My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, April 8, 2019

But I AM Writing (Mailbox)

You say I should be writing, but I'm already writing! 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one every week or so.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. Dear god how will anyone know it's a mailbox post without a picture of a mailbox. Madness!]  

In response to the posting of this meme over on Writing About Writing's Facebook Page Clare asks: 

Legit question, how does that help get lots of fans? I feel like I can write until words come out of my ears, and half of them can even be good, but, like... no one else gives a rat's ass. Trying to build my presence on social media and I just feel like another unwanted writer babbling about books that no one asked for. THAT's what I'm struggling with. Have any tips?  

My reply:

Clare, this is a great question, and it intersects with so many important points about running a page, giving advice, and things like making memes, writing blog posts about writing and answering questions that it's worth a righteous unpacking. So buckle up. You're about to get 387% more answer than you bargained for.

Generally, the more I know about someone, their situation, their hopes, their dreams, their limitations, and frankly where their rubber meets the road on writing, the closer any advice can be tailored to answer their questions. For example, if I ran into someone who thought writing every day was for chumps and it took the sparkle fairy magic away and turned writing into a chore, I would have very, very, VERY different advice if they were cheerful and happy about their success (or lack of) as a writer* than I might for someone who was super high-key frustrated that they weren't published, making money, and on the road to fame**.

*"Sounds like you're writing just about about exactly as much as you want to be happy. That's the dream. Go you."
**"Sounds like you need to get the fuck over yourself, my good dude."

Problem is, I don't get to sit down and talk shop for an hour with everyone who writes to me, "I want to make money writing. How do YOU do it?" If I could, I could meet that person where they are. Since I can't, I stick to the basics, but nothing is going to be panacea. (Except maybe "Read a lot/Write a lot.") I can sometimes pick up a few clues in a long email and sometimes people tell me enough to really adjust my advice, but usually it's just those few clues, and I can fine tune advice a little, but I still have to be pretty general.

And as true as this is when trying to write general writing advice or even answer vagueish questions that don't include a three-page bio, it is a billionty times more true when trying to curate a content stream over on Facebook for like 850,000 people.

I know that on a page that's pushing a million, not everything is going to land for everyone. Sometimes I post memes that are for beginners. Sometimes I post memes that are for veterans. Some are there to challenge the racism and classism of intolerant prescriptivism and holding one dialect as superior.  Some are there to give a wakeup call to the hubristic dillholes who think that grammar is for lesser beings and the publisher that snaps up their great idea will pony up ten large worth of copy editing because they couldn't be bothered to learn the right homophone. Some are there for people who need a direct infusion of confidence because they don't believe in themselves. Some are there for folks who need a boot in their ass. Some are there for the folks who are frustrated that their writing career is spinning its wheels. Some are there to remind people that not everyone needs to be on a "writing-career escalator" (ever going up) to be valid. And some are reminders that writers.....should be writing. And sometimes those ideas are mutually exclusive because a meme can't meet you where you are. A meme doesn't know if you're going through clinical depression. A meme doesn't know if you've already written for the day or if you are perfectly, exceptionally happy writing once a week for a couple of hours.

This being the internet, and WAW's page being one that has begun to succumb to the laws of large numbers, people don't always just flex their scroll wheel when they're not ride-or-die about some message or another. I get complaining pretty much no matter what I post. It's not the good complaints either like where they do a compliment sandwich or acknowledge a salient point or something. It's the internet kind where they kind of say "What the fuck is your problem for even considering posting this?" One of the ones that made me laugh recently was a Sarah Scribbles about fiction being escapism, and then I got a bunch of comments sanctimoniously informing me that good fiction did not ESCAPE from reality but held a mirror to it, and how could you have good fiction without conflict––just like life donchaknow. No one told me that a core part of my writing career was going to be screaming at my computer "Just laugh at the goddamned joke!"

Perhaps no place is more contentious than the "You should be writing" memes. I try to post one a day, and most people don't know this, but I usually do so when I am sitting down to write myself. But even though I could wallpaper a bedroom with all the thank-you notes I've gotten for them over the years, they also are the source of a lot of complaints––nothing I do seems to make everyone happy. Some people complain that it's getting old if I post a bunch of the same ones. They complain that they're too imperative. They complain that they're too judgy. They even complain that the meme is trying to get them to write when they don't want to. They complain that I––that's me, personally....Chris––am trying to make writing into a chore for them by nagging them. A few have outright insisted that these were no less than 75% of my posts even though, as I said, I limit myself to one a day, not even every day, and I usually post between 10-15 other things a day. 

