Why Fiction is So Hard to Write

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I’ve been blogging for a little over three years.

I’ve been writing fiction since … well, pretty much since I could write.

My blog posts are read by thousands of people.

Only 1% of the fiction I’ve ever written has been published.

Fiction is incredibly hard to do well.

Lots of people can write decent non-fiction. You’re probably one of them. You can write a decent blog post, or a report at work, or an essay. You can put your ideas down on the page, in a reasonably engaging way.

I’m going to say this, despite being an advocate of great writing: Non-fiction doesn’t have to be especially well-written.

Of course, it needs to be competent. But it doesn’t need to be perfect. If you’re looking for information online, you don’t mind a few grammatical mistakes, or a sloppy conclusion.

Fiction is very, very different.

Why do you read novels? They won’t teach you how to solve that annoying problem with your computer, or help you manage your finances better.

I believe we read fiction to escape the world for a little while – to escape the limits of our own experience, our own perspective, our own consciousness. When we open a novel, we’re looking, above all, for a story that matters to us.

That’s why fiction writers have it so tough.

When I’m writing a blog post, I don’t have too much to worry about. I need a clear theme, a strong introduction, a few key points which follow from one another, and a conclusion that feels like a satisfying ending. Frankly, after writing over a thousand blog posts, that comes pretty naturally.

When I’m writing a single scene in a novel, I have a heck of a lot to do. The characters need to feel real – they need to live and breathe on the page. The scene needs to be paced correctly – not too fast, not too slow. The dialogue has to sound natural, without actually being natural (have you ever listened to a transcription of real speech?) The voice needs to be mine – but filtered through the head of a character who might be nothing like me. The plot has to be moved on.

And all those scenes need to tie together. In a non-fiction book, I could have short, discrete chapters; in a novel, the reader needs to be drawn through, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence.

My novel, Lycopolis, has been through three major drafts and I’m currently working on significant changes in the fourth draft. I’ve cut out characters and subplots, changed the theme, added in all sorts of material. Every single scene has been rewritten at least three times.

With fiction, it’s impossible to get it right on the first pass through.

You just have to try to get it right by the time you’ve finished the final draft.

When Writers Get It Wrong

You’ve read bad fiction. Maybe you gave up after a few pages or chapters – you didn’t care about the characters, so there was no point reading on – or the pacing was so slow or so breakneck that you just couldn’t get into the book.

Sometimes, bad fiction isn’t actually particularly bad writing. I’ve seen good, prolific, non-fiction writers turn out poor fiction, because fiction is so much harder to get right.

If I write a clumsy sentence in a blog post, you might have to read it twice, but that’s no big deal. And you’re a bit distracted anyway – on Twitter or Facebook (psst, feel free to tweet this post if you’re enjoying it), or watching television, or listening to music.

If I write a clumsy sentence in my novel, you’re going to be jolted out of the story.

If you’ve ever been so absorbed in a book that you missed your train station, or didn’t hear someone talking to you, or found that, somehow, a whole afternoon had gone by … then you know how absorbing fiction can be, how it can take you into another world.

Some great non-fiction books do this too – especially if you’re really engaged with the topic – but it’s pretty much required for decent fiction.

Maybe it Won’t Get Any Easier…

Fiction is hard to write.

Really hard.

I’m not telling you this to discourage you. I’m telling you this so that you know it’s okay to struggle. You might have been writing blog posts and essays and magazine articles for years – but your first novel will be tougher than anything you’ve done before.

That’s normal.

It’s tough, too. It’s why so many writers have an unpublished novel (or in my case, three) tucked away.

Does it ever get easier? I don’t know. I’ve not got that far yet.

Two and a half years ago, if I’d known how much work Lycopolis would take, maybe I’d have decided to just stick with what I was good at – blogging.

I’d have reached more people. I’d have a bigger audience here on Aliventures. I’d have launched an ecourse earlier. I’d have more money in the bank.

And maybe you feel like that, sometimes. You feel like you should focus your writing efforts on what you’re already pretty good at. Something that’s easy.

