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For Aspiring Writers: the Worst Advice You'll Ever Read
Dear aspiring/young writer:
You have no doubt read all those blurbs and bulleted lists of edifyingly positive advice for aspiring writers assembled by solidly successful, well-established writers.
Herewith is the worst advice you'll ever read. A bold claim, perhaps? Read on and decide for yourself.
Why am I qualified to offer you the very worst advice on how to become a published writer/author? For this important reason: if there is an easy way to establish oneself as a writer, then I have taken the opposite path, the hardest, lengthiest, dumbest and most arduous one possible. That's why I can categorically claim that I offer you the very worst advice on how to make it as a writer.
1. Get born into a wealthy, influential family which will whisk you into an Ivy League university on the strength of their alumni clout and donations, then schmooze your way via connections into an internship at The New Yorker or equivalent high-visibility media outlet (Conde Nast, New York Times, etc.). Once you've made the requisite social connections and dabbled at copyediting, then write a nasty little family history leavened with plenty of inflammatory high-society gossip, making sure you dwell on your horribly neurotic childhood. Or, worst case scenario, pen a "literary" novel of "lean, muscular prose," take on one of the agents your boss/uncle/professor recommended, and then gear up to attend your book party at a tony Manhattan bistro.
Oh, and don't forget to bolster your thin resume with some exotic travel and a three-week stint as a "journalist" or some other workaday gig which suggests you actually paid your dues.
Does this sound a wee bit bitter? Nah, it's just the way it works when, as Orwell so trenchantly put it, some of us are more equal than others. If you have to start out as a complete unknown, far from the bright lights, big bucks and connections of the Upper West Side or West L.A.--well, let's put it this way: you are more likely to be struck by lightning while walking down Wilshire Blvd. than you are to gain this sort of privileged access from East Overshoe, U.S.A.
Can't swing Advice Number One? OK, then let's try the worst advice for lesser mortals:
2. Prepare yourself to deal with this fact: in the brief time it's taken you to read this far, a thousand screenplays have plopped onto L.A. agents' slush piles and a thousand book manuscripts have thumped onto various Left and Right Coast agents' desks. Then recall that about 200 feature films are produced in Hollywood each year, and several hundred novels by previously unknown authors are published by established publishers every year.
I'm not saying this to get you down--it's just the central fact of life when it comes to selling fiction when you have no connections to the business. And even having connections doesn't guarantee you the brass ring--it just means someone other than a clerk will look at your stuff. And that is important. If no one looks at your stuff, then you'll never sell it.
So how do I know this? From talking to people in the business. I've had the good fortune to have had two Hollywood agents, real live people who've slogged out a living in Tinseltown. The publisher of my novel I-State Lines (it hits the shelves April 2006) told me they receive 6,000 manuscripts a year and publish six. (They also publish new works by their current stable of authors, but they leave six slots open for new authors.) This is a small but well-regarded publishing house, The Permanent Press, NY. If a small house gets 6,000 manuscripts or pitches a year, what do you reckon the big agencies and publishers get over the transom? My first agent didn't even hazard a guess--just "hundreds every month." Multiply this times hundreds of agents and you get an idea of how many stories are being pitched each year.
The odds in Hollywood are even worse. I have to laugh (cynically, of course) when I read ever-so-helpful authors suggest that aspiring writers ask agents for their list of clients, to see if they're a good match for your brilliant work. Excuse me while I ROTFLMAO. I tried this with the second agent interested in my novel and he wrote back a terse, scribbled note that said it all: "You're lucky anyone is even looking at your material." That, friends, is the truth. Agents have their fill of "brilliant" writers, "brilliant" ideas so amazing that someone is sure to steal them (you should be so lucky--large agencies don't even open your pitch just so they can't be accused of stealing your $100 million plot), and poor foolish devils naive enough to think their story is going to blow down all the doors in New York or Hollywood.
OK, Mr. Hollywood, you ask, what makes you qualified to speak on the subject? First off, there's a bit of Hollywood in the family. My great-uncle was one of Walt Disney's first employees, and he rose up to production chief. He steered my grandfather into buying a small company which formulated the special paints used by animators. (Each second of cartoon or animated film required 24 frames of hand-painted art.) My cousin still operates the business, though of course computer animation has greatly reduced the demand for hand-painted animation.
