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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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?