The Biggest Lie of Them All

“I grew up in a place where everybody was a storyteller, but nobody wrote. It was that kind of Celtic, storytelling tradition: everybody would have a story at the pub or at parties, even at the clubs and raves.”  Irvine Welsh

It’s visceral, isn’t it? This calling that we’ve entered into?

It’s no wonder we take things like criticisms, rules, guidelines, reviews, and the like, so seriously. I posted a link on my FB page several days ago that led to a post written by a good friend of mine over at The Lit Lab. The heart of the post was centered around the lies we’ve allowed ourselves to believe about writing and about being a professional author (you can find that post here). Reading that inspired list led me to start thinking…what lies have we told ourselves, or allowed ourselves to believe, about what it means to BE an author—a storyteller?

*You can’t develop your voice as an author until you’ve written for years and nothing that you write prior to your first published work will be worth holding onto.

Um…shall I list all of the famous works of literature that were the author’s firsts? I’d rather not, since it would take me more room than a single post on WordPress allows. This is utter bullshit, I don’t care if an agent (or any other authoritative figure) has told you otherwise. Think of it like this: Not everyone needs to date around before finding the one they’re destined to spend their life with. Some do. Others know the moment they meet them. Some authors spend years in silence, never penning a thing, then suddenly they find their voice and set off writing like their keyboards are on fire.

*All advice from reputable sources (agents, publishers, editors, critique group members, alpha & beta readers), is good advice.

Need I mention again, Tolkien’s advice to Lewis to nix Father Christmas from the Chronicles of Narnia? Even as I type that it sounds like good advice doesn’t it? Except for all of those children who listed it as their favorite part of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. And the fact that Lewis, in his heart, knew that Father Christmas couldn’t be cut from the story.

*You MUST know everything about the craft of writing, in order to be a good storyteller.

Have you never been to a bar before? Have you never sat around a campfire and heard Uncle Whoever retell his childhood escapades in such a way that has the whole crowd dying with laughter? Have you never been to summer camp and been huddled beneath your sleeping bag in dread terror while some counselor (me), or fellow camper (also me) told you the scariest story you’ve ever heard? Do you live under a rock? Storytelling, to some folks, is second nature. I think I can safely say that I’m one of them. You likely are as well, but haven’t gathered the guts to state that you believe that for the record. And before you go there, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn the basics. All I’m saying, is that the first guy or gal who told a story, likely didn’t know the parts of the story by what would become their “proper” names. Those are merely formalities. Imagine it like two people who speak different languages, meeting and falling in love. Sure, there might be a little fumbling around in the beginning, but eventually you develop your own method of communication and everything else falls into place. If it’s meant to be, you don’t have WORK at it that hard. It. Just. Is.

*In order to be a great author, you have to be able to write outstanding queries.

I’m sorry, I can hardly type from the tears I’m shedding in laughter over this one. I’ve read this on more than one agent’s blog, and a couple of publishers, but ironically, I’ve never seen it on an author’s blog. Wonder why? Gee…hmmm….give me a second. ‘Cause it’s…you guessed it….total shit. Some of us, just aren’t short-winded. Period. Yes, it’s a fault. Yes, it sucks. YES, it means it’ll take longer to get someone’s attention if you’re in that category and you’re unpublished. Does it mean you won’t ever be successful or famous? No. Not at all. And frankly, I have no idea where this idea came from. Queries and novels are not the same thing for a reason, and the pervasive idea that if you can’t sum up your novel in 300 words or less, then you don’t know what it’s about, is LUDICROUS. And I don’t mean the band.

Seriously, this one is one of the worst bits of writing “truth” I’ve read. It’s terribly discouraging and does nothing but make writing a query harder for those of us who struggle with writing them in the first place. So, do yourself (and me) a favor and don’t spread that horse manure. If you only knew the number of NYT bestselling authors who hired a ghost writer to write their queries for them…(how do I know this? Because I know a handful of ghost writers who have written them for NYT bestselling authors).

*The difference between authors and writers, is that authors have been traditionally published.

