Why I Don’t Give Writing Advice

This is a jellyfish. Image by Natania Barron, CC BY SA 3.0.
This is a jellyfish. Image by Natania Barron, CC BY SA 3.0.

I started blogging almost five years ago, somewhere in 2008, when I decided to focus on “being a writer”–whatever the hell that means. To illustrate a little: being a writer meant actually writing every day, finishing books, and apparently telling the world out there that I, in fact, have Things To Say about Being A Writer and Fiction and Steampunk and Narrative and all these Fun Capitalized Things. I had a great deal to say on the subject, filling not only this blog but another one, along the way.

I used to write a great deal about how to be a writer. How to leverage social media. How to not be a jerk, etc. Yes, I got pageviews and retweets and I made friends and all that, which isn’t to be scoffed at (and I don’t mean to). I’ve made friendships and connections through my blog that are priceless. It’s only now, five years later, after publication and more success than I expected (and earlier than I expected) and plenty of heartbreak, I’ve found that I really don’t have a lot to share. Part of this is because nowadays, people practically make a living off of telling would-be writers what they Ought To Do To Get Published. And the platform has become a signal fit to bursting. Twitter, G+, Facebook, they’re straining to keep all the self-published, Kindle authors and “buy my book it’s only .99 cents and some obscure guy gave it five stars!” Anyone can be a bestseller, apparently. All you have to do is say it’s so.

What I’m saying, I guess, is at the moment, anyone can seem like a published author. I could, at this very moment, take a draft from my considerably large pile of novels, convert it to .epub, and voila! Become a published author. But that doesn’t mean that I’d be a good author. Or that my books are any good.

So, publication is nebulous. And success is nebulous. Success is absolutely different from person to person. If self-publishing makes you happy, great. If writing in private until you die makes you happy, great. If writing one book and then moving on to your PhD in astrophysics is what you have in mind, power to you. In order to be successful as a writer you, well, you have to write obviously. But you also have to define your own goal. Me? I had a very silly goal of being published by 30, which I did. But I went about it my own way, and it’s really unlikely that if I told you exactly what I did that you could repeat it.

No matter what your craft, it really only comes down to two things: work and passion. It’s a balance of both. I don’t believe that everyone can be a writer. I think everyone can write, with enough effort. But will you keep going if you don’t have passion for it? Probably not. When it comes to “being a writer” it’s about learning to harness your passion and leveraging your work. It’s often writing through really sucky situations. I will admit, when I was working a traditional, full-time job (and pregnant… which had a lot to do with it), I hardly wrote anything. I didn’t take my own advice. Work sapped my passion and ideas, and the strain of being a breadwinner meant that the only things I could really focus on were the immediately paying ones. Could I have focused more? Probably. I had story ideas, many of them. But I was so exhausted most of the time that the idea of sitting in front of a computer for another five minutes was nothing short of nightmarish. It was like having computer PTSD, and it came at a huge cost. Not to say that had I stayed in that situation I never would have written again, but it wasn’t the ideal situation. I lost track of my goals. I missed the forest for the trees, to use the old hackneyed phrase.

Which is why I’m saying I’m not giving anyone writing advice. There are other, far more qualified people out there to do that sort of work. And far more unqualified people, but it’s up to you to decide if they’re legit or not (IMHO, there are many who fall into this category, so beware!). Not that I’m not ever EVER going to give advice again, but in general… it’s not the focus of this blog, and it hasn’t been for a while.

Listen, here’s my thoughts: life is challenging, and either you write through it, or you don’t. Telling stories is inherent in some of us. I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to staple pages together. But it’s constant work, and it’s work that always changes. There’s no program, no map, no GPS to tell you the way. To each, their own journey.

So here’s my last bit of advice:

  • Define your own success, realistically.
  • Do what you love. (Do it a lot, even when it’s the last thing you want to do.)
  • Become an expert.
  • Don’t be a jerk.

Does it mean getting an agent and writing an effective query and becoming a bestseller? Does it mean writing “to the market”? Does it mean self-publishing? Does it mean waiting ten years? Maybe. Maybe not. I will say that if being a bestseller is your end goal, you’re probably missing a piece. If you don’t care about money or reputation or traditional publishing, what’s stopping you? It works for some people. It’s not exactly predictable or reliable, but it’s a possibility.

For me, it’s not about selling. It’s about reaching people. Yes, money is nice and awesome and I’d love to be able to make an actual living as a writer. Royalty checks and advance checks are awesome and have saved our asses more than a few times this year. But writers don’t get salaries. Even one or two bestsellers, with a few exceptions, aren’t going to bankroll you for life. It’s fickle and awful in that respect. So wealth is usually not in the cards. But for real writers, those with the right blend of talent and passion and work, it can be more than that.

