Writing Advice “They” Don’t Want You To Read

A few days ago, John Scalzi gave ten pieces of advice about money to writers. He talked about paying off credit card debt, buying good stuff and running it into the ground, and not quitting your day job. A bunch of his writer friends and associates chimed in, praising the article and agreeing with most of the points.

His advice is all well and good, except for one thing: it’s a bunch of lies. Not direct lies, oh, no. That would be too obvious. No, it’s all lies by omission. He’s trying to get you to focus on money instead of what writing is really all about.

Here’s the thing that you, the would-be fiction writer, have to understand about writing and publishing: it’s a big consipracy. It’s a cabal. There are probably robes and secret handshakes and driving around in tiny cars while wearing fezzes. You can tell because every published writer denies it, and if there’s stronger proof than that, I don’t know what it is.

You may be asking, “How can you say this? What are your writing credentials?” The plain truth is: I too am a writer. By that, of course, I mean that I wrote non-fiction columns for a dot-com from 1997 to 2001, when dot-coms would hire anyone to write as long as they were alive, and they were willing to be lenient regarding the being-alive requirement. After that I wrote the occasional freelance article thanks to friends who gave me assignments out of pity. I’ve also co-authored some twenty scientific articles, and everyone knows scientific articles require clear, entertaining prose. And if you don’t think writing scientific articles involves fiction, then have I got a rendezvous and docking system to sell to you!

Right, let’s get to the advice.

1. Writing and publishing is a grand conspiracy.

I know I said this above, but it bears repeating. You think this is a meritocracy? You think publishers are really looking for good writing? Ho ho ho. It is to laugh. How many times have your read a book and realized, “Hey, I can write better than this!” All the time, right? And chances are, your assessment is dead on. That book got published for reasons having nothing at all to do with talent and the value of the work itself. That leads to the next bit of advice:

2. You’d better get an “in”.

To listen to writers talk, getting published is as easy as writing well, telling an interesting story, and showing that work to editors. Hogwash! Editors may go on and on about how rejection is about the work, not about you, but make no mistake: it’s about you. You don’t know the right codewords. You’re not rapping out the secret knock on the door of publishing. These days a lot of writers and editors have blogs. Read them. Leave sycophantic comments telling them how wonderful they are. Over time, it’s just barely possible that they’ll think of you as one of them.

3. Writing and publishing is a zero-sum game.

One American in four reads no books. Of the remaining ones, the typical number of books read is four. Four! You’re fighting for a terribly small slice of an already-teeny pie, perhaps one of those apple pies from McDonald’s. The implications are clear: someone else’s success is your failure. The best thing you can do is work to undermine other writers’ confidence — nip their writing in the bud, as it were. Remember those blogs I mentioned earlier? On them, subtly imply that the writer in question isn’t a very good writer. Encourage non-writing activities like exercise and human contact. Remember: every Charles Schultz that gives up writing is one more slot for the next Bruce Tinsley. And the next Bruce Tinsley, to foreground this metaphor, is you.

4. Don’t stoop to writing just for the paycheck.

John Scalzi says, “To be sure, [holding out for 20 cents a word or more] can often mean doing writing that’s not typically described as “fun” — things like marketing pieces or Web site FAQ text or technical writing. But this sort of writing can pay well, expand your repertoire of work experience and (paradoxically) allow you the wherewithal to take on the sort of stuff that doesn’t pay well but is fun to do or is otherwise interesting to you.” You know why he’s saying that? Because every moment you’re spending on writing things other than your novel or short story is a moment he’s writing his novels and selling them to publishers who will then discard your much later submitted novel. Remember point 3. If you’re not writing what you want to be writing, you’re leaving the door open for others.

In addition, writing is all about your art and your muse. If you’re not following your muse, you’re doing hackwork that will turn your soul as transparent as a piece of wax paper wrapped around a lump of fried hamburger.

5. Suffering will make your writing truer.

Happy, well-adjusted people aren’t driven to write novels. Happy, well-adjusted people live happy, well-adjusted lives, far from the pale glow of LCD screens. If you’re going to be a writer, you need to have the inner life of one. Art arises from misery.

6. Poor writers are good writers.

That sounds paradoxical until you realize that I’m talking about “poor” as in financially poor, not “poor” as in “me no write well”. Getting money requires work, and a lot of that work doesn’t have anything to do with the Art you’re trying to create. Avoid making money and you’ll be a lot more miserable, and thus more likely to produce good Art.

