Last year I wrote a book entitled Zen and the Art of Christmas Letters. The reception it received exceeded my wildest dreams as it was picked up by readers in the thousandths.
That left me with a dilemma. How could I follow up on this success? Having written the definitive book on humorous holiday letters, what was the next mountain I could scale? Was I to be yet another writer who peaked early and failed to capitalize on an easily earned ascent to the top? Had I scaled the cliff face only to run out of climbing metaphors?
I knew I must get writing on something new without delay. I did not want my family to have to publish the rough draft of my Great American Novel years after my death. At that point, experts agree I would be unable to spend any of the proceeds.
In my quest for my next literary challenge, I noticed that everyone who has ever written a book feels compelled to write a book or, at the very least, an article, about writing. It was as if a traveler, who has stumbled blindly through the wilderness, comes out the other side and feels compelled to become a mapmaker. They are convinced that their meandering course, based on random choices and falling down many steep slopes, is something that others can and should repeat. Not content to take time to heal their own wounds, they seek to inflict matching wounds on others. Writing may be a singularly masochistic enterprise, but writing about writing adds just enough sadism to make the writer a truly well-rounded deviant.
But I think there is another, simpler reason that drives writers to write about writing. And I do not mean the blessed alliteration. It falls in line with the well-known quotation that people rob banks because “that is where the money is.” Writers, at least the ones who like to eat more than one meal a day, eventually tend to write books that will sell. They go where the money is.
Let us assume your first book on the mystery and romance boiling over within the International Monetary Fund did not sell as well as everyone expected. You might ask yourself “who is buying books on a regular basis?” The answer is that writers themselves are the addicts of the book marketplace.
Look at any writer’s bookshelf to see for yourself. Once you get past the stacks of unsold copies of Pecuniary Passion at the IMF you will find dozens of books on writing. Look closer and you will see how-to books on getting published, marketing a book, fixing grammatical errors, and talking to real people. Move some of those to the side and you will inevitably find books on the lighter side of depression and how various other disorders can be your friend. 1)A mystery-writer friend of mine also claims to “have more books on forensic science than Hannibal Lecter.” That did not bother me until I learned that he also owned a cookbook on “how to properly saute anything.” I now make sure all of our meetings take place in crowded public venues. The obvious conclusion is that if you want to sell books, target writers.
Writing is hard but reading about writing is easy. Imagine you are a struggling word-smith. Since you are reading this piece, that is a safe assumption. Each day you sit down to write and stare at a blank page. You long for your muse to provide inspiration and guide you through the process. Lacking inspiration, you seek the next best thing – escape. You turn to reading about writing. It may be an escape from the tough task of putting down words, but you console yourself by considering this reading as preparation for the writing itself. You might even record the next two hours as “writing time” in your journal without thinking yourself a hypocrite.
You dive into reading about writing in the hope that you will find that nugget of wisdom that will make your next piece a best seller. You go searching for the philosopher’s stone that will turn your prose into gold. Since I have now run out of mining metaphors, I will move on to the words of advice I have for you as you seek to turn your words of coal into diamonds. I guess I had one more mining metaphor after all.
True to the tradition of writers helping writers in the hope of selling a few more copies of my book (did I mention it was available at Amazon.com?), I offer you my insights into the mystical and marvelous world of writing.
Change your name.
Book buyers tend to go for established authors with name recognition. If your parents had trouble remembering your name, you cannot expect the buying public to know you. For example, if you write in the horror genre, try using an eye-catching pseudonym like “Steve N King.” You should be able to sell a few hundred books before some killjoy files a review. In any case, you will soon get a cease-and-desist letter suitable for framing as a memento.
In my case, I have always wanted an eponymous book title because how often do you get a chance to use the word “eponymous?” Unfortunately, the judge had no sense of humor when I tried to change my first name to “Zen.” And people wonder why artists are struggling in this country.
In the end, I decided to create a nom de plume of “Chuck Storla.” In the future, this will allow me the option of publishing more serious literary works under my own name, Charles Storla.
Write in first-person vernacular.
Some people assume that every writer should use proper grammar and correct spelling. Blindly following this assumption makes you yet another tool of the capitalist patriarchy of first-world countries. I happen to be a card-carrying member of the capitalist patriarchy of the first-world and thankful for all of the underserved benefits that provides. Still, there are occasions when it is convenient to declare a small rebellion. That is when it comes to spelling and grammar.
If like me, you got through freshman English with only a partial grasp of the difference between a metaphor and a simile, you might stumble occasionally in your writing. The good news is that using a dialect gives you the freedom to make up your own words and sentence structure. Who is to say that “fer” and “fur” are not proper ways to spell “far?” No one can contradict you without shaming you, your culture and upbringing. If you can find some small group that shares your dialect then you might be able to gain publicity through a viral Twitter uprising. You can call out the cultural bigots that nitpick your spelling and grammar. Then your book will rise to the top of the bestseller lists. Dissidents will buy it not to read but in a show of solidarity. Yes, you want actual readers but a sale is a sale.
Before you run to find a book to explain it, I should mention that you do not have to know what “first-person vernacular” means to throw it around when challenged on word choice. Once you tell a critic that you wanted your language to be “authentic to the voice of my people” they should shut up lest they are labeled a bigot.
Write what you do not know.
Writers are frequently told to “write what they know.” There are several fallacies inherent in this advice. First of all, it assumes the writer knows something that is worth knowing. For many of us, if we knew something worth knowing we would use that knowledge to get a better job. Do you think we got our day job as an airline helpdesk operator based on our vast pool of acquired knowledge?
Second, it conflicts with the other bit of oft-given advice to “write for yourself first and the audience later.” Let us combine these two. You are now writing about what you already know with yourself as the primary reader. Isn’t it boring to read about stuff you already know? If you are going to keep things interesting for you as the primary reader then make shit up. That is what I do and I am always entertained by my writing since I have no idea what I am going to type until I type it. Like that last sentence. It just popped into my head and that made it fun for me to read as well as write. If it was not fun for you that is less important since you are here to learn to write and not to have fun reading. You would have known that if you had paid attention.
Passive voice is loved by me.
Having previously expounded at some length on the use of passive voice, a link will be provided here. https://www.chuckstorla.com/passive-voice-is-loved-by-me/
Be humble until you no longer need to be.
As you are climbing the ladder of literary success, remember to be humble. This last bit of advice is to remind you that there will be many people that can help you as you begin writing. You do not know which reader will write a review that will influence others to buy your book. Or which bookstore owner will place your book on the shelf at the front of the store.
Once you become successful, wealthy and famous there will be plenty of opportunities to lord it over those who are beneath you in so many ways. Look to James Joyce as an example. The poet William Butler Yeats once asked the famous novelist if he would like him to take a look at some of Joyce’s poetry. Joyce said,
“I do so since you ask me, but I attach no more importance to your opinion than to anybody one meets on the street.”
Today we would need to put that in different terms and we are more limited by the available vocabulary. I suspect that the text message would start positively with a thumbs up but end with a poop emoji. In any case, if you continue to work at your writing, you can anticipate the day when you can respond with the eloquence and earned arrogance of one of the masters.
Some of you will have been bothered by the spelling of “advice” in the title. Yes, I meant to spell it as “advise.” I feel it is more authentic to the voice of my people.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||A mystery-writer friend of mine also claims to “have more books on forensic science than Hannibal Lecter.” That did not bother me until I learned that he also owned a cookbook on “how to properly saute anything.” I now make sure all of our meetings take place in crowded public venues.|