Thursday, June 24, 2010

Patience: Writing Good Fiction is Not Quick and Easy

Guest post by Carol Buchanan

“We will sell no wine before its time,” proclaims a California vintner.

Writers might adopt that slogan as their mantra, too.

In one capacity or another, as a reviewer for an online journal, and a judge for the 2010 Spur Award competition sponsored by Western Writers of America, I’ve read a lot of novels. Besides that, I’m a voracious reader. The best of them have had absorbing stories, language that sings in the mind, and characters I could empathize with.

Most, though, read like drafts, as if the writer quit too soon. The pity is that they could have been good, if the authors had taken more time with them. They were released before their time.

This makes me think that of all the gifts writers may have, patience is foremost.  It keeps us hanging in there to get it right. Anton Chekhov spent weeks or months on every short story before he let it escape. In E. L. Doctorow’s long opening sentence from Homer & Langley, I hear the sounds of ice skating – blade runners scraping against ice. Flannery O’Connor builds an almost unbearable suspense in her story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

They are all classics. Maybe you and I are not gifted to that level, but neither would they be if they had not had the patience to get it right. Writing good fiction is not “quick and easy.”
Patience underlies everything else in a writer’s life.

§         A patient writer finds time to write. We all grumble about the lack of time, but we each have all the time there is, and life happens to everyone. I met Mona VanDuyn long before she was named America’s first woman poet laureate. She had just published A Time of Bees, which remains one of my favorite books of poetry. “When do you write?” I asked, after she described her life as the mother of young children, a college teacher, and co-editor of a literary magazine. She replied, “In the bathroom at three o’clock in the morning.”

§         A patient writer takes time to study the craft. No one is born knowing how to write a great novel. It’s like playing music. Even gifted writers have to learn the basics, the scales, the fingering. By reading successful novelists in our kind of fiction we learn how they tell their stories, shape their plots, and develop their characters. By studying books on writing fiction we get ideas on how it’s done.

§         A patient writer endures, sometimes through years of frustration. I wrote my first novel when I was 10. At 15 I burned it in a fit of embarrassment. In my 20’s and 30’s I wrote two more novels as well as many short stories, none of which was published. My work was rejected by the best, though I also received strong encouragement. Throughout my working life, the fiction ember glowed on, and when I retired it burst into flame. I determined to write about the vigilantes of Montana, a group of pioneers who defeated an organized gang of criminals during the Civil War.

§         A patient writer is objective about his or her own work. With the research nearly finished, I pulled out my old stories and novels to get back into the fiction mode.

They were not good. In fact, they stunk. I still remember my dismay. I set out to learn why they stunk and how to do better. I took every class I could and studied more than 20 books on writing fiction. I read unceasingly. Gradually my drafts improved, until I broke through to better writing.

God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana was published in 2008.

In 2009 it won the Spur award for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America. This year, to see how it might fare outside its target market, I entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. While it did not win, it placed among the top 1%, the top 50 out of 5,000. 

Writing a novel is a very big task, and no one knows how long it will take until it’s done. This is a long road, but you can write a good novel.

Be patient.


  1. This is very encouraging to a writer working on her first novel. As badly as I want to be successfully published yesterday, I want quality work. Readers deserve the best I have to give--not some half-edited MS I lost interest

    Good stuff.

  2. Great insights. Patience is sometimes hard to come by - a lot harder than most people think.

    I would also add that a patient writer allows his/her ideas to percolate and develop before they start working on things. I know in my own writing it has taken me over a year of brainstorming and thinking things through before I started the novel I am currently working on. Even now I catch myself trying to jump the gun on some aspects of the writing process.

    Maybe it goes back to the old saying "It's about the journey, not the destination" - although the destination will be nice too. :)

    I echo Ashley's comment: "Good stuff."

  3. This is very encouraging. I plan to keep on writing.

  4. As someone who reads a lot of manuscripts (slush pile submissions) I say you should also be patient for when you reveal important plot points. Too often I see info dumps "too soon" in a story - give me a taste early to pique my interest but reveal all the details later in the story.

  5. Thank you for the excellent information and encouragement. Many times I am tempted to quit, and luckily, once in a while, find feeback back such as yours. Please keep inspiring the aspiring writer to carry on.

  6. Patience in writing a novel also pays off in a quality product, as Buchanan's GOD'S THUNDERBOLT certainly displays.

    Georganna Hancock @ A Writer's Edge


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