Getting Real

When I was a young writer (sung to the tune of “when he was a young warthog”) and we rented our first house, the landlord who was maybe all of five years older than us (maybe 28) asked my profession.

Since at the time I did not have a job, I told him none.  He asked me what I did all day, and my husband told him I wrote novels.  The landlord insisted on putting down “writer” as my profession, which embarrassed me mortally, since I didn’t think I was one/hadn’t done anything to deserve being called that.  Or at least so I thought.I also thought it highly unlikely I’d ever be a PUBLISHED writer.

Look, it’s not false modesty.  We’d lived in an apartment for two years (the move to the house was to get my husband closer to his job, because traffic had started getting bad and an hour and a half to get home was too much) and I’d tried my hand at writing in English/for publication that long.  It was enough to realize I had no perceivable natural talent (actually I do, for characters, but if your plot is a dog’s breakfast, the characters won’t save it.)  I’d also read enough of writers’ magazines and “how I got published” interviews to realize it was a business that relied on contacts in the field and/or attending conferences and workshops.

I was totally without contacts, and I had no money to attend workshops.  On top of that, I knew my language was stilted and odd, coming from having learned English in a classroom and not at mama’s knee.

Purely on the odds, the chance of my ever getting published were about 0 or maybe less.  So I was both flattered, terrified and embarrassed by the man insisting I was a writer.  He told me “if you write, you’re a writer.  Publication doesn’t confer any special king of aura.  It’s what you do that counts.”

Eventually he became one of my first readers, until we moved away, and I feel mildly embarrassed I can’t remember his name.

Anyway, moving on: I obviously made it to publication.  Sure.  But there was nothing obvious to me, from the inside, as I was fighting my way in.  And honestly, looking at the people I met along the way, in better circumstances than I, at least to the extent they weren’t ESL, the only thing I have over them is that I’m too stupid to give up.  Or that, say after my first series crashed and burned, every time I was ready to throw in the towel, something happened that made me need the money, so I had to keep writing/take work for hire/write all the short stories, because the circumstances (small kids) didn’t allow me to get an outside-the-house job.

And I will confess that of all the challenges, the one I still wrestle with is making my writing more colloquial.  If you saw my first revision on manuscripts, you’d see it’s mostly that.  The weird thing is that I got published WAY before I even realized my language was stilted, because… Shakespeare.

Honestly, I probably could have written historical and “literary” till the cows came home, but I wanted to do other stories, particularly space opera and contemporary mysteries.

Anyway, this far in, twenty years after I got my first novel acceptance, I was thinking about all the indie writers who need to be “published” and sign appalling contracts with micro presses, because they need the validation of someone else, out there, telling them their work is good enough to publish.

What I want to tell you is this: You’re good enough.  And if you’re not good enough, you can get good enough.  You need three things to become “good enough”: Practice, an understanding of your failings (and here you need to be ruthless and dispassionate), and an ability to learn and seek instruction (and there are how to books to correct every possible failing from “how to write vivid scenes” to “how to plot.”)

Understand — though it might not be obvious to someone who hasn’t been through the mill of traditional publishing for decades — that achieving publication is not like passing a test at school.  Being published by a publisher doesn’t mean you “made the grade.”

Over the years and contact with more beginner writers than I can count, I have known amazing writers who never managed to get published, and barely acceptable beginners who got bought first step out.  Getting bought depended on what the publisher was looking for (which often had more to do with current fads or hit movies than how good your story was.  Hence Shakespeare for me, coming at a peak of Shakespeare-mania in movies.), whether they’d met you and liked you, or something in your book (sometimes something really stupid, like the boyfriend’s description or something) resonated with the buying editor. Seriously, that’s it.  It has zero, zilch and nothing to do with your basic competency or even marketability.

Well, to an extent the New York publishers were buying for a certain market.  No, not the public, silly, but the bookstore buyers, whom the buying editors understood since they’d all usually attended similar colleges and taken similar courses.

