Writers Don’t Do That

Operation: Wendig

“Writers write.”

That’s the saying. We’ve all heard it.

And I don’t disagree with it. In fact, I’m pretty much a champion of that very idea. Most so-called writers are dilettantes. They talk about writing. They feel what it’s like to be a writer. They imagine the writer’s struggle. And at the end of the day (or at the beginning), they fail to put pen to paper or fingers to keys. They are slaves to the muse. Or they are slaves to the romantic notion of the writer’s life (I’m in my boxers, bleary-eyed, sipping grumpily at coffee from beneath a tangled crow’s nest of hair, with a bowl of half-eaten cereal from yesterday sitting to my left — romantic enough for you?).

So, writers write.

Yes. True. Ass-in-chair. Make words.

Except.

Except.

The phrasing would seem to capture the entire picture. “Writers write.” Do that, and you’re done. Dust yourself off. Drink some bourbon. Masturbate with glee. The day is over.

Mmm.

No.

That’s no longer true, and it may never have been true. Writers cannot rely purely on the act of writing, not if they want to be successful — hell, not if they want to survive. Writing may be the chiefmost skill in the box of tricks, but it is by far not the only weapon a writer should carry in his arsenal.

In fact, the term “writer” is almost a misnomer. A carpenter must have a bevy of skills, and cannot succeed on a single one of them. You don’t call a carpenter a “sawman,” or a “nailer,” or a “screwdriver jockey.” He is a carpenter. He carpents. (Shut up.) A writer must do more than merely write. What, then, is the proper title? My writing partner refers to what he does as story architecture. Certainly you could dial that back and just go with storyteller, which has a nice homey ring to it. Further, I’ve always been partial to the term creator, because it’s godlike and intimates that I might be divinely creating new genetic anomalies in my office, and that should you dare to interrupt me, I might “create” a lightning bolt to fire up your ass and burn shut your colonic passage.

Then again, I just go with “penmonkey.” I have a pen. I am monkey-like in that I swing from tree to tree. A monkey must have many skills to be a proper monkey.

Whatever you call it, the truth remains: writers write, but they must be prepared to do so much more.

What’s funny is how often you see resistance to this. “I didn’t become a writer to –” [fill in the blank]. Edit is the one I read most. “That’s why I have an editor!” the writer cries, yelling at the rock that’s about to crush him, shaking his fist as if his declaration of something being unfair will stop its ineluctable fall, as if shouting at gravity will somehow reduce its reality.

Mm-hmm. Good luck with that, writer.

Writers don’t do that. So goes that refrain.

Let me introduce a new refrain:

Writers damn well better learn.

Writers Don’t Edit

We’ll start with the biggest and most obvious one. Let me eradicate this wish fulfillment that a writer does not need to know how to edit his work. Let me curbstomp it until its head is a quivering bowl of ambrosia salad. All too often, writers seem possessed of this notion that it is their job to be the divinely-inspired doorway, to be the lascivious muse-fucker, and that their primary task is simply to vomit forth the words and the story and the unbridled, unfiltered brilliance. An editor, then — since people exist with that very title — will be the one to wade into the heady muse-stink and clean up the room (a filthy garland of laurels under the bed, an oozing condom sizzling like bacon fat in the sacrificial pyre).

Hey, you know what? No! If you’re going to turn in a pile of word-turds, don’t expect someone to go through it to pick out the delicious corn and peanuts. That will get you turned away at the door, because your work is an unformed hunk of “inspired” bullshit. You are the first gatekeeper. You must be the editor.

Further, imagine a world where, gasp, big publishers are starting to change their models and where an indie publishing movement is rising in the shadows. (Oh, wait. That’s already true?) Let’s say that the primary way to your audience is self-publishing — once a stigmatized process, now a way to potentially get your work out there and make a little scratch. Who, in the chain of self-publishing, is editing your material?

*crickets chirping*

It’s you, dumbass. Man. I waited like, fifteen minutes for that, and nobody spoke up. Now I’m hungry. I might start digging into this old bowl of cereal.

It’s painful, because I’ve read some short fiction online from writers I like and respect, but they didn’t edit it — and neither did the online journal that published it. Now, an ill-written, unedited draft sits on the web as a “final draft” for all the world to see. That is not, as Alton Brown might say, good eats.

