The Business Rusch: Writers and Business
The last two weeks have been quite a revelation for me. My post on perfection led to last week’s post about writing workshops/writing culture, and even then, it wasn’t until the comment sections of both blogs that I realized just how prevalent the whole writing problem thing is.
What I consider to be “the whole writing problem thing” is this: writers have never learned how to become professionals. They have learned how to become critics and academics.
Farther into this post, I will talk about the problems caused by what we learn and how we learn it. Before I do, however, I want to remind you of something:
I write these blog posts for professional writers and those who want to become professional writers. By professional, I mean someone who makes a living at their writing. Not at teaching writing, not at lecturing, not at criticism. But at their actual writing, their published works.
So when I’m talking about problems in what writers learn, I’m talking about what writers who want to become professionals learn. I have nothing against English teachers; there are several in my family and more among my friends.
I am talking about the problems in the teaching of creative writing only. Other degree programs help their students become professionals in their fields—in other words, those professionals know that when they graduate, their field offers work, paying work. It might take a while to get there, but the students know they can if they follow a particular path.
(Please note that some creative writing degree programs are trying to change this attitude. Folks have mentioned such programs in last week’s comments section. I have not vetted these programs and, in some cases, was unaware of them. So check them out on your own. The tide might be turning—slowly.)
Writers do not get a training in their profession (an existing profession, in which thousands of writers work and thrive), and not just because of the reasons I had assumed. These blog posts and your comments have sent me on a journey of discovery into just how old, deep, and pervasive this misunderstanding of our profession truly is.
I spent some time this week, looking for the very first writer’s workshop. I vaguely remembered an article I read about famous prose writers and poets on the East Coast setting up their own degree program (Robert Lowell’s name comes to mind), but before I searched for that, I decided to go the easy, Google route. I wanted to find the first degree program in the United States on Creative Writing.
It was, as you probably guessed, The University of Iowa, which still has a famous writing workshop, a prestigious one. According to its website, the university offered its first creative writing class in 1897 (which was the first creative writing class in Iowa. Dunno about the rest of the country).
I dug deeper. I have a (badly produced) book from Hyperion on the Iowa Writers Workshop called, unsurprisingly, The Workshop: Seven Decades of the Iowa Writers Workshop. (Yes, that really is the cover to our left. Ugly, isn’t it? Someone didn’t want it to sell.) The book is a wealth of rather shocking information. Instead of quoting from it, though, since it’s 13 years old, I’ll refer back to the website (which reinforces what I found in the book). Some of the information below, however, comes from the book.
The core of the degree program began in 1922, with the workshop itself coalescing in 1936, headed by someone named Wilbur Schramm. I’d never heard of Professor Schramm, so I looked him up as well. Seems he’s considered “the father of communications studies” and has quite a real-world pedigree, including writing for the Associated Press and winning the O. Henry Prize for fiction in 1942. He went on to other things, such as working in the War Information Office during World War Two, and then founding more influential degree programs at other universities.
I do not know Schramm’s intentions when he started the Iowa program. I’m sure it’s somewhere in his papers (housed at the University of Iowa). No matter what his intention, however, I suspect it was the same as the founders of Clarion Writers Workshop and other workshops that eventually become institutionalized. The intent was to educate and help the students.
Nowadays, Iowa is the gold standard in the United States, and the model for several degree programs around the world. According to the website, the program has two parts. It has a Master of Fine Arts in English, “a terminal degree qualifying the holder to teach creative writing at the college level.” It also offers the actual workshop.
In the website’s description of the workshop are these jaw-dropping sentences. Please note that the words in quotations inside this quote I’ve pulled are from the university itself, not from me:
“As a ‘workshop’ we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”
Well, that made me hurry over to the University of Iowa’s music department to see if it mentions the word “learn” in quotes or claims that no one “learns” to play music but just absorbs it.
Nope. The music school talks about skill and moving on to other levels once the skills “are acquired” through practice, study, and performance.
I found no mention of “skill” at the prestigious literary program. No mention of practice, either. Instead, more jaw-dropping stuff:
“Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.”
Considering that tuition at the University of Iowa on the undergraduate level runs anywhere from $4,000 (resident) to $12,000 (nonresident) per year (and is probably much more for degree programs), writing students are paying for what, exactly? Encouragement? Meeting famous writers they could also meet at faculty mixers and at book signings? Asking a few questions…and really? Encouragement??? Really?
[Breathing now. Setting aside some quite real shock. Moving back to my point.]
Okay. For twenty years now, my husband Dean Wesley Smith and I have made it our mission to teach new writers business. Over time, we realized that professional writers needed to learn business as well. We were told by the folks running Clarion East in the 1990s that we weren’t wanted back because of our business focus. Gently, over a rather uncomfortable dinner, our two old mentors who founded Clarion reminded us that Clarion was a craft workshop, not a business workshop, and it wasn’t about to change. We accepted that. We thought it Clarion only. Universities only. MFAs only.
But it’s not.
Dean and I haven’t been fighting an isolated attitude. We’ve been fighting seventy-six years of indoctrination. Seventy-six years of worrying about words, when writers needed to worry about stories. Seventy-six years of worrying about the wrong things so that someone else can take care of the “right” things.
If you count a generation by the customary definition of twenty years, then nearly four generations of writers have come to believe this stuff. That’s a lot of cultural baggage, and a lot of misperceptions that the professional writer (or the wannabe) has to fight.
We’re all familiar with that fight. But what most writers haven’t considered is the harm that this attitude embodied by the University of Iowa and copied by every writing program (and most workshops) causes.
There are two levels of harm. The personal harm, and the professional harm.
The personal harm is easy to define.
Talent versus skill
A God-given right versus a craft that can be learned
A talent is, by its very definition, something you’re born with. Either you have it or you don’t. As the précises for the University of Iowa states, it can’t be learned. It can only be “encouraged.”
Of course, if that were the case, then writers couldn’t improve. They would have the same ability at the beginning of their careers as at the end of their careers. Study, classrooms, research, practice, none of it has any meaning whatsoever in the face of Great Talent.
Talent is, as the cliché says, its own reward.
And its own curse.
I have watched hundreds—and I do mean hundreds—of talented writers fall by the wayside as their less-talented (by the judgment of a teacher, editor, critic) fellows succeed. Why are the less-talented succeeding where the talented fail?
The convention wisdom is that the less-talented appeal to the masses, as if the masses are a bad thing. But what’s really happening here is this: The so-called less talented feel that they must work harder to get where their talented peers are naturally. So the so-called less-talented end up with a work ethic where the talented have none.
But what about the people who are clearly better at writing than others in the class? Aren’t those people talented?
No. Sometimes what’s considered talent by a professor is simply that a writer writes to that professor’s taste. More often, however, the “talented” writer has had more practice than others and is more skilled by the time they get to the class.
For example, I come from a literary family. My sister taught me to read when I was three. (One of the benefits of having an English major in the house; she practiced her teaching skills on little old me.) My family put an emphasis on language, learning, and books that most families didn’t have. Is it any wonder that I was pulled aside as a “talented” writer from grade school on?
What about other kids, the kids whose families didn’t worship at the alter of the book? They might not have been any less talented, in fact they might have had better stories to tell. But they had less practice with writing and storytelling, had read less, and weren’t yet as skilled.
Kids from athletic families tend to play ball early. Dean, the son of a professional golfer had a golf club in his hand at the age of three. Guess who was considered a “talented” golfer by junior high school? Guess who had had more practice than his teammates?
So the idea of talent, the idea that writing cannot be taught but can only be encouraged (what a wimpy-ass word), teaches laziness. If a writer works hard, by definition he is not talented. He is striving for something he cannot achieve.
In other words, a work ethic is the sign of a mediocre writer.
Writers have a lot of trouble with this. It creates a built-in conflict. If they work hard, practicing, writing a lot, writing fast, they’re “squandering their talent.” They’re taught to wait for the muse to strike, fickle creature that she is, rather than learning what other craftspeople learn—hard work trumps talent every single day.
Bestsellers aren’t lazy writers. Bestsellers work hard. James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Stephen King work every day on their writing, on their storytelling, on their books—not because they want more money, but because they are craftspeople, doing their job, a job they get paid well to do.
By bringing up work ethic, I’m moving into the other place the workshop attitude harms writers—in business itself.
If a writer’s job is to wait for the muse, the writer doesn’t turn out enough work to have a career. Very few writers ever become famous or “great” on one work alone. Yes, a writer might be famous for a single work, but that work might’ve been five novels or ten novels in, two million to ten million words written and published before the famous work ever came out of that writer’s pen.
Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, and even good old James Joyce were not one-shot wonders. They worked very hard on their craft, and the works that people remember, the works that people love, usually were not the first thing they’d ever written.
Writers who believe their works are golden are doomed to be forgotten or never discovered at all.
Writers with this attitude never try to have a career because they believe a career is impossible. Therefore, the writer will do stupid things they would never do in their real life.
Let me give you just one example.
If a stranger walked up to you on the street, told you he could make you famous, and asked you then to let him handle all of your decisions and all of your finances, would you do so?
Of course not.
But writers do that all the time. They hire an agent based on nothing more than a listing in Writer’s Digest. They don’t vet the agent, they don’t see if the agent has a criminal record, they just hand their work over to the agent along with any money that they might earn on that work, and trust the agent to handle everything fairly.
If you believe you will never make money at writing, such an act carries very little risk.
If you think of your writing as your career, your livelihood, then that same act becomes foolish. Because you could lose everything to a scam artist. Everything.
The fact that more writers aren’t scammed by their agents is a damned miracle. There are a lot of ethical old time agents out there who are appalled that anyone would think of scamming a writer.
