What If You Think You Might Be a Mediocre Fiction Writer?

Every novelist hits the point, sooner or later, where they think they just might not actually have any talent. What do you do in that case? Should you just throw in the towel? Or muddle forward? How do you know if you’re any good?

Camille posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve decided a novelist must produce amazing writing AND an interesting story to continue pursuing novel publication with any real, honest hope of succeeding. Even amazing writing must be interesting or it’s not all that amazing.

If a wannabe novelist can be very honest with herself and accepts that she may be a good writer but a mediocre story-teller, and can perfectly picture the finished product she desires but realizes her execution of that goal falls painfully short, and she is beginning to tire in her efforts to improve, what do you suggest she do at this point in her life? I can make it easy on you and give you some multiple choice answers.

  1. Take a vacation to somewhere other than Boring, Oregon.
  2. Take more workshops and read more craft books. While setting your toenails on fire.
  3. Take another vacation but don’t start making a habit of it.
  4. Grit your teeth and keep working on the wretched novel.
  5. Put noveling aside and write something that makes you smile and gets lots of positive feedback from people because beneath the fiction fatigue, you know you were created to communicate something of value and encouragement to others and you miss that.
  6. Get some cheap c-4 and blow your computer to Jupiter. Pop some corn and invite the neighbors to watch, but make room for the S.W.A.T. trucks.

Randy sez: Well, Camille, you’re about due for some angst. You’ve been writing now for three years or so (or is it four?) And you still haven’t sold your novel, and you’re thinking it’s maybe all just some sort of pipe dream that you’ve been smoking for the last few years and maybe you’re a no-talent wannabe that ain’t never going to make it to the gonnabe stage.

This is a valid question. I’ve been writing fiction for 23 years now, and I’ve seen plenty of writers who just didn’t get published. Loads of them. I’ve also seen plenty of writers who did. Some of them went on to win awards, hit best-seller lists, and all that good stuff.

If you’re a discouraged writer, how can you tell whether you’re mediocre or destined for glory?

The bottom line is that you probably can’t. You’re too close to your own career, and you can’t see what’s obvious to other people.

I had this problem for a long time, and I solved it, ultimately, by just slogging through and getting published. But it meant that I spent about eight years in misery.

There’s really an easier way. Ask an experienced published author (one who knows your work) if you’ve got the talent to make the grade. After you’ve been writing for a few years, you either have it or you don’t, and anyone with some experience in the publishing world can tell if you do or don’t.

I happen to know Camille and her work pretty well, since she’s in my local critique group. So I’ll make this Xtremely easy.

Camille is going to get published. I don’t know when. Not sure if it’ll be that first novel she finished awhile back that’s been making the rounds. Not sure if it’ll be the one she’s working on now. I think either of them could sell. Or maybe her third book will be the winner. But I know for sure that Camille’s got the goods. So I just plain don’t see how she can fail.

Oh yeah, sure, there’s one way. She could quit. But Camille’s not a quitter, so she’s not going to.

I’ll bet a number of my Loyal Blog Readers are in the same seat Camille’s in right now. You’ve been writing for a few years. You’ve had some near misses and plenty of kudos but no contract yet. You’re frustrated and tired and angry.

I’ve been there. It wasn’t any fun. I spent 10 years writing fiction and the only thing I sold in that time was one short story to a local computer magazine for $150. That’s $15 per year. I worked it out once–it was three cents an hour. And I didn’t get paid a dime until Year Ten. That really sucks.

Then in the eleventh year, I sold a nonfiction book. And a novel. Yes, both in the same year. Funny how that worked out.

My story is pretty common. A lot of writers took years and years to break in. I know plenty of novelists who took longer than I did. And of course I know a few writers who sold the first thing they wrote with what looked like hardly any effort. I don’t feel superior to the ones who took longer and I don’t hate the ones who got there quicker. The publishing life is one dice throw after another.

If you want a safe, easy career, then you’re going to have to go into something that safer and easier. Try lion taming. That looks safer to me than fiction writing. Or try brain surgery. That takes about the same amount of training as writing a novel, but I have this weird hunch that it’s easier.

Nothing I can do will change the fact that fiction writing is hard and unsafe. I wouldn’t change that if I could.

Because maybe that’s part of what makes it fun.

Camille, you’re going to get published. If I turn out to be wrong by some unlucky chance, and you don’t get published in the next ten years or so, then you can come and slap me silly. But I have a good track record of spotting winners, and I know you’re a winner, so I’m just not worried.

What’s a writer to do when she’s in this boat? Carry on. There are three basic things that every novelist has to do to keep improving:

  • Keep writing.
  • Keep getting critiqued.
  • Keep learning by reading those pesky how-to-write-fiction books.

I don’t know ANY writers who are improving who don’t do all of these things.

