Saturday, 11 September 2010

Aspiring Writer? How to kick Butt!

How to kick butt _ yours!

So now hear this, aspiring writers: writing is not hard work. It is hard in a certain intellectual and occasionally emotional way, but it isn't real hard work. So stop whining about it. And also stop whining about how hard it is to market your work - maybe it's no good, maybe the timing is wrong, maybe your pitch sucks, maybe you're trying to sell to the wrong outfit. "Smile and dial" is what the sales reps do, and after a while rejection becomes a part of your landscape. No, it never feels good, but you get over it quicker; you sigh, you rant (your significant other will tune you out, so get over that, too) and then you mope, and eventually you start thinking about your next pitch or story idea. You write it up and think it's not half-bad, and then you hit the electronic pavement yet again.

Get real _ Fiction doesn't sell that well. Many people don't read much fiction, or what they do read is the "hot seller" of the moment. Thus you have non-fiction titles like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (unread by me, but highly recommended by some of my readers) which sold over 2 million copies, while hundreds of really fine novels sell a few

Yeah Yeah, I know Romance sells big you say _  go look at  Harlequin Mills & Boon . Yeah, I have and I feel real sorry for all those perps who've put their writing out there on the line for all to see. The whoops of joy from established romance writers could be heard all over the United States. Yee ha _ all them bestselling authors who been wracking their brains to come up with a good idea for a next bestseller. Aspiring writers, you have given so much joy and inspiration for nothing the happiness is ocean deep in the literary world.  That's the nature of the Beast.

Truth is the majority of book sales are non-fiction titles: cookbooks, travel, history, and the like; a huge chunk of fiction is genre work like romances, military thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction and so on. Just by the numbers, if you want to be a published author, pitch a non-fiction idea: the Gardens of Suzhou, China; Medoc Magic: Cooking from the South of France; Cars of the Stars; The Tragedy of Somalia; Flygirls: Female Pilots of World War II--these are ideas I just came up with as I type, just to show the enormous range and market that exists for non-fiction subjects. It's immeasurably easier to sell a book which is on a practical, albeit narrow, topic. OK, so you won't be the next Nabokov or Twain, but you will be an author.

Here's something else to understand: the death of independent bookstores is also the death of opportunity for new fiction writers. Why? Say you're the buyer for a big chain. You (and maybe one or two other people) decide what books will line the shelves in hundreds of stores. If you decide not to buy that new novel, then the potential book buyer will never see it.

Contrast that with the indie booksellers, each of whom buys a different list of books. OK, so maybe not every indie orders 10 copies of your book, but maybe 50 do. That might be enough to get your book out to the book-buying public. But if there's no indie bookstores left, then guess what--the fate of your novel is in the hands of a very few corporate types. They may love books, but the reduction of buyers from hundreds to a handful has deprived you of the variety of opinion, quirkiness and just plain luck that every fiction writer needs to reach an audience.

To summarize: you want to sell your writing, then understand the book marketplace. You want to get paid for writing, then make sure you buy new books so the other guy makes a buck, too. I make a point of buying books at independent booksellers; yes, I do buy at the chains when I'm in a hurry, and I also buy used books, mostly ones which are no longer copyrighted (i.e. classics published more than 50 years ago).

The hoary cliche is true: if you can do anything other than write, then go do that. I know a number of writers who are far more talented than I am but who will never finish their novels, or re-write them to a state of coherence, which is the same thing. I know writers who mailed three queries and got calls back from two agents, while I have sent multiple queries of every size and type--mass mailings to hundreds of agencies, carefully pruned lists culled from editor contacts, every possible way there is to pitch agents, just to get two or three nibbles. OK, I've made it now. It was a hard slog!

Yet despite that promising beginning, and an agent begging them to finish their book, they couldn't find the strength or will or desire to slog through the process. Meanwhile, thousands of other idiots such as myself fail time and again but keep writing and re-writing anyway. After one severe disappointment--I'd found a local publisher for the book, yes, this was the one, and then two months later they closed their doors, bankrupt--my sister asked me, "So what can you do? Give up?"  I didn't.

Note that she didn't ask me, "what are you going to do?" She asked if I could give up. The answer is no. Not because success is just around the corner, or because I need a book under my belt as a measure of my worth as a human being or even as a writer, but because some part of me gets unsettled and unhappy if I'm not engaged in the process of writing a novel or script. Now I'm out there riding on the back of movies or is that movies riding on my books -- I get confused. Can't remember which came first with my successes. 

