Grumpy writing advice

There’s a lot of huggy-friendly writing advice out there. You can do it! Yay! You’re wonderful! Everything you have to say is valuable, and people can’t wait to read your work! A lot of this is circulated by people using social media in order to gain followers — and, they hope, attract (paying) readers in so doing.

I have a slightly more jaundiced take on the subject. Some of these things have been said before elsewhere. Others, perhaps, haven’t.

Without further ado:

A. Early on, decide on a definition of success — preferably, a realistic one that doesn’t entail a huge advance, an all-expense-paid book tour, nonstop media appearances, and a villa in the South of France. There’s nothing wrong with dreams, but you should know the difference between dreams and plans. These days, given all the changes in the publishing industry, just staying in print (if you’ve been traditionally published) is quite an accomplishment!  Major publishers will drop you if your book doesn’t sell, and self-publishing — while no doubt a very reasonable option — will make you one more drop of water in a deep, wide sea.

B. As a corollary, you should also know the difference between success as a writer (as you have defined it) and financial planning.  Yes, as a writer, you do have at least some chance — however infinitesimal — of coming into a sudden windfall because of your work.  And you should plan accordingly so that you don’t do anything stupid with your money.  That being said, you should also not assume that this is the only thing that writing success can look like.

C. If you don’t read a lot, you should really probably not try to be a writer.

D. It’s important to be able to visualize what is happening in your story.  However, if major scenes hinge on the kind of action that would require two or three cameras, and on every character being staged and placed just so, then you’re running up against the limits of what written language can express effectively and should probably rethink what you’re trying to accomplish.  Languages do have their limitations.  One aspect of talent is understanding where these weak spots are — this is nothing to take personally because the issue is bigger than you are and not something you can remedy — and working around them.

E. Bigotry is the lazy author’s shortcut to characterization.  If you’re relying on racism, misogyny, homophobia, or the other obvious forms of prejudice in order to flesh out your bad guy’s personality — without adding any other direction to humanize him (or her) — then you’re being slack.  The same is true of cruelty to animals.

F. You need to educate yourself about the basics of publishing in today’s marketplace.  What are the major e-book platforms?  What are your options for getting books published in print?  How much should you pay for all this?

G. Do not write when you are desperate.  Writing when you’re broke and counting on money from your book isn’t likely to result in anything but more poverty and deeper frustration.  After all, writing is the time-honored profession of the bitter, the drunk, and the destitute.  The rich are the exception.  If you’re really hard up for cash and aren’t hideous, you’re probably better off trying your luck as a sex worker (and it will give you more material).  I actually do know writers who support themselves with sex work, by the way; I’m not just being cynical and making this up.

H. Don’t overlook the value of idleness.  Many cultures embrace the notion that we must be active and productive every waking moment.  If you’re not typing words or making widgets or otherwise engaged and tuned in and turned on, you’re a bad person with a worse work ethic.  This is a particular curse of American and Asian cultures, and it is, of course, toxic bullshit.  There have been a few highly prolific authors (well, there must have been, but I can’t think of one) who have actually also been good.  But writing is an art, not an act of excretion.  Yes, there are times when you just have to sit down and force yourself to write — but this presupposes you know what you’re going to write.  If you don’t, and if your mind needs to wander, then let it wander.  Go do something else.  Live life.  Experience things.  Or just lie on the sofa and play with your cat.  This is equally valid and arguably a better use of your time than forcing yourself to poop out a few hundred more words you don’t care about.

I. Read your contracts.  Don’t sign anything that will entail permanently handing over your intellectual-property rights.  If you don’t know what that language would look like, then you need to educate yourself.  There are a lot of resources available to writers, so you have no excuses.  It would be better to self-publish than to sign a shitty contract and have no means of taking your book out of print and/or getting the rights back.

J. Learn the tools of your trade.  One result of the general dumbing-down of education systems in the US and elsewhere has been that many young adults are — well, the ones who are borderline illiterate don’t read for pleasure and thus are unlikely to contemplate writing.  They’re going to be herded through life serving no other purpose than to enrich corporations and megachurches.  But there are a lot of potential writers out there who do not use language well.  They lack a sophisticated vocabulary and a deep-enough understanding of punctuation.  They have no idea how to use the past perfect tense, and they mangle their conditionals.  Sentence structure is beyond them.  If you’re reading this, you are probably not one of these people, because they tend to think they are better educated than they are.  In any event, if you take your work seriously, then you owe it to yourself to make polishing your English (or whatever your working language is) a lifelong project.

To conclude: yes, you should dream, and you should think big, and you should write. But you should also equip yourself with some knowledge about the world we live in, to say nothing of this industry (writing exists at an intersection of art and commerce) or of language itself. If you’ve read this far, then it’s safe to guess that you care about writing. Therefore, focus on getting acquainted with the big picture, do your best to deal with the fact that that picture is constantly shifting, and… learn your bloody verb tenses and punctuation marks!


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