But there are many more—especially now that the writing business is changing, and agenting is no longer profitable—who are scamming every single writer they can find. They’re offering agency agreements that give the agent ownership in the writer’s work, they’re starting e-publishing businesses that are illegal under all laws governing anyone with “agent” in their job title, and some agents (even so-called reputable ones) are embezzling from their wealthiest clients.
What else are writers doing wrong because of this workshop attitude?
Let me make a list in no particular order:
1. Failing to understand why publishing contracts exist. If writing isn’t a business, then a contract wouldn’t be important. But the writer is the only one in the publishing industry who believes that no one can make a profit on writing. And that automatically puts the writer at a disadvantage. She’ll sign contracts that hurts her because some stranger (the agent) tells her to. She’ll sign clauses that are against her own best interest because she doesn’t understand them, because no one explained them to her.
For example, one clause she’ll sign is a non-compete clause. If the writer writes only one book every five years, that might not be an issue. But if the writer writes five books a year, no traditional publisher can handle the output. Therefore such a clause restricts everything the writer does and tanks any possibility of a career.
There are a million other such clauses and I’ll revisit them in the next few weeks. But that’s the worst one, and the one most writers willingly sign.
2. Believing that business is bad. How many times have you heard that writing is an art, and artists let others worry about business? I have people for that, says the writer/artist, waving her hand. If she’s making any money, she doesn’t understand that those people might be digging their hands into her profits long before she sees a penny.
3. Successful books are junk. This one actually makes me sad. It also makes a writer’s brain explode if that writer does become successful. Jonathan Franzen had a public meltdown on this very issue when Oprah Winfrey chose his book, The Corrections, for inclusion in her then-highly popular book club. He worked out his confusion in public. He said such things as “I’m embarrassed by [the book]’s success, but I’m happy it’s selling” to Powell’s Books Blog. In a comment made to The Oregonian that got him uninvited to the Oprah book dinner, “I feel like I’m solidly in the high art literary tradition, but I like to read entertaining books and this maybe helps bridge that gap, but it also heightens these feelings of being misunderstood.”
By 2010 Franzen got over his feelings of being misunderstood and he gratefully accepted Oprah’s recommendation of his novel, Freedom.
Franzen’s attitude, expressed in those early post-Oprah interviews, isn’t unusual. It’s the attitude of a writer trained in criticism, dealing with success in a real-world business.
Other writers go through the same thing in different ways. The romance writer Eloisa James kept her true identity secret for a long time. She’s the daughter of poet Robert Bly and writer Carol Bly, and she’s a professor at Fordham university.
In an interview with Time Magazine, James said her secret life started when she was an untenured professor.
“I wrote my first book, Potent Pleasures, in order to pay off my student loan, and found such pleasure in writing it. The contract was for three books. People magazine named the second book a page-turner of the week. And I went to my chair—I had then moved to Fordham—and I said, ‘People magazine would like to run a picture of me.’ And he said, ‘You can’t do that. You won’t get tenure.’ Once that happened, I really did keep the lives separate.”
She “came out” later when she realized “if I keep this secret, it’s as if I’m ashamed of it, and that’s implicitly shaming my readers, right? I decided this is not good…”
The reaction at her job was good, but her mother never thought James’s writing amounted to much, even though she’s sold more than 6 million books and has been on The New York Times bestseller list 17 times.
James is clearly not one of the writers who believes that successful books are junk, but her mother did. James said, “My mother couldn’t get around the fact that I wouldn’t try and be Chaucer or Dostoyevsky. She thought if you have talent, then you know you have to use it to better mankind. But my talent is a kind that doesn’t involve changing America’s view of war. So that was hard for her to accept.”
And there’s that talent thing again.
But more than that, what these two examples show is how insidious the workshop attitude is even for writers who have successful careers. I know dozens of writers who have done what they can to torpedo their success (like Franzen did ten years ago) to prove that they’re “good” writers. I know even more writers who circumvent the entire discussion by introducing themselves as a writer of “junk.”
4. Writers who believe you can’t make money at writing often don’t. Funny, that. Those writers will sign bad contracts, fail to market their work, fail to write, get “real” jobs without trying to succeed in their chosen profession, and give up at the first sign of trouble. If you believe you can’t succeed—if you believe there is no point in even trying, because no one succeeds—then you’ll avoid doing all those things that make a career. You’ll make mistake after mistake after mistake because you have no idea that you’re in the business world.
As I wrote above, Dean and I have taught writers about business for two decades now. When we started teaching professional writers, we focused on writers whose careers had stalled.
Their careers had stalled for a hundred different reasons, most of which had nothing to do with craft. (The craft issues could be—and still can be—resolved with a few week-long workshops.) Most of the reasons have the same thing in common, though.
The writer needed to know or understand business to revive her career. Most of the writers we’ve taught believed they weren’t in a business, believed their problems were that their writing “had gotten worse” or that they had “lost their talent,” when, in reality, they needed to do what most business owners do in a downturn. They needed to examine the business and make changes in personnel, approach, attitude, and money management.
If I said any of those phrases on the first day of our classes, the writers would run screaming. In fact, Dean and I learned at the beginning of the Master Class for professionals to give those professionals a financial quiz composed of what we believed to be simple concepts. Ten questions, covering everything from definitions of net worth to gross income, questions that we believed any functioning adult already should have learned in daily life.
American financial education is so bad that most of our writers who came to our classes, people in their thirties, forties, and fifties, flunked that quiz. Flunked. It was rare to get one student to answer all ten questions correctly. A few would get 8 out of 10.
We had to dumb down our financial talk to get our students to understand us. I blamed the educational system for that—and still do. I think Americans get a crap-ass financial education. However, until this month, I also blamed the writers for it, thinking that they hadn’t bothered to learn it.
Honestly, it never crossed my mind that no one had ever offered to teach it. And not just finances, but the idea that writing is a career, a profession, something that writers must learn alongside their craft.
No professional school in the university system teaches everything a professional needs to know to practice a trade. Law schools don’t spend much time on how to run a law practice, but they do at least mention it now and then. Medical schools have only started dealing with money management in the last decade or so, but wannabe doctors always knew that they had the option of opening their own office to make a living.
Writers never get that. Not once in seventy-six years have writers thought of their work as work, let alone as a profession, let alone as something they could make a good living at.
When you don’t even know that something exists, you can’t learn about it. You can’t admit you don’t know enough about it, because it’s not even a part of your worldview.
That’s why writers whose careers have taken a downturn blame their craft. That’s what they learned, that’s what they believe the writing profession to be—only craft. Yet, if these writers knew business, they would understand that all businesses have cycles. Every business has downturns, and sharp business owners learn how to survive them. Sometimes tweaking the product (fixing your writing) is the exact wrong thing to do. Sometimes it’s necessary.
But if you can’t even see where the problem is, then you can’t solve the problem.
It also works on the flipside. If you’re successful, you can’t continue that success without understanding what you’re successful at. If you’re a good storyteller, but you believe you’ve become successful because you write pretty sentences, then you might jettison story to write even prettier sentences when, in fact, it might be your raw storytelling power and idiosyncratic grammar that makes your work sell.
In other words, in trying to “improve” upon your success, you might destroy it.
The myopic view of writing as offered by seventy-six years of university writers’ workshops and their non-university satellites has harmed entire generations of professional writers. Now it’s clear to me why so many writers have at best a ten-year career. At some point, a business sense must kick in. If the writer has farmed out the business part of her career to someone “who knows better,” then she has no idea if the person that she hired is doing something wrong. She has no idea if the reason her career is having a downturn is because she has trusted the wrong people, or because she’s writing in a genre that is glutted, or if she has signed a contract limiting her chances for success.
She is ignorant of all that will help her in her profession. She might be the best writer on the planet, but if she doesn’t know how to get her writing to readers—repeatedly—she won’t have a career.
Honestly, that saddens me. It’s the reason Dean and I have taught business for twenty years. We’re trying to rectify what we believed to be a small problem. This July, I’ve realized just how big the problem is and why we’ve had so much trouble making inroads.
If you want to be a successful professional writer, you need to learn business. You will not have a long-term career if you fail to learn how the profession works. You also need to keep working on your craft.
Contrary to what writers learn in MFA programs, writing is not an easy profession, one in which a writer should be “encouraged.” Writing is hard work. Writers who want to put in the hours, who have a good work ethic, will survive in this profession while the “talented” will get eaten alive.
The university programs and that workshop attitude have it exactly backwards. To succeed in this profession, you need skills. Writing skills, business skills, survival skills.
Those skills are not taught in university writing programs. Right now, the only reliable way to get those skills is through the school of hard knocks.
I’ve been through that school repeatedly. It’s painful. I hope someday someone comes up with a system that helps writers through the early years with a formal education in business as well as craft.
Until then, cobble together your own curriculum. It’s directed study here in the school of hard knocks. You won’t get university credit, but you will end up with a lifelong career.
Thanks to everyone for the active comments section in the past two weeks. I can’t answer everything (much as I’d like to), but know how much I appreciate all you’re saying and pointing me to. I’m learning as well.
Thanks too for the donations. As I’ve said before, I make my living writing fiction, so this nonfiction blog has to remain self-supporting. If you’ve learned anything, if you like what you’re reading, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Writers and Business,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
You should try giving this article to your husband to read to show him the virtue of hard work. He is the one who goes around poopooing the concept of work as a writer with his claims that “writing isn’t work”.
Because he thinks writing is fun. We’re both of the philosophy that doing something hard is worthwhile if it’s fun. And that’s not “work.” Plus, if you actually look at what he does, he works harder than almost any other writer in the business.
I want to point out that the Viable Paradise workshop *does* teach at least the rudiments of writing business. No less than one might expect from its founder, Jim McDonald, who coined Yog’s Law.
I just finished reading “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell…. very relevant…. Successful people in all professions work very hard to achieve.
Kris, a direct question if I may: is there a chance to participate in your workshops without actually coming there physically? Do you have online workshops?
