Why Writers Must Beware Quackery

Long story short:

Hey! I’m back from both Storyworld and Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles and I’m refreshed and apple-cheeked and full of vim and vig… okay, no. I’m actually kinda jet-lagged and dung-brained. My sincerest wish is to go back to bed and crawl into it and not wake up for like, mmm, three days.

But, oh well. WRITER GONNA WRITE.

Anyway. These two conferences — very different animals. The first brings together people of multiple paths and persuasions (writers! techies! advertisers! filmmakers!) whereas the former brings together mostly writers, and writers on a very particular path — which is to say, the path that leads to the shining temple on the hill called “The Publishing House.”

Generally speaking, conferences can be great experiences for writers new and old. Both in terms of the community you forge, the lessons you learn, and the liquor you consume in great heaping quaffs.

Wait, did I say “liquor?” I meant… er, “wisdom.”

Still.

Still.

A writer’s conference is rarely a straight arrow toward said wisdom. It’s a maze, actually — a kinky tangle of pathways, many of which in my eyes are dead-ends. By “dead-ends,” I mean, the path stops moving forward as it get stuck on some bad information or troubling advice that  makes it sound like you’ve already reached the end. There at the dead-end is a chair and a typewriter and a feeling of having made it.

Put more succinctly, these conferences always contain a measure of bullshit.

Some of this bullshit is harmless.

Some of it — to the writer willing to accept it — is actually a little bit dangerous.

Dangerous in that it will set you back rather than spring you forward. Dangerous in that it has all the air of medical quackery — untested answers that sound like truth and promise result (published book! robust boner! magic tonic!) and often require you to shell out some cash to get a taste of what sounds like the nectar of the gods but is really like, 7-Up and hull cleaner.

Five things to watch out for, then. Both at meatspace conferences and online.

Ready? Let’s rock.

Beware Answers Over Options

Here’s how this works: you, as a writer newly walking the path of penmonkey novitiate, have no idea what the fuck is going on. Right? It’s a lot to digest. Fuckbuckets of information. Data overload. So, you think, “Okay, I just need to get my bearings here. I need a map. Or even the torn corner of a map. Or at the bare minimum I need like, a compass so I know just where north points.”

Then you go to a conference like this and — hey! Look!

Other writerly humans! Pointing the way with big foam fingers!

Many of these people are helpful.

Many of them are sirens inadvertently willing to crash your seaswept dinghy into the fucking rocks.

Here’s one of the ways you can tell: they’re not there to present options.

They’re not there to present a rounded picture of the unfirm realities of publishing. They’re not willing to tell you that the whole thing is a maze: they’re willing to tell you that they have the path through it. They exist to present a single face to the entire writing-storytelling-publishing ecosystem, revealing an alarming and overly simplistic lack of diversity.

More to the point, they have The One True Way instead of saying:

Hey, Look, There Exists A Whole Lotta Ways And I’ve Done One And Others Have Tried Others And Success Is Not An Easy Equation Where A + B = Bestselling Inkslinger And I’m Sorry But It’s A Lot More Complicated Than You Hope But That’s Actually A Good Thing, Too.

Some folks will try to cover up one or many forks in the road. Or, worse, they’re focused on what happens so far down the road that you start to feel like it’s always about the singular end result rather than the diverse paths to that end. (Again, too many at these conferences want to talk about How To Get Published rather than How To Write Something Worth Publishing. It’s be like an architect learning first how to handle permits and cut ribbons before learning how to put buildings together.)

Beware Absolutes And Guarantees

DON’T EVER SELF-PUBLISH.

DON’T EVER TRADITIONALLY PUBLISH.

YOU HAVE TO HAVE AN AGENT.

AGENTS ARE EVIL.

YOU HAVE TO BLOG/TWEET/GOOGLE HANGOUT/SHILL YOUR NAKED GYRATING BODY AT THE HIGHWAY’S EDGE IF YOU’RE EVER GOING TO ACTUALLY BE A PUBLISHED WRITER AND THERE’S NO WAY TO BE A PUBLISHED WRITER UNLESS YOU BLOG/TWEET/GOOGLE HANGOUT/SHILL YOUR NAKED GYRATING BODY AT THE HIGHWAY’S EDGE.

