Saturday, September 17, 2016

Writing Dreams and Harsh Realities

Recently I posted this comment on Facebook: “People always ask me how I find time to write. I don’t. I choose to write.” I was in the process of finishing a movie novelization that I had only a few days left to turn in to the editor, so I didn’t pay much attention to the comments that followed. When I checked Facebook later, I saw that several people found my comment “not supportive” and even hurtful to people who had so much else going on in their lives that they didn’t have the privilege of extra time to write. I tried to clarify by adding that “Everyone has their circumstances, but anyone should be able to find a few minutes a day or week to do some writing.” If people truly want to become writers, they need to make a commitment to producing writing, however they can work it into their lives. Seems like common sense, right? If you want to get good at something, you have to practice.

I understood the reactions people had to my post, but I thought, “My god, if they found that comment overly negative and hurtful, how would they react to being in a room full of professional writers talking bluntly about the writing life?” They’d probably go apeshit.

In today’s world – especially, it seems online – unwavering praise and choruses of “You can do it!” are how many define support, and anything less than that is considered wrong, if not downright evil. But professionals feel as if we’re lying if we give that kind of empty support. We don’t praise unless we think something is truly good, and we don’t say “You can do it!” unless we’re confident you can. If we tell you what we think is the truth, it’s because we respect you – and the profession – too much to feed you any bullshit. We’re trying to decrease your learning curve – IF you’re serious about trying to take your writing to the next level.

So, in that spirit, here’s some more blunt talk about writing and publishing. If you find it unsupportive and emotionally damaging, ignore it and consider me a cynical asshole whose heart is nothing but a cold, shriveled husk. But if any of it helps you – even a little – then I’ve done my job as both a writer and teacher.

NOTE: If you write for fun or as a hobby, and you have no intention of trying to make some kind of professional career as a writer, none of the following applies to you. Feel free to ignore it all and keep having fun!


Hopefully, you have friends and family that support your writing. But whether you do or not, it’s up to you to make your dream come true – no one else. You’ll have barriers in your way – we all do to one degree or another – but you’ll have to overcome them, whatever it takes if you want to make a writing career for yourself. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are or how hard it is for you to find time to write. If you truly want to do it, you’ll find a way. If you can’t find a way, you won’t write. Is this fair? When it comes to writing, there’s such thing as fair. There are only your challenges and what you do to overcome them. If you want a writing life, you have to fight for it – with no guarantee that you’ll achieve it.

I read this in an article once: Make a list of everything that’s more important to you than writing. The shorter the list, the greater the chance you’ll succeed. This is a simple way to gauge how badly you want a writing career and what you’re willing to do to make it happen. I once read an article in which the agent Russ Galen used this phrase: “a lust for success that would appall Napoleon.” The closer you are to having that kind of intense, all-consuming desire, the greater your chances of establishing a writing career.


Just because you wrote a book, story, or poem doesn’t obligate anyone on the planet to read it. You have to give readers a reason to choose your piece of writing from all the bazillion others out there. This is especially true for self-published/indie authors who have no publisher vouching for them. They have to fight to grab readers’ attention in a sea of traditionally published and self-published books. But traditional writer or indie, it’s not enough that your writing is good. It needs to be competitive.

What makes you choose a story? What initially draws you to it? What makes you start reading it? What makes you keep reading? You need to be able answer these questions about your own work if you hope to snag and hold onto readers.

You need to hone your skills and keep improving throughout your life. You need develop concepts, characters, plots, and narrative structures that aren’t run of the mill while – especially if you write genre fiction – still fulfilling readers’ expectations.


Years ago, I gave a writing workshop at the college where I teach, and some of my colleagues from the English Department were kind enough to attend. At one point I said “Writing talent is as common as dirt,” and they laughed, obviously thinking about all the bad essays they’d graded throughout their careers. But my statement is true. I’ve encountered hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the years who had enough basic talent to have a good shot at establishing a writing career. Almost none of them have, though. Talent is only potential, and it’s worthless unless it’s developed, focused, and applied. Not only do you need to become the best writer you can, you need to learn everything you can about publishing and marketing in order to reach an audience. You also need to learn how to be persistent as hell. After all, you can’t succeed if you give up.


