What it takes to be a fiction writer

Alliterative lists are a staple of how-to advice, so why not a few for aspiring fiction writers?

For example, a few years ago, when I asked award-winning Fairfield author Nina Nelson (who has been known to write in the Library) for some tips I could pass on to our writers’ group, she included her list of Three C’s, writing activities in which we aspirants should partake: critique groups, conferences and contests. In fact, her first book, Bringing the Boy Home, a middle-grade title, began its path to publication as a contest entry. It won the 2005 Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Prize and was named a Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book.

A second list might be Three I’s: intelligence, imagination and inspiration.

What truly successful fiction writers share, I believe—what makes them start and, more importantly, finish one book after another—is another trio of C’s: craft, commitment and compulsion.

At least, that’s what I thought of when I read a recent interview with James Lee Burke (right) in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Burke writes bestselling novels set in Louisiana, Montana and Texas, the most notable being the 19-title series about New Iberia (La.) sheriff deputy Dave Robicheaux, including the recently published Creole Belle (copies are in both the Main and Branch Libraries). Burke is in his mid-70s and has published 33 books—and he shows no signs of slowing down; he’s hard at work to meet an autumn deadline for his next novel, he told the LA Review. When you are a writer, he said in the interview:

“[Writing is] all you think about. It is an obsession. The writing never stops for me. If I’m not actually doing it, I’m thinking about it. When I taught creative writing, students would sometimes ask me, ‘Do you think I have the talent to make it?’ I would never answer, because it is the wrong question. Those who have it, know it. You have a kind of arrogance, but you have to be able to see the drama that surrounds a person every day. Drama is all around us. It does not have to come from a grand panorama.”

Burke’s first few novels, all literary, were well-reviewed sales duds. Then he wrote The Lost Get-Back Boogie. How does it tie in to my three C’s? Concerning Burke’s craft, once The Lost Get-Back Boogie was published by the Louisiana State University Press, it was nominated for the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. Prior to that, though, over a period of nine years, it was rejected by publishers 111 times. Yet Burke did not give up. Now that is commitment and compulsion.—Alex McNab

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Published in: on September 19, 2012 at 1:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hello from Susan Santangelo. I’ll be at the Fairfield Library on Sept. 30 at 1:30 to talk about my Baby Boomer mysteries. I’m a bi fan of the 3 I’s, and the 3 C’s! Times two! Writing mysteries is an obsession with me. And lots of fun too!

  2. I first came across James Lee Burke in 1993 when he published In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead – who could resist a title like that? SO maybe titles are important, too…


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