Writer: Know Thyself!

I was perusing my bookshelf this morning (in truth I was looking for a couple of books with the right spine width to wedge under a door my husband was re-installing – but I digress), when I happened upon one of my favourite old books. Over the years I’ve culled my book collection mercilessly, but there are a few that still remain on my shelf. Written by literary agent John Boswell, this one has remained one book that I do re-read from time to time, just to keep me grounded as a writer.

the awful truthIt is titled The Awful Truth About Publishing: Why they always reject your manuscript – and what you can do about it. In spite of its age (it was published in 1986 by Warner Books), and the concomitant fact that it was published long before the advent of the eBook era and the avalanche of self-publishing, it remains one of the best reads to help a writer with her head in the clouds to keep her feet on the ground – which is the only place to be if any real success is to follow.

As I cracked the cover (hard cover at that) I opened the book at Chapter 4: “The Awful Truth About Yourself.” And it does seem to me in these days when the “cult of the amateur” shrouds just about every facet of artistic endeavour (movie-making, music production and, yes, you guessed it, writing) it might be worthwhile for aspiring and other writers to do a bit of navel-gazing. Are we always aware of the truth about ourselves? Based on some of the drivel I’ve read recently, coupled with the book-marketing noise on the Web, it seems that many “writers” are, indeed, blind to some truths about themselves. And I put myself in that category from time to time.

Boswell offers this: “Writing, for the gifted few, is an art, and the chances of reaching this level are about as good as they are of becoming a prima ballerina or a major league second baseman” (The awful truth about publishing, p. 41). I love to be reminded that writing is indeed one of the arts, a factoid that seems to be forgotten by those among us who harp on ‘authorpreueurship’. While I’m all for the notion of self-help even in writing, let’s be clear that if you’re writing a book with the clear objective of making money, then this isn’t art.  It’s content creation and it’s okay. But it isn’t art. Some of my own work – or at least work in progress – seems to bend in that direction, while other work is simply seeing if I can create a piece of art that will entertain and perhaps even provoke.

He then goes on to make a statement that, had he been able to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future of publishing as we know it today he would have realized is even more profound. “Fortunately,” he writes, “…writing is also a craft and one which can indeed be learned by almost anyone. But…it is still not something that can be learned overnight, or a skill that pops into your head, fully honed once you ’get around’ to putting your publishable thoughts on paper…” (p. 41). And here is where it gets really muddy these days.

Boswell poses a question that I’ve often asked my own students – and use to ask myself. Do you want to be an “author” or do you want to write? It’s much the same question as do you want to write, or simply to “have written”? And these days we might also ask: do you want to be a writer or a content creator? One is not fundamentally better than the other, but they are different. They have different objectives, processes and audiences. In my view it’s really only a matter of knowing yourself. I’m trying.

[I’ve written about ‘content creators ‘ here  https://backstorywriting.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/are-you-a-writer-or-a-content-creator/ ]

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2 thoughts on “Writer: Know Thyself!

  1. While I understand some of the points the author is trying to make, I disagree completely with its fundamental thesis.

    It hurts me to the bone to know that someone is telling students they must choose between being an author or “content creator” (something I had done from 1982 to 2000 without ever hearing the phrase).

    In my own life, I have spent an equal number of years in what journalists would call content creation and what journalists would call it being an author.

    My success as an author can be directly attributed to my success as a “content creator,” which to my understanding means materials produced with a point of view that will persuade the consumer to take a certain action, such as get their blood pressure checked, purchase a service or product, or attend a symphony concert featuring Isaac Stern.

    I picked these goals because I wrote about all of them during my years as a “content creator.” I measured my success based on how well I persuaded people to do those things. As a writer, I chose things that I believed in.

    As a quote content creator unquote, I found that my greatest strength was taking complicated issues and making them understandable.

    As a matter of fact, one thing that I wrote about was so complicated that instead of going to the audience of end consumers, the client ended up giving it to the technicians to help them understand what they were supposed to be doing.

    I wrote my first book, stop walking on eggshells, in 1998 after finding out that my mother suffered from something called borderline personality disorder.

    A lot of mothers had it, and it made their children’s lives in some cases unbearable, depending upon the sub-category within the entire diagnosis.

    I wrote the book because the world needed it (including me), because I lost a major writing account, and because I had a literary agent friend who thought the subject was a great idea and was willing to take it on.