The fact that this was completely out of kilter with the buying public didn’t matter.  After all, you know, those hicks in fly over country don’t read.  They’re not literate enough to.  And besides, it’s natural for printruns to fall continuously year over year, because radio, movies, television, computers, the public isn’t literate anymore. Look at what TV they watch.  Look at whom they vote for.

This was fine, so long as the bookstores were the only way to reach the public.  Well, not fine, but to the extent you could sell it was because you appealed to the bookstore buyers first, so if you flopped after that, it was those d*mn rubes, reading less and less every year.  And obviously, the buying editors knew the bookstore reps better than you.

If, as a reader, you fell through the genres trying to escape boring, from science fiction to fantasy, from fantasy to mystery, from mystery to romance, and from romance to non-fiction (when the houses became convinced the reason romance sold was erotica and started doing just that) well, it was just you.  I mean, the bookstores wouldn’t stock all that stuff if it didn’t sell, would they?  And few readers were privy to the catastrophic drop in print runs from 70k (on average in the 80s) to 6k (on average in the oughts.)

So, it’s reasonable, in a world where traditional was your only way to reach your readers, for you to long to sell to an editor.  And it was easy, emotionally, to confuse that with “good enough.”

But it was never quality.  It was a bunch of other factors, but not quality.  Look, seriously, we don’t even know what “quality” is.  If we did, college professors wouldn’t equate it with “politically significant.”  It’s just a fad to do so, and they’re following their teachers.

Writing is communication.  That means “quality” should be that which reaches the most readers possible.

Objectively for someone with a literature degree, aside from the politics, which were rather typical for his time, Edgar Rice Burroughs is an appalling writer.  He tells when he should show, he inserts his opinions, his language was stilted even for his time.  And yet, he sold enough and reached enough readers he made a deep imprint in the culture, and fired up millions of imaginations (including my own, in Portugal, as a child.)

One thing I’ve noticed with indie is that “pulpish sells.”  If you write fast, breathless pulp, with lots of things happening you will sell.

That’s the issue, see?  We don’t know what’s good in the sense of “what sells.”

The middlemen who inserted themselves between writers are public imposed their own taste.  It was always obvious to those looking at the internals of the business, that the taste of the middle men had nothing to do with the taste of the consumers.  But we have no clue how dissonant it is.  We still don’t.

It’s as though a spice company had monopoly of all the spices in the world, and over the years had decided what you really wanted to cook with was camphor, bay leaves and saffron.  Many people adapted their palates, and many stopped using spices altogether.  Then the company goes bankrupt and a thousand little companies crop up.  What to sell?  Garlic? Oregano? Pepper? Salt?

No one knows.  There is no market-tested route, except the one the big houses took, and that tests…. badly.

The good news is that each year, more people who’d deserted the new market and bought only used, are making a come back.  Sometimes they come back because they found that an old favorite is publishing indie.  Sometimes they come back because they had a book recommended to them.  However, one thing is certain, the market is way bigger than it used to be.  It is also more niche.  There is room for everyone and everything.  So there is probably a market for your bat-expert romance and your horticulture mysteries.  And indie pays the author better, so you can make a better living with a niche audience.

Do you write?  Then you’re a writer.  You don’t need anyone to validate you.  No, not even your mommy or your cat.  (Greebo is giving me a skeptical look on this.)

Write, practice, learn.  Be ruthlessly honest to yourself.  Improve your defects.  If you’re very insecure, use a pen name at first.  Just don’t make it a ridiculous pen name, because Ima Nidiot might shock you by becoming a bestseller.

You’re a writer.  The world is wide open to you.

Get real.

Go write.





  1. … at least to the extent they weren’t ESL …

    I stopped, looked and thought, ‘No, that is not right.’  From what you have related English is not even your second language.  In your case I guess ESL would stand for ‘English as Subsequent Language’.  😉

    1. TLAs aren’t always useful. It comes across as “Estonian Sign Language” every time.

      One mailing list I was on, it was common to refer to the Field Service Manual as FSM. Each and every time, the first pass rendered as “Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

  2. He told me “if you write, you’re a writer. Publication doesn’t confer any special king of aura. It’s what you do that counts.”

