The Journeyman Author

On writing for writers.

I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed at giving up.

I believe I’ve already written a post about how difficult writing is. Actually, it’s more about how important furthering an education in writing is for aspiring authors. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, however, that writing isn’t easy. One does not simply pick up a pen and notebook one day, put the ink to the paper, and viola!–Instawriter! No. Writing is a difficult craft. It takes years of devotion and training, hours upon hours of reading and studying, and hundreds of thousands of words of practice before a writer is even halfway decent. One of my professors once told me that no writer should even expect to be any good until he has written at least 100,000 words. For some, that count can be as high as 200,000 words.

So, we have established that at least. Writing isn’t easy. Good, with that settled, we can go onto the next step in the process–something that is equally “not easy.”

Getting published isn’t easy. Most publishing houses only publish a couple dozen books every year (including new editions of old titles)–some of the smaller presses even fewer than that. Not only that, actually reaching out to those publishing houses isn’t as simple as one might think. Most larger publishing houses won’t even look at you without an agent, and many agents won’t look at you without a previous publishing experience, and many small presses from which you could get that experience are already swamped with volumes upon volumes of other books in line to get published. For the start-up writer, getting into the business seems impossible. For many, it is.

Great. So not only is it hard to write, but it’s hard to get published. Any other bad news for us, Mary?

Actually, yes. Even if you DO get published, good luck making a living off of your writing. As I’ve also previously blogged about, most writers make pennies on their published work. In fact, unless your book is picked up as a bestseller right off the bat, the chances of you making enough money to live on from one publication are slim to none. We can’t all be JK Rowling (and, though that would be awesome, I’m afraid the economy couldn’t support paying every author the kind of money she makes). In fact, an author I knew told me he made, on average, between 3,000 and 5,000 per book per year. In a society where most people need at least 30,000 a year to get by, that simply can’t cut it.

So, what are you telling us, Mary? That writing is a worthless endeavor? That I should give up here and now? That my dreams are an impossible, hopeless fantasy? I’d call you horrible names, but I’m your subconscious transcribed into words on your blog, and I feel that would be inappropriate.

Luckily for me and my subconscious, that’s not at all what I’m saying.

My undergrad can be summed up in a single sentence: “What the hell are you going to do with a creative writing degree?” That phrase was the bane of my baccalaureate experience. Almost every time I talked to anyone outside of my own college (and sometimes even from Literature majors who, in my opinion, had even slimmer job prospects than I did), they asked what could possibly be the practical application of my degree outside of academia.

After a while, I got sick of explaining to them how, actually, writing was a very diverse field and could practically be applied to any kind of work. They didn’t seem to understand that all companies need writers in their technical departments, marketing departments, and sometimes in their executive departments. Scientific types didn’t really get the versatility of a writing degree. So, in the end, I settled for a simpler answer.

“I want to write books.”

Luckily for me, that shut most of them up. It was probably because they didn’t understand how difficult it actually is to make it as a published author. If they had understood that, I doubt there’s a scientist alive who would have neglected to point out the flaws in my line of logic. Fortunately, most of them made the same assumption: Stephen King is rich, JK Rowling is rich–authors are all rich!

If only.

Regardless, there are always people out there who try to step on a writer’s dream. There are those who do see how difficult it is. They understand the hard road ahead for aspiring authors. They know the risks–the many, many risks. They know the statistics. They know that most people who want to publish books for a living will never actually make it. They tell you to do something profitable with your time. They tell you to go for a career that you can actually make money in. They tell you to abandon your writing for something like business or biology–something that, yes, maybe you’d make more money, but would you really be happy?

Sadly, many writers do just that. Many writers let themselves be scared away from their passions by the prospect of a shaky future. Many writers fall into the trap, into a pit of doubt and uncertainty, and abandon their dreams for a more “realistic” future.

I saw screw “realistic!”

Writers, go for your dreams. No, it won’t be easy. Yes, you will probably fail (and probably fail more than once). Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it big. But I can guarantee one thing: if you never try, you will always wonder if you could have actually been the one to succeed.

So, just keep writing. Get your degree in a “dead end” field and flash a big finger to the people who say you’ll never make it. Maybe they’re right, but I personally wouldn’t be caught dead giving in and proving them right.

Cheers,
–Mary

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A story without an outline is a person without a spine.

