Giving Good Writers Bad Advice

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
            I’ve been invited to speak at a writer’s group. In their defense, they don’t know me all that well.
            On October 16th, in the Peabody Public Library in Columbia City, Indiana, I need to pretend that (from a writing career standpoint) I know what I’m doing. It’s daunting to be asked to lie that much.
            Oh, I know what I’m doing from the standpoint of actually writing … it’s the career part. Have you ever seen one of those movies where some idiot bumbles his way through a series of misadventures, but in the end beats the bad guys and wins the girl by complete accident? That’s how my career developed.
            I’m the Larry The Cable Guy of writing.
            Still, there should be some advice I can give. You know, like “wear clean underwear”, except for writers. How about, “Wear padded underwear: You’ll be sitting a lot.”
Okay, let’s see what I can come up with. The problem is that different paths work for different people. Some writers sprint to success, going straight to the finish line without detour. Well, a few writers…very few.
            Some writers plod along in a marathon, steadily writing their way forward until they finally make enough money to quit their day jobs–usually a year or two after they retire from their day jobs.
            Some writers go the slalom route. That’s a race in which you head toward the finish line but never quite go straight at it. Instead you weave back and forth, going off on tangents and darting around completely different places before you finally reach the finish line almost by accident.
            Outside of sports, we call that flailing.
            I flailed. I started off as a science fiction short story writer, and headed straight forward until I got my first paid writing job—as a non-fiction humor columnist. Then I published a romantic comedy. Then I finally sold a book of short stories, but none were science fiction. Then I released a history book.
            To this day I still haven’t sold a science fiction short story.
            Might I suggest you, as a writer, skip the slalom? Shoot for a long distance race, and consider yourself lucky if you get a writing contract before you re-enter the stadium. I have no idea where all these sports analogies come from … I haven’t watched a sporting event since the 1992 Olympics.
            As a humor writer, people often ask me what the trick is to writing stuff that makes people laugh. I have a simple answer:
            I don’t know.
            Humor is so subjective … well, let me give you an example. Put a bunch of people in a room and have them watch three movies: The Three Stooges, How Harry Met Sally, and A Christmas Story. Then tell them to get together and agree on which is funny, and why.
            Within half an hour you’ll have a riot.
            Humor is like pornography: You know it when you see it, even if no one else agrees on what it is. Heaven knows I’ve studied it in detail. Humor, I mean.
            When it comes to writing, deadlines are good. A lot of writers love to have written, but they don’t like to write. They’ll do anything to avoid writing: clean the toilet, the grout, the oven. Then, at the end of the day, the pages won’t magically appear and they’ll kick themselves for having a dust-free home right out of a 50’s sitcom. A clean house is a wasted life, people.
            The best thing that ever happened to me was getting a weekly humor column, because it put me on a deadline. I write the equivalent of a novel every year. And if I can write one novel in a year, I can write two.
            Did I mention not giving up your day job? Don’t do that. If the time comes when you make enough money writing to think about it, think about this: You have to make enough to live on, and replace any benefits your old job might have given you—like insurance. Vacation days? You don’t have those anymore. Sick days? You’ve got a deadline, fella. Retirement plan? Writing is my retirement plan.
            Many writers stress out over how many words they turn out in a day. For most, a thousand words is a good day. Last week I turned out 2,500 words in three hours to finish a novella, and it took me two days to recover.
            That’s not the hard part of writing. If you’re any good at all, for every hour you spend writing, you’ll spend three times or more editing and polishing. Someday you’ll hear a successful writer say they never edit. They’re lying.
            Then, just as you conclude editing is the hardest part of writing, you’ll produce a beautiful finished product … and you’ll have to sell it. There, especially for those writers who are introverts (like me and most of the rest), you’ll finally learn the hardest part of writing.
            My final piece of advice to the writer: Wear black. Why? Because it marks our dark, creative personalities? Nah.
            Because it’s slimming.
            Listen, when you work eight hours in some office cubicle, then go home and pound away at a
keyboard for five more hours, all while sipping power drinks and reaching into the drawer where you keep the snack of your choice, you’re going to need slimming.
            That might be the best advice of all.
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10 thoughts on “Giving Good Writers Bad Advice”

  1. Humor is definitely undefinable. I spent time in a college class trying to analyze jokes in a way that could be used for a computer program. It was a farce! Welcome to HO!

  2. I always wear black while writing,especially when my story begins with, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Fun post Mark and welcome to HO!!

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