Ten Myths about Writing

Ten Myths about Writing

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!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

 

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Haha! Don’t hate me either :) I’ve often heard that a higher proportion of writers/artists suffer from mental illness. Is this anecdotal or is there some truth to this?

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  2. Carmel says

    I’ll add: “Writers, because of their gift with the written word, are wonderful speakers and would love to speak at your next event.”

    Would like to see the actual statistics on that one.

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    • Anne says

      I know I’m terrible when it comes to public speaking. Want to have me write out a speech? That’s fine. Want me to get up and say one on the spot? Yeah, not going to happen. My friends laugh and ask me how I can be a writer when I stumble over my words. So I really doubt that’s an accurate one. I’d say just like all the others it’s entirely different for every writer.

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    • says

      Carmel, that’s a good one. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats that show a surprising amount of people fear public speaking even more than they fear DEATH.

      One thing that has surprised me at literary conferences is how many of the writers whose books are very dark, somber, and “furrowed-brow serious” are actually very funny, gregarious people in person. This makes them much easier to talk to, since the subject matter of their books could make them seem lofty and unapproachable.

      I think it ultimately falls on each of us to find our own public-speaking voice or persona. I know a literary fiction author who is quite bawdy and irreverent when you talk to her in private over a beer, but whose public persona is that of the soft-spoken, extremely philosophical Deep Serious Author. Hey, it works for her.

      So I think we all need to find the public “vibe” that works for us. I don’t think of this as being deceptive; rather, it’s more of a need-to-know thing. For a specific scenario, I think we can pick and choose which aspects of our personality to display, based on the audience. Hope that makes sense!

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      • Carmel says

        Putting on another persona – that’s a thought. Actually, unless I had the cure for cancer, I know for a fact I’m not someone people want to sit and listen to. Not putting myself down, that’s just the way it is. My voice is quiet, and I’m not a quick thinker. Give me an hour and a piece of paper, and I’ll have something to tell you. ;o)

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        • says

          Carmel, as far as being a quick thinker, a very popular technique many people employ when they know they’re going to have to do some public speaking is to create a short, easily memorized set of “talking points,” which they are very comfortable speaking about. Then they look for opportunities to steer the conversation towards those points.

          You’ve seen politicians do this at debates, but writers can do it too, and usually much less blatantly. I know that when I appear on a panel at a literary conference, I always go armed with a few topics I’m ready to expound on, with the goal of trying to touch on those points before I’m done. It doesn’t always work out, but it keeps you from feeling like you’re completely winging it, and guarantees that you’ve got some material ready to discuss that will not require you to be a super-quick thinker.

          Oh, but this is a top-secret trick, so don’t tell anybody I showed you this technique. :)

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          • Carmel says

            Thanks, Keith, for the great tip and for taking time to respond. That would be useful in a lot of situations!

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  3. says

    Keith-

    Some additional myths about being a writer:

    1: Some writers are allowed to get away with dark characters, but not me. [Nope. It’s all in how they’re done.]

    2. Hollywood loves only mega sellers and literary fiction. [Nope. Hollywood loves character-based hooks and arcs, since those are useful to actors and engage audiences.]

    3. Success is determined by publishers or accident. [Nope. Plenty of hyped novels fail and plenty of under-promoted novels sell well.]

    4. Forget your heart, write what sells. [Nope. That’s a path to mediocrity.]

    5. Ignore the market, write the book of your heart. [Partly true. Write it, yes, but listen to feedback. Every manuscript can be better.]

    6. Great fiction is wholly spontaneous, the result of innate genius. [Oh, you covered that already.]

    7. Self-publishing is the new paradigm, traditional publishers are going extinct. [Dream on. See my WU post on Wednesday, February 5th.]

    8. E-books mean my novels will never go “out of print”. [They’ll be available but will they be read? That’s another matter.]

    9. Promotion is either time consuming or expensive or both, but it must be done and mostly by me. [Promotion doesn’t hurt, but 90% of it is between the covers of your last book.]

