So You Think You Want to Write Fiction

By Susan Spann

What do pushing a boulder up a hill, running a marathon, and climbing Mount Everest have in common?

They’re all easier than writing good fiction.

But with enough practice and focus, almost anyone can learn to write fiction well. Add determination and willingness to accept honest critique, and you can make that fiction publishable too.

At its heart, the process of writing fiction doesn’t change whether you’re creating short stories, novels, or epic verse. A successful writer needs inspiration, dedication, honest support, perseverance, and skin like a rhinoceros—as well as a calling to put the words on the page.

The first step is inspiration. Find the story you were called to write, one that grabs your imagination and refuses to let go. Don’t try to write “the next big thing” or a book “just like Bestseller X.” Make your plot and characters uniquely your own. Not only does this help avoid legal problems such as plagiarism and copyright infringement, but it also lets your voice shine through. A writer whose voice rings true and clear doesn’t need fancy gimmicks or overwritten prose.

Once you find your story—or it finds you—dedication and perseverance must kick in. If you don’t hold on with the determination of Jacob, the blessing of a completed work will never be yours. Write on a schedule, even if you can spare only a few minutes at a time. Regular practice makes writing easier and helps ensure that you will finish what you start.

When you complete the first draft, stay on schedule. You haven’t finished yet! Good fiction requires extensive revision. Published authors usually write six or seven drafts before giving the work to peer editors for review, and several more before sending the manuscript to an agent or publisher. Good writing involves rewriting, and editing is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Love your first draft or you’ll never reach the end, but learn to reread with a critical eye.

Writers draft in isolation, but seldom review and edit without help. A writer needs strong support in the form of honest peer editors and trustworthy beta readers. This usually doesn’t mean your mom, your spouse, or your best-forever-friend. Those people are important for the emotional support they provide, but they often love you too much to tell you that your work stinks. And in the beginning, it always stinks. No marathon runner starts out running two-minute miles, and no writer makes the bestseller list in a day. Runners train with honest coaches, and writers must do the same.Find someone who knows fiction, an avid reader with a strong understanding of grammar, voice, and style, and ask him or her (or them, if you find more than one) to peer-edit your work when you’ve reached an acceptable draft. Explain that you’re looking for honesty, and prepare yourself to receive it. React with grace when you get the truth you’ve asked for. If you behave badly or refuse to accept critique, no one will read your work honestly thereafter, and you might as well put writing away for good.

Learning to accept critique has two equally important benefits. It helps you improve your prose, and it teaches you to react professionally to criticism and rejection—two unpleasant cousins that all writers must experience and accept. A writer who wants to transition from hobbyist to published author needs sterling skills and skin like a rhino, impervious to attack.

Once you have a finished story that you and your support team consider “publication ready,” you will need to decide whether you want to pursue traditional publishing (in magazines, online e-zines, or with a brick-and-mortar press), self-publishing (electronically, in physical books, or both), blog-publishing (usually on your own website), or something else entirely. Your options are wide open, but you must choose before you act, or you could unintentionally damage your chances of success. For example, most agents won’t represent self-published authors who haven’t sold more than ten thousand copies in self-published form. If you plan a career in traditional publishing, you generally need to work on that first and to the exclusion of other options.

Whether you want to write for publication or just for your own satisfaction, you must never stop trying to improve your skills. A writer, like a dancer, can always continue to learn. Read books about writing, or find a class or conference to attend. Join a writers’ circle or critique group (but make sure you can accept criticism first).Above all, keep writing! No matter how long or hard the road, real writers continue to write. It’s what we do, a calling we cannot deny.

If you feel the call to write fiction, get started today. Write whenever you can, even if you have only five or ten minutes to spend. Put yourself on a schedule. Persevere, and use the inevitable setbacks as encouragement to work harder and learn more. You can decide to quit or refuse to let yourself try, but you will never stop being a writer as long as you keep putting words on the page. It isn’t always easy, but nothing worth doing is.

Now, put down this magazine and write!

Susan Spann is a partner in the law firm Llewellyn Spann, where she specializes in copyright, trademark, and corporate law. Formerly a professor at Trinity Law School in Santa Ana, California, she currently teaches business law at William Jessup University. She blogs on legal issues from a Christian worldview at http://homeschoolblogger.com/susanspann/

Copyright, 2011. All rights reserved by author.

Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Winter 2010-11.

Used with permission. Visit them at theoldschoolhouse.com and view a sample copy of the magazine.