If you are a new, novice, or beginning writer, THIS ARTICLE IS NOT FOR YOU! None of this really matters at your level of development. Come back in a decade, broken and sore, and then give it a whirl.
I recently saw a Facebook post quoting Chuck Wendig’s advice from 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER. The book is part of an instructional series, all written in the Wendigean fashion, complete with healthy dollops of profanity, tough-guy finger-waggin’, and rock-solid certainties broken by occasional caveats, all jammed through his blunt sense of humor and delivered in easy-to-follow lists.
I should be a champion of such things. But I ain’t. And it’s not Wendig’s fault. He’s just doing as a modern midlist-writer is wont to do: having fun, helping others, and making money from his trade. Fill your boots, as the army says. Fill your boots.
But if you’ve been around the block for a decade (or more) you start to get weary of writing advice. It’s never meant for YOU, the never-was-veteran inching across the meridian of your mortality. Because you know these rules, strictures, and suggestions. You’ve heard them for the past seven decades! Boring old variations of Heinlein’s Rules and their ilk have filled pages and pages of books and books, and now they are here in lists of lists on lists!
Insights available from such material deteriorate rapidly with experience. Soon, writing advice seems lazy, repetitive, even trite. Especially in list form. Lists remind me of tournaments plots in martial arts flicks: instant structure with built in hooks to drive you to the very last round. I should know, I used them for not one, but two novels! But good god, it gets inane after you’ve seen Bloodsport, Bloodpunch, and Bloodfart. Perhaps those who profess to be wizards of words could raise the ante by making a killer paragraph instead of a bullet-pointed-hook in the form of a declarative sentence. It also might be the historian side of my brain: have you actually found something new to say? Or are you just repeating what you’ve heard a thousand times from others who came before? Someone really needs to do a historiography of writing advice, but I have enough thankless tasks to do before I’m worm poop.
My grunts are proof that such advice lists are not for me. They are for legions of newbs and those who like to be refreshed with the same advice over and over. I’m not a plucky, young writer, fresh from a workshop experience and first pro sale, ready to pay my dues and tell stories at conventions, five years hence, of how I sold my first SF novel for a lowball advance to a small imprint of a massive conglomerate, or how I mastered SEO advertising to funnel fans into buying bundles of my Kindle books from a massive monopoly. Both of which I hope to do, someday.
So, what audience am I? Published author of fifteen years who crashed and burned due to tragedy and grief outside of but related to the writing life. So I, and others like me, are not the demographic for vintage advice in fresh costumes. We’ve done ass-to-chair. We know characters need strong goals. We know about cliff hangers, showing vs. telling, and biases against first-person POV. Rinse, wash, regurgitate. And while all of the old truisms are . . . true, hearing them louder, or quieter, or zippier doesn’t add to the well of knowledge we’ve already gained.
So today I pay it forward. I offer a counter punch, against the time-worn value of goals, and their relation to a writer’s ID.
In The Antidote, a great book for driven people who dislike the cult of optimist self-help advice, author Oliver Burkeman reviews the dark side of goal setting. While goal-setting in moderation can have tremendous influence on external achievement, it also comes with a price tag that is often ignored or dismissed. Goal-driven companies, from ENRON to crooked autoshops, also stick to their goals: they make quotas that earn cash. Everything else (including ethical and legal conduct, not treating people like tools) gets tossed out the window. Who cares if you lie, cheat, and steal? You got the big payday. You got the big contract. You got the audience you wanted. That’s the goal. Everything else is secondary. In short, goals can breed shit conduct like sock puppet reviews. At the far end, they can produce misery.
In high intensity careers, and high intensity people, goals can also fuse with identity. You convince yourself that failure isn’t about something that didn’t work . . . it’s about a failure of yourself as a human being in total. Thus, you refuse to see warnings signs and trouble ahead, even when you go past perseverance into terrible conduct and risky behavior. You refuse to see the storm and still climb the mountain, otherwise you’ll be a failed person! Death would be better! Just be relentless and it will happen! Ignore warning signs! Ignore common sense! Your goal is you!
