The Successful Solo Novelist: Possible or Not?

We long-form book writers talk amongst ourselves about how solitary our work is. We spend hundreds of hours alone in our minds (except for the casts of characters in our stories). We rightly view it as a solo art.

There are other arts that are solitary in the creation stage, of course—music composition and painting/designing come to mind. Yet they don’t seem to have the collaborative facet that I think is necessary for success as a novelist.

It was a thank-you that got me to thinking

I was revisiting testimonials on my editing website that were written by writers for whom I have edited novel manuscripts.

And it struck me that many of them were saying “thank you” for something they had bought and paid for. For example, here’s what one client, Georges Melhem in Lebanon, said:

“What should I thank you for the most? Being always there for me to hammer you with questions? Encouraging and coaching me? Teaching me the ropes in a way no business-weary pro would? Giving me fair and blunt criticism at all times? Suggesting ways to fix the many problems you pointed out?”

Aren’t those the very things that a good critique partner does for us? His novel, which I heartily recommend even though other editorial hands have taken part after my contributions, is Brotherland. I hope you’ll check it out. It’s a fascinating window into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Okay, so Georges paid me for a service, yet here he is thanking me for what I did as a necessary part of doing my job. Besides his and the other testimonial validations making me feel good, they caused me to think on a broader scale about how we writers operate. And on a personal one, too. I owe a lot of thank-yous, too.

Fresh Eyes

“Fresh eyes” is a clichéd phrase that we see and use often. We acknowledge the need for fresh eyes to look at our work in the light of their not-us point of view. The lucky among us have critique partners who fulfill that role. Others can afford to hire the services of someone like me.

Writers lucky enough to sign contracts with publishing houses have editors who pore over their manuscripts and give notes. And many writers are good enough to sign with agents who perform the same service.

I have critiqued more than 450 opening chapters on my blog, and I’d say that no more than 10 have been at a pretty much professional level right out of the box—and even those could be improved. Yet the writers of the remaining 440+ had done their level best to make their narratives sing. It seems that many of us, especially on the lower slopes of the learning curve, have a tin ear when it comes to the flat notes in our own compositions.

Can we fly solo and succeed? The Anne Rice rant.

There may be some who are absolute geniuses at the narrative art and perfection flows from their fingertips, but I doubt it. Here’s a case in point: a few years back there was a hot string of comments on the Amazon.com page for Anne Rice’s Blood Canticle. It received tons of criticism from readers who found copious narrative flaws and a general lack of the level of storytelling expected from this famous writer. Many reviews were so negative that Anne entered her own “review” in the string that became a famous rant (link is to a copy posted on author Chuck Palahniuk’s website).

I will tell you that, for years, I was a huge Anne Rice fan, and eagerly bought book after book in the vampire and the witch series. And then I came to feel that her work was declining, and finally I bought one novel that was so unsatisfying that I stopped buying her—I will just revisit the good stuff that I already have. After reading the following in her Amazon rant I understood what had happened. Anne wrote:

“If and when I can’t write a book on my own, you’ll know about it. And no, I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut, or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself. I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me, and I will never relinquish that status. For me, novel writing is a virtuoso performance. It is not a collaborative art.”

I’m pretty sure that her first successful novels in both the vampire series and the witch series DID have the involvement of an editor. They were fascinating, involving stories that never let me go. And then both series, in my experience, wandered and got sloppy. It wasn’t a matter of sentences but of storytelling where Rice went wrong for me.

Anne felt that she had become a solo artist—a virtuoso, in her words—whose performance was above any criticism, just the way it came out of her mind. Yet readers disagreed, loudly.

I know how much I’ve been helped by other writers

I’m not currently in a critique group, but three different crit groups over the years have had fundamental and beneficial impact on my novels. Not that they were all-seeing; after all, most of them were not published authors, and none were editors. But they always helped me see where my narrative wasn’t doing what I meant it to do, or where it did the wrong thing.