We’ll be announcing some soon. Probably next week. 🙂 I won’t teach those, though. Dean will.
Kris is right: Those who treat their writing like a business will succeed. Those who treat it like ‘art’ may find personal fulfillment, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll earn a living from it.
As an editor of a magazine, I’m always on the lookout for reliable freelancers. They don’t have to be Hemingway, they just have to be consistent and, well, reliable. When you’re assigned a story, send it – with all 5 Ws answered – on time and to length. It’s not rocket science. I get queries every day from hopeful freelancers who want a shot at writing regularly. I say, “Send me your stuff,” and I get a grand total of one piece from them, if that. Or they ignore my ‘notes’ to them, which only creates more work for me. Given a choice between a great writer who is flaky or doesn’t provide what I specifically request and an average writer who consistently delivers, guess who’ll I’ll pick every. single. time.
When I was playing at being a freelance writer, I never appreciated how much ‘just showing up’ means to an editor. So for any aspiring magazine writers out there, if your query is accepted, TURN IT IN ON TIME AND TO LENGTH! In other words, treat it like your job, because that’s what it is. That’s pretty much all it takes to earn a good reputation, build profitable relationships and become published. That’s how, after publishing only three stories, I became a full-time writer/editor of a very popular niche magazine.
I have an MFA in Film from USC, and the best class I took while getting my degree was on the nuts and bolts of business in Hollywood.
In our year, however, taking the class changed from mandatory to optional…and over my half my class opted not to take it. “We’re writers! We don’t need that!” you know: “Math…it’s hard. I’ll never need it in the real world, nyuk, nyuk.”
They were the ones who kept repeating the very, very wrong things people say about the Biz. It astounded me.
Well, learn it the easy way or learn it the hard…
Fabulous post, Kris!
Wow. I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut in the best possible way. I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since I was in 4th grade, and from those earliest memories I can trace back some of the misconceptions over what being a writer really means. Like so many, I fell victim to it all, because that’s all anyone knew.
I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that gut-punch you just gave me. Do you fully realize what you and your husband have been doing for the last twenty years? You’re helping writers take control back of their own businesses, businesses that most were probably even unaware they were building. Myself included. Thank you, ma’am.
College is a great way to expand the mind. It isn’t, however, a great place for an artist to learn the business side of his/her talent. Painter, sculptor, writer — we’re all in the same boat. I write, my husband paints. He’s discovered YouTube as a promotional tool yet, when we visited an art show in NYC and spoke with several artists, we were amazed at the number who didn’t even have a website! They were Artists with the capital “A” — and would not think of dirtying their hands with business. Amazing!
Thanks for this series of posts, Kris.
I agree with what Dean said at his blog – please consider consolidating these posts into an ebook. I’d love to be able to access them on my Kindle when I’m out and about.
When I was a kid the only genres that had an aisle were westerns and mysteries. Publishers getting rid of the novella and the death of the short story market led to the destruction of that genre and others in my view. Louis L’Amour would never have seen the light of day in today’s publishing world. Millions read westerns. What sort of business doesn’t tap into a genre of millions?
No, those guys made poor business decisions. They have now become victims of their own stupidity and are living on a flagging reputation. Along comes Amazon who is run by businessmen with genious marketing minds. These guys are the future.
I’ve had two businesses that tanked. They were some of the most exiting times of my life. Sure, it wasn’t fun to have them fail but a strange thing happened. I felt like I could make it work. Self publishing is a personal adventure but it is a business venture. The more you know the better your chances of survival. Nothing I learned in college could compare to what I learned by actually running a business. My third business was successful and was making good money but I got squeezed and bought out. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had to see your ship that you constructed, rigged, crewed, and ran get pirated away by your financier. I learned a lot about partnerships and that is why I have a skeptical eye about publishing companies. I don’t like their contract terms, their percentages, or their track record. I would sell their stock. But I also respect the personal choices that people make. Do what is best for you. For me, I look forward to the challenge of self publishing.
I heard this recently:
“Amateurs seek for inspiration; Professionals get to work.”
I don’t understand why all of this is so new and shocking. It seems like common sense, no? But obviously it isn’t. As part of my preparation in becoming a writer, I ran my own business for five years, a business that had nothing to do with writing, but I did it to learn how to be a business person. And that is how I’ve approached my writing career.
In terms of workshops I did a university course that was about shredding each other’s work and getting useless critiques from a teacher who admitted to hating genre fiction. I stopped writing for two years after that. Then I joined a peer writing group and stopped writing for three years because I was writing for the literary predominent group, not for me.
Now I write in solitary and get honest friends who read the same stuff as I write, or aftering sending the work to a copyeditor I trust my storytelling skills and get it out to people.
Reading these psts confirm that I have the right attitude. Thank you!
Most of the symptoms of the writer’s career is because no one knew the rules to get selected off the slush pile and through the gate keepers. So random bits of hearsay became the building blocks of a ‘career’. Those that got lucky didn’t know themselves how they achieved that luck.
Ever read the label on wines? Terroir features prominently because that is something another winemaker cannot duplicate. But there is a lot in the yeast selection and the grape variety and ripeness. Writing has been done in the same manner. It’s magic that you cannot duplicate. Don’t even try. Just enjoy this product here.
It’s work like any other career. Especially now that you can learn directly from readers’ reviews so you know what the product needs to be without guessing. Without resorting to magic.
More writers will be successful and the rules of the game will become more clear now that real feedback has been introduced into the manufacturing process. Exciting times.
True enough, JS. And yes, these are exciting times.
As for many other readers, this line jumped out at me:
“… a work ethic is the sign of a mediocre writer,” along with the foregoing analysis of how “talent” is confused with “already acquired skill.”
Unfortunately, this mystification isn’t restricted to the arts. Years ago, I encountered it working with college students in mathematics, another subject around which there is a great deal of noise about “ability” and “talent.” (I was told that anyone who was taking their first calculus class at age 18 was “too old” ever to accomplish anything meaningful in the field. Translation: neither of my parents was a professor in mathematics.) The worship of “natural talent” and the insistence that “writing cannot be taught” mask a profoundly lazy conviction that “our children are talented and others are not,” along with a disinclination to do the actual work of teaching.
The American educational system has failed at all levels in financial literacy. Fifteen years ago, when credit cards were still being given out to high school and college students as if they were candy, I saw students coming into college with thousands of dollars in consumer debt. On a whim in a summer calculus course, I used compound interest as the example when teaching the exponential function, rather than the replicating E. coli example in the text.
The students stayed behind to ask questions, en masse. The Q & A period lasted as long as the original lecture. They asked me about credit cards, about mortgages, about credit ratings and how to get that information. They asked me about payment schedules for student loans. They told me that nobody ever explained this stuff to them: not parents (who likely didn’t know it themselves), not teachers (shame on the curriculum designers), not academic advisers.
And the burden fell the heaviest on first-generation college students, who really had no one to advise them.
As for writing: I stayed away from literary analysis courses and creative writing courses alike, because I wrote genre and they told me that my writing was trash. What I know of the business end of the trade, I actually learned reading the biographies and correspondence of nineteenth-century writers. Dickens, Sand, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Balzac: all those gloriously prolific “hack writers” who wrote for a living and wrangled with publishers and went indie when occasion called for it. (Their experience aligned with what I already knew from the mathematics of finance.)
So when a friend recommended your blog and Dean’s, the plain speaking was really familiar. Yes, it’s a new world of publishing; and yes, there are lots of lessons from the past that are more than relevant in the present. And lesson number one is that writing is a craft and a trade, no less than plumbing or higher mathematics.
Shocking, isn’t it, E.P? It’s amazing what Americans do not know about money. And it bit us in the collective ass in 2008.
(Although I’ll tell you a secret: I’m a mathematician’s daughter, and I never took calculus. (I’m dyslexic. I couldn’t write numbers down properly.) So yeah, I understand mathematics, but arithmetic drives me crazy. Thank heavens for calculators. (Which didn’t exist when this old dino was in school.))
Thank you for the insights.
Sorry, but I couldn’t avoid joining in.
On one hand, it’s shocking to see how much people can forget about economics with the right carrot in front. Spaniard, remember?
OTOH… I had a dyslexic teacher. Binary algebra. Impressive brain, but the blackboard was… quirky.
Thanks for an insightful post and wonderful follow-up comments. I’ve survived on my writing for over 30 years. I was lucky to have a mentor who taught me to value my time from the moment I started freelancing. Before that, I sought out paying jobs where I could write, which happened to be advertising copywriting and PR writing – all good, solid grounding in writing words to deadline and for specific readers. Nothing wasted when I set up my own shop. I hired couriers, leased equipment, did everything “real” businesses would do, wrote non fiction that publishers wanted (asking me upfront to write for them), and moving into romance writing when the nonfic became too stultifying. Having left school at 14, I finally got my Masters in…cough…creative writing in my 50s and have just sold the spec fic novel written as part of my research. I totally agree with the idea of writing for the love of it and finding ways to make it pay so you can keep doing it. My credo is the old saying, “I you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” I’ve just finished a movie script, paid, not speculative and have maybe six book projects including two sequels to my degree book in the pipeline. I’m not sure where this idea of writing-as-business took hold but I’m thankful it happened when I was young enough that it’s now a way of life. You’re making me think I should emphasise the business side way more than I have done when I teach writing.
Probably should going forward, Valerie. Your students can use the business stuff as well as the craft. Thanks for the comment–and the insight into yet another successful writer’s business career.
I agree 100% with the ivory tower mentality of MFA programs. I looked into one at my alma mater, since I’m hanging around town for a few years while my S.O. wraps up his degrees, and the attitude would have been laughable if it wasn’t advertised in perfect seriousness: “Writers need time, ideally funded time, and we offer it.” Students are supposed to be grateful for the three years of accumulated debt spent hanging out with ten other students in workshops and perfecting a “graduate thesis, which we hope will be a strong step toward their first published book.” Their first book. And here my unenlightened little self was thinking that if you’re serious enough to pursue a master’s in creative writing, you should already have written at least one or two already.
