Thursday, February 7, 2013

Tough Love

By Jay Stringer

Back when I worked in book selling, there were certain sections of the store that would not stop growing. One was what we called -only half-jokingly- "the misery books." Autobiographical (sometimes) tales of the unrelentingly miserable lives of people who aren't you. The second section was "self-help". 

How to lose weight, how to lose weight fast, how to lose weight while still eating all the same shitty food, how to feel better about yourself, how to assert yourself, how to win friends and talk in buzz words, how to get ahead in life, how to put one step in front of the other without stepping in front of a bus. 

The two sections worked together. they both say life is crap, but don't worry because your life isn't as crap as someone else's, and you can always seek help. Or self help, which is kind of like help, except with people profiting from your problems. 

If you're online for more than five minutes (avoiding the obvious joke about what takes five minutes and would lead to you being online) you start to see writing advice. 


Some people are very good at giving advice. Chuck Wendig is so good at it that his advice is going to packaged up into a little bundle of profanity-for-hire and sold by Readers Digest. People should take his advice. He can help you improve your writing in specific ways, but he wont pretend to have the magic thing that'll do the work for you. 

See, Chuck knows the secret of good advice. He dishes out tough love. There is a huge gulf between what we want to hear and what we need to hear, and he understands that. But so much of the advice -as with so much of the self help section- is platitude. It's telling you want you want to hear. It's giving you bundles of advice in a form that you will plonk down cash or time for, and it strokes the ego of the writer. Look at me, I know stuff, I must be good at it. The reader and the writer are both seeking validation. 

Look at self help. Look at all those books on losing weight. Let's also overlook for the moment the people with genuine conditions that impair their ability to lose weight (as opposed to people like me, who are just lazy.) For normal standard weight loss there is no secret. You eat less and move around more. If you don't have the time to do these things, you either make time or you shut up about your weight. But people don't want to be told that. They want the magic thing that solves the problem. The CD you can listen to that re-programmes you in your sleep, taking away even the need for you to fight with your willpower and make it all easy. Or there's the magic recipe that means you can still eat half a pig and still lose weight, and if you want chocolate pudding, crap, there's a book that says you can do that to. And people remain upset over their weight, they remain miserable, and someone else makes a bit of profit. The people who want to ignore the secret to quitting smoking ("stop doing it") in favour of six books and a DVD that make you think someone else can stop for you. 

I see a lot of people talking online about "tips on how to get an agent," and "tips on how to find time to write." Sometimes I get asked these questions in real life, too. There are also people who seem to obsess over what font they should use in their query letters, what the word length of their manuscript should be, whether it's advisable to mention in your query that you know where the agent lives.

There is no advice that will do the work for us. There is nothing that will instantly produce a novel or the perfect query letter, and there is no video on youtube that can suddenly teach me to play guitar like Bobby Stinson. There are no magic pills for any of the things that are worth doing. 

The answer to most writing-tip questions that I see online is simply this-


There is no secret. You put one word after another until you have a story. You then work on it until it's the best you can possibly do, then you show it to someone else. Listen to what they say, and then use this information to once again write the best thing you possibly can. 

You want to know the real secret to getting an agent? 


That's it. That's the secret. If that agent says no then submit to another. If you get feedback, act on it. 

There are no magic pills. Embrace that. It's actually part of the fun. Learning to write is like learning to fly, you just have to get up everyday and throw yourself at the ground in the hope that one time you miss. You never miss, but you never stop trying. 


Steven J. Wangsness said...

I often wonder about books like "How to Write a Bestseller" or "How to Make a Million in Real Estate." Wouldn't the authors be better off writing novels or selling real estate than penning how-to books?

Jay Stringer said...

Absolutely. One of the best selling books on "how to write" in the world is by a screenwriter who seems to have little or no screenwriting credit....makes you think.

Steve Weddle said...

Mr. Wangsness,
My thinking is that HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLER book tends to sell better than a novel, so I'm not sure the authors of those books would be better off. Writing novels is not easy.

EA said...

Yep, well said