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…are the ones you should be listening to. I know the adage is, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but that is so dismissive and narrow-minded that I could spend most of this post on why I don’t agree with it. Suffice it to say, as it is commonly understood, it’s garbage.

Let me ‘splain. I recently read about a friend who has been trying to become a professional writer nearly as long as I have (which is saying something). Soon after I succeeded, he did too. And so he is justifiably very proud of his accomplishments. Recently, however, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was going about his career all wrong. Independent publishing was the only way to go! Everybody would do better if he’d only abandon the creaky old system of traditional publishing and self-publish!

Well, my friend was justifiably (again) upset. He’s got his career path, it’s starting to work for him, and he doesn’t need anybody coming along and saying how it’s so tough just because he’s doing it all wrong. Becoming a published writer (let alone succeeding at it) requires a ridiculous amount tenacity and a delusional level of self-confidence. Saying it’s only so hard because you’re doing it wrong is condescending and rude. In other words, my career is None of Your Business.

And yet, there is a value in learning from others. Sometimes this even involves being lectured, and occasionally, it involves being told you are wrong. This is called “teaching.” (Simply telling someone he’s doing it wrong because your way worked for you isn’t teaching. It’s gloating. And it doesn’t make you a teacher, it makes you a jerk.) And I would posit that some of the very best teachers are not “those who can’t do,” but rather “those who can’t do for a living.”

Let’s face it. Not everybody can be the best at everything–or even one thing. While there is value from learning from someone who has tried (and succeeded to some extent) what you’re trying to do, it doesn’t mean that just because your teacher isn’t making a living at, say, writing, he can’t be a good writing teacher. I’ve had teachers who were professional writers, and others who have merely written professionally. I have learned from all of them. (I’ve also learned a great deal from myself, and I’m certainly not making a living as a writer.)

I would go further and say I’d rather learn from the guy who hasn’t made it than the guy who has, or at the very least that you can learn more from someone who has failed than someone who never has. The successful (writer) can tell you how he made it and you can try to emulate him. The moderately-successful writer who has twice the number of rejections as acceptances can teach you how not to fail. In my experience, you can’t really understand winning until you understand losing.

Case in point, as provided by my friend: self-publishing. I entered the self-publishing field about three years ago. I tried to find out what I was getting into by going to panels at cons, featuring self-published authors. I went to all I could. They were very encouraging. They thought everyone should try it. After all, they’d succeeded with no more of a book idea than I had. The problem was, they had all succeeded. They never talked about failure. Eventually, one actually said, “Your first book never sells,” which was manna to me because my first book wasn’t, in fact, selling. No problem, says I, the sequel will.

The problem with listening to all these successful self-published writers was that they didn’t know (or talk about, anyway) how not to fail. They never spoke of the need to stick to one series in one genre because audiences won’t follow you across genres. They never said that it can take three or four or more books to gain an audience (if you ever do) and how those four books had to come out no less than every four months (six if you must, but you’re taking an awful chance that people will forget you). They never talked about the hundreds of dollars you must spend in cover art, copyediting, and advertising. Yes, advertising, preferably with a heavy social media presence to raise your books out of the morass of the thousands of other books self-published every year. They didn’t mention the ten hours a week you should be spending on your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and whatever other media platforms have been invented since I started writing this post–and that if you’re not prepared to do that, or if you don’t already have 50,000 Twitter followers, your chances of ever being noticed are slim to none.

So, yes, I shared my friend’s outrage and being told he was writing “the wrong way.” Because no two writers work exactly the same, and self-publishing is not a panacea and anyone who tells you it is, is either selling you a bill of goods or selling one to himself.

It’s true that “those who can’t do, teach,” but it’s a damned good thing, because they’re the ones with the courage to admit they haven’t always succeeded. And that’s a lesson we should all learn.

#SFWApro

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Once upon a time, writers were known for their stories–and from their stories. In this benighted past, there was no Internet (yes, well may you shudder, children). There were no blogs, no e-books, no online magazines, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook…there wasn’t even any e-mail. And the people toiled through snail mail and telephones that did not take pictures and did not even know that they were technologically poverty-stricken. For only in comic books were their portable telephones with vliewscreens, and only in stories did men and women communicate by computer.

So how the heck did a writer ever make a name for himself? It wasn’t easy. (Not that it’s easy now. But back then it was harder to become famous just for being famous.) Ironically, like today, there were many magazines available as markets, but back then, so many people read them that you could actually become famous that way. Astonishingly, you could even make a living selling to magazines. Like much of history, it was full of inconsistencies.

Flash forward to now, when all you need to become world-famous is a blog. (Assuming that your definition of “world-famous” is that your work is available all over the world.) And every writer’s marketing plan–heck, every writer’s publisher–is in his own hands. So if fame (or notoriety) is so easy to grasp, why isn’t every writer famous? Why is true fame still as elusive as ever?

It used to be, even with the plethora of markets, that you had to have a modicum of talent to sell to a (magazine or book) publisher. That isn’t true now, because you can publish yourself. Yet self-publishing success is at least as difficult as traditional publishing success, because there is so much competition, and so much (to be honest) garbage out there. Collecting fans is a full-time job. (So in that sense, a robust social media presence is necessary. It’s the only way to stand out from the crowd. But for some, it isn’t that easy–if you’re over 50, particularly.)