If it sounds a little to you like folks are bringing their own feelings of inadequacy to a Rorschach inkblot test about how often they write, you're not the only one. ("I see one of those fucking "You should be writing" memes but Jensen Ackles looks really judgemental and he clearly hates me! Why would you post this???" "Sir, this is a Wendy's. That's a napkin with ketchup on it.")

It's a good thing that being asked what my "secret" is and then having people get mad at me when I answer the question isn't in the least bit frustrating.

Before I dive into your question, Clare, let me tell you a story about the most common interaction I have by the numbers. "Hey Chris. Can I ask you some questions about writing.""Sure." "I just....I really want to be a writer. I read that you pay the bills with your writing. How do you do that? How do you have so many readers?" "Well, I write every day and––" "That would make it feel like a job." "Isn't.....um.....isn't that what you WANT?" People constantly ask me for advice but then don't like it when that advice involves a calculating look at what it would take to get to what they say they want." Or maybe they tell me they love writing more than anything else in the world, and when I poke a little I find out that they spend no more than two or three hours a month doing it.  

By contrast, here's an interaction that NEVER happens: "Chris, I'm content with where I am and don't want to be rich or famous except in the most chimerical of fantasies. I prefer binging Netflix shows and playing video games to writing most of the time. I write a few hours a week and that makes me happy. I know I'll never be famous or rich, but how can I get my fanfic a somewhat wider audience?" Do you know how fucking REFRESHING this question would be? Like someone who is honest with themselves about what they are actually willing to give and has made their peace with how that will limit them to a dedicated hobbyist. Sure I'll give them a couple of tips on social media proliferation. That's no biggie. But nobody asks me that. Ever. It's been seven years; I'm still fucking waiting. Instead, they all ask me how to "make it." And that's why my answers so often come back to one common denominator.

It's actually pretty frustrating the way this squishes right up against most people's cognitive dissonance. There's a part of them that knows you can't have a day job in art by giving it weekend warrior effort, but many of them really, really don't want to hear that. And fucking shit, does this messenger ever get shot. Blam blam blam. Take that copper. Tell me I won't be famous, will ya!

In retrospect, I picked a pretty strange job for a maladaptive people pleaser who hates making anyone feel bad.

It's a very sad story. Don't even attempt to contain your tears. 

People get mad at me––like straight-up pissed off––for telling them it might take few years of practice before they're ready to try to get an agent or traditionally publish or that they probably need to put in career-caliber effort if they want writing to be, you know....like, a CAREER. Or that if they self-publish, they might not get the sales they want if they're not ready to put more time into their craft, do a lot more drafts, or spend a ton on editing. Basically if I don't say "Oh I'm sure you're going to be the next Jim Butcher. I'll be looking for your book in next year's list of upcoming blockbuster movies. Stay golden, pony-boy!" If I suggest that maybe they might actually be happy writing less and modulating their expectations accordingly, they will become furious. It's really hard and frustrating.

How did your tear containage go?

The cold hard truth is that most people want to BE writers a lot more than they want to sit down and write. Not everyone? But so damned many that people used to being leg-humped for their "secrets" (like me), in the absence of data to the contrary or when giving general advice, tend to assume that's a good place to start. 

I'm not a baker, but I'm about to make a baking metaphor, so for the next couple of paragraphs, let's pretend, Clare, that there are no substitutes for sugar. No agave. No jam. No honey. No sweeteners. There's just sugar. This isn't a realistic world, but it will make for a metaphor with less "Well Actually...." room in it. Let's all use our big, imaginative brains and imagine that sugar is the only way to make things sweet....

Now you come to me and you say. "How can I make the best cakes? Cakes like yours?" And I tell you "Sugar. You need sugar! A WHOLE LOTTA SUGAR! Nobody ever gets enough sugar. The problem in the world is everyone wants to be a baker, but no one wants to give their recipes enough sugar." 

This doesn't mean you don't need flour or eggs or chocolate. It doesn't mean you'll never need an oven. And it doesn't mean there's not a few people out there putting in enough sugar but making shitty cakes. Or maybe some a-hole that puts too much sugar in and forgets baking powder or something. (I think I better quit stretching this metaphor before it snaps back in my face like a broken bow string.) It means you've GOT to have sugar. No matter what else you do, you will not make the best cakes without sugar. If you make a cake with no sugar or some small amount of sugar, even if you use the best flour and the finest chocolate and the most magnificent, freshest eggs, your cake is going to be gross.

Now I'm hungry.

Since this is a really fucking advanced metaphor, let me whip out my decoder ring.

