Thursday, February 21, 2019


By Jay Stringer
Remember me? Legend has is that DoSomeDamage was started ten years ago, on a bet between Steve Weddle and I, to see which of us could go grey the fastest. Well, jokes on you, Steve, because I'm going bald. Ha. I win.


(Maybe I approached this all wrong.)

But seriously. Ten years. That's a long time. And I've learned a lot in those years. (Like, never kill the President of Paraguay with a fork.) Many of my earliest posts on the site were about craft. I look back on them now, and wonder how I really felt I'd earned any of my early opinions. How did the younger me get to go around telling people that writer's block was myth? How could I start talking about structure, and character, and plot, when I'd written the sum total of one book? And that one was written by accident.

(Seriously, it was a short story that ran long.)

In the intervening years, I've learned to mostly avoid giving out writing advice. The most important, and consistent, help I can ever give, is to tell you not to take writing advice from the type of people who offer you writing advice. And that includes people who would use the word 'advice' four times in one paragraph. There's a dangerous power in giving advice (five). Somebody new to the scene might not have had the time, or resources, to scout out ahead and see who is worth listening to. If you pass on an un-earned opinion as a truth, even if it's well-meant, you might be damaging the prospects of the person you give it to.

I do have knowledge on craft. Believe me. I study it. I work on it. I'll sit and discuss it for hours with people whose opinions I trust. I'm pretty good at my job. Never good enough, but always improving. And to that end, if people really want them, I have my own rules of writing. They work for me, I guarantee nothing for anybody else.

There's a tendency, to my mind, of focusing way too much on discussing how to write and not enough on how to be writer. That is, on how to carry ourselves. How to make decisions. Who to listen to. When I start a job at a new company, sure, there's going to be someone who'll show me how to do the job. But once they've done their bit, I'm going to get on with figuring out my own way of doing it, through trial and error. What I'm really looking for is someone to come and tell me how to work in that place. Who can I go to for help? Who is a grumpy piece of shite? Is there a knack to the bathroom door? Are there any unwritten rules about the communal fridge? How long do I need to leave it before nobody gives a shit about whether I'm sticking to the dress code? What's the best time of the year to start putting in holiday requests?

So I've been thinking about this. If I were to sit down with the younger me, the version that was fresh in the door ten years ago, what would I tell him?

1. Know What You Want. Pick Your path. Commit To It.

There are many different career paths you can take as a writer. They're all valid, as long as you choose the one that's right for you. Don't head out to a sushi restaurant and get angry that steak isn't on the menu. A large advance is great for some people, but can be a trap for others. Small advances may not set the literary world alight, but can help you build a career and make a few mistakes along the way.

Do you want to write purely for yourself, or do you want to entertain a crowd? Do you want to write niche noir stories that you know have a small audience, or do you want to try and be the next Lee Child? Are you interested in finding an agent, and playing the game, or do you want to self-publish and do everything your own way? Are you interested in awards? Do sales figures matter to you? Is this something you want to make a living out of doing?

There are honestly no right or wrong answers in any of that. But be aware of the decision, take the time to think about it, and save yourself from walking down one path and wishing you were on the other. This is honestly the root cause of so many issues I've encountered from friends and colleagues over the years. Anger that their uncommercial book wasn't being picked up straight away. Frustration that their publisher was struggling to sell a work about six medieval goblins who pull off a bank heist.  Feeling slighted that their high-selling commercial procedural novel got overlooked for awards.

And if you do find yourself in that position, it's probably not too late to change, but again be aware of what's causing your frustration. Re-think, make the necessary changes, and go for it.

2. Be In The Moment.

Be in the moment? What kind of hippie bullshit is this? What's next, the joke about the Buddhist who asks the hot dog vendor to make him 'one with everything?' The one where he hands over a twenty and waits for money back, but the vendor says 'change comes only from within?' 

The truth is, there is very little we can control. Even once you've made the decision I mentioned above, and you've stepped boldly onto the correct path, there are precisely zero guarantees that you'll get success. And the worst part about that? It's nobody's fault. Publishers can do their best, agents can work their asses of, marketing people can market their hearts out....and sometimes people just don't want to buy the book. Or they buy it, but the wind is wrong and they don't engage with your words. You can work away on a project for ten years until it's the best book anyone's ever written, but if the right agent don't read it on the right day, it might not get you picked up. And none of that is the fault of the agents who passed. They're human, just as you are, and we all need a million things to go the right way just for us to wake up each morning and keep on breathing.

And faced with all of this, how the hell can we work in this industry without going insane, or growing bitter and jaded?

Be in the moment. Draw pride from how you manage the things you can control. Pull your self-worth from the work. Draw your strength and happiness from what you're doing right now. Do the best writing you can, every time you sit down to work. And on a day when the words aren't coming? Go find something else that makes you smile. Hang out with friends. Play with your kids. Fuss your pets. Ride a bike. Then come back to the page, and put your heart into it. Don't postpone your happiness. Don't pin your self-worth on something you hope might happen further down the line.

The work we do is one of the only two things we control. That means it matters. Do the best work you can. Every. Single. Time. And draw pride from that.

3. Never Use Exclamation Marks. 

4. Be Patient. Be Specific. 

The other thing we can control is how we interact with people. Be patient whenever possible. Be specific every time. Specificity, I'm learning, really is the key to so many things. Always be clear on what you're asking for. Always be clear on what you can deliver. The more specific you can be up front, the less chance there is for confusion (or being taken advantage of) further down the line. Get things in writing. Know what you're being asked to do, and when.

