I began writing because I could not imagine any other profession.
My mother, a journalist, was forever at the typewriter or
on the phone, and I thought in the natural progression of things
I would do the same.
In fact, I had every intention of being a journalist, perhaps
an investigative reporter like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein,
who famously exposed the Watergate scandal of 1973, when I was
ten years old. As a freshman in college I took seriously (and
loved) the “expository writing” class that all freshman
were required to take. I went on to an “advanced” expository
writing class and thought seriously about joining one of the
newspapers on campus, but was a bit afraid of being turned down,
so I never joined (probably a good thing).
Over time, I found my essays digressing more and more into what
could loosely be called fiction. It was suggested to me I try
taking a fiction writing course, so I applied for one under the
direction of Mary Robison, who turned out to be exactly the kind
of encouraging, smart teacher I needed (and whose work I admire
Mary’s class was full of unbearably clever and talented
people (I can remember, for example, that Conan O’Brien
was among those in my first ever seminar). It was a great introduction
to the world of fiction writing. You had to somehow survive among
peers who were so dead smart, so well read, so tremendously confident
(it seemed) in their own abilities as writers. You had to pick
your way carefully through the array of different voices and
opinions, not be crushed by criticism or overly flattered by
generous comments. In short, you had to be your own person, your
own writer, and do what you did best – if you could figure
out what that was.
I have discovered since that these are exactly the survival
skills you need a “professional” writer, by the way.
Fiction writing is not for the faint-hearted. To survive for
any period of time you have to be firm in your resolve to do
the thing – that is, the work – and you have to roll
with the punches, for there will be some.
Everything you do will be publicly criticised (favourably or
unfavourably); some books get a lot of sales and some will not;
editors will change frequently as they get new jobs, sometimes
abandoning your book along the way. The more you understand the
publishing process – from acquisition all the way through
to the “selling in” of books into the retail stores – the
better you will understand how your work might be positioned.
If you are one of those who does not worry about such things
as “positioning”, in fact think that it is vulgar
(or anti-art or too commercial or whatever) to consider, then
you may do well anyway. It is very possible still to have an
intuitive feel for what grabs a reader and to deliver such excellent
prose that the world finds it irresistible. However, it can’t
hurt to understand life from the bookseller’s (and publisher’s)
point of view even if it doesn’t affect one comma of what
However, nobody will help you understand the book business.
It isn’t because they don’t care or don’t like
you, only that they are incredibly busy. And so are you. You
are trying to develop your talent and your career – the
two being only tangentially linked – and you may also be
teaching a writing course and trying to raise a family at the
same time (like me). You have to be a certain type of person
to survive very long doing this….
Continued in Part 2. The Art of (Surviving) the First Novel