Jump To Section
Writing fiction is one of the most satisfying forms of human artistic expression. Yet many people with a knack for creative writing can nonetheless become overwhelmed by the many obstacles in getting a writing career off the ground. The feat of completing a first novel is impressive, and yet that alone is unlikely to make you able to embrace fiction writing as a full-time day job.
Aspiring writers should be prepared to put in hard work on multiple fronts. The first front is creative and includes developing good story ideas, refining writing skills, and pushing through any writer’s block to get that first book finished. Additionally, a successful writer must thrive on another front: navigating the publishing industry. Whether you aim to produce New York Times bestsellers with a traditional publisher or employ self-publishing to explore novel writing on your own terms, you’ll need to find methods for getting your best work in front of an audience of readers.
It can be a long path from the first short story you produce in high school to becoming a published author in bookstores (or even on a bestseller list), but every single year, thousands of people do complete such a journey. To get you started on your own journey, here are some writing tips and real world publishing insights from some of the most accomplished authors in their fields.
5 Tips for Becoming a Novelist From Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation, known for works like The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid’s Tale. Here a five key tips from Margaret on becoming a novelist:
- Start with characters. Margaret never writes from ideas—she believes that ideas are discovered later by readers, once a book has been written. She writes from characters—voices she’s heard, scenes, even objects. Readers don’t pick up a book looking for a theme. They look for memorable characters cast in a compelling story, so focus on those first.
- Rules are meant to be broken. Every great writer works in a different way. Some writers work straight through from beginning to end. Others work in pieces they arrange later, while others work from sentence to sentence. Don’t be afraid to try out different techniques, voices, and styles. Keep what works for you and discard the rest. Your material and creative process will guide you to your own set of rules. Understand that this doesn’t mean there’s no use for the rules that you might hear at a professional writer’s conference, in writing guides, or in school writing workshops. Indeed, most enduring rules are rooted in common sense. That doesn’t mean that every professional writer follows them to the last letter.
- Don’t judge a draft until it’s complete. When it comes to writing novels, some people have what Margaret calls “completion fear”: a fear of finishing a project and discovering it’s not very good. If you have this fear, just work to finish your manuscript; you have nearly endless opportunities to revise your own writing. Once you’ve completed a first draft, you have to read it from the perspective of the reader.
- Ask the right people to read your work. While it’s understandable that a young writer who’s successfully drafted a novel for the first time might want to alert literary agents and publishers as quickly as possible, it’s important to show prudence. Once you feel there’s nothing else you can do with your manuscript, it is time to hand it to a trusted outside reader. Don’t choose a spouse or someone with gatekeeping power in the publishing industry; there are too many other power issues in such relationships. It may even be best to find a nonwriter. The best question you can ask your trusted reader is, “How quickly did you read it?” If they read it quickly, you’re likely in a great position. If possible, try to find more than one dedicated reader so that you look for consensus or common threads in their responses.
- Write for art’s sake, and save the commercial analysis for later. Genre is a concept created by publishers and literary critics, but it’s not always a valuable one for the working writer. In fact, Margaret says not knowing or thinking about what genre your book belongs to can be valuable, because it offers you greater freedom to stray from genre expectations and to play with form and subject. Your job is to make your book the best, most compelling version of itself, plausible within its own imagined realm and set of rules. Let others worry about what genre it is (or isn’t). You can self-consciously try to write a horror novel, but this won’t necessarily make you the next Stephen King. You can try to reinterpret a classic legend the way that John Gardner upended the Beowulf story, but that doesn’t mean that scholars will promptly insert your novel into the literary canon. In other words, don’t let genre analysis creep into your writing process. It’s hard enough to be a good writer without obsessing about commercial appeal, so don’t.