Their fresh eyes gave me a fresh lens through which I could view and revise my own writing. I provide that professionally for clients, but devoted the same energy and skill to my crit group partners, and now to writers who submit material to my blog.

Yes, I write alone—but then I craft what I’ve written with the help of my writer friends and companions who make the road less lonely and the writing better.

But we’re still unique

The final result of what we craft is still uniquely us because we’re the ones making the decisions. If, when I edit, I point out a lazy description that uses an adverb to try to bring life to a flat verb, I may make a suggestion or two for an alternative word that does the job better, but it’s still the writer who decides on what words end up in the narrative. Despite the input, feedback, coaching, or editing we receive, the decisions we make as we follow our individual muses create our personal voices and the unique quality of our stories.

In conclusion

I want to take my turn at thanking all the writers who have contributed to my work: the critique partners, the readers of Flogging the Quill who have given me insights, the beta readers of my books, and all the writers who discuss craft on the Internet, especially those who contribute to Writer Unboxed.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    The thing is, I don’t see how writing CAN be solitary. Yes of course, while you are drafting and revising your manuscript it’s a lot of hours in front of your computer. But if we had to do the least modicum of research, we needed someone else (and with historicals, I do a LOT of research). If you want to bounce an idea off of someone, if you ask a grammar question, or a million different things, you need someone else. And to be honest, I simply can’t understand the mentality that says “I’m so good and self-sufficient, I don’t need anyone else.”

    We need two separate modes to write our books—when we’re deep in the writing, it’s the “Me stage”–pouring yourself out onto paper. When you’re done and its time for revision, it’s time for the “We Stage”—how to make sure the story appeals best to its market.

    As e-publishing emerges more and more as a force, it will be interesting to see if writers who forego traditional publishing methods manage to avoid falling into the trap of self-sufficiency.

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  2. says

    There’s a great book called The Myth of the Solitary Genius. It’s basic tenet is that great art is created by multiple inputs. And if you look at the history of “great writers”–you can’t really find an exception to that tenet.

    Shakespeare: worked in the theatre–the ultimate collaborative atmosphere.

    Woolf: Ever hear of Bloomsbury?

    Henry James: Little known that he worked with HG Wells and Joseph Conrad

    Carver worked super-close with his editor, Gordon Lish, who is now credited with developing Carver’s cut-back style.

    Today we can check out the Acknowledgment section of any book and see how many people influence the creation of a novel. (Susannah Clarke, of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell fame, thanks Neil Gaiman; Stephen King thanks his wife Tabitha, a fellow writer, and their son, Joe Hill, certainly didn’t learn to write in a vaccuum)

    Sorry if this is a little rant-y, you’ve just hit on one of my pet subjects today. ;)

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  3. says

    Alone? Alone?! How does anybody do this alone? Even back when I knew no other writers I had my mom critique my stuff. (By the way, she thought every word was genius.)

    Later, I found a critique group. A year later, I found a phenomenal critique partner. I still use both. Every Wednesday I read out loud to my group. Every Thurday I use their feedback to fix and tighten the bolts. Every Friday my partner reads through for a polish–and that’s BEFORE I let a professional see it!

    I’m not saying flying solo can’t work, but I certainly couldn’t do it. Thanks, Ray, for making me feel so normal!

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  4. says

    Ray, I love this post. I had never heard about the Anne Rice controversy, but it makes me sick to read something like what you quoted. I hate when ego becomes the focus instead of quality stories. And I know for a fact that I would never of grown as much as I have in the past two years without the help of a lot of wonderful people. The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop; my writing buddies; my weekly crit group; and many more.

    Thanks for reminding us that while were “working alone,” were also really not.

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  5. says

    This is so absolutely true. Every time I finish a book, it’s the absolute best I can make it–I really believe it. Every time I have this fantasy (even though I know it’s not realistic) that my editor will say, This is perfect as it is! Don’t change one single thing! But of course she never does. And I am so GLAD she never does, because she helps me take the work to the next level by pointing out things that I couldn’t see for myself. A good editor doesn’t make demands or force you to do anything–they just see what you as a writer are reaching for and help you get there.

