Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Slush Pile Survival Guide

"The Talk" (Part Two)

by Bruce Bethke

...continued from Part One...
"Mr. Bethke? How do I become a writer?"
The Snark is strong with me. You have no idea how hard it is not to answer, "Well, what exactly is a writer? It's someone who writes, isn't it? Have you ever written anything? You have? Congratulations! You're a writer!
"Next question?"
But it's cruel to leave the kid hanging there gaping and floundering like that, so instead I answer: "As a writer, words are the tools of your trade. Learn to use them with precision. Now, is that really the question you meant to ask, or do you actually mean:
"How do I become a successful, commercially published, writer of genre fiction?"
Nine times out of ten that restatement of the question meets with agreement, and then we have the basis from which to begin an intelligent conversation. The tenth time the kid actually does want to become some kind of artist or poet or free-form literary genius or something, and then the only possible answer is:
"To become a True Writer, you must find some quiet place where you can work without interruption or distraction, and then you must write, at least ten hours a day, every day, for the next ten years. You must write, write, write, never once listening to all the people who want to tell you that your writing is terrible or that you're wasting your life. You must struggle, and suffer, and learn to live on ramen noodles, and do battle every day with the terrifying emptiness of the blank page, until you at last find your own, unique, expressive voice. Then, and only then, will you be able to enter into communion with, and begin to channel for, your secret inner Muse."
This advice is sheer fatuous nonsense, of course, but any with luck it'll keep the kid out of everyone else's hair for the next ten years.

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

The more I consider the question, the clearer it seems to me that one cannot become a writer. One either is a writer, both blessed and cursed with a need to write that borders on OCD, or else one's time and energy is better spent doing just about anything else. The evidence to support this assertion is conclusive. As millions of teachers and students prove in hundreds of thousands of classrooms every day, if a student lacks the innate desire to write, all that trying to force them to become a writer does is take them from "I don't want to write" to "I can't write," and if the teacher really pushes the issue, the rest of the way into "I'm not gonna write, and you can't make me!"

So in order to have an intelligent conversation on this topic, we must first assume that the innate desire to write, so strong it borders on being a compelling need to write, is there.

While we're on canards, let's dispose of another right away. No one, but no one, can teach you exactly how to become a successful, commercially published, award-winning, or the worst lie of all, best-selling writer, much less how to get every word you write published. Anyone who claims they can do this is trying to sell you something, most likely a workshop, a seminar, or a self-help book.

And I'll have more to say on this in a minute, but first: if you can't learn to become a writer, much less learn the secrets of becoming a successful writer, then why are we having this conversation?

Because if the initial spark is there, you can always learn to become a better writer. And while writing for publication always involves the risk of failure, by becoming a better writer, you can tilt the odds of succeeding in your favor.

Here's how to do it. After thirty-some years in the trade, and after getting to know hundreds of published writers and meeting perhaps thousands of aspiring writers, I have identified these four factors as the key traits that separate the successful writers from the vast herd of wanna-be's, amateurs, has-beens and never-weres. The traits critical to success as a writer are:
  • talent
  • good craft skills
  • good work habits
  • luck

"Well, duh," you say. "Paging Captain Obvious."

No, in point of fact, it's not obvious at all...

¤    ¤    ¤    ¤    ¤

About Talent:
There's no getting around it; it's almost impossible to succeed as a writer without at least some modicum of innate talent. Some of the most pathetic characters you'll ever meet in the writing trade are the people with superb craft skills and great work habits, but absolutely no talent. This ain't prose karaoke, folks. While your friends and writing group might love it, very few people in the publishing industry care how well you can perform a story that's almost exactly the same as one Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein made famous sixty years ago.

The saddest part is, some of these poor benighted souls will soldier on for years, always thinking that one more workshop, one more creative writing class, one more seminar, or one more self-help book is going to make the difference. Not to be unkind, but Writer's Digest makes a fortune off these poor sods. (In fact, it's very important not to be unkind, as every once in a while one of them turns out to have an astonishing amount of raw talent: it's just been buried under years of accumulated course syllabi and witless writing group critiques, and nearly smothered to death.)

Sometimes I think of raw talent as an ember, which needs careful tending in order to become a fire. Other times I think of it as a double bitted axe, with which you're as likely to cut off your own foot as clear the forest. What I have observed consistently is that good craft skills, good work habits, and a little talent beats lousy craft skills, lousy work habits, and great gobs of God-given raw talent every time.

Talent, it seems, is very much like beauty. If you're blessed with an overabundance of it, there's a pronounced tendency to coast and never develop your other abilities. Then one day the talent falters, and your latest book flops so badly it leaves a smoking crater, and you're left wondering, "What the Hell happened?" Some writers never recover from this. Instead, they call it "writer's block"

And then they start buying self-help books about it...

About Good Craft Skills:
There's a tendency to think of this in terms of simple line-level skills, but this goes far mere punctuation, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. The best writers I've known really think of story-telling as a craft; they think of their stories or novels in the same way that a master cabinetmaker thinks about a piece of furniture he or she is making; and they are always working on refining their skills and improving their tool set. The best writers never trust to talent and luck to carry them through, and they're never afraid to throw out entire sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or even books if they're not working.

(And I have lots more to say about this subject, but that's the next column.)

About Good Work Habits:
Good work habits are just exactly what you know they are; you're just deluding yourself if you think that writing fiction is some kind of ethereal artistic thing that's above all that. A lot of would-be writers seem to think that writing fiction requires spending a lot of time sitting on their duffs, thinking high-flown thoughts, and waiting for one or the other of the Muses to stick her tongue in their ear. The history of literature is strewn with the wreckage left by promising writers who had an abundance of talent and great craft skills, but terrible work habits. There is no more damning epitaph for a writer than, "He did brilliant work -- when he felt like doing it."

Ask yourself, which would you rather leave behind: an awe-inspiring body of finished work, or a pile of fragments and clutter that leaves people thinking, "Wow! What promise! What potential! I wonder what he could have done if he'd ever gotten his @#($* together?"

About Luck:
There's no denying it: Luck is the joker in the deck, the wild card that trumps everything, the -- pardon the expression -- Golden Snitch that wins the game in defiance of all logic, sense, and justice. We all know of some writer who's been lucky enough to become insanely, maddeningly, wildly successful, despite an utter and complete dearth of talent and skill. (Although, let's face it: if asked to name such a writer, each and every one of us would point to a different one. The critical deciding factor here seems to be, "Any writer more successful than me!")

For every undeserving writer the Fates have smiled upon, though, there are probably thousands more no one has ever heard of, because when they took their swing, they had the bad luck to miss the tree and hit their own foot instead. The ways in which a writer's luck can turn bad are beyond counting. Right story, wrong time; right story, right time, wrong editor; right story, right time, right editor, wrong publisher; right story, right time, right editor, right publisher, wrong cover artist... be continued...