My Mom's friend's nephew owns a nice mansion in Pasadena, earned by scoring music for soap operas, and on my stepmother's side, there's a union cameraman; my niece worked as an actress for a few years in TV, getting enough gigs to earn a SAG card (Screen Actors Guild), which isn't that easy to get; you don't just show up and be an extra and then get the card....
And then there's my own experience pitching agents and then working with them. The first young guy to take an interest in my novel (this is in response to a mass mailing of about 100 pitches I sent in 1994)--his agency passed, but I saw his name a few years ago. He'd moved up from the junior agent's life and was now a producer of teen horror films. It was a longshot, but I emailed him. He sent me a referral to one of those parasite screenwriting shops which hold contests and live off the $300 entry fees. Uh, no thanks; I may be slow and dumb, but I've learned a few things slogging through the trenches.
My first agent got a good nibble from a small publisher--my book went to committee, but they didn't go for it. My second agent got six requests for a science fiction script I'd written, and man, I was flying high that week in 1999. For sure one of these production companies would at least option the script, and then I'd finally be on my way, after 12 years of effort and disappointment.
Not so fast, buster. No sale. After a few years of no results, I could tell his enthusiasm was waning, so we parted ways. He had given me a lot of sage advice, and pushed me to re-write the first novel again and again, year after year. (I ended up re-writing it 14 times over about eight years--and it had taken me three years to complete the first draft.) Of course I wrote other stuff as well--two other novels, seven screenplays, a very few stories, and of course the stuff I was getting paid to write--feature articles, PR pieces, documentary scripts, business plans, you name it.
To summarize: the odds are very long against selling fiction--either novels or screenplays. Be prepared for the long haul and years if not decades of rejection and disappointment. Once you grasp the enormity of this flood of creativity, this massive mountain of paper which pours into Hollywood and New York each and every week of each and every year-- never mind that the old-line studios have thousands of scripts stored in their vaults, scripts they already own--you have to wonder, in a Butch Cassidy moment: Who are these guys (and gals)? Who's writing these thousands upon thousands of novels and scripts?
Well, you and me, and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people who've reckoned they could write a better movie than the one they just paid $10 to see, or who have just graduated from Creative Writing Programs and are itching to take New York by storm... a veritable army of aspiring writers, all trying for a very few openings in a narrow market.
If given the choice between moving to New York or L.A. and becoming a better writer, become a better writer first. Please note that of the 10 million worker-bees in L.A., 9 million are trying to break into the movie business. OK, that's an exaggeration: make that 8 million. You can move to L.A. but if you don't have a damned fine fully polished product to pitch, then you're not advancing your career. Writing in a crappy room in Studio City or SoHo isn't gonna necessarily make you a better writer (although it might give you some more interesting material to write about). Discovering the weaknesses in your material and getting professional advice on how to improve it will.
One caveat to that advice. If you really want to learn screenwriting, then get your ambitious self into the screenwriting programs at UCLA or USC. If you can do that, then you'll build a network which will serve you well as your fellow graduates go out and start securing positions in the film industry.
3. You want to be paid to write? Then understand the market and make sure you buy other writers' work. How many new novels did you buy last year at retail at your local independent bookseller? (OK, or through Amazon--at least you paid for a new book and the author earned some royalties from your purchase.) How many non-fiction books? How many novels from new/unknown writers grace the bookshelves of your friends? The sad truth: probably not many.
By way of example: one of my publisher's new writers was selected by Barnes & Noble for their "new young talent" section (or whatever it's called). They demanded the publisher print up a few thousand copies, which they obediently did. Net result: all this national exposure in a major chain, the kind of coverage which you or I would covet with every fiber of our being, produced about 300 copies sold. That's right, 300 copies sold across the entire nation in all the hundreds of Barnes & Noble stores. That's a realistic view of new fiction: national sales of less than a 1,000 copies, not enough for the publisher to recoup their expenses.
