Make Fiction Till Someone Dies: Putting Risk Back Into Writing

It seems like fiction writers, more than any other creative type, will not put themselves in position to be criticized. Many will barely tolerate the implied criticism of quality work in their own field. In addition, there is a thriving industry that tells anybody with the aspiration to write that their talent is real and their voice is necessary. Just imagine this was the case in all the arts, that you could go to a seminar and spend $300 an afternoon to be told the whole world is waiting for your band’s hair metal covers. That doesn’t exist (please please don’t exist) and it shouldn’t.


Joust! by Hans Splinter, CC BY-ND 2.0

Recently I was reading about jazz musicians in the 20s and 30s. Motivated by by competitive spirit, players of an instrument sought each other out to test each other’s skills, to use that experience to drive themselves to be better. If someone wasn’t ready for that level of show, they were told to go home and practice.

I have never experienced anything comparable in fiction.

I like to go to stand-up comedy shows. I watch people who with every performance submit themselves for the approval of both strangers and other members of their profession. I am always struck by how much courage this takes, how vulnerable they make themselves by standing on stage, and—most importantly—how much this vulnerability shapes the act you see. Because of this, stand-ups hone a finer technical grasp of their craft than fiction writers, they develop much more potent natural instincts for their art, and their work offers a far more intimate look into their own lives, and the lives of us all.

They are just better story tellers. Fact.


The novel market is glutted with books, and of course they all compete with each other for sales. But the conversation among writers concerning the craft is largely platitudinous. The technical focus is on marketing: blogs, sales displays, mailing lists, and of course getting the perfect cover. Of course, these concerns are appropriate: ignoring all this is the equivalent of showing up to job interview in your pajamas. But at some point content has to matter.

We live in turbulent times. A lot is changing quickly around us, other things not quickly enough. Perhaps now more than ever it is easy to be distracted not only from social and political realities but even from ourselves. Who are we, what do we really want, what are we afraid of, what has been so long absent from our lives we have started to forget it even exists? Fiction addresses these questions—even the most escapist fantasy, if only by the wake left from where we escaping.

For me, a book that doesn’t inspire me to try something different as a writer, to discover another way of shaping scenes or sentences, to realize there are whole other worlds on this planet I’ve never imagined before, is kind of a waste of my time. Reading books that challenge me as a writer is the single most important thing I do professionally.

If I didn’t encounter books that do that for me, quite honestly, I wouldn’t bother with fiction at all.

Talented people are out there right now doing amazing work, and every so often some falls into my hands, but the odds seem to be getting worse and worse. I need competitiveness to drive the fiction industry because I need I need it to drive me. I need to read those pages that make me think, Oh geez, I can’t do that. But maybe I could learn.

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