For Aspiring Writers: the Worst Advice You'll Ever Read
Dear aspiring/young writer:
You have no doubt read all those blurbs and bulleted lists of
edifyingly positive advice for aspiring writers assembled by solidly successful, well-established
Herewith is the worst advice you'll ever read. A bold claim, perhaps? Read on and
decide for yourself.
Why am I qualified to offer you the very worst advice on how to become a published writer/author?
For this important reason: if there is an easy way to establish oneself as a writer,
then I have taken the opposite path, the hardest, lengthiest, dumbest and most arduous one possible.
That's why I can categorically claim that I offer you the very worst advice on
how to make it as a writer.
1. Get born into a wealthy, influential family
which will whisk you into an Ivy League
university on the strength of their alumni clout and donations, then schmooze your way via
connections into an internship at
The New Yorker
or equivalent high-visibility media
outlet (Conde Nast,
New York Times
, etc.). Once you've made the requisite social connections
and dabbled at copyediting, then write a nasty little family
history leavened with plenty of inflammatory high-society gossip, making sure you dwell
on your horribly neurotic childhood. Or, worst case scenario, pen a
"literary" novel of "lean, muscular prose," take on one of the agents your boss/uncle/professor
recommended, and then gear up to attend your book party at a tony Manhattan bistro.
Oh, and don't forget to bolster your thin resume with some exotic travel and a three-week
stint as a "journalist" or some other workaday gig which suggests you actually paid your dues.
Does this sound a wee bit bitter? Nah, it's just the way it works when, as Orwell
so trenchantly put it, some of us are more equal than others.
If you have to start out
as a complete unknown, far from the bright lights, big bucks and connections of the
Upper West Side or West L.A.--well, let's put it this way: you are more likely to be
struck by lightning while walking down Wilshire Blvd. than you are to gain this sort
of privileged access from East Overshoe, U.S.A.
Can't swing Advice Number One? OK, then let's try the worst advice for lesser mortals:
2. Prepare yourself to deal with this fact: in the brief time it's taken you to read
this far, a thousand screenplays have plopped onto L.A. agents' slush piles and a
thousand book manuscripts have thumped onto various Left and Right Coast agents' desks.
Then recall that about 200 feature films are produced in Hollywood each year, and
several hundred novels by previously unknown authors are published by established
publishers every year.
I'm not saying this to get you down--it's just the central fact of life when it comes
to selling fiction when you have no connections to the business. And even having connections
doesn't guarantee you the brass ring--it just means someone other than a clerk will look
at your stuff. And that is important. If no one looks at your stuff, then you'll never
So how do I know this? From talking to people in the business.
I've had the
good fortune to have had two Hollywood agents, real live people who've slogged out a
living in Tinseltown. The publisher of my novel
(it hits the shelves April 2006) told me they receive 6,000
manuscripts a year and publish six. (They also publish new works by their current
stable of authors, but they leave six slots open for new authors.)
This is a small but well-regarded publishing house,
The Permanent Press, NY. If a small house gets 6,000 manuscripts or pitches a year,
what do you reckon the big agencies and publishers get over the transom? My first agent
didn't even hazard a guess--just "hundreds every month." Multiply this times hundreds
of agents and you get an idea of how many stories are being pitched each year.
The odds in Hollywood are even worse. I have to laugh (cynically, of course) when I
read ever-so-helpful authors suggest that aspiring writers ask agents for their list of clients,
to see if they're a good match for your brilliant work. Excuse me while I ROTFLMAO.
I tried this with the second agent interested in my novel and he wrote back a terse,
scribbled note that said it all: "You're lucky anyone is even looking at your material."
That, friends, is the truth. Agents have their fill of "brilliant" writers, "brilliant"
ideas so amazing that someone is sure to steal them (you should be so lucky--large agencies don't
even open your pitch just so they can't be accused of stealing your $100 million plot), and poor foolish devils naive
enough to think their story is going to blow down all the doors in New York or Hollywood.
OK, Mr. Hollywood, you ask, what makes you qualified to speak on the subject?
First off, there's a bit of Hollywood in the family. My great-uncle was one of Walt
Disney's first employees, and he rose up to production chief. He steered my grandfather
into buying a small company which formulated the special paints used by animators. (Each second of cartoon or animated film required 24 frames of
hand-painted art.) My cousin still operates the business, though of course computer
animation has greatly reduced the demand for hand-painted animation.