Being a writer is simple: you either do it, or you don’t. If you do it, you’re a writer. If you don’t, either you’re in hibernation (which can happen) or well, maybe you should stop telling people about that great novel idea you’ve had for the last decade and move on to something else.

As for me, I’ll be over here. Writing. Instead of writing about writing.

Five Ways Social Media Can Destroy Your Writing (and, Potentially, Your Career)

Ah, social media. You can’t cross the street any more without having it cross your consciousness (I wonder if there’s a check-in here!). And as useful as social media can be for us writerly types, I guarantee you for every pro there is a serious and potentially hazardous con. Having written before on some of the reasons I love Twitter for writing, I thought I’d share five ways that social media can, you know, go all Cthulhu on your writing rather than foster it.

1) You drive yourself to distraction. This is perhaps the most obvious pitfall of social media. It’s damn distracting. There’s plenty of time to talk about writing, to meet new writers, to see and read and absorb everyone else’s processes and approaches and learn about the business and agents and publishing and… and… Wait, when was the last time you actually sat down and wrote something? And finished it? And submitted it? Yeah, I thought so. Spend too much time writing and thinking about social media, and before you know it that hard-earned writing time evaporates like wine on a hot skillet. There’s lots of time for learning the craft, and building a network is important. But the second you start spending more time broadcasting than actually creating you’ve got your priorities mixed up. (Don’t think you’re addicted: Check out the Oatmeal’s “How Addicted to Facebook Are You Quiz” for some laughs.)

Solution: Some writers use various types of software to turn off Twitter, Facebook, etc., during writing times. Others are just self-disciplined. Me? I block out hour time periods. For that hour, I’m allowed only to write. Then, I get five or ten minutes to check the wide world. Honestly, sometimes I just keep on writing because, well, there’s a lot less noise out there.

2) You broadcast too much. This is something I’ve seen from very young, fledgeling writers, to established and critically acclaimed writers. Yes, there is too much of a good thing. Over sharing. Over gloating. TMI. You know what I mean. Sure, it’s up to you to do as you will with your social media accounts. I’m not the police. I’m just saying, as a book fan and a writer myself, there’ve been many people that I’ve stopped following simply because their feeds got too, well, uncomfortable or, to turn a phrase, commercial. As much as I don’t want to hear about every single meal and migraine, I don’t want to have to endure a feed that’s nothing but self-promotion. Balance, friends.

Solution: Ask some good friends for critiques of your social media feeds if you’re worried. Write a manifesto about what you do and don’t share. If you care about that sort of thing. If you don’t, well, more power to you. Just know that your social media persona is as close as some of your fans, potential colleagues, and publishers are ever going to get to you. And if you want to make money off this writing thing, it’s probably a good idea to present yourself well. Okay, so maybe you have a huge, established audience and you couldn’t care less about what people think of you because you bathe in dollar bills. I still hold that one bad turn could ruin your career, especially if it reeks of scandal.

3) You get into arguments with other people. You know. Like, every other day. Yes, I believe that discourse is important. The only way that we progress is through understanding, which can sometimes take the form of heated discussions. But is social media the place for this? Likely not. And for a few reasons. a) it’s painfully public so everyone gets to listen to your late-night, Pabst-fueled rantings uncensored and before you have the chance to delete them b) the internet is FOREVER, man. Be a dick once, and it will haunt you for a lifetime, and c) it’s not a good place to be when you’re heated and angry and out for blood. (Penny Arcade even posits that even some folks probably aren’t in that good of a place when they sign up…)

Solution: You’re really pissed off? Good. Maybe you can do something to change the injustice. But take some time to cool off before you oust Major Jerkward Editor to the world. Be tactful. Try blog posts, mobilize your friends, prepare a response. Then you’re not a hot-head drunkard writer who comes off looking petty and jealous, you’re a well-spoken expert on the situation who added something really cool to the discussion and changed a few minds. (Also: try not to take yourself so seriously. I swear, in four years, you’ll look back at this and have a good laugh. Or a cry. Hopefully the former and not the latter.)

4) You’re very vocal about whose writing you do and don’t like. This is beyond issues of content. If you really hate a particular writer simply for the way they write or a particular choice they made in their story, trumpeting it to the social network isn’t the best idea. Why? Well, take a quick look at how many people you’re connected on, say, Facebook. You know, the other day, Facebook recommended that I friend Peter Straub, because apparently we have a whole lot of friends in common. Yeah, that whole six-degrees thing just got a whole lost closer with social media. Thankfully, I like Peter Straub. But if I ranted and raved about how much I detested him, then ran into him virtually or IRL, you know… that might be a bit awkward. And potentially damaging.

