Friday, January 04, 2008

Seven easy steps to publication?

There's an old joke in which a man manages to save himself from falling from a cliff by grabbing a tree branch just as he tumbles over the edge. Realizing that he's unable to reach safety on his own, he calls out in desperation: "God, I don't know if You're really up there, but if You are, would You please save me?"

"I'm here," God says, "and I will save you. But first you have to trust me. Let go of the branch."

The guy thinks about that for a few seconds, and then asks, "Is there anybody else up there?"

I was reminded of that joke yesterday when I read this bit in The Kenyon Review about one individual's near obsession with studying how-to-write books:

There are the favorites—Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind which I return to often for their simplicity. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is another favorite. Perhaps these books remind me that to write, I must write. And yet, I have trouble taking this advice no matter how many times I hear it or read it; I have trouble sitting in the chair (mostly because I think I should be churning out something life altering, and 99% of the time it’s garbage). Conversations with other writers always end with the same thing: writing is hard. It’s hard work.

Later, the author admits:

...I can’t deny that I’m a bit young and a bit afraid of looking or sounding stupid. So, better to have failed while hardly trying, then to have tried hard, and failed, right?

Of course, this is why those many many people out there, like me, keep looking for the book to change their lives. We want the magic elixer! The snake oil! The super duper pill!

As the joke at the beginning of this post suggests, it's human nature to look for shortcuts and quick fixes. Even when we know the correct way to proceed, we tend to keep our eyes peeled for an easier way; a way that doesn't require quite so much time and effort and faith on our part. That's why many unpublished writers continue to pore over how-to-write books in search of faster, easier paths to publication. They can't bring themselves to accept the truth that there are no shortcuts, no secret handshakes, no Seven Easy Steps To Publication. They put off writing because writing is hard and it's frustrating because they can't do it well enough to make a good agent or editor sit up and take notice.

Sure, a good book on the craft of writing can be inspiring and instructive. But it won't do half as much for you as actual writing will. You can't become a good writer by just reading how-to-write books any more than you can become a great pianist by merely listening to Vladimir Horowitz CDs all day long. At some point you're going to have to sit down and crack your knuckles and start practicing. It's that practice, and not your shelf full of how-to-write books, that will make you a better writer.

Do you dream of becoming a writer? It's easy to look like and talk like a writer, but being a writer requires actual writing. A real writer isn't necessarily a published one, but only a real writer can get published.


Terry Finley said...

What a great article, and oh so true. I am the author of two books of short stories. I am so glad I didn't wait until I "knew it all" before I sat down and began to write.

Thanks....Terry Finley

Anonymous said...

You're a self-proclaimed writer, correct ?

Then I'll have you know that "elixer" is not a word in English. You meant "elixir".

This is how the literature cookie has crumbled : any idiot can write and publish books without even the slightest knowledge of his/her own language.

Brenda Coulter said...

That particular typo was not mine; I copied and pasted the text from another blog. But are you sure you didn't find any other errors in my post? I happen to be dyslexic, so typos are par for the course here at NRJW.

If this kind of thing elevates your blood pressure, you might be happier reading some other blog.

Anonymous said...

You tell 'un, Brenda. Good for you.