I read Susannah Breslin’s blog posts at Forbes religiously and most of the time I agree with her. Occasionally I agree with her but “I’ll be cursed if I know what to do about it” such as her article on selling yourself. (Yeah, I know I should, but for my circumstances and the circumstances of the field, the good question is “how?” beyond this blog which I enjoy.)
However, having read her article on why you should not be a writer, I was seized with a need to write… not quite a counterpoint. This is more of the flip side.
In most circumstances, and for most people, she’s probably right. She might be particularly right for non-fiction. (Though I do wonder if it has occurred to her the only people who’ll heed her are the deeply diffident born-writers who will delay a couple years in their struggle. People who don’t know that they don’t know the craft will just go “oh, yes I should.”)
Despite her mention of “a novel and self-publish” ninety percent of the people she’s talking to aspire to be non-fiction writers. Now, my non-fiction writing friends tell me it’s a bug as bad as fiction, but I don’t know that of my own accord. I do know the fiction bug.
I know an article like Ms. Breslin’s would have stopped me on point one, when I was a newby – and while that might have been a great deliverance for the world (and perhaps for me) – I do have twenty one books and an award to my credit. Also, knowing me, it would only have stopped me for a year, which means in the long run it would only have cost me a year of practice and submission.
If you’re as I was then, here is why you SHOULD be a writer.
My rebuttal starts with conditions: this writing thing is not a harebrained idea you just had because you’re unemployed and living in your friend’s spare room. You don’t think you’re going to be a millionaire within a year. You’re not doing this based on the fact that you wrote cool essays in first grade. And you don’t think that writing is way easier than your day job.
None of those disqualifies you from “perhaps you SHOULD be a writer.” However, if those are the only reasons, and that’s the first time the idea of writing for a living has occurred to you, let it sit. Turn it over in your mind. Consider Ms. Breslin’s post. She’s probably right.
In fact she’s probably right if you’re past thirty and this is the first time it has occurred to you that maybe what you want to do is write. She’s not NECESSARILY right. All of us can point out exceptions. If you think you’re an exception, read on. But consider that she might be right and think it over a bit.
For everyone else — for those to whom writing is something that has to be done, consider the following:
1 – Perhaps you’re good enough.
Look, I fully take Ms. Breslin’s point one, that most people who think they’re good at it really aren’t and that few people can make words sing.
Do you words need to sing?
Oh, h*ll. I’ve had to learn to tone down the word singing thing. In the Shakespeare series, the biggest complaint is that the beautiful language distracted from the story. Which wouldn’t annoy me nearly as much if it weren’t true.
Some books – some very rare books – you can get words that sing and meld beautifully with the story. But Giovanni Guareschi said he wrote his Don Camilo books using a vocabulary of 200 words (I think.) Sounds about right. The world still comes to life and moves readers to tears or laughter and sometimes both.
And besides, it’s a skill. It can be learned. If you write long enough, if you try hard enough, you will learn it. Look at me. I’m an English-as-a-second-language speaker. My first book (unpublished) read like it was written for a classroom. I’ve been approaching the colloquial more with every book. In fact, books from four years ago, where no one complained about the language, feel stiff and contrived to me.
Language use is a skill. Do you want to write badly enough? Then write and learn.
Yeah, but what if you can’t do that? What if you can’t bring worlds to life? What if your worlds aren’t new enough? What if you have nothing to say? What if no one wants to read your stuff?
My brother, an enormously gifted poet has always dreamed of writing a book. He’s never done it, and likely he never will do it, partly because his poetry is sporadic and often written to the occasion. But he is also a good writer in other ways. He was talking to me about this research he did for fun on Sixties one-hit bands and “where are they now” and I told him “you know, there’s probably a market for this. Why don’t you write it?” And he said “Because I’m too afraid. Because if I wrote it, maybe it would sell only a copy, and I’d spend my remaining years searching for that one buyer to thank him, and then I’d find out he’d only bought it to prop up a shaky table.” Kids, if it’s not obvious, the man should be writing. Anyone who can come up with that plot at the drop of a hat was born to be a writer – even if not a Human Wave one.
What if you can’t bring worlds to life? Well, there’s only one way to find out and that’s to write and put it out there, and see the results. Oh, yeah, and continue writing. That worlds to life thing? I couldn’t either. Not with my first book. I had characters moving in grey goo. By my twelfth, though, I was starting to get the hang of it.