But…

…but…

Maybe, like me, you’re not going to settle for that.

You’re going to push your writing limits. You’re going to tell that story which has simmered away in your mind for months – maybe years.

You’re going to give it your very best.

And yeah, it’s not easy.

But the truly worthwhile things in life rarely are.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

62 thoughts on “Why Fiction is So Hard to Write

  1. Far from being a published author myself, I can tell you that from reading Charlotte’s work over the years, it does get easier. Maybe that’s the wrong way of putting it. Rather than the writing getting easier, you get better. Charlotte is now turning out first draft prose (with a single pass edit) that is far better than what you find in your average novel.
    Sam’s last blog post ..Books I’ve Really Enjoyed

    • I’ve definitely improved (when I look back at the first pieces I wrote for Lycopolis, at the start of my time at Goldsmiths, I can see a dismayingly stark difference.)

      And I hope I’ll continue to improve.

      I guess I’m trying to accept that fiction probably *won’t* ever be easy. Not that any writing is exactly effortless — but my non-fiction work flows pretty smoothly now, and once, I’d hoped that fiction would be the same!

  2. Ali,

    You are so right – fiction can be a bear to write. I remember last November I struggled with a piece (trying to get the dialog to sound normal, character development, etc.), but when I was done I was more satisfied than I am after writing a non-fiction piece.

    My creativity was allowed to roam. So, the extra time was well worth it indeed. My next attempt will be revealed soon!

    Alex

  3. I imagine it is hard, and I haven’t attempted to write my first novel yet. I’m still having a tough time nailing the plot, and thinking of characters, and starting…this is where I’ve stopped dead in my tracks. Should I write as it comes, or outline?

    Will it all be worth it in the end? Will I finish? It is daunting to think about it…but when I go to bookstores, and I see all fiction books on the shelves, I get inspired. When I see that a book cover has ‘Bestseller’ printed on the front, it gives me hope.

    If it was easy…maybe more people would be published, or be best-selling authors…but alas I do imagine it is hard work.

    The more books I read about how to write fiction, the more confusing the whole process seems to be.
    Zac Vega’s last blog post ..Instant Confidence in 10 minutes for under 5

    • When it comes to novels, I don’t tend to outline much at all. I like to know the characters pretty well, and I like to have an idea of how it’ll all end, and of the major ideas/themes that I want to chuck in the mix … but I never have a chapter-by-chapter plan or anything.

      On the other hand, I end up tossing away a good 50% of my first draft…

      And good point. If it was easy, we’d all be doing it!

      Reading good advice helps, but different authors work in different ways. Ultimately, the best way to learn how to write fiction is to take the plunge. (Good luck!) And if there’s anything specific you’d like me to address here on Aliventures, I’m always open to new post ideas..!

  4. I’m inspired by your post. I started writing fiction over 10 years ago now as a way to cope w/the death of 2 parents 13 months apart. I needed an escape and I found one by putting pen to paper and creating a ‘story’ called Nobody’s Daughters. I still love rereading this piece because it lets me know how creative I am. The characters are real, at least to me, as they are all aspects of myself. The writting is – well, not pulitzer prize winning by any stretch – and a work in progress (forever maybe). I’ve written another ‘coming of age’ book since then entitled Hot Flashes Cool Wisdom, which is all about life cycle changes and the rumble thru the jungle of midlife. That one’s been published into an ebook. It’s not fiction. It took 8 years for me to write it and I love it like good friend.

    • I think many, many people find solace in writing — and some very powerful writing can come out of loss. Congrats on publishing Hot Flashes Cool Wisdom; it’s fantastic to get something out there into the world! 🙂

  5. so true, ali and a great read. when i’m writing fiction, i feel as if there’s a little green monster sitting on my desk screaming, “you suck” every half an hour or so. inbetween the “you sucks” the novel progresses, but it is daunting nonetheless! lol.

    • I know the feeling all too well! I usually feel OK during the actual writing, but when I pause and look back on first-draft material, I think “eesh, this is all wrong, the pacing’s off, this bit doesn’t read right, this sentence doesn’t even make sense…”

      I find the trick is to keep going, and to remind myself that I can fix it all in the next draft…

  6. With nonfiction, you’re writing about the world we all share. With fiction, you have to create the world. That’s what makes it so tough. Writing more fiction is a goal of mine this year, and learning about it is already getting to be a lot more difficult – but I know, as in all things, practice will help!
    Tom Meitner’s last blog post ..237 Small Goal Ideas- 1 Read more books

    • Yeah … and not just the world, but the people that inhabit it, too!

      Good luck with your fiction this year — if there’s anything specific you’d like me to address on Aliventures, just let me know!

  7. ‘In non-fiction book I could have short dicrete chapters…’
    Worked in Pride and Prejudice :p and continuing with wicked grin on my face WHY cant we have chapter headings? For example Swiss Family Robinson chap.XLI A confidentialconversation with Fritz–The English girl on the burning rock — A pearl-fishing expedition — Cape Flat-Nose — Pearl-fishing — The return. And all of that in only five pages.

    • I tend to associate chapter headings with kids books, older (pre 20th century?) books, or humorous ones…

      Not sure why they’ve gone out of fashion! Maybe people feel that they’re a bit of a spoiler?

      • In truth I always avoided reading them for that very reason. And as you say I cant think of any books since 1800s with detailed headings, though chapters often had titles after that eg Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and some thriller witers do use time and place eg.”London Jun16th-23rd” as a chapter title, but it is a fashion thing.
        Yes I was being flippant when I queried the idea that novels cant have short chapters, however it does occur to me that with more people accessing books on electronic media and in busier surroundings that shorter chapters might make a comeback.

  8. I’m in a similar position and feel the same way. The great thing about writing fiction is that when you go to write non-fiction, it seems so easy by comparison. Published or not, that is a wonderful incentive for doing it!
    Stace’s last blog post ..A Cheap Trip Home

    • True! I was really surprised when I first started blogging … I thought I’d need to write everything twice (which is my approach with fiction and, generally, with academic essays) — and it came out pretty much okay the first time!

  9. What an interesting take on writing fiction. I’ve never done much of it myself, beyond the occasional story for fun, so I can’t say for sure how difficult it is. I’d actually like to try, and thanks to this post at least I won’t become overly upset if it’s really hard. 🙂
    Fred Tracy’s last blog post ..You Are Important

    • Give it a go! I think fiction is very worthwhile (and I’m glad this post didn’t put you off!)

  10. Hello Ali,
    I had a chat with your Dad this afternoon, and he told me about your blog, which I’ve checked out. Very interesting indeed. I’ll be checking in again. I’ve started blogging a year ago, and find it very interesting, though my blog is still deciding what it’s going to be when it grows up.
    I wish I had met you yesterday.
    Anita (who read the Calcutta piece)

    • Thanks Anita! I think Lorna mentioned that you were a Christian blogger, and I meant to look you up…

      I love the backdrop on the blog! I see it’s taken from your bookcover — nice! And sorry we didn’t get a chance to chat on Saturday evening (I was probably tidying away the refreshments…) I really enjoyed your reading, and have ordered a copy of Wandering Between Two Worlds. 🙂

  11. that was an interesting post Ali, every time you amaze me by the deeper knowledge you have collected about writing, keep ut up my firiend 🙂

  12. Hi Ali,
    I know how you feel but I think that novels must get easier the more you write. I certainly learned so much with Pentecost that I can put into practice with the next one, Prophecy. It’s only by writing more that we can improve! I also think that submitting to a pro editor is important. I used 2 separate editors to get the best feedback and also used proof-readers in my genre who gave me great feedback – from “I hated that character” down to specifics like “why is she using a torch to light up a smartphone – it has a light!”
    I also think that the more you write, the more you write. You can be prolific so it must get easier. Enid Blyton wrote over 600 books – and I read and enjoyed a good number of them! I’m aiming for a book a year so not quite Enid’s standard but hey, we have a lifetime of writing ahead of us 🙂
    I’m looking forward to Lycopolis and hope you’ll come on the podcast to talk about the process.
    Thanks, Joanna
    Joanna Penn’s last blog post ..Writing Chick Lit With Benison Anne O’Reilly

    • My novels have definitely *improved* as I’ve written more (I found the one I wrote when I was 15 … oh dear … and I thought it was quite good at the time). I’m not sure it’s exactly become any easier though, because the more I learn, the more there seems to be to learn.

