Sunday, July 29, 2007

Writing Myths

Myth #1 - Writers Write Every Day

I'm sure there are some writers who actually write everyday, who force themselves to sit at their computers until they get their three hours, or four pages, or 1500 words.

I'm not one of them.

I do prioritize my writing, as all writers should. It's important to submit stories, finish books, meet deadlines. Hence the label writer. But in today's hectic world, I simply can't find the time to write every day.

If you can't find the time either, don't sweat it. Write when you can. You can prioritize something without being a slave to it.

Myth #2 - Writers Need Inspiration

I've never sat at a blank monitor, waiting to get inspired.

I write because I'm already inspired.

The age-old question, "Where do you get your ideas?" is actually backwards. It's the ideas that make writers want to write, not the other way around.

If I have a muse, it's my paycheck. That doesn't mean I don't love writing. It means I'm lucky enough to have writing as my job, and no one has a job where they're inspired 24/7.

Writers write, inspiration or not.

Myth #3 - Writing Is Difficult

Working in a factory is hard. Getting paid for your thoughts is a privilege.

Folks who complain about writing being hard need to spend a day working construction, or bar tending, or on an assembly line, or landscaping.

If it's so tortuous, so difficult, so hair-pullingly awful, why do it? Life is too short. Do something you like, or at least something that pays better.

Myth #4 - Writing Must Have Integrity

This goes along with "writing is art" and posits that our written thoughts are somehow important.

Writers are entertainers. We're the guys that tap dance on the street corner for change.

Sure, our work can have meaning. It can inspire and enthrall. But, at the end of the day, we're still not offering our readers food, clothing, shelter, or love. We're non-essential, no matter how eloquent our prose.

Plus, we still have to pay the bills. That often means doing things we don't want to do. Editing. Changing things. Maybe even writing about stuff we don't care about.

What? You don't want to sell out? You'd never let your precious words be touched, or write something for just for money? You really believe that the world owes you a job simply because you can put a noun and a verb together?

I wish you much success, and hope I never have the displeasure of sitting next to you at a party.

Myth #5 - Writer's Don't Have to Think About Sales

I've heard this one ad nauseum. Here are some of the follow-ups:

"It's a publisher's job to sell books." Really? It's your name on the book. If it fails, your publisher will still be around. You won't.

"I have no idea what genre I fit into." Congrats! You spent a year creating something that no one will want, simply because you were too self-absorbed to open your eyes.

"I can't make a difference in my sales." Books sell one at a time. Sell one, you've made a difference.

"I hate self-promoting." No one is forcing you to self-promote. No one forced you to be a writer, either. In fact, chances are you worked hard and dreamed about becoming a writer for many years, doing a lot of jobs that you really hated in order to support yourself. But now that you've been published, you think you can stop doing things you dislike?

Answer the phone, reality is calling.

(I should put that on a T-Shirt.)

Myth #6 - Good Books Always Sell

Out of all the writing myths I know, people stick most stubbornly to this one. As if the key to success is simply writing a good book. Perhaps they believe that at night, while the world sleeps, their books leap off the shelves and fly through the air visiting homes through chimneys like Santa Clause, whispering subliminal messages to snoozing readers to buy them the next day.

Writing a good book is only the first step. There are no guarantees it will even be published, let alone sell well. The best book ever written will be a miserable failure if no one knows it exists.

Your job, after writing the book, is to tell people it exists. If your book doesn't succeed, then write another one.

Myth #7 - Writers Are Rich and Famous

Maybe a few of them are. The rest of us struggle to pay our bills and don't have enough fame to talk our way out of a speeding ticket.

Myth #8 - Not Everyone Can Write

Writing is craft, and craft can be taught.

If there's a super-talented egomaniac with a sense of entitlement that matches his flair for prose and an average Joe who studies the market, hones his craft, responds to feedback, and keeps at it, my money is on Joe Average getting published first--and then having a more successful career when he does.

Hard work trumps talent. Persistence trumps inspiration. Humilty trumps ego.

Myth #9 - Writers Are Alcoholics

This one is true. Where the hell did I put that beer?


Linda L. Richards said...

When you explore any area of interest, you discover that myths are often based in fact. A bunch of yours certainly are. At least from where I'm sitting.

