Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You Want to Be a Writer? Do the Damn WORK!

Elsewhere on the web I've been involved in a heated discussion about the benefits or not of the self-published route via such things as Kindle Direct Publishing.

That drove me to start a thread with the above title. I thought it could do with going on the blog, so here goes:

It seems that f you criticise self-publishing, then you're "arrogant".

If you PRAISE self-publishing you're open-minded, supportive etc etc.

Ask any of my students how supportive I am. I've been on the phone at 3 AM for a student. I've driven to London to plead with a publisher for a student. Overseas students have stayed at my home as a base when touring. I am there 24-7 for them all, the best and the worst, and I ran my school for ten years FREE,

This whole concept of SELF-Publishing, VANITY publishing, DIGITAL Publishing, POD publishing, KDP Publishing, REPRINTS in a digital format is horrible conflated but one thing is true

99.99% of FIRST-TIME, KDP, Self-published authors CANNOT WRITE. 

They are massively far from ready, and, instead of learning their craft they look to blame an industry that DOES publish 100,000 titles a year as "not understanding them", or "Being elitist" or "too narrow-focussed"

100,000 titles a year, a million titles in ten years. If you cannot break into that million (you'd try for ten years wouldn't you, if you believed in yourself?") then maybe, MAYBE it's because you don't quite cut the mustard.

I absolutely LOVED playing soccer. I would have loved to have been an international star. Failing that I would have loved to play in the Premiership, or maybe Div 1. OK, then Div 2 or Conference Prem, or Conference South


That's all. I wasn't good enough. The guys who were good enough started as soon as they could walk (I was 15, too late) and they spent 2-3-4-5-6-7-8 hours a day every day, seven days a week to become good... and then as boys most were professionally coached, typically for ten solid years, and EVEN THEN only 1 in 10 makes it into the pro leagues.

Why should quality writing be any different?


Seriously guys, how hard do you think it is to become even a mid-list writer, a decent wordsmith who could sell a modest 5,000 of each title?

I'm accused of being arrogant because I've been traditionally published. Rubbish! I was a beginner too. I went 49 rejections before getting my first hit. Some of my early hits were TINY.

But I worked, worked, WORKED, my butt off. I started "trying to write" (I still have snippets) at age 19... a story about post-apocalypse Britain and I still remember the sexual pleasure (no less) of that first typewriter, those first lines.


I wrote hundreds, maybe a thousand poems in my twenties, completed a novel and sent it out. I pottered about through my thirties. Up to then I had never read a book on craft, never attended a lecture, and, TBH, didn't read an awful lot, and what I did was stuff like Dick Francis.

I was 39 when I wrote 41,000 words of an unfinished novel and entered it into a competition run by Ryman's. I made the short-list and was then ousted from it. But suddenly I had HOPE.

So I started buying how-to books, started writing short-stories (convinced I was a novelist and couldn't do shorts). I started going to writer's conferences (too scared to enter their comps at first) YEAR after YEAR after YEAR, and I started writing my daily life, so I would be writing-writing-writing all the time.


 It is very, very, very, very HARD to become a decent writer.

Why can't people understand that?

It's hard to become a top ballerina, or play in a concert orchestra, or be a professional sportsperson.

It takes 10,000 hours MINIMUM to become a polished writer. That's 10,000 hours of serious writing, criticism, appraisal and self-appraisal.

I have EARNED my status. I gave up £60K a year in 1990 and started to get more and more serious about my writing.

I still got nowhere.

Then on my 45th birthday, October 14th 1992 I gave myself five years to make it or give up and call it a hobby. That its, altho' I was a house-husband I called myself a writer and it says WRITER on my kids' birth certificates.

I went to conferences, I read the how-to's, I STUDIED, and I wrote-wrote-wrote-wrote-wrote.

And you know what? I wasn't great. I was better than anything I've read on KDP but I sure had a lot to learn.


 I had not tutor, no mentor, no CW MA course, no journalism background.

I just had to GRAFT, to read read read and write write write.

Had I found a teacher I might have saved some time but I didn't even know where to look.

Then in 1993 I sent a fax to Headline Books, they liked what I said, they encouraged me to finish my first Caz Flood Book. In October 1994 I got a three book contract.


Five years later I was twice the writer who wrote Cuckoo.

Five more years later I was twice as good again.

And THEN, with plenty of publications already under my belt, THEN, I went on a Creative Writing MA.

I did so because I wanted to change my narrow way of thinking, open myself to new worlds, new ideas.

Yes, I got my MA, with distinction, but to say so isn't EGO, or "arrogance" it is a simple statement of fact that if you have a little talent and are prepared to work DAMN HARD you can achieve things.

