Carroll Dale Short

• Writing Tips •

You Don't Choose the Idea...The Idea Chooses You

I was at a writing conference once, taking notes furiously as some of the best publishers and editors in the business gave us advice on how to get our fiction published.

But when question-and-answer time came, a gentlemen in the audience stood up and informed us we were all going about this publishing thing the wrong way:

“I work in marketing,” he said, “and we never introduce a project without doing months of research and focus groups. It amazes me that people write novels without closely analyzing the market first, and figuring out what will sell.”

Though there were hundreds of people in the auditorium, a deep silence fell. Then, one by one, the publishing professionals on the panel started explaining why the “marketing” idea, though it sounds good on the surface, won't wash in the real world.

“When writers ask me what kind of manuscript I most want to see in my mailbox each morning,” the editor from Atlantic Monthly said, “I tell them, 'I want to see a story I could never have expected in my wildest dreams.'”

The next person up, a lady who's one of the highest-powered agents anywhere, told the audience that few people realize what a tremendous time lag is involved in publishing a book. Most novels take at least a year—often several years—to write. Then comes the revision process, which can take months or years. Then comes submitting the work: sending copies to publishers or agents to see if someone out there is willing to buy/represent your book. Once your manuscript is sold, it's at least another year or so before the book is actually in stores.

“If you're trying to jump on a 'trend' by writing the kind of fiction that's most popular,” she concluded, “you're already too late. Because whatever is successful right now was being written years ago.”

Author Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer for her memoir “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” addresses this subject in her how-to book “The Writing Life.”

“The secret to success,” Dillard writes, “is not to write about what you love best, but to write about what you, alone, love at all.”

Novelist Jesse Hill Ford often told his students, “Writing fiction requires the longest apprenticeship of any skill that I know of. If your main goal is to publish something, then you probably don't have what it takes to stay in it for the long haul.

“Your goal has to be, instead, working each day to become the writer you were born to be. And if you happen to publish something during that process, that's the icing on the cake.”

One of many successful writers who has testified to following Jesse's method is the late Larry Brown, who worked 17 years at the Oxford, Mississippi, fire department and helping raise a family while stealing time on nights and weekends to write fiction.

Brown describes that process in his memoir, “On Fire”:

“I'm home from work. In the kitchen is my wife, and the two boys are in the front room watching television, trying to leave me alone, let me work, let me write. I sit at my typewriter, a new Smith-Corona that I will type on until it's completely useless, until the keys fall off, until the return carriage slips. I'm writing something about a family of people walking down the road with their possessions in their hands. Homeless people. Fruit pickers, laborers. An old man, his wife, a boy, two girls.

“I have chosen this thing to do, away from my family, the doors closed. Characters who form in my head and move to the paper. Black symbols on a white sheet. No more than that.

“It may seem senseless to anybody else, but I know there's a purpose to my work. The process of spending years at the typewriter, until I become better than I am now. Until I can publish a book, and see that book in the library, or in a bookstore.

“I love this thing, even if it does not love me back.”

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