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The One Thing New Writers Need to Hear That Nobody Will Tell Them

The hand that feeds you is the one most likely to rip you off

By Denise SheltonPublished about a year ago 4 min read
The One Thing New Writers Need to Hear That Nobody Will Tell Them
Photo by Colin Maynard on Unsplash

So you’ve found your bliss, and it’s (ta, da) writing. Congratulations! As someone who’s been doing this for over half a century, I can tell you the rewards are great, probably not as great as you’re hoping they’ll be, but there’s a lot to be said for expressing yourself in this particular way.

Trust me, I know of which I speak, uh, write

My writing ability has opened up opportunities that other people might envy. I’ve seen my name in print, won several prizes, and learned to write well enough to earn a full-time salary with benefits. I’ve even had an office to myself with my name on the door.

I saw Pulp Fiction at an advance screening for film critics in San Jose, CA, before Quentin Tarantino was a household name. I’ll never forget being with a couple dozen other jaded, pop-culture pen pushers while QT vigorously blew our minds into oblivion. We left in a daze, grinning at each other like maniacs.

I’m the first writer in history to get a screen credit on a video game (according to the press release for the arcade version of Trivial Pursuit.) I’ve written several unproduced screenplays and almost sold a spec script for the sitcom Cheers. The show’s executive producer Phoef Sutton said I showed promise and urged me to submit again. I didn’t because that was the only idea I had in me for that show.

I tell you all this not to brag but to demonstrate that what I tell you may be worth a listen. You may not like it and think, “Okay, boomer, but times have changed.” Of course, they have. I don’t deny it, but there’s one thing about the writing game that hasn’t changed: new writers are in danger of having their dreams used against them by people they think are trying to help.

We long to sit at the feet of masters

Writing is hard. Doing it consistently and well is more challenging. Making a living at it, especially if you want success on the level of George R.R. Martin, is impossible for everyone but George R.R. Martin, Stephen King, and a few other talented, hardworking, and incredibly lucky bastards. Maybe you’re one of them, but it’s a very small maybe.

I’m not here to kill your dreams. My message is simply this: don’t allow others to exploit your desire to make it by promising to slip you the key to success for $5.00 a month, $1,500 a course, or $50,000 plus interest in exchange for a piece of paper that tells the world you can write.

You know their names. Maybe you’ve already given them money. I’ve bought a few books and attended some seminars myself.

If those “top writers” knew the secret, they wouldn’t share it with you. They’d be crafting their masterpieces and pulling in million-dollar advances for themselves. Instead, in many cases, they’re offering to teach you a magic trick they haven’t been able to pull off themselves, at least not consistently.

That’s not to say these teachings are worthless, but be aware that the masters don’t design them with your dreams in mind. They’re enriching themselves on the backs of your goals and ambitions. If they have to tell a fib or two to do it, they usually will.

How do they prey on us? Let me count the ways

The “how to” industry takes advantage of writers in many ways. Here are a few:

How to books: Amazon is a master of the upsell. All you wanted was one book, and you ordered six or seven. To add insult to injury, the best ones are likely free at your public library.

Subscriptions: As a new writer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of signing up for subscription services, especially for platforms that promise the opportunity of earning that money back in reads. If a subscription isn’t paying for itself in three months, is it worth it to keep paying?

Writer’s retreats: Spending a weekend, a week, or a month in a pastoral setting with input from a professional writer or two may sound fantastic, but it rarely results in anything but a lighter wallet and less progress on your current project than you would have accomplished on your own. You can manage solitude for a lot less at Motel 6.

Contests with entry fees: This might be worth doing if the fees aren’t too high. Sometimes paying a little helps give you the motivation to follow through. Remember, though, they usually attract thousands of entries, and it’s debatable whether or not the contest holders have enough judges to read everyone’s stuff. What you write may be brilliant and still get passed over.

Wannabe writers are their own worst enemies

The biggest trap beginning writers fall into is kidding themselves that reading “how to” books, taking courses, and attending retreats are equivalent to making progress toward being successful writers.

They haven’t done the work needed to earn the dopamine rush that comes with a check for a sale, so they substitute the dopamine rush of throwing time and money at the idea of being a writer. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that the only things that bring you closer to that goal are writing, rewriting, getting feedback, and rewriting again.

Know this: the deck is stacked against you. Expect to fail, but even if you make it to the bestseller list, sell that spec script, or even win one of writing’s most coveted awards, you’ll need to keep working. If you’re okay with that and still want to write, go ahead.

After all, it’s cheaper than therapy, and who knows, maybe you’ll be the exception.


About the Creator

Denise Shelton

Denise Shelton writes on a variety of topics and in several different genres. Frequent subjects include history, politics, and opinion. She gleefully writes poetry The New Yorker wouldn't dare publish.

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