Warning: I’m on my soapbox for this post. If you don’t want to read a rant, skip this one.
Today, for the first time on this blog, I’m putting on my editor hat–not my copy editor hat, but my acquisitions editor hat, specifically as it relates to fiction.
From time to time in my role as acquisitions editor for a small Orthodox Christian publisher, I receive fiction submissions from people who are writing with a Mission. They have a Message they want to convey, usually to young people, and they believe a novel (or picture book) is the best way to get that Message across. Never mind the fact that they have never written fiction before and don’t really know anything about how it’s done. They write the story, show it to a few friends and relatives (who naturally rave about it), and send it off to me.
When I let them know, as gently and constructively as I can, that unfortunately their work is not of publishable quality, I sometimes get rather indignant replies. Don’t I realize what a dearth there is of spiritually profitable fiction for young people? Isn’t it my duty to publish anything that embodies the truth of Orthodox Christianity in fiction?
Yes, I do realize and regret it. But no, it isn’t. My duty is to recommend for publication only that fiction that clothes Truth in a garment fit for Truth to wear. And that means only the highest quality writing is eligible.
Would you offer to God a loaf of communion bread that didn’t rise? Would you sing in the choir if you couldn’t carry a tune? Would you expect your church to accept an icon that looked like a child’s scribble? I hope not. And if not, why would you offer to God a work of fiction that is less than excellent?
Writing fiction is an art. It is not something everyone can do. It is not something anyone can do without a great deal of study and practice. And believe it or not, the most important ingredient of fiction is not a Message: it is a Story. A Message, in fact, is one of the most efficient story-killers I know. If you don’t tell a moving, gripping, coherent, emotionally satisfying story, your Message will never get across; in fact, its credibility may well be diminished in the minds of your readers.
If you want to write fiction that will help draw young people closer to God and the Orthodox faith, well and good. First, learn to write good English: if you’ve already done that, you’re ahead of the game. Second, learn to write good fiction. That will take years. You’ll need to read books about writing and lots of books similar to what you want to write. You’ll need to attend writers’ conferences, take classes, exchange work with other writers who are at least as skilled as you, preferably more so. Get feedback from some professional in the industry (an agent, editor, or published writer) and revise, revise, revise before you ever submit your work for publication. And meanwhile, study the conventions of the publishing industry so you’ll know the right way to submit your work. There are rules, guidelines, and preferences, and if you follow them you’ll ensure that your work gets the consideration it deserves. The internet is full of blogs and websites that will help you in this area.
How do I know what it takes to become a writer of fiction? I’ve put in that apprenticeship myself. I understand your struggles; I feel your pain. I too started out thinking I knew it all, only to find out I knew absolutely nothing. I’ve been working for years to get my fiction to publishable quality, and I’m still working. I’ll be working to improve my craft for as long as God grants me eyes to see the screen and fingers to punch the keyboard.
When you’ve put in your apprenticeship, send your work to me, and if it’s good enough, I’ll recommend it for publication. My role is that of gatekeeper, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy turning people away. I’d much rather let them in–but that admittance has to be earned.