My Mom's friend's nephew owns a nice mansion in Pasadena, earned by scoring music for
soap operas, and on my stepmother's side, there's a union cameraman; my niece worked
as an actress for a few years in TV, getting enough gigs to earn a SAG card (Screen
Actors Guild), which isn't that easy to get; you don't just show up and be an extra
and then get the card....
And then there's my own experience pitching agents and then working with them.
first young guy to take an interest in my novel (this is in response to a mass mailing
of about 100 pitches I sent in 1994)--his agency passed, but I saw his name a few years
ago. He'd moved up from the junior agent's life and was now a producer of teen horror
films. It was a longshot, but I emailed him. He sent me a referral to one of those
parasite screenwriting shops which hold contests and live off the $300 entry fees.
Uh, no thanks; I may be slow and dumb, but I've learned a few things slogging through
My first agent got a good nibble from a small publisher--my book went to committee, but they
didn't go for it. My second agent got six requests for a science fiction script I'd
written, and man, I was flying high that week in 1999. For sure one of these production
companies would at least option the script, and then I'd finally be on my way, after
12 years of effort and disappointment.
Not so fast, buster. No sale. After a few years of no results, I could tell his enthusiasm
was waning, so we parted ways. He had given me a lot of sage advice, and pushed me to re-write
the first novel again and again, year after year. (I ended up re-writing it 14 times
over about eight years--and it had taken me three years to complete the first draft.)
Of course I wrote other stuff as well--two other novels, seven screenplays, a very few
stories, and of course the stuff I was getting paid to write--feature articles, PR
pieces, documentary scripts, business plans, you name it.
To summarize: the odds are very long against selling fiction--either novels or
screenplays. Be prepared for the long haul and years if not decades of rejection and
Once you grasp the enormity of this flood of creativity, this
massive mountain of paper which pours into Hollywood and New York each and every week
of each and every year-- never mind that the old-line studios have thousands of scripts
stored in their vaults, scripts they already own--you have to wonder, in a Butch Cassidy
Who are these guys (and gals)?
Who's writing these thousands upon
thousands of novels and scripts?
Well, you and me, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands,
of people who've reckoned they could write a better movie than the one they just paid $10 to see, or who have just
graduated from Creative Writing Programs and are itching to take New York by storm...
a veritable army of aspiring writers, all trying for a very few openings in a narrow
If given the choice between moving to New York or L.A. and becoming a better writer,
become a better writer first. Please note that of the 10 million worker-bees in L.A.,
9 million are trying to break into the movie business. OK, that's an exaggeration: make
that 8 million. You can move to L.A. but if you don't have a damned fine fully polished
product to pitch, then you're not advancing your career. Writing in a crappy room
in Studio City or SoHo isn't gonna necessarily make you a better writer (although it
might give you some more interesting material to write about). Discovering the weaknesses in
your material and getting professional advice on how to improve it will.
One caveat to that advice. If you really want to learn screenwriting, then get your
ambitious self into the screenwriting programs at UCLA or USC. If you can do that, then
you'll build a network which will serve you well as your fellow graduates go out and
start securing positions in the film industry.
3. You want to be paid to write? Then understand the market and make sure you
buy other writers' work.
How many new novels did you buy last year at retail at your local independent
bookseller? (OK, or through Amazon--at least you paid for a new book and the author
earned some royalties from your purchase.) How many non-fiction books? How many novels
from new/unknown writers grace the bookshelves of your friends? The sad truth:
probably not many.
By way of example: one of my publisher's new writers was selected by Barnes & Noble
for their "new young talent" section (or whatever it's called). They demanded the
publisher print up a few thousand copies, which they obediently did. Net result: all
this national exposure in a major chain, the kind of coverage which you or I would
covet with every fiber of our being, produced about 300 copies sold. That's right, 300
copies sold across the entire nation in all the hundreds of Barnes & Noble stores.
That's a realistic view of new fiction: national sales of less than a 1,000 copies,
not enough for the publisher to recoup their expenses.
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 hundred copies each.
That's the nature of the Beast. 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).
4. 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.
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?"
Note that she didn't ask me, "what are you going to do?" She asked if I
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.
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
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 writer doesn't make you any good.
OK, so here's the worst advice you're ever going to read about the process of
becoming a better writer.
5. Don't join a writer's group except as a recruitment tool to find
professional writers and editors.
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
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
: "Hats off, gentlemen!" Yes, this
first draft is brilliant, perhaps change a word or two here and there....don't count on it.
