Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Writing Game

"What does it take to win at this writing game?"

Les sat on a folding chair a few feet away from one of his idols, the Great Writer X. X nursed his fourth scotch and squinted at Les.

"Lemme tell ya what I think about that, son. It's a damn shame, is what it is. So many people wanting to write, to tell their great story or whatever the hell it might be, huge egos on the line. So much sadness. So much suffering. It's a shame, is what it is." X closed his eyes and looked as if he might weep. Then his face went neutral again and he brought the scotch to his lips.

"Okay," said Les. "But what does it take? To write a great book, to get it published, to get readers, to make it in the business?"

"Yeah, well it ain't gonna happen. Not anymore." X finished his drink and poured another. The bottle Les had brought was almost empty. "Lemme tell ya why."

"Sure. Why?"

"Need three things to happen, son. One, talent. Ya got to write, and write great. Ya got to have that magic something that takes your story over the top, that makes it dance along the invisible edge, the razor's edge. You, the writer, you have to be able to throw yourself over and over against a wall that will never give. You have to bleed, and you have to be able to give that blood to your readers."

"Shit," said Les.

"And you have to have ambition. Real ambition. You have to want more, you hear me? More than the average person would ever want. I don't mean stuff, son. I mean Truth with a capital T. You have to have it in you to write great, and more than that, to want to write great work, not just trivial fluff. To have to have to do it. And hell, maybe you have to want to suffer too. You listening to me?"

"Yeah," sighed Les, finishing his own drink now.

"One more thing that's got to happen. You got to be lucky. You got to write books that're gonna hit at the right time. It's all in the timing, son. Because those readers ain't always out there, see. They come and go. Sometimes they're there, like they were in the twenties, and again after the second war, and like they really were in the fifties. Hungry for more than what was in front of them. Dying to know secrets. It has to be a time when people believe they can be more, and the culture and the media are telling 'em to read, to think bigger, to actually work at growing their understanding of how life works. During those times, and they're rare, people queue up to devour anything that comes along that might lift them from their dumps and remind them that there's more. You have to publish in a time when people believe it's possible to become fully human."

The old man sighed and put his glass down hard on the table. He looked at Les. "Son, you came at the wrong time, that's all there is to it. I can't help you. Because right now, let me tell you. There's maybe one of those hungry readers left out of the thousands that used to crowd into the book stores. Maybe not even one. Son, the time's out of joint. Truth, especially the hard core subtle truths that used to make our hair stand on end, stuff like Dostoevsky and Waugh and Hesse and Hemingway and maybe even Salinger or Updike used to write. Christ son, that hunger is just gone now. Eat up by triviality and illiteracy and stupid computer games and sports bars and ...."

X poured the last of the scotch into his glass and raised it to his lips once more. This time the tears were real. "Everyone wants the illusion of mystery. Mystery as game or as entertainment. No one cares about the real mysteries anymore. Son, go home. Write your books. Then put 'em somewhere where they can be found in another age. Thirty years, or maybe fifty. Maybe then. Maybe. Or maybe there won't be books or anyone left to read them by then."


  1. This little rant bubbled up after brooding over an article I read suggesting the only people reading stories written by struggling new writers are other struggling new writers. The idea that the only way we can express ourselves and connect to readers is through a kind of incest just stuck in my craw, but I couldn't dismiss it. What do you think? Is there still a market for meaningful, serious literature out there?

  2. I think there is, but I know your depression well. Sometimes I feel like the world's passed me by and I'm trying to fish in an empty sea.

  3. Thanks Laura! I make no claim to be writing serious literature, but I want to stake my claim in that territory. Unless there's no audience at all. Then what's the point.

    That said, I'm totally charmed to have found the small but lively community of flash fiction writers who are reading each others' work.

  4. If you stick with it, there's an audience. But much of what Writer X said is true, sadly. Though I believe with the growing field of eReaders, this could change and there will be an audience for anyone willing to put in the work. It's there on a small scale now, but I think if we just keep working on honing our craft, sometime in the not too distant future, ebooks will give us our audience. And, like you, I'm thrilled to have this community to read what I write.