7. Don’t have a significant other.

Husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends — all of them require you to spend a lot of time being with them and doing things for them. That’s time you could be spending writing. Even worse, if you’re someone who tends to be happier when you’re in a relationship, you’re taking a double hit: first to your writing time, and second to your unhappiness quotient.

8. Don’t have kids.

Everything I said above about significant others goes double for kids. All they are is a giant time and money sink.

9. In fact, avoid human contact at all.

When you’re writing fiction, you’re not writing people, you’re writing stories. Thanks to the internet and TV and books — the latter of which, thanks to Amazon.com, don’t even require that you interact with a person to obtain — you can learn everything you need to know about the human condition without interacting with actual humans.

You probably should have a blog, since you have a lot of opinions that others should share with you, but you shouldn’t enable comments. Comments are just another way of interacting with people.

10. Don’t show your work to others.

Other people fall into two categories: non-writers, who are thus no threat to you; and writers, who will steal your publishing deal and devour your soul. Non-writers have nothing useful to tell you about your work. If they did, they’d be writers. Writers are part of the same zero-sum game as you, so are going to try to destroy your Art if you show it to them. Also, your ideas are the most amazing thing you’ve got going, and other writers will want to steal them from you.

Carefully guard your writing, and only hand it out to publishers you feel you can trust. Early feedback will doom your writing.

It’s brave of me to tell you these things “they” don’t want you to know about writing. I hope you find it “useful”.

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13 Comments

  1. on February 13, 2008 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    I keep all of my writing in a locked down file on my computer (complete with the faint and pale glow of an LCD screen), but I write it in my own language so that no one – NO ONE – can read it or steal my thoughts. I try to relive the misery quotient at each creative stroke… or, uh, thump of my keyboard.

    Keep apathy alive. But don’t care about it too much.

  2. on February 13, 2008 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I … well, I can’t quite tell how tongue-in-cheek this is. It’s either very or not at all. Heh.

    [I’m going with very.]

  3. on February 13, 2008 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    I’m headed off to one of those publisher/editor blogs right now. You don’t happen to be one of them do you?

    Enjoyed the post very much. I think I may point people here when someone asks me for writing advice. Which is one way of saying that you should not expect Digg-type spikes or any spikes in traffic for that matter.

    PS: YAFW: Yet Another Freelance Writer

  4. on February 13, 2008 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    YAFW, clearly I’m not one of “them”, or else I wouldn’t be able to tell you about what “they” do without getting kicked out of the cabal.

  5. Jeff Hentosz
    on February 13, 2008 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I knew it! And I’ve met Scalzi in person, but never suspected the depth of his mendacity. It takes a scientist to tell the truth. Thank you, Stephen. Thank you.

    (Although you forgot about the thing I heard where NYT-listed bestselling writers are required to gather naked at midwinter and sacrifice a bag of kittens to a giant wicker groundhog. That part’s still true, isn’t it?)

  6. on February 13, 2008 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Stephen: I hope Anonymous saves you from the Cult of Writerology when they come with pitchforks & torches to your door 🙂

  7. Ryan
    on February 13, 2008 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    But what if you’re part of the conspiracy? What if all this is an elaborate fake, designed to make us poor, lonely wannabes think you’re one of “they,” and your only goal is to lead us down a path of despair?

    I am on to “you,” Stephen.

  8. on February 13, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    *laughs*

    Now there’s a list I can understand. Darn those conspirators and their secret handshakes!

  9. on February 13, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Comments are MODERATED huh? Moderated into the trash? I see you have zero comments, because otherwise you would be HAPPY?

    Oh wait, no… there’s my comment.

    Heh, minus sardonic humour, very nice post. I concur with all your points so hard!

  10. on February 13, 2008 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Jeff, don’t get me started on the NYT and their terrible role in the cabal.

    Ryan, I obviously can’t be part of the cabal because I don’t have a fez.

  11. MAY
    on February 13, 2008 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    And we BELIEVE you when you say that you don’t have a fez because…………?

  12. MAC
    on February 14, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    You people are assuming that writers wear their fezzes on their HEADS where anyone can see them. Everyone knows felt doesn’t keep out the mindrays from TV satellites that are used to steal all the good ideas from writers who haven’t got friends in Hollywood!

    Heads are for tinfoil. Asses are for hats. You don’t have to be one of Them to figure that out. Sheesh.

    (And they have to wear robes because have you ever tried to pull a pair of jeans on over a fez? Can’t be done, I tell you.)

  13. on February 15, 2008 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    …yeah, like what a “cabal” is.

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