    10. Writers are beautiful/handsome and good in bed. [Sorry, Keith, further research must be done, but we can say this: Writers are great people and tell great stories. Buy one a drink.]

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    • says

      Donald, that’s a great list! Dang, where were you when I was struggling to come up with *my* list?

      A big “amen” to all of those, in particular numbers 4 and 5. But all of the myths you listed are worth taking a hard look at and reevaluating our own perceptions.

      As for number 10? Yes. Buy writers a drink. Always.

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  4. says

    Fun post, Keith. I always love myth-busting. And I’d like to add to your #9, the big topic of self-publishing… It’s really all about control, don’t you think? More control means more work for sure, but more control can result in more money eventually. It’s likely we’ll get paid for all our hard work if our books sell. The BIG “IF.”

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  5. Densie says

    Keith,
    Great post. An entire book could be written on writerly myths, from the craft, dealing with agents and publishers and, as you pointed out, writers themselves. The myth that I have the most trouble with is the existence of a “muse.” I have visions of Tinker Bell hovering over a writer’s shoulder. Just doesn’t work for me. I totally agree with your statement that “writers are people who put their butts in chairs, and try to create something from nothing.” It may sometimes feel like magic…or demonic possession, but to my mind it’s simply a combination of a deep desire to write, an open mind, a keen sense of observation, and most of all, perseverance.

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    • says

      Densie, you might enjoy Stephen King’s mental picture of his muse, from his wonderful book On Writing:

      “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life.

      Believe me, I know.”

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      • Densie Webb says

        Keith,

        I’ve read it, but it’s been a while. Maybe the image of a muse “fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer” was floating around in my head. Thanks.

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  6. says

    Ha! Good stuff. I’ve yet to meet a writer who was an introvert. In fact, my wife complains that I have to strike up a conversation with anyone who stops within ten feet of my person. And yes, it’s all about hard work and showing up (my dad was right!). As for #10, I conducted a poll of all the married women in my household, and she agrees.

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    • says

      That is so true! While I’ve met introverted writers, it always annoys me when people assume *all* writers are introverts.

      I’m a writer and I am definitely an extrovert. I will talk to anyone. Animate or inanimate. Failing that, I talk to myself. I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the title of crazy lady at the grocery store because I have running commentary with my 6 month old son…. Sigh. Ah well. And yes to #10 – I got the same results from the married men (man) in my house. Weird. ;)

      Another myth I’d add is this:
      You aren’t a writer till you’re published.
      {FALSE. You’re a writer when you write. Every day. Even when you don’t have a book or a hook or anything to show for it, if you write every day and you’re working hard and learning your craft and working at it, you’re a writer.}

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      • Melissa Lewicki says

        Sarah, I used to do the same. I would talk with my infant son and ask his opinion of each purchase. I brought a lot of laughter to the other shoppers….

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      • Kay says

        “I’m a writer and I am definitely an extrovert. I will talk to anyone.”

        Must we assume introverts are mute?!? *tsk! tsk!..*

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  7. says

    Great list, Keith! But I’m thinking someone has proven #4 true. Perhaps by someone you know. They’re just unwilling to surrender their pseudonym… *cough* Cussler *cough* Just a hunch.

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  8. says

    Thanks SO much for this list, Keith. My favorite is “Method X is better than Method Y”. I’ve been waiting for someone to say that. “Plotter versus Pantser”, yada yada. As you said about musicians, everyone has a way of doing their thing to create their art. Can’t we all just get along?

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  9. says

    Here’s my favorite (by which I mean most annoying) writerly myth: If you’re not doing it full-time, and working from an armchair stuffed with hundred-dollar bills (the results of your prior year’s earnings) you must not really be a writer. I particularly enjoy the way proponents of this myth have perfected the art of staring bemusedly at the so-called writer in question as if she’s claiming to be next in line to be Queen of England.

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  10. says

    I couldn’t agree more with most of the points you’ve made in this article, Keith.

