9 Ways NOT to Be a Writer
All your romantic delusions ain’t helping.
Well, folks, Andrés Cruciani of Toho Publishing here once again, and today I come at with you with 9 ways NOT to be a writer.
Now, this post has been stewing for a while, frothing really (i.e., I’m foaming at the mouth as I write), so let’s get straight to it before my head bursts from the sheer force of what I need to tell you.
RULE #1: Don’t let your head get too big.
That’s right. I said it. A lot of writers think they’re smarter than everyone else. I know because I was one of those people. I thought that the incredible literature I read — Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Rand (yes, her too) and Morrison and McCarthy (Suttree, in specific) — made me somehow better than all the lowlifes who not only read but ENJOYED E.L. James’ travesty of a book Fifty Shades of Grey.*
* I actually read Fifty Shades of Crap and wrote my MFA thesis on it. I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about and how on Earth Mrs. James could’ve made so much freaking money from a book about S&M. What I discovered was that I still have no effin’ idea except that it must have just hit some tipping point (a la Malcom Gladwell) and then our collective social psyche did the rest. But as to the book’s quality, the main character (whose name I presently refuse to look up) had a “lump (a hitch?) in my throat” like 6,000 times. And there were a whole lot of butterflies in her belly. Like in every other scene. Ugh.
The truth is, however, I’m not better than anyone else (even though Fifty Shades really sucked). And neither are you.
And the way I know you’re not smarter than others for being a writer and voracious reader is very simple and provable by the following question: if you’re so damn smart, why are you spending all your time reading books?
That’s right. You — yes and I too — are the knuckleheads. Descartes supposedly stopped reading novels because they make you believe in the impossible. Now, a lot of writers think believing in the impossible is some kind of amazing feat of literature. Some kind of testament to its power. Everywhere on this internet I see the quote (intentionally garbled here): “You only live but the one life, but I who READ live a thousand.”
Sitting in your chair all day with nose-to-book doesn’t make you superior — or more worldly. In fact, one could easily argue the opposite—that because your life is short and we’re spinning on a globe hurtling through the universe and there are a plethora of things you will never actually see or smell or taste or touch or DO because you’re spending all your time reading damn books, that you (yes, and I), dear touter of the intellect and champion of the literary classics, are the actual morons. There. I said it.
RULE #2: Don’t get an MFA.
Alright, this one comes with both a caveat and a disclaimer.
First, the disclaimer: I have an MFA.
Second, the caveat: it really depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to get better at writing, then by all means go get an MFA. Because in all truth, I DEFINITELY got better pursuing my MFA. Lots better. Lots.
BUT, if you suffer from the delusion that you’re going to get your MFA and then write your masterpiece and publishers will be lining up at your door with million dollar checks, clambering to shove their money down your throat, then please reconsider. (I wrote about this here.)
Sure, some people will come out of MFA programs with book deals. Some with lucrative book deals (especially those whose writing or persona happens to be topical/trendy). But the bulk of MFA recipients (Hi, I’m Andrés) will not get those big-buck book deals. There are ~250 writing MFA programs in the US. 3,000 MFA grads EVERY YEAR. Ask yourself: Where are all these MFA grads going? Are they all getting incredible book deals? Are they all making a living by writing fiction?
The answer to that last question is obvious, and I’ll answer it with another question:
Did you read 3,000 books by first-time novelists last year?
Which tells us that all these poor saps (Hi, I’m Andrés) are not reveling in the author glory they imagined for themselves. They’re working at publishing houses and writing ad copy and doing corporate communications and writing porn titles (yup, I know a guy) and managing companies’ social media and editing and, of course, teaching.
Which is all to say, get an MFA if you want to better your craft. Just don’t delude yourself about what that stupidly expensive piece of paper will get you.
Lastly, if you’re looking for an alternative, consider this:
A two-year MFA can easily cost $50k + living expenses. So, for a two-year program, maybe $90k? If you took that money (i.e., loans) and went to live somewhere (super) cheap, you could live frugally for at least five years, form your own writers’ shops, take free online classes, build a blog, and read as much as possible and probably be better off than most of my MFA peers. Or, well, me.
