When I started writing fiction, I expected that my many years of experience as a professional magazine writer would translate into no learning curve in fiction.
Boy, was I wrong. When I began to submit, first stories and then queries for novels, I discovered many rules and practices I took for granted did not apply in the fiction world.
Major lesson number 1: Fiction publishing lags behind nonfiction publishing in technology. I was shocked to find that I often needed to send queries, and sometimes even short stories, by snailmail. I hadn't submitted nonfiction on paper since 1994.
Major lesson number 2: Fiction publishers are much pickier about margins, typefaces, spacing, and other formatting matters, sometimes posting on their Web sites long, detailed lists of rules for formatting a manuscript. Nonfiction editors, on the other hand, are usually happy if a manuscript arrives on time, complete, double-spaced, and close to the right length.
Major lesson number 3: Different work environments have created different sets of manners. Fiction book editors and short story magazine editors seem incredibly overworked compared with the editors at the many nonfiction magazines I've written for. Probably as a result, fiction editors sometimes answer emails slowly or not at all, and they tend to discourage phone calls. Unsigned form-letter rejections, complete with typos, are common and not considered rude.
Major lesson number 4: "New and different" doesn't mean "new and different." An editor who says she's looking for a fantasy novel that's "new and different" actually wants yet another dark novel with a Tough-Talking Kick-Butt Vampire Fighter in High Heels, but with a slight twist.
Major lesson number 5: Most short-story venues reject stories rather than ask for edits. In the nonfiction world, writers expect magazines to edit their pieces and ask for changes. Short-story magazines, being understaffed (see lesson number 3), instead often prefer to reject stories that need tweaks in hopes that the next story in the slush pile, or perhaps the one after that, will be perfect.
In no way am I bashing the fiction market. The nonfiction magazine world has its own unspoken conventions that confound newbies. I discover new ones each time a friend asks my advice about submitting a nonfiction article to a magazine and her assumptions surprise me.
Nonfiction writers who want to write fiction should seriously consider joining a professional association (such as Women in Crime or Romance Writers of America) as well as a critique group that contains a more advanced fiction writer. The differences between nonfiction and fiction publishing are sometimes great, sometimes subtle, but they definitely exist, and the best way to learn the conventions and practices of the fiction world is to have someone with more experience as a guide.
My next Novel Spaces post will be August 23. Come back then and learn how the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Workshop creates better writers. See you later!