Thursday, April 29, 2010

It Bears Repeating

Every once in awhile, gentle readers (read: probably once every couple of weeks), I have a conversation with a friend or acquaintance who is not familiar with the publishing industry and holds a number of misconceptions of which I must grimly disabuse them. (It's not as much fun as it sounds.) Some of said misconceptions are pretty widespread, however, so I think they warrant a post, even though I'm fairly certain the vast majority of you are more on the ball than... uh... [insert Nathan Bransford-style Sacramento Kings reference].


· Anyone can write a book. False! If that were true, there would be a lot more books out there (and the number of books out there is still mind-boggling). It's not just a question of talent, either: as I've said before, patience and discipline are crucial to the process. So is luck, but since you can't work on that, work on your writing—everything from mechanics to your work schedule (and you need a schedule).

· It's all about who you are/what the hot trend is/&c, i.e., writing doesn't count. False again! It's all about the writing, cats & kittens. Sure, if you happen to be writing about The Cool Thing of the Month, that may help you out. And if you're already a celebrity, that'll grease the proverbial wheels, as well. And, well, yes, there are some really well-written novels that get passed on every year because they're simply not salable (too long, insufficiently large target audience, &c). But fundamentals are fundamentals: without strong writing, you're almost certainly not getting a contract.

· You have to be a tortured single twenty-something to write a book. Not true! You can be a tortured fifty-something lawyer with nineteen kids, or a tortured single mom working at a truck stop in Ohio. (I kid about the tortured bit, but you get the point.) This ties into the point about writing schedules (above), but it's simply not true that you can't make time to write unless you have no spouse or dependents or twelve-hour-a-day job clamoring for your attention. Making time to write is part of being a writer. Period.

· You need an MFA to write, or at least, to write literary fiction. This myth seems to be cropping up more and more lately—probably as a result of the recession driving record-high application numbers at MFA programs across the country—but it simply isn't true. Yes, there are people who benefit enormously from graduate-level work in creative writing, and a lot of the Future Hot Shot Writers of America will likely have MFAs from Iowa, Columbia, Michigan, Virginia, &c. And that is great! I'm not saying it's not. What I am saying is: thankfully, you don't need any kind of professional licensure to write. If an MFA makes sense for you, go for it (though I recommend you go for a fully funded one, since it's nonsense to pay through the nose for an art degree that will never earn out that investment). If not, don't worry about it. Keep writing.

· If you can't sell your first or second novel, you're probably not a very good writer. False again! This may sound like something I've said before, but nay—what I said was, "if you can't sell your book and have tried literally everything, and you've been ultra-professional about it and haven't even gotten a request for a partial based on your carefully crafted query, your novel is probably not very good. Write another." Not that you aren't good, fair readers, just the novel. And yes, as I noted above, sometimes it's a great-yet-unsalable novel, but this is relatively rare. You may get lucky and publish the first novel you ever write, but more likely it will be the second, or fifth, or tenth. Write, revise, polish, query, repeat as desired.

· Just because you can write a great novel doesn't mean you can write a good query letter. Of these, this is the one that's likely to get most of you up in arms, novelistos and -istas. However, I strongly believe that if you can write a really kick-ass book, you can write a good query letter to advocate for it. Granted, I don't think anyone naturally knows how to write a query letter—it's a kind of discourse that has to be learned—but if you're a good writer who has time to do the appropriate research and put in the necessary time, there's no reason it can't be good. (Caveat: I am a big supporter of the "submit the first few pages with the query" method to ensure that the minority of great writers who can't query worth a damn don't get immediately passed over.)

· Writing can't be taught or learned; it's an innate talent. I won't deny there's talent involved, but if writing can't be taught or learned, I'm not sure what's going on in all those seminars/workshops/MFA programs/creative writing classes being held and taught all over the country. Your writing can and will improve with time and practice, so long as you're reading good writing and are open to learning from other writers (both published and aspiring). Set time aside to read, to write, and to learn from mentors and peers. I can't guarantee it'll ever get you a book deal, but it will make you grow and improve, and that—BIG REVEAL, dear readers—is the second half of the battle.

The first half, of course, is knowing (see tag).


  1. Love this post.

    As an untortured thirty-something with an MBA (not MFA) who didn't sell until her fourth book, I appreciate it! :)

  2. Totally. Love this. :)
    And for the record, I am a tortured married thirty-something mother. With a strict writing schedule. And another job. In retail (that's where the "tortured" part came from).

  3. Love that you busted these myths. Great post!

  4. That query letter thing is SO true, plus--with all the help and such out there FOR query letters, no one should be sending off a bad one to agents.


  5. I think the "anyone can write a book" myth springs from the fact that everyone seems to be writing a book.

  6. I had a shocking discussion with an online friend who was quite adamant that an MFA would not give him the intensive writing experience he needed to be published.

    At first I went the, you don't need a degree to publish route. But he was insistent that not only was a degree necessary, but nothing less than a PhD would be adequate.

    ...for some nonfiction, sure, I can see that. But for genre fiction? I don't see a lot of books with "Dr." in front of the author's name.

    We went back and forth for awhile until the argument was just abandoned. He's headed to grad school, and I'm writing manuscripts. Time will tell...