Fiction doesn't sell that well. Many people don't read much fiction, or what they do read is the "hot seller" of the moment. Thus you have non-fiction titles like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (unread by me, but highly recommended by some of my readers) which sold over 2 million copies, while hundreds of really fine novels sell a few hundred copies each.
That's the nature of the Beast. The majority of book sales are non-fiction titles: cookbooks, travel, history, and the like; a huge chunk of fiction is genre work like romances, military thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction and so on. Just by the numbers, if you want to be a published author, pitch a non-fiction idea: the Gardens of Suzhou, China; Medoc Magic: Cooking from the South of France; Cars of the Stars; The Tragedy of Somalia; Flygirls: Female Pilots of World War II--these are ideas I just came up with as I type, just to show the enormous range and market that exists for non-fiction subjects. It's immeasurably easier to sell a book which is on a practical, albeit narrow, topic. OK, so you won't be the next Nabokov or Twain, but you will be an author.
Here's something else to understand: the death of independent bookstores is also the death of opportunity for new fiction writers. Why? Say you're the buyer for a big chain. You (and maybe one or two other people) decide what books will line the shelves in hundreds of stores. If you decide not to buy that new novel, then the potential book buyer will never see it.
Contrast that with the indie booksellers, each of whom buys a different list of books. OK, so maybe not every indie orders 10 copies of your book, but maybe 50 do. That might be enough to get your book out to the book-buying public. But if there's no indie bookstores left, then guess what--the fate of your novel is in the hands of a very few corporate types. They may love books, but the reduction of buyers from hundreds to a handful has deprived you of the variety of opinion, quirkiness and just plain luck that every fiction writer needs to reach an audience.
To summarize: you want to sell your writing, then understand the book marketplace. You want to get paid for writing, then make sure you buy new books so the other guy makes a buck, too. I make a point of buying books at independent booksellers; yes, I do buy at the chains when I'm in a hurry, and I also buy used books, mostly ones which are no longer copyrighted (i.e. classics published more than 50 years ago).
4. The hoary cliche is true: if you can do anything other than write, then go do that. I know a number of writers who are far more talented than I am but who will never finish their novels, or re-write them to a state of coherence, which is the same thing. I know writers who mailed three queries and got calls back from two agents, while I have sent multiple queries of every size and type--mass mailings to hundreds of agencies, carefully pruned lists culled from editor contacts, every possible way there is to pitch agents, just to get two or three nibbles.
Yet despite that promising beginning, and an agent begging them to finish their book, they couldn't find the strength or will or desire to slog through the process. Meanwhile, thousands of other idiots such as myself fail time and again but keep writing and re-writing anyway. After one severe disappointment--I'd found a local publisher for the book, yes, this was the one, and then two months later they closed their doors, bankrupt--my sister asked me, "So what can you do? Give up?"
Note that she didn't ask me, "what are you going to do?" She asked if I could give up. The answer is no. Not because success is just around the corner, or because I need a book under my belt as a measure of my worth as a human being or even as a writer, but because some part of me gets unsettled and unhappy if I'm not engaged in the process of writing a novel.
So if you fully grasp the long odds against success--let's say they're 1,000 to 1, although I'd put them higher by a factor of ten--and you're willing to spend your life writing stuff which may never be read--well then, keep going. But know, too, that there's no shame in calling it quits. You will have learned a lot about writing, and more importantly, about yourself, if you complete a book, even one destined for the dusty top shelf of the closet.
Here's two other cliches to ponder: nobody wants to read about the village of happy people, and happy, well-adjusted people aren't driven to write novels. I mean really, what's the point in spending all that time alone, only to get rejected as sure as the sun rises in the morning? Why have all your dreams of literary glory crushed so soundly, and so repetitively? What's the point? Is it to excise some personal demons? OK, fine; then the exercise is well worth it. Is it to prove to those no-good selfish parents (or insert authority of choice) that you're a genius after all, and they should bow down and worship the very dust you tread?