Writing advice often comes in absolutes.

Do this. Don’t do that. This is 100% true 100% of the time.

It is, of course, a fucking sick-bag full of rank malarky.

(God, can we all just take a moment to thank VP Biden for bringing that one back? Malarky? I also want “cockamamie” to make a robust return, so let’s all collectively work on that.)

I’ve said many a time that every writer seems to dig his own way into the publishing mountain, then detonating the tunnel behind him. I’ve heard so many weird ways into the various industries the only clear revelation is that there is no clear revelation. Few absolutes (outside maybe “finish your shit, dumdum”) hold any water at all and can be disproven at a moment’s notice. This is, of course, the danger of when “writing advice” becomes “proclamations of authorial truth.”

Beware Anybody Without A Single Fucking Meaningful Credential

Writers without great success — or any success at all — are totally allowed to talk about writing. We all want to talk about it. Even those without publishing contracts have information and ideas that may be valuable.

That’s not the same thing as letting those people up on a stage to talk to you about How To [Insert Writerly Task Here]. There’s a difference between talking about writing and presenting yourself as an expert on writing, and yet somehow there exists a great many of the latter — self-proclaimed experts who want to tell you all these great industry secrets or all these tried-and-true paths and yet appear to have neither exploited those secrets nor walked any of those paths.

They are offering theoretical information gussied up to look like pragmatic practice.

They’re not doctors, yet they’re selling medicine.

Again: quackery.

You gotta treat this stuff a little bit like science: these self-proclaimed experts have to prove their mettle, first. And one aspect of this burden of proof comes in the form of, “Oh, yeah, I’m actually a writer with some success, not just another jackhole with an unfounded opinion.”

Beware Anybody With Something To Sell

Listen, I get it. We’re all shilling something. I certainly sell books-on-writing (though 90% of that information is also free here on the blog), so I’m by no means pure. But some conference speakers are very clearly agenda-based and they are pushing an agenda not because it’s good for you but, rather, good for them. It’s the same problem with fad diets and social media gurus — people promising enlightenment and success (and worst of all, get rich quick tips) largely in order to line their own pockets.

That’s not to say anybody with a writing book is bad news. I mean, I’ve read a handful of writing books that I love and to this day cradle to my bosom as I open them up just to read snippets of smart passages.

But, anybody selling anything should at least get a wary eyebrow raise. And when in combination with a lot of these other “beware, beware, beware, awooga, awooga, awooga” elements, it should paint a picture of caution, cuidado, verboten. The colors of a venomous toad, the rattle of the snake’s tail.

Beware The Quick-And-Easy Fix

I am a proponent of increasing your speed as a writer. It’s becoming one axis of survival — a swiftness of production and of the prose you produce. But a lot of the solutions often feel like quick fixes or bad spackle jobs — you get from them the informercial vibe that all you have to do is Perform This Technique And You’ll Be A Writer In No-Time! It’s less about write faster (which is an easy and fairly basic prescription) and more about get published faster (which is an impossible thing to gauge unless you’re self-publishing and therein I’d politely note that speed often exists often in antithesis to quality).

The Sum Up

I’m not saying that every speaker at writing conferences or conventions is dubious. Far from it — many are actually brimming over with really good ideas and information not from 30,000 feet but from right there in the mud and the blood of the battleground.

What I am saying is, you will also go to these things and hear a lot of bad information robed in the clothes of promises and solutions and prescriptions and you have to be prepared to go into any conference or open any blog post or book on writing advice wearing the impenetrable armor of the skeptic. Writing advice should never be about absolutes or unequivocal answers but about potential paths, about options and suggestions and actual experiences. And a lot of this falls to you, the writer.

Because you need to go in with your eyes open. And you need to go in not being so hungry for answers that you’re desperate to embrace what any homeless person tells you is truth. It’s on you to be smart, be practical, and not let the quacks get their… uhh, well, I was going to go with “teeth in you,” but ducks don’t really have teeth, so let’s just go with, “don’t let the quacks gum you to death with their pond-slick bills.”