One thing I’ve noticed since I became serious about writing is that there are a lot of supposedly universal truths about writers, writing, and the business of publishing.
The fact that many of these “truths” tend to directly contradict each other should be enough to raise an eyebrow, but I’ve found that even some of the least-contested assertions seem much more like myths than truths.
So I thought today I’d poke some holes in ten myths that may initially seem easy to believe, but which ultimately are hard to swallow.
1. Writers are introverts, more comfortable in their own little world.
It’s true, some of them are. But some of them are anything BUT introverted (particularly when alcohol is added to the equation). I’ve met a lot of writers over the years, and their personalities have ranged all across the spectrum, from wispy recluse to lampshade-wearing party animal.
I could see how writing might hold a particular appeal to people who are shy, as it puts them in total control of how they express themselves, with the luxury of editing and polishing their words before sharing them with others. But isn’t that something that could come in handy for all of us? I mean, I’ve often longed for a Delete key to press, or an Undo button to click – always a nanosecond after saying something particularly stupid.
2. The biggest-earning writers succeeded because “they knew somebody.”
It’s a popular gripe to attribute any conspicuous success by a colleague or competitor as yet another example of “it’s all in who you know.” While there may be many instances in life where this is true, there’s still only one thing that causes a book to succeed: people – whether they are agents, editors or readers – need to fall in love with it.
Can referrals and inside connections get your manuscript requested by an agent or editor? Yes, sometimes (probably less frequently than you’d imagine). But keep this in mind: they might read your stuff, but they won’t go to bat for it unless they think it’s going to sell.
Which again brings us back to the primary requirement for a book succeeding: enough people have to fall in love with it. All the connections in the world cannot guarantee that you or I could write that book. And if we haven’t done so, it really doesn’t matter who we know.
3. Writers are merely channels for a creative force that is greater than themselves.
This is a lovely notion, and I think there can be a lot of truth to it. I’ve definitely had moments where I felt completely inspired, frantically trying to capture ideas that suddenly began flooding my imagination as if the muse had turned on some magical storytelling faucet.
Writers are people who put their butts in chairs, and try to create something from nothing.
I know I’m not alone in having had that experience. But I’m also not alone in knowing that this is typically the exception rather than the rule. For all those other times, writers are people who put their butts in chairs, and try to create something from nothing. In those moments, the words of painter and photographer Chuck Close come to mind:
“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
Like I said, I’m a believer in “the muse.” But so far the muse has never written an entire book for me. If your muse has, can I borrow it sometime? I promise I’ll give it back.
4. Writing a best-seller is easy, if you just follow the formula and are willing to “sell out” artistically.
I’ve heard this one a lot – and not coincidentally, always coming from a person proudly claiming that they would never stoop to writing in such a way. Well, that’s pretty convenient, isn’t it – claiming you could do something, but simply choose not to? *cough* Bullshit! *cough*
Writing a best-seller is easy? Go ahead and prove it.
Here’s my challenge to those people: Go ahead and prove it. Write a best-seller, but do it under a pen name, and donate all your proceeds to charity. Then you won’t be “selling out,” but you’ll have proved your point.
Surprisingly, I’ve had no takers.
5. Method X of writing is better than Method Y.
Whether it’s plotting versus pantsing, the hero’s journey versus the snowflake method, editing-while-you-go versus hammering out the shitty first draft, many writers and pundits are eager to tell you that their method trumps all others. It’s easy to be swayed by these arguments, particularly when they A) are conveyed in a compelling, authoritative tone, or B) happen to coincide with your own preferred methodology. But for me, the proof is in the work, and the reality is that for every great novel that was written by an author armed with outlines, index cards and color-coded spreadsheets, I submit you’ll find as many great novels written by authors who simply opened up their word processors and started typing.
I’m a geek about writing process, and find it an endlessly fascinating topic to explore. But I keep finding evidence that there simply isn’t one “best” way to do this stuff that applies to all writers. Art is intensely personal, and it stands to reason that our approaches to creating it will be as varied as our own personalities.
For every great novel that was written by an author armed with outlines, index cards and color-coded spreadsheets, I submit you’ll find as many great novels written by authors who simply opened up their word processors and started typing.