So if you fully grasp the long odds against success--let's say they're 1,000 to 1, although I'd put them higher by a factor of ten--and you're willing to spend your life writing stuff which may never be read--well then, keep going. But know, too, that there's no shame in calling it quits. You will have learned a lot about writing, and more importantly, about yourself, if you complete a book, even one destined for the dusty top shelf of the closet.

Here's two other cliches to ponder: nobody wants to read about the village of happy people, and happy, well-adjusted people aren't driven to write novels. I mean really, what's the point in spending all that time alone, only to get rejected as sure as the sun rises in the morning? Why have all your dreams of literary glory crushed so soundly, and so repetitively? What's the point? Is it to excise some personal demons? OK, fine; then the exercise is well worth it. Is it to prove to those no-good selfish parents (or insert authority of choice) that you're a genius after all, and they should bow down and worship the very dust you tread?

At some point you're going to have to face the question of why you're crazy enough to pursue what is fundamentally a quest akin to winning the lottery, only it takes 10,000 times more effort and time than spinning a wheel or buying a ticket. Do you dream of the glory of it all, the interviews, the money, the fame, the glow of sweet success when your book makes it big?

Or do you think about how to stretch your protagonist, about what his or her parents were like, or about how to describe the tension of being in the open ocean when the waves are rising and darkness is setting in? If that's what gets you up in the morning, and if you can't wait to re-write that section again, even though you've been through it ten times already (but who's counting? Something's just not gripping enough), if you read Nabokov and Melville and Austin and James and Ellison and Twain and DeBouvoir and Pushkin everything else which you've heard is great writing, not in a class but on your own, in order to study their control of description, of dialog, of thematic dynamics and a dozen other things which you can't quite identify, then you're probably a writer, at least for now.

One of my favorite writing cliches is the one Woody Allen mocked in one of his films. In the film it was the prototypical college professor; but the same notion can be expressed by a bond trader or attorney: once I nail down a million bucks, or tenure, or that cabin in the woods (insert bourgeois fantasy of completion), then I'm gonna write that novel.

Never happens. Why? Because they're not writers. They're professors, or bond traders or attorneys or whatever. They like the idea of being a writer but not the actual work of being a writer. Emerson wrote, "Do the thing and you shall have the power," which means if you're a writer, then you write, not as a forced effort or because you're so damned great or because you covet the glory heaped on writers but because you can't quit. Rationality, wisdom, practicality--all of these suggest quitting such a madcap, lonely boring quest is a fine idea.

That's not the worst of it: just being a published writer doesn't make you any good.


Don't join a writer's group except as a recruitment tool to find professional writers and editors. I know, I know, this is the universal advice given to all aspiring scribblers: join a writer's group. Ignore it. If someone doesn't know about computers, are you going to ask their advice about setting up your 802.11g wireless router? Why ask a no-nothing just because they aspire to knowing something? Wait until they do know something, and can prove it by getting paid to do it, and then solicit their advice.

It is important to get experienced eyes to read your work. I have received invaluable advice from professional editors and writers. The advice I've received from readers or wannabes (back when I was equal parts stupidity, eagerness and naivete) has been unhelpful and distracting, unless that person was an expert in the topic covered by the book. Then of course their advice is very helpful, even if they're not a writer.

Here's what you get from a professional: straight-up criticism on what's weak, but delivered without meanness or judgment. We all wish to hear the huzzahs imagined by Camus' failed-writer character in The Plague: "Hats off, gentlemen!" Yes, this first draft is brilliant, perhaps change a word or two here and there....don't count on it.

Mozart was writing decent concertos at 12, but have you ever heard of a great work of literature written by anyone under the age of 35? Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice at 20 and finally finished it 17 years later. Most literature which has stood the test of time is written by people in their 40s or 50s, after a lifetime of experience, observation, failure, soul-searching, and yes, writing.
So be realistic about your first efforts, especially if you're still in your 20s. Yes, some people write a brilliant work in their 20s or 30s, but such work is usually based on their childhood or a real person they're describing with only cosmetic changes--for example, On the Road.

Everybody's always telling you to keep writing. That's not the trick; the trick is to keep improving. The best way to do that is to learn to become your own strictest editor. You can't be leaning on professionals to help you re-write every draft. You have to learn the essentials of editing from them and then apply those skills relentlessly to your own work. At some point your own editing skills will be objective enough that you will lose your attachment to your own words. Then, and only then, will you really start improving as a writer.

Say you've written the first volume of a proposed eight-volume fantasy which is going so far beyond The Lord of the Rings that it isn't even funny. Now that you've polished off volume one--a healthy 700 pages--now you can turn to.... volume one again and re-write it. If you went on and wrote the other seven volumes, it's unlikely you'd learn much in all that writing. You'd probably end up making the same mistakes you made in writing volume one. Better to re-write volume one seven times and learn how to edit yourself, mercilessly and objectively and skeptically, and then move on to the later volumes.