Carry on, Camille. When you sell your first book, we’ll do an interview here on this blog. Remind me when that happens.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

19 Comments

  1. Cathy Keaton May 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm #

    Oh, she must be so happy to read this from you! I know I’d be. Good luck, Camille.

    I’d also add to the list at the end, “Read A LOT of well-written books in your genre”. How can you improve if you don’t know where the bar is set?

  2. CathyS May 27, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Randy,

    This is an interesting question and interesting answer.

    It sounds like a question I would ask. It does get discouraging to be in this position. I keep telling myself that I’m better off knowing I’m mediocre than
    the writers I see who think their writing is fabulous and it’s not. I would like
    to think I was fabulous, for a least a few hours, though. 🙂 So far, I can’t talk
    myself into it.

    It seems like a never ending cycle. If we keep learning more about fiction, we will continually think the fiction we write is sub=par. We have to look back at where we started from, I guess?

  3. nancy May 28, 2011 at 6:44 am #

    I am with you, Camille, well almost. I am a great story teller with a mediocre vocabulary. Too often the right words just don’t come, i.e. the wrong words come in bucket loads. Randy, does the same advice apply to me? Or is my problem deeper than Camille’s?

    Randy sez: I don’t know. I’ve read a lot of Camille’s work (every month at our critique meeting), but I haven’t read any of yours, so I can’t evaluate where you’re at.

  4. Melissa Stroh May 28, 2011 at 7:44 am #

    Thanks Camille and Randy! I was very encouraged by what you shared. And if it’s any encouragement to you, Camille, I’m one of those who’s written longer (since 2002)and am no closer to publication now than I was then. But I’m still plugging away. Feel blessed that you have a published author who can tell you you’ve got the right stuff! You can do it.

  5. Lori Benton May 28, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    Camille, so many thoughts swirled through my head while I read your words and Randy’s reply. Good words, Randy.

    I’ve been where Camille is, with nearly ten years of writing fiction and submitting under my belt, some very near misses with major CBA publishers… then a five year break for cancer and chemo fog (in which I wrote a middle grade novel that also got rejected much).

    Now I’m really where you are, Camille, agented for a year and a bit, with two novels out there and no contract offers yet. I’m halfway through the first draft of a new novel. In December of this year, it will be twenty years since I first set out to write a novel and see if I could get it published. I haven’t sold one word to anyone.

    You can imagine the seasons of frustration and discouragement sprinkled throughout that journey. But at some point I ran smack up against this question: If I knew beyond all doubt that I would never be published in any way, shape, or form, would I keep writing? Did I still love it for itself? When I was able to say YES, I found it easier to shrug off the baggage that comes with this profession. Impatience, the pressure of outside expectations (perceived or real), frustration, doubt in myself as a storyteller, discouragement. It’s all still there waiting to be embraced, but I daily make a choice not to embrace it. I choose, consciously, to sit down and simply write the best I can today.

    I have the time. God isn’t convicting me that I’m on a wrong path (I do check in about this now and then). And while I’m writing and finishing books, why not knock on some doors to see if indeed God plans to open one? If he doesn’t, then I can trust that that’s his best plan for me (because he has good plans for me, whether they line up with mine or not).

    I can also trust that none of these twenty years devoted to writing have been a waste of time. I’ve walked through them prayerfully, giving this whole writing thing into his hands so many times. I’m sure you’ve done the same. Obviously this is the path I needed to walk in order to learn to trust those hands. No matter what.

    Unless God is telling you otherwise, if you can peel back the layers of angst (common to most writers) and still find in yourself a love of putting words on the page, a joy in creating characters and telling their stories, then why not keep at it?

    I hope it encourages you to know others are walking this road with you, dealing with the same roadblocks and detours. Don’t lose heart!

  6. Shawn Cannon May 28, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    Perhaps it’s my tech savvy youth in me, but I’m almost convinced that I will self publish my novel. I have been published twice before. One being a short story fiction series, and the other a magazine article, I question if it’s worth the effort to publish the old fashion way anymore. I don’t know yet how I feel about selling my book on amazon for 99 cents either.

    You spoke so highly of Camille, that I’m anxious to see her published just soni can read it!

  7. Carlos de la Parra May 29, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

    Be mature enough to accept you are human and thus liable to go through non productive seasons.
    Stay busy creatively and build on all areas of your life with special attention to good health. Both mental and physical.

