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The real 'secret' to fiction writing is more disappointing than you think.

by Kieren Westwood 2 months ago in literature
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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…

They don't.

If someone has figured out the paramount story structure that you absolutely must follow if your novel is going to work out…

They haven't.

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.

It's inconsistent.

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.

literature

About the author

Kieren Westwood

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.

youtube.com/kierenwestwoodwriting

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Comments (20)

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  • E.B. Livingstonabout a month ago

    I found this very liberating! Thank you for sharing your experiences with newbies like me who are paralyzed by an overconsumption of "rules". This was just what I needed to hear!

  • adsmallauthorabout a month ago

    Great article and it is so true there is no secret. We can only find tips and advice that work for us as writers. It is great to share thoughts and processes to help others figure out their way of writing. I am no expert in the writing game but I know ways that work for me and If I come across a process or piece of advice that I like I will use it.

  • Maervelabout a month ago

    So true.

  • Clyde E. Dawkinsabout a month ago

    Well said! I just try my best and hope readers like what fics I write!

  • C. H. Richardabout a month ago

    Thank you so much for speaking truth. It is about loving your art and creating it regardless of whether it is the golden ticket formula. Hearted and subscribed❤️

  • The Dani Writerabout a month ago

    An engagement festival of reading in there! "But I'd take the slow growth of the truth over the rapid rise of empty promises, any day." Thoroughly enjoyable, relatable, believable, and honest. A much-needed top story. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Shamona Pretzabout a month ago

    Thanks for leaving your Youtube link - I've subscribed. :)

  • Sophie McKeand2 months ago

    You absolutely nail it with these words: “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.” 🔥🔥🔥

  • Andrew C McDonald2 months ago

    This is indeed my experience as well. Some authors must have an overall plot all thought out ahead of time, an outline, a plan. Some just pick up a pen, picture a scene and run from there. I generally have a vague idea and I do just that ..., picture a scene in my head and start writing. I have written 2 1/2 novels, a number of short stories, tons of poetry, song satire, comedy, and social commentary. Always, I just start writing and go wherever it takes me. While many would shake their heads, it works for me. Everyone is a unique individual and what works for one might not work for another.

  • Kelly Sibley2 months ago

    I agree! People are praying on others' deep desire to be fulfilled or succeed in an area they are passionate about. It's so tempting to sign up for this or that course, but in truth, the answer is; that hard work and good luck lead to success. Thank you for writing about what I was thinking about.

  • Natasha Harrison2 months ago

    Thank - You for This & Taking The Honest & Brave Path ✍️👍🏻

  • Ironic perfection drips from this

  • Bianca D.2 months ago

    Thank you for this! I refuse to buy into the snake oil - literal or metaphorical.

  • Adam Clost2 months ago

    Kind of immediately felt your secret would be "there is no secret," but it was still so great to hear it in these terms, especially from someone who's been at this for much longer than I have. Thanks for the brief and refreshing "you're okay" piece. It's something I think we all need to hear when we get bogged down in the self-doubt of "am I even doing this right?" thoughts.

  • Linda Rivenbark2 months ago

    "But I'd take the slow growth of the truth over the rapid rise of empty promises, any day." That quote speaks volumes. How we need to soak up this lesson in today's world!

  • Glenda Clemens2 months ago

    Terrific!! I lagged with ‘there is no secret’ AND relief was what I felt. I agree and I’m so glad someone else understands.

  • Schmalz2 months ago

    I really appreciate the genuine nature of this article because looking at writing for the art that it is requires that genuineness from the artist. That one should use their writing as a way to discovering the world, themselves, and others! Thank you for writing this!

  • I am immediately struck with two thoughts. 1. “Nobody knows anything...... Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one.” William Goldman quote 2. That a Dodger Stadium poster on your wall. Keep up the good work!

  • Chezney Martin2 months ago

    Love how easily this captures 'there is no right or wrong way.' Thank you!

  • Michele Hardy2 months ago

    Thank you for this! As a writer who has fallen into this exact trap of listening to "gurus" instead of just sitting down and doing the work, I wish more people were like you and honest about the process. I wish there was a magical secret, but the hard truth is there isn't. It's disappointing, but the reality. It's all about hard work and craft. Plain and simple.

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