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Friday, September 19, 2008


Dear Ernest, No. 1 *

* This is the first in an occasional series focused on writers pursuing both journalism and fiction writing. Ernest is a pseudonym, chosen in honor of Ernest Hemingway, who achieved success in both fields. He penned 'The Sun Also Rises' in 1926, 'A Farewell to Arms' in 1929 and 'For Whom The Bell Tolls' in 1940, then, in World War II, he covered the D-Day landings as a war correspondent.

Dear Ernest,

My best advice is not to take anyone's advice. Listen to what people are bound to preach at you, whether or not you ask for it. Prosecute it. Decide what you believe and act accordingly, on your own.

Without a doubt, there are many ways to be 100-percent wrong. But if anyone tells you they know a fail-safe way to succeed as a novelist, they're lying. Hard work is as close as you'll get to a sure thing, but even that's not sure. How hard is hard enough? How long is lengthy? How short is temporary? If you really want to do this, the answers shouldn't matter.

That said, my first suggestion is to buy and study this book. Yes, there are others you'll need to study too, but, right now, study this one. I didn't say "read," I said "study." Take notes. Write in the margins. Underline. Keep it for yourself. Don't lend it out.

Whether you realize it, or not, even though you're already on this path, there's a lot you don't see.

I know. I've been there.

I was blind too.

It's not your fault that you don't see it. Most people don't. It's why MFA programs were invented. You don't have to have an MFA, but you can save yourself a lot of heartache and frustration by reading what other writers have said about this journey. And my suggestion is to start with Carolyn See.

Many writers have succeeded at doing what you wish to do — writing journalism and writing fiction. Nonetheless, you need to understand at the outset that achievements on one side of the divide rarely translate as significant benefits on the other.

A journalist is to a novelist what a sprinter is to marathoner. Writers are writers and runners are runners, but not.

Journalists know what it is to write same as sprinters know what it is to run. They know the meaning of commitment, and how important it is to finish what they start. They get used to working in front of an audience. They learn to block out the incessant jeers and cheers and to focus instead on their performance. Their journeys are swift and short and many. They're in and out and onto the next race.

The novelist and the marathoner, meanwhile, travel long, lonely roads with vast stretches between the grandstands at the starting and finish lines. They must learn to pace themselves. They endure long silences without hearing a single cheer or jeer. At best they get an occasional cockeyed look as they pass a familiar face, then they wrestle with demons that claim to know exactly what that look was supposed to mean — doubt, doubt, doubt. It's easy to fall prey to self-doubt when all the voices you hear are the ones in your head, day after day after day. Stephen King knew exactly what he was doing when he cast the villain in The Shining as a writer who goes mad.

Writing journalism and writing fiction are both admirable pursuits, and neither are likely to drive you insane. However, they each require entirely different forms of strength. You need to know this going in. You're about to start training for two completely different events.

Click to e-mail TJ Sullivan in LA

** Thanks to John Ettorre at Working With Words for the mention.
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