What I learned from writing fiction

What I learned about myself from writing fiction

Over a year ago, I completed my first YA fiction manuscript through a Humber College diploma program under the mentorship of a Canadian author.

Where’s it been since then? Absolutely nowhere.

I’ve submitted it to a total of two agents and one publisher in the past year. The agents responded with positive feedback, but were overladen with manuscripts already. The small local publisher didn’t respond at all.

That’s just three, mind you.

Most authors submit to scores of publishers and agents before getting a bite. Some never get a bite at all. I’m aware of this, but it doesn’t help matters much.

Since then I’ve kinda put things on hiatus. My entire year in Berlin was like a messy, free-for-all blur. I let my finances fall to the wayside; I stopped writing the things I cared about.

And, worst of all, I let my fear and self-doubt over this manuscript hold me back entirely.

Writing a book-length piece of fiction was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Writing fiction is far scarier than writing non-fiction

There’s something about putting your fiction out there that is so much harder than sharing non-fiction…for me.

Non-fiction recounts things that are true and real, factually. They’re my experiences, so even if the feedback is negative, I don’t take it too personal.

Fiction is more like sharing a really personal art. Because even if it’s labelled as fiction, those experiences and small details conveyed in fiction come from some corner of a writer’s existence. These details have been internalized. It’s like having your art and life on display, and if you’re still developing your backbone, it’s scary.

(To be fair, the actual criticism in non-fiction might actually be far more brutal. Ever read some of those blog comments? Someone ruined my entire day last week. The entire. Day.)

Just because you write non-fiction doesn’t mean you can write fiction

I had to switch an entire mindset after ten years of writing almost exclusively non-fiction.

Conjuring up details from imagination is brutally hard. Developing plots and characters is a mindfuck. All those things that came so easily to me as a child and young adult suddenly seemed excruciatingly difficult.

Honestly, it was baffling. I read some writing books, but nothing really helped other than just doing it and eventually finding my stride. Having a mentor helped wonders. Mine pointed out gaps in the writing, and places where I could build more imagery through details. Rereading some of the work I created in my younger years, I’m amazed. Where did those details come from, especially as someone with no real world experience?

Not everyone can deal with rejection

How many times do you submit a manuscript before you lose hope entirely? Ten times? A thousand?

It’s a thankless process. Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times before it was published. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance got turned away 121 times.

Meanwhile here I am, after only having three rejections, feeling like a loser. At one point does one give up?

The point is that these authors did finally get their manuscripts published, and there’s the one area of this whole process I’m proud of the most. I’m stubborn to the extreme. I will not back down until I’m on my deathbed.

Fiction writers are hard-wired for storytelling

I may or may not already have started the next manuscript.

It’s a drug.

Even if I never publish, I can’t imagine not writing.

Sometimes I awake in the middle of the night with a story idea and I’ll have to jot it down quick in the notebook I keep on the nightstand next to my bed. The next morning I’ll look at it and it think, what the hell?

Other times I think they’re good ideas. Inspiration will usually strike at the oddest times, like at an archaeological site from the 17th century. (That actually did happen recently.) Write that shit down.

Sitting down to write is the hardest part

A previous mentor of mine, Leigh Schulman, once offered the best advice I’ve ever received when it comes to putting your ass in a chair and getting to work: do it for just 10 minutes a day. You’d be surprised what comes out in 10 minutes.

I think writers tend to balk at the idea of spending so much time writing. When we whittle it down to 10 minutes at a time, it seems like scary.

Chances are, you’ll keep writing far beyond the designated 10 minutes. The hardest part is forcing yourself to sit there and face it all. And from what I know, I’m not the only one with this problem.

Your routine doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s routine

Having shared the article above about the daily routine of writers, I figure it’s worth saying that it doesn’t make sense to heed any of this advice, really. I mean sure, you can try various methods. But I find it rarely adds up for me.

A lot of writers seem to get their best work done in the daytime. I’m more wired for nighttime writing. Sometimes, if I awake in the middle of a sleepless night, my head is so clear that I have to get out of bed and fire out some prose.

