There is the writing, then there are the publishers, and then there are the consultants to writers and publishers. I refer to the third category as the “Writer Industrial Complex” and they are in the business of selling services that may or may not help books and stories along. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that this industry exists, and it can provide valuable services at critical stages of a writer’s practice. However, there is always a dark side where there’s lots of hope, a limitless supply of wannabes with money, and no accountability whatsoever. You see, the Writer Industrial Complex can always place the blame for your failure to implement their system successfully upon the feet of the phrase “Write a better book”. There are very few meaningful professional standards, and no licenses to lose. If poor student performance and bad reviews build up, it doesn’t take much to burn the website down and start over.
So, let me distinguish the two sides to a writer’s career thusly: there is the creative portion; there is the business portion. The creative portion includes making brilliant books and stories and poems. The business portion includes things like tracking book sales, accounting, marketing books, and contracts. The latter is a very dull, but necessary part of the gig.
The Writer Industrial Complex is committed to helping you sell a book with a strong hook, a marketable property, and a Hollywood-style script. None of these things are, independently, necessarily detrimental to creative energy. But, I find that inferior work is often produced when the thought patterns of the Writer Industrial Complex are permitted to blur the way writers think about their creative work as a professional endeavor. Some writers are inspired by Hollywood-style scripts. Some aren’t. Pushing everyone down the same path, and systematizing the trajectory of a career around a set of expectations–manuscript length, query letters, agents, networking, blog, business cards, etc.–creates a set of expectations that is not true to a large number of authors.
For the majority of writers, writing is not a career. This is not a profession. There are no licenses. The professional organizations that exist have very low standards for entry and being exiled from them seems to mean very little to readers and editors. This is not a job, like lawyering or doctoring or even journalism. The systems that exist around the world of publishing can be a job, sometimes, but it’s more like renting a boat as a fishing guide to tourists more than a consulting service for professionals, most of the time. Well, there is one difference between the fishing boat: Tourists who rent fishing boats will be led where the fish are. Professional writing guides and services don’t actually have to help anyone do anything beyond just spout opinions that may be sold as truth. These less-ethical writing guides just need to help you feel more confident about identifying yourself out at sea as a writer, mostly.
Now, it ain’t all bad. There are workshops and services and even academic programs that can or may help, but the questions to ask before considering paying any money to anybody include checking out the qualifications of the folks selling the service, and ensuring that what they are selling is part of the spiritual and artistic practice of the act of writing, not the fishing boats chasing whales. Clarion is part of that Writer Industrial Complex, for example, and I don’t think anyone would rationally suggest such an endeavor would be a waste of time to an aspirant of fictional practice. There are workshops and editorial services I would buy into tomorrow from writers whose opinions I respect, if I could afford them. There are editors and artists that I have hired and would hire again to help a specific project along. But, I have no expectation that any of this will do anything to help the sales of my books, or help me land a big deal somewhere. It’s all just ways to feed the creative energy that builds up inside of me, and that energy is indifferent to some vision of what a career in publishing is supposed to look like.
In the same sense there is the business side, and I am always interested in learning more where I can about that aspect of the industry. However, when I see folks suggesting that the business side of the job should start driving the creative energy by selecting projects, or changing projects to more closely match a vision of “blockbuster” writing, whatever that means, I often find the work that is produced to be an inferior sort to what came before the shift in consciousness where a writer went from amateur to professional. The business side matters, absolutely, and there’s a lot to learn. But we are better served as practitioners of the sacred trust of fiction by separating those two sides of the gig in our minds, and making absolutely certain the business end serves the artist, not vice versa. The danger of failing to do so is burning out by choosing projects that don’t feed the fire of our creative spirit, or looking back on a career where we aren’t really proud of anything we did except make money. Even worse, we may even buy in to parts of the Writer Industrial Complex that don’t have our best interests at heart, and end up not only going down a bad path, but paying for the privilege.
The Writer Industrial Complex exists, particularly on its deep and murky end, because there is this myth that writing is a profession. The only professional standards I’m aware of include not plagiarizing and not libeling. Neither one of these leads to someone losing their license to practice writing. There is very little money to be made, most of the time, and the work that aspires to money generally fails to make any. The authors that make money did not, generally, set out to do so. This is just not really a profession, or a job, or a career, in the traditional sense of these words. Thinking that way can lead to poor creative decisions, in my opinion, and to books that might sell well for a little while, but ultimately don’t stand the test of time. Our work will outlive us, if we let it. We are architects building dreams that will pass down to all who care to witness them. Reaching for a moment, or for heat in this moment, generally means our imaginary structures will burn down with that moment passing.
Writing is more like prayer and protest and painting than it is like being a lawyer or a doctor or a plumber or any other sort of profession. It is a kind of non-denominational spiritual practice that focuses our will and intellect to a point of clarity and social purpose. I see advertisements all the time for workshops and mentors and programs that attempt to sell things that systematize and professionalize the art of fiction. Query letter workshops, for example, seem like an operation of limited worth in the grand scheme. Tips to turn one’s book into a bestseller all reek of lies. The Hollywood-i-zation of our plots and outlines take at their heart a genre of storytelling that is openly considered inferior to the more rambling, less rigid structures of our great serial television programs.
Protect your practice, I guess, is what I am saying. Protect it from the fear that you aren’t doing enough, aren’t doing it right, or could be doing it better in a way that is measured externally to the self. The art of writing is the art of editing your own writing. Have faith in your first editor.
Have faith, and build a practice.
About the Author
Joe M. McDermott is the author of seven novels and two short story collections. His latest novel, Fortress at the End of Time, comes out on January 17, 2017, from Tor.com.
He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine.