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Friday, April 19, 2019

9 Writerly Things No One is Going to Give You (But We All Need) [Part 2]

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A Detailed Roadmap 

I'm afraid no one's going to be able to tell you exactly what to do. No matter how much you want them to. And they're not just being dillholes.

They can't.

Even if they wanted to, they couldn't.

Not their personal blueprint, their personal style, their personal process, their personal circumstances, nor even personal magic is going to work for anyone but them. It won't work for you. It would like trying to order the same thing someone else does at a restaurant all the time––eventually you're hungrier than they are (or less hungry), they love cilantro but it tastes like soap to you, you don't really want something swimming in gravy, you're allergic to what they order two servings of... 

Okay...you get the idea. That metaphor is probably working too hard.

You might be able to extrapolate some useful information ("Based on careful study, I have begun to suspect that a key ingredient for a successful writing career is....actually writing! Further research needed." **Do that in a Patrick Stewart voice for maximum effect**), but you won't be able to get the same results in the exactly the same way, and you may not even want to. By the time you reach the first milestone, the entire landscape will have changed. The way they got where they're going can inform your journey, but it can't determine it.

Of course, nowhere is this incompatibility more apparent than in the advice that writers who established their careers 15-25 years ago are giving modern upstarts. While an ambitious starting writer can submit short stories to every venue until they have a cover letter impressive enough to snag an agent who will take a chance on their novel, and push inexorably toward a book deal, that is actually a far less likely path to book deal these days, to say nothing of the path to publication readers, fans, and enough income to be a working writer. Today, one can establish a six-figure career without ever encountering a gatekeeper. Frankly, these days, only discussing traditional publishing is very narrow, limited, and borderline shitty advice.

Now you have self-publishing (that is not just vanity press), print on demand, e-pub, apps, a billion online venues, blogs, and ways to monetize it all from Patreon to Kickstarter to Kindle Unlimited. Social media works for name proliferation, but do you use one (if so, which one?) or do you use all of them a little? (Because if you try to use all of them a lot, you're just going to end up being a full-time social media manager who barely has a minute to actually write.) Where is your audience and how are you going to find them? And what will you do when the social medium you like turns out to be morally reprehensible?

Even with fewer dramatic differences than traditional vs. non-traditional publishing, no one else can tell you exactly what to do to "make it." (For example, I'm not going anywhere near traditional publishing for ideological reasons, and I'll probably avoid Kindle and Amazon if I can.) The industry is changing faster than the between-the-walls dimension in House of Leaves. The path I took five years ago is already far less effective, and you wouldn't get the same traction out of it today. The market niche I accurately predicted six years ago has closed up (though there is a new one that still exists). Facebook has throttled their content so I'm not sure I'd have almost a million followers even after five years if I started today. ALL social media is experiencing huge tectonic upheavals because of its role in electioneering, hate speech, and trying to comply with FOSTA-SESTA laws. Eight hundred million people left Tumblr when they banned certain hashtags related to sexuality and porn. All the kids today think Facebook is a fossil. But Instagram is not a great place to build an audience unless you're already famous or ready to put in a bazillion hours building your "brand." And if you do go traditional, how do you separate your writing time from your submission time? How many venues do you shop something before you dramatically revise it? What is your ratio of "safe" to "stretch" submissions? Do you try to shop a novel without a portfolio (it can be done but it is much, much harder)? Do you work for years so that you get a great agent or just enough that someone new to the business knows you're serious and will take a chance on you?

It would be so great if someone could just tell us exactly what to do next. Exactly how to make the magic alchemy of success transmute effort into fans and dollar signs (or whatever it is we're after). But no one can. And no one is holding out on you if they don't. The best thing we can do is point towards the horizon and say, "Read a lot. Write a lot. Don't stop. Beware the groove."

Concentration/Focus

Okay, knowledge drop: for some of us this isn't entirely accurate. There are some nice medical doctors who can give us little pills that help with the ability to concentrate/focus, so sort of some people can kind of give this to us after a fashion, so let me make that caveat through a bullhorn before we go any further.

Me, I got addicted to my pills and started sleepwalking and taking more pills IN MY SLEEP, and they made me want to masturbate all day and it all got a little weird, and so these days I have to rely on caffeine, vigorous walks, and visualization exercises, and some....uh...

You know, maybe I'm veering a little off course.

Narrator's voice: "Though told twice, he did not stay on target."

And yet, with or without pills, one of the greatest struggles a writer goes through is applying their ass liberally to the chair of their choosing*, and getting the fucking work done. Although, a determined writer might be able to write a novel, longer work, or have a successful writing career fifteen minutes or thirty minutes at a time over the course of who knows how long, most people who hit those bellwethers have a breathtakingly similar experience to report: they concentrated on their writing for hours. Multiple hours. Often (usually) LOTS of multiple hours in a row.

