« Back to post listing

Letter to a Student: Career Advice Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Dear Patricia,

I've made no comments on The Tangerine Affair, a delightful story that you've presented very well. To critique it would imply something is wrong with the novel or the writing. Consider your novel finished. Put it away or send it out. Don't tinker with it anymore and give full attention to your next work. As your career progresses, you'll change and you'll look back at this as an early piece and you might find things you would have done differently. But that's okay. That's what making your career as a writer is all about—continuous improvement. Don't get trapped into endless mostly useless adjustments of completed work when your talent should be focused on new, exciting projects.

As you move on into the next stage of your career, remember these principles in writing fiction we've discussed. Does something happen? Too many stories get stuck on musings, internalization, or lengthy descriptions or subjective opinions. The result is static prose fiction.

One technique overused is authorial treading water. Things like. "He wouldn't have done this on any other day. He wasn't that sort of person. And he wouldn't have looked at Leonora the way he was now. That would be out of character." OR "No snowflake is the same. That's what he'd been told. Trillions of snowflakes and not one like the other. Well, those little unique devils were falling at this very moment, and he stuck out his tongue to catch a few and let them melt. They all tasted the same! (Nothing happens here. And the sentences don't build character sufficiently or advance plot at all.) Treading water is a common way for bad writers to fill up a page when the words and thoughts have no clear relation to story.

Is the timeline clear? Look for stories fitting into a recognizable timeline that progresses logically and fits to story length, style, and content. In general, you can't tell a saga in two paragraphs with success. And it's difficult (even though tried fairly often) to put a few minutes of story time into a full-length novel. There are subtleties, learned by practice, in thinking about a timeline that fits a story that the writer should be aware of for his or her specific story.

Are emotions primarily shown rather than told? Find places where the impact of a character's emotion on the reader can be enhanced by concrete action. For example. "She cried." (A nonspecific general statement, rather abstract, and could be boring in many contexts.) What if something like this were done? "With her head down, her eyes hidden behind her hands, she choked back a sob to hide her pain." [Not great. But note the specifics. A try for imagery too. It does improve the reader's experience by showing . . . providing more for the reader than telling in generalities such as "she cried." Showing takes more story time and is not always the best choice when uptempo story pacing is needed; still, when appropriate, action to express emotions should be considered.]

Is the pacing right? Pacing is a rhythmic sense to the writing that makes reading and understanding of story and prose easier. Ask: is the writing well paced? Are the events well paced? Are even the emotions changing in the story well paced? In determining pacing, it's helpful to think about importance to story and characterization and amount of time spent on a segment. (I think you'll always do this naturally.) Is a point where action or emotional shifts are too slow or too fast? Are there illogical plot deviations? Is there a clear progression of happenings in the plot and subplots and does every action have a purpose in the story. Don't succumb to deviations from story no matter how well written you think a deviation is.


Patricia, you've progressed very well in the tutorial, and I hope you'll continue to focus energy and passion on developing the career you want. Everyone is different in what they desire, what they can achieve, and the ways they'll use to be successful. But here are some thoughts I hope will be useful, thoughts to help you make your decisions about what to do and how to do it your way.

Who you are as an author? I see writers with two different motivations. First, writers want to be published, famous, make a living doing what they like to do. Second, they want to become the best writers and storytellers they can become. This striving for excellence is a lifelong endeavor for those with talent. But writing solely for fame and wealth can work against writing to write great stories to please readers. The need to be famous, or even present oneself at a cocktail party as a "published author," can consume one to a point where the desire to be a great writer writing excellent fiction is buried. In reality, few of us will be famous or rich from our writing, so it is important to not let the desire for recognition keep us from always improving, force to market, and impel us to embellish our worth and success in embarrassingly inappropriate displays. Not to be too discouraging, the quest for being really good but never letting recognition dominate our career can be the most rewarding goal if we can keep ourselves in balance. We have to erase any trace of narcissism, and look to selfless dedication to the creation of writing fiction as an art. Surprisingly, for many, striving for excellence can bring the fame and fortune we all want and have every reason to persist in obtaining as long as it doesn't injure our quest for excellence.