RULE #3: Don’t spend all your time alone.
Look, writers are a bunch of introverts. (I know this all too well.) Now, there are lots of folks on the internet touting the wonders of introversion—how swell it is, how amazing the world of imagination is.
But let’s be real: all that’s a bunch of hornswoggle.
Sure, to write you have to spend time in solitude. But we, as human beings, are social creatures. We benefit from and enjoy others’ company. We foster our spirit when we help others, when we eat communally, when we share. Yet all these virtues are anathema to the introvert.
The introvert swears by solitude and craves giant chunks of it. Believe me, I understand. But while there are introverted natures out there, frankly, a lot of this introversion is just a veil over our social anxiety — and our hubris.
So many introverted writers are just lying themselves. Sure, reading a book is nice — it can even be wonderful — but a book is not actual company. A book does not pulse and does not breathe despite all the crappy internet metaphors out there. A book will not help you pack and move and it will not give you the same solace on your deathbed as a loved one’s warm hand. Stop pretending.
Finally, so many writers are just using their introversion to hide their intense hubris. In your head, you can tell yourself (and believe) how great you are. How amazing your writing is. How necessary you and your words are to the world (just wait till I die when everyone will realize how much they were missing out on, how incredible my writing was, blah blah blah …). It’s all a bunch of malarky.
Get out of your skull. Write, and then go enjoy your brief existence. There is more to life than paper. (And Kindle.) Don’t learn that too late.
RULE #4: Don’t think your writing is better than everyone else’s.
This is an extension of Rule 1, but it should be said outright.
Your writing’s good, maybe even great/outstanding, but so are the writings of a (possible literal) million other writers worldwide (officially, ~300k in the US alone). Think about all the journalists, the essayists, the novelists, the poets and short story writers. Think about all those MFA grads and English BAs and MAs and PhDs. Think about all the copywriters and bloggers and even those who learned the craft just by reading a whole bunch.
Do you really think that somehow your writing is better than all of theirs? Why? Where did such intense egomania come from?
It’s okay, believe me, I understand. But you need to let your ego a-go-go. And you need to understand that no matter how great your writing is, the world will be just fine without it. Yes, that’s right. I even heard the Pope Francis — yes, the POPE — say the other day that no one is indispensable. So stop thinking your writing is so important. For every Cormac McCarthy, there are ten thousand other Cormac McCarthys whose names you will never know.
It’s ok though.
Just relax. It’s less serious than you make it.
RULE #5: Don’t think that just cuz you wrote it someone will publish it.
I learned this the very hard way, but just because you spend a stupid amount of time writing a book (say, eight years) does not mean that your novel will be met with open arms.
Like the thousands of unknown McCarthys and Melvilles and Allendes, for every decade-in-the-making book that gets a sweet book deal, there are literally tens of thousands that will not. It’s simply the nature of traditional publishing.
The funnel of traditional publishing has not grown with the glut of writing — and writers — out there. Which means that more people will be left out (ergo the rise of self publishing and micro presses and blog platforms like Medium). We are in a time when traditional publishing is consolidating (because it’s dying). Know this.
Also, there are many people now succeeding with self-publishing and building their own audiences on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, email, etc. Imagine that you yourself were a traditional publisher. A traditional publisher, in fact, that needs to publish successful books in order to stay in business — in order to keep the lights on and pay your employees. Who would you rather publish? The author who wrote a great book and has a huge social media following and has already sold 100,000 copies of earlier books? Or the first-time author who wrote a great book but has never even done a reading? Be honest. And then remember that answer — forever.
RULE #6: Don’t think that writing something great is enough. It ain’t.
This one’s really a corollary to rule five, but seriously, understand that the bar has raised. There’s so much outstanding work being produced at the moment that just producing great stuff ain’t enough anymore. You need mechanisms for both distribution AND marketing. (Wrote more about this here.)
Just having your novel listed on Amazon, for example, isn’t enough. Sure, you’ve got the distribution, but how will you ever sell copies if no one ever knows to look for your book? There are ~32,000,000 paperbacks alone on Amazon. Just throwing your book on the pile and thinking people will find your work is, well, a little naive. Like finding a piece of hay in a haystack.
