What are three things you know now that you didn't when you started as a fiction writer?
- The right margin doesn't need to line up.
The first time I sat down at a typewriter was at my dad's Chevrolet dealership in Richlands, North Carolina. I remember it was a Saturday, because the receptionist wasn't there (it was her typewriter), but I don't remember the year, except to the extent that I had moved beyond picture books by that point. I slid a sheet of paper into the typewriter, quickly pecked out the first line of my story, shuttled the carriage over to start the second line, quickly pecked that one out too—and then stopped. What I saw wasn't right. I found a bottle of liquid paper, smeared it across the end of the line, tried again—with a shorter word. Still not right. More liquid paper, and a medium sized word this time, and....
The books I was reading then had all the text justified on the right side. How did those writers always find words of just the right length? How would I ever figure it out?
Undoubtedly, there are other lessons there.
- There are 118 ways to do something—and they might all work.
Once upon a time, I thought that each story had the perfect way of being told, and the trick was to find it—through trial and error, through getting feedback from readers and following it, through year after year of toiling through missteps before I reached some mastery of form. Now I recognize that perfection doesn't really happen—maybe shouldn't; that each choice has both its own rewards and its own losses; and that one person's way of telling a story may not be mine, any more than mine should be theirs, or that either of ours is the better way.
Note: This applies to both process and product.
Note 2: I could've said 119 things above, or 117 maybe. Likely the point would've come across the same.
- Being a writer involves more than you and a keyboard—involves more than you, period.
I firmly believe that the most important part of being a writer is writing. However, I've also come to believe it's not the only part.
By this, I don't mean that we writers today also have to be our own editors and marketers and public relations experts and social media mavens and salespeople, etc. All that may be true as well, but all that is also focused on how we try to produce, package, and present our own work to the public—the next steps beyond pecking out our stories.
Instead, what I'm talking about is that often bandied about term of literary citizenship—of participating and contributing generously to the larger literary community. Over the past year, as much of my time has been spent on other people's writing as on my own: reading and commenting on the student manuscripts from my fiction workshop at George Mason University, trying to help cultivate those terrific young talents; reading through (and so far very much enjoying!) the submissions to the Bouchercon anthology I've been asked to guest edit; offering feedback on various friends' latest manuscripts (and my wife's too—a benefit of marrying a writer, as she pointed out here); serving as a judge for a couple of major contests and hopefully bringing some great talents more firmly into the limelight; and right on down the line—even to things as simple as celebrating someone's cover reveal (Hi, Ed Aymar!) or noting a book birthday or two (Hi, Bonnie Stevens and Diane Vallere!) or attending a book launch (Hi, Jonathan Harper!) and, yes, buying and reading a book or two—or 24. Except for my work at Mason, none of that is compensated... though if Ed wants to send me a check for a shout-out, he knows where to reach me.
As writers, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our craft—but we also have a very real responsibility to the larger world of writers and readers in which we live and work. Being active, being involved, being part of larger conversations, making larger contributions—all that is important too.
Corollary to above: As Alan posted yesterday, writers drink—a lot—part of the camaraderie of a literary community maybe. Turns out you can drink as part of literary citizenship too. Here's my contribution to the social media campaign around the new Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Gary Phillips' Switchblade Cocktail. Note the dash of red cutting through the drink. And hi, Gary! We miss you here at the blog.