Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I've overcome the insecurity of non-conformity and found myself as a writer. How about you?

One of my favorite things to do is to read The New Yorker. In a recent exchange with fellow author Pat Dilloway, we discussed how slow I am at writing. Inevitably, unflattering comparisons to the worst traits of famous authors came up. Think of the exchange as similar to one where Cliven Bundy, the Nevada Rancher with his mooching welfare cows, is being compared to America's "Founding Fathers" in mockery and realizing that the things Bundy DOES HAVE in common with them are the things for which we are ashamed (slavery). Culling my memory of New Yorker articles, I came across this one: a profile written in 2011 that described the nutty passion of George R.R. martin's fans. They mock him on web forums for not writing faster, they keep track of every word to the point that GRRM has become paranoid over mistakes, and inevitably they all say he'll be dead before he finishes.
"My fans point them out to me," George said to the magazine. "I have a horse that changes sex between books. He was a mare in one book and a stallion in the next, or something like that. People are analyzing every goddamn line in these books, and if I make a mistake they're going to nail me on it."

I think the phenomenon that's happening to George is unfortunate despite the fact that I'm one of the people who wants George R.R. Martin to write faster. And here's why: as writers we have to know (or at least recognize) that our profession is filled with the zombied remains of aspirants who shamble about with rejection letters pinned to their foreheads. But as readers, many of us can tell when an author didn't enjoy writing something. It infuses the pages of a book the same as a wrong ingredient makes a soup taste funny. Take The Hunger Games as an example. The writer clearly was forced to include the romance, and it shows because the romance doesn't feel right. To state this in a simpler way, I'm talking about having passion when you write and in the absence of it, I'm condoning the absence of writing anything. My idea is a rejection of the one that insists you must compose a thousand words a day, or even raising a "metaphoric" middle finger to anyone that insists "schedule-keeping" is the only "true" sign of a serious author (implicating by the inclusion of the word "serious" that by not doing so you are just a hobbyist).

I guess that makes me a black sheep in the meadow. But here's the thing: I've learned not to care.

I keep no illusions that the stuff I write is not great literature. It rests firmly in corners of the internet where certain people googling naughty pictures and naughty stories might stumble across it. Gary Shteyngart who reviews books for the New York Times will never blurb any of my novels. Marion Ettlinger will never photograph me for a book jacket. I will never have a cover designed by Hugo Award Winning science fiction artist Michael Whelan. I've had my share of critics who throw my "free" work up there with what they consider "great" and in the comparison find them lacking. Whatever. I write novels meant to entertain me and I just happen to publish them. So people that think like me are going to be entertained. People that don't think like me will probably be offended and leave a scolding review behind. Part of me blames the MFA's for this.

Writing as a profession is awash with MFA snobs. Yet, I also sympathize with the tired old English professor. They are either called on the carpet for being too elite or for allowing students who can't write a complete sentence to graduate. It's a tough job, but the MFA programs should be used to criticism. So I'm going to offer up mine. What I'm saying about them is deserving because they head the dreaded "writing workshop." Here's what I think of writing workshops: they are there for participants to have their work publicly flogged, and I guess someone at some point decided this is a good thing and sold it to all the rest of us. "Stilted dialogue, flat characters, muscular prose" and any number of other criticisms come pouring out shortly before your pages are offered to a goat to eat.

Then there's the literary agents. To be clear, I don't have one, but I know about them. I'm also not disparaging any of my fellow writers who have agents. You deserve your success, so don't take what I say personally. What I know of them is just the impression that I've been left with in dealing with them. In person, they are fast talkers usually speaking before a crowd as a special guest. They all say the same thing: writers need a distinctive voice, stuff needs to happen, plot is key, this is in and the other is out, etc. Far be it for them to speak with the legendary Steve Jobs who said, "You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new." I love that quote. And just so you know, I quote Steve Jobs here because he was a titan of business, and not thinking that writing is a business is a lie.

