My previous (and first) blog post was about how I was eleven years late in starting a blog. So I thought it was only fitting that my second blog post be a contribution to a trend I’m equally late for. A List Of Self Serving Pieces Of Writing Advice That Makes Me Look Super Published And Important And Like A Real Author This Jerk Might Represent.
OK. I’m not just equally late for this task. This is a storied, venerated tradition, dating back to an era when women were forced to write their M/M erotica on clay tablets and Stephen King was but a glimmer in Cthullu’s sixth or seventh eye. So technically, I’m about 600 years late for this task, not 11. (And technically, writers, I’m supposed to write out the number eleven because it’s under one hundred. See? That’s writing advice.) And to be honest, I get blocked whenever I try to come up with a list like this because there are so many other lists that seem sorta related that I’d rather come up with first. Like a list of colleagues who were epically self-important douchebags on panels when someone asked them for broadbrush writing advice. Or a list of writing professors who work tirelessly to piss on the dreams of their most eccentric students, only to watch them grow up to be someone like this guy (who happens to be God, and if you disagree with me get the hell off my blog because you’ll never be a real writer.)
Before I go any further, let me bottom line a few things for those of you who won’t have the patience for all the jokes I’ve stuffed into the following paragraphs. It’s very to hard to make a practical and pragmatic list of writing tips because when people ask for writing advice, they’re usually asking two questions – 1. What will make me a “real writer”? and 2. What will make me “a success”? Unfortunately, it’s impossible for any writer to answer either of these questions, ever, under any circumstances, especially if the person asking is someone the writer doesn’t know very well.
No one can tell you what it takes to be a “real writer” because no one knows what a “real writer” is. What I am sure of is this: the people who are usually falling over themselves to define the term “real writer” are usually not folks the majority of people would consider “real writers”. Fire-breathing professors who’ve never tackled long form fiction but have intractable opinions about how to do it, “writing coaches” – what are those? – and “developmental editors” with suspect resumes and manipulative methods for breeding a sense of dependency in fledgling writers because they’re planning to to invoice them a whole bunch. And yes, I know. I’m singling out the bad apples from larger groups with members who can, in many cases, be very helpful to a writer’s process. But the one type of rot these bad apples all have in common is they want to tell you what a “real writer” is.
And no one can tell you how to be a successful writer either, because that assumes there’s a fixed, universal definition of success. Actually, they’re about a dozen, ranging from the spiritual to the commercial, and it’s your responsibility to find the definition that clicks easily into place within your soul. For me, it’s this. My goal is to support myself with my writing so that I can stop asking my mother to cover my bills with the proceeds from her S & M erotica.
Just kidding. Sort of.
Actually, my personal definition of success is pretty clear. I want to sell a shitload of fucking books. I am unabashedly commercial and I am relatively shameless about marketing and promotion. My goal is to sell as many copies of what I write as possible, despite the limitations others place on my work because many of the characters are gay and as an author I have a tendency to tilt towards the very, very dark. I only believe in suffering for my art if I’m eventually going to get paid for my suffering. So in other words, I believe in suffering for my marketing. (Which, I submit to you, is suffering for my art. But many others disagree.)
But some people don’t need this and that’s fine. You might be the writer who is perfectly content to sell a limited number of copies, earn the respect of other colleagues and critics you’ve always admired, develop a close connection with a small number of readers who were deeply impacted by your book, and so on. And this is wonderful and fine and no one should judge you for it, including me. But it’s just one more reason why it’s impossible for most writers to answer the questions people are really asking (or not asking directly) when they ask for advice about writing.
But back to see these big shaming lists of douchebags I somehow never get around to writing…
For starters, if another writer wrote a list of Colleagues Who Have Been The Biggest Douchebags On Panels, there’s a very good chance I’d end up on it, especially if that writer had ever been on a panel with me. (There’s not a video of what I’m about to describe so I’ll just link to this instead because most literary panels are just like this.) I had my own…how shall we put it?…moment on a panel at Bouchercon a few years back. Somebody asked me to describe the difference between genre and literary fiction and I described literary fiction thusly: “Nothing happens for three hundred pages and then, at the very end, there’s a catastrophic turn of events from which no one will recover.” One of my fellow panelists responded, with the cocked head and narrowed eyes one typically reserves for a barfing baby they’ve just spotted on the other side of a crowded restaurant, “Perhaps we shouldn’t speak of them the way they speak of us,” and I responded by mumbling something semi-defensive about how professors in masters programs were actively discouraging their students from pursuing genre material which was sort of true but not really relevant and anyway…
The point is, if you’re going to pursue this writing life, get used to panels. Get used to lots and lots of panels. In the mystery world, the topics can get super fun. Like PASTRY CHEFS: CULINARY WIZARDS OR UNDER-APPRECIATED SLEUTHS? and SETTING: ARE WE SICK OF TALKING ABOUT IT YET?
That’s actually not the point. The point is — oh my God! Has the video for Aqua’s Barbie Girl really been viewed over 110 million times? No, that’s not point either. It’s true, sadly, but not the point.
The point! Panels open the door to posturing and pretentiousness the same way a blog does, the same way doling out writing advice does And I’m just as guilty of posturing and pretentiousness in this area as anyone else. (That’s writing advice numbers 203 and 204, by the way. I’m forgoing a numbered list here, folks, but if you go back through the above with a fine-tooth comb you’ll uncover over 200 pieces of writing advice. For free!)