When I say "you should be writing," it doesn't mean that's the only thing you ever have to do if you want an audience or wish you were making money. It doesn't mean no other ingredients will be required to make money or find your fans. It means that it's always something you have to do, keep doing, have done, relentlessly pursue.

And I'm not just riding your ass to be a taskmaster. People try ALL THE FUCKING TIME to use social media branding tricks or "SEO hacks" or something when they don't actually write consistently. They're trying to promote a dozen articles enough to kick off a patreon and are pissed that it isn't working. Or they write three short stories and a self-published book and are annoyed that it's only family and close friends buying, so they hope to just start a FB page, learn some "trick" (that they think I know), and then they'll be lighting their cigars with Benjamins for all the days to come. 

But that's not how any of this works. Unless you're one of about four writers on Earth for all of time, you have to have a robust body of work to get fans, and you have to have lots of practice before that breakout novel is going to break anything but the hearts of folks who wanted it to be good because they love you. Unless you just want folks who stumble upon your work to read what you've got and move on, you really need to keep contributing to your larger body of work. Give them a reason to keep coming back. You could get everything else right, but if you're not writing, you got nothing. And that's what this meme means. Without writing, nothing else works. WITH writing, we at least have enough sugar. 

Now we have drilled down enough that I can lay some specific wisdom on you, Clare. I don't know the kind of writing you're doing––it sounds like book reviews––but if you keep putting yourself out there, you'll find your audience. That feeling that no one gives a rat's ass: it's just a feeling. It's called impostor syndrome and even best-selling novelists deal with it. If book reviews are the kind of writing you want to do, you keep doing it and keep putting yourself out there and slowly, over years, your niche will find you. (It took me five years to get to the kind of numbers that pay bills––blogs about writing aren't exactly hard to come by.) Have a little faith in yourself. Feel like a fraud half the time, but do it anyway. And put yourself out there.

Now here comes my straight up advice (mostly for Clare, but maybe for anyone who is actually writing "until words come out their ears" and looking to find their audience):
  1. Spend an afternoon figuring out your social media strategy. It's a lot at first, but the learning curve is really gentle. Different social media work differently and often have different types of engagement. A Facebook group is very different from a Facebook page, which is very different from making an account for your author persona. You don't really want Instagram––a picture format––if you're trying to link out to blog posts or something. Tumblr's loss of 800 million users in the wake of their FOSTA/SESTA overkill make it a bad choice of time and energy unless you're already well established there. Twitter is.......well it's Twitter. Take a day of work and suss out where you'll get the most bang for your buck. A lot of writers will spend their whole time managing social media but not writing (and then we're back to sugarless cakes). You can crosspost pretty easily, but you don't want to get sucked in to more than one....maybe two.
  2. How married are you to JUST book reviews? Like two kids, looking for a house, and picking out a destination for that second honeymoon married? Or maybe more like one of you is having an affair and the other one has checked out and you haven't had sex in over a year married? Because I can work with that second one. Could you do reviews for other things? Movies? Netflix shows? Popular culture? What about branching out to other topics? Personal updates? Writing about an issue that affects you personally? The wider you cast your net, the more people will find you, and they might read other things you write––things they wouldn't normally be interested in––if they like YOU and your "brand." I've got a shit ton of readers who have NO. INTEREST. IN. WRITING. They read me because I dip into personal updates, social issues, media review, and they will read my stuff about writing because they like my style. (Now I'm having an imposter syndrome day, and I'm not sure I always understand WHY, but gods fucking bless them anyway.)
  3. Could you see making some tweaks without sacrificing your art? If you're all in about book reviews, how much could you change and not feel that you'd sold out? Could you do a lot of new releases? Because that's what's going to snag the curious. Or really popular books. People love to read reviews of things they've read to see if they agree with your take? (And if they do, they might take your rec on something else.) Could you shift your tone to funny? Because that's always a draw. People love to laugh. Threesome jokes? Political rage? Listicles? How far will you go?
  4. Are you willing to spend a little money?  I hate Facebook, and I dislike most social media because my friends can't use metonymy to say men are trash without getting suspended, but the Nazi pages live on. However, I know that every writer has to self-promote. Even Stephen King goes on a book tour and spends SO long signing copies of his books that he gets blisters. Putting books on consignment, going to promotion events....EVERY WRITER HAS TO PROMOTE THEMSELVES. It's an endearing myth that writers are above "that money stuff" and they just let the art stand for itself and pick up a paycheck in the mail once a month. Even if you get a big five contract, part of your contract will be your promotional obligations. So if you have more money than free time (like I do), you might run a promotion on FB putting your work out there. Be smart: use all the little filters so that it only hits people interested in books or reading and only in English speaking countries (and narrow your demographic even more if you want). You don't need to spend much. A few dollars on a post will get it a lot of attention (too much and it'll just keep showing up in the same people's feeds), and what you really want is someone who's going to recognize your name and give your NEXT article a try. I know there's the whole thing about money flowing towards the author (mostly last-generation's advice because of vanity presses), but I'd rather spend $10 on a targeted ad than five hours a week at a reading.
  5. It's really really tough to get anyone to follow you if you share ONLY your work unless you already have a fan base who just wants to follow your work. Carts and horses, if you catch my meaning. So if you're still in the initial phases of trying to GET those eyeballs, try putting on a bit of a show. You don't have to do 10 memes a day like me, but maybe a quote here and a comic there and some article you find. Just get people in
  6. Buckle up. This is going to take YEARS. Yes, it can be like a snowball rolling downhill, but remember what a pain in the ass it is to get those fuckers rolling. The first thousand or so followers are going to take fucking FOREVER. It's just going to be that ONE friend with the foam #1 glove (mine is named Alisha), sharing your shit for....years. But then you'll grab one more. And then another. And then someone you don't know. And slowly––so slowly––you'll start to assemble this eclectic group that likes your shit even though you won't completely understand why. And then they'll share it when you really hit one out of the park (but to do THAT you have to keep baking with sugar writing), and that's just the long, slow, unglamorous, no secret, no trick, writingful way you do it.