Traditional publishing can accomplish the marketing for you. But look at the field now: With e-publishing, short fiction venues have exploded, but like self-publishing, it suffers from two problems: (1) the quality varies. There are markets you almost have to try not to get published in, but who’s going to read them? (2) Declining readership. More venues and fewer readers means even the top-flight markets suffer from “genre fatigue.”

It is no longer possible to make a living writing short fiction. It simply can’t be done. (The minimum professional rate established by SFWA is six cents per word. An average short story may run around 5,000 words. Do the math.) But it is possible to build a career by publishing short stories, even if you don’t have any other publicity machine. You just have to hit the biggest markets, consistently.

Can your social media profile help you climb the ladder toward fame and success? Doubtless it can, particularly if you understand that every rung is an accomplishment, and not everybody can climb high. Can simply writing great stories get you there, without the social aspect? Sure; there have been lots of reclusive writers, and I don’t see that changing. Writers are weird.

So how important is social media to a writer’s career? I don’t know–how long is a piece of string?

#SFWApro

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You see, I have this theory. It’s been germinating for a long time, I’d say a couple of hours now, so it must have some validity. My theory is–

–Facebook is saving us from having to read a lot of really bad writers.

As Inigo Montoya said, “Let me ‘splain.” Part of the allure of being a writer is the feeling that you will be leaving something behind when you’re gone. A part of you will outlive you (at least until it goes out of print, and then maybe again if someone publishes a “classic” edition). This is an understandable drive, and not unreasonable by any measurement. (It’s a lot more likely than making any money, at any rate.)

Until relatively recently, the only way to accomplish this was to publish something (or draw, or compose). Now, though, it’s possible to post all of your thoughts, pictures, events, ultrasounds, cardiograms, or restraining orders directly onto your “page,” and allow virtually everyone to know who you are!* You may only let your friends read it, and it may never have a wide circulation, but on the other hand, nothing on the Internet ever goes away. (Please remember that before you email any of those pictures.) Theoretically, then, anything you place on your page will outlive you, possibly for a very long time. No one may look at it, but it will be there.

So that means a lot of would-be writers don’t have to write a book that no one will read (or worse, someone will publish). Yes, self-publishing is still an option, but maintaining a Facebook page is a lot less work. If my theory is true, a lot of people will save a lot of time trying to do something they really aren’t suited for, and will achieve the same goal. It’s a win-win!

Of course, some will continue to strive, and suffer. Some will even not set up a Facebook page! To each his own, I say. But to those who choose the Facebook option, who prefer to share their own lives rather than try to make up someone else’s, I also say this:

Thank you. I don’t need the competition.

*I am not unaware of the irony that writing a blog amounts to much the same thing.

 

#SFWApro

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I recently wandered by one of those photo booths at the mall, and I wondered out loud why anyone still used them when selfies were so prevalent. A friend told me that people still liked to pile into them and take picture. I opined that people were becoming real narcissists, and my friend asked: “What, you just noticed?”

(Allow me to take the high ground here and say that I do not take selfies. Allow me to be honest and say the reason is that I don’t have a phone that can take selfies. But since the ends justify the means, I’m  still the guy who doesn’t take selfies.)

It reminded me, in a very roundabout way, of the Hugo controversy. According to the complaints of the Sad Puppies, the Hugos have become an award more concerned with the form of the story, rather than the story. Or worse, they believe that the artist has taken precedence over the art, that it’s more about who (or what) you are than what you’ve done.

Let’s look at it another way. It seems the thing now (besides selfies) is tattoos. (Yeah, I’m too old for tattoos. Get over it.) You choose it, you commission it, it says something. But here’s my question. Because  you chose the thing that represents you, your message, and had it put on your body, does that make you an artist? Or does it make you art?

Are other people looking at the Michael Jackson tat on your shoulder and thinking, “Gee, that hot girl is really into Michael Jackson,” or are they thinking, “Gee, that’s a great drawing of Michael Jackson”? Are you the message or the medium?

Selfies. Facebook tags. Is it better for people see you, or to hear you? Do you get a tattoo to make a statement, or to be one? Do you want to write a great story, or be called a great writer? Which is better? Is there a right answer?

I don’t know. You don’t know. I’m not sure there is a right answer. You might as well ask, “What is Art?” You’d likely create less controversy.

Let’s get back to SF. The Sad Puppies would say that SF needs to keep pushing outward, breaking through the new barriers out there that keep us from realizing our species’ full potential. They say the story is all and it doesn’t matter who writes them. Others would say that SF needs to push inward, to break through the old barriers inside us that keep us from realizing our full human potential. They say that new, different voices are necessary because they bring new viewpoints. And yet others would claim that neither one matters, because self-promotion is the greatest goal and how you achieve it is irrelevant. In this world, if you don’t make a name for yourself, nobody’s going to do it for you.

I guess as long as you keep pushing yourself, that’s progress. How you define “progress” is up to you.

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