When people ask what I do and I tell them I write for a living, they’re usually eager to hear all about it; they have a million questions. I find this bloody strange, since so many people don’t seem to read books. Regardless, they often seem gobsmacked that they’ve actually met someone who writes. It’s not so much that they’re stunned to meet someone who writes for a living. I’m always necessarily vague about the details of that, because almost twenty years of being a sex educator has taught me that the last thing I want to get into a conversation with a new acquaintance about is sex, porn, and erotica. It would be like talking with someone I met on the bus about gun control– in my experience, it’s a path of tears.
Anyway, once someone knows that I write for a living, I find that our interactions tends to follow a certain very small number of trends. After ten minutes of asking me rapid-fire questions about what it’s like to write, let alone write for a living, the talk goes one of two ways. Either the person is an aspiring writer or they’re not. If they’re not, then we talk about something interesting — paint drying, for instance, or shuffleboard. If they are an aspiring writer, then we talk some more about writing.
Taking as a given that talking to me about writing is like talking to a guy who pumps gas in Oregon about how Oregon made it so gas station attendants have to pump gas, conversations with unpublished writers are actually pretty interesting to me. I often get to hear about their works in progress — but just as often, I get to hear why such works are still in progress — that is, why they haven’t finished them. There’s a lot to learn in that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s probably more to learn about the business of writing from an unpublished writer than a published one.
You probably already know that there are a million reasons projects don’t get finished — whether they’re novels, short stories or freeway overpasses. For the occasionally-published writer or the frequently-published writer who has a project or two they never get around to, the reasons are often creative or structurally.
But for people who never get anywhere — not just who think they might like to write and never do, but who sit down and write, but never finish a project, or finish it but never get it published — the reasons tend to be far more amorphous. Novels are one thing — they’re long. Finishing one to the point where someone might like to read it is, in my opinion, a bitch.
But with the advent of e-books, you can self-publish a 3,000-word short story in about six clicks on Amazon.com. It bewilders me that people who want to be writers don’t do that, just to test the waters. I don’t care how wretched your execrable prose is, it’s a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff I’ve paid money for. And yeah, you might sell only one copy of your 3,100-word werewolf romance epic — to your mom, or maybe your therapist.
But If you’re even remotely serious about writing, letting people read your work — and, if they foolish enough, even pay for the privilege — will give you valuable information about what it feels like to have your work out there in the marketplace…being pissed on.
And that is the biggest reason that unpublished writers don’t finish even short projects, don’t share them or join writing groups, don’t send their work out to publishers, don’t go to open-mic readings and perform their work in front of a drunk audience, don’t take the self-publishing route just for shits and giggles.
They’re underconfident — by which I don’t mean to imply that their work is any good; it might be, or it might not be. But in today’s world of easy e-book publishing — not to mention free stories all over the web — what unpublished writers lack is something that writers who distribute their work, whether professionally or in fan fic forums, have learned to obtain.
The critical element for putting your work out there is the willingness to make a fool of yourself if it comes to that.
Unpublished writers might have a very good reason for not wanting to make a fool of themselves — their work might be nowhere near being ready for public consumption. But like I said, there’s some godawful dreck published in classy hardbacks. Sometimes it makes its author a million clams.
If you’re in this category, think of it like that open-mic reading I talked about. Be wiling to get up and make a fool of yourself.
The good news is the audience is drunk as hell — by which I mean to say that some of them are belligerent and obnoxious, and some of them are giddy. Others are half-asleep.
And the good news is that even if you do make a fool of yourself, you’ll know what it feels like. Maybe that’ll make you stop, but I doubt it. You might find it’s addicting. And, like Camus’s Mersault, you may find on the last page that all that matters in the world, for you to feel a little less lonely, is that there be a great crowd in the square, and that they greet you with howls of execration.
The really good news is, it’s kind of a great feeling. So be willing to make a fool of yourself. Trust me, you’ll survive.