Writers Don’t Market

Newsflash: publishers don’t market your books like they used to.

Newsflash, Part II, Son of Newsflash: even if they did, you still understand the audience of your book in a way that a corporation never will. That’s no knock against the corporation. It’s just a fact: you created the story, so you can guess at the audience for that story.

Writers who cannot grasp this let one thing happen: they let their book be released, and they let it splash in the water like a boat filled with bricks, and then they wonder why the boat sinks into the turbid depths rather than carry them to the next island. The book hits. Who buys it? Who knows about it? Online book retailers and bookstores are home to — at a quick visual survey — a million-trillion books. At the beach, do you expect me to find the one mote of diamond dust amid all that sand?

If you don’t like the term marketing (too corporate?), fine. Let’s go with “audience-building.”

You have three phases of audience-building, way I see it.

First comes before the book. You need people there who are interested in you as a writer. (Or creator. Or penmonkey.) You must prove to them that, ta-da, you’re good at what you do, and you’ll entertain them, and so when a book finally hits it doesn’t matter if it’s about the illicit love between two sharks or an adventure story about a teakettle and a bag of harvested organs, your audience will go, “Ah-ha! Who cares what it’s about? This penmonkey knows how to tickle my love button; I will procure his product with delight!”

Second comes during the book. Now you’re building audience based around the book itself, finding those people who are really into shark sex or teakettle porn or whatever, and you’re drawing those people to you. Ideally, those people might stick around and enjoy you-as-creator in addition to liking the book in general. (People tend to like authors more than they like individual books, in my experience.)

Third is after the book. You need to travel the long tail, and ramp up for the Next Awesome Thing You Do.

Do not rely on other people to build your audience for you. Even if you get a publisher who is really good at finding the book’s target market, you still enter Thunderdome sans weapon and armor. Writers don’t market? Correction: Unsuccessful writers don’t market.

Writers Don’t Do Technology

You’re starting to see where this is going, right?

Writers do do technology. Do-do. Doo-doo. Hah.

Ahem.

Social media? Learn it. Embrace it from behind. Kiss its ear and make it serve you.

Website? Get one. Use established blog software if you need to, or learn HTML and CSS and ASAP and FYI and PWIP-PIP and any other future programming languages. How do you plan on communicating with your newfound audience? Cans connected by string? Maybe you’ll just wander naked onto your yard and just start yelling? That will get you arrested. Trust me. I done been there. Oh, and that website better not look like dogshit, either. Readers read your work, then they need to respect you in the morning. A righteous crap-garden online is one surefire way to lose interest and respect.

Photoshop? This one’s tricky because Photoshop ain’t cheap, but it’s worth knowing. I’ve used it many times already in the context of my writing. Web graphics? Business card? Promo materials? Were I to release my own self-published novel, it’ll be helpful to have that skill in my skill-closet. (On the other side of the coin, don’t let mediocre graphic-fu drag you down, lest you just look like an amateur. These skills, believe it or not, are pretty much all-or-nothing. Learn it well, or don’t bother learning it at all. Because half-assing it will make you look like… erm, I guess a “half-ass.” Is that a word? Is that a viable insult? It is now. Get on board, baby.)

Writers Don’t Speak

Writers write. Writers aren’t public speakers.

Right?

Well. C’mon. You know what I’m about to say.

Of course writers are public speakers.

Two instances right off the top of my head:

One, pitching. Yes, your pitch might consist of a query letter, which is a written thing. But I’ve also been in pitches that are spoken, which means you have to take control of the room and sell them with something other than the words you diligently write on pages. You can’t mumble through it.

Two, actual public speaking. Many writers make additional money through public engagement. Or, they do book signings and are expected to get up and, y’know, speak. Public speaking is another source of income and is further another way of hooking fresh audience. Guy walks by your book talk on the way to the restroom and he hears you saying witty things and telling great stories, he’ll perk up. He’ll wonder who you are. He might buy your book, or tell others about you.

Yes, sorry. Writers should be public speakers.

Writers Don’t Do Business

This one’s a real sick burn. Writing is a lovely career for us “creative-types,” and us “creative-types” burn when business touches us, the way a vampire smolders when grasping the Holy Cross.

