En Route To Fiction Writing


ADVERTISING, WHERE I COME FROM, is fast-paced, challenging and stimulating. Ad people tend to be infectious, out-there types with quick, fertile minds and eclectic interests. Everyone is constantly in motion, juggling multiple projects that involve different industries, target audiences and media, and is racing to meet the next tight deadline. Success depends on knowing and applying established principles, and also on innovation and the breaking of rules.

Who knew work could be such a beautiful blur?

Advertising is a reliable, unassisted high for people like me. I get a rush performing at peak levels despite all sorts of constraints. Aggressive-to-absurd schedules, illogical budgets, fluid project specs and frequent curve balls are routine. I’ve come to crave the craziness. If you detect a need for therapy, you’re right (and it’s helped), but that’s another post.

Yeah…what Gertrude said.
Talented and generous mentors helped me climb the ladder, first in account management, then in creative, on the copy side. I’ve written about everything from car repair to new treatments for children with congenital thumb deficiency; cubic zirconia jewelry to the need for more access to affordable mental health services; Medicare supplement insurance to enterprise software. The list goes on and on.

A writer is a writer is a writer, so we seasoned copywriters say. We are versatile, acrobat-agile. We can write anything.

See that curve up ahead? You’re coming in a little hot.
Along the way, I started writing poetry, then essays, then short stories. I got into top-notch writing workshops three summers, had a blast, was encouraged by positive feedback. In time, I thought, some type of creative writing could be a future destination.

After a few years, I found myself writing regularly, reading more, getting out to author events and participating in a writers group. Eventually, I found the courage to start submitting. Eighteen months ago I went freelance, which decimated my commute and gave me another ten hours a week for my writing.

Where do you think you’re going?
I imagined writing a series of linked stories that, one by one, would appear in this or that respected literary journal. Buoyed by the validation of being published, I’d begin to spew engaging stories. Soon, I’d assemble a riveting collection—maybe even a novel in stories—that would easily find a publisher and astonish readers. Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve had no trouble inventing soulful, gritty characters and situations in which they collide and test their mettle as human beings; no trouble putting words on the page. In fact, I’ve got pages galore (I’m closing in on 300). But what do they add up to? Not enough, judging by the response from editors of various journals. Sadly, I have to agree: my stories aren’t cutting it.

Lately, I’ve devoted my writing time to reading, critiquing and reflecting on my inventory of stories. I’ve uncovered at least some of the mistakes I’ve made. And (this is the important part), a few weeks ago I stopped beating myself up long enough to appreciate how I went wrong. Here are two of my missteps.

1: You sure you want to unplug the GPS?
Go figure. I’ve spent decades asking for better input to ground my copywriting. Where’s the brief? When will we get the product positioning? Any news on the segmentation study? Yet, when it came to fiction writing, I set aside most of the preparatory work.

Yes, I wrote detailed backstories for my main characters. I also had the sense to compile a pretty impressive timeline of relevant cultural and politics events, and did some decent technical research. But plot-wise, I free-styled until I wrote myself into a corner and was forced to backtrack. Even then I didn’t buy in. I toyed with step outlines, narrative matrices and pyramid graphs, but gave up before I found traction. I’ve always hated hubris in others; now I have to claim it.

2: You the owner, or just a hired hand?
In my workaday world, no one on the project team, certainly not the copywriter, has the last word on what ends up in the manuscript that goes to the proofreader as the first step in the production process. It’s part of the copywriter’s job to satisfy questions raised by internal and external reviewers, and a victory if you can do you so without compromising the integrity of what you’ve written. But in the end, the client is the decider.

Fortunately, fiction writers are the deciders. But, I’ve been giving away that privilege.

During my read-and-reflect hiatus, a jar of pennies dropped: I’ve been treating my writers group like a client. Rather than considering the group’s comments and acting on them selectively, with few exceptions I’ve been revising my stories to address every member’s every point. I’ve given up ownership, abandoned my characters and left my stories in disarray.

On the road again: my new writing manifesto.
REMEMBER that I’m a good writer and I also need to be a good storyteller.
EXPLICITLY PLOT stories. Try using modified versions of tools that work for me when copywriting.
SEE CLEARLY where I’m headed before driving off into the sunset.

Anyone know how to turn back an odometer?
SHARON JOHNSON writes advertising and other propaganda to pay the bills, and short fiction and free verse to breathe. Some of the latter has appeared in Cactus Heart and Floating Bridge Review. You can find her on Twitter: @sharonipov


  1. Nicholas Belardes says

    This essay hit home for me. During my young career as a creative writer I dabbled in marketing and advertising. Then I taught a class on the subject at the Art Institute. Then, I got totally sucked in. Designed ads, wrote copy, etc. Did it all. Was a creative director. So on and so on. And you know? It killed my writing for a long time. While I still dabble in writing copy and design here and there, I have to be careful. Can’t let it take over my life.

    As for writing groups. Wow. That’s a tough one. Should have been at the group I ran last night. It can really get going! Some great writers in the group too. I even posted on Facebook about Random Writers Workshop today: “Was pushing hard against students last night. My job is to prod, push, poke, grate, and encourage. Instead of little edits I always push for major changes, so writers can view their work from deeper perspectives and create from places within themselves they may not have known existed. Thanks students for continuing to come to the workshops.”

    I was wondering what kind of responses I would get. One student commented: “I’d have to say it was the BEST discussion yet. Didn’t even listen to Bollywood on the way home. Thought about how fun it would be to write fiction for a change. Looking forward to next week’s POV discussion. Well done!”

    I think the leader has to set the tone for what works. Not that it’s the only answer. But a workshop leader has to really have a grasp of the avenue to success. Without such direction, the chaos of divergent opinions sometimes reigns in the classroom…

    • Sharon Johnson says


      Thanks for the read and the great comment. It seems I am living your former professional life! Nice to have so much in common. Now if I can just keep following your trajectory…

      Meanwhile, in defense of my writing group comrades, My abdicating ownership was/is on me. Also, we are peer aspirants without the benefit of a guru at the helm—another jar of pennies, methinks.

      • Nicholas Belardes says

        I think any writing group is good to be a part of. It’s a matter of making them work and learning to grow craft together.

  2. Nancy Dunne says

    Sharon. What an engaging piece. It reminds me of the struggle of any artist that has to pay dues in prep work before breaking into new ground. I like how you are defining progress and success. Always a journey

    • Sharon Johnson says

      You’re so right, Nancy. Always a journey, the pleasures (and challenges) of which always have to do with how one responds to the unexpected. Thanks for having a read and for your kind words. Happy travels to all!

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