  7. Mythbusting in 7 easy steps. :)

  8. Thank you for not hating on the MFA. Studying full-time with published writers and talented fellow students is a great and helpful experience (or, at least, it was for me). Helpful, but not necessary. In the end, a writer's got to be able to work well under his/her own steam.

  9. You have to be a tortured single twenty-something to write a book. Not true!

    So glad to see this reinforced. I am a single twenty-something at the moment (with varying levels of tortured-ness, depending on the day), and lately the amount of posts I've seen implying that you have to give everything else up--friends, family, any spare second of your day--to be a real writer have been freaking me out. I fully and firmly agree that you HAVE to have some sort of writing schedule and be dedicated to your craft, but I refuse to accept that it has to occupy every second of your existence and you can't have anything else. (Although maybe it does occupy every second. Even when I'm doing something else, I usually can't go too long without at least thinking about writing.)

    If you can't sell your first or second novel, you're probably not a very good writer. False again!
    Yup! It always stands out to me when a writer is acknowledging everyone at the back of their debut novel and they mention that it's the third book they wrote. Even big-name authors. People selling their first manuscripts are rare.

    I also approve of the word novelistos.

  10. Totally appreciate this post and the encouragement it provides. Thanks!

  11. This is going to become a popular topic in the blogosphere, I think. Especially during Writer's Conference season.

    I cringe every time my husband wants to mention to someone that I'm "writing a book". The slew of questions and downright rudeness (unintentional, I'm sure) is inevitable.

  12. One reason why people think anyone can write a book, is because it appears that everyone has – anyone who’s had 15 minutes of any kind of so-called fame has “written” a memoir. Insiders know, of course that 95 percent of those are written by ghostwriters, most of whom are uncredited. But the public doesn't get that message, or prefers not to know.

  13. Writing is a hopeless game, but sometimes it is the only thing one can do. I think I've written a damn good novel, and I thought I had written a great query letter for an agent whose expressed interests sounded like a description of my novel. I shipped off the envelope with the requested first ten pages. This morning, while searching for something else I came across the letter. It is, I was happy to confirm, a great query letter. Just wish I'd remembered to place it in the envelope. (BTW, I got the SASE back from the agent this afternoon).

  14. This post came at a very good time for me. Thanks.

  15. Excellent post and I agree on all counts! Thank you.

  16. Well, anyone CAN write a book, but there's a 75 to 95 percent chance it will suck. Most people won't, because it's not much fun to actually stick to it. But I do hear a shocking number of people who think that wanting to write a book is, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same as having already written it.

  17. Some of what you wrote was affirmed in Jim C. Hines's "First Novel Survey":

    However, while about half of the novelists surveyed had BAs in English, very few had MFAs--and earning an MFA did not help a writer get published sooner. (Having a BA did, but the difference was incredibly slight.)

  18. I started writing at 55. I also grew up hating to read, and I didn't do well in English classes. I do have a degree in psychology which I believe helps greatly in crafting characters and relationships.
    For many writers, it takes up to ten years to get established. My path took less time. The main thing is to never give up...never!
    Books For Boys Blog

  19. Thanks everyone for great posts, insights, and encouragement. I too am fairly untortured, well past my twenties (and thirties!) and have an MBA vs an MFA. Max's comments are especially affirming, calling to mind Winston's Churchill's admonitions to never give up! I'm venturing into the world of fiction from a solid background in marketing communications. Everyone always says to me, "You should write a book!" But I'm so hesitant because I'm afraid I don't have sufficient knowledge, experience or whatever (not enough torture?) to do the deed.

  20. Everything you say is true, and I appreciate you repeating it, because we need to be reminded. However, the tags are by far the best part of this post - anti-doom! Avast! Hooray you!


  21. When I first began learning the craft I heard every one of these myths. Over the next six years I found each one of them to be false dogma. Thanks for the refresher.
    As for age, as a not-so-tortured septuagenarian in the middle of a three-book contract, I can assure your readers that you can begin late in life and succeed.

  22. I don't drop by often, Eric, but I liked this post a lot. It's encouraging, and we all need a little of that by Friday.

    Writers need to know that persistence and hard work can pay off. There are no guarantees, but most of life is like that, too. Enjoy your weekend!

  23. Thanks for the great post. I think the myths arose out of the need of an excuse for failure. I tell myself that quitting is the only way I can fail.

  24. Thanks. Good stuff. Here are two more I've frequently run into:
    (1) people who think the only place to buy a "legitimate" book is in a bricks and mortal book store, and
    (2) the idea that other authors and their agents, publishers, etc. can help me get published without a single similarity between our genres, interests, qualifications, locations, etc. As in, "oh, you should talk to so and so--they're writers!. Well meaning but not very helpful.

  25. ERIC:

    I'm a married, struggling fifty-something with the mind of a struggling twenty-something and the body and neuroses of a struggling eighty-something.

    But what I discovered in recent months is that technology like this very blog have opened the world to writers of all ages and skills -- bypassing the very query letter that is SO difficult to construct -- and moving directly to the POD print platform.

    Today's author now wastes his time on marketing and social networking, rather than on queries and miniscule royalties.

    Ed Swartley, author
    "When Did I Become the Oldest Person in the Room?"

  26. Came here to read because of a post on ABNA. Thanks for the pep talk!