I was chatting online with a younger writer the other day and she had a moment of utter frustration with her current project, so I had to explain that what she was feeling was a good sign.
When you go to a con panel with writers, there is inevitably some youngster who stands up in back to ask the most banal of questions.
“Where do you get your ideas?”
I can tell such folks have taken the idea of writing [insert Pooh Bear here] extremely seriously. They’ve had college or MFA programs designed to make them authors. Mind you, I just used the word authors rather than writers. Authors, to me, are those folks who want to be famous. To get that seven-figure book deal and have the Randy Penguin spend enough marketing dollars to land them atop the New York Times bestseller list.
(A hint, that list is a mark of how many copies of the book were bought in about two dozen or so bookstores on the east coast, extrapolated out for the entire nation. It had almost no bearing on the rest of the world. There are folks who have figured our how to spoof the system. USA Today bestseller list is a little better, but folks are spoofing that as well. Adding that to your resume doesn’t usually impress me, unless I know you actually earned it. Few have.)
Getting back to young authors, they think that there is a magic handshake they can learn that turns them into pros. That’s why you see them buying every book on writing that they can. Or taking workshop after workshop and taking copious notes.
Looking for the magic handshake.
There isn’t one. What there is can best be described as work ethic. Those of us who have had some success largely owe it first to working our asses off by writing a lot of words. From there, genre matters, as navel-gazing autobiographies about how someone hates their mother only sell a lot of copies if your marketing budget it big enough to spoof the NYT. Or to get you on Oprah.
Most of them sell dozens of copies, not millions.
Luck is also a factor, as you have to somehow have the right story at the right moment for a lot of readers, and convince the advertising robots to put your name in front of them. Again, I know folks who spend $10,000 or more a month on their advertising. Their sales numbers are impressive, but only as gross income.
They get really pissy when I ask what their net income is. Frequently, its not much better than mine, when my monthly ad budget is usually $250-$400. They are running in a treadmill trying to make it, instead of building something slowly so it is durable. If they stop, they get flung off the back of the machine like in the cartoons.
So luck and hard work are the minimums necessary. Write a lot of words. Make them good ones.
Also, write a good first draft. I can’t tell you how many times some deluded fool explains to me that the only -right- way to write a novel is to spend the entire first draft wandering around and trying to figure out what story they want to tell. Then they go back and redraft the entire novel a second time. After that, maybe two or three more tries, slowly polishing it until every word sparkles. (Elapsed time measured usually in years here.)
The problem is that they have ripped out all the emotional content in the process. Pretty words. Dull book. Can’t tell you how many of those I’ve seen.
I’d rather have your first draft, warts and all, than your sixth. We can fix a few things in #1 and it will drip with anger, sorrow, or anguish. Won’t be pretty. It will be real instead. Readers react to that more than they do pretty words.
Which circles me back to the young lady complaining. She was working on a project, and all these other projects kept popping up and wanting to be written too. We call those ideas popcorn kittens (google it for the video when you have some time to giggle), because they are like active kitties, popping up to look around and then wandering off.
The question she asked wasn’t “Where do you get your ideas?” like most of them do when still filled with grand dreams of a beret and a coffee shop.
She asked “How do you make it stop?” with true anguish.
Young lady, that’s how you know you are a writer. Everything those college courses taught you was wrong. Genre fiction is where you make money. Your professor was a failed novelist writing about hating her mother and nobody wanted to read it. I’d rather read about that submarine pirate captain who is secretly a werewolf and spends all his time trying to hide it. That sounds like fun. Sounds new.
Professors don’t want to have to grade papers, so they would rather you spent your life on the same paragraph, over and over, instead of blasting out a novella every week for class.
Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. Nearly thirty-five years later, I still remember that vicious [redacted] of a professor and how she went her entire academic career without a male student ever—EVER—receiving an A in her creative writing course. That’s some pretty impressive sexism there. She believed that only female units could be authors.
If she wasn’t dead these days, I’d drop ship her some of my successful novels, just to be an asshole. But even Amazon balks at delivering anywhere guarded by three-headed-dogs.
So for the budding authors out there, remember just a few simple thoughts.
There is no magic handshake. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. Nothing else matters.
Genre is what you write if you would like to make money. Literary wins awards and then you go back to your job at the call center or the bookstore.
You can’t make it stop. What you do is ignore them all as best you can. The bad ideas will eventually recede, and shouldn’t be written. The good ideas will circle back time and again until you do write them.
Keep notes, but don’t become that fool who hangs out in a coffee ship with a notebook of ideas and never actually writes. Those are poseurs.
Writers write. If you are not writing, you are not a writer. If you are, you can call yourself a writer.
Anything you write is valid, even if nobody will ever read it. I have six volumes of poetry in a trunk that won’t probably ever see the light of day. I have failed novels where I realized as I got into them that I lacked the skills to pull it off, or it wasn’t as good an idea as I originally thought it would be.
So write. Given the state of modern traditional publishing (shrinking monthly if not weekly), learn how to indie publish. A $5.99 novel on Amazon nets you about $4 per sale. How many such sales do you need to replace your current job? TradPub pays about $0.10 per unit sale. You won’t ever get rich. You can win awards and accolades, and hopefully have a spouse who will support you. Or a job at the call center you can stay at until you die.
Because you can’t make it stop. Not if you are really a writer.
Nor do you want it to.