Sure, I could've led with more hippie stuff about being kind. And truly, being kind is so damn important. We have a choice with every single interaction. And the decision matters. This is a small industry. If you're a dick, people will know. If you're a liar, people will know. If you say one thing in public, but another in private, people will know. But 'being kind' on its own, can lead to making well-intended promises you can't keep. Or it can lead to other's trying to take advantage. And there comes a point where you need to be as kind to yourself as you aim to be to others, and it can be very easy to miss that turn-off. What's the best way to be kind without over-promising, or making assumptions, or doing yourself harm? By always being patient, and always being specific.

We all come from different places. Different backgrounds. We've all had to achieve a different standard to be here. There are going to be people who've had to climb over near-impossible hurdles just to get into the conversation, there are others who rolled out of bed one day and found themselves working in publishing. We might pretend like we're all on the same page, but we're not. Be conscious of whether you're holding people to different standards. Be aware that someone might not have been prepared for the unwritten social rules of the job. Keep in mind that opportunities aren't handed out equally. And on top of that, we're all bullshitting most of the time about how comfortable or successful we are. It's an industry built on imposter syndrome, and we all want to look like we know what we're doing, rather than breaking down in tears about how hard it is to cover the rent or pay for cat food. And faced with all of this, the only thing to do is be patient.

And there's an added complication, in watching the way you deal with people. And that is watching the way people who deal on your behalf treat others. If your agent is rude to your publisher, that reflects on you. If your publisher is rude to a convention organiser, that reflects on you. Of course, you can't dictate how other people act, especially when you're not around. And everybody has an off day sometimes (hey, be patient...) but we can all spot the signs, if we look. Treat your representatives the way you want to be treated, and if they're treating other people differently on your behalf....think long and hard about that professional relationship.

5. Be Willing To Say 'No.'

This one feels counter-intuitive, doesn't it? We're told the story of the actor who, when asked whether they can ride a horse, says "I have a saddle in the car." We're told to say yes. We're told to embrace every opportunity. But this approach can be a trap. It can lead us down the path I wrote about above, of over-committing, of starting something without knowing what the end-point looks like. To approach this from a cynical point of view, it can allow people to load their responsibilities off onto you. And there are understandable fears behind this. We're all nervous about the future. If I turn this chance down, will I get another? But what if you take this one, and that leads you to missing a better one? There are times when the best thing to do is say 'no.' There are times when politely declining an offer is the most professional thing to do, and might lead to you being held in higher regard than taking on too much and crashing.

Be bold. Be ambitious. Always look upwards. Take on writing projects that scare you. But also be brave enough to look after yourself, and your workload, and your reputation. I guarantee you, the biggest names in fiction -across all genres- are people who are accustomed to picking up the phone and saying 'no'.

There's something else that comes with no. Power. As writers, we don't always value our power. We join in conversations about social change without really being clear what we can do to enact it. The debates rage about representation and diversity and we think can I do something? It can be hard to see the power that we have. Especially at the bottom of a blog post that's told you there are so many things in publishing that are out of your control, am I right? But I've also preached about being specific, goes.

Panels. Events. Fans and readers turn up to panels to hear authors talk. We have power there. We don't always see it, because we've paid to be at the convention, and we're accustomed to feeling grateful for whatever platform were given. But there are two things here. Firstly, once again, we are the draw. Not all of us in equal measure. Frankly, I'm fairly low on the draw-factor myself. But the event doesn't take place if we're not there. And secondly, in the convention model, we are paying customers, and customers have power.

If you're a man offered a spot on all-male panel, refuse. I've made this suggestion before and been met with howls of derision, why should it fall to me? Well, first, it's 2019, and it falls to all of us. Second, I guarantee you, losing out on that panel is not going to make or break your career, it's not going to impact the quality of your book, and, unless you're already a draw, it's not going to lose you many sales in the book room. If you're on a panel without any writers of color, or writers with a disability, or writers from the LGBTQI community, consider (politely) asking why. I say politely because I've done convention programming twice now, and the people putting the panels together are, ultimately, restricted to the list of registered authors. These are restrictions that hopefully will fade as time goes on, and we manage to open up the conventions to people from a wider variety of backgrounds. But in the short term, you can use your power to ask if there are reasons why your panel is all white, or all male, etc. Whether you're happy with the answer is down to you, but let's be willing to ask the questions.

Okay. Peace, out. See you in another ten years. 


Thomas Pluck said...

Good advice. Thank you. I got yelled at for saying "if your hero is a forgotten pulp writer who barely made the rent until s/he was discovered after their death, maybe keep the day job." Most writers live off spouse/rich fam money or bust their butts with other jobs, freelance / ghost writing, etc. And most lie about it.
There's no shame in not being able to live off writing. Writers created the myth of the writer living in a classic six Manhattan apartment and having all the free time in the world. Some get that dream, most don't.

weddle said...

The saying 'no' part is great. Starting out, it feels wonderful to be asked.
Welcome back, stranger.

Scott D. Parker said...

Jay! Glad to see you back. And boy is your column great. Funny the conversations we all could have with our younger selves. I wonder if it could really happen, would we listen to ourselves. Bill and Ted didn't.

Return often, especially this summer when we will celebrate a decade of this blog.

Claire Booth said...

Another ten years? I'm glad I'll get to see you in Vancouver, then. Great post, as always.