How to just DO it.
What if I have no talent?
Are MFAs really that bad?
Can Netflix shows count as reading?
[Insert question about the publishing industry here]
What to do about all the poseurs?
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them 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. My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I don't often answer redundant questions unless I have a new take on the answer, but occasionally, I'll make a post like this one.]
In many online role-playing games (especially the massively multiplayer kind) at some point, you will be assigned a quest that is pretty much to just go to another area and talk to another person. ("Go deliver these books to Twizzlefizzlepop in the Desiccated Woods and tell him I sent you. He has need of an adventurer of your skill.")
These are called pointer quests, and you usually get them when you are too über for the area that you're in and the game is trying to tell you to stop slumming it and go find a real challenge.
Today's post is all about the pointer quests.
Not that I'm telling you to go find a real challenge....but...um....okay look, the metaphor breaks down a little the more you deconstruct it. Yesterday around 1pm, as I tackled what I thought was going to be today's mailbox, I realized I wasn't even close. I wasn't even KIND OF close. I had written two pages and I was really just hitting the Tootsie Roll center of the Tootsie Pop. I knew I was going to be working a long night last night (got tagged out after 11pm), and that I was going to have to change tack and make that NEXT week's mailbox. (It's about how to deal with your internal critic. Stay tuned!) So instead I decided to answer some of this mail that doesn't need a whole new post, but maybe just a pointer quest.
You often call the publishing industry whitewashed. I know WHAT it means, but why do you say that?
Because it is. Oh, it's not JUST the publishing industry. All the institutions in the English-speaking world are dominated by white men. Journalism. Academia. Politics. Law enforcement. Publishing is just one more place where the gatekeepers are usually white men, and even if they're not themselves, they're often using the yardsticks of what is "high art" that have been established by white men. But you can read more about what I mean here: Why Is the Publishing Industry So Whitewashed? (Mailbox)
I sit down at my computer and I just stare at it. I just can't write. How do you do it?
I might need to slip this one into the FAQ. I seem to be getting the question more and more these days. It kind of depends on what's blocking you, but I would start HERE. That's kind of the whole toolbox, so just throw it at the wall and see what sticks.
Will you read/critique/edit my writing and/or tutor me?
Yes, but I'm a professional writer with a very busy schedule and my time is valuable, so I charge $50-$75 an hour. This question is answered (with further details) at #10 in my Facebook FAQ (along with a LOT of other questions that I usually only get on or through Facebook).
I'm worried that I don't have talent, and that all this work will be for nothing. Is there any way to tell?
Would that there were. I write a lot about talent, and while most people come around to what I mean when I unpack the entire bag, it really makes a lot of people's heads itch when I tell them that I don't really think it exists....at least not in the way they're using the word. Read my thoughts on it or don't, but the bottom line, Sawson, is going to be this: what are you doing "all this work" for? If it is because you love writing, then it's already worth it. Writing is worth it all on its own. The milestones beyond "for the love of the game" involve, luck, privilege, gumption, and a whole fucking shit ton of work (about ten years of which will probably be unpaid). You'll notice you can only really control about half of those things. I hate to be so blunt, but writing is a piss-poor way to be famous or rich (or even pay the bills without what amounts to a multi-year unpaid apprenticeship), so you'd better find the intrinsic rewards.
Are MFAs really that bad? Why do you hate them so much?
I don't. They're not BAD. I don't hate them. What I've said, and will say again is that they are time consuming, very expensive, and privilege a certain small set of voices within a very narrow aesthetic, and if it's not exactly the kind of prose-aesthetic that a writer wants to be creating, it is NOT a good move for someone with ambitions who does not know what to do next. The kinds of careers most writers want (particularly hopeful genre novelists) would be better served by using that time to just get started. In fact, I have been very clear that there are a lot of good things about MFAs.
I don't really read that much, but I want to be a writer. I love Netflix shows and stuff though, and a good story is a good story, right?
Yes! (And that's about as far as this answer is going to go the way you want it to, Mike. I'm sorry.)
However, it might be worth considering if what you really want to do is be in TV or film or video games? I think writing is considered this "accessible" way into what is essentially people's love of ANOTHER art form because most people can write and the starting tools are relatively cheap. By contrast the stories about how difficult it is to break into Hollywood are the subjects of their own legend. But if you break down the numbers, it is just as unusual for a writer to "break in" to movies as it is for someone who starts out doing movies.
TV shows and movies will absolutely instill in someone certain skills that are also useful in writing. Things like pacing, dialogue, plot construction. However, the tools film uses to tell a story are totally different. At the end of the day, a writer doesn't have an actor. They don't have a set. They can't use a lens flare. There are no special effects. They can't have a soundtrack.
Writers have words. That's it. And that's why writers tend to love books. That's why writers are (with so shockingly few exceptions as to be statistically zero) always always ALWAYS into reading....a lot.
And if a writer is not reading enough, they will not have the skill to metabolize the thoughts in their head into language. Their prose will be stilted and clunky. I write more about that here: The Value of TV/Movies/AV Media to a Writer
Every few days someone asks:
[Insert question about the publishing industry here]
Fortunately I did a 20 Questions last summer that covered most of the basic questions about the publishing industry. I will mention this here, though. Most people ask this WAY before it's time to be worried about it. The vast majority of questions like "How do I find an agent?" can be easily tackled in an afternoon of online research. What really needs to happen first is for the book to be finished. And when people ask this question, they are usually putting the cliché before the horse.
Chad writes [Swear to god, the name on the email was Chad]:
Everyone thinks they're a fucking writer these days. They're just clogging up the system with their shitty self published books and Nano drafts. How can someone who's actually serious deal with it?
Oh, Chad. Dear, sweet Chad. I'm not sure where you thought this was going to go, but if you haven't realized it yet, I'm the Chef Gusteau of writing. ("Anyone can
I'm pretty sure the chip on your shoulder doesn't make you any more "serious." (Or any other adjective you try to slide in there to mean basically that you are a really real writer and they aren't.) People have tried before to get me to renounce my "populist writing philosophy," but it hasn't gone very well for them.
Are there people who are self-publishing books before they're ready, who then only sell a few copies to their friends and family and go right back to being frustrated about their writing careers? Sure. But they're not "clogging up" anything. If your book is better, it will stand out. Do agents and publishers refuse to touch anything they even think might be a Nano draft from about Dec 1st to early summer? Yep. That's true. But if your book is not strangely close to exactly 100 pages with a distinct "first-draft-feel" to the first few pages you've got nothing to worry about....right? Right?
Worry about you, Chad. This isn't the fierce competition of a sylvan glade. No one is going to steal your sunlight. We can all make it.