Monday, October 24, 2011

Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Book Critics

I used to write a lot of fiction. I didn't publish a lot of fiction, but I wrote it. I even finished a horror novel in the late 1980s, one about voudoun in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's right, I was 20 years ahead of the Shambling Dead Curve, all you zombies-come-lately!

Too bad the novel wasn't very good. A couple editors and a handful of agents looked at it and politely passed. They knew what they were doing.

And then a funny thing happened. I started writing lots of book reviews and other non-fiction pieces and got paid for every single one of them. This was on top of my 9-to-5 job as a marketing copywriter, where I wrote in-paper ads, sales collateral and TV and radio spots, plus edited a weekly automotive section.

Then I had kids. The fiction output dwindled down to nothing and finally dried up entirely.

Correlation is not causality.

There are plenty of writers out there who manage to raise a family, work a day job and produce a steady tide of novels and short stories. I guess I just ain't one of them. This used to cause me a fair amount of distress, but not so much anymore.

I've come to the conclusion that the biggest drag on my fiction writing isn't the kids, isn't the day job, isn't the crippling ironies of a godless universe. It's just that, as I've become more confident in my critical abilities, I've become less sure of my talent as a storyteller.

Thanks to a quarter-century of reviewing, I now have a better grasp of what it takes to produce a good book or story. And how much more it takes to be noticed for having published said piece of fiction. I sit amid piles and piles of ARCs and finished books and know that I won't crack the spines of ten percent of them. And they aren't even a tenth of the other unread books stacked in the basement.

The book critic that lives in my own head asks, "Who the hell are you to think about writing  a novel? Do you know how much work that takes? Do you really think you have the chops for it? And if you do publish anything, why do you think anyone would notice?"

I'm making more of an effort these days to shut that guy up. He's become a bore, even to me. In recent months, I've completed a short story and a one-act play.

It's a start. I've got plans for more projects.

The great thing about the web is that there is such an abundance of good advice about storytelling to be found on it, if you know where to look. If you're interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror and fiction in general, you should check out Making Light. It's always worth a look and often features truly invaluable advice, such as this four-item formula for turning story into fiction.

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