I think we can all agree that the current technological revolution is Changing Everything. Traditional business models are broken. No one listens to the Establishment any more because these days people take their guidance from their far-flung, self-selected tribe (something politicians and newspapers advising people who to vote for have clearly failed to grasp). Critics in old media dishing out their views from on-high are now redundant.
The landscape has also changed significantly for writers. I regularly get messages from aspiring authors asking for advice, so here are a few blunt words. I was also prompted by Mark Charan Newton’s recent bloggage about writers suffering in the current net environment.
I started my writing career in the pre-mass-internet days…with the dinosaurs, net kids!, or about 16 or so years back for everyone else. I know what it used to be like. And before anyone thinks this is a grumbling diatribe about the good old days, things are much better now from the business/research/connectivity perspective. So let’s not go there.
The net now is like a city centre pub. You’ve got the group getting drunk and having a laugh. The intense couples ruminating over a glass of claret. And you’ve got the swivel-eyed, shaven-headed men in brown leather jackets at the end of the bar who bellow at anyone who will listen. And they’ve all got an opinion, and they all want to tell you.
This analogy isn’t just about bloggers. It’s about anyone who chimes in with their take on a book – on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones, Good Reads, wherever. If you’re a writer, it’s nigh on impossible not to hear what people think about your book.
It didn’t use to be like that. You’d get a flurry of print reviews when the book came out, and then silence for months while you worked on the next one. Now they come in a torrent, every week, every day.
Back then, reviews were carefully considered. Today some are still carefully considered. But as in that city centre pub, some are rants, abusive, vitriolic, opinions filtered through prejudices. And that’s how it should be – the net has given people a voice, and it’s up to them what they want to say.
Here’s the thing: you can’t write unless you’re sensitive – the two go hand-in-hand. Writing is about empathy. It’s about digging into yourself and saying “This is me”. Non-writers think a book is a book is a product, a can of beans, but from a writer’s perspective it’s not. Any criticism stings as sharply as if someone said, you’ve got a big nose, a fat butt and you smell like pee.
It takes a while to build up the thick skin you need. I’ve been pretty fortunate on the review front, but I was also lucky to grow up in an environment – a working class mining community – where you needed a thick skin just to get through the day. Even so, in the pre-mass-web days, you got the chance to grow a hide. You got time to breathe and learn and make your mistakes in public. New writers don’t have that opportunity. They’re flung into the torrent of opinions from day one. And I know many suffer badly. Some have been laid low by depression. Some have given up. Most don’t realise they’re walking from their quiet room into a war zone, and when the bombs start falling they run back and forth until shell-shock sets in.
Judgments are harsher now. Online, many don’t have time for niceties. If a book doesn’t hit all the marks for them, THEY WILL DESTROY IT! (Their caps…) Poor new writer. You’ve slaved night and day for the big chance you’ve always dreamed about, and the minute your book comes out, YOU ARE DESTROYED!
But it’s not just the effect of opinions on a poor new writer’s brittle ego. They find it harder to build a career. In the Dinosaur Age, a writer’s career had that chance to breathe and grow. Now, as with the 24-hour news cycle of modern politics, careers can move from beginning to end in the blink of an eye. Authors are praised to the heavens, but one less than successful book and the meme spreads in a keystroke, bringing it all crashing down.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying stop being hard on writers. I’m simply stating that this is the way it is. Everything has changed. It’s tough to get a book published. It’s tough when it is published. And it gets tougher.
The modern writer has been increasingly immersing themselves in the online world and the reader communities. Now I’m wondering if new writers ought to go in the opposite direction. Retreat, or at least hold it all at arm’s length, simply to keep writing and to grow as a writer. Get inside the bubble where the words are all.
It reminds me of how Alan Moore used to go to conventions until, at the height of Watchmen, he experienced all of this face-to-face. And then he retreated to his house in Northampton for the sake of his writing. Few public appearances. No internet (which admittedly is taking it a bit far…) But he did it to survive as a creator.
So, yes, I pity the new writer. If your first book is coming out, you’ve got it harder than I ever had. You’re going to be judged. You might be torn apart. You might be built up so fast your head is spinning, and then torn apart. It might just be the death of a million tiny pinpricks. Or you might ride that upward trajectory for the rest of your life. But it’s going to be out of your hands, and it’s going to be very hard to ignore it. So a few words of advice:
Do not get Google Alerts. You might initially be excited that people are talking about you. Eventually it will destroy you.
Find a few reviewers you trust. That doesn’t mean ones who praise your work, but ones who can offer some constructive criticism which will benefit your writing. (See blog post below). Ignore the rest.
Don’t read Amazon reviews. It’s a bear pit. Or any of the other book review sites, for that matter. As I mentioned in a post below (“The Amazon One-Star Review”), there’s barely a book on the site that doesn’t have at least one one-star review, and that includes the classics. And they’re often delivered in a manner that would earn a punch on the nose if delivered in real-life.
And finally, don’t be needy. Who cares what people think? You don’t have to seek it out. You wouldn’t go round that city centre pub asking people what they thought of you or your work. Why do it on the net?
The rest of it – the pace of career change, the chance to build a writing life when you’re immediately centre-stage and in the spotlight… Sadly, that’s something you have to live with. The advantages of this life far outweigh any other job, from my perspective. It’s a great prize. But if you’re just delivering your first MS to your agent, know that it’s getting harder by the moment.