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So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 1 (Don’ts)

I haven’t been doing this writer thing long. Yes, I’m a relative rookie. And yet, despite my rookieness, everywhere I go, I end up in conversations with various people who would like to be doing what I’m doing and want to know what pearls of wisdom I might be able to give them in order to improve their chances of success.

Honestly, these conversations are in large part responsible for why I let myself get talked into blogging. I know I’m not capable of ladling out silver-bullet profundity that will automatically anoint the furrowed brows of hopeful writers with the warm shininess of success. [Sidenote: I apologize for the previous sentence. But it still make me smile.] I don’t think anyone can do that. But I can point out some of the more obvious things that have been unfortunately overlooked by many of the aspiring (with whom I have spoken). In other words, nothing can guarantee success, but any number of things can guarantee failure.

While I fully intend to be as constructive as I can, I’m kicking off this series of posts with some hard (but hopefully helpful) shots of negativity. So lick that salt off your wrist, and then brace yourself.

If you wanna be a writer, do not become a . . .

Prolific Desperado. I know one fellow author who was stalked back to his hotel room and had a manuscript duct-taped to his door. That type of tactic won’t just get you nowhere, it will get you disliked. You’ve heard the tales of publishers’ slush piles? The teetering towers of manuscripts that unpaid golems and lackeys wade through on their summer vacations? You don’t want your writing to be the slush-pile-filler, and you don’t want your only purpose as a writer to be planetary deforestation and the creation of low-paid positions at publishing houses in order to deal with your out-put. If you have written multiple manuscripts and have a drawer full of rejection, the honest to goodness truth is that you are most likely not good enough yet. The next appropriate step is not to become desperate. Do not stalk “successful” authors back to their rooms. Do not force them to unlist their numbers. Do not hit on them at conferences. Instead, channel all that energy into getting really good at writing. A bizarre number of aspiring writers act as if publication is their birthright and get strangely resentful toward the industry in general and the editors and houses (and authors) who fail to give them what they so clearly deserve. Focus on what you can control, and what you can control is the quality, originality and execution of your art. And while you focus on that, remember that the publishing houses are not your enemies (really). They want good books. They want to find them, publish them, and sell them. So write one. “But I’ve written four!” the Prolific Desperado says. “And my books are amazing!” “Are they?” I ask. “Then why is no one beyond your own mother amazed?” Am I being mean? Here’s a qualifier.

Qualifier: There are plenty of good writers struggling to get something plucked from the slush and published. I have no doubt that many people have publishable work that’s being tossed. Circumstances and unpaid interns can conspire against you. But I firmly believe that if such writers focus on improving their work (even if it is already good) and persevere, then they’ll find success. It might simply be a case of getting your manuscript to an editor with different taste. Or it might be that your work is not stark enough in its superiority to the rest of the slush. Keep at it, and remember that cream will eventually rise. Another (more important) thing to remember: Nobody likes the smell of desperation (in a conversation or a query letter). It can put people off even if the manuscript is fine.

If you wanna be a writer, do not be a . . .

One Shot Johnny. These are the folks who might be publishable, but they’ll never know because they’ve only written one thing. And if you’ve only written one thing, it’s probably not any good. There are obvious and notable exceptions, but don’t bank on being one of those. We are human, and we most often have to be bad at something before we can be good at it. If I have painted one (and only one) picture, should I think of myself as a “painter” and assume that I must be gallery ready? Tens, yea, hundreds of thousands of words (ideally) should be thrown away before an editor reads anything of yours. Ideas do not a novel make. You can have the characters and the story in your head, but getting them convincingly into words on a page (paint on a canvas) is the hard part. Of course, I’m perfectly willing to admit that you might be exceptional. (I’m not.) Maybe the first draft of your first book is going to support you and your children and your children’s children till the sun falls and the world fades. But if you’re like me, take a hard look at that first attempt, identify your mistakes, learn from them, and get to work on the next project.

If you wanna be a writer, do not be a . . .

Talker, Wisher, or Poseur. Let me just say this: Most of the aspiring writers I talk to have never even finished a short story. For reals. Their stories are all ideas and conversations over coffee. That’s fine as a starting point. Now glue yourself to your computer for hours, days, and weeks on end. See if you have enough staying power to even become an aspiring writer.

I grow hungry, so that’s a wrap for now. But I will be back, and at some point, I’ll bring Pt. 2 with me.


  1. at
    Sarah Butler
    October 9, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    Funny to run into this. All great do-nots…thanks.
    I just finished a kid’s story and was going to ask you to read it, but now I won’t. I mean, you don’t get to.
    Levi says I could get rich on this one. Silly boy!
    I’ll be back to read your next post.
    Your cousin, Sarah

  2. at
    S.D. Smith
    October 12, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Sorry about that duct-tape thing. It was an…um…joke?

    From now on I’ll focus all my energy on writing, and lawn maintenance.

    Seriously, good advice. Blog on, McDuff.

  3. at
    John Ahern
    October 14, 2008 at 11:47 am

    I have a question – do great authors mean to do all these puns? I thought Melville was nutty with his “blubbering on…let’s go a-whaling”, but your “…hungry, so that’s a wrap…” is out to lunch.

  4. at
    October 15, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Possibly subconscious, but certainly accidental. If I caused anyone pain, I apologize. Grovel, grovel (is there an emoticon for that?).

  5. at
    June 17, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I know this post is old, but I just stumbled upon it… Thanks for posting these, I find them extremely helpful. I have loved writing for around fur years now, but I still haven’t finished a story, but that is probably a good thing. The longer I wait to finish one, I know that it will only get better. The past two years I’ve been going through the Omnibus books, which are helpful in learning to write in more than one way. Over the past years, my writing has enhanced, but it still has a lot of maturing to do. Your posts are helping me along!

  6. at
    June 4, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    Now the post is really, really old, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. 😀 – The pre-emoticon of writing happiness.

  7. at
    June 8, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    This Post is really, really, really, really, really, old. I just wanted to add my thanks to Mr. Wilson in helping me along with my writing. Thank you.

  8. at
    Lois Hoffman
    February 21, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    Great stuff. Note to self…no more stalking….duck tape self to desk.

  9. at
    February 23, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    I know this is a quite old post, (as others have said)I just looked at it today.
    Thank you very much for the great advice. I am trying to write a book… not working to well…. I ‘ll remember the things you said!
    thanks again. I really have enjoyed the books
    you have written.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By N.D. Wilson on Writing « Ad Fontes on June 14, 2010 at 7:05 am

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  2. By N. D. Wilson on Writing « For His Renown on July 29, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    […] So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 1 (Don’ts) […]

  3. By 5 Things: On Writing « Booksmoore on February 22, 2011 at 12:00 am

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