Five Scary Truths About Writing That Are Actually Good News

Here I go again.  Exposing the underbelly of the writing dream in ways that some perceive as dark and gloomy.  Discouraging even. 

Hey, I’m sorry this is hard.  Do you really think that getting published and maybe even having a career as a fiction writer is anything other than hard? 

Allow me to clarify.  Writing, as a process, can be and should be rewarding and fun.  But it is rarely easy, at least if it’s done properly.  Getting and staying published is never fun, rarely rewarding (other than a sense of achievement, which is worthwhile), and it is the antithesis of easy.

If you bristle at these notions, if your positive thinking (which I do believe in) blinds you to these truths, nothing I can say here will either help you or discourage you.  On the former count, because you probably don’t understand how high the bar is, and even what it looks like.  On the latter count, because you won’t believe me anyway.

I assure you, my intention is not to discourage.  And trust me on this, these truths challenge me as much as anyone.

The intention here is to help you navigate this landscape successfully. 

The hiker who enters the jungle unarmed, or in denial about the dangers that lurk there, is orders of magnitude more likely to become some creature’s lunch than the hiker who enters the jungle aware, armed and prepared.

It’s fun until the wild animal tears out your spine.  It’s more fun when you emerge alive and well and able to tell the tale, even if you are bleeding from the forehead.

Here, then, are five things to not kid yourself about. 

All of them are the subject of much debate, and those who side with the truth – rather than an illusion that is easier to swallow – are the ones who are empowered to use them to their advantage.

Instead of allowing them to eat you alive.  Which they will if you let them.

Truth #1: The Publishing Business is Changing Rapidly

Deep inside we all harbor the dream of seeing our book on a shelf at a Big Chain retailer.  Of doing signings there.  Of seeing our interviews in print.  Of making a bestseller list.

The road leading to that outcome used to be the only viable path available, and thus it was crowded with all manner of ambition. 

But not anymore, and for many reasons. 

If you write fiction, the traditional New York publishing machine still very much dominates the business.  But take heart, new options are opening up.  Just look at how the music industry has decentralized to elevate independent producers and labels to prominence, in some cases attracting marquee names. 

In the movie business, some of the best films out there, including Oscar nominees, are independently-produced efforts.  They end up with a studio logo on the front end because they’re good enough to attract an audience.  And, because the creator has managed to forge key relationships while maintaining their autonomy as an artist.

That’s precisely the trend in publishing.  More and more independently published books are deservedly finding a readership.  And when they do, New York sits up and notices.  Even if they treated you like rotting meat when you first submitted a manuscript to them.

This age of the independent producer – and publisher – is just now dawning.  How it will shake out is still very much up in the air, but trust me, it will continue to grow and become more respectable.

So keep writing.  Even if New York doesn’t return your phone letters.  Take comfort in the fact that they don’t even return the letters, emails and phone calls of a lot of legitimately established writers anymore.   You’d be shocked at how many published authors have lost their contract and are either writing under another name, or pursuing non-traditional publication options.

Stay in the game, and be there when the game changes.

Truth #2: Pansting IS Story Planning

The debate rages on, and I’m in the middle of it.

But here’s an irrefutable truth.  Pantsers – those who refuse to plan their stories and just write by the seat of their pants, intuitively and instinctively – and plotters (those who plan their stories out ahead of time) are out to achieve the very same thing.

One uses an outline to find their story.  The other uses a series of drafts.

At the end of the day it’s the same process, with – when executed successfully—the same outcome.  It’s all a search for story.  A draft by any other name – like, an outline – is still merely a story planning tool.

Don’t take sides.  Take action. 

The inherent risk of pantsing is that you’ll stop before your story meets all of the inherent criteria for excellence.  Before it’s done, before it’s good enough.   

If you don’t, whether you pants or plot won’t matter.  At least until you do.

The plotter will be patiently waiting for you at the finish line, and with a hug and a B-12 shot.

It’s not a competition, it’s a comfort zone.

Truth #3: Good Isn’t Good Enough

This is perhaps the most intimidating of the truths, because it forces us to listen to the wild howls of all those hungry animals lurking in the dark forest of the journey we seek to take.

The bar is high.  So learn it, understand it, and step up to it.  Sure, the best you can do is all you have to offer, so make sure your best is up to snuff.

Which is better than merely good.

We hear daunting statistics about the miniscule percentage of submitted novels and screenplays that ever sell.  What is perhaps more daunting is the statistic that, if published, would expose the fact that a large percentage of the stories that are being rejected are actually pretty darn good.

Good isn’t good enough to break in, to get your bad self published.  You need something more, something better, something unexpected. 

And yet, delivered within expected parameters.  That’s not a contradiction, it’s an opportunity.

It isn’t enough to cover the basics.  Any more than it is enough shoot par in golf, to play tennis without falling on your face, or carry a tune.