There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about the violin virtuoso Paganini. A young violinist approached Paganini one day and said, “Maestro, it would mean so much to me if I could play a bit for you and you could give me some advice.” Paganini told the man to play, but after a few moments, he stopped him. “I’m sorry,” Paganini said, “but you will never be a professional violinist.” Angry, the man went away, determined to prove Paganini wrong. He practiced night and day for years until he finally became first violin for a prestigious orchestra. He then went back to Paganini and said, “Maestro, do you remember me coming to you years ago and asking if I could play for you? You told me I’d never be a professional violinist. But now I am!” Paganini said, “Oh, I say that to everyone who asks to play for me. How can I determine if someone is going to become a professional from hearing only a few notes? But I know that if someone can be discouraged by a few words, then they definitely do not have what it takes to become a professional.”

Harsh? No doubt, and I’d never do that to someone. But the salient point of the story is this: “How can I determine if someone is going to become a professional from hearing only a few notes?” Teachers (the ones who are also professional writers) can tell if you have the basic talent and skill to build on, and we can give you tricks and tips, and some encouragement, and then send you on your way. In the end, we’re just resources for you to draw on. You are your own teacher.

You can take classes, go to workshops, read piles of how-to-write books, enroll in graduate programs, but none of these things will teach you to write in and of themselves. Only you can do that for yourself. You can pick up all kinds of knowledge and experience that will help decrease your learning curve, but only you can do that learning, and you do it through reading and writing a metric fuck-ton. There is no other way, and there is no short cut. The vast majority of writing students will never go on to publish anything, and it’s not because they don’t have the ability. It’s because they don’t want it bad enough or they’ve allowed themselves to become discouraged.

When I teach fiction writing, I know that most of the people in the room won’t go on to write. Hell, they may never write another word after the class is over. But I know that there’s a good chance that someone present will continue and persevere, and since I don’t know for certain who that person is, I treat everyone as if they are that person. After all, I was once a student in fiction writing classes, and I never said much. I just did the work and absorbed everything I possibly could. Yet even back then, I knew I was my first, best teacher, and it was up to me to learn everything I could on my own. And the most I’ve ever learned came from plunking my ass down in the chair and writing.

Hopeful writers, just like the young violinist in the Paganini story, believe they need a professional writer to read their work and use their vast wisdom to tell them how to spin their straw into gold. (Although in reality, these hopeful writers are most likely looking to have the pro tell them they’re awesome and bestow upon them the title of Real Writer.) But even if a pro reads your work, there’s not much he or she can do for you. We could give you a couple tips, any of which you could find in a basic book on fiction writing, and tell you to get back to work. There are no short cuts. But most pros simply don’t have the time to read beginners’ work. They’re too busy writing their own fiction. And why would you ask someone to read your work for free anyway? You wouldn’t go to a doctor and ask for free medical advice. You shouldn’t expect free advice from any professional, including writers.

Now, many writers – myself included – do offer advice and answer questions through social media, email, workshops, etc., all free of charge. I write this blog to share information freely when I could sell each entry as an article to a writing magazine for money. Sure, there’s a self-promotion aspect to my blog, but I doubt many people run out and buy my books after reading an entry, and that’s not the main reason I write it anyway. Writers – especially in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror – believe in helping other writers and paying it forward. But answering questions takes a lot less time than reading and critiquing manuscripts, especially novel-length ones. Sometimes I offer to read manuscripts for free, but only in special cases, and only when I decide to (so don’t ask me). I do want to help other writers but because I need to feed my family, I do so through classes that provide me a paycheck.


There are a lot of negatives in the writing life. Rejections, bad reviews from both readers and critics, poor sales, editors who quit on you before your book is published, Internet trolls, self-doubt, depression, and worst of all, utter indifference from the world. The positives of a writing career outweigh the negatives by a country mile, but you have to be prepared for the negatives so you can survive them and not let them derail you. Mental toughness – or maybe resiliency is a better word – is just as important, if not more so, than any other quality for a writer’s continued success (not to mention sanity). And just when you think you’re as tough as any writer who’s ever lived, you’ll take a hit which knocks the breath out of you and lays you out flat. And then you’ll get up, shake it off, and get back to work. Because you have to.

