What are you writing for?

Are you writing to be published? Or are you writing to be read?

There’s a difference, you know. I think there is, anyway. You readers should know something about the people who write your books: We writers do a lot of research into our craft before we put ourselves out there. We read industry blogs in hope of gaining some insight into the inner workings of agents and editors at mainstream publishers, so we know what we should be striving for. We read the blogs of other authors, to glean the wisdom of those who have trod this path before us. We read the blogs of other writers, to share the burdens, triumphs, joys and pitfalls of another person walking this same treacherous path.

We barely take notice of how so much of the information contradicts the other information. We do our best to process the information and make overnight sensations of people like Nathan Bransford, no longer an agent by the way, and we take him up on his amazing corral-building tactic of “query me!”

Then there are industry magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer. They offer us interviews with authors, books to help us hone our craft, the one hundred most helpful sites for a writer, or the top ten best author web sites for us to look to for inspiration and ideas. We find writing prompts to work with, we search for Twitter groups to be part of, we play writing games and do anything we can to become the best writers we can be.

And we pay no heed to the sheer volume of other writers doing the same thing, working the same circles, doing the same exercises, because we dare not. It’s staggering. And we don’t talk about how some of the information isn’t information at all, it’s advertising, or it’s poppycock, or it’s out of date and not correct anymore, in those trade magazines. Never talk about the number of those great author web sites which aren’t up and running anymore. How many authors once published are now using CreateSpace to put out their next book? Better not to look under those rocks.

We follow all the contradictory advice from agents and editors, we try to master the techniques of gurus at writing conferences and online critique groups, we subject ourselves to insults and ridicule in critique groups, workshops, forums, and agent blogs, and we soldier on and on and on.

So when you hold that book in your hands, and you’re reading something written in the last ten years, be aware dear reader of the way of that warrior. It was the Way of Tears.

Writers, did you notice what I said up there? You’re not writing for the readers who should be holding your book in their sweaty, nicotine-stained fingers, biting their nails in excitement and anticipation over your next plot twist. Nope. You’re not writing for them. And if you’re seeking representation by a literary agent or are submitting your work to a publisher directly (fewer and fewer of those, eh?), you’re not writing for readers in that case either.

Sorry, I’m not trying to be a jerk, but you’re writing to be published. You have to. You’re trying to placate someone standing in your way. But you might have stopped seeing that person as an obstacle. I don’t blame you; it’s not your fault. You’ve been told your whole writing life this person is your friend, there to help you through the process. They’re not obstacles to readers, why no! They’re actually the means to the reader!

The message is subtle, pervasive and constant. You can’t get to the readers directly, you have to get there through the publisher. And you can’t get to the publisher directly anymore, either – sorry, Stephen King, the era of going into it as you did is past – so you have to have an agent. And the agent is the one with all the contacts. They can make it all happen because they hold the keys to the kingdom. And all you have to do is land one with you perfect query. See my last post for more on that.

Now, so many years have passed and we’re told, “Well, what would you do? Of course we look for reasons to reject you – have you seen number of incoming manuscripts I get every day?!”

I don’t’ feel sorry for you. You wanted to get into this business, now suck it up and do your job or get out. But that’s another story altogether.

This story, however, is about how that message, ground into your skull on the boot heels of the gatekeepers, caused you to change how you wrote. Your readers might love it just the way you had it when you put “The End” at the bottom of the last page, but you’ll never know that, because the gatekeepers can’t let you in without altering it. No, improving it. They’re better at this than you. They know what the industry wants. They know what editors are buying and what they want to see in publishing houses. So do it my way.

And you change it. But that’s only if the agent saw your manuscript and felt like reading it in the first place. To make that happen, you had to write to their specifications in both your manuscript and your query. Your style didn’t matter, your story didn’t matter, your interesting, intriguing character doesn’t matter. All that matters is that query letter, and by God, it better get at least one response for every twenty times you send it out or it’s not strong enough.

So you become a professional letter writer. And you’re not paid for it, by the way. You know, copy writers can make good money. Are you making good money? No? Because traditional publishers are making you an ad copy writer, a marketing copy writer. Don’t believe me? Check yourself. Did you hone your letter writing craft along with your fiction writing class? How many query courses do you see offered in school? Now compare that to the number of creative writing courses you can take even at your local vocational school (probably taught by some washed-up, bitter former author who couldn’t get past the gatekeepers).

The best thing you could do to forward yourself in the querying process is take an ad copy writing course, or a marketing communications course and see if you can leverage that. But it’s still not guaranteed because the agent might change the rules, or tell you your query is too polished and slick, or something.

Why? Why would they do that?

Because they’re not there to let you in. They’re not there to help you. They are there to keep you OUT, to keep you AWAY, to keep you from making it through all the hoops they’ve set up for you to jump through.

Who are you writing for, writers? Are you writing because you want people to read the story or stories you want to tell, or are you writing to get into the mainstream publishing industry’s good graces and maybe get published? The two are not mutually inclusive, either.