However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “talented” writers are lazy and would succeed if they’d only get their asses in gear. I always won contests and things as a kid and had adults praise me to the skies for my “talent,” when what was really going on was that while the other kids were playing kickball and Pokemon I was reading, writing, reading, and writing some more. I lay awake all night composing essays in my head for exams the day after that my teachers and classmates thought came effortlessly. My “talent” in music as a teen came from getting up at five in the morning to practice scales on the piano, and then picking up the flute immediately after school to drill for one hour and practice pieces for a second.
What I think really happens to a lot of “talent” isn’t that they get complacent, though there are certainly some self-satisfied folks lazing around Starbucks pretending they’re J.K. Rowling. But first, people who are “talented” tend to be approval-seekers, and they seek approval from institutions like those silly university departments who train them to be vain and useless. They also tend to have a lot of pride and perfectionist tendencies. They do work damn hard, but when other people don’t seem to appreciate it, they take it personally and (a) get stubborn and refuse to change on the grounds of “artistic integrity” or (b) give up and blame the stupidity of the masses for their lack of success.
And finally, no one ever teaches them to tone their “talent” down. Intelligent people tend to have a lot of great ideas, but not all of them are useful or relevant. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ten-page assessment of T.S. Elliot is; dead poets don’t have any place in your paranormal vampire romance. They may not even have any place in your literary masterpiece. Talented writers are never taught to treasure the most useful button on the keyboard: the DELETE key (or at least the CTRL+X and CTRL+V combo to save your darlings for later). They’re taught that every idea is just as precious as any other, and just because something is “well-written” it must be great.
I agree, TK. Although my musical talent didn’t come from hard work, it came from play. The moment that music ceased being play (sometime around my first competition), I didn’t want to do it any more. That’s one reason I keep telling writers they must have fun with their work. Working hard is great, as Gerald W. said below, but it’s more fun when you realize your hard work is also something you would do as play–or to improve your play. I say I have the greatest job in the world, because I get to have fun.
Good post. Thanks.
I cannot speak to other MFA programs, but for the one at Western State College of Colorado, the BUSINESS is discussed in every class. In fact, your blog (and Dean’s) are required reading for my students. Readings are based entirely around successful, commercial genre works; writing assignments are assessed by the same criteria I have used for years as an editor.
You are certainly correct in that many MFA programs are flawed, but I do believe that over time, more will follow our model rather than the old, academic/literary model generated by places like Iowa.
Russell, wonderful news. I do hope those who are considering college are looking at the comments sections in this week’s and last week’s blogs and seeing which institutions actually do teach business. Can you export your model, maybe write about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education or someplace like that?
Now that we’ve had a couple of years going, and our first cohort is graduating, I feel like we can start doing more articles detailing our approach to the MFA and why it works. An understanding of the business of being a writer, and of what constitutes a professional in our industry, is crucial knowledge in my opinion, and should be mandatory. In addition to units within the course, we have an required, semester-long class, on the business aspects of being a writer.
In the meantime, I’m always happy to answer questions, if any of your faithful blog readers have any. I’m pretty easy to find via email, and I will watch this thread as well.
Thanks, Russell. 🙂
Hi again Kris
…to add to my earlier comment, and picking up on the driving licence thought…
I was at a school speech day today with all the accompanying prize giving, awards and plaudits. Struck me that it used to be that to be published was like getting a prize bestowed, and there are few such gifts. Everyone else falls away as also-rans. Not the cream, this time round, as judged by a few assessors. Many come, few are chosen. Scarcity.
And, if prizes weren’t so important, even today, then in publishing there would be no need to brandish this or that award winner badge to market the next book. Even in the e-pub era. Scarcity is valued, even in that wider world of opportunity.
And yet the door is open to all, now, and the judges many – the buying public. A different competition. However, quite possibly there will be works that score on both counts – commercially and critically, winning prizes (even if not also having editions that are trad published, in paper). Interesting..
Driving licences – these are tests that must be passed to help operate in the world, and are neither limited in number nor graded. No prize. No plaudit. No laughable ‘calling’ needs to be sought, a ‘talent’ spotted or to await a muse before shifting the stick and then an ass. Just the training and awareness, and the understanding gained, to provide the utility of legal permission to get behind the wheel on your own. The more people have this the better. The opposite of scarcity.
Opposite cultures. But, setting aside any exploration of whether a choice a valued driver needs to be made between the everyman and the masterful, praiseworthy F1 celebrity racer, perhaps it can be asked which serves the working life? If someone can’t raise to the brief, shooting-star level of F1 should they not pursue driving that wins increasing merit and value from experience won over decades?
In everyday life, no one would ditch their licence or hopes for such. It becomes part of how they live and work. Practicalities. But in the writing life, where is the same approach? How practical is it to get lost in CW road network, to be kept off the road by those who do not drive themselves, to give the credit card for fuel to guys driving bigger cars in the hope that after they’ll found fuel and filled up there will be some left to get your jalopy to the next station?
Too much power is given away. But folk don’t need to tackle any of this, if they choose not to – and it is a choice. A working life in writing? Sounds too much like work…?
I love this analogy, Patrick.
I found Dean’s blog (and then yours) at the beginning of the year. Even though I am fifty, I had a lot of misconceptions about the business of writing. (i.e. book pricing, etc.)Also I have a degree in English Literature. What changed my writing drastically was when I became will with a disease that completely devastated me. I lost a lot including some of my mental acuity.
Oddly, because I couldn’t work in a normal environment I began to write for some internet sites. Then I pulled out some of my old novels to finish writing. I began to put them on Amazon, etc. I think that my writing is okay. I am still learning the business side.
A problem I have had for the last three months is that I have had so many health problem that it has stopped me from writing. I know a lot about goal setting though (I learned it when I was young). Also I have learned creative ways to complete my goals. For instance I wanted to travel but I didn’t have the money. Instead I joined the Navy so I could travel the poor man’s way.
I am so appreciative of this new publishing environment. Plus thank you two for helping me to see ways I can improve. I found that it was a good thing to actually ask a good price for my ebooks.
So again, I will have to restart my writing again after the tooth problem (and the anemia problem, oh yea and the med and Vasculitis problem). 😉
Have a good day–
uh – ill not will… of course it was my will that help me through the toughest two years of my life– I will never be cured (at least not with the current medicine, but I live a fairly normal life.)
I think “will” is what writers need the most. It gets us through everything.
I understand about the illness, Cyn. I have a chronic condition myself, which is annoying. There are times when I simply cannot do anything except sleep or watch TV. Here’s what I wrote about it in the Freelancer’s Guide: https://kriswrites.com/2009/04/16/freelancers-survival-guide-illness/
I’m glad the blogs have helped.
So be kind to yourself. And take the time. Fifty is young in publishing and politics. 🙂
TY – I had an extraction on Wednesday after finding out that I couldn’t get a root canal so the time I would have spent writing this week, I was either sleeping or moping. Glad to hear that I am not the only one with those kinds of days.
So on Monday, I will start again… and Wednesday I have to go back to the dentist. Plus my chronic illness has started to settle down again after two months of heck.
I might get something done. ;-)My hardest bosses were in the Navy. There were times I came in sick, and my bosses had to send me home. I didn’t dare go to sick call unless they knew first.
If we ever meet, Cyn, we’ll compare dentistry stories. Dean has a funny one about me. I had major dental surgery. The next day, on pain meds and still recovering, I crawled (literally) to the computer and burst into tears. “I can’t write,” I said to him. “No kidding,” he said, and took me back to the couch where I spent the day, laughing at movies that weren’t funny and crying during movies that were. Sometimes, we just need to take the time to heal.
You made me snort… When I got my first laser surgery, the docs gave me Valium. I had to keep my eyes open. When I came out my hubby asked me if I was okay.
I slurred, “I’m doing fine.” I reached for the counter and missed. My hubby kept his laughter under control and led me back to the car. He was afraid I was going to fall.
Sounds like we have pretty similar men (and similar experiences with painkillers). 😉
Loved your post. I’d hope that young wriers would see it before going into student loan debt for a useless MFA. As for your comment about one book not being a career, my mind shifted to Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and Margaret Mitchell’s GONR WITH THE WIND. It’s sometimes argued that Mitchell might have written another book but died too soon. But Lee never wrote another and is still alive. Perhaps with careful planning, one could write one book that becomes a huge best seller and is made into a movie and then live on those profits into retirement. But I’ve already written several books that got published, so I’m taking your advice to strengthen my business skills.
Harper Lee had a decade-long career in New York, traditionally publishing many things, before To Kill A Mockingbird. Margaret Mitchell was a journalist. Both wrote a lot, practiced a lot, and published a lot. If you look behind the “one-hit wonders” you often discover years of work. Lee took herself out of the game for reasons only known to her. I wonder how much she’s written since.
Glad you’re going to work on your business skills. With books published, you’re well on the way to a career. 🙂
Thank you for another great post! I found a quote yesterday which I thought might resonate here:
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart, till the Devil whispered behind the leaves “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
– Rudyard Kipling
Reckon the problem you are addressing goes a long way back 😉 Now, it is time to return to me *ahem* Art-work!
I love that quote. You might be right, Byron. 🙂
Unfortunately the ‘not bothering to market because they don’t expect to sell’ bit was for me. I haven’t been doing anything to promote my work because Dean said we should focus on writing more stories.
I’ll focus on adding more articles to my website over time to drive traffic there. You never know who might see it. Still, no ’20 tweets per hour, begging for facebook likes or networking on goodreads’ for me. More stories, more stories, better writing…
When I say ‘market,’ Zia, I mean “put your work on the market,” not promote. I agree with Dean on promotion.