If you want help dealing with the emotional aspects of writing (or any creative life), I highly recommend Eric Maisel’s book Creativity for Life:


I’ve known people who’ve pursued a writing career for decades with little to no success. These people go to workshops, classes, conferences, and talks by writers. They read articles, books, and blogs. They follow writers, agents, and editors on social media, parsing over their every comment as if it were a pronouncement from the Delphic Oracle. These people are searching for IT, the one thing that will lift them from where they are to where they desperately want to be. There has to be an IT, they tell themselves, otherwise, how come they haven’t had any success after trying so long?

There could be many reasons why these people haven’t succeeded yet. Maybe they’re looking too hard outside themselves for answers when they should look inside. Maybe as hard as they think they’re working, they need to work harder. Maybe they’ve grown comfortable with their persona as an aspiring writer and they’re afraid – whether consciously or unconsciously – to step up to the professional level where their work will have to compete against established writers and succeed or fail on its own merits. Whatever the reason, as I’ve said several times already, there is no short-cut. There is no one thing you can buy, beg, borrow, or steal that will make you a published professional. If I had to choose one quality that it seems to me successful writers share, it’s the ability to move back and forth between two mental states: being a dreamer and being a producer of material. I’ve known people who are certified geniuses but who lack drive, focus, and discipline. Their minds are like butterflies wandering through a field of flowers. Regardless of how smart or talented they are, they produce nothing. The successful writers I know have the ability to channel their creativity and focus on a task and see it through to completion. I suppose they’re like Pokemon Masters: “I chose you, Writing Muse!” The creature inside the Pokeball is raw power, and the Pokemon Master is the one who guides that power. Writers – really, all successful, productive creatives – need to be both Pokemon and Master and be able to move back and forth between the two mindsets as needed. A pretty silly example, maybe, but it seems to me to work.

Can someone gain this kind of mindset or do you have to be born with it? Honestly, I have no idea. I have it, and I’ve worked to make it stronger throughout my life, but as far as I can remember, I’ve always had it, and neither of my siblings seem to. I recognize the same quality in every successful writer I meet, but I have no idea how they came by it, either. But if it exists in you, even in the smallest of ways, you should be able to improve it with practice. As the I-Ching says, “Perseverance furthers.”


This is the bluntest of all blunt talk about writing. Just as the majority of salmon die during the course of their upstream swim to their spawning grounds without reproducing, so to do most people who attempt to develop a writing career fail. This is a fact of life (and death) and there is nothing that can be done about it. You can work your ass off, make huge sacrifices, do everything you possibly can to succeed at writing, and still fail. But here’s the thing about the salmon metaphor. If you don’t try, you don’t know how far upstream you’ll be able to make it. Maybe you won’t make it to the spawning grounds – which for writers might be becoming a bestseller, winning tons of prestigious awards, having a vast and loyal readership – but wherever you end up, it will be a hell of a lot farther than you would be if you’d never started swimming.

The best advice about writing I ever received came from Pam Doyle, the teaching assistant who was my freshman comp instructor in college. She’d read a lot of my writing during the class, including creative writing I produced as my writing journal for the course. During our final conference, she said, “I urge you to take your writing as far as you can.” I’ve passed along this advice many times over the last thirty years because it’s the only advice that I’ve encountered that is absolutely achievable by every writer. If you try your hardest to take your writing as far as you can, wherever you end up is as far as you could end up. And since you have no way of knowing where that may be, if you never give up, if – as Dory says – you just keep swimming, you’ll keep going farther and farther. Will you get to the Promised Land of becoming a professional writer? Who knows? All I know, is I intend to keep swimming until I die, just like those salmon.

So there’s some unvarnished truth for you. It might not make you feel good, but feeling good isn’t the point. Becoming the best writer you can be is the point. So get to work, keep at it, and never let the bastards get you down.


My latest novel set in the world of the TV show Supernatural, called Mythmaker, was recently released. You can find out what torments I put Sam and Dean through this time by clicking here:

I’m proud to have a story in the Horror Writers’ Association’s latest anthology, Scary Out There, edited by Jonathan Maberry. Scary Out There presents horror stories for young adults, and my tale is “The Whisper-Whisper Men.” Check it out here:

My next horror novel, Eat the Night, will soon be released from DarkFuse in collective, trade paperback, and e-editions. If you’re a fan of my Leisure novels – Like Death, Pandora Drive, and Darkness Wakes – you’ll dig this one:

I’ll be at the Imagiarium Creative Writing Conference in Louisville Oct. 7-9 and at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 27-30. If you’re going to be at either, come say hi!