If You Want to Write a Book, Don’t Listen to Stephen Hunter

Posted: May 30, 2017 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , ,

A few days ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Hunter published an essay at the Daily Beast titled, rather provocatively, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now.” Since then, it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, and not because of its quality. Hunter’s piece is so laughably bad in every respect that I damn near snorted vomit out of my nose while reading it.

There is, I have found, a distinctive type of faux-eloquent arrogance exhibited by your common or garden Serious Male Writer that endeavours to turn “he said, loftily” into an aspirational dialogue tag instead of, as is actually the case, a dismissively condescending one. Hunter’s piece is a case in point: setting aside the gross inaccuracies of its substance, the style is so deeply invested in celebrating itself that it’s less a case of gilding the lily than (to borrow one of my husband’s favourite phrases) sprinkling a turd with glitter. Presented without Hunter’s caveats and curlicues, the core recommendation – make regular writing part of your routine, because you can’t ever publish a book you don’t finish – is a reasonable one. That Hunter has managed to turn such simple advice into a purple, self-congratulatory screed about the failings of other, lesser beings is, if nothing else, a cautionary example of hubris in action.

He begins:

In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan.

What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

I’d be very interested to know where Hunter is getting this figure about a thousand other people from, as he goes on to mention it more than once without ever citing a source. Even so, and regardless of whether his numbers are accurate or a mere illustrative hypothetical plucked from the aether, the following contention – that these other yearling writers are Hunter’s direct competition – is wrong in all respects. The number of people who start writing a book on the same day you do is completely irrelevant. Even if all those other novels ultimately end up finished and submitted to agencies and publishers, you’re only directly competing with each other if you’re submitting to the same venues, at the same time, about the same subject matter.

A writer of adult thrillers is not vying for marketspace with those producing memoirs or YA, but with other authors of adult thrillers – and even then, the outcome is largely contingent on context. If a particular genre is experiencing a boom, as urban fantasy was not long ago, then publishers looking to captialise on a trend are more likely, not less, to sign on multiple works in the same oeuvre, to say nothing of the existence of imprints which, regardless of market trends, are dedicated to specific genres or subgenres. The real competition doesn’t kick in until the book is actually being promoted – by the publisher, by reviewers and booksellers and librarians, by the readership in general – and even then, it’s neither an equal nor a predictable thing. Promotions can fail, viral successes can happen, an author whose first four novels were largely ignored can become a breakout success with their fifth, and so on through endless permutations of chance and context. Solid promotion is always helpful, of course, and there are things both author and publisher can do to maximise a book’s chances, but ultimately, it’s up to the audience.

Which is why Hunter’s opening premise is not only irritating, but deeply unhelpful to those budding writers for whom his essay is presumably intended. Unlike an annual literary award, an audience is not a finite resource, but a thing to be shared and cultivated: the reader who buys a competitor’s book today may well be inspired to buy yours tomorrow, and as such, hating them from the outset is not only pointless, but completely antithetical to the cultivation of professional writing relationships. In my own experience as a published author, other authors are frequently some of your best friends and biggest cheerleaders. We support, critique and learn from each other precisely because we’re writing in the same field, which is also how we come to share recommendations about new books to read. Regardless of whether I’m acting in my capacity as authorial colleague or delighted reader, taking note of which books my favourite writers are praising, criticising or otherwise discussing is a large part of how I stay abreast of the field.

Call me newfangled, but if I’m going to go to the effort of hating someone, it won’t be for merely sharing my ambitions: they have to actually earn it.

But let’s be honest: Of the thousand, 800 won’t cross the infamous Mendoza Line. God love them, God be with them, God show mercy to them, for whatever cruel reason they were not given enough talent or the right mind, or any of a dozen different pathologies to make them capable of writing a publishable book. No amount of labor will alter this reality.