And yep, write, write, write, just like you said. 🙂
>>Honestly, it never crossed my mind that no one had ever offered to teach it. And not just finances, but the idea that writing is a career, a profession, something that writers must learn alongside their craft….When you don’t even know that something exists, you can’t learn about it. You can’t admit you don’t know enough about it, because it’s not even a part of your worldview.
This. This and this and this.
When I first started to get an inkling that this was possible, when I first started reading Dean’s “Destroying the Sacred Cows” and your “Freelancer’s Guide,” well, as we frequently said in the last short story workshop, “Opps – excuse the brain matter blowing behind me.”
I didn’t know.
I had so little idea that this was even possible. I believed the myth that there were only a handful of writers who could make a career at writing. I feel like I’m still struggling to learn the business side. But at least I know it exists now.
I created my first business plan for my writing this year, then a second, then a third — I might be on my fifth at this point, adjusting to life rolls, etc. But I know what my goals are. I know what my dreams are, too, and I can dream big, now, finally, which is just as important. I can be hungry all the damn time now, because that hunger fuels my work ethic which makes me practice and learn more, as well as still find delight and play in the words.
Honestly, Kris, these columns are invaluable. This one helped me realize that I don’t have to feel like I’ve been stupid and lazy because I didn’t know all of these things, hadn’t learned them. That I’m not the only one. You’ve both given me so much hope. (And so much work! Back to writing!)
Thanks, Leah. I’m glad this one helped. You’re neither lazy nor stupid; you work hard. I’m glad you’re figuring out the business side, since you have all the chops for continued success.
The workshop mystique seems to echo the cultural belief: art isn’t practical, art is a frill, art is a luxury, you can’t make a living doing art, focus on basic necessities first. Maybe that’s just the voice of my practical New England ancestors speaking, but it’s a powerful voice. One I had to confront on my own journey into writing with passion and conviction and commitment.
Currently I run on two tracks. One: this is impossible and I am crazy for even trying, let alone giving it my all. And two: not writing really didn’t work for me and I’d rather give it my all and fail than continue pursuing second best; besides . . . I think this can work.
So, I’m giving it my all. But I’d be more comfortable if I didn’t hear “this is impossible” in the dark stretches of the night!
I have the same beliefs, JM. I still believe what I do is impossible on some level. I used to think that was a flaw. Now I see that it’s part of what drives me. I constantly reach for things I believe I can never have. It helps.
Thanks for the excellent essay, Kristine. I’m going to share it with my screenwriting students.
I’ve found that people working on becoming screenwriters seem to have less of a phobia about learning business (possibly because the details of showbiz deals have become fodder for mainstream pop culture), but there are still a lot of talented and/or skilled screenwriters who are so desperate for access that they’ll allow producers and representatives to dictate the terms of their business relationships. That’s a damn shame.
I agree, Steve. And letting others walk all over you for “a deal” is another topic for the blog. 🙂 I appreciate the post.
Reading this post, and last week’s, makes me very glad I never went to college. The only thing I wanted to do was write, and even at 18 I knew I could teach myself that.
So I did.
I never wanted to be a precious snowflake writing perfect prose. I wanted to get good technical skills and use them to write awesome stories. I think a typical creative writing course would’ve made me frustrated and angry.
I don’t want to win literary prizes, I want to make money , not out of greed, but because I want this to be my job. I would’ve been pissed to waste four years and thousands of dollars to find out I hadn’t been prepared at all for the career I actually wanted.
Me, too, Devin. Particularly as expensive as college has gotten. I spent money I didn’t have to get a degree that I’m happy with, but I can’t imagine doing the same–and spending five times what I spent–to get a degree I didn’t want.
Folks, I hit one of the world’s busiest days today, so I’ll be answering comments either later in the day or tomorrow. The whole weekend is iffy, so if I’m not here much it’s because of some business stuff.
I… just, wow.
I stumbled on this article via Twitter, and I couldn’t be happier. Whomever tweeted it (lost to the ages of the writing hashtag) holds a wonderful place in my heart.
Kris, this article was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.
Now, excuse me, while I go write.
You’re welcome. 🙂
I agree with the premise – most folk who are trying to be writers, as opposed to just trying to construct sentences, know way too little about all the other bits that go with a working life. The approach is nuts, in many ways. But a mentality that is a spillover from school and English classes. Conditioning to appeal to the gatekeepers of the grades, and correct answers sought.
Many writers who develop a work ethic have come through journalism – sharp end, researching and writing. Not media studies. Output, output…or get out. Even then, though, the talk is often about wanting to write their “novel”. Singular, usually.
In the Cold War, and in other times and territories that the West may not like, praise was often lauded on the intelligentsia for advancing free thought through crafted prose or poetry or fiction. That hangs along with the praise showered on greater authors of one, or a few, notable books, and they are cited often among the great and good of a land. Not so much the more prolific trades-folk of the pen. Interesting how the big Politics has its echoes in the politics within creative art.
In thinking about business edu/info for writers (& authors), I think you are spot on that most expect a meagre life and so prepare for one, leaving the other aspects of what is needed for a working life – which everyone else in the world has to contend with – pretty well unquestioned even if sometimes considered.
Still, not everyone starts with a sound brief on how to get a working life going in writing or other areas. So many companies in industry get pissed over the graduates that come to them from universities, even in engineering. Sure, the grads are introduced to contracts under biz classes but not biz thinking. The awareness of business, and the different sides and stances within supply chains are rarely explored. That only comes…eventually.
Sides in the supply chain in publishing too, and experience only coming…eventually.
Heck, I’ve even seen training courses on accounts given to ‘non-financial managers’ and reporters, and it is all superficial stuff. Not so much the illusion of learning but of understanding. What’s the use of being told terms, and ratios, if not being informed what they tell you, really, and how to see what lies behind them, the true finical patterns and stories, and questions to ask and understanding to gain? Financial edu – poor, generally. There is little promotion of understanding.
But it may come…eventually.
Like you say, people are left to chase down these things for themselves. But perhaps, in writing, it has been too tiring for people – too many hurdles already just trying to get a work out there, basically. Besides, if the money is crap there’s little point on getting too fancy in worrying over all these biz aspects, some might think. So, hobbyist, supplicant thinking may set in. And, perhaps, no wonder. If all the industry gatekeepers are going to prove difficult then why not, indeed, spend your worry only on our darlings? What else do we have left? But not all do so, which is good.
And, now, the e-publishing era is shaking all this up. A choice to engage differently, to ask if – IF – a writer choses to generate more, as and how they see fit, for each to their own, then how might they, now, look at what may come their way commercially, in a trickle, or confluences of streams, or occasional spates of floods. Intellectual property will be generated, cash will flow. Choices can be made to learn how to play with these, or not. Someone will have to. The IP will exist. The cash will appear. And this will be an increasing problem, or opportunity, depending on how creatives look at the business of their working life.
If they choose to have a working life. Don’t need to, of course.
Thanks, again. Great posts.
I do think you’re right, Patrick. I think the ease of publishing yourself will shake up the academic side just like it’s shaking up the traditional publishing side. It will be fascinating to watch. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.
It is so strange that “writing is art” is an explanation for not teaching business skills in MFA programs and workshops. Art schools granting a BFA include business courses teaching portfolio presentation, pricing, contracts, bookkeeping, and developing a career plan. Why not MFAs?
See Academy of Art learning outcomes for reference: http://www.academyart.edu/illustration-school/bfa-learning-outcome.html
Wow, Kitty. I didn’t know that. Thanks for that addition. It makes sense, doesn’t it, to train people to survive outside of school?
Another spot on post.
What I would add, is that surprisingly this is not just true about writing. Graduate schools vary widely in their inclusion of practical matters affecting life of the degree candidate in their post academic future. American graduate education is possibly the best in the world on average in teaching science and math and phylosophy etc. etc. in a system of strong mentoring that points the degree candidate to become a career clone of the major professon. Which means, teaching skills to fill (and I’ll expand this just a little) university and other institutionally sponsored positions (often government, or military, and sometimes large corporate) aimed at research to support the discipline itself, or the products that come from the discipline.
Few if any examples can be brought to bear for learning specific skills in the framework of the individual “making it on their own” with those skills outside the framework of recognized institutional sinks for those skills.
That’s a broad sweeping statement, and of course there are exceptions, but they are rare. Arts (all of them), basic and applied sciences, humanities, history, languages, even religious studies are taught in universities with the understanding that when you graduate, the vast majority of you will “work for someone else.” That is in all the actual and metaphorical meanings of the phrase.
The notion of teaching the identified skill set… the particular science or art, or whatever, with the intent of sending you into the world to make it on your own is rarely (I really want to say never) taught as a concept to be naturally and organically coupled with the notion of using those knowldege packets, skill packets, craft packets to make it in creative ways outside of someone elses’s institution.
This is beyond ironic, when you think of the significant fraction of folks who graduate, that eventually cobble together… or masterfully engineer with great creativity and elan, unique enterterprises of their own outside the Bix Boxes of others (who take care of all the money part of their earning for themselves).
In some defense of the system, most of the Big Box enterprises, have post post-graduate training to teach things, like leadership, salesmanship, administration, supervision etc.
So, I could go on and on, but my ain point is that I think you have actually hit on a huge flaw in the overarching model of the American (and maybe world) educational enterprise. In some respects, the problem is worse, the higher you go and the more presigious the organization you use for examples. I see a far better recipe for teaching the coupling of necessary life/business/survival skill sets in conjunction with trades and crafts taught at our community colleges.
As a disclaimer, this problem is gradually being recognized for its troublesomeness across all academic professions. A few institutions are adding a course or two here and there to teach the “business side” of your chosen profession. It’s true in a handful of medical shcools, and it is true in a handful of ag/enviro and other natural resource science focused institutions. But it is way the exception.
