I no longer teach fiction writing. Not in the formal sense. And what's ironic about this is that now that my life's dream—to have Watch Me Go sold at auction to a powerful publishing house—has come true, I know more about writing than I did when I was paid to talk about it. Certainly there are now three things about writing novels that I wish I'd known when I taught:
- If you want to "make it big," search your gut-sense for your one big story. This is not the story of your life. This is not your version of the best-selling novel everyone's talking about. This is that one tangle of somewhat imagined, somewhat overheard, somewhat experienced events your spirit relates to with authority. Of all the stories you could tell, it's the weird one. The one whose emotional terrain can bring you to tears. The one that keeps you awake at night scared that maybe, if it were published under your name, so-and-so might get upset and speak ill of you. It's that daunting set of possible plotlines that sometimes confuses you. It's The Dangerous Project. And I wish I could teach again, to let writing students know that this—your one big story—is more likely to lead you to big success than any.
- Don't stop writing and tweaking. Once you know what your big story is, start writing it and don't stop. Free-write about it, outline it, draft and revise and tweak it until the day you die. Yes, maybe, if you think it's done and the publishing world doesn't, set it aside for a few months, but don't stop. Rewrite it now from a different point of view. Why not? It's your one big story! Delete the parts that dodge what its essence is. Tweak, tweak, tweak, leaving a hard copy and a pen beside your bed so you'll tweak before you sleep and the moment you wake. Let tweaks flow into scrawled notes that fill margins and spill onto backs of pages. Don't let that darned pen stop.
- Don't stop submitting. Once you feel your one big story is the best novel you can present, submit it wherever possible. Start with the very best agents, the "untouchables," even if some of your writing friends would laugh if they knew. Anyway forget such writing friends—they aren't really friends. Remember: This is your one best story, so treat it that way. And if the topflight agents don't bite, keep submitting to others. There are oodles of agents, and they're more varied in their tastes than you'd think. And you need only one. Send to many, many agents. If one responds positively and gives you revision suggestions that click with even some tiny notion in you, try what this agent says. After all, you won't stop revising, right? Use this agent's suggestions to serve the needs of your one big story. Do it. Make your one big story even better. You must! This is your one! And if this revision and this agent don't get this novel sold, move on. Keep revising. Fire the agent if need be. Do not let anyone, particularly yourself, convince you to give up. Ever.
That's it. Those are my three things. Maybe that's why I no longer teach: In my mind right now, there isn't a whole lot more for serious writers—be they teachers or students—to discuss.