A Brief Letter To A Worried Writer
Surprise! You don’t need to live in a city.
I got a letter from a lovely young writer in Europe. She is 26 and she has some worries. She worries she doesn’t live in a center of publishing or media. She worries she’s not good enough. She worries she’s wasting her time. She worries she’ll never write a book, and never achieve her big dream of seeing her book turned into a motion picture.
I gave her my thoughts in response and she suggested I make it a brief essay or post. I figured, why not? I’m not a megastar — I’ve published five books and I don’t yet own a castle or a Pulitzer, and I’m always hunting down more work (this is the main task of most writers, along with chasing down freelance checks) — but I do alright and I’ve got some ideas that might be of help. Anyway, with a few revisions, here is what I told her…
Hello madame! Well, you’re in a great spot. Here is why.
You needn’t live in a city to be a successful author. That’s the great thing about being an author. You can do it anywhere. It’s your words that matter. My friend John Scalzi is a bestselling author. He lives in the middle of Ohio. So does Dave Chappelle. Do they hang out? I have no idea! My friend Neil Gaiman lives out in the country. Not in a glamorous city. Stephen King, whom I have never met but who seems wonderfully grumpy and kind, lives up in Maine somewhere rural. Not fancy. Not close to an NYC or a Los Angeles or a London. They do their work. That’s the important part, not the geography.
Most first-time published authors are over the age of 40. True fact. The Yale Younger Poets prizes go to poets under the age of 40. Why? Because under 40 is considered very young for a first-time author. It really is, no matter how many notices you read in the press about a 14-year-old with an artistic vision getting a 3-book deal to write about mudfairies who invent a social media app that eats all the unicorns, but then the unicorns fight back.
You’ve just got to keep writing. That’s really the only thing. And you’re 26 and have loads of time to fuck up and get better and fuck up more and get even better than before. And when, like me, you’ve got a few books out, you’ll STILL look back and go, “Hmm, going to do that better in future.” It never ends, the process of getting better. I just handed in a screenplay and immediately thought of a typo I missed. But eventually you’ve got to abandon one child to the wilderness, hoping he’s well-enough prepared for it, and then go off and make a new baby.
You can write essays to warm up to writing a book. If you’d like to try your hand at essays first, as many future book authors do, check out Mediabistro.com and their “How to Pitch” series. Pretty sure you can join for a year’s membership. That series of articles is amazing. They go to editors at magazines, websites, etc and ask, “How should people pitch you?” AND THEN THE EDITORS TELL THEM. Really invaluable.
Read a fuckload of everything, including stuff that’s outside your area of interest. Read great sportswriting even if you don’t understand the sports or the subject (try Dave Zirin) and read sci-fi, horror, romance, etc. You’ll learn. It’s like cross-training instead of just walking the treadmill each day. The point is that great storytelling is great storytelling.
Having something optioned for TV or a film is fun but it is not the whole enchilada. In the United States (unless you have written “The Hunger Games” or the elusive American “Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone”) you might make $2,000-$10,000 for this. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Then they go and make something out of it, or they don’t. I’ve been fortunate to get the job to adapt two of my books myself — once for TV, once for film. This means I got hired by the folks who optioned the book to actually adapt the book. This doesn’t often happen with authors, and one reason is that we can get very precious about our source material (because, after all, we wrote it).
I’ve just completed the film adaptation of one book, “DC Trip.” The television adaptation of another book, “Agorafabulous!” has been sold to two networks who ultimately decided not to make the show. Now we’re searching for its forever home (to employ dog adoption terminology). Another book, “Great,” has been optioned for television, and we’re shopping it around as we speak. Will any of it make it onto a television or a movie screen? Who knows? I have a friend who bought a lovely house by selling seven screenplays that have never been turned into a real film. Getting a book optioned, even getting the job to adapt it yourself, really is a bit of a game of luck.
This is all just to say that it’s an awesome dream and a lot of this is talent mixed with luck mixed with hard work. So you’ve got the talent; you do the hard work; and the luck is the luck. Don’t beat yourself up regardless.
And by the way, if you wrote to me at the age of 75, much of my advice would be the same. Don’t worry about who is ahead of you and who is behind you, in your estimation. I’ve got plenty of friends who began in stand-up comedy at the same time as I did who stuck with it (I did not) and now have TV shows and movies. And I’ve got plenty of writer friends who’ve gotten bigger and better reviews. And then there are folks who would likely look at me and say I was ahead of them. But the truth is the sun shines on all of us and the rain falls on all of us and we all die, so let’s just skip over the part where you stew for six days because your friend Daria got a book deal and you didn’t. Stew for six minutes, and then go use the energy of the stewing to write something.
Envy and even jealousy are natural. But let’s keep our eyes on our own paper. There is great work to be done, and it is up to us to do it.
You got this. Just don’t ever give up on it. Take breaks. But don’t give up.