Since I love to speculate on what the world might be like if… fill in the blank, I can’t help speculate how different out society would be if, in general, people were taught to learn these basics in all professions.
Remember “home ec” in high school? It was a great concept that has largely been shelved. If you grew up rural, you might remember or know of the great network of “Extension Scientists” and “Extension Agents” that delivered the bits and pieces of rubber-meets-the-road information needed to function and survive using the general path of knowledge that was delivered to students without the “real life plug-ins” for the “downloaded software” to our brains that came from the classrooms of academia.
Well, I’ve gone on for much too long.
As usual. Thanks. You are So on target for writing, but I find it interesting how strongly these thoughts resonate with concerns I had during my entire research and administrative career for a completely differnt discipline. It’s amazing how a model, once hallowed, becomes resistent to improvement.
Great post, Bob. I know from my friends who teach in colleges that these changes are happening in other degree programs. Time to make the changes in writing programs as well (or drop them altogether).
I feel compelled to support your comment about the tide turning. Neither I, nor any of the aspiring writers I know suffer from the attitude issues you addressed in your article. Those of us who want to succeed as professional writers know that we have to work at it, and take every opportunity to study the work of professionals and see what we can learn from it. We encourage and critique each other’s work, certainly, but part of that “encouragement” includes setting deadlines and making sure we hold to them.
On the other hand, none of us (that I know of) are traditionally educated. Many of us don’t plan to attend a university, and we don’t rely on traditional writing courses to learn our craft. Perhaps this is another symptom of the old passing away to make room for the new?
No, Katie, I’m afraid not. Most of my writing friends, professionals all, have degrees in other disciplines than creative writing. Every generation has those rebels who refused to take the classes or swallow the indoctrination, for whatever reason.
I’m hoping with the Internet, and blogs, and a few of us trying to teach business, things will change. (Kevin J. Anderson, Dave Farland, and Brandon Sanderson do so as well with the Superstars program–and they include beginners.)
Thanks for yet another great post. Now, a word on my qualifications: I am one of the few Master Class students who got 100% on the business test, and one of the few who had made my living as a writer. Yet I never took a degree in either business or “creative writing.”
Where did I learn these thing? My father ran a small business. My father also encouraged me to write, write, write from the time I was three. He made it a game, and I never learned the myths that writing was hard work or required “discipline.”
My father did his business because he loved the work and he loved pleasing his customers. Those are exactly the reasons I write. I run my writing as a business so I can earn the money that pays the bills so I can continue to do what I love. In other words, I don’t write to make money; I make money so I can write.
Why would I need “discipline” to force me to do what I love more than anything else (well, maybe one exception)?
When I was much younger, I loved writing computer programs. In those early days, everyone who wrote programs did it because they loved it. Then the word got around that programming was a great way to make a good salary. Colleges offered degree programs which people joined to learn to make a good living. The average quality of programmers declined because they had things ass-backwards. You don’t write programs to make money. You make money so you can have the luxury of writing programs.
So, my experience has taught me not to blame the “creative writing” courses for the failure of so many wannabe writers. They’re failures for the same reason they take those “creative writing” courses–they’re doing it to make money (or to become famous, which amounts to the same thing).
You become a successful writer because you love writing so much that you put writing ahead of everything else. If somebody has to “encourage” you, you’re not going to grow into a successful writer.
Gerald, thanks for the way you framed it – doing what you love to earn money so you can keep doing what you love.
Perfect explanation of how I feel about it! I so don’t want to go back to a day job. Writing is much, much more fun.
Wonderful, wonderful post, Jerry. Thank you!
I think writers do need some encouragement, but mostly to deal with when writing is tough. We need to encourage writers to get over the “writing is easy” myth, and encourage them when they get discouraged. We’ve all been there.
Kris and Dean do this wonderfully, of course, but the rest of us can do our part too. 🙂
As always, great stuff, Kris.
As I read your posts and the responses, and I read similar thoughts from other blogs and hear close observations from my own writer friends, something occurs to me.
What it seems creative writing courses really need to do is steal script writing course pedagogy and curriculum very nearly verbatim.
Somehow (though cinema is also considered an art form) the screen writers have gotten this much, much better than prose instructors. –excluding those who understand exactly what an MFA creative writing program does and want that focus.
In fact, maybe aspiring writers who want the benefit of higher education would be better served just abandoning English degrees for these programs–from a pure perspective of practicality.
Or maybe the University of Phoenix wouldn’t be too proud to offer a vo-tech writer degree program.
Yes. It does sound like screenwriting class is a completely different animal. And if we already have a template, then we should use it (profs…?)
Wow! One of your best pieces yet. I wish I knew you many years ago, and I would hope I would have been smart enough to listen to you (probably not). There is this huge gap between what you are told to do and what actually works in the real world and every time a writer bucks what she’s been told and does the opposite then she runs smack into the whole you’re not producing valuable work mantra and there is this feeling you need to hide what you do.
You talk often about the number of stories lost because writers got derailed, but I wonder how many suicides can be traced back to these lies also. Too many i’m guessing. A waste. A precious waste.
Thanks so much for saying all this. For coming back each week and saying it. Maybe one day people will laugh at the old ways of teaching creative writing (although those of us who live through it know it really wasn’t all that funny).
Yeah, Josephine. I do know of a few suicides, but not personally. Only through stories told by other writers. Having worked peripherally in the mental health field, I know that sometimes the stated cause of a suicide is not the actual one. But I also know that the constant criticism and discouragement in writing programs has hurt a lot of writers already prone to depression.
It is a waste. A waste of time, money, resources, and precious creativity.
I do hope things will change. I hope that some folks with traction listen and start revising the teaching programs now. I know a lot of us are blogging, and that helps too.
Great post, Kris! I can’t thank you and Dean enough for all the business-of-writing stuff you’ve taught me over the years. I imagine most of your students would say the same thing. (All of them should but human nature being what it is, some people just don’t want to hear that business has anything to do with their art.)
You’re right about human nature, Annie. Not everyone agrees. 🙂
You are welcome. You and the other students constantly teach me as well, which I find quite valuable. Thanks!
I have moderated the language here to protect the guilty and to avoid letters from lawyers.
OK, you have rightly knocked the whole concept of creative-writing degrees down on the ground, particularly that outstandingly useless example at Iowa. But how I wish someone would get down there and finish them off for good. I recommend a sharp knife and repeated stabbing motions.
Creative-writing degrees exist for two purposes: to provide employment for talentless and otherwise unemployable tutors, and to steal money from suckers in order to support other courses in the university which actually do something useful.
There should be a large sign attached to every online or printed description of a cw course, embodying a warning similar to that printed on cigarette packets in the UK. (Smoking kills>) Taking a cw course is strictly for the hopelessly naive. It will damage your financial and probably mental health, and it will lead to nothing useful.
I speak as someone with three proper degrees in sensible subjects, and 24 years of experience as a university administrator. Stay clear of these damn cw things. Sign up at your peril. You have been warned.
If you want to know what I had to say about this nonsense back in 2005, go here: http://grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.co.uk/2005/02/mfa-many-fools-available.html
Michael, great link and blog post. Thank you for that. (Of course, you’re preaching to the choir with me.) But wonderful perspective from a person with your credentials.
Folks, go forth, click this link, and read.
I read the beginning of “Daphne Before She Died.” DELIGHTFUL!
I have to admit that I regret the writing degree that I obtained. I have twenty years of debt for two years of school where I learned nothing.
What I got out of the writing program was what I put in. I have always been a self-motivated learner and I learned writing myself with not much help from school.
I’ve also been teaching myself business because I got none of that in my writing program either.
ANother great post. I’m beginning to think writers who want to make a living writing should take a AA in business before going after the MFA degree. At least then, they’ll be in better shape to understand the business side of things.
Or just get an MBA and screw the MFA. Nothing you can learn there that you can’t figure out just by writing a lot.
We often recommend wannabe writers who are going to college to major in business. Of course, the business folks I know have the same things to say about MBAs as I do about creative writing programs. 🙂 I think you should get a specialty–history, physics, *something*–and write on the side.
When I went into college, I didn’t want to write. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to perform. So I took all the music classes, studied the theory, took private lessons, the whole nine yards.
Then, junior year, my private lesson professor, the one who went to the department and said whether or not I was ready to continue on in the program, said I didn’t have the “talent” to make it as a performer and to change majors.
I was crushed. I had a year and a half left of college and very few alternatives. My professor sure as hell wasn’t going to let me graduate because he thought I was talentless.
I got a liberal arts degree with a minor in German and went on to grad school for a masters in German. I ended up taking some science classes on the side and it was one of the best things I did for my writing. Even though I didn’t even know I wanted to be a writer.
Honestly, I think the only degrees that are worth a damn are the maths and sciences. At least the professors have to work in their field to stay in their position. And they have to stay current. The arts programs are, quite frankly, a joke unless you’re just learning a language.
I was very tempted to major in folklore until I realized all of my folklore professors had two jobs.
To writers like Eloisa James I would like to say that maybe they aren’t changing people’s view of war, but with their books they have helped readers like my mom deal with a stressful job, with illnesses, or the loss of a beloved person. They helped them escape their lives for a few hours and made them forget their problems. Escapism? Sure, but there’s nothing wrong with this kind of escapism, because it allows readers to rest for a while and recharge their batteries while reading. I think this kind of impact on people’s life is also worth something. It’s a little thing maybe, but little things can be just as important as big things. On a purely emotional, personal and utterly subjective level, they are even more important.
I have a beta-reader (soon to be ex-beta-reader) who views herself as one of the “good” writers in the high literature sense and even says so publicly and says about other writers (published, some rather successful) that they are clearly far below her level skill-wise and only successful because readers are stupid. She’s also very good at doling out unhelpful criticism (hence the ex-beta-reader-status) and falls fully into the ‘holy high art’ crowd/attitude. Not that there’s anything wrong with creating high literature, it has as much right to exist as all other forms of literature. And people who write one aren’t better or more intelligent or whatever than people who write the other.