    I think this is the take away right there. Thanks for a little validation. Now time to get back to the manuscript and get the damned thing completed.

    1. I remember I wouldn’t let anyone call me a writer until my first indie novel had been out 6 months or more. Even then, it felt presumptuous. But I was wrong, of course, and Sarah is right. I’d been writing sporadically for 30 years, and writing regularly and steadily for 4 years (now, in 2018, 11 years). I was (and am) a writer. 🙂

      1. I still say I’m not a writer. Not until I’ve gotten at least a second indie novel out. One might be a fluke, after all! Excuse me, I have carp to dodge… or frying pans…

  3. your plot is a dog’s breakfast

    Or worse, it’s what comes out of the other end of the dog. 😉

  4. I had to explain to a writer friend of mine whose website I was reviewing that she shouldn’t put “aspiring writer” as her description. She’s written a lot, and she’s a really good writer. Just because she’s never been published, that doesn’t mean she isn’t a writer. Plus, it just looks unprofessional.

    1. Yes. If she writes, she’s a writer. To me, an “aspiring” writer is someone who talks about writing but never actually sits down and puts hundreds of hours into crafting a story.

        1. It’s on the list to get rid of the “wannabe writer” on the blog site when I rework it. Haven’t made up the mind what to use in its place yet, though.

          I have to admit, though, that I still have my internal doubts. Am I a chef? I don’t consider myself to be, although I’m a danged good cook (around 98% of the time, there are still “learning experiences” now and then as I try some dish or technique new to me). Am I a fine furniture craftsman, cabinet maker, carpenter? I’ve made pretty darn good furniture, cabinets for our own kitchen, a fair amount of carpentry around the house – but can I claim any of those? (Or the “title” of electrician, plumber, landscaper, pest controller, etc., etc., etc….?)

            1. Still sounds somewhat “whiny.” Considered “Eyes on the Prize” – but that sounds like athletics, and most writing is not an athletic endeavor.
              Halfway settled on “Watching to learn, learning to do” – although I’ll have to see whether that fits into the banner. Sigh… I HATE the fiddly bits!

  5. I had that epiphany a couple of years after I started blogging, when one of the fans asked if I would copy my posts onto CD media for him — and that he would send me a box of CD media to use – and to offer them to any other blogfans who didn’t have internet access at home.
    That’s when the light came on: “Hey, people might pay me money for my writing!”

  6. What kills me is seeing indies who are doing ok but are intent on finding an agent because they see it as a mark of legitimacy. I don’t see how giving 15% of your income to someone with an automatic conflict of interests (the publishers are the ones paying the agent, so the pressure to sign a deal, not necessarily the best deal, is on from the get go) makes someone into more of a writer.

    In the end, validation has to come from the inside. Write, find an audience, rinse and repeat. As long as the words keep flowing, you’re a writer. And finding an audience is no longer dependent on what a small group of increasingly out-of-touch gatekeepers think. As a matter of fact, given that the prevailing ideology is intent on attacking much of the potential reading audience rather than catering to it, passing through their gates is likely to leave one worse off than going the indie way.

    1. There have actually been spats about this in my house this week, while I’m fumbling my way through getting First Ever Book formatted and up on Amazon. My husband keeps trying to get me to send it to an agent because “it’s better than you think it it”. Which is very sweet of him, but I’m not going indie because I don’t think it’s good enough for pro, I’m going indie to avoid SocJus whiners and editors who would likely insist on a love triangle that I don’t want to write.

      Would I love validation and an advance? Hell yes. But I want to build a decent body of work with MY stamp on it more.

      1. My “validation” for writing will be a decent bank balance. (That’s not the validation for everything, of course. Although part of the validation for my child-raising will be their having decent bank balances.)

