Are Good Fiction Writers Born Or Bred?

I once met a man and wife who wrote serial romances for a major publishing house under a single pen name.

The man enrolled in a class I once taught on women’s issues at the urging of his wife, who insisted that even though both of them were getting regular paychecks from their publisher, her writer husband “just didn’t ‘get it’.”

She wanted him to ‘get it’.

I don’t know if he ever ‘got it’ or not, or even what ‘it’ was exactly, but meeting him gave me a fabulous opportunity to ask questions about what it’s like to write formula fiction.

Here’s what he said about it right off the bat:

“Listen, publishers don’t give a hoot if you can write well. All they care about is, are your characters good? If they are, you’re in.”

He went on to explain that the way it worked for him and his wife was, they’d get an outline and a deadline from the publisher once a month or so. Each outline was fairly brief and included a cast of characters and the essential plot developments.

Their mission, should they decide to accept it, was to complete a 200 page easy-to-read novel in four to six weeks based on that outline. Some ‘don’ts’ were included, such as: No overtly sexual scenes, no swearing, and no drug references, but other than that, the two writers were on their own, and once they got the formula down, it generally went well.

The writing quality didn’t matter as much to that publisher as making the protagonist lovable and getting the plot formula down pat.

Are all publishers like this? No. But for every writer who sticks it out, there’s a publisher somewhere who can use what that writer has to offer.

How many times have you heard some ‘expert’ go on about how ‘good fiction is this’ and ‘good fiction is that’? The truth is, the world of fiction writing is big, big world. On one end of the spectrum you have formula romances written in fourth grade English by work-at-home wordsmiths who have no aspiration to be called brilliant, they just like to write. At the other extreme you have Faulkner and exclusive MFA programs that shoot for high art.

In the middle you’ll find lots of room for all kinds of writers, all of them published, all of them enjoying their craft.

So, are good fiction writers born or bred?

The obvious answer is: both. We all know people who were born to write, just like the kid in math class who could always answer all the problems on the test without even using a pencil. That kid was born to compute. No one had to teach him; they just gave him a pencil and pointed him at the math books. Some fiction writers seem to come into the work fully formed too.

But even people who have never tried their hand at fiction writing can learn a lot about plot, characterization, dos and don’ts of good prose, and proper structure. These writers can publish if they persevere, and they can do it even if no one ever tells them they are wildly talented or special.

In fact, many of the best-selling contemporary fiction writers started out in life as attorneys, doctors, housewives, or even truck drivers. Writing came to them later in life, and even though they did not attain academic excellence or win Pulitzer Prizes, they became successful fiction writers by any measure.

Although you probably won’t ever hear it in an academic creative writing class, the truth is, you don’t have to be a great writer to be a successful writer. You just have to write and keep writing and never give up no matter what anyone says to you.

The world is full of brilliant writers who will never make it because they don’t write.

The next time you feel like beating up on yourself (another rejection letter, a harsh word, a story you can’t seem to finish), remember that fact.

And just keep on writing.

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