Tough Love Talk For Authors: The Good, The Bad, The WTF

Once in a while, I like to write one of those posts where I try to scare you away from this gig — I put on my boogeyman costume and jump out of your toaster and be like, “BOO. EVERYTHING SUCKS, DON’T BE A WRITER.” And then you drop your toast.

Thing is, I started to write my scary grr-snarl run away the bridge is out bloggerel, but every time I came up with one of those horror-show items, I found myself countermanding it with a BUT BUT BUT — which means, I think, that I’m growing soft. Soft and squishy like a fire-warmed marshmallow. Mmm. Marshmallows. S’mores.

*drool spatters on space bar*

Anyway, here, then, I will act as the Devil and Angel on your shoulder.

The good.

The bad.

And all the what-the-fuckery sandwiched in-between.

Everybody Is A Fucking Writer Now

Blogs and tweets and self-published books and more blogs and Faceyspace updates and Ello screeds and free short fiction and novellas and the 1s and 0s of a billion e-books piling up atop one another like grains of sand forming an ever-growing mound. Everybody’s a writer now. This is why when you tell someone, “Oh, I’m a writer,” they roll their eyes and pat you on the forehead like you’re a silly doggy and they go, “Of course you are.” This isn’t rarified air that we’re breathing. It’s smog. Great gassy exhalations of authorial ego, clouding the sky. We’re all sucking it in and coughing it back out.

But…

That also means that everyone is a reader now, too. Okay, so maybe that means that not everyone is reading books, yet, but for as visual as the Internet is, it’s also got a startling number of words that must be read. We have not yet learned to communicate purely with CAT VIDEOS and PORNOGRAPHY, so: it falls to things like sentences and paragraphs to convey information. More readers is a good thing, isn’t it? Seize them, writers! Seize them now!

Still, People Give Even Less Of A Shit About Writers

More readers or no, writers are still growing at an unprecedented screws-loose monkeypants rate, and the reading public isn’t catching up yet. Let’s say that the entire book-reading public gives off approximately four million care-cubits (aka “give-a-shit units”) every year. These units represent how much attention (and money!) they can devote to writers and our stories — but here’s the rub: a sharp increase in the number of writers does not create an equally sharp increase of how much they give a shit. It’s just less attention to go around. It’s more books, but the same number of readers. And those readers are finding themselves compelled by other entertainment distractions, too: apps and movies and television shows and social media and comic books and free porn. It won’t be long before we all have 3D printers in our house and then that’s one more distraction because then we’ll all be 3D printing My Little Ponies and weird dildos and homunculi we hope to infuse with alchemical life. To sum up? More writers with more books but same level of attention except now that attention is increasingly divided amongst various new iterations of both bread and circuses. I mean, holy shit, most Americans read like, one book a year at best. Which means we’re all just a whistle in a hurricane trying to be heard above the howling wind.

But…

Maybe that’s a good thing. Or, at least, there’s value in writing not being some vaunted, sacred act performed only by properly sanctified authors (that last word said with nose in the air, eyes dismissively cast, a faux-British accent). The Internet and self-publishing has definitely given us our Martin Luther 95 Theses moment where we no longer need to be blessed by dubious arbiters within the industry — it’s weirder and trickier now to make a living at what we do, but really, anybody can do it. Low ground has been made higher. High ground has been leveled. We’re all looking at each other eye to eye now. And no, I’m not wearing pants. YOUR MOVE, WORDMONKEY.

There’s Big Money In Writing (And You Won’t Get Any Of It)

The days of being a rockstar writer trading in stories for wheelbarrows of gold Krugerrands would seem to be fading. In fact, if the author surveys hold any water at all, writing is a very good way to get poor. Enjoy your second-hand underwear and Ramen noodle cups, jerks!

But…

Those surveys are horseshit. They frequently fail to account for all manner of variables, including whether folks do it as part-time, full-time, what they actually earn per hour of work, or if they’re really even working at all or if they’re “writers” instead of writers, meaning they do a whole lot of blabbing about writing while never actually crafting anything to be read by other human beings. Is the age of the rockstar writer dead? If not dead, then certainly diseased, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. More money to spread around the center. A healthier, stockier midlist, not some narrow-trunked tree too heavy with bestselling fruit.