There’s so much wrong with this, I scarcely know where to begin. 800 potential novels lost! Where is he getting these figures? And god, the condescension! If someone desperately wants to be a traditionally published author and finds themselves unable to achieve that goal, then yes, that sucks for them. But I intensely dislike the construction here – especially when “cruel” is paired with “capable” and pleading to the divine – that implies a person is somehow tragic or deficient if they can’t or don’t produce a published work. Many people write foremost for their own pleasure, whether in fannish contexts or otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And then there’s the fact that, in dismissing these 800 potential writers, Hunter is apparently convinced that lack of ability is the only reason why, on this particular occasion, they might not succeed. Clearly, he’s aware that it’s possible for even a successful author to abandon a manuscript, given his admission that the same thing has happened to him. (“I know how books die. A few have perished under my saddle, believe me.”) So whence comes the conviction that the hypothetical majority of his hypothetical thousand competitors will drop out of the running, not because they, too, have just so happened to hit a stumbling block, but because they’re pathologically incapable of success? The idea that “no amount of labour” can help such writers is particularly incongruous – not to say disgusting – given that he’s ultimately asserting the value of regular writing and hard work. (But then, as we’ll see shortly, he’s also claiming it should be easy.)

Also – and I feel like this ought to be an obvious point to make – but “publishable book” is not a universally coherent standard, not least because we now live in a time when self-publishing is commonplace. Even so, plenty of books that I would deem unpublishable, were the verdict mine alone to make, have nonetheless been traditionally published, because – unlike the Mendoza Line – there is no single, absolute yardstick against which all potential novels are measured. (Whether Hunter believes there should be is a different matter.) Just as a great deal of comparative rubbish ends up on shelves, so too does a lot of excellent writing never make it that far, and while I’ve also encountered a lot of heinous attempts at narrative in unpublished contexts, I don’t for a red hot minute believe that the majority of bad writers are incapable of improvement. Hunter seems oblivious to the possibility that some among his theoretical thousand might be young writers – my first attempt at a novel was made at 11 – whose talents, like their interests, are far from fixed in stone, but who nonetheless might be grossly dissuaded by advice purporting to tell them otherwise.

Ugh.

So that really leaves but 200 to worry about. They are smarter, more talented, better looking, have better teeth, more hair, better bodies, and in most other respects are simply better. If they were writing this piece instead of me, you would like it a lot more. They are more charming, more beguiling, more charismatic, smell (a lot) better, have more polish and manner. They’re fun to be with! You’d be proud to have them as a friend.

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

The two most important words you can write in any manuscript are “the” and “end.” Somewhere along the line my brilliant competitors mosey off. I’m too dumb to mosey off. They’ll lose faith. I’ll never lose faith; it’s the only faith I’ve got. A new lover will come into their lives; I’m not even on speaking terms with my old (and only) lover. They’ll be distracted by so many other dazzling prospects; I have no other dazzling prospects. Their spouses will begin to grouse over undone errands and abandoned socks on the steps, there’ll be just too much research, they’ll grow depressed, sick of their own voice, unable to get themselves buzzed up enough. Their books will die.

Without wanting to veer too far into the perilous realm of psychological analysis, this entire section is like peering into a well of deep and unresolved personal bitterness. Other people might be handsomer, kinder, more likeable, smarter and generally more desirable than Hunter, but by god, he can write books! Which… good for him, I guess? Like, I’m not about to argue that writing stories isn’t a cool skill to have, but contrary to what he’s saying here, you can actually be an author and an intelligent, engaging, social human being. Crazy, right? The One True Path to authorial greatness doesn’t open only to those who suck at everything else, or who fail at interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise. I know plenty of authors who also have other, successful careers as scientists or academics or any number of things; who have partners or children or extensive social networks (and sometimes even all three!). By the same token, I also know plenty of writers, both published and unpublished, whose failure to complete a given manuscript has roundly failed to result in depression, divorce or anything more dire than personal irritation. Shocking, right?

Here’s the truth; sometimes a book just doesn’t go, and sometimes it’s only that it doesn’t go now. You have to set it aside for a bit, and maybe it dies and turns into fertiliser for future ideas, or maybe you cannibalise its parts, or maybe it’s only slumbering like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for some suitably handsome catalyst to wander along and offer the dragon a better gig at a newer, shinier castle. Either way, the price of failure isn’t the loss of everything you love, and success doesn’t hinge on having had nothing else to love in the first place. Hunter might well console himself with that particular narrative, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let him blithely hang its weight on the rest of us.