Now, fret not. Just understand that you will need to write great things AND market them. Some writers market naturally. Others will have to be more intentional and methodical. Should you build an email list or an Instagram following? Should you publish on Amazon or IngramSpark? Research and then choose your distribution and marketing methods.
RULE #7: Don’t think your book will be the one that makes people read again.
Look, I know you think you’re writing something amazing. Life changing. World changing. History-book making. Maybe you did. But Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, even Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat for crying out loud, for entertainment: they’re winning! Maybe you’ll succeed in pulling a few eyeballs, but don’t bank on being the next Harry Potter. (Which, btw, J.K. Rowling was writing middle grade fantasy. I.e., she was writing a book for a population that is FORCED to read — by schools, their parents, their teachers. Yeah, Rowling obviously struck billionaire big, but would she have struck such literary double platinum had she been writing, say, high brow literary fiction?)
(Answer = NO.)
Point being, enough with the delusions, fellow writers! I know a lot of us have fantasies that one day people across the globe will be huddling with our books. We’ll walk onto a subway car and there our books will be: in every lap, on every phone, on every night-shifted tablet. We’ll book tour and win Pulitzers and Nobels. Oh how the writing fame will rain down upon our bloated heads!
Sure. Deny it. Deny your delusions of grandeur. Maybe in you the writer’s dream is small. It’s possible. But I know that in others of you this dream is bi g— BIG! And I know this because one time at a writing conference, a writer asked how she could copyright her work before sending it to agents and magazines to be published. The implication being that someone was going to steal her work. I mean, it was so sad/absurd I wanted to cry and laugh at once. Steal her work?? These agents are getting hundreds of books a week. Who even has the time to steal?
Yet the reason it was so particularly sad is that I’d once had the same thought. Yes, really. I couldn’t send out my work because someone might steal it. (Oh, tears are streaming down my laughing cheeks. The delusion!)
But just remember: for every lottery winner (for every J.K. Rowling), there are 100,000,000 losers out there. Fact.
So, relax. Humble yourself. Enjoy the ride cuz there probably ain’t no pot o’ gold. And if you do find one, it’s cuz you hustled, workhorsed it, or just got lucky. Which gets us to …
RULE # 8: Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll make money from fiction.
Look, it’s possible. It really is. There are people making decent bucks from books as you read this. But these people are a rare breed. Especially those being published traditionally. There’s just only so much bandwidth those traditional publishers can handle.
But the same goes for those self-publishing. The Amazon game is being run by not that many people. All those platforms — Amazon, IngramSparks, Barnes and Noble, Medium, etc. etc. — there are a few people at the top. A few of them got there cuz they got lucky. The rest because they hustled and persisted. But now the most successful ones have built writing/publishing machines that are tough to compete with.
Can you be one of those of people? Can you compete?
Yes. Yes, absolutely. But getting to the top of any of these platforms, or getting a traditional book deal, is nothing romantic. It’s a grind and a hustle. It’s a decades-long marathon and career. An online rat race of its own.
So, if you’re an arteest, write away. Enjoy it. Build your worlds of imagination. But understand that if you want to make money from your art, you’re going to have to do things that bring in money: networking, advertising, marketing, just good ol’ hustling. I.e., you’re gonna have to sell.
RULE #9 (WHAT YOU SHOULD DO): Don’t give up.
Look, perhaps this post discouraged you. If I’d read it ten years ago, I wouldn’t’ve been able to hear it. I would’ve thought the writer was jaded and he just didn’t realize that my work really was great. World changing. That my book really was going to make adults read novels again — and literary novels at that! I understand if you didn’t make it this far. Maybe you’re not ready …
But consider this entire post a reality check. A curb on the romantic notions we as writers develop over long slabs (i.e., years) of time alone, in our heads, creating fake things. What fake notions do we develop about the real world? And how can we check those notions?
Ultimately, though, the trick is to just keep going. To write humbly and prolifically (as much as you can) and to appreciate the journey. To write for our friends and family and to share our work and to be happily cognizant that our time on this Earth is limited, so write, but don’t hold that pen so hard. For when the time comes to market, you’ll have to do that too …
Think I missed something? Let us know in the comments!