    2. I have to admit, I’d be tempted to send something in so I can get an official rejection slip, just like all the cool kids who started trad. 😛 Okay, and maybe so I could get a couple months sitting on the draft, to make the flaws easier to see when editing. But then I think – I have alpha readers. I could just send it to them and wait for them to get back to me. That way I’d get the distance and some feedback, too! Yeah, indie’s better.

      But it means I don’t get my very own rejection slip!

        1. Just as soon as I get this bloody book finished, I can try that. I’m slow. I was hoping to do a sort of NaNoWriMo for April on a story I’ve been working on since… January?, and I’m only 20K words in. Granted, most of that’s in the last month, but…

          One foot in front of the other. One word after another. I’ll get there.

    3. Dear Mrs. Grant,

      While we found your submission well written, engaging, and intellectually stimulating, we are afraid that it does not meet our requirements for publication. We would encourage you to consider our content guidelines if you are developing a future submission to our publication. We would strongly encourage you to consider other markets for the submission we are rejecting in this message. It is a very strong piece, that deserves to be heard, and there are a number of publications it would be very suited for.

      With warmest regards,
      Editorial Board
      Journal of the American Homophobic Bigot Society

  7. When asked, I’m a teacher and historian. In truth, I’m a story-catcher and story-teller. Some of the stories are as true as knowledge permits, some borrow from the truth, and some… yeah, go ask the lemur who keeps pestering me to write more about him.

  8. Ridiculous is in the eye of the beholder, though.

    My DBA is memorable, fun to say, and still within the realm of believable.
    There is also a deliberate dichotomy in the juxtaposition of the fictional first name and fictional surname. I’d call the contrast absurd, but ridiculous could fairly be substituted.

  9. Do you write? Then you’re a writer. You don’t need anyone to validate you. No, not even your mommy or your cat. (Greebo is giving me a skeptical look on this.)

    Thank you, Ms Hoyt; that’s the most encouraging thing I’ve read all day (from someone who’d like to call himself something other than “cube rat”).

    1. I’m an artist. I art. I’ve occasionally even made money from it. But most of my artistic impulses are not made for public consumption, or are for job-related things (like “I can make this photo really pop in just a few minutes, so I’m not wasting time that anyone would notice!”) It’s okay. I art.

      The reason I don’t call myself a writer—even though I have a book and a couple of short stories out there—is because I don’t have the same compulsion to write that I do to make art. If I couldn’t do something artistic, even something as minor as arranging rocks (we’re xeriscaping the front yard), I’d go completely bonkers. If I can’t write, I shrug and go find another book to read. It’s a weird personal distinction, but it’s what I feel like.

      (I should work on the music, though. I’m almost to the end of the first act, so I should get the music set.)

      1. FWIW, I have a compulsion to *create*, and cooking, writing, gardening and jewelry-making all scratch that itch. I grew up on the craft-show circuit and usually just default to “crafter” to describe myself, or “artisan” if I’m feeling froofy.

        (As opposed to this idiot woman years back who misspelled a quotation on a mural and defended herself by saying “As an artisan, I strive for meaning and not petty details” (paraphrased). I laughed my butt off because it was so bloody obvious that she’d chosen the word because it sounded fancier and higher-minded than “artist”, never mind that it’s, um, not.)

      2. That’s an interesting distinction, B. Durbin. I suspect I fall exactly on the other side of it. I love watercolors, textile art, photography, graphic design, and commit art in those disciplines all the time. It’s tremendous fun, and I would miss it, if I could not do it. But not like the writing. If I could not write, it would be soul-destroying for me.

  10. I’m already Real because I have my Official Sarah Hoyt Real Writer Certificate, with genuine [forged] signature and everything.

    You should re-print that here for all the poor writers who aren’t Real yet. ~:D

  11. I got a degree and a job in my field and two years later I still cringe when I send out an email with my title of “geologist” in the signature to a colleague who is a “real” geologist (or geophysicist.)