To clarify, I’m not saying we shouldn’t explore other methods than those we find intuitive. On the contrary, I think we should actively explore other methods, to become aware of what’s out there, and find out for ourselves which ones seem most effective for the stories we want to tell. But whenever somebody starts telling me their approach is the only “real” or “correct” one, I make a mental note to filter their future observations with a heavy dose of skepticism.
I’m also a professional musician, and have seen this same sort of argument perpetuated by musicians everywhere, whether it’s about the “proper” way to hold a drumstick, the merits of reading music as opposed to learning to play by ear, and so on. But the reality is that there are virtuoso musicians employing a vast variety of different approaches to make incredibly good music. To me this just reinforces that there’s more than one way to make good art.
6. Writers are excellent spellers, great typists, and/or have perfect penmanship.
If you saw my grocery list, you’d become an instant non-believer in the penmanship component of this myth! Although there are some writers with lovely handwriting, or who are renowned for their ability to burn up a computer keyboard, I haven’t seen any consistent correlation between the compulsion to tell stories and the typical skills of a good administrative assistant. Yet I find that if my colleagues and coworkers are aware I’m a writer, they will ask me to take notes at a meeting, or will ask me to type something up for them with the assumption that I can do it faster and better. Um, not so much.
As for spelling, it’s possible that many writers are better than non-writers, simply out of having had more practice. But even that is pretty speculative – I know I rely heavily on spellcheck and dictionaries when I write, and many writers I know operate in a similar manner. I would conjecture that writers might care more about spelling, and thus might go to greater lengths to check their own accuracy. But I don’t believe all storytellers are born with a comprehensive knowledge of “I before E except after C” and all its exceptions (such as my own first name).
7. Paper books are dead.
Many people think ebooks are outselling paper books, primarily because Amazon has done such a good job of publicizing the fact that they now sell more ebooks than paper ones. That’s not surprising, seeing as they also sell the currently dominant ereader platform: the Kindle.
Industry studies show that ebooks made up only 11% of the book market in 2012.
Here’s a reality check: Amazon’s sales figures do not represent the rest of the marketplace. One of the latest industry studies showed that ebooks made up only 11% of the book market in 2012. Granted, that percentage has been rising yearly, and I’m eager to see the numbers for 2013. But the reality is that paper books are still the bread and butter of the book market. Will this change? Quite possibly. But it’s still very premature to start making funeral arrangements for paper books.
8. Amazon ruined publishing.
I’d argue that rather than ruining it, Amazon changed publishing (and continues to do so). Yes, there are significant factions within the industry that feel this change is not for the better. But I suspect that the companies who used to make PDAs (remember PalmPilots, anyone?) feel similarly about Apple and the iPhone. Does that make you wish smartphones didn’t exist? Yeah, me neither.
9. Self-publishing is the easy way out.
Uploading a book to Amazon may be fairly easy. But actually writing, editing, polishing, formatting, acquiring or designing cover art, developing and executing marketing strategies, and securing reviews and publicity all by yourself is really freaking hard, and a LOT of work. And bear in mind, this industry is still in its infancy, so those who are making the greatest strides in this area are true pioneers, bravely forging ahead without the benefit of a roadmap or instruction manual. Ask anybody who’s actually been successful at self-publishing, and I bet the last word they’d give you to describe their journey is “easy.”
And probably the coolest by-product of self-publishing is the sense of community that many of these writers have developed, as they openly share sales and marketing data, insights and strategies with each other. That’s a far cry from the heavily veiled inner workings of the conventional publishing industry, which has always managed to obfuscate even the most basic data from the very authors who provide its products.
10. Writers are far more attractive and sexually gifted than everybody else.
It turns out that this one is actually not a myth. I have it on the highest authority that countless scientific studies by serious-looking people in white lab coats have proven this statement to be utterly and incontrovertibly true.
What can I say? It’s one of the perks of being a writer. So please, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. Oh, and good in bed.
How about you?
Have you heard any other myths you’d like to share and/or skewer? Do you have a different take on some of the ones I’ve listed above? If so, please chime in. And as always, thanks for reading!
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