Some of the stupidest things I've heard about writing
Because you love a list
1. “One should only write in one’s mother tongue.” Said by a fellow writer from my homeland, convinced that you can only command one language and should stick to that. Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Hertha Müller, E. M. Cioran, Vladimir Nabokov, among many others, are laughing their arses off.
2. “You should change your name to something more English-friendly.” This was said by an agent in 2010, after a friend who writes commercial fiction hooked me up when I was starting to write in English. My answer was “Something like Bob Bob would do?”. You’d get rightly cancelled for being so stupid these days.
3. “You will never get published without an agent.” Ditto, but a different agent, round 2015. Six books later — two in my mother tongue and four in English, by the way — I’ve been rejected by more agents than publishers. Either I’ve got things right or terribly wrong1.
4. “You need a creative writing degree to write / get published.” I’ve come across this online so many times that I’ve lost count. Look, you might need this kind of degree if you want to teach others how to get this kind of degree to then teach others how to get this kind of degree and so on ad eternum… But not for writing. For this you just need something to write with. And when it comes to publishing, you need to have talent, luck, contacts, cultural capital, or outstanding good looks2.
5. “Publishing a book is some kind of achievement that actually changes your life / marks you as a better writer.” Heard a lot from people who haven’t published a book yet. Publishing a book doesn’t change shit — nothing happens after you publish a book — no one cares about your book more than you and you will stop caring a couple of days after i't’s been published, because… nothing happens. As to the second part: some of the best writers I’ve read haven’t published any books. Some because they don’t want to. Most because publishing is too stupid and money-focused to publish them3.
6. “You have to listen to the editor ALWAYS. Because the editor ALWAYS knows better.” This is a terrible idea. If you are lucky enough to have a good editor then listen. Other editors don’t know what the fuck they’re doing and will destroy your writing, turning into some bland pastiche that sounds like everyone else’s, and you should snatch your piece from their greasy and brittle work-shy fingers and disappear for ever. You have to know what you want to achieve and listen only to those who can help you achieve it — this includes editors, agents, peers, teachers, family and friends. And here’s a pro tip: when working with a difficult editor use Courier for the first draft and then just switch the font to Times New Roman on the second version and they’ll think you took their advice on board. This is proven to work every time.
7. “You ALWAYS have to pay attention to the feedback when a piece gets rejected, take it on board.” As above. Some people might offer what they think is good advice but is that what you want to do with your piece? Only listen to rejection feedback from editors you respect. I personally use every rejection (and there are many) to come back to the rejected piece and work on it some more; then I send it elsewhere; then I read the rejection feedback and note down the rejecter’s name in a little black book that one day will find its use4. Also: I’d recommend only listening to praise; this is something that applies to the whole of existence, not just writing.
8. “You must have a pretty well-formed idea before you sit down and start writing.” That’s called thinking; writing is a completely different thing. Writing ideas will come when you are writing. Only people who don’t know how to write need to think before they sit down and start writing. You have to believe that writing ideas will come.
9. “People admire writers.” They don’t — they just keep an eye on them to make sure to keep their belongings safe in their presence. Much of the aura of the writer is the result of the glorification of this sad metier in films and terrible genre novels. There’s nothing to admire about someone selfishly playing with words in order to avoid real work. Also: most writers are prone to narcissism, have terrible table manners, can’t talk about anything but themselves, and are the kind of creeps you’d never want in your family.
10. “Writing can change the world.” Court proceedings, parliamentary records, criminal investigations, scientific papers, medical research, the reports of human rights commissions after dictatorships, philosophical tracts, historical records, diplomatic cables, instruction guides, the Yellow Pages, etc — all of these can change the world. Literature, on the other hand, can’t change shit.
I’m still open to agents. Especially those who buy you lunch. You can even call me Bob, if you want.
I’ve got only one of those; I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one. Also, note the italics on talent.
To these: explore other ways of taking your work to the world. Stop [clap] fetishising [clap] traditional [clap] publishing [clap] and [clap] books [final clap].