    Impostor syndrome.

    It’s a thing.

    1. Yes it is. Still is. I look at the stack of fiction books I’ve written, and the reviews for the non-fiction I wrote, and still wonder if I’m really as good as people say, or if they are being kind. Because I’m nowhere as good as Peter Grant, or Jim Curtis, or Sarah, or Mercedes Lackey, or (non-fic) Sean McMeeken or Chiam Herzog, or…

      It really is a thing.

      1. Re: Mercedes Lackey. You don’t need to write better than she does, you just need more than one plot. I miss reading her, but the “poor young kid in tragic circumstances becomes king” plot got old.

    1. LOL! My first poor review (a 2-star) was so milquetoast it was almost disappointing. The reader said he thought the novella was probably good, but simply not his cup of tea. How restrained of him! 😉

        1. That part where the pangolin shifter started quoting from Atlas Shrugged for ten pages really threw me out of the story.

            1. I’ve noticed you getting compared to Ayn Rand by the Usual Suspects from time to time. Must be the accent. 😉

                1. To a Stalinist, all right-wing deviationists are objectively pro-objectivist.

  12. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    I find this lady so inspiring. She’s clear, humorous and insightful. Plus, I am always impressed by people who conquer multiple languages. I took Japanese for over four years, and never got anywhere close to being able to communicate adequately.

    During my last trip to Tokyo I went to a Burger Kind and painstakingly placed my order, relaying all of my condiment preferences. The young man at the counter stared at me, not comprehending my sad little speech. I started over again. Just as I got to the end, his eyes widened and he said in perfect, unaccented English, “Oh, you don’t want mustard, ketchup or pickles!”

    Yeah, I was mortified.

  13. This was inspiring, until I realized it meant I have to actually buckle down and write.;)

  14. On the other hand, I can say honestly that I’m not a writer. I may someday be one, but so far the only thing I’ve written that even remotely resembles fiction is this: It’s a session report for the old Arkham Horror board game, turned into a story, but with the actual events of our gaming session driving the plot. I’m pretty proud of the character voice I managed to come up with for the story, and the epilogue (make sure to click on the spoiler box to read it), but that’s more of a writing exercise than a story. Once I’ve written ONE story, even a short story, I could call myself a writer.

    On the gripping hand, I do call myself a programmer. I write computer code, and I know I’m good at it. And I’m not really aspiring to be a writer, so I’m not really the target of this blog post. So don’t worry about me: I’m not suffering from delusions of inadequacy when I say I’m not a writer. I’m not a writer because I’m not trying to be one; I’m trying to be a programmer, and I’m succeeding at that.

    (But I would appreciate knowing whether that session-report-turned-story was enjoyable to read, especially for anyone who’s played that board game before or is familiar with the Lovecraft mythos).

  15. > appalling writer

    Literarily, so were Mickey Spillane, Carter Brown, and Louis L’Amour, who all offered the upraised middle finger to their critics while sleeping on piles of money.

    Back in the 1960s there were a number of articles and at least one entire book about how badly written most science fiction was, and it was pathetic that people would read that stuff, and why weren’t they reading the *good* stuff written by their betters?

    Because no matter how appallingly they might have been written, they were the stories people were willing to PAY MONEY TO READ.

    It has been half a century and more, and the “betters” still don’t understand why someone would want to read appalling schlock instead of vetted and approved literature…

    1. The story, and the telling of the story, are not the same thing. But people always default to what they believe they do best, so the critics mostly limited themselves to criticism of the telling.

      Sadly, although SJW/PC criticism IS about criticizing the story itself, their standards are not useful to most readers.

          1. Yeah, but not Burroughs. Now, some of this was different times and taste. But the sentences sometimes bit themselves in the ass and he was fond of telling instead of showing.
            I was trying to point out the person had taken “bad writing” into “popular plots/devices” while what I meant was “uh, why use all these words for a simple thing?”

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