  8. Janice Cantore May 29, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Camille, hang in there, last June I was where you are, I have been writing for years, have always wanted to write, believe it is my gift. After I wrote my first novel and was trying to learn how to find a publisher, I remember being at a conference where Randy spoke, (I forget the year) right after his first fiction novel was published. The story then was his great proposal and how it caught a publisher’s eye and I was certain this new information would land me my first contract. But by 2003, after writing for 8 years, and even with a great proposal, all I had were rejections. I shelved the book, started another, and eventually went the print on demand route. And learned how hard it is to market a POD book. I questioned my talent, was this really what I was supposed to do? When it came right down to it, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Five years after my first POD book was published, as I contemplated whether or not I had or would ever have a writing career, I got a call from an agent, he’d read my book, liked it, and wanted to know if I had any others. A month later I had a three book contract with Tyndale.
    I share this because for a while in my distress and disappointment, I’d forgotten that we serve a great God. To echo another comment, unless God is telling you otherwise, keep writing, keep praying and be faithful with the gifts God has given you.
    I hope this helps and I pray that God will bless you.

  9. Camille May 31, 2011 at 6:34 am #

    Wow, thanks for the tremendous encouragement, Randy. I guess I have no choice but to keep at it, especially if there is danger of any slapping involved. 🙂

    I recognize there are wordsmiths and there are storytellers, and if you blessed to be both, there’s a good chance your life will be sunshine, puppies and good chocolate from now on. I also recognize where I fall in those 2 categories. I think natural storytellers have the advantage; wordcraft can be taught but Story is always King. Storytelling can also be taught to us wordsmiths, but it’s probably like teaching parrot to bark. I sometimes feel like Polly who hopes I can convince burglers there’s a Rottweiller in the house.

    I sometimes question why I’m on this fiction path when it feels tiring and unnatural. Usually after I mope around about that, the good Lord comes along and answers my “Should I really be writing fiction??” question by flinging open yet another door of opportunity in the fiction pub world for me. I’m glad He knows some of us are dumber than others and need big fat neon signs pointing the way. He’s cool like that.

    Thanks again, Randy. I don’t suppose I’m going to quit. In the words of the great storyteller Lone Waddy, “Endeavor to persevere.”

  10. Morgan L. Busse May 31, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    I’ve been writing since 2002 and nothing yet. I hit the wall (figuratively, but it sure felt like physically) earlier this year. I wanted to hang up the towel and walk away.

    But my two biggest cheerleader didn’t let me. Those were God and my husband.

    I came to realize that I may not ever publish, but God is already using my words. And I came to the place that if my children are the only ones that ever read this story, then I wanted to make it the best story I could leave them 🙂

    And taking a vacation isn’t a bad idea. Sometimes we need to walk away from our work for a week, a month, maybe even longer to refresh our brains. Now of course, if you have a deadline, that’s a different. story. I have found myself wanting to jump right back into writing after taking a break from it.

    By the way, I would recommend Cannon Beach OR over Boring OR. Absolutely beautiful place on the coast with squeaky white sand. I just don’t recommend swimming, the water is cold!

  11. Larry June 2, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    A great question/issue from Camille, and as usual a rockin response from Randy. On the “keep studying craft” part (my paraphase there), I’d like to toss in one thing, and it’s hard: strive to let go of any “limited beliefs” that may be holding you back. By that I mean, things that you are clinging to because some warped high school writing teacher told you, or because it challenges how you think and work; example: stories are all magic and wonder and muse, and have nothing at all to do with engineering and planning… that’s a limiting belief system).

    Randy and I share this passion for knowledge driving craft, and thencraft driving art (in that order), and both of them, over time and with passion, perhaps leading to luck (usually well deserved).

  12. Jessica M June 3, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I’m definitely in this spot right now (except I feel that I’m a good storyteller, I think I have good ideas, but I’m not a good writer?!) and fleeting thoughts like what you’ve just written about have suddenly began to appear. It’s distressing, depressing. I’ve finished my first and only novel last year and that gives me hope that if I can do that, then I can do it again. And hopefully again, and again, and again … I love writing. I suppose as long as I can get one book published the old-fashioned way (I imagine it’s much more satisfying that way than hitting “submit” on Smashwords) before I die, I can die happy! Thanks again for the encouragement, Randy.

  13. Pam Halter June 8, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    It truly is a matter of time. My best friend and writing partner, Joyce Magnin, got her first novel published after writing and trying for over 20 years. She’s contracted through 2015 at this point. It’s amazing. She has assured me I, too, will get my novel published. It’s a matter of time, she says to me often. If you quit, you’ll definitely never get published! So, I’ll hang in there, keep writing, get critiqued, study the market and attend conferences. It will all be worth it some day.

  14. Christina Berry Tarabochia June 9, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Lori, having read a bit of your work a few years ago, I am SURE you will get published as well. Pretty sure that statement carries just as much weight as when Randy said that about Camille. ;p

  15. dgh June 29, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    The truth is you’ll never know. Even writers that are published don’t know because terrible stories get published. Getting published really has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good writer. Publishing is a business it’s about making money not writing. They will publish what they think will make them money. This delusion that we all have that great books get published is just that a delusion because the truth is sometimes great books get published the rest of the time it’s mediocre crap that sells.

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