For instance, I write every day. Without fail. I have a crazy low minimum word count, one that's not difficult to meet, even when I'm on tour or when I have a house full of people. But I sit down and work with my novel in progress no matter what and this interaction keeps the work alive in my mind and in my heart. And if you write every day, one day you can not help yourself: you have a finished novel, no matter what you do.

On myth 2: waiting for inspiration... I think that might just be a matter of perspective. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places and yes -- of course -- inspiration is required. There's quite enough uninspired writing out there without us adding to it, thanks all the same. (See what I'm saying? A matter of perspective.)

Myth 3: Writing is difficult. It is difficult. For the long haul, anyway. I recently quit smoking. Cold turkey. I'd been avoiding it for years because people kept saying quitting smoking was the hardest thing they'd ever done. I'm three weeks without smoking now and it has not been the hardest thing I ever did. I wish I'd known! I've written four novels and that was much, much more difficult. (Childbirth was, too. But we won't go there.)

Anonymous said...

I loved #4. I remember feeling so frustrated in college when other students would make fun of writers who actually SOLD their fiction, or (gasp) wrote genre fiction. What the heck is so bad about making money from writing?

I bet they're all still writing the same novel they were working on then!

WayneThomasBatson said...

Agree with all except the writing is hard being a myth thing. Good to consider it next to many more difficult realities like construction, etc. But it is hard work. You have to be disciplined. You have to sacrifice--esp. if you have a family. And sometimes when you don't feel like writing, you have to anyway.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a drudgery--far from that. It's a blessing to be able to create for a living (uh, or at least for a suplement for a living)lol

But whenever there's a deadline looming, there is pressure, and it becomes a job at times.

Jude Hardin said...

Writing is craft, and craft can be taught.

Learning to paint by the numbers will never make you an artist.

Talent is innate; we're all wired differently.

I've always wanted to be able to draw. Can't do it. I suppose I could take classes and get better than I am now, but I'll never be as good as a fourth grader with talent. I'll never even be what anyone would consider competent. I know my talents, and drawing simply isn't one of them.

You can teach a million kids how to throw a million footballs, but only one of them will grow up to be Dan Marino. Talent has a lot to do with it, IMHO.

Mark Terry said...

I don't think I'll touch Myth #9, but I did want to touch briefly on #1, #3 and #4. Everything else I essentially agree with you.

#1. Writers write every day. I think when you're struggling to learn your craft and are unpublished, you should try to write every day. I'm a fulltime writer now, I do this for a living, and like you, I don't necessarily write every day. Sometimes I'm spending time promoting, research, conducting interviews, editing, etc. And, amazingly enough, I try to take vacations and weekends and holidays off now. But I didn't always when I was trying to break into the business.

2. Writing Is Difficult. Wellllll, no. Nuclear physics is difficult. Digging ditches is difficult. Road construction in Arizona in July is difficult. Writing novels is not difficult. Except: what makes writing difficult is the complete lack of objective means of telling whether you're any good. Which is what can make writing a novel become difficult, constantly second-guessing yourself instead of trusting your instincts, etc. But otherwise, I agree with you and I don't much like to hear writers going on about how difficult writing is. Try working two shitty jobs for minimum wage, raising kids by yourself or cleaning out septic tanks for a while and come back and see if you can whine about how difficult writing is.

#4. Writing must have integrity. Well, I know what you're getting at. I write for money and I've written a fair amount of nonfiction that I've done strictly for money. But you need to be able to live with yourself, too. (So no kiddie porn or ransom notes for me, thanks). Like success, I think "integrity" is going to be defined by each individual writer. I think there are probably some things I wouldn't write just because I don't think I should be writing them. Not because I can't or not because I shouldn't, but because I just don't want to because of so-called "integrity." As for allowing changes, following editorial suggestions, writing to markets, etc. Hey, I make a living doing this and if you want to make a living as a writer one of the first rules is supplying the product the market needs. Period.

Josephine Damian said...

Maybe the next time Officer Friendly pulls you over for speeding on your drive-by book tour, have your "Dirty Martini" (the book not the drink!) on the seat beside you, with your DL tucked between the pages. When you hand the DL to the copper, ask him: Does my DL pic or author photo look the most like me?