Hey, too fucking bad.

This one, I’m not saying you need to get a business degree or anything, but you’d better know how to handle your financials. You’d better know how to budget. You better know how to at least get your taxes lined up for the year (I’ll admit, I have a tax accountant, because figuring out my taxes and deductions as a freelance writer is a head-meets-wall exercise in frustration; I’d rather navigate the Labyrinth of Minos blindfolded). I know where my deductions are coming from. I have spreadsheets that line up what I’m making and what I have incoming. I do math sometimes (and it pains us, it pains us).

Writing is a business. If you don’t grok that and don’t care to embrace that, then please enjoy your status as a hobbyist. (And by the way, writing being a business doesn’t stop it from serving the craft or potentially becoming art in retrospect. Remember: someone paid Shakespeare. He didn’t do it “for the love.”)

What I’m saying is:

Shakespeare got to get paid, son.

Writers Don’t… ZZZzzzZZzz — Snort, Huh?

Writers gotta do a lot of shit, is what I’m saying. Writing is only one part of the job. (Arbitrary number time: it’s 50% of the whole pie!) Don’t do time management? Oh yes you do. You do it you want to hit deadlines and be published. Don’t like “dealing with people?” Hey, best of luck to you, fuckface. Agents, editors, audience, angry wives, you’d better learn how to deal with people.

Long gone is the notion that the writer can be Emily Dickinson, hiding in the attic under a gingham dress. Now, the writer must be an adventurer saddled with emergency tools — ice ax, flashlight, GPS, flare gun, jet pack, double-headed dildo (for a weapon, duh), and yes, of course, your pen and your paper.

Sure, you can pay someone to do these things for you. But –

Newsflash III, I Was A Teenage Newsflash: Writers don’t make big bank, especially when they’re starting out, especially when they need these skills and services the most.

Farmers aren’t just cow-feeders.

Carpenters aren’t just hammerlords.

And writers –

Well, they’re not just writers, are they?

47 comments

  • Let me add a #4 to writer-marketing that it, I think, really powerful but not always obvious. If you can empower those first fans to evangelize -for- you, then your life gets a lot easier and better. Empowering them is the trick.

    To use Jim Butcher as an example: I absolutely attribute his success to his buckets of talent and backbreaking labor. But it has not hurt that he has helped his fans be a community from day 1. The fan community had “bookstore Commando” shirts that started pretty much as a conspiracy of people who knew Jim to go into stores and turn his books face out. It’s a silly thing, and the actual logic of book facing is far more convoluted than that, but the trick is it wasn’t turning the books that mattered. It was giving those first fans something they could *do* to make them feel like they were part of things.

    Similarly, there were forums in place for fans to come and talk before there were enough fans to use them. To some people, that seems like potentially wasted effort, but the reality is it’s exactly the sort of thing you need to do _first_ because those straggling, new fans are going to look for something, and you need to be sure there’s something for them to find.

    There’s other stuff too. Jim is happy to use his alpha fans as a resource because *they’re happy to be asked*. This is powerful mojo, and it’s not always easy to find your own path to, but if you can do it, it actually makes your life easier as an author because you can offload some heavy lifting.

    -Rob D.

    * It helps immensely to have a Fred Hicks in your back pocket when making such things happen because the man is a whirlwind of everything you could want for this. Fred can do things with a brand in two days that most people couldn’t do with two months. Sadly, not everyone has that kind of resource, but then, Fred wasn’t always that sort of resource either – he started out at this as blind as any of us. So I’m saying, look around and see if you can find your own Fred Hicks to help you past this hump. You might be surprised.

    • Rob:

      Good call. Part of that early pre-book momentum and part of that publication period is getting your proselytes — I always think of them as “prime movers” — to not just help you, but help to share the things they love. The consumption of media is driven by “word-of-mouth” even still, but “word-of-mouth” can now be a much bigger, much crazier phenomenon. You can apply “word-of-mouth” to hundreds of Twitter followers, whereas before, you’d tell five friends (which is okay, too). To tap into that, to — as you note — “empower” the audience, that is a beautiful and necessary thing.

      JC Hutchins is a good model for this, too.