Don't blame your agent, or your publisher, or anyone else if your book fails to find a market. Accept that fate, karma, chance, luck, the gods of literary success or whatever you wish to call That Which We Do Not Control plays a huge role in any book's visibility and sales. As my sister reminds me, Hamlet isn't just about indecision, it's about timing. There was a moment when the blow should have been struck, and in hesitating, Hamlet doomed himself and others.

You cannot buy success in the literary market. Recently, some dot-com mega-millionaire decided to take the book market by storm, just as he'd conquered the Tech world. So he spent megabucks promoting his novel, hiring outlandish performers to prance about at book fairs and the like.

Needless to say, his book bombed. It bombed so big and so hard, no one's ever heard of it. It was a lousy book, and it got lousy reviews, so nobody bought it. As a good friend of mine says, if you want to get people to buy your $10 book, insert a $20 bill in each one. Short of that, you can't force people to buy a book, no matter how much money you spend on promotion and ads.

Ditto for films. Gazillionaires routinely go to Hollywood to show those yokels what real money and talent can do, and inevitably their movies bomb. If they stick it out and make it past the first five or six bombs, then they start learning from those insular yokels and they might eventually make a decent film. But most leave disgusted, complaining about the inside network and the lousy distributors and so on. That may well be true, but some books do well despite the insider network, the crummy promotion, the lackluster agent, etc.

Take the book A Simple Plan. It was a small book, no big cultural fizz to it, but it struck a chord in Hollywood one weekend, and by Monday the new author was being offered $250,000 (or something like that) for the film rights, and sure enough, five or six years later, a small film based on the book was made and distributed. Was that book the very best available on that weekend to base a movie on? Who knows? It caught fire at the right moment in the right audience, and the author struck gold.

It happens. Yes, it does. But it's like getting struck by lightning on Wilshire Blvd. You can wave a metal pole above your head, but you need the right storm and a bit of luck to actually get the lightning to strike you. So go ahead and wave the steel rod for all you're worth, but don't count on it attracting a bolt of lightning.

Get clear on what part of the business you are actually enamored with. If what you really hope to do is break into Hollywood, then consider joining one of the tens of thousands of people making good livings doing something other than writing screenplays. As you recall from the beginning of this little essay, there are lots of (unglamorous) jobs to be had in the film industry, and a little of the glitter will rub off on you, if that's really what you're after.

If you really want to hold a book with your name on it, then pitch a non-fiction title. Get experience as a journalist or free-lance writer, learn the trade, ask pros for their critiques, and then write a book which you can actually sell.

If you want to be part of the world of publishing, then try to join an agency or publisher as a reader. You'll certainly find out what's being submitted and see what you're up against as an author. You may find you like editing, selling or publishing writing more than you like the writing itself.

If you really, really want to write deep, probing literary fiction, then get life experience. Don't hole up in academia. The number of great books written by college professors who have the hots for vulnerable co-eds is zero. (Nabokov was a writer long before he was a professor, and furthermore, Humbert Humbert had the hots for a 12-year old.) And don't mistake travel for experience. Yes, travel is adventure, fun, dismal, even frightening at times, but it is only a certain slice of experience, a rather thin slice. It cannot replace starting (and failing at) a business, or engaging in a great political struggle, or working at a variety of manual-labor jobs alongside a wide variety of people.

And read deeply, not just fiction, but psychology, philosophy and theology. Understand the conflicts of the human condition and the multiple layers which influence human behavior. Make such research a life-long habit, because there is no end to the variations of human behavior and the advances being made by science in understanding the human psyche.

Be prepared to deal with the creative conundrum: if you're writing another thriller based on the great art of the world (a la Dan Brown), expect to be rejected because there's already a 100 clones of that fad in the pipeline. Ditto for genre work; agents and publishers have murder mysteries, military thrillers, fantasies and romances coming in by the container load. But if you come up with something so original it doesn't ring any obvious marketing bells (a murder mystery in rhyme, etc.), then expect to be rejected because the risk is too great. Thus all new writers are caught between the Scylla of me-too clones and the Charybdis of risky innovation.

Everyone in Hollywood claims to be "good at story," which goes a long way toward explaining why most Hollywood movies are mediocre. Great fiction is built on character, not story. To trot out two useful cliches about story: Godard famously said, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." C'est vrai, n'est pas? Then there's the classic line that there's only two stories in the world: 1) a quest, and 2) a stranger comes to town. If you reckon a stranger comes to town on a quest, well then I guess there's only one storyline.