Ask yourself whether you still want to be read if traditional publishers won’t give you a chance. If you’re happy to let a handful of people see your work and aren’t interested in the world getting a shot at it, then you’re doing it just right. Because the odds are against you in traditional publishing. The numbers aren’t getting better; see the latest sales numbers from Publisher’s Weekly and see if you can argue with them. Only new media formats are UP in sales.

What does that mean? You know what that means, and you know you know it.

Why are you writing? To be read, or to be published. They’re not the same thing.


Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, All rights reserved


6 thoughts on “What are you writing for?

  1. Good post, and you’re right, there is a difference. The publishing industry is evolving just like the music industry did with the advent of mp3s. The good news, and yes, there is good news, is that people are still reading. Whether it’s e-books or paperbacks, people are still reading.

    Yep, and readers want books, and I aim to give ’em books. 🙂

    It’s up to writers, yes, unfortunately much of this falls on our backs, to not only write brilliantly, but to be business people as well. We can’t necessarily rely on somebody else for all of the business-ish stuff that goes along with our creative endeavors…IF you want to get published.

    Well, I think I’ll address writing “brilliantly” next week sometime, because THAT is a moving target too, and WAY subjective. Who’s “brilliant”? I have my favorites, you have yours… but what do agents and editors say? That’s all that matters in the gatekeeper system.

    If you’re writing to be read, then you would do that whether or not you ever get published. I would like to be published, indeed. However, even if I never do, I would still write. I have new characters popping into my head all the time that want their stories told. So either I’m meant to write or I’m schizophrenic. Who knows. 😉

    I don’t know if anyone WILL read my work but that’s why I write it. Anything else is self-entertainment. I can do that with Zuma Blitz on Facebook with a lot less stress.

  2. Actually, I’m writing, for now, for my self, for self-actualization and realization. Until I get pass this, I doubt if even anyone want to read my work.

    Nice Post but it somehow a bit of a rant.

    A rant? Not really. Every word is true. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Last year I attended a talk given by a prominent literary agent, together with a few of his most recently signed authors. It was a really interesting event, but also very puzzling indeed.

    Mr Jarrold explained that he used to be an editor. He’s an agent now because it’s agents that work with authors, agents who pick the books, agents who have most of the work & power that editors used to.

    Ha! This isn’t surprising to me. There are “color czars” in the world of design, too, who dictate what the new “trends” are going to be in color a few years before you have ONLY those options available in retail. It’s sickening. And I suspected for a LONG time this was the case.

    That sounded weird to me then and it still does. Why did this separation occur in the first place? Why is there now a double set of obstacles to get through?

    Good question. And now that there are, shouldn’t we have the best books of all time? But no. Great books are dying in slush piles instead of being put into the hands of readers. Why? Good question.

    The other topic that both interested and appalled me was the part about who really holds the power in publishing these days. That’s not agents, or even editors: it’s retailers, and specifically Waterstones and WHSmith. Editors buy books based on what the big book sellers think they can get off their shelves.

    Yes indeed. It’s all about the bottom line.

    So that’s what agents go looking for, of course. Messed up world.

    Of course. And that’s how we get “trends” — the publishing industry decides them, then has agents tell us NOT to write to them.

  4. I think it’s great that you talk about this topic. A lot of writers know these things, but ultimately their dream is to be traditionally published. That’s the only route, anything less makes them false, fraud writers. I’ve never understood that. I want to provide readers with a great story, however I can do that as a career, I will try. Besides, I’m not interested in someone telling me that they’re better. Damn it, I’m devoting the majority of my hours researching, plan on devoting the majority of my life honing and improving my writing. And yet I’ll never, ever be anything but another query in the bucket, another sigh at the end of the day.

    Maybe. Or you could be one of the lucky lottery winners, in the right place at the right time. You never know. 😉 And I have to argue with the “false, fraud writers” statement. They mean they aren’t “real” authors unless they’re knighted by the gatekeepers, and I get that, but that doesn’t speak well of their belief in their ability. AT. ALL.

    No thanks.

    Same here.

    I think a lot of writers just accept that in order to get published. So, ultimately, their told contradiction after contradiction. Be unique, but sorry, you have to be this style to actually get an agent/publisher/magic writing fairy. You have to spend hour after grueling hour editing your work because they say nothing but the best will be accepted, and then they say it’s never good enough. Sorry, our effort, our expertise, is always better than your puny writer knowledge.

    Or experience. How many books do I have to write before I can consider myself a “pro”? (Already do, btw.)

    At least that’s how it feels. I know there are some exceptions, but still.

    Well, every time a writer gets published it’s another story the gatekeepers use to prop up their dying mystique and promise, but it’s all BS, IMO. It’s pretty lucky for a writer to be published. All the elements have to come together to form a perfect storm, or luck. Pure luck. Just like being the next big rock star. It’s not even as fair as American Idol, frankly.

  5. That’s an easy one for me. I’m writing to be read. That is all.

    It’s an easy one for me too, Spark. If I’m not writing for readers, I may as well keep a diary. Or a blog. 😉

  6. Pingback: Writers as Readers 2: The Electric Boogaloo | Chapin City Blues

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