Archive for May 4th, 2009

Writing requires fewer expenses than any art except singing, and everyone who finishes grade school learns a few rudiments. For these reasons, it has never lacked wannabes. I’ve heard the claim that if you ask random strangers in Los Angeles how their screenplays are going, you have just bought yourself ten minutes of boredom – and, considering my experiences at science fiction conventions, I can believe it (except that, there, what you shouldn’t ask about are stories). But most of the wannabes never get where they would like to be, usually because they run afoul of one of the following myths:

  • You need to be inspired to write: You can have many Eureka! moments as you write, and a new love or a lost one may urge you to new heights. But if you wait for inspiration before you start to write, then you will never write six days out of seven. Like most forms of mental and physical exercise, writing is something that gets easier if you practice and keep in practice. As Peter S. Beagle said, “If the Muse shows up late to work, you start without her.”
  • Writing done when you are inspired is better than writing you do at any other time: Although you may feel better about your work when inspired, what you produce is usually no better or worse than what you write when every word comes out like a kidney stone you are passing. If you don’t believe me, save one piece you write when inspired and one written when the words come hard, and compare them a week later. Neither is likely to be much better than the other. And, if one is better, it may be the hard-won words, not the inspired ones.
  • Writing block can keep you from writing: In my experience, writer’s block is generally a luxury enjoyed by amateurs. Professionals have no time to have one. The best cure for writers’ block is a deadline. When you have to write, you have no time to play games with yourself. Real writers often have problems that they need to work out, but they view the problems as part of the process, not as an opportunity for self-dramatizing. In the few cases where writer’s block is more than that, a sleep, violent exercise, working on something else, or any other change of pace usually cures it.
  • Talking about your writing is a good idea: Not for anyone I’ve ever met. You will only bore others, and waste energy that you could use for writing in talking. If you prefer talking about your work rather than doing it, then chances are you are more in love with the idea of being a writer than with actually writing. At least, that’s how most practicing writers will view you – and most of the time they will be right.
  • Developing style is the most important thing you can do: An awareness of style is essential as you learn to write. But your own style? Don’t waste time worrying about it. It will come along without any special effort as you focus on clarity, conciseness, accuracy, and otherwise learning how to get down something like what you mean.
  • Style is hard: Even relatively inexperienced writers can learn to polish a phrase or two. By contrast, how to structure and pace your work takes much longer to learn. That’s one reason why, although many poets have done brilliant work before they were twenty-five, very few novelists produce anything memorable before they’re thirty.
  • If you’re talented, you’ll be discovered sooner or later: Possibly. But getting to know publishers, editors, and other writers works even better. Knowing you probably won’t mean that they’ll take an unpublishable work from you, but it does mean that they are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in borderline cases – and let you in on the industry news.
  • A work that’s rejected is no good: Often, yes. Most times, even. But works are often accepted and rejected for reasons that have nothing to with their quality. Maybe the editor is overstocked with submissions. Maybe the publisher just did a novel featuring a family much like the one in yours. The rumor is that Stephen King got his start because his publisher was looking for more works that would interest women, and Carrie opens in a high school girls’ locker room. Your rejection might be random as King’s acceptance, so try again. But collect four or five rejections on the same work and maybe you need to start thinking about revisions.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being self-published: Many good and even great books have been rejected before being published, and we’ll never know how many others disappeared before their writers got discouraged. However, the odds are that the number is far fewer than the number of self-published books that succeeded. An editor’s job is to detect salable writing, and, while one or two can make a mistake, five or six are less likely to. The prejudice against self-publishing is not irrational; it’s based on experience. If you really can’t sell your work and want to publish it, you can get free blogs on line at any number of places far more cheaply than you can publish a book or win a contest promising publication. Oh, and calling your vanity publishing an Indie Book won’t make anything said here less true, either.

Harsh words? Maybe. But who said that writing was about your ego? It’s about working to do the best job you can in the time that you have. Anything beyond that is playacting about being a writer – and if you have time to pretend to be one, you won’t have time to actually become one.

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