There’s a terrible meme emerging from the internet writing community. It arises from good intentions and common sense, and like most examples of common sense applied to complex situations it is utterly, utterly wrong.
You can see this meme at work in the debate around publishing a book a year following Steph Swainston‘s retirement from fiction. You can see it Chuck Wendig’s (who I agree with more often than not) recent musings Write More, Word Slave. You can see it in the 50,000 word a month culture of NaNoWriMo. And you can see it in the commonly held wisdom that if, as a writer, you can just get your name out there in front of readers enough, you will eventually achieve fame and fortune.
You won’t. Well, you might. But it won’t be because readers have seen your name so often that they just give up and declare you a genius. It will be because somewhere in that torrent of words you’ve poured out in to the world, some of them were good enough to really stand out.
If you had only put those words in to the world, you would have done even better. Many writers seem determined to become their own worst source of signal interference on the channel between their work and those people who might be interested in their work.
The Entertainment Machine
Part of the problem here seems to be the belief that writers are part of the entertainment industry. That a writers product should be as uniform and regular as eight seasons of Star Trek : the Next Generation. I have a soft spot in my heart for Star Trek, I do. But if I want easily digested mind fodder then the TV is right there to give it to me. From books and the writers who write them I want insight…into life, society, the world, the universe. Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry. The latter’s job is to make product from which they make money. The former’s job is to heal people.
Protestant Work Ethic
Many of us work in places where the prevailing belief is that if you turn up from 9 to 5, do all the things you are told to do and do them well, you will prosper and may eventually get a promotion. These places are called factories, whether they are producing car parts or processing data of one kind or another, many work places are still factories. But writers are not factory workers. The rules of the protestant work ethic don’t apply to writing. You don’t get rewarded for producing x number of words, or x number of novels. Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring. That’s why you’re an artist, not a labourer.
Update Your Marketing Savvy
We’ve all grown up in a world where marketing was a thing done to the masses. You turned on your favourite TV programme and it was interrupted every 10 minutes by a mega corporation with a message designed to make you feel insufficient so you would buy their product. With enough people watching, and enough money spent buying ad space, the products sold. This approach has never worked for writers. It doesn’t work so well for Mars and Coca-Cola any more. Writers who try and flood the market with a book a year, or four books a year, or a short story a month, or a short story a day, or eight short stories a minute, or whatever, are attempting to apply the dynamics of mass marketing to a niche audience. It’s absurd and counter productive.
The Need to Make a Living
Stop trying to make a living from writing. You may as well try to make a living as spiritual leader or political revolutionary. People do make a living at these things, but it’s rarely their first priority. They’re trying to change the world, hopefully, for the better. It isn’t every writers job to change the world, but you should be trying to effect the people you are writing for. I don’t read Haruki Murakami, or Neil Gaiman, or Ursula Le Guin, or Stephen King, or M John Harrison, or Mary Renault, or Kelly Link, or any of the writers I love, because I feel the need to contribute to their bank balance. I read them because they show me the world in new and wiser ways. I’m sure you read your most loved authors for the same reason. Write something true and wise and brilliant. Making a living will look after itself.
- Steph Swainston: ‘I need to return to reality’ (independent.co.uk)
- Hey Writers, What’s Stopping You? (via Stigmata Script) (lemoncity.wordpress.com)
- Resource of the Week: On Writing, by Stephen King (thewritersroomottawa.wordpress.com)
14 thoughts on “Oh please GOD no STOP writing! (so much)”
Yes, obviously I mostly agree with this. You know me and NaNoWriMo have a bad relationship.
I shall have to lend you my copy of The Hacker Ethic And the Spirit of the Information Age.
“Stop trying to make a living from writing.” Absolutely. Nothing will lock up the creative cogs more quickly than writing with that thought at the front of your mind. But I don’t I believe in the hard line between artist and labourer (if asked, by the way, I suspect Stephen King would put himself firmly in the ‘labourer’ camp). When writing, it’s better to think of yourself as neither. In fact, the best days are the ones when you’re barely there at all. It has nothing to do with productivity or wanting to change the world. The very best reason to write is because you can’t stop.
