The real 'secret' to fiction writing is more disappointing than you think.
But it's better than the alternative.
I've been writing fiction for over ten years, and for the last few, I've been sharing my successes and failures with other writers online. I've built a community, albeit a small one, on writing advice.
I'm doing it, because I've figured out 'the secret'.
There's a world of writing advice out there, as I'm sure you know.
Most of it is the finest quality, twice filtered, pure and bottled at the source snake oil…and some of it's actually honest and worth hearing.
The honest stuff, is the only stuff that matters. I'll get to that.
The rest, to be honest, is lies.
Ok, maybe I'll wind it back just a little. Maybe it's not outright lies, but there are certainly things being presented as facts, which in fact aren't.
If someone claims to have a secret 'formula' for addictive storytelling…
If someone has figured out the paramount story structure that you absolutely must follow if your novel is going to work out…
Some of them probably believe they have those things. They've discovered something that absolutely worked and helped them write their story.
You can understand their excitement to share such a discovery with an audience of eager writers or writers-to-be who will read it and believe it, because they haven't learned 'the secret' that I have yet.
You can almost understand too how a writer might think 'if other writers don't know this…maybe I can put a price on it.'
Like I said, almost.
Those people aren't that much of a problem, though they still haven't figured out 'the secret'.
The real problem comes from the ones who know all about 'the secret' but sell snake-oil anyway.
They're the ones who will say there is one way to do something, one best structure, one best way to keep readers hooked, one perfect approach to description.
They're the ones who have bigger audiences and self-published books with swathes of reviews.
Beyond the initial 5 star reviews, some of those reviewers seem kind of surprised though, don't they?
The books from these gurus, strangely didn't live up to the hype. How can they have written such a mediocre book when they'd figured out all the complex mechanisms of the novel?
It's because they know of 'the secret' but they wish they didn't.
They've taken the easy road of promising an answer to people who are very much ready to believe there is one. They've looked at comments and metrics and realised what does well, what writers want to be told.
That there is a way. You simply have to learn it.
That's a much more attractive message to deliver to an eager, growing audience and to keep them coming back than the truth is.
I'm not trying to put myself on a pedestal here, watch any video I've ever made, or any article I've written if you doubt that, but I never have and never will take that approach.
I've never promised results to writers who came to me for advice, I've never prescribed something they absolutely must do. I've never given them the answer. Even though it would have been, in some ways, easier to build an audience that way.
I didn't do that, because after ten years of writing, including eight novel drafts and countless other stories, I know the uncomfortable truth of writing.
There is no secret.
Writing is art, how could there ever be just one way to do it?
It's a terrible and demotivating secret to know, but it's true. I give writing advice a lot, but that advice is always simply 'this worked for me, maybe try it,' or more importantly 'this didn't work for me, but that doesn't mean it won't for you.'
Writing fiction is about individual discovery and trial and error. It's about exploring your influences and your preferences.
It's a balancing act of intimidating self-doubt and fierce self-belief.
Sometimes it's easy, often it's not.
But there's one thing that's consistently true about writing.
What works today, might not work tomorrow. What worked for that book, might not work for this one.
Try telling an audience you're trying to grow that you don't know the answer to their problem. Try telling them, when they're waiting for help from someone maybe ten years further on in the process than they are, that ultimately they'll have to figure it out for themselves.
It's not easy to build a following on that kind of message…
But I'd take the slow growth of the truth over the rapid rise of empty promises, any day.
There is no secret. Every writer is different. The way to learn and get better is to keep writing, keep pushing, keep practising.
To me, it's about passion. It's art.
It's not about formulae or writing 'hacks.'
But, as I always say, that's just my experience. Yours might be totally different.
About the author
Kieren Westwood is writer of short fiction and novels usually focussed on the meeting point of literary and crime fiction. He also shares writing experience and flash fiction on his YouTube channel.
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