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Writing Superstitions

Writing can be a very depressing business. You spend your evenings and weekends hunched over your keyboard, trying in vain to make a sucky novel slightly less sucky. You love writing, but you despise writing. You dread it. You feel guilty if you don't do it. You resent your day job because you can't do it more. You keep at it through years of rejections and one-star reviews, clinging to the tiniest hope that your work will one day pay off.

And then, just in case you're not depressed enough, successful big-name authors are eager to destroy your dreams.

"The only way to amass a pile of words into a book is to shovel some every single day. No days off....If you don't—you won't make it." - Hugh Howey
"After teaching over 1000 fiction writing students at Sheridan College, I have discovered something: some students are bubbling over with ideas. Others—the ones who won't make it—have to struggle for plots." - Melodie Campbell
"I can tell you in about five minutes which writers are guaranteed to fail. The guaranteed failures among writerdom carry their amateur beliefs and attitudes and methods like a bad perfume—an ever-present cloud of Eau de Doom that rolls off of their bodies and wafts into the noses of publishers and editors who might otherwise be interested in the writer's work, sending the pros fleeing to green rooms and bathrooms to escape." - Holly Lisle

Everyone seems to have a different prescription of inborn characteristics wannabe writers must have to "make it." Even if you're a golden child with a masochistic work ethic, an infinite well of creative ideas, a pretty face, a slim body, and an IQ of 200, there's probably still something wrong with you by somebody's account.

Sorry, you don't live in New York City. You're not gonna make it.

Sorry, you have less then 10,000 Twitter followers. You're not gonna make it.

Sorry, you're under 5'4". Not gonna make it.

Seriously, we might as well erect signs at the entrance of writers' conferences that say, "You must be THIS tall to make it!" It would be just as accurate a predictor of success as anything else. For every Hugh Howey with an extensive back list and new publications every month, there's a J.R.R. Tolkein who toiled over one project for ten years. For every Melodie Campbell bursting with fabulous new ideas every week, there's a Harper Lee who only wrote one decent book in her life.

You know what all these repetitions of "you won't make it if [blank]" have in common? None of them have anything to do with writing. It's all behavioral. Procedural. Personal. Only tangentially related to anything that matters. They are, essentially, superstitions.

Many people find comfort in superstitions. They feel safe if they pet their lucky rabbit's foot. They know it will be a good day if they find a penny facing heads up on the sidewalk. These "you won't make it if" superstitions serve the same purpose. Hard-and-fast rules, no matter how useless and arbitrary, give us a cozy sense of security in this wacky and unpredictable world. People like to have faith that they'll eventually write a bestseller if they just keep pounding on the keys like Hugh Howey. They like to believe they're destined for greatness because they have "the sort of brain that constantly makes up things" like Melodie Campbell. And they like to feel superior because, unlike all those idiots too blind to see The Way, they are on The Path of the Chosen Ones laid out by Robert A. Heinlein.

A side note about Robert A. Heinlein: When he wrote those "rules" that say you must write and never rewrite, it was 1947. In 1947, rewriting was a royal pain in the rear. You couldn't reword, cut and paste, or improve at the sentence level without rewriting the whole dang thing. Heinlein and his peers could have spent weeks making simple changes that didn't improve the quality of the end product enough to justify the time sink. But today, the mechanics of rewriting are a non-issue. Those weeks of labor have been shortened to a couple of keystrokes. It's a mental effort only, and one many people are too impatient or arrogant to make. End side note.

When people—oftentimes very smart and admirable people—preach their superstitions with such certainty, it's easy to be swayed. It's easy to say, "Oh my God, I'll never get a publishing deal because I live in Milwaukee. I'll die alone and forgotten because I don't write on Sundays. Nobody will ever buy my books because I'm only 5'2"!"

It's tough, but you have to ignore these people. You can extract nuggets of advice from their sermons if you must—you can soften their words and say, "Yes, it's a good idea to experience as much as I can and to write as often as I can. Duh." But if you believe you won't make it if you don't follow their rules to the letter, if you listen to the self-satisfied know-it-alls who say you're a "guaranteed failure" if you don't do everything exactly the way they do, you can get discouraged and give up writing altogether. Worse, you can start writing safe.

When people are worried about achieving success—or avoiding failure—they tend to pull their punches. They shy away from taking risks. Like the author of Bianca Goes to NYC, they write with the brakes on. Or they start writing to template, churning out carbon copies of Twilight in the pursuit of sales and the approval of the people who sneer at the hoity toity literati with their mouths full of sour grapes. Or they go the other way, squashing their instincts for the funny and the lighthearted because their literary idols think the only books worth publishing are Important with a capital I.

If you believe you have to live somebody else's life, you're one step away from writing somebody else's books. I guarantee you that you aren't doomed to fail if you write at your own pace and take breaks when you need them. You aren't doomed to fail if you don't have an MFA and you don't live in NYC and you don't have a ginormous fan base before you've even published your first word. You're only doomed to fail if you give up.


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