Wednesday, June 07, 2017


I know a lot of writers, and I know a lot of people (too many, actually) who want to be writers. And over the years--because I have sold many short stories, comic book scripts, review columns, and even some novels--I have been asked for advice on writing. I always feel weird giving advice, mainly because while I may have sold a lot of fiction, I have never been able to earn a living from it. In all of the years I have been working at it, I made tens of thousands of dollars from it only twice: once in the year of my movie deal for THE FLOCK, and one year when I was writing a bunch of comic book scripts for the likes of Marvel Comics and a few other smaller comics publishers.

So I've always felt edgy about answering any questions about how to go about writing professionally.

The only real advice I could ever think of that were worth passing on were the same that you find coming from almost every professional author one would care to mention. And that advice is that first one should read, and ready voraciously and widely. And second, one should write, and write often--perhaps obsessively. If you do the former, you will discover what professional writing looks like. If you do the latter, you will eventually (one would hope) become decent at it.

There is a third bit that I used to give but which is all but useless these days: and that was that you should submit your work to various publications. The pool of professional publications--which was almost anemic even in my youth--has become all but absent. E-publishing and self-publishing have pretty much killed the professional markets, and self-publishing in general has caused the almost complete degeneration of English literature here in the States.

However, it occurred to me some time ago that there is another bit of advice that I could give, and it is this:

Don't compare yourself to any accomplished author, and certainly don't compare yourself to any great writer. Doing this is not only borderline insane, it is also rather a disgusting example of mad ego.

Case in point: Some years back I used to correspond with a professional writer who had sold a number or novels and had garnered a bit of critical praise. He was close to being able to earn his living completely from writing, which is an enviable and admirable feat--something I never could do.

After struggling along selling novels for low to moderate advances, he finally landed a very nice deal with a very large publishing house and for the first time in his life found himself with enough money to live comfortably for at least a year without having to punch a clock. That was cool. I was happy for him.

But then came time for promotional stuff and the interviews pushing this novel which had gotten him such a huge advance. And what does he do? This guy compared himself to Cormac McCarthy!

Yeah. Fuck.

Cormac McCarthy is about as good as it gets. There is only one Cormac McCarthy. If I was going to use the word "genius" to describe a living American author, he is only one of two I'd tag for that praise.

Don't compare yourself to a genius. Not only are you likely lying like a politician, you have set yourself up for a tremendous fall. A Humpty Dumpty fall. Because, really, you cannot hope to be even the tiniest fraction as talented as Cormac McCarthy. I had read this author's books, and he churned out serviceable--and often fun--pulp fiction. There was no brilliance to it. It was good, fun adventure stuff. Unless he'd made a leap of galactic proportion in his work, he was nothing near the ability and talent of McCarthy. I waited for the book, as did everyone else, hoping to see the appearance of a new work of absolute blinding brilliance.

It came out. The book got some very mild praise, some bloody savaging, and it quickly sank out of sight and went out of print. (I tried to read it, but found it both boring and pedestrian.) The editor who had argued for the publisher to cough up the big advance for the novel found himself fired and unemployed (true story). The book of course never came even the tiniest of  a fraction of earning back its advance. The author found himself thereafter without any further novel sales (for years and years).

So. Don't compare yourself to a great writer. I don't care who you are. It's a mistake. You're asking for trouble if you do.

You can say that you were influenced by a great writer, but don't say your work compares favorably to that of an actual genius.

Since that time I have seen self-centered asshole writers compare themselves to Ray Bradbury, to Charles Bukowski, to Charles Portis, to Harry Crews, to Harper Lee, to Kurt Vonnegut, to Ernest Hemingway, to Jack London, to Stephen King, to--Jove help the idiots--Ursula K. Le Guin.

Don't be like those dipshits comparing themselves to greatness. Just be yourself. Show some dignity.

Le Guin, an American treasure.


Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

There are aphorisms Robert Fripp has flashing randomly at the bottom of his Discipline web page. One of them is, "Comparison with others is the mark of the fool."

James Robert Smith said...

Good for Robert Fripp!

T Edmund Jenkin said...

Jeepers, if you don't feel good giving advice after that much work, I'm never saying anything again at all!

Great post, I think many rookies (and professionals apparently) overemphasize content in their comparisons ignoring craft and prose. "Yeah I write horror, so you could say I'm like Stephen King."

But also sadly comparisons can equal good(?) marketing I've seen a lot of Indie-authors use what I'l call 'shock and awe' marketing, posting material like a meme along with a reviewer comment along the lines of 'Better than Kafke' as long as they get a few clicks the internet tends to have a short memory, or those that challenge anything like this are considered bitter and twisted.

Great post, I hope you keep presenting advice

James Robert Smith said...

I once asked a fairly well-known self-publisher why he used some of the dishonest marketing campaigns he'd committed. Without one ounce of shame or regret he told me: "It sells my stuff."

I wouldn't quite use the term "stuff" to describe his work, but another word that also begins with the letter 'S'. Most of those guys have no shame or sense of dignity.

T Edmund Jenkin said...

Yeah I suspect some people have forgotten why they wrote in the first place, i.e. to have someone actually enjoy their book. I wonder how many people's e-books just sit on Kindles unread and the author doesn't mind because the numbers are good

James Robert Smith said...

Millions of the damned things.