Luck Matters

Luck matters in nearly all things — you think you hear someone calling your name and you step off of the curb too late and get whacked by the city bus (or, if the luck is good, the bus just misses you and then travels back in time and runs over Hitler instead). Win money from a scratch-off ticket? Luck. Get the last bagel? Luck. Sneezed on by a plague-toddler? Luck, file under: bad. One might argue that luck even figures in to the equation of whether or not the tiny tail-whipping tadpole carrying half of your genetic information crosses the finish line and headbutts his way into the Cadbury egg that contains the rest of your potential genetic information. Your very existence and identity are Luke Skywalker torpedoing a Death Star exhaust port, which is to say? Total luck, because the Force isn’t a real thing. This is entirely true with writing, too. They say that successful authors cashed in on a lucky lottery ticket, and while that’s incredibly dismissive, it also contains a wee smidgen of truth: luck fucking matters. Luck in finding an agent, an editor, a publisher, a marketing budget, luck that your book lands on the right shelves in the right stores, luck that the right people buy the book and tell other right people about it — luck can sometimes explain how a bad book does well, and bad luck can explain how an amazing book (even one with a robust marketing budget) can trip on itself, fall down the escalator, and poop its pants like the ghost of Chris Farley. Luck is a vital alchemical reagent to this thing that we do.

But…

Luck is also not the most important thing. It matters more than you’d like, but that doesn’t change the fact that writing a good book — or, hell, writing as many good books as your frail psyche can manage — increases your chances. See, that’s the thing. You can maximize your luck by taking more shots at the goal. You can be smart and you can be prolific and you buy the ticket and take the ride as many times as you can. Optimize your experience! Keep going. You learn. You fail. You seize opportunity. You make opportunity. Yeah, it’s important to recognize that luck is a factor. It’s also important to grab luck by its nipples and twist ‘em so hard it drops to its knees. (When you do, scream: “PURPLE NURPLE, MOTHERFUCKER. NOW BUY MY BOOK.”)

The Muse Is Dead And There Ain’t No Goddamn Magic

Writing feels very special. I’m crafting stories, you think. I’m changing the world. Fairy-spun story-magic. Biblio-sorcery. Dark powers summoned by one word placed in front of the next, as if each book is an incantation summoning something greater than the sum of its parts. Bad news: ain’t true. Writing isn’t magic. You are given over to no Muse, no wispy spirit crapping Skittles of inspiration into your open skull. It feels like magic, but it isn’t. Some days of writing feel more like digging ditches than casting spells.

But…

That’s awesome. Magic is overrated. Magic feels like something outside you. Something you don’t control. But this thing that we do? You control it. Writing and storytelling is less a magic spell and more a magic trick — the ability to orchestrate an illusion, to fool an audience, to play with their expectations with a practiced, mechanical expression of deception and delight. Letting your work exist as ‘real’ magic takes something away from the very real effort and awesomeness it takes to do this thing that we do. Further, it makes it sound again like it’s something reserved only for the Most Special. “Only one out of a thousand of us possess the Authorspark, a shard of the original ink-fingered gods…” Hey, fuck that. If we let this thing be too hoity-toity hocusy-pocusy, then a bad day of writing feels like cosmic punishment. A failed career makes it sound like we should just give up because the Dark Deities of the Elder Omnibus haven’t granted us their magical mercy. Sometimes, digging ditches is clarifying. It’s simple. It’s something you can do. It’s craft and construction, not Muse-farts and manuscript thaumaturgy. Let your writing feel like magic. But don’t give it over to imaginary forces. Own it. Control it. Swung shovels and sleight-of-hand.

Publishing Is A Garbage-Fire Shit-Show

The earth shudders like it just had an ugly orgasm, and the ground is moving and cracking beneath our feet. Who the hell knows what’s going on inside publishing? Publishing doesn’t even know what’s going on inside publishing. Seriously, track an editor down in NYC and ask them, “So, how’re things?” and they’re eyes will go wide, their lips will search wordlessly for news, and then a slow pee-stain will spread across the crotch of their pants. The editor might hiss something like, “Amazon drones are watching us right now,” and then turn and dart down an alley. Publishing feels nuts right now. The future, weird and uncertain. And you might say, “Oh, ho, ho, but self-publishing is all good,” but hey, things are crazy there, too. Amazon is the biggest beast in town, and this is a beast with a drinking habit. It does two good things and then one really bad one. It barfs up candy and disco balls and then eats half your livestock without warning. Everything is goofy. We’re all fucked. Go find a bunker.