I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. Really? I’ve read that one on writers’ sites. Shame on you! You ought to know better. Do you think that because you are published that you have the right to make others feel less worthy than you? No, writers are folks who write. Period. This encompasses everything from obituaries and classified ads, to text books and personal weblogs. Authors, tell stories. That’s all. That’s the distinction. Check out Webster if you don’t believe me. Now, I will give you the caveat that in order to be an author, you do have to have actually *finished* a novel, short story, or novella. Publication has nothing to do with it. That’s merely recognition for having done something, it doesn’t have any bearing on whether you’ve actually done the thing or not. If you’re still “researching” that first novel, and have been for the last ten years, then you’re still a writer. Only when you’re done do you get to call yourself an author. Even if your cat is the only sentient being to set eyes on it after that.

I think even Donald Maass may have stated that in one of his many manifestos on how to be a bestselling author.

How ’bout I’ll just settle for being an author, and let the cards fall where they may. Hm? K. Thanks.

*But, the biggest lie of them all is this: As an author, I am worth the value that others place on my work.

Nothing, nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve told myself this one. I’m willing to bet that at some point in your writing life, you will too. There are two kinds of authors: Those who’ve bought the bullshit, and those who will. Not a single one of us is exempt from taking a reviewer too seriously, or a crit partner, or an agent, or an editor. Not a single one of us is exempt from wondering, at some dark moment, has this all been worth it? Not a single one of us is exempt from feeling, in a moment of weakness, like our hold on the English language is a tad more tenuous than we’d suspected.

Truth is, we’re all learning, and no work is perfect. No work is without its quirks. No author is free of them either, but isn’t that what makes our calling so great? No other profession in the world is quite like it. Some might come close, but they’ll never reach the heights that being an author will show you. You’ll never take another path and reach a higher summit.

Whatever lies you believe…don’t believe the biggest of them all. At the very least, do yourself, and the rest of us who will (or already do) love your writing, and your characters, and your worlds, do us the favor of having faith in your natural instincts.

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13 responses

  1. Great blog, J.S. I love your blogs and your voice. Though, for me personally, the first rule kind of hits home. I believe my first book would need a major edit in order to be what I would consider high-quality. The story is there but all of the mistakes that come from writing your first novel are there as well. If I edited it now, I think it would be good.
    Thanks for the post. Talk to you soon.

  2. BRAVO BREANNE! This busniness is truly disheartening. Query after query my rejections keep piling up. I have changed and molded my story so much it’s a ghost of the work it once was. I am taking it all back and writing the story that’s in my heart.

  3. That last one is WOW. I need to realize this. I need to staple that to my forehead. Seriously. Thank you for putting up this, post. It’s so important that we realize there were never any rules to begin with, and that although many of them are really great things to consider, none of them are absolutely essential.

  4. Well said.

    A lot of nonsense floats around out there. Dare I say almost as much bs as good advice?

    What is really sad is the fact that a lot of writers don’t think to themselves and think: “Hey wait… That wasn’t logical!”

    Salut. 🙂

  5. You strike again!

    Once again, you’ve hit the bullseye, especially about BIGGIE #1. I’ve heard all of these before–yes, I admit that I have read Maass and while some of what he has to say makes a great deal of sense, you have to take all that will a pinch of salt. I’ve thought about all these lies (even the stuck up one about authors vs. writers) and have concluded that they are what you say–a big pile of smelly do-do.

    Still, I’m not where you are or where others who’ve sold works have been. I will be there someday. I’m sure that I’ll have all these dark moments. Just hope someone has the sense to kick my ass so that I see straight when I do…

  6. That last one is always the hardest to get past. Thanks for posting this J.S. – it’s always reassuring to be reminded that one is not alone in the anxiety all of us authors feel about all of the points you brought up. 🙂

  7. Yup – love this – always bugged me when the “cool literary types” would say you’re not a writer until you’re published. Like somehow the story didn’t exist until after somone paid money for it. Crazy. Even now that I have been published in a small way – I still look back and think what tosh that was.

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