Right now, I’m supposed to be revising my outline for Martyrs before I go out of town for the weekend. I’m thirteen chapters in, I’ve edited the manuscript down by at least three chapters already (the exact number escapes me–my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it), and I have probably another seven or so to go. It shouldn’t take me long. I know where I want to go and what edits or rewrites I want to make.

However, I’m not working on my outline. Primarily, it has something to do with that “my original outline is in the kitchen and I’m too lazy to go collect it” bit. It’s also freezing outside of my office, and I have “The Iron Giant” playing in the background, so I’m pretty comfortable sitting where I’m at. Regardless, I wanted to be somewhat productive tonight as far as writing goes, so here you go! New blog post!

My procrastination from my outlining also gave me the idea for today’s topic: the importance of outlining your novel.

We’ll start with an anecdote. When I originally began writing Martyrs, I was fifteen years old. It was really a simple beginning. I had characters, I had a general idea of what the hell was going to happen, and I had a computer with a keyboard. So, I sat down, and I wrote.

It took me a long time to get even halfway done with the book. That was partially due to time constraints in high school and partially due to having no clear-cut path upon which to take the story. I was having a really hard time writing, and that drove me crazy. When I got to college a few years later, I finally had the time to really look at the manuscript.

(I know, I know–more spare time at the university than in high school?! It took me a few months to make friends, so I was a hermit.)

Anyway, I digress. When I looked at the manuscript and reread the first fifteen chapters, I realized something. There was absolutely no coherent flow. The ideas didn’t mesh well together. Events that happened in the first chapter had absolutely no influence on the rest of the book. I had whole scenes that were nothing more than “filler text,” used to boost my chapters to an appropriate length. Basically–everything I had written was absolute crap.

I realized my problem immediately: I had gone into writing my novel with absolutely no direction or plan. The lack of preparation reflected in my work.

The first thing I did was outline the entire book–then the entire book series–and then, I wrote.

Since then, writing my novels has been significantly easier and, more importantly, my work has been substantially better. The ideas are more concise, the writing is more fluid, and the books, overall, turn out cleaner and clearer.

Outlining is such a vital part to writing a story I’m surprised at how many writers still don’t do it. Without an outline, a book simply will not hold together the way it should. Without an outline, you have floundering chapters with massive disconnects and little flow. Without an outline, how can a writer even start developing a cohesive story where every single element is thought out and put together in precisely the right way to make the work truly profound? I would argue that they couldn’t.

The arguments these writers–the non-outlining writers–have made to me against outlining are weak. It stifles the creative process, they say. It puts their writing into too “tight a hold” and stops the story from developing for itself. The worst one yet is probably the claim that outlining traps them and their story.

I shouldn’t be quite so annoyed. Ultimately, these are the words of amateur writers, probably writers who believe the first draft of their novel will be even remotely similar to the final draft, or those who think a longer piece of work is a better piece of work. These are likely the writers who haven’t yet realized that they will most likely rewrite the entire book at least once before they can even think of submitting it to agents–hell, maybe they’re even the same writers who don’t believe in rewriting at all (yes, I’ve met some of those, too).

Regardless, I have yet to be corrected. In my novel writing course, the very first thing we were taught to do was to outline our novels. Even in creative writing courses focusing on shorter fiction, nonfiction, and even essay writing, outlining was an essential step to starting off. Though with smaller works it may be vastly less important, for novels it stands true: starting a book without an outline is like building a person without a spine. It simply can’t hold together.

These non-outlining writers have fallen into believing grave misconceptions. They believe an outline is a strict rule and cannot be broken, which is absolutely not true. They believe they cannot change it once they’ve written it. They believe it stops them from being able to come up with new ideas.

But it doesn’t. All an outline does is give you a very cohesive, collective plan for where you want your story to go. If, while writing, you discover something that isn’t working, or if you develop a brand new idea to incorporate into your story, there is absolutely nothing telling you not to edit your outline and your story. All an outline can ever possibly do for a writer’s work is make it better–why wouldn’t anyone want that?

Perhaps later I’ll write a post about how I outline. Maybe someone out there would read it and actually find it useful. All I know is this: I wish I had learned about the importance of outlining seven years ago when I first started writing Martyrs. Perhaps I’d actually have the whole thing finished by now. Instead, I’m sitting in my office, putting off rewriting a brand new outline!

(Admittedly, this new outline is awesome, and I can’t wait to start writing this novel–again!)

Cheers,
Mary

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