At some point you're going to have to face the question of why you're crazy enough to pursue what is fundamentally a quest akin to winning the lottery, only it takes 10,000 times more effort and time than spinning a wheel or buying a ticket. Do you dream of the glory of it all, the interviews, the money, the fame, the glow of sweet success when your book makes it big?
Or do you think about how to stretch your protagonist, about what his or her parents were like, or about how to describe the tension of being in the open ocean when the waves are rising and darkness is setting in? If that's what gets you up in the morning, and if you can't wait to re-write that section again, even though you've been through it ten times already (but who's counting? Something's just not gripping enough), if you read Nabokov and Melville and Austin and James and Ellison and Twain and DeBouvoir and Pushkin everything else which you've heard is great writing, not in a class but on your own, in order to study their control of description, of dialog, of thematic dynamics and a dozen other things which you can't quite identify, then you're probably a writer, at least for now.
One of my favorite writing cliches is the one Woody Allen mocked in one of his films. In the film it was the prototypical college professor; but the same notion can be expressed by a bond trader or attorney: once I nail down a million bucks, or tenure, or that cabin in the woods (insert bourgeois fantasy of completion), then I'm gonna write that novel.
Never happens. Why? Because they're not writers. They're professors, or bond traders or attorneys or whatever. They like the idea of being a writer but not the actual work of being a writer. Emerson wrote, "Do the thing and you shall have the power," which means if you're a writer, then you write, not as a forced effort or because you're so damned great or because you covet the glory heaped on writers but because you can't quit. Rationality, wisdom, practicality--all of these suggest quitting such a madcap, lonely boring quest is a fine idea.
That's not the worst of it: just being a writer doesn't make you any good.
OK, so here's the worst advice you're ever going to read about the process of becoming a better writer.
5. Don't join a writer's group except as a recruitment tool to find professional writers and editors. I know, I know, this is the universal advice given to all aspiring scribblers: join a writer's group. Ignore it. If someone doesn't know about computers, are you going to ask their advice about setting up your 802.11g wireless router? Why ask a no-nothing just because they aspire to knowing something? Wait until they do know something, and can prove it by getting paid to do it, and then solicit their advice.
It is important to get experienced eyes to read your work. I have received invaluable advice from professional editors and writers. The advice I've received from readers or wannabes (back when I was equal parts stupidity, eagerness and naivete) has been unhelpful and distracting, unless that person was an expert in the topic covered by the book. Then of course their advice is very helpful, even if they're not a writer.
Here's what you get from a professional: straight-up criticism on what's weak, but delivered without meanness or judgment. We all wish to hear the huzzahs imagined by Camus' failed-writer character in The Plague: "Hats off, gentlemen!" Yes, this first draft is brilliant, perhaps change a word or two here and there....don't count on it.
6. Mozart was writing decent concertos at 12, but have you ever heard of a great work of literature written by anyone under the age of 35? Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice at 20 and finally finished it 17 years later. Most literature which has stood the test of time is written by people in their 40s or 50s, after a lifetime of experience, observation, failure, soul-searching, and yes, writing.
So be realistic about your first efforts, especially if you're still in your 20s. Yes, some people write a brilliant work in their 20s or 30s, but such work is usually based on their childhood or a real person they're describing with only cosmetic changes--for example, On the Road.
7. Everybody's always telling you to keep writing. That's not the trick; the trick is to keep improving. The best way to do that is to learn to become your own strictest editor. You can't be leaning on professionals to help you re-write every draft. You have to learn the essentials of editing from them and then apply those skills relentlessly to your own work. At some point your own editing skills will be objective enough that you will lose your attachment to your own words. Then, and only then, will you really start improving as a writer.
Say you've written the first volume of a proposed eight-volume fantasy which is going so far beyond The Lord of the Rings that it isn't even funny. Now that you've polished off volume one--a healthy 700 pages--now you can turn to.... volume one again and re-write it. If you went on and wrote the other seven volumes, it's unlikely you'd learn much in all that writing. You'd probably end up making the same mistakes you made in writing volume one. Better to re-write volume one seven times and learn how to edit yourself, mercilessly and objectively and skeptically, and then move on to the later volumes.
