— So You Want to Be a Novelist: A Memoir & Manifesto, by John Sealey, Haywire Books (2020)
Aspiring writers may have a hard time finding responsive publishers and agents, but at least they have an entire industry that caters to them. Not only are there conferences, online communities, and over 200 creative writing MFA programs in the country, but also countless “how to write” books penned by everyone from big name authors to literary agents to unknown writing “coaches.”
On the literary side of the spectrum of books about writing fiction, there are titles like James Wood’s How Fiction Works and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Those who would rather learn about the insights of popular fiction writers can consult Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft or Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story.
Why then would there be a need for another book about writing fiction? Jon Sealy’s So You Want to Be a Novelist answers that question in its first few pages. Sealy depicts the professional writing world as a series of concentric rings. The center ring contains authors who are widely read, normally well reviewed, and typically well paid. The second ring contains so-called “midlist writers,” those who have one or more traditionally published books, enjoy some small acclaim and yet are not familiar to the average reader. The third ring contains the hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers in everything from MFA programs to informal writing groups.
Based on his own often brutally honest assessment of his career thus far, Sealy is part of the second circle of writers. After his debut novel, The Whiskey Baron, an excellent literary thriller set in his native South Carolina garnered good reviews in all the prestigious trade publications (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal), Sealy found himself in a tough spot. He could not find a home for his second novel as the agents he dealt with were unable to sell the book to a publisher.
In an account that is as blunt as it is knowledgeable about the publishing industry, Sealy delves into the reasons why writers with good credentials have a hard time getting published and why an author’s chances of success have become increasingly similar to the chances of winning the lottery. One of the main causes is excessive supply. Every year, nearly 1.7 million titles are self-published and 300,000 are traditionally published in the country. This approach that combines the idiosyncratic and anecdotal with informed insights gives Sealy’s book its differentiating value.
While the first part of the book deals with Sealy’s career and the lessons one can draw from its trajectory, the second section focuses on elements of craft such as scene, perspective, structure, and revision. Analyzing works of fiction by authors like Anne Patchett, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Gabriel García Márquez, Sealy stresses the importance — and rewards — of attentive reading for aspiring writers.
Having read both of Sealy’s published novels, I consider him what literary critic Peter Swirski calls a “nobrow” writer. That is to say, an author who combines the elements normally associated with “highbrow” or literary writing such as finely-crafted language and aesthetic concerns together with elements of what snobbish critics sometimes dismiss as “lowbrow” or genre fiction such as a plot-centered story. Paradoxically, writers who successfully combine these two sensibilities often have a hard time finding support in a publishing industry that seeks to pigeonhole them. Partly to avoid this pigeonholing, Sealy launched his own publishing house, Haywire Books. The insights he has learned from the business of publishing are covered in the third part of the book.
Ultimately, the appeal of writing, reading, and publishing fiction can be explained by our perennial need to make sense of the world. “Real life doesn’t have much meaning in itself,” Sealy writes. “Just as a photographer will frame a picture, the novelist chooses certain events, a beginning and an ending, to create a story. Stories are what give our lives meaning, because they provide an understandable narrative with causality.”
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza