To My Young(er) Writer Friends

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Yesterday, one of my lit friends carpe-diemed and blogged all her inner angst about the unique and mind-bending fears that face a writer these days. Now, it’s always tricky to have a discussion on such a topic, with someone who is convinced that they are suffering the right pain. Often the messenger is shot or beheaded or eaten alive.

Or, horror of horrors, a fate worse than death (apparently, going by what one of my ex-friends did to me recently), unfriended on FB.

But the doubts are ringing in from every corner, from various acquaintances, and I don’t like repeating things, so here is the link I am going to send you every time one of you asks me a similar question! I am also going to borrow some gyan from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, whose awesomest advice on writing can be read here – http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/thoughts-on-writing

 

  1. Why is writing not making me rich (or make my ends meet)?

I don’t know which moron told these kids that writing is a good way to earn money. Newsflash: IT’S NOT. You want to make money, take up corporate management or architecture or data analyst jobs in night shifts. Or work your ass off as a small business owner (restaurants are doing pretty well these days). Or be a born genius who can create a social media empire and retire at 25.

But please, do not write (or self publish) short stories or novels because you want to earn money. Don’t expect your art, your writing talent, to be a money making machine. It does not work that way. At least, fiction doesn’t.

If you are into nonfiction, then you have cause to cheer. It’s certainly possible to make money from NF, provided you are skilled at it and do all the right things. If you want to freelance for magazines and newspapers, then get a job in the field or start on your own, and approach it like a business – set up a home office, show up on time (you can be in your PJ’s), be disciplined, plan each day, query query query, learn how to balance your sheets, do your 8 hours work every day, pay taxes. This is how people make a living.

People do not make money by passion alone. If anybody says so, they are lying.

 

  1. Why is writing for money not making me (really) happy?

Well if you are pimping your talent for peanuts, of course it’s not going to make you happy! Come on! Seriously? You have this amazing God-given gift and you use it to write for content mills? Talk about using a Samurai sword for scratching an itch! What a waste. What a crime. What a dangerous act to the soul.

Now, the solution is simple. Just write only the stuff that you want to and love to write, for money.

It’s not a sin, writing for money. We all need and like having money. I write for money. A client paid me a lot of money to write a hundred scripts based on Indian folklore. Another client paid me even more money to edit his novels. The magazine I work for now, pays me to write a travel column. In each instance, I earned money, doing what I love – writing. And so can you.

But you need to know what makes you happy and avoid what doesn’t. The last bit is important (which is why it’s bold and italicised)

Business copywriting is not my forte (I have done it and it made me miserable) so I stay clear of it. Even if somebody promises to pay me a hell a lot of money for it, I will not do it. And this is how I preserve my integrity and sanity. Don’t accept something you know you hate, just because it brings in the money. I know it’s tempting – and in some cases it’s possible to rise up to the challenge and discover you survived the ordeal, but most of the times, You WILL suffer at the end. And it will slow down the speed of your progress. That’s why I particularly abhor content mills. They kill your creative soul.

So, learn to say no to distractions like these when you are shaping the career path you want to go on. If you like certain types of writing, then build your resume to that level. That’s how careers are made. Cultivate the skills that are needed to get you projects you want to work on. You like writing human interest features, go out in the world and look for stories and pitch. You want to work for newspapers? Start as an intern and work your way up. You want to write a novel? Buckle up, read craft books, and write every day. Don’t know how to? Join a class or get a mentor.

Do something, anything, to remove yourself from a frustrating corner. But after all that, if you still are not happy, may be you need to ask yourself – do you really want to be a writer?

 

  1. Why does quitting my day job for writing seem like a big mistake?

Because it possibly is.

There are only five reasons to leave a job:

  1. If you absolutely hate your job and you can afford to lose it, i.e., you already have another job offer (hopefully, a better one) or going back to college
  2. You have saved up nicely, and you are finally ready to escape the boss-employee world and follow your dream career.
  3. You have somebody to support you financially, so that you are free to pursue your passion (this is a slippery slope, so take care!)
  4. You are unwell, and cannot work.
  5. Your life is in danger (perhaps your next cubicle neighbour has revealed a plan to murder you)

If you didn’t quit your job for any of the above-mentioned reasons, you are in trouble.

Nobody jumps into the sea without a failsafe arrangement! You shouldn’t, too. If you left your job without making any provision at all for your current expenses, without a proper plan of how you would be earning money, then you are a fool. Sorry. You are. I advise you to get another job asap. But first read what Elizabeth Gilbert says:

I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog. My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste… etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend: “It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

So. Get back to work, either to your new career or old job. But just get back to work… because every minute you spend moaning or worrying is a minute wasted, an opportunity to learn lost.

 

  1. How will I pay for marketing my book if writing does not pay well?

Don’t pay for it. Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to pay for it. My dear Millennials… You are what, 23, 25, 27? Don’t get into publishing now! My goodness, this is the time you should be kicking up a storm and experiencing life, not worrying about marketing and Kindle sales. Trust me, once you get on the M(arriage) wagon, things will change. Once the next C(hildren) train and then the EMI train comes along, all your writing (and non-writing, I am sad to add) goals will go for a toss. This is why you should not waste your single years! Listen to ole’ Radhika aunty!

Ah I know you guys won’t listen. Still, it’s my duty to say this.

And I often suspect that some are so keen on selping because they have a little too much money in their hands. Is that true? You can tell me. I can be discreet. And I will give you some super, free advice. If you do have too much $$, don’t spend it on selping your book and making Motion Press rich. Use it to study advanced creative writing (we know you already covered the basics!), buy yourself a coaching package from a writer you admire or get a flight ticket to Bali or Paris, rent a studio and write. (I especially recommend that you do the last option and take me along with you. You will get the coaching part free!)

Or you can give me some of your money. Really. I will save it for your future. I promise.

Don’t be an impulsive shopper when it comes to your writing. Don’t purchase it, for God’s sake. Don’t blog about writing or speak about writing or dream about writing. Do it. Write. Just write. Bloody hell. Stop the incessant blogging, stop ranting, stop all the time sucking stuff and just write. Do only the stuff that will help you become a better writer. No, that does not mean you hire an editor to clean up your writing – it means, you learn how to write better. It means you take lessons in writing, take lessons in grammar, it means you ask for and listen to feedback from others about your writing, it means you become a Bride of Writing.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert did. She says, “I believe that – if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression – that you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns. I made a vow to writing, very young. I became Bride-of-Writing. I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing. I didn’t know how else to do this.”

And this is what I say: Don’t kill the budding genius in you by the feeding it the wrong food – and that includes poison.

 

  1. Should I have contacts then, to succeed – or marry someone who will love me enough to gift me a publishing house?

Um, no. Well, yes, to the marrying a person who loves you, but no to the entire idea of accepting or expecting such a gift. You can be a writer, or a publisher. Not both. Not now. Not in your mid-20s. I know there are a lot of successful self-published authors out there – kudos to them! – but they all had well-written, enjoyable books that people loved to read. Nobody can market and make a bestseller of a bad book.

And contacts do help, but only to a certain point.  That is, only if you have the goods in good condition.

So, the first step is, simply, to learn to write books that can be enjoyed. And that, my friend, can take a lifetime. I have been learning for the past ten years and I am not sure if I have even scratched the surface. That’s why I am so confused why some writers expect their first or second book to be great and well liked and minting money. That’s like a 5th standard student aiming to write a thesis. You don’t grow a tree in minutes. I know Bonsai is beautiful, but still, it will always be stunted. You definitely don’t want to be perceived as a passable, but limited writer.

BTW, I do know a chick who married a rich guy who gifted her a publishing house with her pony tail on its official logo, didn’t get anywhere in life until she decided to be a writer, not a publisher. So there you go.

 

6. But there are so many bad books out there, earning good money!

Yep. The mafia earns good money too.

Stop comparing, please! If he can publish, why can’t I? If he eats snot, why can’t I? Well, why don’t you cite the examples of folks like Amitav Ghosh or Anuja Chauhan who do write great stories and sell a lot, instead of citing the Killjoy Bhattas and Screechy Pinoys of the world? Shouldn’t we be looking up, rather than down and following them?

I know there are a lot of silly books in the market – but think… is that the kind of fame you want? Then you should not read this post anymore. All you need in some money and a clever PR strategy and you can be an author who gives book reading and book launch appearances, and you can go ahead and kill good literature.

Because that’s what will happen, if anybody with money and some basic language skills can publish a book. Imagine a hospital filled with doctors who did not bother to learn their skills properly, but just rush through the basics so that they can start operating and saving lives asap. God help their patients, right?  Would you go to such a doctor if you’re ill?

It’s no different in the literary field.

Of course there’s nothing wrong in selping your book – I have one myself – but it comes with its own landfalls and responsibilities, just like any other path you take in life. Deal with it. All paths have thorns in them. Just make sure you selp a book that makes the reader exclaim, “Wow, what a loss to the trad publishing, this guy is right to selp it!”, and not, “No wonder he selped it, who in their right mind would have accepted it!”

Here’s the thing – and I find that young writers always are shocked on hearing this – just because you are able to finish a piece of writing does not mean it is good enough to be published (please don’t tell me your friend or relative or dog said it’s so). There is a thing called practice and there is a saying that you have to write a million words before you can be considered good in your language.

