Would-be writers tend to be a gullible lot. I think the problem is in the ego.
There’s no way around it, really. Writing itself isn’t an egotistical act, but the belief that someone else should read it just because you went to the trouble of writing it? Straight up ego, no chaser.
So there is this industry all wrapped up in salving the would-be writer’s ego and promising them the holy grail of the aspiring literary genius: publication. The trouble is that you can get to publication fairly easily (amazon has seen to that), it’s the recognition that’s hard. Sometimes the recognition is non-existent. No one reads the book. That’s where most of us land. Sometimes the recognition is negative. If you’re lucky enough to have readers, the bulk of the herd is still going to get stuck here. Rarely, you get positive recognition. And even if you get that, you need enough of it to reach critical mass, which is an even steeper hill to climb. All of these cottage industries – people offering to edit your book, typeset it for acceptance into the amazon kindle program, cover design for cheap, website design – they all count on your writer’s ego to do the selling for them. You have an amazing story here, the world needs to hear it. We’ll help you get an agent. We’ll help you polish your book. We’ll get you a hundred positive reviews on amazon or goodreads or wherever.
And because we tend to believe that we’re special, and that we’ve got a special gift, we spend the money.
Let me tell you a dreadful secret: the people offering all of these services are probably authors themselves. They may have even gotten to the elusive state of having positive recognition, but not enough of it to let them sell books and write full time instead of offering to edit your book. They probably can’t get you to the level of recognition that you think you deserve – they can’t do it for themselves. How do I know? Because if they could, they wouldn’t be offering to review your book for $300. In my real life, I am an editor. I edit everything. Newsletters, articles, research papers, policy… The amount of time it takes to get your average first draft polished to publication quality… $300 isn’t going to get you a book that’s ready for publication. I’d get paid something like that for a 10 page research paper. The real cost for an entire book … trust me when I say you can’t afford it. I know I can’t.
So let’s talk about writing. I can’t promise you that what follows is going to get you into the coveted position of receiving positive recognition. I am pretty sure that ignoring these considerations isn’t going to help your cause.
First, what are you trying to do? If you’re trying to tell yourself a story because it gives you pleasure, carry on. Write to your hearts content. Just recognize that you’re writing for yourself and therefore the only measure of success is whether or not you’re enjoying yourself. I’m not being pejorative here. This is a perfectly legitimate reason to write. It’s immensely valuable. I do it all the time. This blog started out as an internal conversation. It only evolved when other people started paying attention. Writing for yourself is an amazing tool for managing stress, figuring things out, keeping track of yourself… I highly recommend it. If you’re writing for yourself, you can stop here. Go forth with my sincere blessing and respect.
If you are writing for someone else, you’re going to have to manage a whole new set of standards. It isn’t anyone’s right to demand the time and attention of a stranger. Maybe you can make a loved one listen to you, maybe the bonds of friendship or family give you that right. But a perfect stranger? If you’re writing for an audience of people that don’t owe you through bonds of affection, then you need to make your peace with the reality of having to earn their investment with every word, every sentence, and every page. If you’re writing for someone else, keep reading.
The foundation of all good writing isn’t the words themselves, its in what you want to do with those words. Do you want to give something to your audience or do you want your audience to give something (money, recognition, accolades) to you? If you are the former, carry on. If you’re the latter, I can’t help you.
If you are writing because you have something to give, if you have a service-oriented perspective, the entire attitude about the process shifts dramatically. Critical feedback is something that you seek because it helps you get closer to the audience. Edits to your work are no longer about you, they’re about pushing the story further to make it more accessible. Before you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, figure out what your purpose is in writing. Write it down.
My purpose is to provide entertainment and distraction for an audience that needs a break.
My purpose is to give my reader a sense of hope that a happy ending is possible.
My purpose is to give my audience a way to escape from whatever difficult thing they’re going through.
My purpose is to shift my audience’s thinking in the direction of compassion by talking about every day things in a fictional framework.
Writing is a sacred act. I’ve been kept company by strangers and thereby gotten through some difficult days. Books are magic. They’re a gift, and a kindness, because there is NOTHING easy about writing a book and there is no kind of compensation in the world, except, perhaps, that enjoyed by Ms. Rowling, to cover what is involved in writing a book.
There is a reason why there is only one Michael Jordan, only one J.K. Rowling… achieving that level of recognition and success is incredibly rare. In all likelihood, it isn’t going to be you. I’m not trying to be mean, there’s no reason to believe it is going to be me either. The greats are singular because of an extraordinary combination of drive, work, luck, and timing. It’s so rare to have all of the elements fall into place at the same time. You’d be better off looking for the grand unified theory of everything, if that’s what you’re after. Personally, if I were writing with surpassing J.K. Rowling as my motivator (not my goal, but my motivation) I’d be immeasurably depressed by the progress I’ve made in that general direction.
Instead, I have a purpose. My purpose is to use the written word to make someone’s terrible day a little better and, if I’m lucky, to present ideas about fear and compassion in a way that increases the compassion and decreases the fear, if only by a little bit. That isn’t enough to make me a good writer, but my purpose matters more than my ego. (I’m not trying to disown the fact that I have one, and I can’t deny that it hurts to have something criticized when you’ve worked so very hard on it.) The purpose drives me to question whether I want what I want (to make someone’s terrible day a little better) or do I want how I feel about the constructive criticism I’ve just received. My purpose (hopefully) stops me from saying something entitled like “just get through the boring parts in chapters one and two, it really picks up in chapter three.”
A purpose won’t make you a better writer. It will just get your ego out of the way so you have a chance in hell at getting better.