Writers are in luck. This is the information age, and the writer's stock-in-trade is information. In the history of the world there has never been a better time to be a fiction writer than right now.
The invention of the word processor and high-speed quality printers is one reason. Editing, inserting, and moving text were nightmares when writers were writing on a clay tablet, or on paper with a quill pen, the fountain pen, the ballpoint pen, or a typewriter. Now it's just a matter of pushing a few fun buttons. In the olden days (just a few years ago), if you didn't like a paragraph in a finished draft there was no way to change it without retyping the entire manuscript. Now, zip-zip, zoom, bah, and there you are—rewritten and reprinted before you can say WordPerfect 3.1.
Another reason this is the best time in history to be a fiction writer is that more creative help is available than ever before. More than 600 colleges and universities in the United States offer creative writing classes. Private writers' self-help groups abound. Bookstores are packed with how-to-write books. Writers' conferences, seminars, and workshops are held in every part of the country.
Markets, too, are proliferating. Since Vintage Press with their
"Contemporaries" series started selling literary novels in trade paperback originals, imitators of their success have come onto the scene like the charge of the light brigade. Romance novels are a billion-dollar industry. The markets for mysteries, westerns, science fiction, fantasy, and young adults have never been better.
Small presses are spreading like crabgrass since the invention of cheap laser printers, which for $1,000 or $1,500 can for all practical purposes duplicate the work of a $20,000 typesetter. Self-publishing has passed from vanity to being a viable alternative—and potentially an extremely profitable one. I personally know of a poet who self-published a book of poems at a cost of $1.25 each and sold 18,000 copies at $9.95, at which point she sold the publishing rights to a New York house for $50,000.
We are living in an age of global economy, and opportunities for foreign sales abound. It's common for an American fiction writer now to make more money selling to, say, Great Britain, Europe, and Japan than in the United States.
In the forties and fifties there were perhaps 150 literary agents doing business in the United States. Now there are more than 900.
Novels are often optioned for motion pictures and television. Here, too, things have never been better. Cable TV movies, made-for-video cassette movies, and the Fox network—all hungry for good story material—have recently come onto the scene.
There has never been a better time in the history of the world to be a fiction writer. But people don't become fiction writers just because the window of opportunity is wide open.
There are other rewards. Rewards that transcend the possibilities of most other occupations. Where else can you have such a powerful effect on people's lives? Prisoners locked in the dankest dungeon might read your novel and find their escape or even deliverance. People in all walks of life might be transported from their daily drudgery. Schoolkids a hundred years from now might read what you've written and be moved by it.
In The Art of Fiction John Gardner says, "fiction provides, at its best, trustworthy but inexpressible models. We ingest metaphors of good, wordlessly learning to behave more like Levin than like Anna (in Anna Karenina), or more like the transformed Emma (in Jane Austen's novel) than like the Emma we first meet in the book. This subtle, for the most part wordless, knowledge is the 'truth' great fiction seeks out."
Gardner is 100 percent right. It is through stories that the values of our culture are transmitted to the young. How else do we learn what a hero is? What courage is? Honor? What it means to persevere in the face of great difficulties and terrors. How to love. How to relate to other human beings. The meaning of friendship. How to die with dignity.
The act of writing novels benefits the writer as well the reader. Novel writing teaches the writer a great deal about life. A good novelist must be a good observer, and as you train yourself in novel writing you will become an ever better observer. As you struggle with your characters, trying to understand them, motivate them, and make them real and believable with real guts and real guilts, you will find you are seeing the world with new eyes, and you will find within yourself new strength.
If you're around fiction writers much—despite their bloated egos and penchant for braggadocio—you will find them generally an extremely tolerant bunch. The reason is that they have vicariously experienced what it is like to be a member of a persecuted minority, say, or to suffer from extreme age, or to be infirm, or to be in wars and famines and family struggles, or in abusive relationships; as a result, fiction writers generally lack the prejudices found in the populace at large.
The act of writing fiction improves concentration. It improves mental acuity the way football practices improves a football player's performance. You will become a better reader as well as a better writer.
Writing novels may also give you the novelist's high.
Here's how the novelist gets the high: She sits down to write a scene. If she's wise, she's probably working from an outline. She knows, as an example, that the hero is supposed to ask the heroine's father for her hand in marriage. She might start the scene, sense it's going wrong, stop writing, erase or delete a sentence, then start again, sense it's wrong, stop, delete ...
The writing is going badly. It's time for another cup of coffee. Settled in again in front of the keyboard, she stares at the wall, hums to herself, smokes a cig, sips coffee, and dreams ...
Finally the scene starts to come clear in her mind. From someplace deep in her subconscious, it begins to float into her consciousness. She sees it happening on the viewing screen of her mind.
She starts to type, transcribing rather than creating the drama that the characters are acting out on their own like magic. As this happens, in the rush to get it down, the adrenaline pumping, she starts to feel exhilarated. Her heart beats faster, her blood pressure goes up, her fingers fly across the keys. It's like nothing else. It's like going to the moon on a motorcycle.
Usually, in an hour or two, the novelist is exhausted, but satisfied, and can relax, feeling tingly all over from the rush of excitement. This is the writer's high.
The writer's high is what reinforces this mysterious compulsion to write and rewards the creative act long before a check ever arrives from a publisher. The writer's high is such a powerful influence on some writers that nothing else matters—whether they publish or not becomes irrelevant. They've become writing junkies, hooked on the creative act.
There is no better way to spend your days on earth. But the biggest question is always: If I go for it, will I succeed? My answer is yes. And I guarantee it.
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