And still I am not "a big author".

Maybe I could be if I had sold out (long story) but I choose to write literary fiction, and I like short fiction, so my market is small, my chances are few.

But YES. I know a helluva lot about writing, about editing, about critiquing, about the sheer amount of work it takes to become half-decent. I could rattle off a list of students who were with me 6 months-3 years, who have been on Booker short-lists, had films made etc etc.

And then, somehow, I have to stand toe-to-toe (as if we are equals) with those who instead of working, working, working to perfect their craft take the easy way out and self-publish.

I don't argue (with equality) with my plumber, or my electrician. I LISTEN to my doctor.

I don't wake up during a heart operation and make suggestions to the surgeon.

The surgeon got a degree, then 4 more years, then 2-3-4 as a young doctor, then he interned then was a registrar and, then THEN, he became a JUNIOR consultant.

The guy who fixed my knee had been doing that stuff for THIRTY YEARS.

I know it's silly of me, but when we discus menisci and cysts I think he's the expert so I listen carefully.


So if I say to you, Jane. "That's baaaaaaad. The language is stilted. The sentences are all the same length, your characters are stock or stereotypes, the dialogue is cheesy, the speech-tagging is really dire. You are very telly and the plots are overly contrived..."

Am I being cruel?

Honesty is imperative. You need to know that we are ALL poor when we start out, just like the brand new army recruit.

Just accept that we ALL start off poor and can improve rapidly if we are open and honest about our work.

You have no problem accepting that at age 11 you weren't as skilled or knowledgeable as you were at 16. At 21 you were better again. Why? Because you matured and gained more education.

For some crazy reason too many people think the field of creative writing is different. It isn't. It's a tough-tough field that requires great endeavour over an extended time.

We can all "write" can't we?

Yes, and we can all "sing"

But Michael Buble can SING, whereas my singing is a crime.

In another thread, those who are scathing of most of the self-publishing market are cast as intolerant.

I disagree.

A few years back, where I was teaching on line, we all subbed religiously (at least a sub a week) and we all settled into a rhythm of hits, 1 in 3, 1 in 4, 1 in 5...

That isn't solely to do with ability but how high you aimed, how big was the windmill you tilted at. It also depends to some extent on how many rejections you could take before you needed the fix of a hit.

Suddenly one month, we started getting silly numbers of hits. WOW, I was a GENIUS!

But then it seem too good to be true. When something seems to good to be true it IS.

So I checked to see exactly where these hits were coming from.

Some good, developing writers had suddenly got acceptances from X and Y, and rapidly told their mates, who also sent in and also got hits (too easily)

Eventually I had to call these hits, NOTES, downgrading them from hits as the places they were sending were "showcases" taking virtually anything.

I wasn't CRUEL in doing this. I was GUIDING my students. I had a duty of care.

If your acceptance rate is better than 1 in 3 you're aiming too low

I remember once being rejected by a magazine that paid £10 a story. Lucky me. A year later I got £1,000 for that story

It isn't cruel, dismissive or intolerant to say "Don't go there! It's a trap!"

It's not "intolerant" to say that internet porn is not a good thing for my kids. The internet itself isn't evil, but it allows for internet porn and my kids are growing up with a distorted view of what sexual love is or can be.

When there was almost no self-publishing but there was VANITY publishing, we cringed at the poor quality of the VP books, the expense, the rip-offs etc

Shouldn't we have tried to point those "unfortunates" in another direction?

The SP market (for 99% of non trad-pubbed writers) is not very far from what Vanity Publishing was 20 years ago.

 One little story.

In a certain village in Wales, a gentleman I knew (very educated, bright, the sort of man who'd be a local official) sold his property and down-sized and wanted to "finish his book."

He knew I was a writer (I had a place in the village) and a teacher/editor/mentor/judge etc

He steadfastly AVOIDED letting me see his MS (his privilege) but others who knew us both didn't understand.

Then I heard he'd "published"

£19,500 for a tiny number of books

He may have sold 20 or so

Do I have an agenda here?


My agenda is simple.

I believe in writing as an art and almost as a religion.

If ONE person who might make it by working harder avoids the trap of SP, I've achieved something.

Whether that person eventually published traditionally, via KDP, or using 4-dimensional Venusian cup-cake symmetry ISN'T the point.

The point is they learned to write well first.

Sometimes, when I'm teaching we'll show how to edit a rough piece and make it magically good. i'l whizz around and suddenly that little story looks, well, WOW!

The most common response (at first) is "Yeah, but WE can't do that!" and I have to remind everybody NEITHER COULD I FOR THE FIRST FIFTEEN YEARS..

