The Worst Writing Advice in History

I did the best advice, see below. Now for the worst, to whit:

"All you have to do is write a good book."

Really?  I mean, really?

Ah, let me count the ways in which this is a pile of steaming horse crap, beloved though it may be by writers, editors and other industry professionals the world over.

Look, I get why they love this line. It's like a free get out of gaol card every time they get pigeonholed by some desperate, sweaty wannabe at a convention who wants 'The Answer!'.

"Write a good book," they say. "The rest will take care of itself," they say. And then they wave to an invisible someone on the other side of the room and make their getaway before the wannabe can drag the real truth out of them.

It sounds so reasonable! So wise! So simple! And so, so wrong.

Let's take the obvious and most meta exception. The universe? she is lumpy, yes? By definition nothing good, bad or indifferent ever happens 100% of the time. There are always exceptions. This means that some good, even some great books have gone unpublished in the past and will do so again.

There is no magic drift net trawling the hard drives of the world's aspiring writers capturing the 'good books' and wafting them gently to the inboxes of appropriate editors. No, there's slush piles, and contests, and brief conversations at conventions and festivals, and MFAs, and workshops, and your third cousin's best friend who happens to be a cookbook editor at Random House and maybe she can slip your manuscript onto the desk of the appropriate person, pretty please? I'm begging you!

And likewise some truly awful books have made and will continue to make it to print. We've all picked up a book, read a few pages and asked ourselves, "How did this get published?" The answer, lumpy universe.

So, I think we can agree that simply writing a good book is no guarantee of being published. (And being published is no guarantee of sales either, as every book marketer knows to their sorrow. (I once read a stat suggesting 8/10 books published by major publishers take a loss, which seems crazy high to me? Anyone confirm?))

There are thousands of manuscripts scuttling through the undergrowth of the literary ecosystem looking for a publisher today. One or two might find a home. With any luck they will be a couple of the good ones, but, statistically speaking anyway, it's iffy. But never, in any universe, will every good book be published.

The other thing that irks me about the "Write a good book" canard is that it suggests that every poor fool of a writer who can't get a publisher is to blame for their own failure. And, certainly, there's plenty of blame to go around. Writers have to sit down at the banquet of failure and tuck into their fair share. God knows I've written a couple of books that no one would ever publish, and I knew it. Practically the first thought I had when I finished them was, "Well, no one's ever buying that off me, then."

I would contend these books are 'different' rather than 'bad', but your milage may vary. (If you're curious)

But plenty of other writers have written perfectly good romances, crime noir thrillers, sci fi epics, and so on, that could be published, that might even sell well if they were, but never will be. Fiction – novels, stories, screenplays, or any other variety you care to name (even writing ads) – is a saturated and intensely competitive market. And competition must always have its worthy losers.

But no one wants to tell the worthy losers the truth. No one says, "Oh lots of people are talented, lots of people are busting their hump, most of them will fail anyway. And by most I mean 99.8%."

I'm not sure why. It is too tough?

I guess they don't want to discourage the next J K Rolling (even if she was only ever published because an agent's 8 year old daughter pulled Harry Potter out of the slush pile and insisted her mother read it).

But someone needs to say it. So I did.


Automation and Art

I’m a decent writer. I can write a readable novel, full of relatable characters doing interesting things. My short stories are sharp and funny. I can even cobble together a poem or two. I’ve done well enough in competitions, and had enough positive feedback from readers and publishing pros (including sales) to be reasonably sure of my own ability.

So great, right? Good news. Fame and riches await!

Better yet, there are thousands of other people out there like me – all good writers. Maybe even a few great ones still waiting for their time in the sun.

Best of all? There’s paying work out there for literally dozens of us. Dozens!

Uh, yeah…

Thousands doesn’t fit very well into dozens, does it? Bye bye fame and riches.

When I talk to people about this sad phenomenon I suggest that 1 writer in 500 will succeed. By which I mean 1 in 500 will eventually sell some of their work, maybe some short fiction to a magazine, get a novel published, or sell a screenplay. But even that 1 writer in 500 doesn’t get to be a full time pro. For that you need to take all those 1 in 500s, squish them into a new 500 and take 1 of them again. That’s your pro – the full time writer who can maybe (on the back of a lot of hustling) make a middle class living from writing alone.

Do the same again and divide by ten if you’re talking about getting rich. There’s a reason almost everyone knows who Steven King and J K Rolling are.

So why do so many people chase such a tiny market? And it’s not just writing fiction. You could say the same thing about acting, art, or music. A lot of guys can shred guitar. Very few of them have recording contracts with Sony.

And that’s the answer – Sony Music, Random House, Penguin, etc. In other words, mass media.

Think of a tribe on the savannah. A tribe might be made up of 70 to 80 people on average. Every tribe needed its own singer to sing the songs of the ancestors, its own storyteller to tell the tales of great hunts and battles and romances, its own artist to paint the animals on the sacred cliffs.