Such fusing breeds profound and deep sorrow. That’s why there are corpses on Everest and writers who have meltdowns when their “job” is their whole identity. Think about how awful it is if your identity gets rejected a hundred times a year, and their identity sucks at paying rent, and their identity loses an agent, and their identity is fired . . . you see how this goes. Sadly, badly, and madly.
For years I loved having a “writer identity.” It gave my life shape and form, and a tough goal to relentlessly follow. It also allowed me to ignore things like mounting unhappiness, growing dislike of most genre fiction, and birthed the asinine idea of making a living from fiction in the wake of the Great Recession. Being a writer meant I could ignore great swaths of my own suffering: after all, artists suffer and are special snowflakes and the job is so hard that all I have to do is worship the gods of publishing with relentless toil and eventually I will get my payday and those I hurt will be repaid.
And when the payday never happened . . . I was a failed person.
Fusing my identity to being a writer also convinced me that being alone was what I wanted. You could always justify being alone: you were writing. Eventually I didn’t want to be alone . . ., but I couldn’t admit that. So I wrote more and endured the loneliness as if I wanted it. I lied to myself. So, writing wasn’t really an “escape” anymore. It was a retreat. I love writing, and part of me is a solitary dude, but realizing I was hiding in a solitary art was terrifying.
Few books warn that this kind of thinking can become so seductive and subliminal, a silent motor for a crippled existence. Writers often make a cult of loneliness and suffering, instead of taking a step back and asking why is so much of writer culture busted and broken and unhealthy. To bolster our suffering, we brag. The rejections. The bad decisions. The agent that screwed us. The contract we didn’t read that then screwed us. The sacrifices we’ve had to make with friends, family, whatevz. Poor us. And I’ve done them all, big time. I’d hoped they were instructive from the POV of persistence, but there’s also a rotten side of that coin. Of course writing is hard. But making a virtue of suffering is fucking stupid, and is a part of the writing culture I’ve abandoned after being an offender for years. That’s why I love Jane Yolen’s writing book, Take Joy. It’s the antithesis to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a good book but thick with the cult of suffering dogma. Yolen, whose career most would envy, makes it clear: the act of writing should be an occasion for happiness. Reminds me, too, when someone asked Margaret Atwood if a writer needed to suffer to make great art. Her paraphrased response? “Suffering’s going to happen whether you like it or not, so don’t go looking for it.” Huzzah!
Few advice columns remind you that suffering as a writer, or, hell, being a writer doesn’t make you better than anyone. And it may make you worse. Sure, literature is a valuable part of a modern and progress civilization, one with a rich history and countless values (not least of which is generating empathy for humankind outside of your own skull). And the community can be great. But all of these elements of being a writer make you no worse or better than anyone else with another job or art. Spend time with people outside your imaginary worlds, and you’ll see the mammoth of awesome from many walks of life. It will put a dent in the “we are chosen” mythology that festers in some writing circles and smells like some kind of privilege turned into personal destiny (perhaps it helps to make the cult of suffering seem more noble). I fear far too many writers think of themselves as Tolkien Elves, a sad, beautiful nobility that’s actually, categorically, and empirically “better” than everyone, especially the ham and eggers who work at the Prancing Pony.
Writing is labor, an art, and can be a job. Being a writer means you write. Being a professional writer means you get paid a professional wage. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you write well. Indeed, the more advice I see from lists or supposed Master Classes on writing seem to have less to do with understanding the power of words to create stories than with finding readers! SELL! AUDIENCE! METRICS!
When I ask colleagues if they try and improve their craft, vast swaths think I’m being an elitist shithook, or, worse, that writing well is an issue of taste. It isn’t. What you like is an issue of taste. I love Burger King, especially for breakfast, but I know the difference between it and a killer steak from a chef who has a great command of flavor. I love wrestling, and I know it can’t accomplish as much or as well as Ibsen when it comes to the human heart at war with itself. Should you need another analogy: kids writing their name in ketchup on the tables at Denny’s are not producing the literary equivalent of A Farewell To Arms, even if you hate Hemingway and love ketchup name poetry.
