…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.
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