  1. Fantastic, solid advice. Pretty much everything is made 100% better by that Star Trek gif, oh my gods.

    You're also right that Instagram is a more visual media but if I can make a quick plug for it, there are ways to include your blog posts and book reviews and Instagram has a metric TON of book reviewers in this niche called #bookstagram. It's like a bookworm utopia. And, at least for now, bookstagram is much kinder, more inclusive, and way more generous than Twitter has become. It can be a viable choice if you don't mind sharing pictures of the books you're reading for review and teasing the fact that you wrote a blog post about them. Good luck, Clare.

  2. Chris, one reason why I enjoy reading your blog posts and Facebook page, is that you are so open-minded towards the various types of writers and readers there are, and emphasize that there is no "one right way" to do things. As you pointed out in this and some other posts, even the "writing every day" advice wouldn't apply to some people, e.g. if they are only writing for fun, and don't aim to make a living out of it. I like how you always look at the nuances and complexities of things, instead of talking about them in a black-and-white way.

    As for me, I'm still trying to figure out what exactly it is that I want. For starters, I'm not actually interested in fame or riches, not because I'm trying to be cool, but because I genuinely don't have that desire. If I make any money from my writing at all, great, but if I don't, that's okay too. I would like others to read my stories, but I feel fine having a limited number of readers, even if it's just mostly friends and family. At the same time, I call myself a "part-time writer" and call writing a "career," albeit a non-paying one. I'm training to become a psychotherapist, and am very happy with that career path. So the labels of "part-time writer" and "career", are not to indicate that I will make money from it, but just to signal to both myself and to others, that even though I'm not aiming for money or fame, I still take the writing craft seriously. I still want to write as much as I can, and become better and better at the art. I've never understood people who don't want to learn and improve, because for me, the learning process is one of the best parts about writing. I would be very depressed if I couldn't learn anything new about writing anymore, but thankfully, there is no end to this journey. ^_^

    Right now, I'm trying to figure out how much and how often I ought to write, given my own situation and personal goals. There was a time, during my gap years, where I could write 2000+ words a day, but this was a lot harder to do when I went back to school, though I could manage it during Nanowrimo, lol. I still am not sure how fast I want myself to write, since I also have other obligations and interests (including my psychotherapy career path), so the decision is not a simple one. Nevertheless, I do want to at least self-publish a number of the books I wrote, eventually, and I can finally show the stories to some friends who asked to read them. Again, I feel okay not reaching a large audience, but I do like the visual appeal of self-publishing both print and e-books. So far, I've self-published one sci-fi novel, which most of the friends who have read it enjoyed. But I feel very embarrassed by some of the content and writing in this book, so I'm making a second edition because Amazon said they can't take down books from their site. OTL

    Anyway, thanks for hearing me process my thoughts. ^_^ It's not a clear path for me, since I'm aiming neither to make money from my work, nor to only write casually from time to time. I hope to soon reach a stage where I find out how much and how fast I want myself to write.