      — c.

  • That is an amazing post Chuck. Thank you.

    I am doing my damndest to hone the crap that is my brand, and it isn’t easy – and I still find myself making stupid errors, missing obvious edits, and not be as careful as I need to be. I tell myself things like “it’s just a blog, doing daily posts means you don’t have enough time to get everything right”… and I am doing my best to divorce myself of that. It’s an excuse, not a reason. No, I can’t do eight million rewrites if I want to work on anything other than the blog, but I still need to be more careful with it.

    A lot of the things in your post I was already aware of, but it helps to read it right there in the open. You rock, Magic Talking Beardhead.

  • I didn’t just pick “Blue Ink Alchemist” because I’m a weeaboo.

    Alchemists make things change. They alter the state of matter from one to another. Lead into gold, for example. And what did pencils use before graphite was discovered as a replacement for what was killing all those apple-cheeked urchins? That’s right – lead.

    And if you can turn lead into gold, or graphite into gold, why not blue ink?

    I’m an alchemist. I don’t turn matter from one state to another, but I do bring forth something from nothing, one jot and scribble at a time.

    That means I need to edit and market my shit. You’re dead on target there, mister. You swapped your painting shotgun for a gorram sniper rifle.

    BOOM.

    Headshot.

  • (Anime fan. There’s a series called ‘FullMetal Alchemist’. A few characters in it are referred to as the ‘something-something Alchemist’ based on their specialization.)

  • I loved this. So many of these things run counter to my nature. I prefer the attic (not the gingham dress).

    You are wise, Wendig. Don’t let it go to your head.

  • When I first read through this post, only glancing at the chapter titles, I thought you were off your rocker. I mean, writers not editing? Let someone else handle the marketing? Vote Palin 2012? It sounds like you lost your mind or at the very least, the Skrulls had replaced you at Sundance and you are some Super Skrull hybrid who combines the powers of Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Stewart Wilson, and Chuck Wendig.

    Then I read the article and I see what you did there. Teehee.

  • That doesn’t really strike me as evil, though.

    A literary Super-Skrull infiltrator would likely combine the powers of Stephenie Meyer, Phillip Pullman, Dan Brown and Dean Koontz, to craft an über-successful fictional work made entirely of suck.

  • What? The Skrulls would make Super Skrull Ch’ck have tremendous writing powers so he can crush his opposition and be taught in classrooms across the country, where they will then release their agents Blac’ha’Ma’at, Stu’Wilsonn, and maybe even Myth’Darod to crush mankind and bring them to servitude!

    …I’m not allowed to add myself to my own Skrull adventure?

    I’d totally be a Skrull or even a Skrull mutant from Skrull Kill Krew.

    • I *kind* of knew the Skrull thing, but if there’s one area where my pop culture knowledge is deficient, it’s comic books.

      That said, I don’t know that being a guru means knowing the nitty-gritty. It just means knowing all the broad strokes. And parceling out the hallucinogens.

      — c.

  • Awesome post! Hear hear! Lot of the stuff I’ve been doing, trying to do for years. I think the hardest is finding those ‘die-hard push you all over the place fans’. So if you all end up with too many, send some over my way. :P

  • I feel an opportunity was missed above for an “Electric Boogaloo” joke, but other than that, a damn fine essay, and so far i can corroborate about 80% of it from my own fumbling experience.

    Been reading Terribleminds for a while now and I must say Chuck. You bring the party with you.

  • This advice goes for artists and similar creatives, as well. Face it: we’re whores. If you’re not prepared to pimp yourself, then you can’t be one. Get off the street and take a safer job.

  • February 2, 2010 at 9:34 PM // Reply

    I’ve been in marketing and sales for a long time. It’s not easy, but once you get a system down it’s like riding a bike each time you do it. I’ve also delivered dozens of speeches, presentations, and keynote addresses at conventions. Hard at first, but something you get better at (hell…I wing most of my shit now). I won’t get into editing and writing because I’m not qualified to write this post, much less a book, or even directions to Sizzler for that matter. Are there still Sizzlers?

  • Awesome post. AWESOME. Found it through a Writer’s Digest blog link, and enjoyed every word. Thanks for making the advice we newbies so desperately seek not only palatable, but delicious.