      Great point about editors; I’m hoping to get the fantastic Lorna Fergusson (www.fictionfire.co.uk) to edit mine. And I’ve had a bunch of fellow writers give feedback on Lycopolis from the very first draft of the very first scene…

      I read a ton of Enid Blyton as a kid … probably the whole of the Famous Five series, and the Secret Seven, and the Twins at St Clare’s … and a bunch of others. She was impressively prolific! I don’t know if you’ve come across Frank Richards, but he was similarly prolific (he wrote from around 1910 – 1940, boys stories in The Magnet and the Gem … his most famous character was Billy Bunter).

      I’d love to be on the podcast! 😀 I’ve been on BlogCastFM a couple of times and really enjoyed it…

  13. Honestly, I’ve never managed a full first draft. This is the first time I’ve even made it half way! It’s amazingly hard to come up with all that content in a logical, non-confusing way. I’ve produced a good eight or nine novel ideas that’ve gotten into the ten thousand word region but then fell flat. Why?

    Because writing fiction is hard.

    I’m happy you’ve addressed this. I’m going to push myself to finish this novel draft and am determined to make it my first published book.
    Elisa Michelle’s last blog post ..Question Time

    • Good luck, Elisa!

      And glad this post helped … I think it’s something which a lot of writers don’t really address; fiction can be awesome fun, but also awesomely hard.

  14. Here’s the really funky part. You can write one piece of fiction and while it’s hard work, it will flow and you know where it’s going, and it practically streams from your brain to your fingers to the page. You love every second of every revision and tweak. You know it’s good, not because you’re blindly loving it but because you just do.

    Then the next one is like birthing a watermelon through a straw. NOTHING goes right. You stutter, stop, start, abandon it halfway through, go back, gnash your teeth and even cry a hundred times before you finish.

    I’ve heard a lot of people say their biggest successes were the hardest to write. In the midst of giant fruit expulsion, I’m really, really hoping they’re right.

    • Yeah … I’ve had novel scenes which came out pretty much right the first time, when I could write and write for thousands of words. And I’ve had scenes which took FOREVER.

      Annoyingly, I can’t even tell which were which now! Though I’ve sometimes found that the rush-of-inspiration scenes, while seeming good to *me*, didn’t go down so well with readers…

  15. Hey there! Found you on DLM and wandered over… Fiction is really, really hard. I’m going for my MFA right now in fiction and have been feeling discouraged because I only have three or four fiction pieces I’m really proud of, and I need a book manuscript in two years (when I graduate).

    When I started my blog, I was simultaneously excited and frustrated by how easily 5-600 words slid out for a post when it was agony to get 300 on a story. Your points make a lot of sense–when I’m blogging, I’m in a conversational space, where readers engage with me. In my stories, I’m supposed to be smoothly invisible, making characters and events real without making my ‘author presence’ felt.

    Whew. Well, enough procrastinating from me. Back to the story!
    Jessica’s last blog post ..If You’re In Enough Places- One is Bound to be the Right One

    • Thanks for coming on over! 🙂

      I felt exactly the same way as you — blogging seems dismayingly easy compared with writing fiction! Like you, I’m as unobtrusive as possible when writing fiction: something which looks much easier than it is…