You work every day. You work so hard, you make such progress, you’re such a star that you decide to take a day off. The day after, you feel guilty so you work twice as hard. You set new records, you crash the 3,000-word barrier, you achieve epiphanies you never thought possible! Again you reward yourself with a day off. Then the next day—oh, actually, now it’s the next month—you can’t remember why you started the damned thing anyway and the anxiety of your sloth is crippling, turning you all beast-like and spite-spitting, so you formally surrender and feel a lot better. For a few months. Then, of course, you hate yourself and as the years pass, that hatred metastasizes into a cancer of the soul. If only… And you’re one of the forlorn ones who dies with regrets.

A lot of preps stared at Stephen Hunter when he wrote this essay. He put his middle finger up at them.

super dark bro.gif

The most important thing is habit, not will.

If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination. (I wonder who pushed the meme that writing is heroic; it must have been a writer, trying to get laid.) You have to do it numbly, as you brush your teeth. No theater, no drama, no sacrifice, no “It is a far far better thing I do” crap. You do it because it’s time. If you are ordering yourself, burning ergs, issuing sweat, breathing raggedly through nasal channels that feel like Navajo pottery, you’re doing something wrong. Ever consider law? We definitely need more lawyers.

Like… I get what Hunter’s trying to say here, which is that merely wanting to be an author won’t get you very far if you don’t actually put the work in, but god, there’s such a crushing sense of nihilism to his version of things, I kind of want to ask if he’s okay. Speaking as someone with a fair knowledge of mental health issues, routinely doing anything “numbly,” even brushing your teeth, is not actually a good thing. Numbness is not synonymous with the mundane, and if you’re starting to think it is, you should probably seek help. I say that with absolute sincerity: feeling numb about everyday life is a genuine danger sign.

Which is also why this paragraph makes me fucking furious. There’s a reason we talk about having a will to live, and a reason why someone losing that will is a terrible, awful thing. For some of us, everything is a matter of will, because we’re struggling to even get out of bed. Telling someone to give up writing because sitting down at the computer takes effort is one of the most toxic, destructive and fundamentally insincere pieces of advice I’ve ever seen issued. I’ll tell you this for nothing: every single writer I know, myself included, has struggled to write at times. The reasons why vary – lack of time, mental health issues, exhaustion, problems with the plot – but even when you’re someone who writes regularly, routinely, as a matter of habit, it can still be difficult. Some things can only be done – or only done now – because we order it of ourselves; because we fucking try.

Work every day. Obviously I don’t mean every day. Hyperbole, it’s what we do for a living. So let me clarify and tell you what I really mean: Work every day.

This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!

One big pile of shit

And this, right here, is where we see that Hunter’s status as a single, childless, (presumably) antisocial man who doesn’t need to work other jobs to support himself has apparently birthed the assumption that all other aspiring writers are in the same boat – or, far more worryingly, that anyone who doesn’t meet that criteria naturally can’t succeed. It’s not just that he’s using masculine pronouns to refer to his archetypal author, although it certainly doesn’t help: it’s that everything he says here is predicated on “his [the writer’s] ability to get back into the book each day,” which doesn’t leave any room for people who need to work to live, or who want to go out with their partner or friends, or who need to spend time with their children – for anyone, in other words, who has an actual life.

To reiterate: making writing a habit is excellent advice, and writing a little each day is not a bad thing to do. But asserting that people can’t be writers if they do anything other than this is grossly false, not least because there are thousands of successful, published authors around to disprove it. If Hunter personally experiences anxiety when he skips a day of writing, that’s one thing, but it’s far from being a universal experience. God, I am so sick of Serious Male Writers assuming that what’s true for them must logically be true for everyone else! If that’s how narrow Hunter’s view of the human condition is, I shudder to think how his writing must suffer – or maybe he just avoids creating characters who aren’t fundamentally like him. Either way, I’m not in a rush to check out his back catalogue.

