Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Fiction Writer in the Modern Age? A Quiz … by Tim Weed

Photo by Rachel Portesi

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.​

Read more at Tim's website.​and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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10 thoughts on “Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Fiction Writer in the Modern Age? A Quiz … by Tim Weed

  1. We have a different definition of risk.

    I look at the probability that my work will make get in front of a potential reader.

    Maybe I have the narrative wrong but the story I hear is that fewer than 1 in a 100 manuscripts make it to an agent, 1 in a 100 get sold to a publisher and 9 out of 10 never earn out the modest first-time author advance. So, odds of 1 in 10,000 to even get produced and 1 in 100,000 to see an audience of 5000 readers.

    Publishing it myself, I’m all but guaranteed an audience of 10,000. I don’t even know how many ebooks I’ve sold since 2012. Something over a million and short of two.

    So self-publishing doesn’t seem like the high risk path when considering reaching readers and – at least for me – it’s paid way better than the contracts I’ve been offered by the Bigs.

    But I score okay on your quiz – except for 10, which is zero. I don’t write every day if you mean putting words on the page. I’m always contemplating craft, my next story, and tearing the books I read apart (except those who write much better than I do and I can’t tell how they do it). I’m always working, if it’s only contemplating the color of the sky or trying to figure out how to describe the precise aroma of an early morning in April.

    Oh and 9, which is also zero because I never have to worry that my publisher will turn down my next book. I’m kind of a jerk, but I’m not about to turn down my own next book. I may have to re-write it a few times, but I know my publisher will always – eventually – accept it.

    And 8, which is also zero because I get 20 messages a day wanting to know when the next book will be out.

    It’s true I’m forgetful. ADHD and a lifelong struggle with depression create a certain level of cognitive fogging but I use a lot of external memory to keep me on track. I practice craft with everything I write so it’s more like riding a bike than trying to remember how to divide fractions. I’m always trying to take the meta-cognitive view of my craft to try to find where it need bolstering, what could I work on next, and how to make sure the next book is better than the last. My catalog is the only memory I need on that score. Re-reading the manuscript I’ll be publishing this weekend is enough reminder that I’m not done improving yet. It’s the best I can do now. The next one will be better.

    You got me on 6, as this comment probably shows.

    And with the first five, that puts me over fifteen so I don’t have to replace my full-time day job with knitting. 🙂

    I believe that one of the best things about the field today is that there’s not a single True Path. Whatever path the writer takes can lead to success. In my mind it only takes two things: an idea about what you want from your work (which will probably change over time) and a willingness to do the work to get there.

    But I’m a contrarian.

    JMO. YMMV.

    • Fair enough, Nathan. I’m a contrarian too, especially when it comes to hard and fast rules about writing and the writing life. So I guess it’s kind of ironic that I wrote a quiz that seems to create exactly those kind of rules, though in my defense it was intended to be for the most part tongue and cheek. I appreciate your response – and I must say that I admire your sales figures too! Best wishes.

  2. This is an interesting list. For me, only about half of it is true. I am absent minded, but I don’t take tons of notes on the situation around me. I am usually in my own head, thinking about my worlds, the things I’m creating, and if I had Char X say this vs that, it might read better.

    I’m good with 3, 4, and 5 – except with 5, I know where I’m going. I am in this for the long-term. I think taking a journey with no idea of where you want to end up is not the wisest course. It allows for a lot of meandering that may or may not lead to a goal. I think you have to have goals, a personal finish line. It doesn’t have to be anything that means anything to someone else. Only to you.

    6 – *sigh*. I constantly think before I speak, because at times, what’s in my head needs to stay there. I don’t hold with arrogance. I love what I do, I believe in it – but if others don’t, that’s fine.

    7 is true. I read craft books, and talk craft with other authors, particularly those I enjoy, and think are successful. If they have an idea that is interesting, I’ll try it. It’s how I know most plotting tools don’t work for me. I have found one that works, but it took trying on what has worked for others to find it.

    I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. I think you look at all the ways to build the wheel, and see what works for you. Even if you and I do the same thing, our method and outcome will be different. I see others as a valuable tool in my author tool box.

    #8 I have to strongly disagree with. If you are an author in this day and age, you need to be concerned about money. It takes money to be an author. How much is your call, but you can’t do this with no money. If you are on a budget, you need to consider carefully where your money goes. That is all before we ever talk about profit. No matter how you go about publishing, it will cost you, the creator.

    And this is only my opinion – but why wouldn’t you want to make money? Or be concerned about it? I look at this as a career. I want my career to provide income. Because that allows me to work more freely within my career.

    I also find it freeing that I am the one who decides when the book is done. Although like Nathan above, I have readers who email 14 seconds after I release a book and ask when the next one is coming. So I do have people who want it done. *I* want it done. The story is waiting to be told.

    9 – I also disagree with. I read this thought from Julie Kazimer, who is the hostess with the mostess of our blog. She and I were discussing edits, and she said the ability to stop editing and publish is what sends us from writer to author. The longer I am in this career, the more I agree. You can edit for 20 years, if you’re not careful. But what makes you an author, IMO, is you say, It’s time to send the baby out into the world, and you let it go. I could go back and edit my earlier work until the cows came home. Would that make it better? Perhaps. Perhaps not. As an author, I want to be creating new things – so I must let it go.

    With 10, I do read like an author. I am working on turning that off, so I can just enjoy what I’m reading without analyzing. I totally agree you need to analyze, and particularly within the genre you want to write. You need to do so constantly, so that you keep up with what readers enjoy. The romances I read 20 years ago are not the romances that I am seeing published today. Things change. You have to keep up.

    I don’t write every day. I have scheduled 3 days a week for me. It allows me to balance the writing with the editing, with the plotting, with the marketing, with the publishing components – and I find that balance serves my productivity better. But I think until you find that balance, you should get into the habit of writing daily. It’s too easy to NOT write, and to fall out of the habit of writing.

    Thanks for the post that has spurred some fairly detailed discussion!

    • Thanks Lisa. I’m appreciating the detailed discussion as well. It’s fascinating to learn the ins and outs of other writers’ approach to the business and the craft. Best wishes.

  3. I had to laugh at #7, Tim. I wasn’t sure if my current efforts to break all the rules in my wip was forgetfulness…or rebellion. I’ll claim rebellion, but I’m not sure everyone in my critique group would agree. 😀

  4. A Field Guide to Murder and Fly Fishing–brilliant title! (And I thought all I had to worry about were the bears.)

    Thank you for the reminders.

  5. I propose a simpler scoring system: If any possible score on a quiz like this could stop you from writing, you are done.

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