Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Writing: How do you know you're good enough?

Being a writer is a lot like playing Pin the Tail On the Donkey (PTTOTD).  In the game, you're blind, you spin in a circle, you walk towards where you think the target is and hope you stick the equine on the ass with the pin. 

In writing, you are creating a story (fiction writers), following guidelines as varied as the agents and publishing houses who decide the work's fate, sending out query letters and making pitches based on guidelines that may be outdated or ill suited for a particular agent or publisher.  And as you stamp that envelop or click that send button, you hope you have aimed right and true.

Sure, in PTTOTD you can look under the blindfold just before you're spun into a tornado of darkness.

In writing you can read a "How To" book written by one agent, who has nothing in common with the wants of other agents, and talk to an agent at a writing conference and get advice that is the exact opposite of the previous agent, thus spinning yourself into a dizzy oblivion. 

So the question is, how, with all this white-noise, and agents trying to make a buck off of their "expertise" do you filter out the static and find out whether or not you are good enough.  How do you find out if you have what it takes?  If this particular work has the power to stick?

Do you play by their rules? Even with the emerging E-market and the Nook and the Kindle and Smashwords...and...and...AND!

Their rules.

Their rules are you have to first get through the first line of defense.  The first line being agents.  You write your query letter, send it off, and hope you hit that donkey on the ass.  If and when an agent decides you are good enough to enter the game on their terms,  your agent then has to shop you and your work around to publishers and hope that they too think you are good enough to play the game, on their terms. Line up, spin around, hope, and pin that fucker on the ass!

What other business is run this way?  With such little control?  The owner of the business letting the bank call the shots?  I don't think so.  Sure, in a capital driven endeavor, the bank has some say, and sure, so too does a publishing house.  After all, they foot the initial bill, absorb some risk.  But how much risk is associated with the E-market?  Admittedly, being ignorant of all the ins and outs of what a publishing house can do for an emerging author, I know that the cost to publish online is near to insignificant, and it is mostly profit.  That is how I, a 9-5 employee, can afford to put my book out there on my own.  I paid my own editor, commissioned my own cover art, and wrote the damned novel.

Full cost? Less than a grand.

What business owner in their right mind would rely so heavily on hope?  Writers, you are business owners.  You own your product, you are going to have to do most of the marketing for it anyway.  You take all the risk from inception until hopefully someone appreciates you and what you created.

Is this folly?

I am not sure.  But I can tell you that my father didn't raise a fool.  If I am going to take all of the risk, provide all of the effort, come up with the marketing plan, and come up with the idea, why should I let someone who has the same English degree as me, probably read the same amount of books, understands economics about the same, and who is probably a step late on finding the next emerging market, tell me whether or not I am good enough to play a game in which they make all the rules?

Fuck that donkey.  Fuck his tail.  I don't even think the donkey deserves a tail.  I'm gonna go play chess, where at least I get to create the strategy and have a say in the outcome.  If I wanted to just sit around and hope, I'd play something as ridiculous as "Guess what number I'm thinking of?"  I hate that game too, because the answer is unverifiable.

I hated English class as well.  Not because of the reading and writing, but because your work was subject to the whim and interpretation of the teacher.  Each teacher had a different format from year to year.  You know it's true.  You had to spin the wheel for the first paper nine times out of ten, and when the corrections came back, you adjusted your next paper accordingly.  I can't tell you how many times I got a B or a C on a paper, only to wait after class, and patiently explain to the teacher what I was thinking, and how the remarks were off in their interpretation.  I usually left with A's.

So, how do you know?  How do you know that you're good enough to play by their rules?  How do you know you're good enough to be a writer?

You write.  You say, "fuck your rules."  You pick up the pen, punch the keyboard until your finger tips are raw.  You keep going until your eyes water from the bright light of the computer screen baking them in your dark, little, cat-hair filled office.  You fight with your husband or your wife to find the time to write, and then you write some more.

You send out the query and hope...

But you don't give them all the power.  You keep one foot on the self-publishing pedal.  Get your tires squealing, and get ready to gun the engine.  Give yourself a deadline from which to hear from them and to get your WIP a little greased up for the big show.  You outline that next book as the deadline approaches, and if it comes and goes with out the coach tapping you on the shoulder and saying you get to play, you throw the bat down on the ground and go play your own game.

And know, that all along you were good enough.  You could have won the game if they didn't spin you around and blind fold you.  You could have hit a home-run if the coach just gave you a chance.  You go play your own game and self-publish.

Don't be scared either.  When you go and play your own game, you'll realize that there are a bunch of other bench-warmers who will come and play too.

Sure, the kids who got into the other game might laugh, they might say, "look at the un-cool kids, look at the nerds."  But I'm happy to be a nerd.   You know what else?  When they see all the kids in our game getting a chance to play, when they see us having fun doing it too, and making the rules up as we go, eventually they are gonna look over their shoulders and say, "I wish I had played that game".

And we'll let em.  Because that's what nerds do.


  1. Wow. What an amazing post. With your words you have truly inspired me. Inspired the doubt, the altering fear, the sensation of defeat right out of my mind. There is nothing I want to do more at this moment than write. Wow. Writers of all walks of life will thank you for this. I know I do.

    Oh, yeah. Nerds rule. #BNFF

  2. You were at just the right place at just the right time for me. In the back of my mind the question are you good enough hides in the dark!Thnx for the shot in the arm, good stuff Nicholas!

  3. Great post Nicholas. I'm on par and agree with you 99%. I don't agree with fucking the donkey though, that's just gross.

  4. I always ask myself whether or not I'm good enough to be doing this. There's a lot of self-doubt there. And I don't know that it'll ever truly go away. But regardless, I'm going to keep writing because it's what I love to do, even if I suck at it.

    Thanks, again, for another great post. (And I think Team Nerd is the best choice for me.)