Solution: Critique, don’t simply dislike. Don’t let emotion get in the way of reading/projecting about what you’ve read. That goes beyond being a bad social media person — that’s just being a bad reader. If you’re reviewing something, you owe it to yourself and to the writing community to explain why you didn’t like it. You also owe it to everyone to actually read the book. Done well, you come across as someone who knows their stuff and you might even give insight into the writer’s own work. Remember, all writers are still in progress! (Note: some writers do believe they aren’t progressing, and others still can’t take any criticism at all. But at least if you respond intelligently, you cover yourself in the future! While not cool, IMO, I’ve still seen plenty of writers go after other writers and readers either on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, for bad reviews… Remember that whole thing about the internet being forever? Yeah… totally goes both ways.)

5) You think you’re ready when you’re not. It’s so exciting to see other authors selling stories and doing book tours and signing book deals. But if you start comparing yourself and your career to theirs, you’re in for trouble. The truth is that there’s no magic formula. And submitting a bunch of half-thought stories and novels to publishers before they’re ready, just because you dream of the day you can Tweet: “I sold my book!” is not a good idea. I’ve been guilty myself of this, I will freely admit (while social media wasn’t the only culprit in my progress paralysis, it certainly didn’t help!). A false-sense of your own skill leads to nothing but heartbreak. Unfortunately, for the majority of writers out there, hope does nothing for actually selling a book. Also, beware promises that sound too good: vanity presses, people who want your money to publish your book. It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff online sometimes, but generally speaking, there is no pot of gold at the end of most promised rainbows.

Solution: Measure success with your own yardstick. Make goals that make sense for you and your experience. Maybe it’s just finishing a short story this year. Maybe it’s scoring an agent. But  framing your success in terms of other peoples’ is a recipe for disaster and, ultimately, massive disappointment. The only thing that writers have in common when it comes to success: damned hard work. To quote Jeff VanderMeer from Facebook earlier today (and to give a nod in general to Booklife, which goes into this better than I do): “If you’re not willing to put in the time and effort, if you don’t like hard work, don’t be a writer. Don’t be a writer if you don’t like to read. The world doesn’t need another punk-ass pretender.”

I’m sure there are lot of other pitfalls of social media, but these are the ones I’ve become most familiar with. Above all, practice moderation, folks. Any tool can become a distraction. Anything you say can be found again. And the only person who can truly control how you’re perceived is you. You want to be an irreverent, irate creative? Go right ahead. Just know that there are possible ramifications. You want to avoid social media altogether and go the Luddite route? Rock on. Just know that you’re also missing out on some pretty huge opportunities. (Or… maybe… in some cases, you’re not!)

How about you? Anyone fallen into any of these traps or discovered others? How do you balance social media and your writing life?

Further Reading:

Six Ways Twitter Can Make You A Better Writer

Many people consider Twitter solely for networking purposes, for meeting people with common interests and conversing. And while that’s a big part of it, Twitter can also be a very useful tool for improving your writing.

When I first started building my Twitter follow list, I started with a lot of writers. And soon I discovered, mostly through feeds of people like Jay Lake and Paul Jessup, the #wip hashtag. Easy enough, WIP stands for “work in progress”. Basically, writers sample little 140 character or less sections from their work, sharing it with their friends and followers. Not every writer does this (either some don’t like the attention it brings, while others might feel it’s a little too flashy or something) I’ve found it very helpful for a number of reasons.