    But, about point number 1, it’s been my experience that drinking to excess is a reaction to stress. Thus it would be reasonable to think that someone who is shy (socially awkward) may drink to excess to meet the challenges of being socially engaged. Am I writing from experience? Hmm…

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    • Kay says

      perhaps i am being oversensitive but i find slight offense to the shy = socially inept, and other references to introverts not being able to hack stress. what’s up with that, man?

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      • says

        Read more carefully, Kay. I didn’t accuse shy people of being socially inept. I accused (and convicted) myself. :)

        Also see my remarks about Susan Cain’s book, which I’ve studied and presented on in a corporate environment. Shyness and introversion are not the same, and in neither case is ineptness considered a by-product.

        Perhaps if you step back and try to consider the spirit in which this post was made (i.e., with tongue spending much of its time pretty deeply embedded in cheek), you might not find so much to be offended by.

        Then again, maybe you might. If so, please accept my apologies.

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        • Kay says

          Hi Keith,

          While I appreciate your apologies, my reply was intended for the commenter who posted above you, Leanne. Specifically, I was responding to the quote;

          “Thus it would be reasonable to think that someone who is shy (socially awkward) may drink to excess to meet the challenges of being socially engaged.”

          This was not meant as a personal attack, of course, just as I am sure her comment was not directed toward a particular person (me). Just wanted to offer another de-bunk of a generalization (and the emotions that may exude), that’s all :)

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  11. says

    Interesting posting for sure.
    Most of these are definitely myths :-P particularly about one method being better than another.
    I know that I AM an introvert except with people I’m super comfortable with. My penmanship is god awful, so which I became such a great typist. I’m sure Amazon helped a lot with publishing, paper books are certainly not dead (I don’t own an eReader so I always get my books from the shelves), and it isn’t always true that the only people who get published happen to know somebody. Sometimes that’s true, other times it’s just luck.

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  12. says

    As I started reading this, I was going to say something serious like, “for every stereotype, there are a thousand exception to the rule”…but then I got to point number 10 and spewed tea on my computer. Can’t. Stop. Laughing…

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  13. says

    On myth 1, this contains a pretty common assumption– that introverts are shy. Introverts draw their energy from quiet, rather than the people around them. They may be shy, but it doesn’t come automatically with the package.

    And I wish I could do away with Myth #5. I’m an extreme pantser, and I can’t tell you the number of times people have implied that I’m broken because I don’t outline. I’ve even had people tell me I’m outlining and just don’t call it that or that my first draft is an outline (no, and no). It just gets really old.

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    • says

      Linda, I agree with your assessment of what introversion really is. Sounds like you’ve read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain; if not, I’d recommend it. It gives some excellent insights into introverts, and how they are not necessarily shy.

      And I feel your pain in terms of being told your process makes you a “broken” writer. That “my way or the highway” stuff doesn’t resonate with me either. Keep doing what works for YOU – as long as it works!

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  14. says

    I’m very tired of the myth that in order to be a “real” writer or a “real” poet then you must be willing to suffer for your art. Being a starving artist is a romantic notion that doesn’t produce better writers. Just hungry ones.

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  15. Rachel Thompson says

    Writer are good in bed, at least in our minds, which bring up our sanity issues. Writers are also crazy, and as everyone knows, genius and crazy are closely related. I conclude we are a bunch of self deluded artists crazy enough to fantasize about publishing during sex which makes sex lasts longer,ergo, we’re good in bed. It’s all connected.

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  16. says

    What about the myth that writers write every day, seven days a week? I try to, but it doesn’t always work out that way. And, apparently Anne Rice and her son Christopher agree, as mentioned in Writer’s Digest magazine. Ms. Rice stated that she sometimes goes for three months without writing. So, I am absolved of any guilt feelings if I don’t write ever day, or week or month. Although, my passion is to write all the time.
    I do thank you for acknowledging that self-published authors are “true pioneers” and that it is “a LOT of work.” It definitely is, but well worth the effort. I know, I’m one of the pioneers.
    Thanks for the post. And, I totally agree with myth #10!

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