But here's the point of my entire post: each writer enters the craft with a strength. For some it is humor, for others it is world-building, and for yet another crowd it might be beautiful sentences. I know I find my strength in writing when I want to write, when I have passion for writing, and when I have something to say. This turtle moves at his own pace, and I have the luxury of not having fame. Yes, you heard me right. I'm not famous at all, and I think this in many ways is a fantastic benefit. The few hundred people that have read my stuff are not breathing down my neck and making fun of me online for being slow because I like to sit on the couch and watch tv and sleep more than eight hours a night. I've overcome the insecurity of non-conformity and found myself as a writer. How about you?

To conform or not to conform? Either way, I look forward to reading your comments.


This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group started by Alex J. Cavanaugh.


  1. Well said!
    Hey, I'm not a fast writer either. Don't feel bad. Churning out several books year - never going to happen. (Besides, I have a life as well.)
    I've read a lot of books from authors that you can tell they just went through the motion. I don't want to write like that, and obviously you don't either.
    Write at your own pace, your own style.

  2. I agree with you! I wouldn't want to be in George's shoes and I don't want to churn out books in formula. What's the point? It's taken me a long time to come to these conclusions, though. For a period of time there I was trying to follow all the mixed signals and advice - most of it conflicting - and lost my voice. Now I realize I can only write what entertains ME. Some people will like it, others won't. I'm okay with that.

  3. Did you get that article I sent you yesterday on Twitter? You and GRRM aren't taking 50 years like that one lady between books, so that's something.

    It's dumb when agents or editors post a list of what they want right now because as Jobs said by the time you'd actually get around to writing what they want, they'll want something else.

    It's pointless to try to chase a specific idea, like all those ideas who want to predict what will be the "next [something]." Like zombies are the new vampires so what will be the next zombies? It's as dumb as when those "analysts" on ESPN call someone the "next Tiger Woods" because he won one golf tournament.

    Still there are some genres that are traditionally more popular (romance, YA, mysteries) so maybe you can't narrow down a single idea but you can at least get into the same ballpark.

  4. I'm very patient with George. He'll get them done when he gets them done. I'm a very slow writer myself, taking 3-4 years for each novel. And as much as I do tend to like agents and follow so many of their blogs, it is pissing me off a bit that not one of them is even willing to take a look at my latest book, when I know it's really good.

  5. You had me nodding and grinning. I think you could probably be a motivational speaker, if you wanted to. I've only written stuff that makes me happy, but even so, I still have that deep-down feeling where I want someone else to enjoy it too.

    I'm a slow writer too. I've seen fellow writers churn out multiple books within a year and it just amazes me. That is both encouraging and daunting. It sounds like you have a great personality, and I think I'm going to go check out your books now.

  6. I actively strive to not conform every chance I get—which is probably a problem in a 'rebel without a cause' kind of way, but it's what I do.

    Mostly I just want to put out a product of which I can be proud (even if it isn't great literature). But I do hope there will be people out in the world who enjoy it, too.

    At any rate, you're not the only black sheep in that meadow.

  7. @Alex: I think you are remarkably productive.

    @River: I think you are doing great. Plus I love your book covers.

    @Pat: I did get that article.

    @Ted: I've read one of your books and thought it was brilliant. Get famous man. Then you'll have your agent/book deal of your dreams.

    @Loni: Motivational speaker? Moi? Thanks for checking out my books. :)

    @M.J.: LOL I know how slow you are. Yeah you and I are made of the same stuff.

  8. Sooooo interesting, Michael. I seriously love your perspective on things. No one has a mind like you! And I love it.

    Readers are smart. They know when they're being lied to. I completely believe that an author's passion does come through past the page. Perfect example with the Hunger Games!

  9. I absolutely love the title of this post: "I've overcome the insecurity of non-conformity and found myself as a writer." ... This should be every writer's mantra. Or at least mine. :)

  10. For me Defy is the novel with the overdone romance. I mean it is clear that publishers have it in their head that's what readers have to read. And they are wrong. You writing at your own pace is the best for you. Everyone needs to find their best selves and go from there. Forcing yourself to be more than you can be can equal disastrous results. Steve Jobs is a legend and a genius. Poor Martin, I would turn off all social media with those reader crazies.