  • Most importantly, excerpting your #wip brings people into your creative process. It allows your friends, fellow writers, and general followers a glimpse into your current project. The line you tweet may or may not be that good; it may or may not end up in your final draft. But does it matter? If you’re a new or emerging writer and you have a tidbit to share, it’s a great way to get buzz. If you’re a more established writer it helps to generate excitement about your new project and certainly gives fans of your work a reason to follow your feed (besides, you know, tweeting about what you eat).
  • #wip sampling also leaves a written record of what you’re working on when. I find this very useful, and something enlightening, to go back and watch my progress. I can actually figure out how long it took to write various short stories and novels by searching the #wip tag in my posts. To get even more specific, I can add another hashtag, mostly for myself, that indicates what project I’m on (sort of just for myself).
  • #wip sampling really forces you to look at the words. It takes them out of context of the story, which is a fantastic way to edit. In fact, there’s probably only one or two instances where I’ve ever tweeted a #wip that I didn’t end up editing. Sometimes the rhythm of the language is off, sometimes it just dosen’t punch enough; other times, it just needs a tiny tweak to make it better. In the end, it puts a good distance between that sentence or sentences and the whole work. No, I don’t suggest tweeting every sentence just to edit, but if you can every once in a while it can certainly give you some insight.
  • I do this exercise typically when I’ve hit my 1K for the day. I’ll look over the whole work and try and find the best section to tweet. If there’s nothing–absolutely nothing–for me to share, chances are that I’ve done something wrong. If I’ve written 1,000 words and nothing is worth sharing with my writer and reader friends, then something is surely missing. There’s got to be some place with tension, with humor, with excitement! If there isn’t, I’ll go back and do some house-cleaning, even if it’s a first draft.
  • If you’re shy about your work, and don’t like to share, tweeting little bits and pieces is a good way to warm you up. Because, honestly, if you’re going to start publishing, well, everyone is going to have access to everything. While some #wip tweets get responses, many don’t. Mostly because they’re just snippets, of course. But it’s a perfect opportunity to get your feet wet.
  • Lastly, I love going through my friends’ #wip tags. It makes me feel like part of a writing community. String them together and you’ve got some truly fascinating tidbits of creativity going on. Widen your scope through all of Twitter, and there’s a collective, beautiful cacophony of image and craft. To me, that’s just absolutely inspiring. Knowing that other writers are doing the same thing as I am (hopefully not exactly the same, but you get my drift) definitely encourages me to get through the daily writing grind and make my work better.

How about you? Have you discovered any way that social media has helped your writing process?

All the world’s your stage: the performativity of online presence

My freshman year of college, I discovered MUSHing, specifically Elendor, the Tolkien-based MUSH. Besides being a hole for creativity (well, who needs to write anything original when you’re in a world as detailed as that one…) it was my first real exposure to an online community. And it’s there that I discovered the vast difference between real and perceived personalities in virtual space. I called it a MUSHPersona. There were people, for instance, whom I knew in real life as relatively mild-mannered bookworms, who online became sarcastic, self-important, jerks. Shyguys turn into relentless flirts. Housewives turn into vixens. And I’ve found, especially with the birth of social media and the Blogaissance, this sense of performativity has permeated the internet on many levels.

The thing is, the online world works in very mysterious ways. You’re put into a huge melting pot, sure–but you suddenly have the potential to stir the waters, to make your presence known. And because there’s a sense of anonymity, in spite of attempts like Facebook and MySpace to cash in on your own “personal” brand, you can in fact be anyone you want to be. You can espouse your opinions as passionately as you want, without the concern of actual contact with human beings. No physical threats, no narrowed evil eyes, no tears.

As a writer, I’ve always taken my “presence” seriously. Sure I love the performativity in some ways: I do a podcast of my own novel-in-progress, after all. But when it comes to the things I say, the fights I choose, etc., I’ve never really wanted to be more than myself. I’m not confrontational by nature, and even hints of it make me nervous (in some ways moreso than other modes of confrontation).

And while audiences are awaiting new performances every day, the online world is, I think, even more unforgiving than the physical world. Consider the longevity of comments on pages, the ability of people to capture everything you say and save it for posterity. You know how one letter can change the way we view a great writer? With the Internet we now have, through blogging and social media, a continuous record of our lives. Or, at least, lives as we’d have them remembered. If you every said a stupid thing, chance are it’s out there somewhere, along with pictures of you in Hawaiian shirts playing rhythm guitar in surf bands (well, maybe that’s just me)…

Here’s the thing. We can never truly be ourselves in a world of text and pixels. Something will always be lost in translation. But as of late I’ve been a little disappointed with the personas of people in the online world who really ought to know better. Sure, I deal primarily with writers, bloggers, publishers, etc., but they’re no different than your average gamer when it comes to performativity. No, I can’t change the way people act online. But I can assure you: online presence doesn’t equal lasting fame, recognition, or admiration. I look at the comments some people have given the agents involved in #queryday / #queryfail, read the rumors spread venomously about publications, and think about the inability for some people to even consider an opinion other than their own, and I wonder how on earth the Internet came to be like this. Where has decency and respect gone?

So, I’m starting to sound like a Luddite (so says my husband to me on occasion) and perhaps a bit Puritanical. I just think the worst performers out there would have a lot less to complain about if they conducted themselves with a little more class and respected their audiences a bit more. Politeness goes a very long way, and picking fights and being a jerk might get you a few followers and links, but it’s doubtful it’ll get you a long-term career, regardless of your particular vocation.

All the world might be a stage, but not everyone’s buying a ticket.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As You Like It