A Defense of #amwriting (and NaNoWriMo)
I recently found out about the “War on #amwriting” while researching for a tattoo befitting someone involved in publishing, that announces to the world what I do.
It’s great article, bemoaning the fact that millions of people are calling themselves “writers” and “novelists” just because they can string together 50,000 words of crap in a month.
Even though 99% of them will never make any money publishing (with average self-publishing costs, most writers will end up in the hole for their passion and effort — chasing the dream of becoming a bestselling writer).
So I totally get the author’s point.
#1 What should they do instead?
What’s the alternative? Watching TV? Doing crafts?
People work hard and then do other stuff for entertainment. And then brag about it and share it because they think it’s awesome.
I get it, people are encroaching on the serious, literary area of expertise that used to be an elite skill that took years to develop. The author wants to call himself a writer, someday, when he actually finishes a book, but he’s waiting to write something of genius quality — so how dare all these pretenders steal the title from him and make it meaningless.
Those are the same reasons I didn’t call myself “an artist” even after having sold out exhibitions or “a writer” even after publishing my first books.
But at least they are trying to create something, which is better than just consuming other people’s content. We live in a period of history where there is no bar to writing — it’s not simply something for the educated and endowed, who don’t have to work for a living and can muse all day. You don’t need to go out and buy a typewriter and either make it or die trying. You can do it from your phone on the subway.
If nothing else, it’s a harmless and interesting way to kill time and use your brain. And it also makes people appreciate just how damn hard it is to write a novel.
#2 You have to write crap, before you can write.
I have an intuition about anyone who has been writing a book for ten years: they are perfectionists and want to get it just right. But here’s the thing — if you want to learn to write better, you have to give yourself the permission to write badly. You HAVE to crank out a 50,000 word first draft before you know what the story is about, how the characters feel and what happens. Then you can go through and make it all better.
And you have to do that ten times or so before you learn how to craft great stories. I don’t always participate in Nanowrimo (though this year I’m renting a castle just for November), but I appreciate it for what it is — endurance training. It gets you in the habit of writing daily. It gives you permission to focus on quantity not quality. It lets yourself take it easy and have fun instead of over-editing.
“Quantity leads to quality.”
For beginning writers, those are all very valuable experiences. Life usually gets in the way, and we don’t actually write as much as we should. Unless it’s a priority. Unless it’s a game. If I told all my friends, “fuck off, I need to write 50,000 words this month and can’t hang out anymore” they’d think I was an asshole. With Nanowrimo, I’m part of a movement. I’m participating.
#3 What is a “good book” anyway?
The author implies that those quick, fastly-written books are crap, and his will be of finer quality — but that doesn’t matter anymore. People want good stories. Literary novelists scoff at Twilight but fail to sell 5,000 copies (and that’s a “success”!) Personally I’d much rather write shit that 10 million people love, instead something for the elite snobs that gets forgotten in a year. (Not that Twilight is shit; nor will my books be — they’ll be pretty damn good. But they will be popular non-fiction, written to fill a need and make money and please readers; not for some vague artistic ideal and a handful of scholars).
And remember, most of the greatest books of literature were considered uncouth or unpublishable during their times. I know this, because I’m finishing my PhD in Literature: I could write specialized academic treatises or books that get into libraries, but I don’t want to wait six months for peer-reviewed permission. I want to break rules. I want to connect with my readers. I want to rack up those crazy numbers: 100,000 free downloads; or 50,000 sales of 99cent novellas. I want to become a household name like Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking. Yes, there is more competition now, but most of it sinks to the bottom quickly; and there are also so many more new readers. I’m smart and I’m talented and I work my ass off — who are you to tell me I won’t make it? And even if I fail, what’s the harm in trying for an impossible dream if it makes me happy.
Shoot for the stars, land on the moon.
Maybe I won’t really sell a million copies and buy a boat. But I’m pretty darn confident, as a publishing industry insider, that I can make a few grand a month for years and years. And it just gets easier as my platform grows.
The explosion of self-published books doesn’t threaten me. I see it as a challenge. A competition. Other authors are finishing serialized novellas like crack fiends. I need to learn to write that fast. I need to catch up with them. I need to publish novels, knowing fully that the first few won’t be that great. I need the negative reviews to tell me how to improve. And I’ll keep writing stories people like until I’m making 10K a month from Kindle sales (I’m 1/20th of the way there right now — if I publish 20 more books, I’ll make it).
And because most self-published authors are screwing up their book covers, their website design and their marketing, I know I have a huge advantage already. I know that’s an opportunity for me, because publishing books has become so easy I don’t need to wait for permission. I don’t need to pay for anybody’s help, and even though EVERYBODY is writing books, very few people are building strong author platforms, and most have no idea how to get traffic or put their books in front of the right people.
Unlike any other job, writing books allows me to work hard for a few years, publish a ton of books and effectively retire. Not everybody can do it. You need a lot of books, and a website that gets a lot of traffic, and you have to know what you’re doing, and they have to be well designed. And of course, they have to be pretty darn good, and fulfill reader expectations.
But for a handful of authors — maybe 1 out of 10,000—publishing books can be a career choice, and a fun and lucrative one. I’m looking forward to the time when writing is the only thing I have to do, and I can wake up and dream about my characters and get them in trouble and watch them battle their way out. Since it’s location independent, we’ll move into a huge cabin up in Canada somewhere surrounded by forests and drink tea and collect books and watch deer and write. Will I get there, for sure? Maybe not.
But it’s as good a life goal as any.
“#amwriting” is my dedication to that goal.
Because I #amwriting my life. I am the hero of my own story. I decide what happens and where I end up, through the choices I make and actions I take.
I alone am responsible for my failures and my successes.
I alone care enough about the results to change my behavior, and speed up my creative output, so I can gain the experience necessary to improve my skills and reap the rewards of a backlist of published titles.
“#amwriting” is a celebration of pursuing a dream even if the odds are stacked against you; even if it’s frustrating, challenging and difficult. “#amwriting” is thumbing your nose at the people who tell you to quit, to give up on your dream and do something more practical.
“#amwriting” isn’t a bold declaration of successful authorship; it’s an acceptance that the journey is rough, the sea is choppy, the future uncertain. It’s recognizing and admitting that gee, writing a book is really, really hard. But we’re all writing books together, and it’s really hard for everybody. That means it’s OK if I suck at first, if I can’t figure out my plot transitions, if my characters are flat and lifeless. “#amwriting” is a reminder of the path I’ve chosen to take. It’s emotional support. It’s a red flag whenever I’m doing something else, something that isn’t creative, that I need to get back to work.
The author of “The War on #amwriting” says:
“ the modern writer spends more time thumbing out the hashtag #amwriting than working on their zombie/erotica crossover…”
And that might be true for a lot of people. Maybe they aren’t actually doing the work. Maybe they won’t stick with it. Maybe they won’t get better, or learn to market their books, or be stubborn enough to keep trying. But who are you to make that judgment? Because, who knows, maybe, just maybe, they will — only they know for sure. Why not encourage them to reach for their dreams.
If you aren’t, maybe you should be, too.