August 26, 2014

Advice On How To Write And Sell Said Writing

The Poor Poet 
Carl Spitzweg (1839)
I am currently reading short stories that have won past Writers of the Future contests. Interspersed with the short stories are essays by famous writers with some advice to budding writers like myself.

One such section that I found in Volume XXII I found rather interesting. It is an epistolary passage, with letters exchange between writers and L. Ron Hubbard. One such writer, a certain J. Higgins, had asked Hubbard what his trick was to making a living out of writing (so many ings!). Here is the answer Hubbard crafted:

Dear Higgins,

   It isn't a question of how I started to write, it's a question of why.
   There's a world of difference there. I take it that you have a job, otherwise you wouldn't eat and if you don't eat, you don't last long.
   We assume, therefore, that you are eating. That is bad, very bad. No man who wants to start writing should be able to eat regularly. Steaks and potatoes get him out of trim.
   When a man starts to write, his mental attitude should be one of anguish. He has to sell something because he has to pay the grocery bill.
   My advice to you is simple. If you have the idea that you can write salable stuff, go off someplace and get short of money. You'll write it all right, and what's more, you'll sell it.
   Witness the case of a lady I know in New York. She was plugging at writing for some fifteen years without selling a line. She left the Big Town with her husband. In the Pacific Northwest her husband died and left her stranded.
   She went to work in a lumber mill and wrote a book about it and sold it first crack out. She worked as a waitress and wrote a book about that and sold it.
   Having succeeded with two books, she went back to the Big Town and got herself a job in the library until the returns came in. She wrote all the time after that but she was eating. In sawmill and hash house she wasn't living comfortably. She needed the extra.
   She hasn't sold a line since.
   The poet in a garret is not a bad example, after all. Personally, I write to pay my bills.
Jack London, I am told, plastered his bills over his writing desk and every time he wanted to get up or go arty he glanced at them and went right on grinding it out.
   I think if I inherited one million tomorrow, my stuff would go esoteric or otherwise blah.
   I started to write because I had come back from the West Indies where I had been hunting gold and discovered that we had a depression going on up here. Dead broke and with a newly acquired wife I had to start eating right away.
   I started writing a story a day for six weeks. I wrote that story in the afternoon and evening. I read the mag I was to make the next day before I went to bed. I plotted the yarn in my sleep, rose and wrote it, read another mag all the way through, went to bed...
   Out of that month and a half of work I have sold fiction to the sum of nine hundred dollars. At the end of the six weeks I received checks amounting to three hundred and two dollars and fifty cents.
   Unable to stand prosperity, I left for California. I got broke there, wrote for a month without stopping to breathe, sold eleven hundred dollars' worth.
   Nothing like necessity to take all this nonsense about how you ought to reform editors right out of your head.
   (...) remember this: You are the writer. You have to learn your own game. (...)

  Best regards,
L. Ron Hubbard
New York City

My interpretation is that you need to be so into your writing, there's nothing else for you but to write. Now I'm not advocating you should forgo food--that's a very unhealthy choice there. But it's true that, if you know there's no other choice for you but to write (or if you have a looming deadline), you'll be more likely to do so, and be a lot more prolific than otherwise. 

I also surmise from his letter that to also be able to sell such writing, it needs to please the editors (or, as I see it in this Age of Self-Publishing, the readers), which means you may have to forgo those eccentric, artistic bits of writing for a while, and yes, make your story more "commercial" in a sense.


  1. Even if I had any talent for writing, I doubt I would consider trying to make a living of it. The career is too chancy and one needs lots of luck in addition to the talent. I am more interested in understanding why so many people love to read books that are written so poorly. For instance, I consider "The Da Vinci Code" one of the worst books that I have ever read; not only do I find it extremely poorly written, but also insultingly stupid and yet it happens to be perhaps the biggest bestseller in history.

    I read books mostly for the writing, for the difficult craft of making each sentence shine, for the "like wow man" awe of reading that you were kind to notice. J.M. Coetzee writes like that (he began as mathematician and a programmer, by the way, like you did). But he makes money out of writing only because of the Nobel prize. James Joyce, another great master of the writing art, did not ever become rich and was often outright poor and hungry. Hunger does not always help sell writing.

    Sorry for a terribly rambling comment, but your post touched some of my hot buttons.

    1. Please don't ever apologize, I love your comments!

      I think what matters to people is to lose themselves completely in a story (whether it's through a book, video game, TV show, or movie). And it's easier for most to do when the writing is easy and doesn't make people stop and scratch their heads. When I want to lose myself completely in a story, I usually gravitate towards those types of books.
      However, when I want to read something that's truly well-crafted, via the words and syntax, as well as deep, thought-provoking ideas, then I'll go for the more poetic, literary novels. But unfortunately, I'm often too tired to want to read those types of books these days, so I can't manage many of them a year :(

      As for making a living as a writer (or any artist, frankly), it is really hard to do. Not only does it take perseverance and a lot of hard work, you also need to have the word of mouth going for you (which requires many things: where society stands right at that moment in terms of fashion, psyche, etc., who sees/reads the work and falls in love with it and willing to share it with others, etc, etc.).

      And with competition growing at an exponential rate (today's writer needs to compete not only with all the books written beforehand, including all the classics, but also the thousands of books published every year, either traditionally or non-traditionally, and all the translations of other countries' works as well.

      Anyway, it's very hard to make a living out of it, which is why writing isn't my only job. However, it is imperative that, should one want a chance to succeed, he/she needs to stick with it and keep on writing more (good) books. Increases one's chance of discovery by the right people at the right time and get the snowball effect going. And that chance gets snuffed out if said writer stops writing :)

  2. Yes, most people read books for the plot, the story, the "twists and turns". I completely agree with all you write above. The only difference between us may be that I believe in randomness of life more than you do. Two people write similar books - one thrives while the other fails. A random sequence of events influences the outcome.

    Have you noticed that Americans tend to discard the concept of randomness of life more than Europeans do? It might be because of stronger religious views here.

    By the way, my research of late, that I do with an eminent probabilist from the U of Washington, has been on how totally random behavior, Brownian motion, produces regular, elegant patterns. I am not saying that the research makes me any wiser about randomness of life, but I am deeply interested in the subject.

    1. Hmmm, you raise an interesting point about the concept of randomness of life. I think it stems more from an attitude on life and work more so than religion. I've noticed that here in the US, people are more positive on life and careers in general: if you're willing to work hard enough, you can make things happen! Whereas in Europe (at least in Belgium), they're more likely to accept the status quo and, I feel, be more defeatist from the get go. Thereby attributing success more to luck and randomness than any (extra) work they may have put in. Of course, this is my take and entirely biased on my own experience, so I could be completely off track :)

      Ah yes, I remember you talking about the drunken man theory and random walks in class (and you helped Adrian with his thesis on it too!). Assuming the theory of the big bang is true, then the dispersion of all these galaxies is also random, right? Yet, how beautiful it seems, and how it appears to order itself in beautiful patterns as well!

  3. You may be right. In this country the "self-made people" are idolized, and many (though not most, I think) people think that when one works hard enough, one will reap the rewards.Still, I think that religion is a part of the picture.

    It was called "Tour du Wino". I don't know about Big Bang connection with randomness. Worth looking into.

    Classes begin in a week. I am again teaching ODEs. Hope for stronger walls. I may be way slower in responding to your posts, but I love the conversation.

    1. ODEs, one of my favorite classes ever! Lucky students :) (PDEs was a different matter, though... but I blame it on the book.) And haven't you learned how to repair a dry wall by now? Or are you still blaming it all on "failed experiments"? :)

      I love our conversations too, they always brighten up my day!