It requires a huge investment of time and years of immersion in the literary craft to write a viable novel or short story collection, and let’s face it: publishing these days is worse than a crapshoot. You may not find a publisher, and even if you do find one – or if you take the risky decision to self-publish – your painstakingly crafted literary opus may never reach a wider audience. It takes a special kind of person to voluntarily undertake such an ordeal, especially in the current cultural environment, where film and television and high-tech gaming, not books, appear to be the ascendant forms of narrative.
On the other hand, fiction meets basic human needs. You can’t get the same kind of transportation effect from a film or a video that you can from a novel or a story. Good fiction generates a connective electrical current; it creates a living interface between two minds, and in the process, it gives readers a personal stake in the creative process. Ernest Hemingway once wrote:
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
The visceral, all-encompassing experience Hemingway put his finger on is why fiction isn’t going away any time soon. There will always be a demand for fiction, and there will always be opportunities, therefore, available to those who can master the art of writing to the extent that they can attract and inspire readers.
Do you have the unique combination of character traits it takes to be a fiction writer in the modern era? Take this handy quiz to find out. Rate yourself from 0-3 on the following character traits, with 0 for it doesn’t ring a bell at all, and 3 for it describes you to a tee.
1. You’ve always had an overactive imagination. You are a dreamer who finds rich sources of distraction and spiritual nourishment within your own head.
2. You’re more of an outsider/observer than a participant at the center of things. Fiction writers tend to be introverts: noticing, observing keenly, and ideally taking notes.
3. You’re a voracious reader, and likely have been since you were very young. This should go without saying and is sine qua non for a fiction writer, but it’s amazing how many people try to do without it.
4. Partly as a result of the above, you possess natural storytelling skills and an ingrained sensitivity for language.
5. You’re comfortable with uncertainty and doubt. In other words, you have a capacity to dwell within what Keats called Negative Capability. You’re okay when things are not cut and dried; you don’t mind living “slant,” guided by your subconscious, in a state of constant mystery and not-quite-knowing.
6. You’re arrogant and brash, at least some of the time. You don’t mind playing God if that’s what’s called for, and you’re impudent enough to create your own rules.
7. On the other hand, you may be absent-minded or forgetful. Why is this important? It allows you to forget everything you’ve been told in workshops and read in craft books. It gives you a fresh ticket to re-inhabit your drafts as if you’re experiencing the story for the first time.
8. You’re as self-motivated as the most successful entrepreneur, only unlike an entrepreneur you don’t care about money. You possess the sort of overdeveloped self-reliance you can call upon every single day to overcome the paralyzing inertia of knowing that no one, NO ONE, is waiting for you to finish your book.
9. You have an advanced ability to lie to yourself. To get through the slog, you can tell yourself with a straight face—and really believe it—that this draft you’re working on this year is really, truly the final one. Guess what? It’s probably not. Also? It may never get published. Are you still willing to keep working on it?
10. You’re shockingly persistent. You write with grinding regularity and you read voraciously, like a writer, analyzing everything you read in ways that help you improve your fluency in the craft. You may have been born with it or you may have learned it, but in either case you have it in spades: jaw-clenching, invincible, damn the torpedoes persistence in the face of constant resistance, rejection, and failure.
If you scored less than 15, please find a different hobby. We hear model airplanes are fun. Also knitting.
If you scored between 16 and 24, you’ve got a chance at this, though you’ll have some difficult barriers to overcome. It’s a tough road. Are you sure you want to try it?
If you scored between 25 and 30, what the hell are you doing reading this? Get back to work!
Tim Weed’s first novel, Will Poole’s Island (2014), was named one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of the Year. He's the winner of Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction and Solas Best Travel Writing awards, and his work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Millions, Backcountry, Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere.
Tim serves as a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions and is the co-founder of the Cuba Writers’ Program. His new short fiction collection, A Field Guide to Murder and Fly Fishing (Green Writers Press), has been shortlisted for the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project, the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, and the Lewis-Clark Press Discovery Award.