I also work better when there’s someone who’s accountable for me, like my teaching mentor at Humber College. Knowing she was expecting a certain number of pages from me each week was important. I never miss deadlines. You can join a writing group no problem, just search for a Facebook group or put the call out there on social media. Even if it’s just a friend — as long they’re strict about keeping you accountable.

But distractions kill

Nothing dashes out creativity faster than technological distraction.

(Or animal distractions, for that matter…I say as a cat winds its tail around my legs.)

Distractions are an epic way for me to avoid what I really need to be doing. Facebook is a curse. I’ve started unfollowing a large number of people in my newsfeed so I’m less inclined to scroll, scroll, scroll. How does anyone avoid this anymore? It amazes me that popular authors get so much out there.

Have you made the switch from writing non-fiction to writing fiction? I’d love to know more about your experiences too.

  • August 17 2016

    I’d love to make the transition back over to fiction writing, but non-fiction is a hard one to break. Good luck with the manuscript – I’m sure you’ll get it published.
    LC recently posted…Champing in the UK: Spending the Night in a 900 Year Old Church

    • August 23 2016

      Thanks, LC!

  • August 19 2016
    Pike M

    I write little nonfiction, and that’s mostly poetry or i-don’t-know-what bits and pieces. Fiction is where it’s at, for me. I have no fear of submitting anything for criticism – at all. I know what the strong/weak points are, and whether it’s worth anything, and it’s a belief that’s hard to shake. I didn’t always feel that way, but growing older helped. I no longer look at my writing with despair months down the line. On the other hand, I find it really difficult to do the writing itself, to finish, to edit, to tie it all up and declare it done. Hence nothing gets submitted anywhere. Nothing is ever done.

    I will wake up at night, or get caught out at the most inconvenient moments, and I have to go and write down whatever there is to write down, to then be developed later. Later when? I am grateful for the 10 min tip.

    Another useful piece of advice I’ve seen is to spend 5min just thinking about what you’re going to write and not writing. Sometimes your mind is blank, but chances are, you will be able to structure your writing better and are less likely to get ‘stuck’ further down the line. I think I picked this up from here — http://www.sfwa.org/2011/12/guest-post-how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-a-day-to-10000-words-a-day/

    I don’t use social media, but gaming is an issue, especially those pesky small games (ColourLines!).

    I think the most important thing is to stop worrying about the status of ‘an artist’ and just do your thing. You write, ergo you’re a writer. End of story. You can’t be a good writer without some elbow grease, and it all starts with some bad writing. I disagree with the popular ‘kill your babies’ advice, although I see where it comes from. It’s like, sure, it’s not a bad idea to be brutal with your work when editing, but can you do it without being brutal to yourself?

    • August 23 2016

      I hope I feel the same way as you, with practice. Fiction has always been my great love — I’ve missed it so much.

  • August 24 2016
    Peter Steele

    I have two good friends who, after given up on publishers and agents, have published through “vanity presses.”one has been polishing and attempting to find a publisher for over a decade, without success. After reading his novel, I can’t imagine why a publisher wouldn’t have taken a chance on him. He finally did self-publish for the sake of his children and grandchildren. He felt a need to leave a legacy. I’m so glad he did.

    • August 25 2016

      I hadn’t heard of vanity presses before now — nice concept! Yes, with all the garbage that DOES get published, it’s hard to imagine why other books don’t.

  • December 14 2016

    Hey Candice! How did you like Humber College’s program? Would you recommend it? I’ve been trying to get back into fiction writing, but I could definitely use some guidance and structure.

    • December 20 2016

      I absolutely loved it! Olive Senior was fantastic. It was definitely worth it, for me.

  • June 14 2017

    I hear you. Such different things – non-fiction and fiction. My novel is currently going through the beta reading process and it was substantially harder to send it off for feedback than any non-fiction I’ve ever done.
    Gigi recently posted…Behind the Scenes at My Location-Independent Business, May 2017

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