Monday, August 18, 2014


“If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it, regardless of whether it has to do with sex, sailors or mounted policemen.”
-Dashiell Hammett
When I started writing my first book, I kept it largely to myself.  I didn't discuss it with people, I didn't ask for help, and I wrote alone in my room.  I knew people wouldn't take me seriously as an author until I was done and had a book, so I kept the book private until then.  Once I had an actual book to show people, they took the idea of me as a writer more seriously.

That's often how it is.  It seems like these days everyone is writing a book, because its so easy to write and publish from a technical standpoint.  Typing up a book on a typewriter or writing by hand is hard work, getting it published in the old days was a series of nearly impassable hurdles.  These days you type it up on your computer and post it online yourself.

But that glut makes it harder for some, perhaps many, to take a writer seriously.  You're writing a book?  So's my cat. I'll believe it when I see it.

Maybe if I typed with my eyes closed
Even more trouble is when someone has a hard time taking themselves seriously as a writer.  The self doubt is strong in almost all writers - is this really any good or am I fooling myself?  You get praise from friends and family, but wouldn't they praise you anyway, like a child drawing a picture stuck on the refrigerator?

Probably this self doubt is useful for most authors, because it forces us to try harder, write better, and not take what we do for granted.  A bit of humility and self doubt can keep us honest.

But often that goes too far, crippling us, hurting our work, and cutting us off before we finish.  Sometimes that fear or that doubt can make us stop and give up.  And if you have a story to tell, that's a shame.  I would hate to think some wonderful tale was lost out of fear or depression.
So here's an old saw that is worth repeating again and again:

If you write, you're a writer.  Period.  You don't have to sell, you don't have to be successful, you don't have to be published.  Writers write.  Its like being a jogger.  If you go out and jog, you're a jogger, even if you don't get into the news or compete in some bizarre jogging athletics.  You don't need sponsors or fame.

If you write, then you're a writer no matter what anyone else says or thinks.  You might be a great writer or a terrible one.  You might be a simple writer or a sophisticated one.  But you're a writer.

If you're published, then you are a Published Writer.  Here I like to shift the term a bit and say "author" even though its a meaningless distinction.  Authors have published works, whether online or in magazines or other works. You can be lousy at it, and sell nothing but you're still published.  Publishing an e-book is still publishing.  If someone else publishes your book, that's no less official and published than doing it yourself.

If you sell a lot of books, then you're a successful author.  Again, you can be lousy at it - there have been several very recent examples of lousy writers who were published and successful.  But you're still a successful author.  If you make a lot of money selling books, then you're in the minority, you have made it in your career.  Congratulations, you're one up on me!

But the simple truth is that sales or not, publication or not, even if all you do is write poems for your family in cards or a little story for your kids... you're a writer.  Don't let people or especially yourself get you down.

Tastes like doubt and exhilaration, alternately
If you want to be good at writing, well then you're facing the same effort as being good at anything else.  Nobody starts out a brilliant, polished, capable author.  Nobody.  It takes time to get good at it, and hard work.  Expecting to be a best-selling author with your first written work ever is like expecting to be signed by the Yankees the first time you step up the plate.  Even if you hit a home run on your first swing you have a long ways to go before you can even consider making a career out of baseball.

Writing is the same way.  You have to write and read and study and think.  You have to research and learn and write, and write, and write.  After a while you can get pretty good at it, and stop driving your editor crazy.  And some day maybe you can even be great at it - but you'll always need an editor.

But the place to start is by putting those words down, one at a time and not giving up because you feel doubt or people don't believe you.  Writing isn't like many other endeavors.  Nobody can make it happen but you.  Others can encourage you and support you and help your sales, but nobody but you can tell your story.  So tell it.  Billions of readers are eager to read.