  5. that does seem to be the way of it now, more's the pity.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement, Eric. I hope you're right. Maria, thanks for the read. I'm working on the assumption that we are building a new literature (mostly online) and from that, quality work and talent will emerge. It will be what it will be. I'm not entirely sympathetic with "Les" in the story above. After all, he's a bit of a complainer, or he may be, and he's looking in the wrong direction: backwards instead of at the NOW.

  7. I read an estimate in a book published in 1985 that the American audience for **serious** literature was about 25,000. - That's right, 1985.

    As for not so serious literature, it only takes about 10,000 sales to make the NY Times bestseller list. I have thought for a long time that most readers of good literature are writers or would-be writers. So be it.

    I think Eric makes a valid point about E-Readers, they do make it extremely easy to put whole libraries at one's fingertips within seconds. But unfortunately Internet culture seems to be encouraging short-attention spans even amongst readers and writers. And not just that, but also the harried, chased feeling so many writers have of needing to keep up one's social networking platform. The key issue for me is knowing how to Turn it Off, to focus and meditate.

  8. Great, useful post, Mark. Exactly what I've been thinking, especially about the shortened attention span, not just of readers, but of everybody.

    Spot on about the pressure for social networking (read Marketing) we're required to do to get any eyes at all. I, for one, spend the vast majority of my "writing time" on that rather than actual writing.

  9. Today, in this country, almost everyone who is literate is a writer. The NY Times is referring to Twitter users as "micro bloggers." Between blogs, vanity presses, self-pub projects like Smashwords, Tumblr and the rest, if you want to write, you can share it and pop up on the first page of Google searches. In that sense, of course the only people reading writers are writers. Everybody is supposedly a writer.

    As far as everybody who reads struggling writers being struggling writers - who isn't a struggling writer? A best selling author? Many of them still struggle to pay the bills, because best sales still don't insure high grosses for the author. Who reads struggling writers? Their families and friends, the slush pile editors, people who troll blogs for fun. In the scheme where a Twitter user is a journalist, you can redefine anyone who stumbles here as a struggling writer.

    A lot of writing social networks are made up of aspiring writers. #fridayflash is. Certainly if this is the primary source of readership, most of your audience will be aspiring types. If an audience of people who also wish to produce prose is not enough, then what do you want? There is a multi-thousand-person audience for literary fiction, people who buy whatever The New Yorker or Harold Bloom endorse, consuming without the desire to produce. There is also a multi-million-person literary scheme internationally, one that is largely ignored by American writers and ignores American writers in turn (the Nobel committee has bluntly said we're too sheltered to be worth considering). Those are venues, if you've got the grit and connections to make them.

  10. Mike, I think the road to success for a writer trying to 'make it' is a very hard one, the sheer amount of competition, and the wall of negativity and knockbacks from publishers etc must take a very strong personality, and tremendous determination to overcome, and sadly, many people just simply give up.
    I am lucky as I do not take myself to be a serious writer, and I do this for amusement, and also a for sense of belonging, but I understand the hardships of the writer's world, (my daughter is an aspiring author and poet) and I truly sympathise with them.

    I must also add, that this piece is a fantastic piece of writing itself.

  11. Steve and John, thanks for the perspective. John, I've been admiring your work for some time now, and considering it's very short fiction (like mine) it sometimes knocks me on my butt. I certainly respect your view of what's going on in the Writing Game these days.

    Steve, thanks, very generous of you.

  12. Interesting discussion you've started here, Mike. I try not to think of this stuff too much because it's depressing. Not that I have any dreams of being a famous writer - I'm more like Steve; it's a hobby. Still, the more I write, the more I blog, the more I read online, the less I read. I think it's true that fewer people are actually reading. I miss that.

  13. Thanks for the note Cathy. Writing is a hobby for me too, but it's a passionate one that occupies my thoughts day and night. I do think we humans have entered a new age in which literacy has shifted from printed books to words on screens, changing things for the better in some ways and worse in others.

  14. I think we are caught in the middle of a evolution of book writing and publishing. It's that phase that creates uncertainity and builds doubts and unfortunately I think the aspiring writers feel this the most. But, when the hurdles of this time pass I think more people will be reading books than ever before. *Cross fingers* Great flash piece to use to start a conversation with.

  15. I really like your perspective, Lara. It's positive, at least potentially, and I think accurate as well.