“What distinguishes a book is not what happens but the style. The characterization and the setting — all of this comes through the style.”
Hearing writers reflect on their journeys is always inspiring and instructive. And when the writer has managed to carve out a writing life by publishing both fiction and nonfiction, there’s a lot to be learned from her success.
Tracy O’Neill is a working writer in the best sense of the term. She was awarded an Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction, is the author of a well-received debut novel, The Hopeful, and teaches writing at CCNY. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Lit Hub, Guernica, and The Literarian. Her nonfiction appears in TheAtlantic.com, The New Yorker.com and RollingStone.com. In a lively give-and-take hosted by the Write Group, Tracy shared how she made the transition from short fiction to crafting her novel, The Hopeful. A few highlights:
• The genesis of Tracy’s novel was a six-page story, which she realized had a strong enough central character and unresolved issues to be expanded into a full-length piece of fiction.
• When her agent read the finished manuscript, he identified structural issues that had to be addressed. The result was a major revision in which Tracy condensed the first 200 pages of her story to 100 and then focused on building a stronger plot. The revised book took nine months to sell to a publisher.
• It’s all about the language: Writing is wordsmithing — the rhythm of sentences, the play of syntax, and playing with the rate at which information is disclosed. In her novel, Tracy mixed “abrupt paragraph breaks” that gave readers a “jolt” with “dreamlike sections that were rhythmically more fluid.”
• While Tracy had a strong sense of style, it was very compressed because of her short-fiction background. In writing her novel, she had to loosen up her prose and play with the rate at which information was disclosed to the reader. She learned that “a situation is not a plot” and had to work through a major restructuring to create a stronger story arc.
• Pursuing a writing career takes focus and planning — and action. Applying for and winning a fellowship from the Center for Fiction gave Tracy valuable exposure. The fellowship and short-fiction pieces she submitted and had published attracted her agent.
• Creating an author’s platform through a mix of fiction and nonfiction can be a fruitful path to building an audience and generating opportunities to cultivate new readers.
• A fluid writing process can be as productive as a regimented one. Tracy doesn’t focus on writing a set number of words or for a set period of time. Instead, she works project by project. On days when she doesn’t write, she focuses on reading and thinking about how other people make their craft choices.
Bravo, Tracy — Write on!