More Writing Tips

Stuff that we have to remember if we want to write professionally.  The author, Jessica Zafra, wrote this for and was published online on September 2014.  The stuff she wrote, even after two years, remain a gem that we could learn from.


The Perils of Being a Writer

By Jessica Zafra

The original title of this piece was “Don’t Be A Writer”. The plan was to discuss the aggravations of being a professional writer – someone who makes a living off writing, as opposed to someone who does it as a hobby or a form of “creative self-expression”—and dissuade anyone who doesn’t have the discipline (or compulsion) from even attempting to write. However, I was reminded that irony is dead and I would have to use emoticons next to my title to make myself understood. Hence the less compelling, but clearer title.

1-No job security. So you embark upon a writing career and figure you can support yourself by writing articles for magazines, newspapers and other media.  “Freelancing” sounds adventurous, like being a ronin or samurai for hire. You get to write full-time, and only about the subjects you care about. In the words of countless refrigerator magnets and calendars, you are following your bliss. Good for you—if you’re independently wealthy or living off your parents.

Freelance writers’ fees have not changed substantially in two decades. In some cases they have declined, and in other cases the writer gets paid not in cash, but in gift cheques from advertisers. You don’t get paid upfront. You wait till your article is published, and then you wait another month or two to get paid. In the meantime, how do you pay your bills? Oh, and you don’t get benefits. The prevailing mindset seems to be: You’re doing what you love, and you expect to get paid for it? Grow up like the rest of us and get a proper job.

You could get a day job in a writing-related field, like the academe or advertising or journalism, and write your novel/poetry/plays at night. If you have the energy left. I hear screenwriting used to be lucrative—not anymore. (By the way, what’s the deal with those Wattpad novels? Can the writers actually live off the proceeds? When they’re sold to the movies, do the writers make big bucks?)

2-Nobody reads. Experts say long-form journalism is dead, and the death knell for print media and “physical books” rang a decade ago. (I suppose the magazines now in stands are zombies.) Come to think of it, the expert is dead—everyone can broadcast her own opinion in the social media now, and its validity is measured not in intellectual rigor but in “likes”.

Not that we had a lot of readers to begin with. A country of 100 million people, and a book that sells 5,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Our culture just isn’t into books, no matter how many teenagers you spot toting the latest dystopian young adult title. Maybe it’s the climate, which is cruel to books. This may be why as a people we have such short memories and make the same disastrous mistakes over and over, but that’s the subject of another column.

If there are no readers, what is the point of writing? Of course we write the stuff we want to read, but we still have to live.

3-The reading list is daunting. Before you can even dare to write, you have to read. You don’t have to major in creative writing or take writing workshops in order to write, but if you don’t read, you won’t know what good writing is. You will have nothing to compare your own work to and nothing to strive for. You will remain ignorant of the nuances of writing, and inflict your awful tone-deaf prose on the public. No wonder they don’t want to read.

My Jedi master, whom you can now find on Twitter advising people to go asterisk themselves, said that we read because we are essentially alone. We read in order to deal with the one inescapable face of existence: We are all going to die. Life is precious because it ends. Each novel that we read is an extra life on top of our own.

4-You don’t get days off. Writing is not merely the act of typing words on a keyboard or dragging a pen across paper. That’s just the penultimate phase, the physical transcription. When you’re a writer, you write all the time. You’re standing in line at a supermarket checkout, you’re thinking of what to write. You’re washing the dishes, you’re plotting out your next chapter. You can’t take a break. You can’t wait for the lightning bolt of inspiration, or you’ll write one paragraph a month.

Writing is a discipline. You train for it the way tennis players do. They practice serving a thousand times a day so that they can do it automatically. If you’re serious about writing, write every single day. 1,000 words a day.

5-You have to be alone. Think of writing as a conversation you’re having with yourself. It’s a form of public introspection. If you’re boring, if you have nothing to say to yourself, forget it.

6-You become a cannibal.  You don’t eat human flesh, just your own. When you’re a writer, everything is material. It’s your duty to your craft to lead a thrilling life, or be around fascinating people; otherwise, what would you have to write about?

Your own life is source material – not surprisingly, many first novels are thinly-veiled autobiographies, or if you want to sound smart, Bildungsroman. This can lead to existential questions like: Am I living my life, or am I just going through this for the story? What is my real self? Do I have a real self?

And when you have existential crises, you don’t go to a psychotherapist who will prescribe antidepressants so you can function “normally”. Are you kidding, and cut off all that potential material? (But if you could find a psychiatrist who does talk therapy, like Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos, that would be great.) When friends invite you to self-improvement activities, just say no. If you get “fixed”, you may find that you have nothing left to write. Great literature, art, music – they all spring from hunger, thwarted desires, unexpressed rage, unresolved “issues” and all the stuff self-help books promise to rid you of.

When you hear an interesting story, you feel like whipping out a notebook and making notes that you can use in the future. When you watch a movie, you can’t just sit back and enjoy it – you’re already writing the review in your head. When you read a book, you’re trying to figure out how the author did it or how you would do it better.

There are advantages to consuming your own life. You learn that regret is useless and embarrassment is fleeting. No matter how terrible your choices prove to be, you can still write about them. In fact, the more horrible things get, the more material you have. Because the truth is, horrible stuff is easier to write about, plus it has a wider audience. You may ask yourself, Am I an opportunist, a vulture sniffing out carrion? You should be so lucky.

7-You will get ripped off.  In the digital age, you are one cut-and-paste away from having your work stolen from you and claimed by someone else. In most cases you won’t even know that it happened. You can hound the thief and scream yourself hoarse until justice is served, but you will end up spending valuable time that you could’ve used writing something new. You will have to trust in the wisdom of crowds, and hope that a reader somewhere discovers the theft, and that the discovery goes viral.

Some years ago, a reader directed me to the blog of someone who had taken an essay I’d written and posted it as his own work. He cannot have been very intelligent because that essay had been published in one of my books. Worse, the essay was written in the first person, and when he changed certain details to make it appear that he was the author, his subjects and verbs did not agree. Bad grammar gave him away.

8-Happiness is counter-productive.  Have you tried reading something you wrote when you were madly in love and your passion was requited? It’s mush. When your life is fabulous and everything is right with the world, your writing goes straight to hell. Usually you don’t feel like writing at all, being content to sit there with a stupid smile on your face. On the other hand, when your world has fallen apart and even your dog won’t acknowledge your existence, whoosh, you write like one possessed. You dredge up the dark and icky glop from the bottom of your soul, and that’s the stuff of literature. The universe strives for balance.

9-You have to be your own worst critic.  This is your first line of defense against bad reviews. How can critics break you when there’s nothing they can say about your work that you haven’t already said to yourself?

Of course, in order to be your own worst critic, you also have to know your strengths. Otherwise you’ll be so busy picking on yourself that bad reviews won’t be necessary – self-doubt will prevent you from writing anything in the first place. Again, balance. If you think you’re brilliant, keep it to yourself.

10-The second you think you’re great, you’re finished.  Complacency and puffed-up self-regard will kill you. Don’t believe your own press. Just because you have fans doesn’t mean your work is worth anything. Be wary of your cult, make sure you’re not the designated human sacrifice.



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