Oh, sorry. Just realized you don't have an author photo in your book! You should, Joe! Could come in handy. :-)

My fave is #4. Since I come to novel writing via screenwriting, I think of myself much more as an entertainer than an "author."

I had a screenwriting teacher share the best advice he ever got: When you sit down to write, ask yourself this one question: How can I entertain my audience?

Anonymous said...

I just found this blog and am really enjoying it.

My first novel is now on submission with editors (through my agent.)
What do you think is the average response time? Two to six months?

PJ Parrish said...

Hey Joe,

Pretty much agree with all except Myth No. 8: Not everyone can write.

I am with you on the importance of learning your craft. And craft, to quote Stella Adler, makes talent possible. And effort and persistence are the pistons that drive it all.

But it is not enough. There must be at least a minimal amount of native talent, an innate ear for what works on the page, in order for a person to produce a book that others want to read. Sometimes the talent is massive, sometimes it is modest. But without it, the writer cannot conjure up that special alchemy that joins his imagination with that of the reader.

I have done too many workshops and critiqued too many manuscripts to believe otherwise. I've seen folks kill themselves trying, reading all the right books, going to all the workshops, rewriting and reworking. But the fact remains that while some people might write a good opening paragraph, a good chapter or even ten good chapters, not everyone can go the distance and write a good, sellable book.

And I also think some people -- and I don't mean this to be mean-spirited -- some poeple aren't teachable in this regard. They are sort of tone-deaf.

I can play the piano, but no one will ever pay me to do it, no matter how much I practice, no matter how many lessons I take, and no matter badly I want it.

Allison Brennan said...

Interesting list, and I agree with a lot of it, but I probably wouldn't call it a myth (i.e. untrue). A lot of writers write every day. Before I was published, I wrote every single day. I had a limited amount of time between my day job and the kids, that I HAD to write 2 hours every night to make any progress.

Now, I don't write every day, but I'm involved in writing 5 days a week (I do now take weekends off unless I'm on a tight deadline. But I have no "day" job.) But I have copy edits, page proofs, revisions, etc. which isn't technically writing but must be done to produce a book.

The myth is you HAVE to write every day. (BTW, I do think that people should develop a writing habit, but that's another argument.) The truth is some successful authors don't write every day. Some do.

I wholly agree with PJ and often use the same analogy. I took piano lessons for 8 years. I was technically proficient. I could read music well, I practiced daily, and I even took over teaching new students when my instructor didn't have time. I could teach them how to read music, how to practice, critique their performance.

But I never played "music." I could hit all the right notes, but it didn't have the same tone, the same presence, of others. At recitals, I knew who had true talent--and it wasn't me, no matter how hard I worked for it.

But there are a lot of naturally talented writers out there who aren't willing to keep improving and learning craft--and those who are willing to put in the extra time and effort will eventually outshine them.

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree. I'm sort of an anti alcoholic, so maybe not #9 ;) I am absolutely thrilled to see that I'm not the only writer that writes everyday. Now I'll do something writing related, like blog, or update the webpage, or plot. but not write. Some days it just gets lost in everything else I have to do. I do think that writing is difficult, but not at all in the same ways as construction work. The difficulty is in the odds you are facing, even once you're midlister. The difficulty is "I know it's good, but is it good enough?" And "Not everyone can write" well, how about "Not everyone can write well." Certainly some people can be taught, and some people have the talent, and the end product might not be much different. But I know many people who want to be writers, but neither have the discipline to sit down and work, nor the ability to fight through the odds. Both things ultimately are needed for successful writers. If you can't get a story written, or give up after the first 2-3 nos then you don't stand a chance.

Spy Scribbler said...

I get rusty if I take a day off. I take Sundays off, but on Monday morning, I have re-read my manuscript from the very beginning. My brain isn't too good at holding stuff in.

I also disagree with number 3, LOL. While I haven't done construction, I've done a number of such jobs, and there are days when mindless/mindful labor seem like a nice vacation. I've worked three minimum-wage jobs at one time, before, and I still think writing can be more difficult, LOL.

I agree with everything else you said, though! Wise words!

Travis Erwin said...

Great post and based on my limited experience, I'd say very true.

