7 Secrets You Should Know About The Craft and Business of Writing Fiction

Editor’s Note: this is a guest post by fellow Top Ten Bloggers Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh of WriterUnboxed.

Kath and Therese from Writer Unboxed here. A big thanks to Ollin for hosting us today!

Ollin asked if we’d like to write a post about important basics we’ve learned about fiction writing over the last few years, and of course we said yes. Then we realized we could probably write a book on this subject! But as we’re writers, we’re also editors, so we trimmed back our list of ideas to hone in on a few critical points.

Therese and Kath’s “7 Secrets You Should Know About The Craft and Business of Writing Fiction”

1. A commercial idea is key–not a story from the heart.

Kath says, “I know that saying this flies in the face of all the advice you hear and all the stories of people who do write from the heart and get published. But those people who wrote the book of their heart and were published also wrote a book that fit somewhere commercially. In the past, publishers were more open to taking a chance. These days publishers are under a lot of pressure financially because readers have more choices than ever and most of those choices are low-cost. Write the book of your heart if you must, but if you can’t pitch its commercial value to an agent or editor, realize that it is likely to remain unpublished by traditional means.”

2. Internalize the fundamentals of craft so you can concentrate on your storytelling.

Kath says, “Working hard on craft pays off. I was in a situation where I had to crank out a novel quickly. Luckily I didn’t have to worry if my dialogue tags were intrusive or if I was telling not showing because I’d been doing it for so long these ‘rules’ became second nature to me. Write, write, write!”

Therese adds, “You don’t need an MFA in order to become a solid, respected, and well-sold writer, however you still need to know your craft. Develop a library of books you can turn to when you’re stuck (e.g. Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld), when you need inspiration (e.g. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass), and when you’re ready to edit (e.g. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King).”

3. Become your story’s best editor.

Therese says, “You’ll finish your draft-the work you’ve spent months or years on-and be eager to send it to New York. You’ll be convinced that it’s perfect as is, that a top agent will be ready to snap you up, beg you to sign a contract, that you’ll become the next Dan Brown/Nora Roberts/Jodi Picoult/J.K. Rowling. Wait. If you haven’t reworked your draft until every sentence gleams from the inside out, your manuscript is not ready. Please understand that top agents will not overlook glaring flaws. They don’t have to, because their inboxes are overflowing with other choices, including the few polished gems they seek. Let yours be one of them. Everyone edits. Even Dan Brown/Nora Roberts/Jodi Picoult/J.K. Rowling.”

4. Find trusted voices.

Therese says, “I believe it’s critical to share your work with others before you submit a manuscript to agents. Those with fresh eyes will catch nonsensical passages, problems with characters, plot glitches, and contrived ideas that you may not detect. Finding the right critique partners can take time. You don’t want to work with someone who belittles you, obviously, but neither do you want to work with someone who always says your work is perfectly beautiful as is. Let’s be honest, if we want praise, we can get it from our mothers. What we need is analysis of what doesn’t work-where readers feel lost or bored or detached from the main characters. These honest reveals from others can become your story’s greatest strengths. Take the time to find people who will tell you what you need to hear, whose words stick with you and resonate in your gut as truth.

5. Write for the right reasons.

Kath says, “I, too, harbor dreams of making a killing off a sale and retiring somewhere where it’ll be warm and sunny 12 months out of the year. But 90% of us will be writing for minimal amounts and supplementing our incomes with day jobs. The 9% will be able to make a semi-comfortable living. The lucky 1% will hit it big. So if you write with the idea that one day you’ll be a big shot with movie deals and vacation homes, maybe you should think about a profession that has better odds. Write because you love it, not because you want to become rich.”

6. Educate yourself about the business of writing before your book deal.

Therese says, “There is often a feeling of mystery over what happens once a publishing deal is made, after you’ve landed an agent and an editor. But there doesn’t need to be. The more you know about how things work on the other side of the publishing curtain, the more empowered you’ll be. Contracts, deadlines, working with an editor, working with a publicist-these are all things you can learn about now, on websites like J.A. Konrath’s, and through resource books like The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner. Be curious. Become enlightened. Your future agent and editor will thank you for it.”