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  6. says

    I agree completely. When I write, I find I hit a point in my novel that I call “whiteout”… when I lose all sense of direction and perspective. My critique partners help me find my way, and remind me that it’s part of my process.

    My writing friends are essential not only to my writing, but to my sanity. Without their encouragement and support, and without the opportunity to give support and critique, I doubt I would continue writing, much less grow in my craft.

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  7. says

    Ray, True indeed. For those of us without an editor, though, it ‘s much harder to find just the right person or people to give that feedback. I’ve struggled with this hard over the years, often finding myself with people who’ve had no comments other than, “great work!” or who’ve been unable to express their suggestions clearly. I’ve tried out so many critique groups it’s made me want to cry. In one, a particular woman would stand up and sing her work, and everybody would applaud. Not the right place, I thought, but then the next one would turn out not better.

    Thankfully, I’ve discovered WriterUnboxed, and hope that when the day comes for more critiquing, I can turn to some of the peers of met here…

    By the way – thanks for the suggestion of Brotherland – a topic close to my heart. And as for Ann Rice? I often notice that after a certain number of books, some authors just peter out. Could this have more to do with pushing themselves to keep cranking out volume after volume than with the editing/critiquing process?

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  8. John K says

    If you have not visited Ray’s site (Flogging the Quill) you should. The focus of his site is the importance of the first page, and how brevity and crisp writing makes it more likely that readers will turn the page. His critique is always constructive. He allows comments without screening, which encourages those who disagree with some or all of his commentary to give their ‘two cents’. Well worth adding to your favorites!

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  9. says

    Anne Rice makes me want to bash my head up against a post and swear to write every word in front of a live audience on google docs. Okay. Maybe not.

    Still, some time last year I found that I had almost the opposite problem, in that I often sought “fresh eyes” too soon in a draft. That had the double-edge of steely death because it both subjected my poor critique partners to twelve different versions of a novel, and got me used to constant, immediate feedback. I started looking for feedback almost the second I typed the last period, and rather than helping, it destroyed my ability to decide for myself whether something was ready for critique.

    Sometimes, even before they could touch it, I had sent out another draft. :/

    Thankfully, upon recognition of that habit (which some of my group buddies were guilty of as well) I stepped back into my own head a bit and gave my manuscripts a little time to breathe (and a bit of a makeover) before subjecting it to public ridicule.

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  10. says

    It’s an important point you’re touching here Ray. The relationship in between the writer and the first-hand-readers (as I call them) is of the utmost importance, but yet very fragile. I think it’s mandatory to give some reading to an audience, but it’s also hard once you do, to take some of their suggestions of leave some out. We often take critique partners for filters, but sometimes, they want you to remove something that works, only because their sensitivity isn’t touched.

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  11. says

    My first readers for my first ‘real’ attempt at writing original fiction after toying with fan fiction, were my daughters. Both of them said, “Mom, this isn’t a mystery, it’s a romance,” opening my eyes to an entire new genre. I’d never read a romance, yet somehow I was writing one.

    From there, I moved to critique groups of both the live and on-line variety, and they’re invaluable, even though I might disagree with what they’re saying. At least I’ve learned to trust what I know is right. I can’t imagine doing anything totally ‘solo.’ I wait eagerly for my crit partners’ feedback on each chapter as I write it.

    I’m less confident of my writing when my editor says something needs fixing, but we’ve always been able to discuss what she wants and why, and I’ve learned to trust her judgment–most of the time.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

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  12. says

    This article is great food for thought. Especially with the references to Anne Rice’s work. I’m not personally acquainted with her books but I have friends who are and I may have to see if they noticed a decline in her narrative/organizational skills. Really makes you reconsider the value of those editors we complain about all the time! :P

    Thanks for a great read.

