I get asked certain questions by young writers occasionally. They take different forms, but all come back down to a shorthand Fabulous Publisher Babe™ and I call “The Secret Handshake.”
That’s where someone is just simply convinced that there is some mystical bit of knowledge about the craft of writing that they can learn, that will suddenly make them successful and rich. I dunno about the rich part, but I’ve been successful enough that writing and publishing is my full time job these days. I don’t have an income from teaching. Nor editing. The stuff I publish for others (Blaze Ward Presents or Boundary Shock Quarterly) don’t make me much money, but both are labors of love anyway.
But they have gotten it in their heads that there is a Secret Handshake. That once they learn said handshake, they will be in the big time. I suppose that they generally get the idea from the grifters who want to sell you on some gimmick. There are a lot of those, if you pay attention and have been around long enough.
Usually, they take the form of some expensive workshop you can take, wherein some self-proclaimed guru will teach you the secret that he exploited to become famous. However, if you pay attention, you’ll note that he’s not exploiting it anymore. Usually because it doesn’t work as well as it once did. Might not work at all.
But he’ll still offer to teach you for a few hundred (or thousand) bucks. Sound familiar?
Fads come and go, and the grifters that rise with them vanish with them a few years later. All of them rely on the belief that there is some magic Secret Handshake™ that can make you rich. And then about four years later, you ask “Whatever happened to…?”
These young writers don’t ever want to hear it from my lips, when I tell them what the real Secret Handshake is.
Persistence. Dedication. Discipline. Demand.
If you want to be famous, I can’t help you, because I’m not famous and have no idea how to get there. There are only a handful of places in the world where you might walk into a bookstore and see one of my titles on the shelf. And that’s more blind luck than anything.
I am, however doing well enough that I don’t need a day job. I don’t need a supportive spouse paying all the bills while I pursue my dream of being a writer. I don’t teach classes or offer expensive workshops. I don’t edit for cash in my spare time.
Persistence. Keep writing. You don’t have to write every day. You do have to think about writing every day of the week and commit to writing on most of them. Even 100 words adds up quickly enough.
I used to write every single day, then take a day or two off at the end of the month when I hit my word count. Then I got into a Tai Chi class Saturday mornings in the park. Frequently, I don’t do any writing on Saturdays now. What I do during the rest of the week is make up for that day off. Instead of averaging four thousand words per day, I tend to aim for five when I can, so that skipping a day just means I stay on my monthly target of 116,667+ words.
Dedication. Writing comes first. I don’t watch shows. I don’t have other businesses taking up my time. I don’t play games. I write. That is my gig. That is first on my list of priorities. Everything else is second.
I’ll ask you point blank: Where do you spend your hours each week? I write 3-5 hours, six days per week. I also edit in the evenings frequently for a few hours. I am dedicated to the writing, to the point that everything else must take second place.
Discipline. I get up, shower, (sometimes feed the cat depending on the day,) feed myself, fix coffee, check the news and the comics, then I’m writing. Usually if I wake up at 630, I’m writing by 800. And I intend to write until noon or four (five) thousand words, whichever comes first.
Writing is a muscle. I have trained that muscle to marathon, day over day. Others can barely jog to the end of the block and back, but we all start somewhere. The key is the discipline to do it even on days when the words are hard. Or the brain is kinda mushy. Or I feel yucky. Only true illness where the brain is hollow do I give myself a day off. Then I make it up later.
But I also hit my monthly word target and stop. Boom. Middle of a chapter. Maybe the middle of a paragraph, depending. Because I know I’ll pick it up tomorrow and go.
Demand. I want this more than you do. That’s evidenced by my work ethic. I’m not cleaning my neighbor’s refrigerator instead of writing. I’m not spending hours down the rabbit hole of tvtropes.org instead of creating words. I’m not making excuses for not writing.
Research is useful, but are you using it as an excuse NOT to write? If you don’t want to write, why are you trying? If you don’t want to be a writer, why do you torture yourself into writing? Why aren’t you doing something you like?
I want to be a writer, more than any other topic. I enjoy it. I thrive at it. I get paid to make shit up for a living.
What do you want most? And be honest, with yourself as well as with me.
What do you want most?
If it is to be a writer, then write. Stop making excuses for not writing. Stop prioritizing anything else ahead of your words, and write.
I can’t help you be successful with a blank piece of paper.
Further, once you write it, go learn Heinlein’s Rules for (Traditional Publishing) Writing and adapt them to your own life.
Step one: write. You take it from there.
The Secret Handshake is a gimmick to get you to buy their book or take their seminar. You haven’t failed because you did those things and weren’t successful. They aren’t successful at that gimmick these days, either, or they’d have no time to actually teach seminars all over the world because they’d be so busy making money.
The Secret Handshake, I’m sorry, is hard work. And luck.
Not all my books work. Not every novel I publish makes a lot of money. However, when I hook a new fan, they have a whole catalog of things they can go read, so now I can slowly get them to give me hundreds of dollars each. And do it legitimately, which is even better, because I am entertaining them.
And they come back month over month, because I am publishing something new. In my case usually a novel. Sometimes two.
You should start by jogging to the end of the block and back, before deciding to run to Halifax. Write a whole set of short stories, just so you learn how to write. Publish them month over month, so the advertising robots and your fans learn to look for new work from you.
Work your way up from three thousand words per month (100/day) to 120,000. If you count a novel as 40,000+ words, then you van get to where you are generating at least one novel PER MONTH. And as you speed up, they can get longer. Some of mine are 45,000. Some 65,000. Some 100,000. (I even had one at 160,000 to publish one of these days.)
Write. Only rework it to fix errors your First Reader and Copy Editor find, rather than spending YEARS revising and writing the same novel over and over again. That’s like walking to Cleveland six times, instead of ever seeing Seattle instead.
Write. That’s the Secret Handshake. Make it a lifestyle, instead of an aspiration. Make it a hobby that takes precedence over all the other hobbies. With Persistence, Dedication, Discipline, and Demand, you can turn it into the greatest job you’ll ever have.
But you have to want it more than anybody else does.
And get over the idea that some Secret Handshake will save you.