6. 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
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
On the Road
7. 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
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
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,
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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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
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.
I subscribe to eleven publications, though four would probably do:
The paper I write for (The San Francisco Chronicle), the Wall Street Journal ($79/year online edition),
The Economist (also $79/year online edition), The New Republic (excellent book reviews),
Scientific American, BusinessWeek, Foreign Affairs, Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute,
National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly and MAD magazine (the sharpest critiques of our culture are found in MAD).
Of course I'll look at the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker when I get the
chance, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I used to subscribe to Dwell, which I
enjoyed, but I have to speed-read just to keep up with what I currently receive.
So the world of employment for journalists is shrinking. Under the relentless
cost-cutting, you can expect to make maybe $60,000 a year--not big bucks, but you'll
learn how to write under deadline and how to write clearly, and how to interview
people and to check quotes.
If you prefer the shadowy world of the broken-lance writer, oops I mean free-lance,
then gain some expertise in a marketable field: architecture, gun control issues,
water quality, land rights, garden design, hiking, new web technologies, something.
Your expertise in a specific field is the only thing standing between you and the hordes
of English graduates grasping for a byline. If you actually know what you're writing
about, editors may well start assigning you stories--or at least they'll listen to
your story ideas.
The advantage of being a free-lancer is extreme poverty, which keeps you thin by
necessity. (see photo to the right, and no, that is not a younger body Photoshopped
onto a 52-year old graying head, that is a lean, mean poverty-income free-lance
writing machine.) I am not kidding about the poverty-level income;
if you really
want to become a serious writer, then you have to choose a lifestyle and way of
making a living which leaves you time to write.
Unless you're an expert at B.S.
(i.e. a grant writer), then that means working fewer hours at jobs which don't
leave you a limp rag squeezed of vitality, e.g. a typical corporate gig.
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.
13. Writing isn't hard work, so stop whining about it.
One of my friends
from the Hawaiian island of Lanai recounted a tale earlier this year which
says a lot about the true nature of work. My friend (who happens to be Filipino-American)
explained that he'd once had a college-era job at a McDonald's in Honolulu. One day,
(Caucasian) guy had been nearly weeping at the difficulty and sheer
effort required to mop the floor of the restaurant. My friend was incredulous, for he
knew what real work was: picking pineapple all day in the oppressive tropic sun, walking
endlessly behind a boom truck, twisting the heavy ripened fruit off the low thorny plants
and tossing them up onto the conveyor. (Yes, I did this too.)
This is precisely the sort of work American shun as too hard, too laborious, too boring,
too poorly paid, so that sort of labor is performed by immigrants or it's shipped via
"outsourcing" to other countries where the people are less picky about their employment.
So my friend restrained his desire to laugh in the sad sack's face and explained what
real work was like, and that mopping the floor didn't qualify.
In my many years in construction (what else do you think that shiny degree in
Comparative Philosophy prepared me to do?), I have dug ditches in clay soil, humped
many tons of lumber around, pounded countless nails and fallen off a couple of roofs,
nearly killing myself in the process.
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.
14. 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.
14. Super-extra special bonus advice.
If you want to write a fiction story
which will sell, write about an overweight, put-upon person who finds true love. This is not
a putdown of overweight people; we all have our insecurities, and while some of us smoke,
drink or run our insecurities away, about half of us statistically succumb to the
wiles of the food industry, which hires thousands of people in white lab coats to
design edibles which are irresistible to the human palate and which can be priced
The key to this bonus advice is two-fold: it isn't that being overweight is more
compelling than being a speed-freak, danger-freak, exercise-freak or sex-freak--it's
just a lot more common, so your potential audience is something like 40% of the entire
U.S. population. The other key point is that the central fantasy of all humanity is
to be loved (and to be popular, rich, successful, etc.) without having to make any
We all want to be thin in the same way we want to be writers--without
effort, discipline, or all the bother of understanding ourselves and our inner drives,
patterns and conflicts.
If you can pen a fairy tale in which Joe or Suzie Blow find true love without having
to do anything but experience some sort of epiphany, then you've got a winner. OK, so
have I taken my own advice? No. Why not? Because I'm a moron! I persist in creating
stories nobody wants to read. So don't make the same mistake
and you'll actually have gained something from this avalanche of bad advice.
Well, that's the worst advice I can give you--at least so far. I'm still making
hideous mistakes, so I'll probably have even worse advice to offer soon enough.
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
I would be honored if you linked this wEssay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.
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