Anonymous said...

"Talent has a lot to do with it, IMHO."

You're right. Some people have the ear, the ken, the yearning, and others don't. At the word and sentence levels, especially in purely expository writing, talent is not so important. Yet in fiction, it's evident in every paragraph whether or not the writer is in love with, even obsessed with, words; whether he is getting a deeper pleasure from conveying his thoughts over a written medium; and whether the whole thing is joy, or necessary tedium in order to get across a story.

For one can be a talented storyteller without being a talented writer, and be published and even successful because of the power of her stories -- but a certain sizzle will always be missing from the prose of this person.

The Book World and equivalent sections of newspapers seem a haven for people who love words, and show that talent and word-love is just as insufficient by itself as storytelling drive. A combination of writing and storytelling talent -- talent which has been honed into craft -- are what create lasting fiction.

Sue said...

You got it all right as far as I'm concerned. You don't have to write every day (I sure don't, unless you count emails), writing isn't difficult (and if you think it is, choose another career path), and inspiration isn't all it is cracked up to be. A couple myths I've come across: "Assignments fall in your lap." (Ha, I wish.) "Freelance writing isn't like a real job." (Actually, I work harder now than I ever did in a 9-5 job.) "Anybody can be a writer." (Sure, but that doesn't mean you're any good at it.)

Anonymous said...

Hard work trumps talent. Persistence trumps inspiration. Humilty trumps ego.

I'm standing on my chair applauding!!!

I went to a commercial art school in 1974. The first class was taught by a well-rounded vamp of a drawing teacher who after 7 hours scolded us sternly and proclaimed, "Art is 1% talent and 99% sweat". Now there was a woman who knew what it took to be successful.

Great post!

Jude Hardin said...

I read some of your blog entries, Julia, and I already want to read your book. As a writer, you have WAY more talent than the 1% your teacher talked about. Go for it!

With your natural talent, and your unique experience with lightning, I'm predicting your memoir will be a bestseller.

Stephen Dean said...

Myths #1-#8

I'm glad someone finally had the guts to say that one in public. I've been telling folks this for long time now that I've been attempting this thing called a writing life.

Myth #9

I know you're being funny here, however, I'll just go ahead and say that I know a ton of published writers and none of them are alcoholics--unless you are. :-)

Anonymous said...

Good post, I enjoyed it.

Bernita said...

Superb post, Joe - and superb responses too.
Find myself agreeing with almost everyone, caveats included.
I can't help but think that those who "write every day" have never had a domestic mega crisis.

Anonymous said...

A few things for Sue. You seem to contradict yourself somewhat. You say writing is not difficult and then go on to say it is the hardest thing you've ever done. Your freelancing is, I'm guessing, mostly non-fiction...a different beast entirely from fiction. Also, could we be confusing difficult and hard? Or would we agree that they are pretty much the same thing?

Anonymous said...

Answer the phone, reality is calling.

I knew there was a reason I hated the phone...

AboutTruth said...

Hey J A,
Out of the blue I wrote to a published writer for advice on getting my first book into a good agent's hands and he got back to me within twenty four hours. In addition to some publications he suggested, your blogsite was given.

I've been reading over it and feel positive that in the solitary world of the writer, there are those who still maintain enough of a sense of connectivity that they share.

Thanks for your input and I look forward to bending elbows with you one day. West Coast is my haunt but with family scattered we may just meet in Maryland or New York. I haven't read any of your work yet,but as soon as I finish my hopefully final edit, and read the work of the above mentioned writer, your's will be next. Oh, I do have a blogspot site for my political rants I started before the '06 elections.
the archived stuff has some pretty humorous pieces if I am allowed to think so!
Thanks again for the info,
P.S. Peete

Anonymous said...

I was reading an interview with John Updike recently. Here is a few of his thoughts when asked about writing advice:

"You hesitate to give advice to young writers, because there's a limit to what you can say. It's not exactly like being a musician, or even an artist, where there's a set number of skills that have to be mastered. I marvel at musicians, by the way, that people can play the piano and the violin with that speed and that accuracy. Obviously they need a lot of training. Sometimes writers need no training, and some of the amateur ones who just jump in do better than the ones who have the Ph.D. in creative writing. Colleges are very willing now to teach you, to give you a whole course of creative writing classes. Although I took some when I was a student, I'm a little skeptical about the value.