You’re right about King, and many oter writers as well. Writing IS very hard word…but hard work in and of itself doesn’t mean anything, not unless you’re also refelcting on and developing what you do.
What if the goal is mostly to prove to yourself that writing a novel, not necessarily a good one, is something that you can do? I recently read an article over at Fantasy Faction aimed at budding writers. The goal is to write 500 words a day, until you have a written a novel. Is this a situation where it is worth being more of a factory? Or is there not enough value in proving that you can gather enough words for a novel if the quality will suffer?
Anyway, good article. You make sense.
Thanks Erik. I’m divided on the usefulness of the NaNoWriMo ethic. I did it in 2006/7 and it was very useful just to show me that I could find time for writing even around full time work and other commitments. And it got a couple of novels out of my system so I could see they were not the kind of thing I wanted to be writing. So it has uses. I think it’s when it grows in to ‘just write more words and you will improve’ ethic that it goes wrong. At a certain point what developing writers need isn’t to write more, but to reflect, analyse and learn from what they have written and really deepen their craft. And what established writers always ned to be engaged in the same process. I question whether authors banging our even a novel a year are really growing creatively any more, or just cashing in on their existing skill base. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it makes them less interesting to me as a reader.
“Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry. The latter’s job is to make product from which they make money. The former’s job is to heal people.”
Lovely. And true.
“Many of us work in places where the prevailing belief is that if you turn up from 9 to 5, do all the things you are told to do and do them well, you will prosper and may eventually get a promotion. These places are called factories, whether they are producing car parts or processing data of one kind or another, many work places are still factories. But writers are not factory workers. The rules of the protestant work ethic don’t apply to writing. You don’t get rewarded for producing x number of words, or x number of novels. Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring. That’s why you’re an artist, not a labourer.”
This I need to remember.
There are only seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation
This is interesting to me because of one of the chats I had with NG at Clarion. We were talking about how to motivate for writing, and NG was saying that, especially early in his career, he had written because… he felt like eating and paying the rent. Because the bills were very much there and because writing was how he was making a living– exactly the mindset you say is not perhaps the best ;) –and that that was the motivation needed, and that if you don’t have that sort of motivation it can be a lot harder to motivate yourself.
I’m not saying you are wrong, and I can certainly think of authors where I think if they focused more on quality than quantity some things might improve, but I think that for some writers it may also be true that you may _need_ that idea of the deadline and monetary reward to provide the discipline to write. For myself , if I sit around waiting for a revelation to share, how to see the world in newer and wiser ways…. yeah, uh, nothing is every going to get written.
On the contrary, if I can go ‘okay, that’s x00 words today, if I do manage to sell this that would be $x00. OH WOW, THERE IS A THEORETICAL REWARD’ — I find that that actually helps me a lot, and makes it all feel like there is more of a point to it than me just yammering at a blank page.
To sum up, I think, both my arguments and yours: different strokes for different folks. ;)
Yep. Making a living IS a great motivator. I’m experiencing that myself at the moment. So yes, like most sweeping statements I’ve made myself 50% wrong…:)
“Writers are as much part of entertainment industry as doctors are part of the pharmaceutical industry.” Are you serious?
As a writer, I think It’s as much applying unreasonable pressure to be told “Your job is to make things that are unique, wise, truthful and inspiring.” as it is to be told to create works on a schedule. Some of my favorite writers who’s work I’ve enjoyed immensely as a reader have published on schedules that would make people like Step Swainston gasp in disbelief. For many readers, like many people who watch Television or Film, being entertained is their first priority.
To each his own. Some can write a million excellent words a year, some can manage barely a thousand. To claim that one of those is an ‘artist’ and the other ‘a factory’ based soley on production, is a deeply simplistic way of looking at what writing, and indeed what any creative pursuit is about..