  11. I think it was very wise of George to let the tv writers finish the story for him.

    Moody Writing

  12. Oh, I love this post. I agree with everything you say.
    Since I work in public schools, I know how we analyze the fun out of the books. It's the same thing in college. As far as writing, creative writing groups in college can be a nightmare. I've got a good story from my undergraduate class.

    When it comes to writing time, there are no rules. If it means something to you and you make time for it, you're a writer. End of story.

    I can't imagine what it's like to be a George or JK Rowling while in the middle of writing series like those.

    People do look to agents as if they can tell them what to write and how to write, but it's not that simple. Jobs's quote is great.

  13. I had comments... I was forming comments... but, then, I got to your statement that you are able to sleep more than 8 hours a night, and my brain exploded. I dream of the day when I can sleep more than 6 hours a night. And of locking up my cat so that he doesn't interrupt those 6 hours. Oh, man, I have such envy...

    But Martin is going to die before he finishes those books.

  14. I MUST know what happens to Arya. Come on, George! :)

    I'd love to have the problem of having millions of fans waiting years for my next literary burp.

    I taught a workshop recently, and I told my students, "You'll never be a perfect writer, and neither is anyone else." I also told them to make peace with their process and own it.

    Yay for you making peace with yours.

  15. Never conform! Be the best "you" you can be.

  16. I think it's a good thing to plough your own path. There's a lot of advice out there, but no actual rules.

  17. What an honest, wise post this is, Michael! And good for you if you choose not to stick to a schedule or any of the made-up rules of writing. Even when I went at my writing more vigorously, in days now past, I never had a schedule or a word count minimum. If whatever I had written that day was pretty good, I felt pretty good.

    The whole silly MFA emphasis that some people have was for me well summed up in a recent NY Times editorial by Karen Gillespie, "A Master's in Chick Lit." I think you'd enjoy it. Maybe I'll have the link on my next blog post.

  18. @Helena: I read the New York Times and I love Karen Gillespie. I actually borrowed her ending on "strengths" because it hit such a nerve with me.

  19. If I had a free wish it wouldn't be to be able to write faster. The words come when they come and forcing them only brings about crap.

  20. I'm pretty slow, too if I compare myself to some authors who put out a couple of books a year. But then I think, why compare? We all work at our pace.

    However...GRRM does seem horrifically slow and Patrick Rothfuss runs a close second imo.

  21. I think we all have to do things the way that's best for us...some write slow, some fast. Some have agents, some don't. I know some people judge those who do things differently, but there's no judging. Writing is such a personal form of expression, it's impossible to say what is the "right way" and what isn't.

  22. I enjoyed the post. I am not a fast writer either. I am working on my first novel. I am not out for fame or glory. I just want to write a really good novel. I am a voracious reader, so I want to write what I love to read. That's it. Do I want to be successful at it? You bet, but I will still be writing, even if I am not.

    Thanks for the post.
    Juneta at Writer's Gambit

  23. Some authors churn out a cookie cutter book a month, others take longer for the same content. Well, we all need to work at our own pace; and yes, as authors, love the characters and worlds we create. Passion, not speed, gets a well conceived book written.

  24. Although you were biased I love your advice
    Your comebacks ‒ they're quick
    And probably have to do with your insecurities

    these lyrics came to mind :) hello Mike

  25. I've always wanted to be a fast writer, but it doesn't seem to be in the stars for me. I've learned to accept it. I try to write 1000 words a day, but I seem to rarely keep to that schedule. I'm also glad I don't have the pressure of fans telling me to writer faster. I don't need that added stress! Haha. Great Steve Jobs quote.

  26. Hi, Michael.

    So true. Passion for what we right is SO important. And cranking out books is ridiculous. I write feverishly fast..HOWEVER... It takes me years to polish the original. I just finished the final edits on my second novel that I wrote three years ago. Far from fast.

    Hopefully the next book will take less time to edit. I've learned so much for all my seasoned blogger friends in the past four years. We are a very talented group and we can learn so much from each other.

    Do what's best for you...