    I used every writing trick I knew to write the first book, stop walking on eggshells. Everything I had gleaned from the classics, from the books I have read about fiction, alliteration, onomatopoeia. I picked out the best quotes from people who had gone through these family experiences – quotes that make you laugh or remember them for a long time.

    At one of the hospitals I had work for, I had gotten the chance to take an advanced writing class on the use of color in writing, & I used everything I knew about that in what could have been run of the mill stories about what a therapist does all day or how a volunteer helped a paraplegic with his life alert button. I saw a whole new side of writing I had not considered before.

    The book I ended up writing was a lot more interesting then the jargon-fest tomes written by people with more credentials but less real life knowledge. I used the same style of writing in my blogs on the Psychology Today website, which makes them uniquely my own. I get over a million hits on a relatively small subject, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders.

    Long story short, the book was a major success has sold more than 700,000 copies in some 13 languages. I’ve written to follow up books and I’m working on one more.

    If you ask me why the book was a success, it has everything to do with what people are calling “content creation,” as if it were the type of writing that didn’t deserve as much polishing and use of advanced techniques.

    The success of the books are totally due to the lessons I learned from the writing I did between 1982 and 1995. I learned that to motivate people to take a certain action, you need to learn what makes them tick. You need to understand your audience and what motivates them. You have to know how they speak..

    I had experience in writing about products that were horribly unsuccessful, not because of the writing I did but because they were simply terrible products. In honor of one of the products simply could not sell his product even when his prospects or standing right there looking at it. Somehow he had the idea that the right for color brochure would make the sale. I knew it would have been a waste of money and I told him I couldn’t do the job.

    Three of my jobs or freelance gigs had to do with trying to sell products or services people did not want. It’s harder to sell Symphony tickets then Packer tickets. It’s difficult to sell senior housing when nobody wants to call themselves a senior, but to get the government grant you have to call it senior housing.

    One of my clients wanted to sell a very expensive children’s wooden toy that they could pass them on to the next generation. Nobody wanted to buy expensive Legos, not even at the mall when the prospect was looking right at them.

    ******As a writer, there is nothing you can do and nothing you can say to sell a product somebody doesn’t want or care about.*******

    That is a lesson that every writer want to know and I want to learn back and forth. Pedal the idea for their book house to house. Put it on a fundraising sites. Try to sell it to the people you know. Whatever you do, get 100 people to commit to buying your book before you write one word.

    That is what I did. I did research. I got commitments from the internet. I researched clinicians on how interested they were and I compared the percentage of people who were interested with the entire percentage of mental health professionals even knowing that it wasn’t scientific.

    I never would have known how to write a book had I not had that other experience – even though the other experience has not taught me a thing about longform writing.

    I think it comes down to motivation, not content creation or being an author (implying that you must be either one or the other ).

    I’m not a fiction writer. But I came across a website called wired for story, and it’s about how truly good fiction differs from not so great fiction. The writer of the blog and the book that goes with it says that MFA programs may produce technically good writers, but people who don’t know how to write books that people will really get into.

    Does a book have to be badly written in order for reams of women to get interested in them like Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight?

    Not at all. Just look at JK Rowling who managed the perfect balance between story and art.

    When people want a good book to read, they often post something on Facebook that says something like, “I’m going to be laid up for a while in bed because I’m having surgery, and I’m wondering who has any good books to recommend?”

    My Facebook friends are mainly other authors and journalists. And they almost always ask for the same kind of book: a book that takes them into another world and won’t let them stop turning the pages. Like I said, I only know fiction. But if I were writing fiction, I certainly would try to write a book tha takes people to another place.

    I’ve been dictating this and it hasn’t been easy making all the words perfect and cutting all the paragraphs together, so please forgive me because this is not a perfect example of my writing and I’ve spent about 5 times longer than I should have writing this.

    But it’s critically important not to present two options to students. Writing is much more nuanced than that. You can be good at whatever you do, and sometimes being good at something isn’t what YOU think it is. It’s what your READERS think it is. If you find a subject that satisfies you both, that is interesting and necessary enough for someone to buy information about it, and is good enough that your readers will sell it for you through word-of-mouth, jump on it. I

    f I had not gotten a publishing contract from New Harbinger for my first book, I had already gotten $20,000 of money committed from the people in my online community.

    If the thought of finding 100 people to sign up to be notified when your book is available based on information you give them, can you don’t know where you would go and you don’t know how you describe the book, you have a lot of work to do.

    But most of all, if you want to be author, spend a good 10 years learning your craft as a content writer– especially in the public relations and marketing field–is the best preparation you can get.

    Randi Kreger

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