But again, I digress.
Selling stuff and having an audience are good things. Getting paid is a good thing. But these goals don’t speak to me. They put an abstract idea (an audience I don’t have) and some kind of fiscal success again (which is illusory at this stage) before making the art I want to make. If the odds in publishing remain rotten, why not shoot for writing what you love first, and see who rolls with you on your terms? If you fail at getting an audience, you still succeeded in writing something you loved. The one fan letter I’ve received means more to me than the potential payday of writing in the template of a bestselling thrillers. It’s because I didn’t think about “audience” that that the fan letter exists. Two points!
Steve Tem, one of my mentors and an absolutely wonderful writer, once noted that his career of hundreds of sales of books, stories, and more could be seen as a failure since there was no commercial success. But it was the career he wanted, writing stories that meant something to him first. Amen. And yes, he writes better than James Patterson, even if he’ll never have his audience. If Patterson and his cadre of co-authors can pull off an equivalent to THE DEADFALL HOTEL or THE MAN ON THE CEILING (written with his wife, the late Melanie Tem, also a fantastic writer), I’d like to see him try. Again, if you like Patterson’s work, awesome. That’s a taste call (see Burger King above!). Saying his work accomplishes the same thing as the Tems, Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates is reductionist to the point of absurdity. You know, stupid.
These days, my writing life is largely outside the novel and short story world, and I dedicate a lot of time to other arts. Yet, in the off chance I’m wrong, and there are ten-and-twenty-year veterans that are meh about the same old kung-fu-tournament-lists of Heinlein and Ray Bradbury and Elmore Leonard with new masks, here’s an attempt to cover a lesser visited part of the advice map. For your pleasure, it’s in the form of a list!
WRITING ADVICE MOST WRITING ADVICE LISTS WON’T TELL YOU!
1. Kill Your Porn Dreams:
Admit to yourself that what you really want is legions of fans, billions of ebook sales, and gaggles of groupies who worship you more than Neil Gaiman, and then toss those dreams in the burn can. Later, when they creep back in, shove them back in the burn can. Every time. And they’ll return and return, but they won’t happen. You can’t make them happen any more than Hitler could use his “Triumph of the Will” spell to turn the Battle of Stalingrad into a German victory. Worse, some studies have shown daydreaming about a goal stimulates the same release of pleasure chemicals as actually DOING what you’re dreaming of, so you sap your strength from actually going out and making stuff. So, kill your porn dreams! Understood? Cool. Now, pornless, do you still want to write? If yes, carry on!
2. Writing Well is Harder than Marketing, but Better for Your Heart:
Kameron Hurley wrote a great post about generating an audience via improving as a writer. Most of the backlash I read about this approach was from people who wished to have an audience first, and then write well. How weird is that? You start with zero audience . . . so whose audience do you want? Hurley’s? As I get closer to the grave, the less I care about audiences and more on telling only stories I dig and doing it well. Me first, the world later. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun and good. It will be! It may even find a wide audience (I am a commercial writer, after all). But it’s better for your heart to make art you love than art that pleases everyone (which, as Ricky Nelson knew, was a fool’s errand), and the better you get at it, the more those stories will be great. You won’t just repeat yourself. Which is what mediocre fiction does.
3. Quitting is Awesome:
Every Johnny Tough Guy Writer will bark incessant dogma about how writers never quit, they endure, persistence is their watchword. All true. Until it’s not. Sometimes relentless writing, for those who don’t have a problem putting ass-to-chair, is a recipe for burnout, or the blurring of goals and identity. If you think quitting writing is actually a failure of you as a person, then you need to stop writing, right fucking now, and realize you are a person and not Clio’s vending machine. Go do something else. Find joy in other things and people. Writing will be there when you get back, and, don’t worry, the publishing industry has no idea you exist, so they won’t miss you. Find people who would. Spend time with them. Stories are great, but, frankly, people are better. Especially you.