This kind of attitude always makes me utterly furious. If I encounter a writer like her she automatically goes on my no-buy-list, not that I’m part of her target audience. Although I doubt she has something like a target audience or even considers thinking about a target audience as that’s already too business-oriented. And so she goes about and offends her potential target audience.
I think that’s also something a writer has to decide: Who’s my target audience? Do I write for judges in literary contests? Do I write for people who just want to read an exciting story (in a specific genre) and relax? And what should I avoid doing so that I don’t alienate my target audience and potential gate keepers like Franzen did?
I liked that Eloisa James/Mary Bly said that she writes the things she loves reading. It automatically gives her an idea about her target audience. I have a similar approach. I try to write the things I love to read and would love to read.
I really love your focus on the whole business-side of the writing-business. Every time I read one of your articles I’m astonished by how much I’ve been indoctrinated into certain ways of thinking when it comes to writing and the writing business and how often they go against basic common sense (and I should know these things as I’m working as a freelance translator and have training in business admin). Weird, isn’t it?
Daniela, your point about Eloisa James and all genre writers is a good one. I came to that realization in 2001, the week of 9/11. At some point, I couldn’t deal with the news any longer. What did I retreat to? Harry Potter. Somewhere else. Yes, there was darkness, but not our darkness. I’m forever grateful for that.
And as for your last part, about you “should” know this: It doesn’t seem to translate at all. I’ve known lawyers who let agents negotiate their writing contracts. Lawyers should know better and would do a better job, even if publishing isn’t their specialty. But they get caught up in the indoctrination too.
Another wonderful post.
It reminded me of a piece I read recently where the author (Danny Gregory in Creative License) asked what if we treated learning to drive like learning the arts. We’d watch out for kids who appeared to have a “calling” to drive or tried to do it on their own. (!) Of course, we’d stand aside and monitor their progress because we wouldn’t want to interfere with their “talent.” We’d understand that only a rare few might possess this gift and most of us would stand on the sidewalk.
Jane, I love this. I’ve already stolen it twice today in conversation. 🙂
I went to the University of Iowa as an undergrad, and was an English major. I’ve felt like telling this story for a while, so here it is.
Being an undergrad there was, of course, different than life for people in the “real” writer’s workshop. We did have a selective undergrad workshop, and a high level of competition throughout the program. Looking back, I believe we also drank the kool-aid with much more fervor than the jaded grad students. The level of pretentiousness was astronomical, at least in myself and the people I knew in my years there.
The idea of taking a class to learn to earn money was something other people did; we were better than that. Not that we’d say so, but we all knew it. OK, we did say so, sometimes, in talking about the other programs where people trained for jobs. Not that we planned to be poor, money would follow the Great American Novel we would write someday. No need to worry about it right now.
It was a belief that could only be held by people who had never really had to have a job or support themselves, not for long anyway.
It was a belief held by almost every person I knew in college. I knew deep down that most of those schmucks wouldn’t make it, but, umm, of course I would. There was only one way to succeed at it, and writing was the thing I most wanted to do.
I “knew” that a bad first book would kill a career. I “knew” that what I wrote had to be brilliant, moving, educational. Never mind that while I love lit fiction, my bookshelf shows at least 60% sci-fi/fantasy. It’s not like I looked down on Anne McCaffrey (one of my lifetime absolute favorite authors), I just never considered the idea that I could be like her. Weird dichotomy of beliefs, huh?
I will say, I did learn so much while getting my BA. I estimate I wrote 500K words or so while I was there, and while most weren’t fiction it was still a lot of learning how to put words together, learning how to think about writing on a deeper level. I see people saying “they wanted me to talk about the symbolism of the umbrella in the corner, which is stupid so I quit because that’s not real”. That misses the point of English classes entirely. No one thinks that Joyce agreed with some 19-year-old’s interpretation of Ulysses. What matters is that you read it, you thought about it, you wrote about it. Do that constantly for a while, critiqued by dozens of professors, and your writing and reading skills will improve dramatically.
I also was in the undergrad fiction workshop 3 semesters (as long as we were allowed), and I think I learned almost nothing there. Just had lots of mean or huggy-bear nice crits from people who knew nothing more than myself, herded by a mid-list author with a MFA, there to teach for a year & generally bored out of their minds. English professors were much more passionate and crazy than workshop authors in my experience.
I walked away unable to just start writing a book. I believed (and I’ve asked others who were in the same place as myself, it apparently was a meme as we all agreed) the idea would somehow come to me, like light streaming through clouds in darkness. Brilliance didn’t come from tedium. I thought I would live an interesting life, then THE BEST IDEA EVER would appear, then I could start writing my book. I was 35 before I decided I would have to just start writing, assured rejection due to my lack of brilliance be damned. It took bravery to fight my belief that if it wasn’t astonishing, it was crap. I was probably writing for an audience of one, but I had to just start anyway.
Then I found Kindleboards, lol, and I realized I wasn’t just writing alone in the dark, with so little hope. It was a massive paradigm shift.
I’m working on finishing a couple projects now, & I’m convinced that if I keep writing I’ll make this my career. I do wish I could have had the learning from the experience without the roadblocks, but it was what it was & it got me here.
Terribly long comment, I know… it just seemed to fit here. Thanks Kris, for dragging all these shadowed beliefs into the light of day.
The part about the level of pretentiousness really got to me. Back when I was in school, I had those phases, and they were painful. Isn’t pretentiousness really just an outward sign of despair from a frustrated artiste? I never once gained anything from pretentiousness. I did gain from finishing stories. The language of success becomes pretty clear when you break it down to “just finish stories.” But that’s the only way anything happens. Art or not. Go get ’em, tiger (tigress?).
You’re welcome, Denise, and thank you for the comment.
I met Kevin J. Anderson in a university creative writing class and we bonded over our “genre” bent (not that I knew I had one, but Kev told me I did, and by the time he was in college, he had sold more than the professor, which impressed the hell out of me). Kev still complains about what we learned about our prof at the end-of-class party, held at the prof’s house. In his back room, away from the living room, was a wall-sized collection of science fiction. This prof had told Kev repeatedly not to write genre crap, and there it was. When Kev confronted the prof at the party, the prof said, “Well, that stuff isn’t good. I just read it for relaxation.”
Kev is still mad about this. I find this prof (and memory) sadder and sadder as the years go by.
I hate that attitude, that sci-fi/fantasy is dismissed as “just entertainment”. Why is being entertained a bad thing? Why is it so often assumed that entertaining stories don’t also have deep meaning?
Discouraging genre writers comes from this attitude, and I feel so sorry for all the writers that turned away from what they love to write “serious literature”.
What an amazing post. I hope all aspiring writers read it.
I was lucky. I knew I wanted to be a writer in my early teens. But by sheer fate, the only college I could get into (bad grades, angry kid, long story) happened to have an English prof who was a legit, working writer in dark speculative fiction — which was exactly what I wanted to be. I didn’t even know the guy was there until second semester freshman year. David Taylor, who wrote under the name DW Taylor in the 80s and 90s (appeared in Pulphouse, BTW), ended up becoming the main reason that I have a 20+ year career in fiction and nonfiction, as a book editor and magazine editor for some of the biggest publishers, and as an independent, self-pubbed writer who has worked in virtually every genre there is.
What was his secret? Making us write. And write. And write. The most useful thing I learned was using “speedwriting” sessions, taking 45-50 minute stretches, usually to loud classic rock albums that were 45-50 minutes long. You don’t edit. You don’t stop. You write until the music stops. You used those sessions to finish stories, not play around with stream-of-consciousness or other touchy-feely endeavors. When the story was done, you shared to see what you had.
I wrote 3 novels before I graduated, plus many short stories. I had chops. But true to your point, Kris, I learned nothing about business. Taylor was lucky to be able to teach writing the way he did because all the other English classes were exactly what you’d imagine. But I learned the HABITS (not the same as skills) that I needed to go out into the world and produce content for anyone who needed it — from a crime novel for myself to book jacket copy on romance novels to a 3000 word profile of LeBron James (my interview skills I think come from college as well, but from what I learned interacting with women at fraternity parties…ahem, cough, cough).
What I see coming out of colleges now? Hard workers. Which means their research skills are good and they’ll put in the hours, but their writing simply does not sing. No chops. As an editor, I still haven’t found that go-to writer yet. As a writer, I worked hard to become that go-to writer for a LOT of editors. That’s a good business lesson right there. But one I had to learn on my own.
My best advice to writers looking to make a living at it: Speed, versatility, courtesy. A willingness to write anything for anyone, and do it better than the folks an editor is currently using. And a cast-iron will for demanding timely payment. You may not get rich, but you can have a long career.
Thanks for a great post, Kris.
Thanks for describing the 45 minute speed exercise. I write almost everyday, but my speed is not great. That’s my next skill area to focus on. I have so many ideas I want to develop. Must write faster!
It’s a great exercise, and unlike working out, you can do it several times a day. All I can say is for those 45 minutes, write like someone’s chasing you. Some of the best albums we used (and I daresay we did have to get up and flip some cassettes, we were pre-CD, which means that in the iPod era you can develop playlists) were Zeppelin 2 & 4, Rolling Stones Hot Rocks, any prime era Floyd. Overplayed stuff? Sure. But there’s a method there, too. All that music was so well-known to us that we didn’t have it in our brains pulling us out of our writing. New or unfamiliar music, even good music, would have pulled us out of the moment. The point was to give us a facilitator and timer. If you don;t want to have music, just set a microwave timer. The point is disappearing into the session and finishing stories. Do that and you’ll amaze yourself.