But…

This is all good! I promise! I swear! Sure, sure, the ground is splitting like too-tight boxer shorts and everything’s gone super-fucky, but sometimes, shaking things up is just what the doctor ordered. (Er, not literally, and especially not regarding infants.) In these grave tectonic gaps, new life grows. And you can crawl into the fissures born of a shattered mantle and find new ways into a writing career — ways that did not exist before. The old paths are uncertain. The ancient rules are called into question. And so the fleet-of-foot and flexible-of-fiction can find opportunity in this time of disruption. *rips off clothes, runs screaming into the maelstrom*

Nobody Knows Anything

Seriously. They don’t. Not publishers. Not self-publishers. Not Amazon. Nobody. I don’t know anything. This blog is basically just an agglomeration of lies and lucky guesses. The most knowledgeable group is, has been, and will always be: readers. And they aren’t telling.

But…

Chaos is joy! Ignorance is bliss! Discovering that nobody knows anything is really, really freeing. Why? Because it’s not just you. Sometimes it feels like you’re powerless, bewildered, left wandering the snowy wolf-haunted wilderness while everyone else is enjoying snifters of brandy around a roaring fire, but ha ha ha, nope. We’re all dopes! Okay, sure, yes, some folks have more skill in navigating this wilderness than others — certainly you can hone your instincts and keep up with patterns and trends, but at the end of the day, when it comes to actually knowing things, we’re all looking up in the clouds trying to see shapes.

You’re Going To Fail

You’re going to write a shitty book. Maybe three of them. Or ten of them. And they won’t get published. Or they will (or you’ll self-publish) and they won’t sell. Writing is tough noogies, man. Everybody can’t do this thing well. Success isn’t a guarantee. The numbers are in, and most of you? Nearly all of you? You’re going to fail. And some of you will quit as a result.

But…

Failure is not a dirty word, not like ‘fucksmudge’ or ‘jizzdonkey’ or ‘trickle-down economics.’ Failure is great. I’ve failed before. I’ll fail again. Failure is a ladder made of bent metal. Failure is there to cut out the gutless and gormless, the lost and lazy, the easily dissuaded. Failure is a test — not a test of talent, no, but a test of determination. And failure is itself a learning opportunity. How did I misstep? Why? What can I do better next time? Should I include more instances of the word ‘fucksmudge,’ or fewer instances of the word? Failure is a crucial first step.

You’re Not A Special Snowflake

You’re just part of a big noisy-ass blizzard, sucker.

But…

Okay, but wait, hold on — a blizzard is still composed of itty-bitty unique snowflakes, right? At a distance it’s just a white whorl, but capture an individual snowflake and — such elegance, intricacy, and architecture. Snowflakes separated from the whole are unique, are special. And, they also melt fast. Therein contains a vital lesson, I think: every writer really is her own creature. Your voice does make you special. You have things to say and experiences and ideas and metaphors that nobody else has on offer. But — but! — if you act like a special little snowflake, you’ll turn to a drop of common water lickety-quick. It’s vital to recognize that what you bring to the page is all you, but the way you engage with the rest of the world is the same as everyone else. We’re all trying to be our own special snowflakes in this sightless, screaming blizzard. Manage that task, and you may find yourself the success you seek.

Be special.

Just don’t act like the world owes you something.

Now go and write. And know nothing. And fail proudly.

Rip off your clothes and go careening into the maelstrom.

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66 comments

  • You’re advice/devastating criticism have really helped me, or at least I think it has. Thank you for all the stuff you do/say/write. I was just wondering if you had any advice on what to do if your plot is subtle. More internal vs external. And not necessarily able to wrap into a nice little bow at the end because healing is ongoing.

    Thank you again. :D

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