As the year comes towards a conclusion, my Yuletide gift to you is a box of rocks. For writers.
Back when m'colleague Andy Walsh and I did our combination double-act/games writing workshop, one of the things we included was a 'Harsh Truths' section. We would tell our students a series of unpalatable, unpleasant but sadly accurate facts about the writer's lot, in order to rid them of any illusions they might have about becoming super-rich, incredibly famous and the like. We would present this just before we broke for lunch, because we would know that anyone who didn’t came back for the afternoon session was not serious about being a writer.
One student later said to me; “You scared the shit out of me with all that!”
“But do you still want to be a writer?” I asked her.
“Oh, hell yes,” she replied.
“Then I’ve done my job.”
So, in the spirit of that, and of seasonal bah-humbug, in no particular order, here’s Twelve Harsh Truths For Writers.
1) Nobody cares about your story. They just care about your story.
It doesn’t matter how hard your life was or how long it took you to write your piece. It doesn’t matter what trials and tribulations you went through to get there (unless that’s actually what you’re writing about). All that matters is if you can tell a good story. Don’t waste people’s time by trying to sell them on the idea that you deserve a break. You’ll just sound whiny.
2) You will not be rich and famous.
Those tales you’ve heard about million-dollar advances for new novelists, and the people that turn up on talk shows and get their books turned into theme parks? That won’t happen to you. Ever. Most writers struggle to pay the rent, and a high percentage of them have to keep the day job just to stay in the black. And even if you do well enough to support yourself and build a solid audience, you’re unlikely to be invited to any celebrity parties, because the majority of people don’t even know – or care - what writers look like.
3) So what if you have a “cool idea”?
You have a brilliant story but you just haven’t written it yet? Get to the back of the line. No. Not that line, the other one. The one that vanishes off into the far, far distance. There’s a million folks with a million cool ideas, but what will get you noticed is, y’know, if you actually write it.
4) There is no secret code to being a successful writer.
No special password, no clandestine handshake, no backstage pass, no express elevator, no fast track, no jump start, no success helicopter. Anyone who tells you otherwise will probably be trying to get money from you.
5) Writing is not easy.
It must be, right? It’s not like, say, being a brain surgeon or a gymnast, where you couldn’t just take a guy off the street and have them do it. I mean, anyone can write, yeah? You can write a shopping list, so you must be able to write a book... So go and do it, then. Go away and come back in three months with a 100,000 word novel of publishable quality; and then see how easy you think it is.
6) It doesn’t matter if your mum/teacher/friend/fan-fic circle [delete as applicable] think you are good.
Oh sure, they may tell you that your story is a work of genius, but their opinions are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. It’s nice to get some positive feedback, sure – but the only opinion that really matters is that of the person who will pay you for your story.
7) You don’t get sick leave, or holidays, or a pension and dental plan.
Unless you’re a salaried employee working for a studio or publisher, all those things are out the window. So start saving now for your twilight years, take plenty of vitamins, brush and floss regularly.
8) No, really. There isn’t a secret code to being a successful writer.
If you think there actually is, and I’m just hiding it from you, you’re deluded. There is no conspiracy to stop you being published; you just have to be good enough.
9) If you do get success, some people will hate you for it.
Oh sure, some will love you too and say very nice things about your work, and that is incredibly rewarding. But there will also be those who will loathe and detest you just because you've actually managed to make a go of something that they can’t. And some of these people may be folks you thought were your friends.
10) Writing is more work than just the writing.
That’s just job one. To make a go of this game, you need to learn editorial skills, how to present and sell yourself, how to plan for your future and manage your career and real world life. The days of writing a book and just getting paid for it are long gone.
11) And speaking of money, you will probably be paid last.
Writers are not often well respected by the entertainment industry. The freelancer life, while liberating and fun, can also be punishing and decidedly not fun. Despite the fact that every narrative must start with a writer’s words, we’re usually the guys at the back of the line when the checks are being cut.
12) Okay, fine. There is a secret code to being a successful writer.
And understanding it involves hard work. And talent. And sacrifice. And luck.
Merry bleedin' Christmas. I promise I’ll come back in the new year with something more upbeat.