The Secret to Good Writing is Work: By Pete Fanning
Occasionally someone will tell me I’m a talented writer. No really, it happens, and when it does, I thank them graciously. But I feel like a fraud. Because I should probably tell them the secret. It’s not so much a talent, or a gift, or some magical ability, but a grind. It’s work. And just like anything else, the harder you work, the better you get.
We all have ideas, a book in us, so they say. And where most of us are creative, it takes endurance to get those creative ideas to the page. For me, it took years and years of forced daily word counts and rewrites and revisions and edits and still, on some days, it’s all I can do to type a sentence worth reading. But I’ve come a long way.
Back around 2012, I stumbled upon one of those revenue sharing sites. You post an article, a story, maybe a tutorial, then get paid off the clicks it generates. And, being how I’d written off and on—newsletters, journals, terrible poetry—I figured, sure, I could whip something up, press a button, sit back and let the cash pour in. With that in mind, I let fly with my first gem, a piece titled, One Guy’s Top Ten Hip Hop Albums.
You’re welcome, world.
It was terrible. Not the list, mind you. I still stand by my list. But the writing--it was so bad. But none of that mattered to me; I’d been bitten by the writing bug, and all I wanted to do was write.
I pressed on. I unleashed a slew of 500-800 word cleverly crafted anecdotes every week. I kept a tight schedule. I carried a pen and pad, jotted down anything that made me chuckle. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
Then I discovered fiction.
That was it. Sure, I dug creative nonfiction okay, where I could revisit memories and childhood dreams, but fiction was something else entirely. Here I could create, go with whatever struck. I could craft characters, names, plotlines and dialogue until a story emerged. A pantser through and through, most of the magic of writing was in the process. Usually, the finished product was completely different than what I’d set out to write.
A blank page became my playground because back then I was like a kid with his finger in the dirt. Flash fiction stole my heart. Write a scene, a snippet in time. Get in, get out, be memorable.
Again, terrible. And that was okay. I was getting better by the word. I read a lot, wrote a lot.
Most of the comments were positive. Keep working. You have talent. Talent, creativity, who knows? But boy did I work. When I was reading, I jotted things down on index cards. Words I liked, figures of speech, descriptions, anything that caught my attention. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I wrote while talking to people (I’m a terrible conversationalist, I’m too busy wandering). I wrote on my lunch breaks, coffee breaks, early morning, late at night. I wrote in my head and sometimes sprinted from the car to the house to get it down on paper.
My first, ahem, ‘novel’ was a thinly veiled memoir of my childhood that was, hmm, what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh, right. Terrible.
I actually sent this novel to my stepmom, a real author, an Edgar Award finalist with nearly thirty traditionally published books in print. She coached me along, dragged me to writers’ conferences. She even—in what can only be described as an act of motherly love—passed along that terrible manuscript to her New York agent, who I cringe to think gave it two or three paragraphs before letting her down easy.
I couldn’t be stopped. I sent this thing out to ten or twenty agents at a time and waited by the phone. I checked my email every three or four minutes, dreaming of the day my blockbuster book deal would arrive.
The deal never arrived. But the rejections did. They came by snail mail and email and by submission form. And each one stung, but by then I was already onto my next big thing. Reading over my work, my 90-year-old grandmother thought I did middle-grade scenes well. So I did that.
I penned an epic, 100,000-word contemporary middle-grade clunker about a boy and his dog. By then, I considered myself to be a seasoned novelist, so I knew the key to a good story was in the descriptions. And so I wrote every scene in painstaking detail. Drinking milkshakes, going to the bathroom, changing clothes, nothing was left to the imagination. Because I was writing it all.
Again with the rejections. But some rejections came with advice, mainly to trim this thing down to about a third of the length. Hmm...so I did. I cut and cut and snuffed out darlings and somewhere along the way it became a story of a boy finding himself.
And I got a request!
An agent wanted to read my manuscript. I’ll never forget that thrill. I was floating. But I was also writing. In fact, I was deep into a new project when the inevitable rejection came.
Eventually, I scrapped the boy and his dog story. And over the next few years—yep, years—each subsequent project yielded more requests and more rejections. My skin thickened, my writing improved; it helped that I wrote for the love of writing before anything else. It was the only thing that kept me going.
And then one day, it happened. I got the request. I told myself to calm down; I’d been down this road before. But then came the offer. I took a seat. I wasn’t writing then because I had no words.
With the deal in place, I waited all over again. Just kept writing, kept plugging along, until one day a box arrived and inside I found it. My dream.
I held my book in my hands. And let me tell you. All the nights of rolling around in bed, plotting or editing. All the mornings I woke up early to get cracking. My self-imposed schedule, muttering dialogue while walking by myself. Sometimes I wondered why I was doing it at all.
This was it, why I kept on. Why I’m keeping on now.
And I guess that’s my secret.
Meet the Author:
Pete Fanning lives in Central Virginia with his wife and son. He is the author of 'Justice in a Bottle' and 'Run Away Blues'. He can usually be found on his fiction blog, www.lunchbreakfiction.wordpress.com, where he’s posted over two hundred flash fiction stories and counting. Seriously, he’s probably writing one right now.
Best Piece of Writing Advice:
Read a lot, write a lot. Sorry, I know that’s not great, but for me it’s what works. Also, for me at least, I read all genres, not just what I write. I feel like it gives me a broader sense of the world, what parents are thinking, kids, teachers, bus drivers, lawyers, law enforcement, homeless people.
How many books written before you were first published? 15-20. I’m not saying they were good books.
What is something odd you researched for your book?
While writing Justice in a Bottle and Runaway Blues, I taught myself how to play guitar. Nothing spectacular, but I can play some blues standards and know basic chords. I suppose that’s not too odd, but I always told myself if nothing happened with the books at least something good came out of the process.
Advice to writers dealing with rejection?
It’s hard, but it’s part of the process. Two years ago, I’d quit writing. I had to study for an IT certification, and it was too much trying to balance it all. Then came an email from an agent who had requested a full manuscript of a YA project (Coming soon to IW!). She said she took so long because she was on the fence about it. And while she ultimately passed, she said the prose was gorgeous and even gave me a breakdown of what she thought needed work. That was it, I was back to work after that. And I’ve recently sent her a thank you letter for the kindest rejection letter in the world.