One day back in the Sixties, PBS television host Bob Cromie had author Gore Vidal on his show, Book Beat. At the time, Vidal was riding high on everyone's list of favorite authors. Toward the end of a fascinating interview, Cromie posed a question to Vidal similar to the one you ask. Vidal replied something along the lines of, That's easy. Give up writing. Quit.
Cromie, slightly taken aback, said that Vidal surely didn't mean that the way it sounded, to which Vidal added, Absolutely I do. The best advice I can give struggling young writers is to give up writing for good.
By this time, Cromie, never one to surrender a battle without a fight, said that Vidal must not be serious because there were hundreds of thousands of fledgling writers in America just waiting for some advice and a chance to succeed as published authors. Surely, he cajoled, there must be something Vidal could offer in the way of advice, to which the author responded:
Look, for every new author who comes along and makes it, that means there's one less book for me to write. I don't like those odds, so my advice is for all of them to quit right now.
All this caught me by surprise, of course, since, as a twenty-something author, I was one of those struggling minions. I was distraught. And discouraged. And dejected. I'd been writing since I was fourteen and had absolutely nothing to show for my efforts outside of a three-ring binder filled with rejection slips. Right then and there, I vowed to myself that, if I ever made it as a published author, I'd do everything I could to help those following in my footsteps do the same. And I've honored that pledge.
Now, for those well-intended but woefully inadequate responses you've received from other struggling authors ("Don't give up. Keep trying. Don't get down."), remember: Words are cheap. There was a reason I began writing at fourteen and didn't see my first book published for more than a decade. That reason is I was ill-prepared, poorly trained, and blissfully ignorant as to what good writing is. I know because I've kept some of my early manuscripts for half a century, and when I go back to review them, I cringe.
All that has changed somewhat over time. I recently released my ninetieth book with conventional, advance-paying publishers; obviously, I overcame my weaknesses. Here's how I did it.
- I grew up. Literally. As a kid, I had precious little knowledge or world experience about which to write. And I hadn't yet developed an inquiring mind and enough of a creative imagination to go with it to manufacture my stories to any degree of believability.
- I got educated. I went to a communications arts college, enrolled in Journalism, and then switched to Creative Writing after I'd put in the prerequisite number of J-School hours.
- I began teaching what I had recently learned in college, working my way up from an associate at a public junior college to dean of English at a private school. As a result of teaching everything from creative writing and analytic grammar to business correspondence, I learned still more about effective writing in numerous genres.
- I took a job as a stringer (a freelance reporter) for a group of suburban Chicago newspapers, covering school-board meetings, town hall events, and other really exciting stuff. Afterwards, I delivered my finished articles to the newsroom, slipping them under the locked door of the editor's office.
- I answered an ad and landed a job as an editorial assistant at a major national magazine, working my way up to editor-in-chief.
Not long after, I received word that a publisher was interested in one of my nonfiction book pitches. It wasn't the Great American Novel I had hoped to sell, but it was legit. And it was an actual hardcover book. The mind-numbing $800 advance they paid me came in handy to pay off some bills. After that, I heard from a literary agent who sold me some articles from some talented writers he represented. When the agent learned of my recently consummated publishing deal, he asked to represent my future book-length works. It was a marriage made in heaven—the first of five agents I'd eventually outlive before finding my current literary rep.
In the following years, I read and evaluated tens of thousands of articles and short stories. I worked as an editor for a major conventional book publisher. I became an internationally syndicated newspaper columnist with a column second in circulation only to "Dear Abby." I edited, ghostwrote, and book doctored for other successfully published authors, including several major celebrities. I was named Executive Editor of a mid-sized daily newspaper. I taught Creative Writing Workshop independently and at the college level. I wrote and had produced numerous television, radio, stage, and video scripts. I knocked out a ton of feature articles and short stories for most major magazines and newspapers. My earnings from writing topped out at more than $100,000 a year. And, only recently, I took a position as a book scout for a conventional publisher looking for debut authors with exceptional talent.
Now, with all this out of the way, let me ask you a question: What have you done to improve the quality and marketability of your writing lately? And, no, attending a weekly writing group doesn't count, since most such groups are painfully inept and notoriously unqualified to improve the quality of their members' works. And reading every issue of Writer's Digest isn't much better because a writer needs more than raw information to learn to write well.
So, what are we talking about here? What have you done? Nothing? Something? A little? Nothing yet, but you're seriously thinking about it?
Well, while you're thinking, here's the best offer you'll receive today. Go to my "Contact" page link in the main menu above and upload five or ten pages from the beginning of your book. Give me a while to get around to reading them, and I'll send you my specific advice for getting to a point in your literary career in which you're qualified to advise other up-and-coming authors on what they need to do to improve their skills. All for the ridiculously low price of nothing. Nada. Zippo.
I can't make you do this, of course. But I can make you question whether or not you're really interested in finding out just where you stand on the marketability scale. And whether or not your material is of publishable quality.
But, I hear you asking, Why only five or ten pages? After all, you can't actually determine where an author needs help and how to get it most expeditiously from such a small sampling of work, can you? Well, actually, I can. Just as any experienced professional editor can and does every day of his or her professional life.
So, that's the deal in a nutshell. A professional critique for no charge. Just remember that I told you this is the best offer you'll receive today. And let me know if I'm wrong.
Hope this helps.
D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.