But mass media means that one person can now supply stories or music or art to millions. In our pre-media past it would have taken thousands and thousands of artists to meet the same demand.

Automated reproduction has preemptively disemployed almost all the artists ever born. They inherited a vocation, burned gene-deep into them by a thousand generations, and technology has rendered them mute and inglorious.

So that’s all a bit tough on all those frustrated artists out there, but it’s a good thing for everyone else, right? It means they get access to the best possible stories, music and art. They’re not stuck with whatever the birth lottery might have spawned in their tribe of 80.

And it’s much fairer for the best artists. They are now properly rewarded for their excellence. In the pre-media age, when every audience was captive, the hacks got the same rewards as the geniuses.

All true. But a hard truth to swallow for the preempted.

When people talk about robots stealing jobs I often wonder why they don’t talk about mass media? Printing presses, recording, film, and photographic reproduction stole the jobs of most traditional artists long ago. After all, what is a record player (or even more so a DAP) but a robot who sings?


What is art?

Might as well get this blog going by tackling one of the thorniest questions possible. So here we go:
Art is a mediated representation produced with artistic intent.

Mediated Representation

Something that is mediated has passed from an external source, usually via the senses, and been apprehended by an observer.  

A work of art is an externality that has been mediated by the psyche, and then reproduced as an intentional artistic representation.

In this way a drawing of a building produced deliberately as an artistic work is art, the architectural representation of a building may be art, while the plan of an actual building is not art (the plans have been mediated by the psyche and reproduced as a representation, passing the first two tests, but if there is no artistic intent either at creation, presentation, or afterward they are not art, they are blueprints - see Intention).


The difference between an artistic representation and a documentarian representation lies in intention.

A police photographer takes photographs with no artistic intent. He wants to gather evidence not to create art. But if he, or someone else, placed his crime scene photography in a gallery, deliberately displaying his evidentiary images as art, they would then be art.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain is a classic example of this. A urinal is just a urinal until you give it a name and put it in a gallery. Every urinal in the world has been mediated and represented (in porcelain, sheet metal, brick, etc), but without artistic intent they remain only urinals.

The intention of the artist makes art art.

Technique is Irrelevant

Think of the ways in which you have heard art described: ‘deep’, ‘profound’, ‘shallow’, ‘significant’, etc. What the apprehender of art is describing is not the artwork, but its effect upon them. ‘It left me cold’, ‘It made me cry’, ‘It made me want to stage a revolution’, etc.

These descriptions always refer to way in which the apprehender was affected. No one, except a student interested in the how, or a critic acknowledging a great artist as a master craftsman, is going to describe how Van Gough painted his Sunflowers. They will tell you how the paintings made them feel, which is, after all, what we usually want to know. We may ask: what emotional reaction did it elicit? What did it make you think of? Did it change your views? Or at the most basic level: did you like it? Few of us would think of, let alone ask, about the brush strokes.

The technique is irrelevant to the apprehender, only his response to the art is important. Technique – as an end in itself – is therefore irrelevant to the artist.

Art or Great Art?

Great art moves people greatly. In its deepest form art is cathartic and, at its most powerful, transformational.

This is the test of art, that it intentionally makes the apprehender feel and think. The greater the art the greater its intentional effect upon the apprehender.

Artistic controversy erupts when a work affects some deeply but not others. Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles is a classic example. To some people it is a marvel of depth and colour that affects them at a profound level, to others it’s just a lot of spilled paint.

Transformation and Catharsis

Great art is transformational and cathartic.

Blake represents the transformational power of art in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When the Angel is touched by the divine spark of art he is transformed into a Devil named Elijah who can now apprehend reality.

Aristotle tells us the significance of drama is catharsis. When Medea, betrayed and abandoned, wreaks her terrible revenge, the emotional transformation of the audience purges the destructive animus, releasing their negative feelings and restoring them to equanimity. In this way Euripides can be seen as a kind of proto-psychologist using art to beat a path toward enlightenment and peace.

How to Create Art

How does an artist learn to move an audience? Two paths appear obvious: the study of other artists’ work, and the study of nature.

To elicit fear, think of something fearful in nature: a predator, a volcano, a disease. These things give the artist insight into how to create fear of different kinds. The fear of being hunted, the fear of being helpless in the face of overwhelming events, the fear of the unclean.

In art stretch back to the beginning of English literature. Beowulf has great scenes of terror as Grendel bursts into the Hall, and the Dragon ravages the countryside. The dread at the end of the poem as the poet contemplates the fate of Beowulf’s clan following his death is palpable.

There are endless further examples in both art and nature.


Artists intentionally create mediated representations – from nature, experience, knowledge, and other art – to be consumed as art: thus making art.

Great art intentionally affects the apprehender deeply, invoking catharsis and transformation.


The best writing advice in the known universe

Quit while you still can.

This, of course, begs the question, why didn't you, then?

And the obvious corollary, duh, I waited too long.

So what now?

Keep writing. Art as OCD. What else is there?