The Amateurs Portraying Themselves as Publishing Sages
A few years ago, when it looked like I might get some mild career traction in terms of screenwriting, I managed to have a phone conversation with a large literary agency in Toronto. As a prospective agent chirped all kinds of advice for me (but I hadn’t signed with her yet), she urged me to go out and get books by Syd Field.
And then my heart sank, and I knew I could never have this person as my agent. Because it was clear she didn’t know a goddamn thing about writing and quite possibly the movie business.
For those who don’t know, Syd Field was an enormously successful con artist in Hollywood. Because studio executives gambled with enormous amounts of money on films that are never guaranteed to be successful, they bought his bullshit about having a turning point in the plot exactly on page 60 or so, because then they had something they thought was quantifiable. Oh, this script doesn’t have the inciting incident on page X? Toss it out.
Because studio execs often don’t like to read. And because they’re trying not to get fired. So someone who pretends a story can be reduced to a set formula is Jesus on roller blades to them.
The baffling, infuriating thing is that Syd Field never sold a movie script in his life. You can confirm this yourself with a casual look at his IMDb page. Yes, he wrote a few episodes of a forgettable TV series in the 1960s, but he has NO writing credits at all, not one for a film. And yet he sold thousands of “how to” books, seminars and workshops because people drank his Kool-Aid. Want to know why so many movies in the ’90s were formulaic and were awful? Blame Syd Field.
What’s mildly surreal is that we seem to have a growth phenomenon today in the number of “how to” offerings for writing a novel — or any book in general — from people who clearly have never had a book professionally published.
This morning I woke up to find a Medium piece in my feed from someone pontificating on how best to do chapters. No, I won’t mention their name; why give them the traffic? They’ve already had more than a thousand views. The most casual investigation shows this person has all kinds of posts on finding your category, finishing your story, how to market your writing, etc. And at the end of the post, there was a plug to sign up for a “masterclass.”
If we believe Amazon, they have never had a single book professionally published. One title is there, self-published, with less than ten reviews.
Not that Amazon is infallible or can tell you everything about a book’s success — I have titles on it that don’t reflect their full publishing history and with pitifully few reviews or low rankings, mainly because their success was for the most part in my own country. But for tracking the “bigs” in the industry, which means publishers in New York or London, Amazon’s a good starting point. You can then always wander the Internet to find the rest of a writers’ footprint. (If I use myself again as an example, you’ll still find old indie reviews of my books, plus I’ve even discovered a couple of mainstream reviews of novels I wrote under aliases from more than a decade ago.)
I recall another guy who regularly pops up in Facebook ads who claims to teach professional writing, and his entire shtick, if I recall it properly, is built on his supposed “study” of books — not writing them, mind you, or submitting them to professional publishers, just his study of them! Incredible.
Would you learn carpentry from someone who has never picked up a saw? Would you go to a medical school run by a part-time accountant? But because everyone knows the alphabet, as I recall William Goldman put it, they feel entitled to have their say on how to write (more about Goldman later).
Now is as good as any time to answer the question, Well, who the hell are you? No need to lie here. I’m the guy still struggling. The writer who is not Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling and who does not live in a mansion with a pool. Chances are you’ve never heard of me. Because most professional writers barely get by, and you’ve never heard of most of them either. But for the record…
I first got momentum by writing erotica thrillers under pseudonyms for a British imprint, some of which were picked up for U.S. editions by Random House and Kensington Books imprints. Then I lucked into writing four books for a mid-level Canadian publisher, Folklore, about history and current affairs. I sold a sci-fi novel to Harper Voyager. I sold a mildly successful fantasy m/m novel to Dreamspinner Press. In total, I’ve sold 15 books under my own name or under pseudonyms, had one television network take seriously my pilot pitches, and I’ve had a couple of plays professionally produced that opened theater festivals.
Like every professional writer, I have my embarrassing failures, my horror stories, and the successes that keep me going. One publisher failed to put my book on their own website for more than a year and didn’t notice it, ensuring the title dropped like a stone and still can’t find a wide audience. There’s the publisher that switched out the pages of a signed contract (with far better terms for them) and then blamed a clerical error when I caught them at it. There’s the movie option I passed up on a novel, thinking with stupid greed that I’d get a better one, which never did materialize… Duh.