      Good luck with the MFA! Keep plugging away, and I’m sure you’ll get there…

      Ali

  16. Hi,

    I’m 15 and I was glad when a friend of mine showed me your blog. This was a great read and so true. I”ve been writing stories ever since I could remember. I really enjoy it but what I can’t seem to understand is how writers can write 200-300 paged books. I have a talent for writing, and all of my teachers have had serious conversations about how they’d love to get me an editor even though i said that though i appreciated it, i felt that becoming a writer and managing a 4.0 at the same time wouldn’t work.
    it does get easier to write fiction, however, sadly, i was so excited when i discovered that in a week i had written 44 pages!!!! the most i have ever stuck with:) sadly that number shot down to 22 as i realized that 44 was only front pages. so i basically have 11 pages making a total of 22. HOW CAN I LENGTHEN A FICTION NOVEL WITHOUT BORING FILLERS OR STUFF THAT WONT RUIN THE PLOT!!!???? i understand that it doesn’t matter how long a book is, what matters is the content. but i know that pages are taken out when edited and i myself don’t buy thin books because i know that i will be done in a few hours.

  17. This article was really helpful in pointing out what I needed to watch out for, thanks! 🙂
    But what I don’t understand is that fiction writing is actually easier for me since I can just make up everything and base a bit off real life…is that abnormal?
    I don’t like writing non-fiction writing very much unless it’s based off a past experience or I don’t need to cite, since everything has to be factual and checked to be right and all that. 😛 But that’s just me.
    I dunno why, but my fiction stuff never really seems to have any problems other than grammar and stuff…is that because I have the scene played out in my head most of the time?
    In fanfiction, I have a bit of trouble since I need to use characters that’re not my own and make sure they stay in character and research them and all that, that’s the only fiction I have trouble with.
    Any ideas why my head’s backwards? 😛

    • You’ve reminded me that there are an awful lot of different types of fiction and non-fiction out there!

      I’ve certainly written plenty of non-fiction which was very tough (my undergraduate essays come to mind…) and I’ve had times when fiction felt easy and effortless. Most of the non-fiction that I write now doesn’t have to have citations or even many facts; it’s usually based on stuff that I know inside out (like writing!)

      I’d imagine that you’re doing a great job of working through the scenes in your head before you start writing, so that you’re not struggling with what each character should be doing. I’ve never really attempted fanfiction because I find it too tough to write someone else’s characters: kudos to you for doing it! 🙂

  18. Hi Ali,
    I’m a writer and watercolorist (just recently started a watercolor blog. See above).

    Great post. I signed up for your email offerings a few minutes ago.

    I’ve been working on a novel for probably 25 years. I’ve actually lost count and have re-wirtten it at least two times and now I’m struggling at nearly 70 (!) to get going on a final attempt to get it up to publishable level. After those prior re-writes I knew it wasn’t there, but now I have all the tools But it’s so much work really, and I wonder if I have enough time left.

    Oh well, each day, I get nearer to that starting block. Who knows? Maybe your post will do the trick! 🙂
    Keep going gal, you’re doing a lot of people some real good, I think.
    Bill’s last blog post ..Analysis of Charles Reid’s Watercolor Techniques…special post

    • Thanks Bill … and good luck with getting that novel finished.

      One thought: have you got any writer friends who might be able to read it and offer editorial suggestions? I’m sure my novel would be languishing half-finished in a drawer right now, if it hadn’t been for some fantastic friends who helped me figure out what needed changing and what needed keeping!

  19. Ali, your articles are always so positive and inspiring. I must agree that writing a novel is a huge undertaking, but for me it’s mostly due to there being only 24 hours in a day. For me, writing fiction is a delicious, divine, savagely addictive drug and I’d never seek to give it up, but it is also a cruel taskmaster when there is so much to write and so little time available to do so.

    I don’t mean to sound vain or pompous but for me writing pretty decent fiction isn’t all that hard (granted, I’ve been writing fiction for more than three decades, and that undoubtedly makes my efforts a bit easier than those of a person who’s just getting started). Of course I have to edit and re-write any number of times to get from “decent” to “good” and eventually “great,” but the basic structure isn’t so tough to raise. Again, the issue is usually making the time to hammer the keys. Anybody out there have a device to stop time for awhile?

    Keep on writing, Ali; your work is a help to many aspiring authors (and to us old, published ones as well).