We just learn our trade, is all.

Ever watched a really good interior decorator? God, they frustrate me! They never get drips, they can paint perfect lines (the sods)

of course Joe is 55 and started doing "Lids, Sticks, Joe Loss" when he was 15. We can easily forget just what 40 year's of polishing can do for a skill.

My early work SUCKED. I have a talk where I read some of it out.

But, as I keep saying, work hard, remove errors, get to a base, then kick on from there.

RANT OVER (for now)


Merc said...

Yes, Alex, we just learn our trade and respect the craft and get more and more words written, and love the process, and do the damn work, and submit and fail and submit and succeed, and then fail again. And those same some of us just do our thing, and KDP and submit and POD and blogit. And some of us find just one reader who likes our stuff and we smile. That´s what it´s all about for me, Alex. Life´s too short to not be immersed in the journey.

Alex Keegan said...

The difference is, Merc, you first learned to write. You managed to get outside agents to rate your work. You paid your dues.

It's trawling through tsunamis of excrement that I object to, produced by people to lazy to learn their craft.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I'm thinking about self publishing myself although I agree with some of your arguments I also think they are a bit simplistic.

So while you say that most of SP books are bad would you say that most of published books are good?
While most are better there are many that are well published but poor quality writing. They publish what is popular which isn't necessarily the best.

Nowadays there are a lot less bookshops in struggling high streets (thanks to the internet) so even getting traditionally published is no guarantee of shelf space. Another problem, for me, is that to get half a chance of acceptance you have to have a highly polished m/s and an online platform and go to literary events, enter comps etc. That's fine but I can do all that myself or target any marketing more to the topic of the book.

Also I can pay a professional editor myself and designer so might well do that. Already the book has been revised following professional critique.

Still not totally decided. Where is the discussion going on?

Alex Keegan said...

There's an article at Forbes that says as many as HALF A MILLION self-published books are appearing in the US alone per year.

They go on to say that the chances of one of these becoming a block-buster are more than a million to one.

They also announce that the average sale is 250 per title but that's a false number because many of the SPd books are niche non-fiction or re-released previously trad-published works. Take those out and the very few big sellers and the average is nearer 100.

Anonymous said...

Those figures do sound realistic to me. Also I wonder if they are including free downloads as 'sales'.

Still thinking it over but I think my motivations are more in line with Merc's.

dan powell said...

Read this post with great interest, not least because your story of writing from a young age but only getting seriously stuck in later rings many bells for me. Couldn't agree more with your point about needing to put in the work first. I was tempted to self-publish my short stories a few years back and am very glad I resisted. Most of the stories I once considered suitable for inclusion now languish in an archive folder, replaced by later work.

Even now, with a completed collection on the Scott Prize shortlist I feel like I am just beginning. I'm still working on craft and trying to make each story better than the last. You're not really writing if you're not trying to be better than your last work.

Found your point about acceptances to be too true too. Took me a while to figure that ne out, trying to be a lot more selective about where I sub these days.

Alex Keegan said...

Subbing is a difficult area.

I have gone REALLY close at The Paris Review, New Yorker, Glimmer Train, but if I had only ever submitted to them I'd still be unpublished.


But, OTOH, if I had decided only to aim at those places and worked, worked worked at my craft and kept going, maybe I WOULD have broken in.

But my personal writing style is to write a lot, try to write every day, and simply the material will not always be of the kind that might grace a top magazine (no matter how well-written.)

I just write, see what I end up with, and send it out.

I think a serious writer probably should plan his/her rise.

You can write for three years and not sub until your stuff is seriously good, but I'd've killed myself!

I needed the positive feedback of competition wins, or a few £1,000 second-places in Bridport, decent paper magazine placements like New Welsh Review

For me that 1 in 3 was about my norm. You can aim lower and place everything, or aim too high and depress yourself. It's a personality thing.

Though I'm determined I can get depressed, so anything worse than 1 in 5 and I need a fix.

But the higher that 1-in number you can tolerate (and still keep writing a lot) the better. It means you aren't giving away stuff cheap.

I mentioned I got £1,000 for something a £10 mag declined. Ray Bradbury once wrote that he was turned down by a half-cent magazine and then the story was taken by Harper's, the toughest get in the world and the biggest paying.

Lee Lawrence said...

Nice article, Alex.

Alex Keegan said...

Cheers, Lee

It's not an article in the sense of polished work to send to a mag, just a cut-n-paste of stuff I've written on a forum

I'm shocked by the way one particular place just SEETHES with REEKS with this self-publishing idiocy.

The quality of the work is equivalent of 40-84 in Boot Camp. Just plain baaaaad