On the other hand, I once bagged the U.S. edition for an erotica novel within a week (they didn’t even know the plot, but it was about BDSM, so they wanted it — fastest contract I ever signed). There’s my book on street gangs, which resulted in a day of seemingly endless back-to-back interviews on one radio network alone and the work being adopted as a criminology textbook in British Columbia. There’s my book on the sexual history of my country inspiring a group of theater students to make their own stage adaptation. I’ve been quoted in newspapers, done radio talk shows and appeared once on television.
For my book, Prevail, I get stopped on the street sometimes by fans who have either read it or seen the promotional video for it, and being dumb and not used to such attention, my go-to is always, “Oh, did I work or go to school with this person or…?”
And I still get rejection emails. I cannot boast a big Twitter following, and because some of my books were registered late with Amazon, you won’t see, for example, how Gangs in Canada did gangbusters. I’ve tried the self-publishing route as an experiment, but the big problem there is not production, but marketing. In the end, as one bestselling author put it, the best ad for a book will always be the display table or shelf in a bookstore.
Now. Does any of this experience and my credits qualify me to teach writing? Perhaps. Certainly more, I think, than those who have never sold anything. It’s a weird profession. Anybody can join, and it’s necessary to make that leap of faith in your own skills: “I am a writer.” Even when you haven’t sold anything yet. Because as in so many other creative fields, we suffer with the standard accusation, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
I would say go ahead and call yourself a writer. But you must write. At a party many years ago, I watched some pompous ass weave a spell on some folks holding their drinks, listening intently as he talked this or that literary theory. I asked him what he had written. Never mind selling anything yet, he hadn’t even finished a manuscript. But he planned soon to quit his job and commit full time to writing. Okay, I asked. How many hours a day do you write now? And then the excuses poured out. Well, I have my job, I have my friends… blah, blah, blah.
“If you can’t spare the time now to write,” I shot back, “how do you expect to commit to writing when you’re depending on it for your income?”
So it’s even more ridiculous that some people either sincerely or cynically believe they can teach writing without ever putting in that sweat and brain strain over a keyboard.
It’s insulting that they think they can teach when they have no track record of accomplishment in the profession.
One of my heroes, Harlan Ellison, called writing “a holy chore.” These folks are pissing in my church.
We fortunately have a couple of resources to keep an eye on the con operations that pretend to be publishers and scam would-be authors, or those publishing operations that have proved so incompetent they should be avoided. Victoria Strauss offers an excellent resource with “Writer Beware” on her personal website.
These amateurs who want to be teachers are a far milder threat, and a couple may have even convinced themselves they know what they’re talking about (more is the pity). If you are a novice in this craft, I simply urge you to do your homework on them. Do it on me if you like. Weigh carefully what you’re told against the credibility of the source.
Let’s use a martial arts analogy. The teacher in a traditional karate dojo has the title of sensei, which is a very smart, very useful Japanese word. It doesn’t mean “master,” it doesn’t mean “expert” or “Grand High Poobah” or anything else like that, it can translate as one who has gone before.
That’s it. I’ve walked some of the road ahead of you, and I can point out a few of the potholes and bumps.
Now, lest I be accused of snobbery, making a distinction between the self-published and the mainstream published, again, I’ve done both. When it comes down to it, Amazon’s KDP and Smahswords, et. al. are quite democratic. If you want to throw it up there, go ahead (unless you’re writing some kind of neo-Nazi screed, in which case, please don’t). There are some self-published writers who have made the transition to being stars in the mainstream and more power to them.
I would argue, however, that you’re always better off taking advice from those with experience and multiple sales. Yes, the writing community is inclusive, but hey, if we’re in a room, and I’m standing next to Michael Connelly, pass me by (hopefully with a wave hello) and go talk to him. And you better believe I will shut up and listen with you to any advice Michael Connelly has on making it as a professional writer.