Am I there, yet? Oh, h*ll no. But I want it badly enough. So I’ll keep trying.
And kids, all you need is one strong talent to make it in this field. As much as I despise the word thing – perhaps because it was the one thing I first “got” – there are writers who have NOTHING but pretty language. There are writers who have nothing but interesting worlds. There are even writers who have nothing but pacing, or nothing but violence- and- sex porn (Update: for the purposes of writing critique groups I’m also used to talking about other type of things, non sex, that have the shock-and-attention effect as porn: violence, gore, etc. And yep, you can succeed on those too.) One of those – ONE – is enough to get you a huge audience.
2- It’s Hard
Yep. Ms. Breslin is right. It’s hard as h*ll. She knows that and I know that, because both of us have made a living from this. Making a living from this is hard, because – traditional or indie – you have to keep on keeping on.
This is not a matter of getting up in the morning and feeling inspired. I think I figured around the third book that if I only wrote when inspired, I’d write a book every five years, and it wouldn’t be very good. Sure, this is an art, but it’s a craft too. You study the craft.
Too tired? Too sick? Your kid is sick? Your husband is sick? Your car just broke down? Stove not working? Creditors at the door?
Too bad. If you’re under contract, you got to write and deliver. And if you’re not under contract, and just throwing things up for sale, you won’t make much if you spend a year moaning over your fate. You drag yourself up, you put on your big kid pants, and you go work.
Running on empty? Burned out? Beset on all sides? Too bad. You do it. The alternative is you give up, and then you’ve proven you shouldn’t be a writer.
But how do you do that when on empty? Well, you use craft and you paint by numbers. You learn craft by studying how other people do it. It’s part of being a professional, not an amateur who does this for fun.
As for “you’ll never know if you’re any good” – this is true. Most writers will always believe the worst about their own writing.
You might think once you’re making a living from it, you’ll know you’re good enough. Ah! Most of the time you feel you’re a fraud they’ve just not caught up with yet.
But if you want it badly enough, you’ll keep running on the never-ending treadmill and reaching for the brass ring.
3 – It’s Hard To Monetize
Well… now, that’s getting easier. At least if you figure out when you’re minimally competent, it’s not that hard. You put it up, you start selling it. Will it sell much? Probably not.
But here’s some thing I found from both my and my friends’ experiences with self-publishing> Some things work:
a) Write something a large group of people likes to read. Make it something easily identifiable: romance, mystery, fantasy. Yeah, you can write your one offs your difficult stuff, your “can’t place it” just be prepared for it to take longer to find a public.
b) Give it away free for a little while, to goose it towards finding an audience.
c) Write ten sequels.
At some point money will start coming in and keep coming in and there’s a good chance it will be enough to live on, at least if you’re minimally competent. J. K. Rowling level, I don’t promise you. I don’t even PROMISE enough to live on. But there’s a good chance you’ll make enough for that doing what you want to do and for most of life, that’s as good as it gets.
But… ten sequels! You say.
Go look at point 2. Did I promise you “easy”? No, I didn’t.
But if you want it badly enough you’ll keep trying.
And that’s the unspoken point in the whole thing. You should be a writer, regardless of Ms. Breslin’s points if:
You had the idea early, and it just won’t go away. Through the years it keeps coming up.
Perhaps you really aren’t that good. Perhaps you really would starve, but if it keeps coming back, shouldn’t you at least try?
My dad, who was an artist, but set it aside to feed the family says “eventually the urge goes away.” The way he said it was the saddest thing ever. He’s eighty. Do you want to say that when you’re eighty and know you never tried? I’m not saying let your family starve, but don’t you want to dip your toe in? Can’t you take an hour in evening?
If it’s something you feel you want desperately, give it a try. If you don’t want it hard enough to overcome your natural weaknesses in talent or learning, you’ll find out.
Someone told me when I started out that a writing career mostly resembled a series of kicks in the teeth. He was wrong. What it resembles is Andersen’s little Mermaid who, having traded her tail for two human legs, can only proceed in tiny steps each one feeling like a knife-stab. But she wanted it badly enough, and she thought the reward worth it.
If you don’t want it badly enough, TRUST me, you’ll find out.
At least you’ll have tried.
And if you want it badly enough, who knows? There might be money in it. And though you can’t judge yourself, maybe the future will judge your pain worth it.