  • Really great post. Good advice for writers at all levels of the game, I think. I am new to you and your blog (found it through Jane Friedman’s “Best Tweets for Writers” for the week) but I will definitely be back again. Glad to meet you and your, uh, beard of wisdom, etc.

  • By Golly, I think you might have hit on something. If only writers would pay attention to posts like this.

    It is almost like they choose to only hear what they want to and then walk around, chests out, being indignant when someone dares to say something they don’t want to hear.

    Just picture all those writers walking around with their fingers in their ears humming…”I don’t hear you, I can’t hear you…”

  • March 3, 2010 at 10:26 AM // Reply

    Okay, so I’m a technical writer. I do all that stuff and more. Interestingly enough, the professional organization for technical writers, the Society for Technical Communication (http://www.stc.org/) just went through a massive campaign to get the U.S. Department of Labor to replace the job title of Technical Writer with Technical Communicator because we do ever so much more than just write. They even came up with a definition of Technical Communicator that for some reason, did not once mention either writing or writer.

    Fortunately, the Department of Labor, in a rare example of government getting it right, declined to eliminate the title Technical Writer, instead fleshing out the definition with some examples of the many other responsibilities we technical writers tend to be charged with. The Department of Labor wisely understood that even if the term Technical Communicator is more accurate, ain’t nobody going to be looking for a technical communicator… they’ll be looking for a technical writer.

    The whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a desire to wade into the crowd wielding my *Official Technical Writer’s 2×4®” (usually used for persuading reluctant programmers and engineers) in the manner of a Zen master hoping to assist a student toward enlightenment..

    Mike (a technical writer, not a technical communicator)

  • Whilst having a look-see around online writing communities I stumbled across a particular sort of person quite often: the anti-Chuck Wendigs of the world who are of the opinion that the exact opposite of this post. The existence of such people personally offends me.

    I saw one profile in particular that made me rant over IM to some poor friend of mine for like, half a bloody hour, because it said (and I paraphrase), “My plan is to be a writer when I finish university.”

    Like the standard process was to hand out CVs for salaried novel writing jobs, or something. ARGH

    You’d have to read this girl’s work to know exactly why I was so angered by this; suffice to say she wasn’t er, particularly good, viz., she was such a horrible writer I laughed AND cried a little.

    Why was that offensive to me, you ask? Because I have done So. Much. WORK to get to where I am right now (about to publish my first novel with a small indie trade house). This includes: reading voraciously since I was a child, wanting to write fiction since ditto, thousands upon thousands of hours spent hunched over a computer/notebook worrying and stressing and editing and weeping blood because I just wasn’t good enough and I was going to get better if it killed me, by god, or else sacrifice my everlasting soul to whichever small deity happened past.

    This person’s “process” was very evidently sitting at her computer and bashing the keyboard with her face for a quarter-hour, then proclaiming her masterpiece done.

    People like this think writing is work for everyone else but not them, because THEY are divinely inspired. Either that or they have no idea what it means to actually work.

  • Hell, yeah! Shouts this louder.

    If I have to listen to one more lame-ass “writer” who thinks all that other shit is optional or amusing or for someone else to do for them, I’ll throw a chair. I turned in the manuscript for book no. 2 (out in April) in September, barely drew breath, hired two PT assistants, and started promoting the crap out of it — wayyyyyy before pub. date.

    I worked harder getting the damn blurbs for it than writing (and endlessly revising) it. People have no idea what it takes.

    Any writer who doesn’t know this stuff and do it diligently is a very good thing. Because I happily will steal their readers!

  • Already flunked as this roboform has a blank for a web site that at this writing I must leave blank. Some people live in the closet, some in the attic. Anyone remember a garret?

    Thank you for the swift kick and yet at the same time encouragement to get out there, connect, embrace, keep working, under all hats. (We were allowed to stay in the dark, wound-licking anonymous comforts of the garret for so long. Long theatric sigh, compounded by the late-at-night moment.)

    It’s bright out here. Still blinking, MJ

  • This was a great article. I am trying to break into the iPhone app market. Everything ypu said was equally applicable to those who work in this discipline as well. Thank you for the slap to the head. I, for one, needed that.

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