(*Metaphor chair could be a standy up desk. I just got one of those. It's AAAAAAAWWWWWWSOOOOOME!)

No one can hand you a can of concentration that you can chug. No one can bust out a package of focus for you to slather yourself in. You need it badly, but the only way you're going to get it is the discipline of sitting down time after time (preferably day after day) and turning a little bit of time into a little more and a little more and a little more. It will eventually become rote, then habit, then feel strange to miss, but nothing outside you can make you love writing enough to blow past all those voices that are going to try to talk you out of it.

Enough Real Talk

It's way too easy to find someone who will take an industrial-sized leaf blower, fill it with unicorn farts, and blow rainbows straight up your ass so that you become distended and rainbows come pouring out all of your mucus membranes. "If you can believe it, the universe will listen to you!" "The only thing between you and success is focusing the actualization of your imagination." "By synergistically manifesting your quantum desires, you will ebb the perturbations of the ether to obey your focalized imaginifications."

On the other hand it's just as easy to find people who apparently think they're from the distant future where we've lost the robot war, are enslaved and being milked as batteries but without the cool simulated sex party, and the only thing to do is take your dreams, jam them into an industrial mixer vat, and turn it up to fifty because there is no point in even trying. "You can't make it as a writer ever." "No matter what you do, you will fail because it's too hard." "Give up now while you can still spend your youth in gothic spandex and get laid without spending six weeks trying to coordinate your schedules."

It is ALSO easy to find a whole fucking epic metric shitton of people who are willing to "SELL" the one thing that is "clearly" holding you back. Novel formatting software? A grammar check? An ergonomic keyboard? A yoga ball for a chair? Baby I gots what you need.

Slightly harder to find is real talk. The talk that threads that needle. The talk that acknowledges a tough industry with a LOT of submissions and a crowd twenty deep outside every door who think writing is their ticket to fame and fortune. The talk that says you can probably have a modest career.....if that's even what you really want, but you're probably going to have to give up some things to get there. The real talk that tells you that some people pursue art casually or as a dedicated hobbyist or never pay a bill from their wordsmithing or make side-gig money, but never quit their day jobs. Real talk that tells you that for 99.9% of writers, it takes years of practice and probably double-digit years of reading voraciously to be a writer. But also that it's not impossible if you're willing to work hard.

Most people have an agenda. They want to get you to buy something. They want you to give up like they did. Or they just want you to keep coming back because they make you feel so inspired by talking about your dreams and never getting around to mentioning the work.

But whether it's a blog about writing, some good advice, or an editor that knows how to cleave that middle ground, finding the real, down-to-earth talk is something writers can't get enough of.

Motivation

No one is going to make you want to sit down and do the work. You can get your ass temporarily ridden by external motivation if you are in a writing program and your grade depends on writing. You might get a little hit from the William-Wallace-Braveheart-speech caliber inspiration posts (especially around NaNo). Maybe your mentor or a mom who never thought you were good enough can say "You got this, kid" in a tearful scene where they finally stick something you've written on the refrigerator and it's totally not weird even though you're now in your forties.

But ultimately, all that will fade. No one can actually give you sustained motivation. You have to find that for yourself. In the nooks and crannies. In the success of others. In the faces of the children. In the sighs of lovers in some wild group sex. In untempered rage that you still have some motherfuckers to prove wrong. In the voice of that professor who told you maybe to find a more attainable dream.

Or maybe that's just me. In any case, you have to find your motivation to sit down day after day after day and keep putting in the work. In rage, and hope, and habit, and sheer force of will. No one can find it for you.

Nerve

BOLD OF YOU TO ASSUME ANYONE WANTED TO READ YOUR SHIT! (But assume you must!)

You have to have some nerve. You do. And no one can give that to you.

I mean, if you want to write for yourself alone in journals that Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman will try to piece together after your seven sins killing spree, then maybe you don't need any nerve, but if you want it out there, read by people, an audience, maybe a fan or two...or possibly a little niche, then yeah, you need nerve. You need just the tiniest bit of gritty, non-supported, ever-so-slightly arrogant faith in yourself.

All writers suffer from imposter syndrome. The ones that don't are almost always dreadful writers and often not-such-awesome people either. The rest of us have bad days and less-bad days. But at the end of those days (at whatever relative level of badness they involved), we proceed as if we have something worth saying. We continue as if somewhere out there someone wants to read our shit. No one can give this to you. No one will ever tell you for the gagillionth time that they want to read your work and then you're "over it." No one will ever take away the feeling that you are a pretentious fuck for presuming you have anything to say and assuage the need for some courage.

And even though you're absolutely wrong (pretty much always at least one someone DOES want to read you)....putting oneself out there takes nerve. No one's going to give it to you, but you need it just the same.

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