8. Don't blame your agent, or your publisher, or anyone else if your book fails to find a market. Accept that fate, karma, chance, luck, the gods of literary success or whatever you wish to call That Which We Do Not Control plays a huge role in any book's visibility and sales. As my sister reminds me, Hamlet isn't just about indecision, it's about timing. There was a moment when the blow should have been struck, and in hesitating, Hamlet doomed himself and others.
You cannot buy success in the literary market. Recently, some dot-com mega-millionaire decided to take the book market by storm, just as he'd conquered the Tech world. So he spent megabucks promoting his novel, hiring outlandish performers to prance about at book fairs and the like.
Needless to say, his book bombed. It bombed so big and so hard, no one's ever heard of it. It was a lousy book, and it got lousy reviews, so nobody bought it. As a good friend of mine says, if you want to get people to buy your $10 book, insert a $20 bill in each one. Short of that, you can't force people to buy a book, no matter how much money you spend on promotion and ads.
Ditto for films. Gazillionaires routinely go to Hollywood to show those yokels what real money and talent can do, and inevitably their movies bomb. If they stick it out and make it past the first five or six bombs, then they start learning from those insular yokels and they might eventually make a decent film. But most leave disgusted, complaining about the inside network and the lousy distributors and so on. That may well be true, but some books do well despite the insider network, the crummy promotion, the lackluster agent, etc.
Take the book A Simple Plan. It was a small book, no big cultural fizz to it, but it struck a chord in Hollywood one weekend, and by Monday the new author was being offered $250,000 (or something like that) for the film rights, and sure enough, five or six years later, a small film based on the book was made and distributed. Was that book the very best available on that weekend to base a movie on? Who knows? It caught fire at the right moment in the right audience, and the author struck gold.
It happens. Yes, it does. But it's like getting struck by lightning on Wilshire Blvd. You can wave a metal pole above your head, but you need the right storm and a bit of luck to actually get the lightning to strike you. So go ahead and wave the steel rod for all you're worth, but don't count on it attracting a bolt of lightning.
9. Get clear on what part of the business you are actually enamored with. If what you really hope to do is break into Hollywood, then consider joining one of the tens of thousands of people making good livings doing something other than writing screenplays. As you recall from the beginning of this little essay, there are lots of (unglamorous) jobs to be had in the film industry, and a little of the glitter will rub off on you, if that's really what you're after.
If you really want to hold a book with your name on it, then pitch a non-fiction title. Get experience as a journalist or free-lance writer, learn the trade, ask pros for their critiques, and then write a book which you can actually sell.
If you want to be part of the world of publishing, then try to join an agency or publisher as a reader. You'll certainly find out what's being submitted and see what you're up against as an author. You may find you like editing, selling or publishing writing more than you like the writing itself.
If you really, really want to write deep, probing literary fiction, then get life experience. Don't hole up in academia. The number of great books written by college professors who have the hots for vulnerable co-eds is zero. (Nabokov was a writer long before he was a professor, and furthermore, Humbert Humbert had the hots for a 12-year old.) And don't mistake travel for experience. Yes, travel is adventure, fun, dismal, even frightening at times, but it is only a certain slice of experience, a rather thin slice. It cannot replace starting (and failing at) a business, or engaging in a great political struggle, or working at a variety of manual-labor jobs alongside a wide variety of people.
And read deeply, not just fiction, but psychology, philosophy and theology. Understand the conflicts of the human condition and the multiple layers which influence human behavior. Make such research a life-long habit, because there is no end to the variations of human behavior and the advances being made by science in understanding the human psyche.
10. Be prepared to deal with the creative conundrum: if you're writing another thriller based on the great art of the world (a la Dan Brown), expect to be rejected because there's already a 100 clones of that fad in the pipeline. Ditto for genre work; agents and publishers have murder mysteries, military thrillers, fantasies and romances coming in by the container load. But if you come up with something so original it doesn't ring any obvious marketing bells (a murder mystery in rhyme, etc.), then expect to be rejected because the risk is too great. Thus all new writers are caught between the Scylla of me-too clones and the Charybdis of risky innovation.