Some writers of my acquaintance find great success in writing a small amount per day, every day, but I can’t think of a single one who’d cry failure on anyone who writes differently, or who had to take time off. Personally, I write in bursts: I can produce huge wordcounts in a short amount of time, but only if I rest for a little while afterwards. Once recharged, I can go again – but if I hit a snag in the plot, it’s always less work in the long run if I stop and puzzle it out instead of forging blindly on in the wrong direction just for the sake of wordcount.

Find what works for you, is the point. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

Effort is pain. Pain is not your friend, not this kind of pain. Via pain, doubt, fear, self-loathing, stasis, heavy legs, and halitosis enter your life. Your skin hurts, your hair hurts, the little whatever-it-is between your nostrils hurt. You have the energy of a cat on a couch. Inertia is your destiny, your tragedy, your one-way ticket to where you already are. That is why the easy way is the best way. It is easier to work every day than to deal with the load of self-inflicted grief you’ll encounter when you skip one day, four days, or the rest of your life.

Listen. Stephen. Bro. I get that this is going to come as an alien concept to you, but effort is not always synonymous with pain, in much the same way that numbness is not always the same as mundanity. Maybe that’s how you experience the world, but it’s just not true for everyone. Yes, sometimes it takes effort to write, but often it’s the good, satisfying kind, where you know you’re achieving something, making yourself better and stronger by testing your personal limits. Also, technically? Inertia is easier than effort. Effort is how you break free from inertia, and I know I keep harping on this point, but seriously: one of the most toxic mindsets to impose on a person is the idea that small failures are inherently synonymous with large ones. This is why, for instance, recovering addicts who fall off the wagon with a small transgression so often feel like they’ve got no choice but to commit a big one: not because it’s inevitable, but because they’ve been taught that success/failure is a binary proposition, with one slip the same as catastrophe. Plus, uh. It is actually possible to be disciplined while including regular breaks as part of that discipline, you know? I’m just gonna put that out there.

Another helpful tip: F— research! I say this, knowing that my works are thought to be well-researched and I am proud of the research in them. But in research there’s also death and destruction and self-loathing. You can do the research later. You cannot use “more research” as a crutch to justify your sloth. You are selling narrative not background. The most important truths you tell involve what you know about human behavior, not what color the Obersturmbannfuhrer’s epaulets are. If you don’t know it, just bull on through and keep going. Make it up. Jam it with placeholders. It’s OK. At that stage you need momentum, not precision. That’s why it’s a first draft; that’s why there’ll be a second draft.

*pinches bridge of nose, breathes deeply*

I say unto thee again, not everyone feels this kind of way about research. It’s not goddamn poison, okay? Some people find it merely a chore and others, invigorating. Yes, there are certainly instances where the research can wait, or where there’s no harm done in writing first and fact-checking afterwards, but the belief that “human behaviour” doesn’t also require research is kind of why Hunter is giving such goddamn shitty advice in the first place, because – say it with me! – people are fucking different. It’s this kind of approach to writing that leads to all manner of bigoted stereotypes finding their way into mainstream works: the writer assumes that all people fundamentally think and feel and experience the world in the same way they do, that no particular circumstance, belief or identity requires investigation in order to be accurately represented by an outsider, and so they don’t do the research. Shit like this is how, for instance, you end up with a horrifically anti-Semitic book purporting to be the opposite, or endless faux Medieval Europe fantasy novels written by people who, like Hunter, think that “selling narrative not background” is a sufficient justification for shitty, inconsistent worldbuilding.

Plus – and again, I feel that this ought to go without saying, but apparently not – measure twice, cut once is also as applicable to writing as it is carpentry. Some writers thrive on letting the momentum of a first draft carry them through to the end, then going back later to rip the guts out of whatever doesn’t work. For others, though, it’s easier – and less time-consuming – to pause mid-novel, work out the problems as they occur and produce a cleaner first copy.

Finally: Writer, forgive thyself. You may write crap for years, decades, eons before your brain gets tired of being so mediocre. You will never know if that jump is possible if you don’t keep humping, every day. Numbly, you must do the necessary. Keep on slugging. Forward the light brigade. You can always fix it later. But none of this will be doable, understandable, possible, unless you get to the “the” and the “end.”