    • Thanks, Stephen! I’m still finding fiction much harder than non-fiction, but I guess I’ve only been making serious efforts at it for a few years — and I can see *huge* improvements between Draft 1 of Lycopolis and Draft 7. Like you, I’d never give it up. 🙂

      If you find that device to stop time, let me know …!

  20. I’m a published author of many non-fiction stories (not essays, blogs or articles). I do agree that fiction is so much harder to write but a really, really good non-fiction story has an arc, pacing, a buildup, characterization, a climax and has to involve the reader. Its got to have a consistent tone and provide a context for the most important story elements for them to make sense to the reader. So being merely ‘good’ is not quite enough.

    • Great points, Arabella, about what I’d call “creative non-fiction” — I completely agree with you that this is not an easy form to write, and I didn’t mean to imply that non-fiction is in any way less worthy than fiction … just that there are lots of forms of non-fiction (like technical manuals, blog posts, or light magazine articles) that don’t require the same level of craft as fiction. Congratulations on all your publications! 🙂

  21. You are so write, especially in the distinction between non-fiction and fiction. I know lots of people who write popular blogs, but when it comes to crafting a fiction story, they get stuck. It’s so different and even slightly bad fiction leaves you with a bad taste, where very badly written non-fiction is still tolerable, as long as it passes its point across.

    I liked this article and your style is very cool. You just made my (select) google reader list 🙂

    All the best,

    Iulian
    Iulian Ionescu’s last blog post ..How To Find a Good Literary Agent

  22. Thanks so much, Iulian! I agree with you that badly written non-fiction is much easier to tolerate … if I need information, I’m willing to wade through clumsy sentences and so on, but with fiction, I want to be swept away by the words.

    Hope you enjoy my future posts — thanks for subscribing! 🙂

  23. You know, your statement about non-fiction being easy and sloppy is not true. Good non-fiction is a work of art that is hard as hell because you have to tell the truth, and tell is perfectly – and if you throw in first person, well, good luck. Fiction is easier to be becuase I can take it wherever I want it to go, throwing events, details, characters, places, and plots arouond like they are dice.

    • I certainly don’t think non-fiction *should* be sloppy — just that, if you’re reading primarily for information, you can probably forgive a sloppy conclusion. If you’re reading fiction, a sloppy ending can ruin the experience.

      Certainly, non-fiction can be just as much a work of art as fiction, especially when you get into autobiography, creative non-fiction, etc. And you’re completely right that you can take fiction wherever you want … and perhaps you’re one of the lucky people who can write great fiction with ease! (I’d argue that fiction, though, has to tell the truth — often an even more fundamental truth than non-fiction.)

  24. I absolutely agree with you. Writing nonfiction (which I don’t like doing) seems a lot easier to write than fiction. Maybe because not that much work or thought is required. After all, you are writing from your own personal experiences. But with fiction, you have to think of everything in hopes your work could be good. And that’s the worst part with this: you just don’t know if your piece of fiction is entertaining, if it’s going to attain the reader’s attention. I mean, that’s the way I feel sometimes. It’s kind of ironic I would even feel this way, because I love to write, having been doing this since I was small. Because I’m shy, I found writing extremely rewarding and the best therapy because I could express myself fully, something I couldn’t do well verbally. Thank you for putting this post up.

    • I think you’re right there, Jesus — it’s the need to make fiction entertaining and compelling that makes it so difficult. You can’t just get it technically right (which will often do for non-fiction, when readers typically want information) — you have to go beyond that.

      Stick with the writing — I think a lot of us shy people find it a great way to express ourselves. 🙂

  25. I find that the more I improve my creative writing skills, the harder I find it to progress and match the standards I set myself. I guess it’s a good sign but it’s infuriating to say the least!

  26. True Ali.
    Writing is hard, writing fiction is even harder.
    It’s easier writing non fiction (after conquering the fear of vulnerability; especially if it’s a personal essay) compared to fiction. In fiction one has to create a whole new universe that is relatable and intresting. And that is a tough job.

    Thanks for writing this though, I really enjoyed this.

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