7. The number one secret that can help you to become a published author is…

We say, “…perseverance. Writing is hard work. Sure, there’s the initial glow of falling in love with a story idea, racing through first chapters. But then there’s a sagging middle to contend with, ideas that veer away from your original intention, characters who won’t behave, story fatigue as you conceive of another idea you like better or after your critique partners point out a problem requiring a massive rewrite. The thing you knew you had to do and that once sounded so easy-plant your “butt in chair” and write-becomes gruelingly difficult. The hardest part of all is when you read over the scenes you’ve already written and realize they are horrible. And they are. You’ll need to make them better.

What you have to know is that this is normal. Perfectly. Congratulations, you’re a writer.

Writing is hard. But there is only one path to your dream of becoming a published author, and that is to do the work. Push through the resistance and the block and the excuses. That’s how it’s done.

Write on, everyone!”

Authors Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006.

Kathleen Bolton is a professional writer and editor working for an ivy-league university in upstate New York. Her debut novel, Confessions of a First Daughter (HarperTeen, HarperCollins), written under the pseudonym Cassidy Calloway, was published in 2009. Since then she’s written a follow-up novel, Secrets of a First Daughter, which was published in 2010.

Therese Walsh was a full-time health writer before her debut novel was published in 2009. The Last Will of Moira Leahy (Crown, Random House) was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2009, was nominated for RWA’s RITA Award for Best First Book, and was a TARGET BREAKOUT BOOK. She is the founder and president of RWA-WF, the women’s fiction chapter of RWA.

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27 comments on “7 Secrets You Should Know About The Craft and Business of Writing Fiction

  1. Once again you’ve pulled together some very useful, albeit somewhat disturbing information. I speak, specifically, of item one. I agree with it, but am convinced that many new writers will be offended or frightened by the statement.

    It is no longer good enough to just “be a writer”, you must now decide what spirit of writing you wish to embrace. Will you write for art? For yourself? …or will you write to make a living? While it is not impossible to be discovered for your art, the road is much longer, and is in need of constant repair.

    Thanks for this informative post.

  2. K.M. Weiland says:

    Great post by two great ladies! I especially like #2. Mastering the basics of craft can sometimes feel like it will take forever, but once those basics are in place, it opens up all kinds of new horizons for exploration. We never stop learning (or at least I hope we don’t) about the craft and we’ll never master every facet, but once we have a firm foundation under our feet, we’re way ahead of the pack. Thanks for sharing, Ollin!

  3. Fabulous advice from two very smart authors!

  4. Conor Ebbs says:

    Thank you, ladies, for a laser-pointed post.

    Persistence, patience, and a watchful eye on the market. Commercial writing success is such a dirty phrase when really it just means your work in the hands of many. Who wouldn’t want that?

    Writing is hard, and it gets harder I believe. I cross far more out now that I did previously. But it’s not a choice. Words stalk writers to their deaths. You need to let them out.


  5. Ooh, I hadn’t heard of Fiction First Aid.

    Good critique is hard to come by, but so helpful.

    I’m still working to internalize the basic rules and have to admit I’m looking forward to the day when they’re somewhat unconscious.

    Thanks for the tips, ladies. You two know of what you speak.

  6. Oh, yes, Therese and Kathleen! Thank you for this. The publishing industry is so heavily-impacted, scrambling financially, all in a tizzy over technological changes these days—the average aspiring writer really has no idea what they’re getting into. Even seasoned professionals are struggling to stay on top of it. It’s like a zoo with all the animals out of their cages.

    Every day I talk with writers who are on the early end of the learning curve of their craft. It is quite daunting for them to hear that they also need to learn about the industry itself. The biggest misconception about writing out there—as you point out in #7—is just how much work it takes to write a good book.

    Work. You have to love it.

  7. thea says:

    this post is about the CRAFT and BUSINESS of writing. Which means if you want to make any sort of living at it, this is the reality.

