Writing fiction professionally is a three-legged stool. It’s an art. It’s a craft. It’s a business.
Like all three-legged stools, it is most stable and comfortable when all three of the legs are the same length; that is, when each area receives an appropriate amount of attention. What is appropriate depends on what the writer is trying to achieve and how, and rarely does one find a writer who routinely gives equal attention to each one of the three legs. Still, established professional writers have generally found a balance that works for them.
Writers who aren’t yet in business (i.e., those who haven’t published yet) frequently pay too much attention to one or two legs, and not enough to the third. And when you’re looking at a three-legged stool, having uneven legs means an uncomfortable seat, at best; at worst, you go past the tipping point where the “seat” is too tilted to sit on, and you slide off in a heap, wondering why you can’t seem to get your writing career stabilized. Note that it doesn’t matter which of the legs is too short or too long; the end result will be the same.
Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to talk about all three legs at the same time. Most writers and would-be writers seem to emphasize one leg at a time when they are talking or blogging about writing. Furthermore, observation and experience indicate that the fashion in what to emphasize most changes, depending on what is going on in the publishing industry and/or which part of it someone is writing for.
There’s always been something of a divide between writers who consider Art of primary importance and those who give Craft or Commerce pride of place. Dickens and Conan Doyle, for example, got little respect in their day because they wrote for a mass audience. The argument got louder with the rise of mass market publishing and category fiction, which expanded the market for written fiction and thus meant that a lot more people could make a living writing…and that meant that you had a lot more people talking actively about the Craft aspects and the business aspects than there used to be. And now we have a fast-growing group of writers who are self-publishing their work in ebook form and who focus intensely on the Business/Publicity leg out of the need to attract readers, as well as a subgroup of writers for whom their ebooks are simply an adjunct to their marketing campaign for some other product or service they’re selling.
Each of those shifts in emphasis came because the context in which fiction writing is done had changed. If your stool is sitting on an uneven floor, and you can’t level the floor out, one way to make it steady and level the seat is to make one of the legs longer or shorter, to compensate for the unevenness in the surface the stool is standing on. The thing is, if you don’t realize that you’re just compensating for the floor, you’re likely to position the stool wrong if you have to move it to a different place with a different kind of unevenness in the floor. And then you slide off and wonder what happened.
The other thing about a three-legged stool is that you can’t eliminate one of the legs and still have it stand up on its own. You also can’t make a fake leg out of something flimsy and end up with a stool you can sit on (though if you are trying to dump someone onto the floor, that could work very well). All three legs are important. Getting would-be writers to recognize that and act on it is a whole ‘nother matter.
Obviously, everybody has things they are good at and things they aren’t, as well as things they like and things they dislike. Having talked to large numbers of would-be writers both on and offline, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of them really, really want to believe that the particular thing they are best at and/or love and/or enjoy doing the most is the one thing that’s vital to a writing career, and the thing they hate, loathe, and despise doing is unnecessary. And no matter which leg of the stool they don’t want to deal with, they hate being told that one way or another, they’re going to have to in order to do what they claim they want (successfully write and publish fiction).
People have endless discussions on all three of these basic topics as they relate to writing fiction. In a fit of insanity, I’m going to tackle each in turn, starting next week.
[NB: Disregard the byline the software slaps on this post. It was written by Patricia Wrede. (CS merely posted it.)]