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  13. says

    Yes, you need input and should have an open ear for all suggestions…but, you needn’t apply them all. As you said, it is still your story. If all suggestions were applied, it could well become someone else’s story.

    Sharon, I relate to your search for compatibility of spirit. I am blessed with an in-house editor of skill and experience (my sweet wifemate) but if I had to cruise the open market for editing soul brother or sister, I could envision frustration.

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  14. says

    Great post, Ray. I hear Lauren’s comments, too. I think you have to trust yourself to put down a first draft without a lot of outside influence, then understand that your work can evolve into something richer/better once it’s filtered through other people’s perceptions. I could not possibly work in a vacuum.

    Thank you, Ray!

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  15. says

    Anne Rice – diva! I loved her when I was a teenager.

    I’m no virtuoso. I’ll take all the help I can get, and I especially love the feedback I hate at first. (Give me two weeks with an incisive critique and I’ll eventually come around.)

    It was my turn giving notes on a friend’s work recently, and I employed the sandwich technique: the things I thought were great, the flaws, then more great. The friend was happy with it, and not just because it was “nice”. In fact, the positive was just as helpful as the negative, because it showed the author all the things he *should not* change.

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  16. says

    I’ve run into writers who only want “positive” feedback which is basically someone who waves the pompoms and tells them everything they wrote is awesome. I’ve also run into the opposite problem of people trashing someone’s work for whatever weird agenda they have going on. But it’s crucial to get those other eyes on your work. I mean, I guess someone could write a story perfectly from the get-go, but for everyone else we need the feedback to improve.

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  17. says

    I cannot live with my writing partner!

    Nor the valuable input of my daughter who tends to be my first reader.

    Or my husband who invariably points out a glaring hole in my plot.

    Did anyone see the Bones episode where Brennan handed a big check to her friend, Angela, for her invaluable help in adding emotion and character to Brennan’s books? In that case, I thought it was absolutely deserved . . . just as if it can be for both agent and editor who help craft that final work.

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  18. says

    After working successfully with a team of editors, my thriller was published last January. I’m fortunate to have found a publishing house that encourages and respects my author voice.
    However, if I find myself in a non-supportive relationship I can pick up and go elsewhere.
    For me, the bottomline is I am the master of my words. Whom I choose to share these words with is up to me.

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  19. says

    An excellent post and discussion, Ray. Thank you!

    Truly, as writers, we do work in a writing cave most of the time. But when we can view feedback as not only necessary but essential for achieving our best, our work can shine. Of course I’m nervous every time I submit something for review or editing or reading. And I am so very grateful to have several writer-friends who offer tremendously helpful feedback. My stories only get better from there. When my novel does get published, I have some very big acknowledgments to include.

    Thank you for the great thoughts, and Therese and Kathleen, I love the new header / look for the site!

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  20. Fiona B says

    What an interesting read. I fully agree with those that have said Anne Rice’s ego seemed to get in the way of her creative success. I spent many lonely years writing for myself as a teenager where I would be the only person to ever read the stories I wrote, apart from one friend who I allowed a brief viewing of my work. When I finally grew more serious about the craft, actually no, when the craft forced me to feel more serious about the craft (it seemed to occur without my outright permission) I was helped hugely by writers. For the most part I still write fanfiction, though am slowly moving away from that, where I was introduced to the world of Betas and getting someone to check my work in order to pick out mistakes and errors. I was lucky enough to have gained a friend along my journey who had taken the leap a lot earlier than me and I still learn from her, every single day, about things I hadn’t even considered. I know without her presence in my life, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today.

    How can anyone learn if there’s noone there to teach? How can anyone reach a point where they consider themselves knowledgeable enough that they need no outside help? I’ve gained an element of success of my ‘fandom’ yet every day I continue to feel inadequate on that stage, let alone in comparison to the world of published novelists out there. Anne Rice should be ashamed of herself, for no human being will ever be perfect, even those who have authored multiple published books.

    (apologies for any blatant mistakes, these are my own, though I’d like to blame the autocorrect of my iPod)

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