Advice for writers from Michael Gruber

by Ksenia Anske in


I'm pausing Ferret Fiction Frenzy (don't fret, it'll continue tomorrow) in favor of amazing advice for writers from Michael Gruber.

PLEASE WELCOME Michael Gruber, the ghostwriter of the popular Robert K. Tanenbaum series of Butch Karp novels, author of "Jimmy Paz" trilogy, national bestseller The Book of Air and Shadows (2007) and his most recent novel, The Good Son (2011).

ADVICE FOR WRITERS by Michael Gruber

There are hundreds of thousands of high school football players and tens of thousands of college players, but only 1,700 people get to play in the NFL. That's pretty competitive, but it's nothing compared with the odds of starting out as a writer and making a full-time living doing nothing but writing fiction. There are probably fewer than a thousand Americans who do, a number that includes me. I occasionally teach writing courses or speak with students who want to write and so I get asked a lot about how to do it and what it's like to be a professional writer. When I try to think of a rational answer, however, I tend to come up with the banal or the absurd. Be talented and lucky? It's about the same for getting into the NFL.

But if I took the question seriously I guess I could pull a few things out of my experience as a commercial writer and as a teacher that might be helpful. First, I think you should know what you're getting into. People who work in offices under the pressure of bosses and organizational imperatives may think about how nice it would be to just write, to lounge about the house in robe and pajamas tapping out the gold. Indoor work, no heavy lifting, and you can't beat the commute. I suppose that this is in many people's minds when they say, "I want to be a writer."

The reality is much different, I'm afraid. Writers face psychic pressures that are just as rending as the physical pressures experienced by, say, coal miners. The average life span of American novelists is 66 years, a good deal short of the average. You may not see it in broken bones and black-lung, but it's there, always eating away at the psyche, generating addiction, ruining relationships. At the office, you can goof off, talk to your pals, avoid the inspection of your boss, make excuses for screw-ups. It's a human environment. Your writer's garret is, in contrast, an inhuman environment. What it is really like to work every day at a project for a year or more and not know whether it's any good or not? You're all alone, all alone! Except for the voices in your head, the voices of the characters and the others, whispering, "this is such crap." And when you do finish it, and send it out there's the tension of waiting for a response, well knowing that your fate is in the hands of a recent college graduate who majored in English. And what if you get rejected? Your year is lost, you're a year older with nothing to show for it, like doing a stretch in prison for a crime you didn't commit. No, worse! Because you volunteered for this, and so you feel doubly a fool. It's akin to bankruptcy or divorce, except you have to do it a lot more times.

But let's say you succeed. An agent accepts you as a client. And you really have to have an agent to be a professional writer. (And yeah, I know Rowling didn't have an agent and sent Harry to 126 publishers, but the chances of that happening to you are lottery-scale improbable.  You might as well not write at all and pin your hopes on scratching the right ticket.) Getting an agent will make you feel good for about a week. Then you have to worry about finding a publisher: weeks, months maybe, of grinding worry. You can't write, you're consumed with waiting to see if what you already wrote will find a market. Then you get a publisher, hooray! Again you feel good for about a week, but then you worry about how the publisher is handling your book, how it's being edited and marketed, because even if they "love" the book, believe me, they will never love it the way you do, and you'll feel like you just sent your kid off to first grade in a hideous Dickensian school.

Then the book is published and you hold it in your hand, and there's your picture on the jacket. Okay, this is the heroin moment in the writer's life, no high like it, but unfortunately it lasts about as long as the typical smack fix, and then you have to worry about whether the book is selling, an agony that will last until the thing takes off and gets on the List or, far, far, more probably, it spends its two weeks on the shelves and gets remaindered, at which point you have to start writing another book, and the whole thing is to do all over again. And this is a success story!

So why does anyone undertake to write? Let's eliminate the fame-hungry here, or the people who just want to be writers because they've read writers' biographies and think it'd be a cool way to spend their lives. People write, in my experience, because they have to. I made enough money writing that I don't have to anymore, but the fact is I get nauseous if I don't write for a while. I write on vacation! The stories show up in my head and they make me feel crazy if I don't write them down. If this is your situation, if you're the kind of person who if imprisoned by a oppressive regime would contrive to write on toilet paper with a pin, using your own blood as ink, then writing might be for you, and you will not be discouraged by the above.

It's hard to give reasonable advice to writers because writing is a function of the individual soul, unique for every person. But I think it's fair to propose that writing requires the kind of discipline that is usually associated with Olympic athletes and ballet dancers. To be a writer, you simply have to write! You have to face what Hemingway called the white bull, the blank and treacherous page, and you have to do it just about every day, whether you "feel" like it or not. And you have to develop a really high tolerance for failure, not the failure of neglect, but the failure of success, which is far harder to deal with. Everything you write will be a failure to some extent, because it it not given to us to represent on the page the infinite variety and a richness of the real world and of the human heart. You have to learn to live with it, that or take to drink, a rather more usual solution among writers.

But cheer up! It's only your life, and if you stay a writer, it probably won't last that long.

(If you're still interested, there's a lot more musing about the writing life and other subjects on my blog.) 

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