Writing does not come in an app on your iPhone. You have to work hard for it, not for a day, not for a month, but for years and perhaps, decades.You want to write a good book, be prepared to spend time mastering your craft. No shortcuts, sorry.

Finished one novel? Start another, instead of spending all your time marketing the first one. Not every word you write will be a gem and anybody who says otherwise is a nincompoop. Keep writing and making mistakes and learning. when you do have a book in your hand, you cannot expect the cushy breeziness of a traditional publishing (Yay Penguin1 accepted my book!) but the ease and coolness of a self-publisher (I want my book published yesterday). It’s always one or the other.

Sorry to sound like your Dad (or Grand-dad), but they are not wrong, you know. You will always realize it, often too late, that they were right on most things. Life always balances itself out. Gain some, lose some. This is a bitter lesson to learn, yes – even I would have the shot the messenger who attempted to tell me this when I was younger. But it’s the truth. The sooner you accept it, the quicker you will climb out of the pit and onto the path.

 

7. Will I ever get published/bestseller status?

That’s a question no one can answer. Well, they can – they can tell you to go to a vanity publisher and voila! You will be published.

I won’t say that, though. But I can tell you this – Don’t write to get published. That’s setting up yourself to a difficult life, especially in these difficult times. I know this may sound harsh, but it’s what I say every writer who comes my way. Stop expecting the adoration and the fame of being a writer. You cannot buy it with your bank account. You have to deserve it. You have to earn it. And that happens only when you write every single day without expecting to reap rewards later.

I recently lost a big project, one I was working on for more than eight months, commissioned by a reputable publisher too. Not a paisa was paid. I felt sad for a day, okay may be two, but then I moved on. Because it’s not my loss. It’s theirs. I will always have my writing. The book that is now in limbo – it has taught me so much, in terms of research and storytelling. It’s a stepping stone to the next level of excellence in my writing life. And only because of that consolation, I was able to move forward. Otherwise, it would have crippled me.

And that’s why you should not rely on the rewards.

Writing is about exploring the truth hiding inside you, about touching another’s soul with yours, about changing another person’s life with yours. And that’s something that won’t happen to a deadline or can be ‘treated’ by a clever marketing strategy. There are always exceptions, but remember: You are the rule, not the exception. Not until you prove yourself. And you do that by… yes, writing well.

And ask yourself – do you love writing or do you love the idea of being a writer? The latter is okay, really it’s okay to dream, to feel pride in your talent, but without the love of writing, without the discipline and self awareness, you are going nowhere. You may have your brief moment in the sunshine, but it will fade away pretty soon. The Gods of Creativity do not let fakes be in their world for long.

 

8. Are you telling me not to write anymore? That I don’t know anything about writing?

Heavens, no! That’s not the reason why I spent all this time writing this mammoth blog post! All I am saying is, write for the right reasons.

Don’t write because it makes you feel cool. Write because you love writing and you’d rather not do anything else.

Don’t write because it is in right now. Write because you have a part of yourself that is dying to get out in a creative way.

Don’t write because you (think you) can write good English. Write because you simply swoon in ecstasy when you create worlds and characters.

Don’t write because if A or B can write, so can you. Write because you are happiest when you write (not when you get published – although seeing your published book sure is something else!).

Know why are you writing and then give your writing space to breathe and expand. Not giving enough room to your writing to grow or mature, yet expecting it to shine like Aishwarya Rai or bring in the moolah like a Rajini movie in box office is insane. Don’t be that way! Research, learn, read (good books), ask for critique, and take the feedback without crying or sulking.

Many young writers really think writing is just transcribing (or, as my dear friend Nish would say, vomiting) from your memories or what you feel at the moment and then editing it so that it has a beginning, middle, end. No. That’s not what it is about. What it is, is a doorway – but to where?

To, my friend, a goddamn journey. It’s the frickin cupboard to Narnia. To a lonely, isolated, maddening but incredibly amazing world. No point in asking or ranting or raving why it is so – it just is. Everyone onboard will realize this in the first leg itself. And some quit, but most proceed, because they are too hooked. And like all journeys it will take time. Perhaps – to me at least, writing is the most wonderful journey in the world – so don’t just focus on the rainbow at the end of it. Stop following trends, stop asking for reassurance. Don’t keep dreaming about the colours of the rainbow and lose the beauty of the journey.

About all, listen to what your writing says to you, and it will help you. Everything you want to know, your writing will tell you. And if you give it the help it needs from you, in the form of discipline (writing every day), respect (don’t pimp it please) and nourishment (classes, retreats, critique groups), it will give you every riches you have ever dreamed off, things better than any kind of money.

That’s all there is to it.