11. Everyone in Hollywood claims to be "good at story," which goes a long way toward explaining why most Hollywood movies are mediocre. Great fiction is built on character, not story. To trot out two useful cliches about story: Godard famously said, "All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." C'est vrai, n'est pas? Then there's the classic line that there's only two stories in the world: 1) a quest, and 2) a stranger comes to town. If you reckon a stranger comes to town on a quest, well then I guess there's only one storyline.
Focusing on story in the belief that a "great story" is the key to a great book is what most assuredly places a writer in amateur-hour. Making a character is so difficult, most writers cheat and just copy a real live person. Of course we all draw upon our experience of real people, but just copying someone's idiosyncrasies and changing their name is not great writing.
Another amateur-hour laziness is relying on pop culture to add verisimilitude to your character. "Joe Blow hunched over the Asteroids console, sipping a New Coke, and paused to turn up his new tape of The Clash." Yes, this builds character--if you have a time machine to return to 1980. Otherwise, it just dates your story and turns the reader off. Nothing is lamer than outdated pop culture references.
12. Be grateful for whatever bylines and exposure you earn, for there are tens of thousands of other aspiring writers who would gladly accept whatever crumbs of cash or recognition you've gained from your ceaseless toils. OK, here's the unvarnished truth about our place in the world economy as writers/authors: we are the pond-scum of the global economy, forced by pitiless imbalances in supply and demand into accepting pittances for wages. Would you like to protest the $150 fee you're offered for an item in a national publication? Well move along, pal, there are hundreds of English majors desperate for that crummy byline who will do it for $25 or even free.
Think you should get more than $1,000 for that 3,000 word piece which reaches a million subscribers? The line of people who would take your place in a New York second for $500 is down the hall, around the corner and halfway to Timbuktu.
This is the brutal Darwinian world of free-lance writing, where editors squeezed by Corporate to lower costs must fill the copy vacuum for the least amount of cash possible without embarrassing the publication with cheesy writing. The more reliable and better-paid alternative is to get that degree in journalism and nail down a union position at a large newspaper.
Alas, newspapers and indeed the entire print media is under a relentless assault by free online publications. Of course nothing is free, but for a few bucks you can subscribe to the wire services and display the headline stories for almost nothing. No one does any real journalism for free; there's no investigations, no in-depth reporting, no skeptical eye cast on advertisers, the corporate world, the corruption of public trust, etc.
And the blame partly lies with you, young whippersnapper, because young people no longer subscribe to newspapers or magazines. They click on Yahoo News, absorb a superficial corporate-approved summary of "news" and then move on to download the latest forgettable song by a copy-cat band. And so news rooms are being culled, journalists are getting laid off, and the print media is struggling to get paid for the news they've spent big bucks collecting and analyzing. Well guess what, kids, you get what you pay for in the real world, and if you pay nothing for news then it's worth nothing.
I subscribe to eleven publications, though four would probably do: The paper I write for (The San Francisco Chronicle), the Wall Street Journal ($79/year online edition), The Economist (also $79/year online edition), The New Republic (excellent book reviews), Scientific American, BusinessWeek, Foreign Affairs, Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly and MAD magazine (the sharpest critiques of our culture are found in MAD). Of course I'll look at the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker when I get the chance, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I used to subscribe to Dwell, which I enjoyed, but I have to speed-read just to keep up with what I currently receive.
So the world of employment for journalists is shrinking. Under the relentless cost-cutting, you can expect to make maybe $60,000 a year--not big bucks, but you'll learn how to write under deadline and how to write clearly, and how to interview people and to check quotes.
If you prefer the shadowy world of the broken-lance writer, oops I mean free-lance, then gain some expertise in a marketable field: architecture, gun control issues, water quality, land rights, garden design, hiking, new web technologies, something. Your expertise in a specific field is the only thing standing between you and the hordes of English graduates grasping for a byline. If you actually know what you're writing about, editors may well start assigning you stories--or at least they'll listen to your story ideas.
