and get you out in the fresh air. Not therapy—it is satisfying in ways that therapy could never be. It is work, whether you manage to be as productive as you would wish to be or not—and when you are working as you want to work, you need never feel you have wasted your hard-won time.
Time, as it happens, is the theme of most novels—how it passes, what we do with it. The mysteries of time fascinate all of us, and writing about them is a way to forget time—you hardly know where it goes; and, despite the sadness that often comes to you when you write about life, despite the uncertainty of any rewards, when you feel you’re near to doing it right, writing is—almost—the best time there is.
© 2007 Dianne Highbridge
Australian author of A Much Younger Man and In the Empire of Dreams Dianne Highbridge spoke to SWET on September 14, 2007 about writing, finding an agent, being reviewed and other topics. Her successful Creative Writing classes at Temple University Japan led to a series of annual writing workshops (last held in October- November 2007). She has just completed a third novel, The Book Lover.