I think that maybe what young writers have lost is the sense of writing as a trade. When I was young it was still a trade. There were enough magazines -- middlebrow magazines, so-called general interest magazines -- they ran articles but also fiction, and you felt that there was an appetite out there for this sort of fiction. The academic publications run fiction, but I don't think they have quite replaced them in this sense. Fiction is in danger of becoming a kind of poetry. Only other poets read it. Only other fiction writers care about it. So I don't sneer at writers like Stephen King who have managed to capture the interest of a large audience. Any way that you can break through. I figure if you don't have any audience you shouldn't be doing this. Tom Wolfe, the journalist, has spouted off very eloquently about the failure of the American writers to galvanize readership the way he thinks Zola and Dreiser and some others did. I think you can force this. We can't do Zola now exactly. Somehow it just doesn't sing. So you're sort of stuck with being a -- whatever -- post-modern.

To the young writers, I would merely say, "Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say -- or more -- a day to write. Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. Henry Greene, one of my pets, was an industrialist actually. He was running a company, and he would come home and write for just an hour in an armchair, and wonderful books were created in this way. So take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don't be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won't run your stuff. We're sort of a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it's not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. "Read what excites you," would be advice, and even if you don't imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of a tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight. Other than that, don't try to get rich on the other hand. If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or being a certain kind of a lawyer. But on the other hand, I would like to think that in a country this large -- and a language even larger -- that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.

JA Konrath said...

Great responses, folks. A lot of good advice here.

Anonymous said...

this is good. notes to self.

Dana King said...

I have mixed emotions about some of these, but I'm with you on Number 3. Writers who wring their hands and despair over how hard writing is should take three years off and try the military, or a real, dead-end job where you HAVE to show up every day, and you HAVE to do things a certain way. Anyone who doesn't think that's true should give it a try. It pays better than writing, and, according to them, it must be easier. It's a no brainer, right?

Anonymous said...

Great post! I came here via Paula Chase, and I very much enjoyed myself :)

Don't know about Myth 9...maybe all writers are chocoholics? :D

Anonymous said...

Physical labor is physically hard. Writing is mental labor and is/can be hard, mentally. A dead end job is usually niether. Just mind numbing. All are different. Apples to oranges.

Anonymous said...

I just found your site and this entry made me laugh. I especially loved number 9... but then again, I am a redhead. We tend to love self-defecating behavior of any kind ;-)
I just don't take life that seriously when it comes to looking at my navel. I view my writing (or navel)as entertainment and fun. I hope to make people smile and brighten their day. If I do, then I have achieved my goal. It is a gift I send out to the world ... where that takes me is anyones guess.
I'll be back ... don't be scared.
Catherine, the redhead

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you've said, but I try to write every day. I have a pretty packed schedule, considering I'm attending college full time and working 20 hours per week, and I only feel sane if I work on my writing. Practice makes perfect. And since I love writing so much, I can't help but do it every day. It's a force of habit.

The alcoholism thing - it's a joke, I know, but seriously, you don't need to be an alcoholic/drug addict/crazy to be a good writer. Eating healthy and exercising is better for the mind than drinking like a damned fish.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I've been writing for 20 years. I didn't graduate from college until I was 40, and I am trying hard to forget what I learned in creative writing classes. I did best when I didn't listen to others and just sent out what truly inspired me. What really drives me crazy is when people say that despite the fact that I have published over 200 newspaper stories, magazine articles and essays, that I am not a "real" writer. I'm just this technical writer who sold out my dreams. Well, I do pretty well with my technical writing, and I have medical benefits that are important to my family.

People like C. Hope Clark (who is responsible for my finding your blog so thanks to her for that) say that you just have to keep trying to get published and do everything you can to stay out of the corporate world. She might have a point. Maybe those people should stay out of corporate America. The thing is that she's being very hypocritical in this respect. After all she didn't try freelancing full-time until after she'd worked enough to get a pension and medical benefits. God bless freelancers and writers but many of us must hold down a corporate job in order to pay bills. Thanks for letting me rant. Karin in Ohio