  8. […] hope you will find “7 Secrets You Should Know About The Craft and Business of Writing Fiction” as useful and informative as I did. var conveythis_src = […]

  9. Vaughn Roycroft says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with almost every word of this post. But (as Pee Wee Herman famously said: “There’s always a big but.”) I read it a couple of hours ago, and point number one is still stuck in my craw. Maybe it’s as commenter Richard says, and I just resent it because I am a newbie; all idealistic, ignorant and fearful. But I strongly feel that trying to gage the market before undertaking any project as large, time-consuming, and emotional as writing a novel is condescension at the best, and pandering at the worst.

    I’m sure there are much better writers than I who are able to pull it off, and make a living. And live with themselves while working away for months or years at a stretch without writing what is in their hearts. For my part, I will continue to strive to improve my craft, but I feel I must continue to write what is in my heart, fully realizing I may never be published by traditional means. Thankfully, there are alternatives with growing viability, both for publishing and for finding a niche readership.

    In the meantime, I will pray to the gods of lierature that I don’t accidentally spend any of my hard-won coins on fiction written by anyone who wrote based on a commercial idea that wasn’t a product of their heart.

    I do love you guys, Therese and Kath, and, as I said, strongly agree with every other point.

  10. Great points. I love the last graph.

  11. It’s like a zoo with all the animals out of their cages.

    Victoria, you are so right.

    Thanks for all of the wonderful comments, everyone, and thanks again for having us, Ollin!

  12. […] {Courage 2 Create}, which was named one of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers by Write to Done. Click HERE to read our piece, called 7 Secrets You Should Know About the Craft and Business of Writing […]

  13. (Mine was a book from the heart. And it sold. For what it’s worth. 😉 )

  14. mjcache says:

    Brilliant, down to earth and very helpful. Thanks

  15. What a wonderful post! As a writer, I use to think that I could lay my hands on paper and POOF! a best-seller would just appear. Now I am learning that sweat equity has benefits and particularly transforming from a beam of light (writing broadly) to a laser beam (writing with more focus) will yield better results. Thank you for sharing your hard knocks with us.

  16. Unabridged Girl says:

    Thanks for sharing, and some great advice from these ladies!

    PS Ollin, do you have a post on telling vs. showing? To be honest, this concept has always confused me. Sometimes I feel like they are one in the same.


    • Ollin says:

      No, but I am reviewing a really great book by Larry Brooks of Storyfix on Monday, it is a must read for all of us. He gives some really great ways in which we can show instead of tell.

      But I also could write a post about that as well. Stayed tuned for my book review on monday. You’re gonna love this book.

  17. Cities of the Mind says:

    This was certainly great practical advice, and an entertaining read, but I do have a question:
    “But 90% of us will be writing for minimal amounts and supplementing our incomes with day jobs. The 0.9% will be able to make a semi-comfortable living. The lucky 0.1% will hit it big.”

    What happens to the other nine percent? Are they eaten by rabid mathematicians along the way?

  18. Ollin says:

    Just putting in my two cents here readers.

    I love the ladies of Writer Unboxed, too, but I can always disagree. 🙂 I think you SHOULD write a book from your heart. Whose to say it won’t sell commercially in the end?

    But that’s just my opinion. 🙂

  19. winn taylor says:

    Courage to create is really the only blog that I read consistently. I really appreciate the helpful topics and heartfelt delivery. It always manages to speak to my moment.


    • Ollin says:

      Why, thank you winn! I’m so happy that you always find the work I do helpful. I really try hard to make it so. I’m not here to waste anybody’s time. Thank you for your support and kind words.

  20. Ooo, writing secrets! It’s my lucky day! 😉

    However…I think writing for the right reasons means writing from your heart. Writing commercial fiction may make you money…but how satisfied is it going to leave you feeling? And not in the economically stable type of satisfied way.

  21. Hi Ollin,
    Excellent post from the two Writers Unboxed ladies. I’ve just set up a new website for writers – its a national Irish writing resources site (but not just for the Irish, lots of tips from Irish authors in there for everyone!), if it’s ok with you I’m adding a link to this to our resources thread in the forum – I know it will be really well received!
    All best

  22. Love these Writer Unboxed ladies — thanks for hosting them, Ollin. Great advice!

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