If Hunter hadn’t taken up the bulk of his essay saying the exact fucking opposite of this, I’d almost be inclined to think it a positive note on which to end, instead of a sad little retcon. But it is sad, in much the same way that the whole damn article is sad. There’s not a speck of joy or passion evident in it anywhere: no humour, no enthusiasm, and certainly no hint of why anyone might want to be an author in the first place. Hunter’s attitude to writing is a baffling mix of arrogance and nihilism: everything is awful in my life, but I console myself with the knowledge that other, seemingly happier people will ultimately suffer more by virtue of failing to write like me. It’s a type of seething misanthropy for which I have precious little time and increasingly little patience in any context, let alone when it’s misrepresenting itself as the be-all, end-all of my chosen profession.

Pulitzer be damned: when it comes to giving writing advice, like Jon Snow, Hunter knows nothing.

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Comments
  1. Sheesh. He does seem to have issues.
    This might have been a useful article to read when I was in my early twenties and fell into the pattern he’s talking about. Skip days. Then try to make it up and set such a high output I couldn’t make it. It wasn’t good.
    But at the same time, i did finish my first novel, within a year–unpublished, but finished. And a lot of stuff finished after that before I finally became efficient and organized. So Hunter’s wrong.
    And yeah, the tone would have killed any value his advice had. As someone who was single and passionately wanted not to be, his whole tone would have made me put it down. It reminds me of how-to articles I read in my twenties where the author touted how he had no life — never took holidays, never went out socially, ignored family events, because that was the ONLY way to finish a book. I knew if that were the case, I’d never finish because WTF? Who wants to live like that?

  2. dibenami says:

    I totally agree – the condescension in the essay is borderline cringeworthy. I take a day off here and there all the time (birthday, travel, sickness) and never have trouble getting right back into it the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. It’s less of an essay and more of a sequence of paragraphs created just for him to stroke his own ego

  3. The Goldfish says:

    This guy reminds me of those people who write marriage manuals and go on about how relationships require hard work, really really hard work, and it’s not like in the movies where everyone’s happy in the end – nobody’s happy at all! – but maybe you can get to the very end of it and die before you divorce and that’ll make the whole thing worthwhile!

    (Chronic ill health means I have written fiction sporadically and without any measurable success beyond a slowly accumulating word-count for the last ten years. I take 6 months off at a time but it’s still the most important non-human thing in my life. I’m not about to quit.)

  4. Jean Lamb says:

    “There are nine and ninety ways/of composing tribal lays/and every single blasted one is right”–Kipling, sort of. I work better writing a little each day (though I’d like to write a lot, but lifestyle doesn’t allow for it). Hunter doesn’t seem to have a clue.

  5. megpie71 says:

    I think the thing which amused me so much about the Hunter piece was his advice wasn’t even original. I’ve seen exactly the same advice from countless other writers – and the names which leap to mind as having written it in a more engaging fashion were people like Stephen King (who was the first one I read it from); Ernest Hemingway (who wrote it in his typical terse style); Chuck Wendig (who included a daily suggested word count if you wanted to churn out a novel-length first draft in a year – 350 words a day); and David Eddings (who I think included an important detail: the first million words you were likely to write would probably not be good – they’re about finding your voice and your style, and they’re going to include a lot of experimentation. He suggested writing those first million words as your world-building before you even bother with starting the story).

    My own system for training myself to write consistently (and it is training, just like getting from “couch potato” to “marathon runner” is training) started by writing a journal every day for five minutes, and increasing the amount of time I spent by five minutes every month. Once I got up to the thirty minute mark (April) I started the next month by adding in five minutes of fiction writing per day (and as a result, I’ve added something close to six thousand words to a project I’d been letting idle for about two months). Having a goal and increasing the targets bit by bit seems to work for me.

  6. […] via If You Want to Write a Book, Don’t Listen to Stephen Hunter — shattersnipe: malcontent […]

  7. […] If you want to write a book, don’t listen to Stephen Hunter. Foz Meadows, Shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows. […]

  8. […] Twitter was aflutter last week after Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Hunter published a piece demanding that aspiring novelists write every day or quit immediately. Foz Meadows justly eviscerates the piece. […]

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