We all have our babies. Our stories are molded and bled over. But, if you want to be a professional writer you have to learn to take hard knocks. VERY hard knocks. If you aren’t in a critique group. GET ONE! If that critique group aren’t hard apples on you, maybe find another. When you get to the publsiher, the editors will be harsher. Their reputation is really more on the line than yours. If you have not written the best story possible and aren’t willing to make the edits, than it really reflects more on their company than on the writer.
“A Seattle based non-fiction writer for many years, Alison Jean Ash came late to writing stories.
How is writing fiction different from writing non-fiction? What is the biggest challenge for you?
Well, to be honest, it’s not the writing so much as the editing process.
See, over the years I’ve done a fair amount of journalism, arts reviews, essays and opinion pieces as well as some technical writing, but I always just assumed I couldn’t write fiction. I would try my hand at it from time to time, but I wasn’t inventing stories, just trying to fictionalize some event that really happened. And then I would get stuck on wanting to keep everyone’s eye color and profession and everything just the same as it really was, and finally I would just give up.
Then one day I was working on a biographic piece and something shifted in me and I was writing a story about someone else. The new character had some points of resemblance with my original subject, but she was not the same person. She was someone I had never met except in my own mind, and yet she was completely real to me. That was the beginning, and I’ve never looked back.
The first time I sold a story online, I was over the moon. Validation! I was about to become a published fiction writer! The editor sent me a contract and a note saying, “It needs some work before publication.” Okay, I thought, I can handle that. With all the journalism I’d done, I thought I knew all about the editing process. Was I ever wrong!
When I read the detailed criticisms and the recommendations for change, a huge surge of defensiveness hit me. I had never emotionally invested myself in a non-fiction piece the way I had in that story.
“It’s a great story,” the editor told me, “but give it a little more excitement.” What did she mean, more excitement? It was a subtle kind of story; it wasn’t meant to be exciting.
I needed to do more, she said, to make the reader “form a bond to your character.” How could anyone not love my character exactly as I wrote her?
The editor wanted me to show the protagonist growing and changing, and she gave me some specific suggestions on how to accomplish that. “Even in a short story you need that story arch and character growth.
By that point I was filled with angry despair. It seemed to me that she wanted a completely different story than the one I wrote, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. With every comment I read I felt madder and more hopeless. This was my story! It was like a living thing to me, and very personal in a way no essay or concert review had ever been, something that miraculously came out of my heart and my imagination. How was I supposed to chop it and dice it and put it back together to fit her needs?
Then I remembered that she had sent me a contract for this story. She wanted to publish it, so she must have liked something about it! I re-read her message and saw where she said it was a “great story” and I finally started to get over myself. I was a professional writer, and I had become a fiction writer: now it was time for me to knuckle down and learn to be a professional fiction writer.
Over the next several weeks the story flew back and forth on the internet, growing and changing, developing a character arc of its own, becoming stronger and richer than I had dreamed it could be. I learned so much from that process about how a story is constructed that now every story I write is stronger from the very beginning.
Defensiveness about creative work is a reflex, at least for me, but I am learning to overcome it. I am learning to handle the need for editing fiction, just as I learned long ago to handle the need to edit non-fiction, in a professional manner. My feeling now toward that editor who hurt my tender feelings with her criticisms of my precious story is gratitude.
Alsion’s Elise of the Islands is available now.