Now if you really want to go out and spend money on how to write, I will venture the controversial opinion that you won’t learn the craft in a university classroom unless your teacher is very gifted. Yes, you can learn a few tricks from books (I’ll offer my own recommendation list at the end). But most of what you will ever learn you’ll pick up by doing — by writing and failing and revising and submitting.
Again and again and again. Learn to love revising.
I also find it interesting that these “how to” charlatans invariably don’t post or blather about one of the most under-explored aspects of getting published. The business. How do you write a query letter? How do you write a compelling synopsis? What should you look for in a book contract? What should you avoid? Should you push to hang on to all of your movie/TV/online adaptation rights? (Always, always, always!) How often do you get paid royalties? (The standard has often been twice a year, though policies can differ from publisher to publisher.) How should you handle promotional interviews? And so on.
The “how to” gurus don’t churn out their little five-minute Medium posts on this because they can’t. They clearly have no experience of them.
And in fairness, it’s overlooked by many others. There are a gazillion issues and questions that relate to the business of being a book writer, and I’ve only ever found one good book devoted to it, now long out of date and out of print (and I lost my copy of it, damn), written by one of the top agents in New York.
The business. Learn to revise and learn the business side as best you can. Because sometimes they make it impenetrable.
A quick, shamelessly self-complimenting story: The first science fiction convention I ever attended was in Winnipeg when I was 21, a stick with a mop of blond hair and pretty clueless about everything. But I was smart enough to sit close to the front of a lecture given by the late writer, Robert Asprin, who wrote Myth Directions and edited the Thieves’ World series. It was the early ’80s, so imagine a hotel conference room half-filled with a few dozen Comic Book Guys. And there was Bob Asprin, smoking a thick cigar, addressing this room full of pimply virgins like a laconic army recruitment sergeant.
“Today, we’re not going to talk about character or plot or themes or any of that bullshit,” he told us. And his audience was dead quiet. “We’re going to talk about contracts. Having to live off getting paid only twice a year.” Small gasp here from the crowd. “That’s right.We’re going to talk about the business of being a writer.”
And in that awed silence, there was one idiot who broke into applause, loudly clapping until he looked around and realized… clap… clap… clap… He was the only one doing it. That fool was me.
Asprin pointed to me in the second row and said, “That man will be a professional writer. Mark my words.”
And I am. I am still not rich. I still don’t have a mansion or a swimming pool, and I still rack up rejection emails. I’ll throw in with #PitMad like any novice. If you ask me how to do this craft, I will take your cash, but give you the benefit of my experience, because there are no tricks, there is no great secret or sure formula. Any lessons imparted at best are rough guidelines and are intended to save you time, as you’ll learn some things you shouldn’t do but then you’ll make your own mistakes that will sometimes cost you a sale.
Again, to paraphrase ol’ Uncle Harlan, “The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.”
Now here are a few books that can teach you writing or at least point you in the right direction. And because we started this off by talking about movie scripts…
Go read William Goldman. The guy won two Oscars for screenwriting and wrote All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride and Absolute Power among other things. The fact that some people know Robert McKee or Syd Field but don’t know William Goldman is a crime.
He wrote two very good books on screenwriting. Adventures in the Screen Trade, now dated in several ways, but still worth a read, and the more recent Which Lie Did I Tell?
For a funny and fun read with solid professional advice, pick up Writing Movies For Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer. Before you figure out what story you want to tell, figure out how to tell it clearly.
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Once you do figure how to tell it clearly, why not learn from a real master?
On Writing by Stephen King. The guy is enormously successful at this. Why wouldn’t you want to check out what he has to say? And though billed as “a memoir of the craft,” his anecdotes can be instructive.
Becoming Superman by J. Michael Staczynski is not a how-to book at all, but autobiography. But as with many other memoirs or interviews by big-name writers, you can glean some wonderful lessons about the craft and the business.
The Writer’s Market annual books, which break down markets across North America and can give you insights into their submission requirements and needs. They do scaled-down versions for literary agent listings, romance and thriller markets, etc.