Lie Number 1: Teachers can teach you how to become a successful writer.
No one can teach you how to become a writer. Sure, there exist writing classes which will explain the use of adverbs and school you in the art of Perspective, and drill into your noodle the meanings of ‘linking verbs’ and ‘modal auxiliaries,’ but at the end of the day all these things will not add up to a saleable manuscript.
Even if you master everything they teach you and earn (and pay $100,000 for) your MFA in creative writing, odds are you’ll still have to face that vast blank void of disinterest that is the jaded/picky/fickle/hypocritical/judgmental publishing world.
If they reply at all, literary agents will send you only form rejections. Your alpha readers won’t get back to you. Your manuscripts will lie in a dusty, musty-smelling drawer, unread, unloved, and unpublished. Your fancy writing degree will remain on the wall, framed and futile, impotent, a relic of potential that cost you thousands and won you nothing but a shallow and fragile ego.
You could master George R.R. Martin’s Top 10 Rules for Success and still not sell that golden goose you call a mystery novel. Memorized all of Writing for Dummies? Well then, Mr. Genius Writer, you must be all set to write a runaway best-seller, right?
If it were that easy, every Joe with a Word Processor and a mite of ambition would be churning out winners left and right.
Okay, I’ll quit flogging the hog here. You get it.
So if we cannot be taught how to write like best-selling authors (or at least like mid-list novelists) how do we learn the art?
Ray Bradbury states that a writer is one who has ‘put into himself enough grammatical tools and literary knowledge that he won’t trip himself up when he wants to run’ with the ‘run’ here referring to writing with zest and gusto. Filling your stories with energy. Engaging with your readers by creating a world brimming with life. This is accomplished, Ray says, by infusing your writing (re: writing about) your loves and your hates. He goes on:
“Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast you can go. The character in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story. The zest and gusto of his need, and there is zest in hate as well as in love, will fire the landscape and raise the temperature of your typewriter thirty degrees.’ (Old Ray created his best work back in the day, Pre-Computer.)
This is all the advice a beginning writer needs to begin writing. It’s inspiring and basic and profound. And yet, it still does not teach us how to write.
Learning how involves engaging in three solitary activities—often and extensively (though perhaps not exclusively). They are:
- Reading—inside and outside your writing genre
- Writing—nobody was born a great writer. Your writing will improve the more you write
- Living it up—experiences enhance the writer, and by extension, her writing
Now, with that hypocritical advice done, we move on to the second lie.
Lie Number 2: There are guaranteed paths to success in the world of publishing.
‘Just follow these Seven Steps and you are guaranteed to be successful, because this program worked for established best-sellers, the biggest names in the business.’
Yeah, sure, I’ll buy that for a dollar (but not for the $14.99 they want for the e-Book version).
There is no definitive path to success (see my parody of this lie The (Psycho) Path to Success).
Anyone who claims that their way is the One Guaranteed Path to Success in the world of writing is totally blowing a gust of hot toxic air in your desperately-seeking-Susan face. Even if their method worked for them, there is no guarantee it will work for you or for anyone else. There are too many variables involved for any one path to work for everyone. You could try it. But in most cases it’ll cost you ‘only’ $299 for their Guaranteed to Sell 10,000 Copies of Your Book guide book to success.
Lie Number 3: Anybody can become a writer; you just have to want it enough!
A certain type of brute mentality is needed for someone to survive the brutal, competitive, and sometimes heartless world of publishing.
Armor-plated skin is also a necessity—along with an ego, checked by wisdom. To possess all three of three traits is rare enough, but the writer who wishes to thrive in this market must also be able to identify and rectify her weaknesses, be able to take criticism and unsolicited advice, and educate herself in the art of creative writing, all while also having something useful to say and keeping down a day job—in addition to everyday issues and family duties.
Do you think you can handle all of that?
Maybe you think so—and perhaps you even can handle it.
The truth is that most people cannot. Unfortunately for some, they find this out only after years of struggling and heartbreak. Many who do stick with it will never be traditionally published. You could write for years and never win over a publisher.
All those long nights and busy days scrapping at your desk, with nothing tangible to show for it, but a stack of papers filled with pretty words.
Can you handle that?
Few can. There are those who write for the sheer joy of it, who are not bothered by their lack of the traditionally-accepted idea of success, and I wish to applaud you select few here and now. More power to you!
Just don’t make the mistake that millions of struggling amateurs have made in thinking that if you follow all the rules and master all the writing tips, you will automatically become a published writer.
It’s not that simple.
But it is possible. As Tolkien wrote, ‘The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Company is true.’
Ambition is a good thing, but it’s a deft hand and a deep devotion to your craft that will win the day for you.
Tolkien also gave us this lovely metaphor: ‘It’s a dangerous business, going outside your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.’
Perhaps he was alluding to a writing career here. You must be bold in leaving your comfort zone. It can be exciting and unpredictable, but you must never forget why you left that safe, simple place you know and love for the hope of some new adventure (in writing).
So don’t give up. If you are meant to be a writer, and if you work your tail off and learn how to shrug aside neglect and criticism, and if you seek your own unique path to publication instead of following in the same steps of those who have gone before, you might just find what you are looking for.
Good luck, and don’t forget to keep reading—often and in every genre you can find.