I’m easily distracted, so to get myself to write more, I used to set a timer with an obnoxious, impossible-to-ignore alarm across the room. I didn’t have to write during that time. I had to sit in my writing chair in front of my computer. That’s all.
I didn’t allow anything else on or near the computer, no books, no e-mail, no games, nothing. Just me and the word document.
I could sit and be bored or type something. It took about a week (seriously!) but I trained myself to write something before that timer went off. And I still write in half hour bursts because of it. 🙂
So I’m not the only one using albums as timers. I play epic soundtracks like Transformers OST and Pirates of the Caribbean OST. I feel epic while writing to these tracks, and time flies!
Funny thing about using music as a timer – I’ll start an album playing, sit down to write, and sometime later (much later!) raise my head and wonder how long ago the music stopped…
Great post, Mike. Wonderful. I hope everyone reads this. And of course, I remember DW Taylor’s work. I haven’t seen any in years (but haven’t been editing either). Great writer. Sounds like a great teacher too.
Frederick Faust (Max Brand) and Flannery O’Connor were woodchoppers. One went to “The” Workshop and the other one went to the workshop of the pulps.
Both write elegant prose on a quest to get fiction to answer big questions. They both make literary lightning strike like they are children of Thor.
Both of them worked. That’s the key. Not the acclaim. Posthumously, academically, Brand is dismissed, O’Connor lionized.
It doesn’t matter. Both of them are still selling like hotcakes, because hard work made them good.
Great post, Paul. Faust created a lot of memorable characters, especially things turned into 1960s TV. He’s one of Dean’s favorites. O’Conner had to fight her university training for years. (And died too young, imho)
Another great article. A thousand thanks.
Would you consider the issue of writing fast a craft concern or a business concern? To me it seems to have a foot in both camps. But is fast writing a skill that can be taught? In other words, how would a professional writing workshop/degree program tackle teaching students to write quickly? (Once, of course, you convinced them it was both possible and prudent.)
I think the business side of this equation depends heavily on the craft side first. For example, to write fast a student must learn to generate ideas quickly, develop characters and plot quickly, draft the actual story with speed, and avoid excessive rewriting. Throw researching in there, too, I suppose. But at least that, I know, can be taught.
(Can you tell I’m still hamstrung by the write slow myth?) 🙂
Re: writing fast as a skill.
That was a skill that Kris and Dean taught me, at any rate. How? In workshop after workshop, the mantra was “it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done; on time, on target.” The deadlines they gave us weren’t impossible to hit (even though we all stressed out about them because OMG… a 10,000 word story in 3 days!!). But because they expected us to hit those deadlines (plus attend class and do writing exercises), we all got our stories done, and in the process learned what we could really do when we put our minds to it.
Writing fast is all about staying in the writing chair and writing, hour after hour, until the work is done. Period. That’s the whole secret. I only write about 750 words an hour, but I can write a 5,000 word story in a day. Or a 10,000 word story in a day, which I’ve done a couple of times. My highest word count for one day was 13,000. You’d be surprised how actually doing something like that breaks through the whole write-slow myth. *g*
Well, both Dean and Kris use some of their workshops to *prove* to writers that they can write quickly, and well. Kris’s recent Short Story intensive had 11 writers producing a brand new story every 48 hours, for a total of 3 new works during that week. We got the ‘assignment’ 48 hours in advance, and you know what? Every Single Writer there was able to produce a story that worked, Every Singe Time.
We learned to practice writing fast. We practiced by *doing* — by playing and unleashing our creativity. Kris said, “Your story doesn’t need to be perfect. It does need to be finished.” Funny thing was, many of those stories were damn good. Sure, there were a couple starts at novels (cough cough) and some nits that needed to be picked out, but they were good enough. And they were finished.
I’m using timed writing and deadlines now to keep that pressure on — to MAKE myself write at that level. Because how else do you learn to “generate ideas quickly, develop characters and plot quickly, draft the actual story with speed, and avoid excessive rewriting.” except by doing it? 😀
I think the most important point here is that it’s not about writing fast — it’s about writing a lot. Most people who are stuck on the Slow Writing Equals Good Writing myth have this mental image of a fast writer pounding furiously at the keyboard, cranking out a flood of words with no care or thought. That image lets them sneer and eyeroll and reject the idea of writing “fast,” and feel a great sense of superiority while doing so.
What Kris and Dean teach isn’t writing fast per se, but rather spending a lot of time with your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard. (Mercedes Lackey, quoted by Ferran above, has been saying the exact same thing to young writers since at least the eighties, BTW.) Not increasing your words-per-hour writing speed, but increasing the time spent. There’s a huge difference there, and IMO that misunderstanding (possibly willful in some cases?) is the one major stumbling block preventing most writers from even wanting to increase their output.
You got great answers here, Rob. One thing I’ll add is that writing “fast” is both a craft and a business concern. You write better when you stop thinking about it. So all the tricks listed in the comments help with that. And the more you produce, the more people have to read, and they love that.
A lot of great answers. Thank you all. And Kris, I think you just nailed my issue because when I read “You write better when you stop thinking about it” I freaked out and said to myself, “But HOW can I write if I’m not thinking about it?” I’m not trying to be dense–it just comes naturally :)–but what does it mean to write without thinking about it?
Stop worrying about the words and concentrate on the story. That will speed you up. Most writers think about the words, not the story. Also if you set a word count goal or an hourly goal, you’ll get more done. Finish this scene in one hour, write 3K today, that sort of thing.
This is a great post that really resonates with me. I’d been trying unsuccessfully to sell my first book when my husband came home from work and handed me a sheet of paper. “Read that,” he said. “That’s how our sales people work and that’s how you should sell your book.” That document was a revelation. It didn’t contain any lies but it didn’t contain any apologies either. Everything that might have been construed as a weakness was turned into a strength. And that document had resulted in a big contract. So I learned a lesson, rewrote my proposal and sent it out again. I also sold the book – not to the first publisher who saw it, but to the eleventh – because I’d learned to be persistent.
Later on, when I started a web design business with my husband, we started going on business courses to help us develop it. And what I learned there also helped with my writing career. From then on, I’ve negotiated contracts harder, valued my time higher and spoken up more on issues like covers and marketing. Now I’ve taken the final step and decided to go indie with my next book so all business decisions are mine.
Wonderful, Diana. Exactly. You learned one of the things we have trouble teaching writers–that a proposal is a sales tool, not a story. (Well, it must tell a story too.) Great post. Thanks.
Listening to other writers all the time can drive you crazy, but in your case, I’m willing to take the risk. Thank you and keep up the good work.
Thank you, Louis.
I’m quoting from memory, but…
“Talent will make you good. Practice will take you to Master” — M. Lackey, Exile’s Honor
I’ve seen it at work in other fields. Also, someone who has a work ethic also has an emotional investment. Someone with talent doesn’t really have a reason to keep at it. Why should he? He can restart again anytime, at the same level. Someone who actually works at it *knows* [groks?] that every month without practice requires two months to get to his *previous* level. That’s three months if you go on extended holidays. Ouch.
Anyhow, I’m way unconvinced that people make serious consideration of the economical benefits of small decisions. I was ranting yesterday with several people about a nearby case where a whole association of small businesses let themselves be buggered (and *still* do) by the same bank who charged them 3% of their *gross income*. The did have many other options, but they choose not to exercise them.
OTOH, I don’t know the real life implications in writing, but in other circles, depreciating your quality is a survival strategy (and, in part, a healthy case of the humbles), a way to stay out of the limelight. To the point that some people try to imitate it to give the illusion they actually have a limelight to run from.
Great post, Ferran. I particularly like the point about an emotional investment. Thanks.
This is an excellent post, and it somewhat mirrors one I did on this subject yesterday.
“In other words, a work ethic is the sign of a mediocre writer.”
I’ve found this quote from your post to be at the heart of a lot of failing writers. Too many assume that you either have talent or you don’t, and if you do, then you deserve the world on a platter. Yes, talent plays a part, but hard work comes into it as well. Peyton Manning is incredible, but he also spends countless hours in the offseason throwing to his receivers, studying the playbook, and working out in the gym. He takes his talent and hones it into something better, for he knows that he isn’t entitled to anything but a chance.
A lot of folks who say they want to write consider the whole business aspect to be beneath them, that it should be the dirty province of others. These are the folks who will blame everyone but themselves when their writing never turns into a profession because they can’t make enough to feed themselves on.
It takes more than having a good story idea. It takes hard work…a lot of it outside of the actual writing process. Those who get this are further along the road to success.
Thanks, RD. I love the Peyton Manning example. Imagine if sports were played the way that writing is taught. Only a few coordinated kids would be on the field. The rest would be…well, me. 🙂 Good post.
Thanks Kris. I seriously needed the reminder. Even though I finished a novella (needs copyedit) and am returning to a novel I put on hold a month ago (just took manuscript over 50k words) it is tough to stay the course and do what needs to be done. I am putting new words down about every day. I hope to finish a few more books before the end of the year to go with the two I’ve already published. I want to make a living at this. Somewhere, deep down, I feel I’ve got to do this.
Sounds to me like you have a good plan, Shaun. It is always hard to keep to the work because we do it alone and we work inside our heads. But having a plan does help. And so does the feeling that you have to do this. It keeps you working. It’s kept me going through all the ups and downs. Sounds like you’re getting a lot of work done. 🙂
Appreciate the response, Kris. Yes, it’s been tough to stay focused on the writing. I let concerns over what I have no control over (people buying work; me making money) get in the way and derail me. Heck, I was about to put aside that bigger book because I’m past 50k and not finished yet so I could start a new one. I get your term “popcorn kittens.” Anyway, the biggest part for me is being impatient with not making enough money. : ) Seems like I should just keep my nose to grindstone and put out as many good stories as I can this year and see where I am.
You can’t control the sales. Only the output and the quality. Hard, I know. But if you stop worrying about it, it gets easier.