“If They Asked Me, I could Write A Book….” That’s a Song.

I was recently asked, in the course of an on-line interview, what advice I have to offer young writers. I was expecting it because that same question comes up, sooner or later, in every interview I do, and it always reminds of the best advice I ever received, from an old and greatly respected acquaintance. “Don’t ever be seduced into giving advice to anyone,” he said, “because it’s seldom heeded and often resented. Besides,” he added. “Any advice you give to anyone will be based on your own experiences, influenced by how you followed a course of action and reacted to its outcome. It is intensely subjective, and therefore unlikely to satisfy anyone else’s needs.”

Now that, I believe, was sage advice, and I have tried to abide by it ever since. But that need to have me offer gratuitous advice to less established writers (all of whom are younger, alas!) seems to be endemic among interviewers, and so I’ve been thinking about the little advice I do offer struggling writers. It’s two points long, predicated upon some of the pragmatic realities I have experienced along the way to becoming an author whose work is accepted by both publishers and readers. Here it is:

Don’t dream of being published. Work to get published. That’s what I tell wannabee writers who attend my workshops. I invite them to think of all the people they’ve heard say, “Some day I’m going to write a book…” knowing that they never will. Because there’s only one way to write a book—you have to sit down and write it, spending long months and sometimes years in solitary confinement, struggling with words and your own ability to manipulate them and make them attractive and appealing. Most people think writing is easy; that there’s nothing to it; that anyone can write a book if they care to sit down and do it. They believe, too, that as soon as they’ve taken the time to write one, somebody out there will be eager to publish it and make them rich. ’T ain’t so, I’m afraid.

As an aside, I heard a lovely story about a retiring brain surgeon who, when asked what he would do next, said, “Oh, I think I’ll write a book.” One of his dinner companions, a female author in her fifties, laughed and said. “I hope you will. I can’t wait to read it. When I retire I intend to try my hand at brain surgery.”

So how hard can it be to write a book? I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve told classes and students that it’s not really that hard, if you’re prepared to give up a year or two of your life to write one. Writing’s easy, I tell people. A year, perhaps two years of donkey work and you’ll have written a first draft of some description. After that, you start rewriting it for Draft Two, and it’s it’s the re-writing that will kill you. The constant repetition and redrafting, reconstructing and refurbishing and rebuilding and reformatting and re-envisioning and revising in what often seems like a never ending fight to get your story absolutely right and ensure that it’s the best, must utterly authentic manuscript you are capable of generating at this stage of your life and career. And I’m sometimes asked, “Is that necessary? Does it absolutely have to be that difficult?” The answer to that is simple: “No, it doesn’t, if you don’t care about getting published.”

If you do care about publication, though, there’s a different, self-evident answer. Twenty years ago, before the Internet and the self-publishing craze, the statistical, industry odds against any manuscript ever being published were 30,000 to one. In other words, for every manuscript that actually made it into publication, 29,999 were deemed unpublishable. For commercial publishers, that has not changed. The odds against publication by a legitimate publishing house have, in fact, increased now that everyone in the world thinks they’re capable of writing a book. In truth the Big Question in the publishing world, asked by agents and publishers alike upon first eyeing a new manuscript, is not, “Have I found the next Shakespeare or Victor Hugo?” It is, “Can I make money off this?” And that brings me to my second piece of advice to the wannabee author:

Above all, learn your craft. When you decide to become a Writer, the English language becomes your stock-in-trade, so that means you have to learn to use it properly before you start to abuse it. There are no ifs, ands or buts associated with that statement. It’s an absolute. You owe it to yourself, if you really want to succeed,  to learn the rules of usage—all of them—so that you know them inside out and upside down; so that you can shuffle them like cards, cutting them and manipulating them endlessly in constantly varying patterns, without a hitch or a fumble.

Once you do know all the basics—the rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar—you can go ahead and break them any way you choose to. But you have to know them and understand them first, so that when you break them you can do it with authority and your readers will know beyond a doubt that you’re doing it deliberately and for effect . . . not out of ignorance, smug self-righteousness or an embarrassing lack of understanding, knowledge or  erudition.

You have to accept that people out there—publishers, editors, critics and a huge percentage of readers—know, understand and are governed by the established rules of grammar and punctuation and spelling, and they won’t be fooled or impressed if they see, or even suspect, that you do not subscribe to those fundamental standards. So learn to use the language. It’s like serving your apprenticeship, or learning your craft, or paying your dues… They’re all honourable, long-accepted and legitimate rites of passage.

You should be working every day, too, to increase your vocabulary. And if your eyebrows went up, even mentally, after reading that sentence, it would be a good idea right now to consider some other means of pursuing fame and fortune, because the odds at this stage of your being a successful author are less than encouraging . . . and I’m being nice about it.

The world needs good writers, because there are too many writers out there today who are just plain bad. On the bright side, though, I know lots of brilliant, upcoming young writers, to whom I love to say, “Keep going, keep writing. Believe in yourself and believe in your work and be proud of the countless hours you spend perfecting your craft.”