The municipal course, the playground court or the neighborhood karaoke bar is not your intended destination.  Good cuts it there.  But beyond those venues, on a national stage for real money, always remember: good isn’t good enough.

Truth #4: Published Authors, Even Bestselling Authors, Are NOT More Talented Than You Are

Here is where we must separate the established notions of talent versus skill. 

Unlike athletics or music, writing is more skill-dependant than talent-dependant.  Which means, you can learn all you need to learn to reach that high bar.

Even if you’re not blessed with the talent of John Updike, Colin Harrison or Alice Sebold.  Poetic prose is not the requisite deliverable.  An effective, compelling story is.

Perfectly unremarkable, mundane writers publish great stories all the time.  Just as astoundingly gifted writers get rejected all the time.

And that truth is something you can wrap your head around, study, experiment with,  test, practice and recreate until the day you stop writing, for whatever reasons.

Truth #5: Perseverance is Required

People write for all sorts of reasons, some of them very personal.  It is when you cease to do it for personal reasons and seek to attract an audience that you step into an arena in which you are no longer in full control.

Within that arena there is stiff and skilled competition.  There are rules and principles to observe.  There are odds against you and unfair outcomes.

And yet, you do retain full control over two things, and two things only:

– First, you can always control what you put on the blank page.

– And secondly, you have complete control over how you attempt to bring your writing into the public eye, and how often. 

A huge part of the equation is persistence.  Because the most astoundingly beautiful and original of stories find rejection every day, and your masterpiece is certain to be among them.

Don’t give up.  Keep writing.  Keep believing.  Keep reaching for that bar.

And keep an eye on those hungry animals that would have you for lunch.  They live in your refusal to acknowledge the truth, and they await in the periphery of your denial.

Next up: “Deconstructing Avatar” – a series of posts that analyzes each part and milestone of this two billion dollar story for the purpose of modeling the basic principles of story.

15 Comments

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15 Responses to Five Scary Truths About Writing That Are Actually Good News

  1. This post is like a B-12 shot. Thank you.

  2. Very informative post. I am still breaking through a lot of fears of pursuing paid writing. This is helpful. Thank you

  3. I love all 5, but I’m thrilled to know being a panster is okay. 🙂

  4. These are all great, and one of the advantages of having hung around here for so long is that those truths no longer scare me. This site feels like the mojo bag in the pocket that keeps the beasts at bay while we work on getting our best stuff done.

  5. I agree with Janice…

    I’ve been hanging out here and reading your posts so long these are no longer scary. Coming here is like fueling up, gathering ammo and being forewarned of the dangers out there.

    With the “intel” gathered here, I feel much more prepared to enter the field of battle. Thanks for all the great posts.

  6. I’m quoting your regularly on my blog, http://www.MyFictionWritingTips.com. Thanks for the guidance.

  7. Marilyn

    Larry, this is one of your best yet, a good shot of reality with encouragement. Your comment about independent movies reminds me that “Coraline,” an Oscar nominee, was filmed in a studio in little Hillsboro, Oregon.

  8. Sandra

    I’m persisting.
    Sometimes I’m even inspired.
    Always, I’m learning from you.

    I’m waiting for you to analyze a movie I want to see. Neither the latest Mel Gibson nor Avatar interest me. Hope we’ll match up on something eventually.

  9. J.Morgan

    I’m looking forward to the deconstrution of Avater. I’ve heard so many mixed reviews from a storyline perspective.

    So L.B, why do you write? Is is still personal? I would think it’d have to be. You seem to never stop doing things and still find time to write.

  10. Read this in the morning, and kept thinking back to it all day at work.

    This is exactly why i come to this blog. Blunt truth mixed with wisdom and glazed in know-how. After struggling with my revision for the past week, it is posts like this and comments i’ve gotten from my co-worker who’s reading my revision, that help me to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Thank you!

  11. I’m printing, “It’s fun until the wild animal tears out your spine,” and hanging it above my writing desk. You’re the man, LB!

  12. I think believing that only the most talented people in the writing industry get published would be like saying only the smartest kids in the world get As. You don’t have to be uber smart to get an A, but you do have to work your @ss off to earn it. Same thing applies here… and if you have a bigger learning curve ahead of you, more @ss working must happen.

    Great blog. And I’m fascinated to see your breakdown of Avatar. One of the regulars on my blogs mentioned this movie had no plot (I have not seen it) and I immediately wondered how, and if, it followed your story structure principles. I imagine it does, maybe the story was just more subtle. Anyway…looking forward to that.

  13. Damn! The computer ate my brilliant comment.

    I agree.

  14. B-12 shot, eh? Then I’m set to write my best to deflect the shots.

    I enjoyed your panster vs plotter points. “It’s not a competition, it’s a comfort zone” is the truth.

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