The advantage of being a free-lancer is extreme poverty, which keeps you thin by necessity. (see photo to the right, and no, that is not a younger body Photoshopped onto a 52-year old graying head, that is a lean, mean poverty-income free-lance writing machine.) I am not kidding about the poverty-level income; if you really want to become a serious writer, then you have to choose a lifestyle and way of making a living which leaves you time to write. Unless you're an expert at B.S. (i.e. a grant writer), then that means working fewer hours at jobs which don't leave you a limp rag squeezed of vitality, e.g. a typical corporate gig.
Though an ascetic lifestyle is a side-benefit, what I meant to highlight is the benefit of having to market yourself constantly. This will pay dividends later when you're trying to sell your book. If you've made some bucks in the hard-scrabble trenches of free-lancing, then you'll already be hardened to pathetic pay and constant rejection, i.e. the parched landscape you will have to traverse to become a published author.
13. Writing isn't hard work, so stop whining about it. One of my friends from the Hawaiian island of Lanai recounted a tale earlier this year which says a lot about the true nature of work. My friend (who happens to be Filipino-American) explained that he'd once had a college-era job at a McDonald's in Honolulu. One day, a haole (Caucasian) guy had been nearly weeping at the difficulty and sheer effort required to mop the floor of the restaurant. My friend was incredulous, for he knew what real work was: picking pineapple all day in the oppressive tropic sun, walking endlessly behind a boom truck, twisting the heavy ripened fruit off the low thorny plants and tossing them up onto the conveyor. (Yes, I did this too.)
This is precisely the sort of work American shun as too hard, too laborious, too boring, too poorly paid, so that sort of labor is performed by immigrants or it's shipped via "outsourcing" to other countries where the people are less picky about their employment. So my friend restrained his desire to laugh in the sad sack's face and explained what real work was like, and that mopping the floor didn't qualify.
In my many years in construction (what else do you think that shiny degree in Comparative Philosophy prepared me to do?), I have dug ditches in clay soil, humped many tons of lumber around, pounded countless nails and fallen off a couple of roofs, nearly killing myself in the process.
So now hear this, aspiring writers: writing is not hard work. It is hard in a certain intellectual and occasionally emotional way, but it isn't real hard work. So stop whining about it. And also stop whining about how hard it is to market your work--maybe it's no good, maybe the timing is wrong, maybe your pitch sucks, maybe you're trying to sell to the wrong outfit. "Smile and dial" is what the sales reps do, and after a while rejection becomes a part of your landscape. No, it never feels good, but you get over it quicker; you sigh, you rant (your significant other will tune you out, so get over that, too) and then you mope, and eventually you start thinking about your next pitch or story idea. You write it up and think it's not half-bad, and then you hit the electronic pavement yet again.
14. Extra special bonus advice. Keep a sense of humility and humor about your writing and about yourself. The more successful the writer, the more gracious and generous he or she is likely to be.
14. Super-extra special bonus advice. If you want to write a fiction story which will sell, write about an overweight, put-upon person who finds true love. This is not a putdown of overweight people; we all have our insecurities, and while some of us smoke, drink or run our insecurities away, about half of us statistically succumb to the wiles of the food industry, which hires thousands of people in white lab coats to design edibles which are irresistible to the human palate and which can be priced very competitively.
The key to this bonus advice is two-fold: it isn't that being overweight is more compelling than being a speed-freak, danger-freak, exercise-freak or sex-freak--it's just a lot more common, so your potential audience is something like 40% of the entire U.S. population. The other key point is that the central fantasy of all humanity is to be loved (and to be popular, rich, successful, etc.) without having to make any special effort.
We all want to be thin in the same way we want to be writers--without effort, discipline, or all the bother of understanding ourselves and our inner drives, patterns and conflicts.
If you can pen a fairy tale in which Joe or Suzie Blow find true love without having to do anything but experience some sort of epiphany, then you've got a winner. OK, so have I taken my own advice? No. Why not? Because I'm a moron! I persist in creating stories nobody wants to read. So don't make the same mistake and you'll actually have gained something from this avalanche of bad advice.
Well, that's the worst advice I can give you--at least so far. I'm still making hideous mistakes, so I'll probably have even worse advice to offer soon enough.
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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