Thursday, September 5, 2013

My Fiction Phase

I used to write fiction. Specifically, short stories, because tackling a novel scares the crap out of me.This essay, a blog hijack moment from its usual theme, is to explain why I started writing fiction, why I stopped writing fiction, and why it matters.

Why I Started

Face it, we all have a novel inside. Me too. But hacking out 75,000 or so words with almost no chance at publication never appealed to me. There's less investment in short fiction -- though a good short story is harder in some ways than a novel. There are three reasons why I started my fiction phase:
  1. To let off creative steam after a long time writing non-fiction (journalism) and (even worse) academic writing.  
  2. To re-learn the craft of writing from a different perspective to help in how I teach journalistic style writing.
  3. To get rich and meet chicks. Actually neither of these are true. You don't make any real money writing short fiction and I'm already married.
Why I Stopped

The main reason I stopped is it's too damn hard. Oh, and at my very best, I'm a mediocre fiction writer. And the pay sucks. And I never met any chicks.

I did okay with my writing. I actually sold about 50 short stories over several years, almost all of them genre stuff (horror, fantasy, science fiction). I make no apologies for writing in the genre ghetto -- it interested me at the time and was a particular challenge. I even sold a few stories at what were considered "pro rates" and of all of them brought in a little bit of money for my troubles. One story was sold three different times as it got picked up by anthologies, etc. Remember this -- money from writing should always flow to the author. Never pay someone to publish your work.

During this period I read a lot of books on writing, very helpful books. My favorite is By Cunning and Craft, and although it focuses on fiction it's helpful for good narrative non-fiction as well. I learned a lot about writing during this stage.

Here's another aside. Publishing fiction is harder than publishing academic research. The top journals in my field accept maybe 10 percent of the manuscripts submitted, and I've landed a number of research articles in them, but the top genre magazines (never mind The New Yorker or The Georgie Review) accept maybe 1 percent of the manuscripts submitted. I never cracked the top fantasy or science fiction mags.

What's it all mean? I think I'm a better writer for having suffered through this stage, and believe me, writing fiction is all about suffering. I'm still a hack. I'm just a better hack than I was a few years ago. If writing comes easy to you, you're not doing it right.

It's also made me a better teacher of writing, or at least it's fooled me into thinking I'm better at teaching it than I was before my fiction phase. If I'm wrong, I don't wanna know. Leave me this crumb.

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