Focusing on story in the belief that a "great story" is the key to a great book is what most assuredly places a writer in amateur-hour. Making a character is so difficult, most writers cheat and just copy a real live person. Of course we all draw upon our experience of real people, but just copying someone's idiosyncrasies and changing their name is not great writing.

Another amateur-hour laziness is relying on pop culture to add verisimilitude to your character. "Joe Blow hunched over the Asteroids console, sipping a New Coke, and paused to turn up his new tape of The Clash." Yes, this builds character--if you have a time machine to return to 1980. Otherwise, it just dates your story and turns the reader off. Nothing is lamer than outdated pop culture references.

Be grateful for whatever bylines and exposure you earn, for there are tens of thousands of other aspiring writers who would gladly accept whatever crumbs of cash or recognition you've gained from your ceaseless toils. OK, here's the unvarnished truth about our place in the world economy as writers/authors: we are the pond-scum of the global economy, forced by pitiless imbalances in supply and demand into accepting pittances for wages. Would you like to protest the $150 fee you're offered for an item in a national publication? Well move along, pal, there are hundreds of English majors desperate for that crummy byline who will do it for $25 or even free.

Think you should get more than $1,000 for that 3,000 word piece which reaches a million subscribers? The line of people who would take your place in a New York second for $500 is down the hall, around the corner and halfway to Timbuktu.

This is the brutal Darwinian world of free-lance writing, where editors squeezed by Corporate to lower costs must fill the copy vacuum for the least amount of cash possible without embarrassing the publication with cheesy writing. The more reliable and better-paid alternative is to get that degree in journalism and nail down a union position at a large newspaper.

Alas, newspapers and indeed the entire print media is under a relentless assault by free online publications. Of course nothing is free, but for a few bucks you can subscribe to the wire services and display the headline stories for almost nothing. No one does any real journalism for free; there's no investigations, no in-depth reporting, no skeptical eye cast on advertisers, the corporate world, the corruption of public trust, etc.

And the blame partly lies with you, young whippersnapper, because young people no longer subscribe to newspapers or magazines. They click on Yahoo News, absorb a superficial corporate-approved summary of "news" and then move on to download the latest forgettable song by a copy-cat band. And so news rooms are being culled, journalists are getting laid off, and the print media is struggling to get paid for the news they've spent big bucks collecting and analyzing. Well guess what, kids, you get what you pay for in the real world, and if you pay nothing for news then it's worth nothing.

Though an ascetic lifestyle is a side-benefit, what I meant to highlight is the benefit of having to market yourself constantly. This will pay dividends later when you're trying to sell your book. If you've made some bucks in the hard-scrabble trenches of free-lancing, then you'll already be hardened to pathetic pay and constant rejection, i.e. the parched landscape you will have to traverse to become a published author.

Writing isn't hard work, so stop whining about it.
Extra special bonus advice. Keep a sense of humility and humor about your writing and about yourself. The more successful the writer, the more gracious and generous he or she is likely to be.  Just keep right on avoiding the know-it-all harpy authors who tell you how it should be done _ how to write like them _ how to get published like them _ how to basically lick ass _ theirs!


  1. I'm glad I listened to my mentors. After reading your post, I guess I should consider myself a successful writer. I am humble, generous, and funny. I give advice to my fellow writers (for free!) that's what my blog is all about. I pay heed to my mentors' comments and apply them to my work. And most importantly, I'm humble. I like to share my success with my family, friends, and fellow writers without being pretentious. With my writing group (and aspiring writers), I share resources, literary events, secrets of the literary world, and I even introduce them to other authors. I've only been writing for 2.5 years and I'm already published. However, I still consider myself an emerging writer. I'm still learning and I'm willing to do the legwork in order to be published (I've worked really hard). At first, I thought writing was daunting (not to mention publishing). Now, I just think it's like any other job. If you're diligent and assiduous you'll get noticed, hence rewarded for your efforts.
    This post was a good reminder though.

  2. Hi,

    Wow, long read!

    Yeah, well, I belong to two writers' groups and have been with them for years. We're all technically published writers and don't crit each others' works as much as we used to, but that's the nature of the publishing beast: it takes control of one's life and makes demand on one's time and getting down to revisions etc., can be time consuming alongside working new projects.

    All that aside, I'm enjoying your cheeky blasts. In particular the honesty of this post and your confession that it's a tough business and that you rightly got through it by kicking your own butt! Whingeing's for losers. Couldn't agree more! ;)


  3. Interestingly, working in a bookshop for eight years has given me the distinct impression that fiction (with all its subgenres) actually sells better than books abot female pilots in World War Two.

    But then I also believe there is value in critique from non-professionals, so maybe I am delusional.