Be confident. Believe in yourself. But always strive to keep getting better. Don't rest on admiring what you've done, and don't let obstinate arrogance erase any chance of your being recognized as a good writer.

Rejection. About your fear of rejections. I hate rejections and negative comments about my work. We all do. I have had hundreds of rejections for short stories, and been turned away by more agents and publishers than I care to remember, but I've learned never to believe a rejection is proof that I'm no good. All writing affects people in different ways. Every writer has a readership. The trick is finding those readers. And while you're trying to find your readers, don't let a rejection make you feel bad. Rejection probably means your searching for publication success in the wrong places with the wrong people. I've approached agents and paid for individual conferences with editors and agents at a writer's conference, for example, to be rejected and discover the agents had a "complete" list and were not seriously looking for new clients. Even more perturbing, many of these agents attend the meeting for money and free travel. And there are thousands of other reasons for rejection. It doesn't fit the goals of the editors, subject matter isn't liked, too tragic, I-like-happy-endings, etc. All things that have nothing to do with you the writer. So never take rejections from from the majority of agents, editors, and publishers to heart. Send work out expecting rejection, and accept that most rejections fail to address what you're trying to accomplish for your specific reader. In the main, submit, expect rejection, throw rejection out of your mind, form a new plan, and move on.

Publishing: a rapidly changing industry in decline. Commercial publishing is in a mess. Books are too expensive. Fewer people seek entertainment and information in print. And publishers have a poor reputation about their selection and treatment of authors whom they often abuse. It's hard for an author to get recognized, picked up, and promoted. Many literary fiction works are published through who-you-know, word-of-mouth, cronyism, favoritism, etc. with little or no regard for writing or storytelling quality. An agent at a writer's conference on a panel to discuss publishing said: "You'll never get published if you don't have a platform [usually meaning fame, even notoriety, in a career different than fiction writing]." She continued, "I've just taken on an author who wrote a biography about his investigations that won him a Nobel prize. The topic was hot and time sensitive. But he would only accept me as an agent if I would publish his novel. A dreadful novel, but I wanted his sellable biography. And I sold his novel to obtain the biography." It was a discouraging revelation (outrageous really) about the state of commercial publishing (and integrity of agents) for the writing and reading of quality fiction. For fiction writers, finding a commercial publisher is harder than for other forms of writing.

But if traditional publishing is the way you crave to succeed, you'll do best by getting to know people who will refer you and introduce you. Of course write query letters, but consider composing and sending out queries is time consuming, and very inefficient. And today, the prominence of the internet is opening amazing possibilities for getting your work read and finding your readers, even while looking for a traditional publisher. The internet has not gelled into a predictable medium for writer's yet, but it's getting there, and I'd look at that possibility if you have time. For many, use of the web to distribute work is still not considered "legitimate" and may not deliver the personal satisfaction of having a traditional publisher (for some, even small ineffective houses suffice), but the internet can be unbelievably successful for having your work enjoyed and recommended. It takes time to find the possibilities that are best for you, but you may want to explore as many as possible.

All the best in your career. You're doing great and I know you'll achieve what you desire! And thanks for participating in the tutorial. It's been a pleasure to work with you.

All the best,
Bill Coles

Email This Post Email This Post

Tags: , , , , ,

« Back to post listing

Leave a Reply


Visit main site
  Story in
Literary Fiction
Learn the art of writing great literary fiction:
Newsletter published every other week
New: Graphic Novels

Graphic novels: Homunculus and Reddog
New Novel
McDowell by William H. Coles Read a free sample!
Available in print and
eBook at:
Barnes & Noble,
and select bookstores!
Story in Literary Fiction Art Gallery