There’s really only one thing all writers have in common; their absolute, stone-cold conviction that eighty percent of the other writers on earth are absolute hacks who don’t deserve to live. The ability of most writers to examine other successful writers in objective terms that reach beyond their own competitiveness and insecurity is usually very, very low. (Me, included. Don’t get me started on the catastrophe that was THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. I don’t care if he’s dead.) And that’s why it’s almost impossible for writers who have reached a certain level of sales to articulate a coherent behavioral path towards success for the emerging writer; they believe, on a fundamental level, that their colleagues aren’t doing as good a job as they are. And there’s very little that will dissuade them of this. The notable exception being if one of the other writers they can’t stand suddenly gives them a kick-ass blurb. Or sleeps with them.
Speaking of sleeping with people, isn’t Logan Lerman (a.k.a Percy Jackson) really cute? He knows this post is long but he’d like you to keep reading. I have it on good authority.
Thanks, Logan. Call me if you ever want writing advice.
Anyway, competitiveness between writers goes beyond the old literary cliche that says if you’re a bestseller, you’re a sell out. This is bullshit shoveled mostly by people who are deeply frustrated the type of fiction they’re moved by doesn’t enjoy a greater share of the marketplace. As one accomplished editor once assured me, the idea that a writer like Mary Higgins Clark is secretly sitting on her own version of MOBY DICK while churning out crowd-pleasing romantic suspense year after year is a cozy lie. “Literary” novelists who feel deeply marginalized by the marketplace often indulge the opiatic fantasy that Mary Higgins Clark and her ilk truly want to write like them but they just don’t have the guts to get paid less. This is nonsense but it brings me to the only quality I see all financially successful writers as having in common; they write what they truly enjoy writing and this allows them to pursue their craft in an almost frenzied and compulsive way. (Cases in point: Stephen King’s 2,000 words a day, every day. The average output of a romance novelist, which in this new digital age, is expected to be somewhere around 6,546,789 novels and novellas a month. You can’t write like that, with that kind of output, unless you’re deeply enamored with the type of material you’re writing.)
And now I’m going to come dangerously close to doing what I just condemned hacks and literary snake-oil salespersons for doing. While I’m not going to tell you what a real writer is, I am going to identify the one quality that indicates someone will never reach any level of success as a writer.
They won’t fucking write.
Nine times out of ten, when a friend asks for my advice on writing, I’m usually floored by the request because the person in question has never said one word to me about books, mine or their own. And more often than not, we’ve barely taken our first sip of Earl Grey before they start rattling off what sounds suspiciously like a series of complaints, as if somehow over the years I’ve needled them into broaching this subject with me and the talk we’re about to have is going to be serious in tone and include multiple mentions of personal boundaries. They’re convinced that writing is really just being a good daydreamer. Coming up with “good ideas” is something they do all the time. But the writing part seems really, really hard and cumbersome and they want to know if I have a secret weapon, like a prescription version of speed that won’t make them rend their garments or rewire the television, or maybe a scented candle that will relax them into unleashing their inner novel.
What they’re really saying is, “Convince me. Convince me to join your club. I know I’m good enough. I mean, it’s really just making stuff up, right? But please, writer person, tell me why it’s worth my time. There’s just so much typing and my fingers get sore!”
My answer is a polite version of this: “If someone needs to convince you to do this, then this is not for you.”
Because there’s really only one ingredient a writer needs to have a shot at achieving any version of success in this field.
Obsession. That’s it. That’s my one piece of writing advice. Be obsessed.
Should you memorize Strunk & White? Should you indie publish or send query agents to letters? Should you join a writer’s group or poison one? Hell, I don’t know. And honestly, I can’t speak to many of those issues because I was published when I was and the way I was because I was Anne Rice’s son. But what I can speak to is how to cultivate the endurance you need to have a shot at reaching your personal definition of success. What I can speak to is how you pick yourself back up and brush yourself off after a career-endangering sales drop like THE MOONLIT EARTH.
No. This does not mean you should be pumping out 10,000 words a day every day or else you’re not a real writer. Instead, make sure your bookshelves, digital and/or physical, are overloaded with books about the topics, cities, crimes and historical figures you want to write about. Make no apologies for the fact that part of you is always dancing in your dreamworld and looking for ways to externalize it through words.
And ask yourself this. If the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keys, destroys your fantasy life instead of invigorating it, then maybe daydreaming really isn’t enough to be a writer and you should try a paintbrush. Or some charcoal. Because when people say to me, “I don’t know how you write you all those books!”, I respond with, “I can’t not write those books!” But I don’t mean in it in a self important or grandiose kind of way. What I’m trying to tell them is, “HELP! I HATE REALITY SO MUCH I CAN’T STOP TRYING TO GIVE IT DIFFERENT ENDINGS. DO I NEED A HOBBY? DO YOU KNOW ANY KNITTING CLUBS???”
Be obsessed. If those two simple words strike you as melodramatic and pretentious, just set them to the tune of this song when you hear them in your head. You’ll sell like Mary Higgins Clark. Promise.
(UPDATE) Social media being what it is, there was an immediate response to this blog post as soon as I shared the link. One of the comments went something like this. “We go to your mother for advice. We go to you for something to look at.” So I responded with this:
In keeping with the overall theme of advice giving, another user suggested my response wasn’t witty enough. (He was either a “user” or a slinky back cat with amazing computer skills, depending upon the accuracy of his profile photo.) At any rate, I amended my response as follows:
See? Anyone can be a real writer*.
(*Interesting side note. Another Facebook follower was quite amused to see I’d closed the door in between taking the the first and second shot, given that I planned on posting the end result on a very public Facebook profile. Which brings to mind another key element of becoming a successful writer most people overlook – the lighting.)
UPDATE UPDATE: As you can see from the comments, one of the “users” I referred to is actually named Brandon and he was only teasing me and we’ve worked things out. (I hope he knows I was only teasing when I offered to let him nurse from me like a little baby. Isn’t social media fun?)