A weird flex: I can lay claim to be as formally uneducated in our craft as just about any writer. I’ve never taken a creative writing class, any right-thinking MFA course would have discarded my application at first glance, and I remain unclear as to what a Writers’ Conference even is. Nonetheless, a memoir, a novel and a bunch of screenwriting gigs later, I like to think that I do okay in my own small way. And yet if I had begun in today’s environment, I suspect I would have given up before I had even got started.
Deadlines Teach You To Write, Word Limits Teach You To Edit
At eighteen, I didn’t know any writers – or even any other aspiring writers – so I started by entering every short story competition I could find. I would mail out what I was certain was the greatest story anybody had ever written, and six months later it would return home, accompanied by a facsimiled list of the infinitely-better stories that had actually won the contest. But I never minded much, as I would have already sent out several new greatest-stories-ever-written. And repeat, again and again, until my name began to feature at the bottom of the facsimiled list, and slowly worked its way up towards the middle. I never won a single contest, but my prize was ultimately far greater than any $25 Book Token: so many endless hours writing to deadlines and word count taught me what I wanted to say, and how I could begin to say it.
Don’t Believe Everything You Read
In our relentless world, I worry that a new writer starting out today won’t get the same space I had. Instead, they will quickly find themselves on writing Twitter, where everybody seems to flex. They are either so loudly successful or endlessly rejected that after even a few minutes of scrolling it seems clear that there is no point for any of us to even try.
A quick check of Twitter today tells me that it is National Novel Writing Month, that a high-profile agent will accept pitches containing a particular hashtag for the next hour, and that a new writer has sold the high concept manuscript they wrote in their lunch breaks at auction. Terrific as these successes are for all involved, will reading about such things encourage our own new writer to follow their own muse, and take risks without fear of failure or certainty of reward? Most good books weren’t written quickly and can’t be pitched in 120 characters, but reading and writing Twitter would quickly convince you otherwise.
A Weirder Flex
An even weirder flex: many writers’ Twitter bios contain the phrase ‘repped by’. Ostensibly this is to assist the editors desperate to commission the writer, but anyone who needs that information could swiftly google it. Instead, having an agent seems to have become a bizarre kind of status symbol. Perhaps it helps reassure the ‘repped’ writer they are a real writer, and of course we could all use a little of that reassurance sometimes. But having an agent doesn’t make someone a writer any more than not having an agent makes someone not a writer, and I would hate to think that any writer might feel they have to write with the goal of getting an agent rather than of telling the story they want to, in the way they want to. Moreover, I am sure most agents feel exactly the same way.
The Creative Writing Industrial Complex
This flex of being ‘repped by’ business feels part of a wider trend, where each year the balance between the craft and the business tilts ever more to the business. Publishers and agencies now even offer creative writing courses, and while their intentions are surely noble, it edges us ever closer to territory where writers feel obliged to write entirely to market and perhaps even pay for the privilege of consideration. This, in turn, seems likely to contribute to an unfortunate homogenization. Is it a coincidence that so many novels of the past few years have a title that follows the mathematical formula: ‘The (adjective) (abstract noun) of (intriguingly-unusual-yet-reassuringly-familiar-name)?
The Screenwriting Industrial Complex
Screenwriting has always been the writing discipline most heavily tilted to the business, and there are valid reasons for that. Nonetheless, a screenwriter starting out today could very quickly squander a small fortune on how-to manuals and development services, none of which would help them nearly as much as simply reading lots of great scripts and putting in the endless hours on their own. A great screenwriter doesn’t flex about the number of how-to books they’ve read.
In my novel, Set My Heart To Five, my android protagonist sets out to become a screenwriter and enrolls in a class that guarantees he will write a screenplay in eight weeks and have scenes performed in front of an industry professional. When he attends the class, he is baffled to discover that his classmates have zero interest in what their teacher has to say, and have signed up simply to meet the industry professional. That takes place in 2054, but it is only a slightly exaggerated version of the problem I see today: the focus is almost entirely on the business, when it should be almost entirely on the craft.
Your Mileage May Vary, But Be Aware There Aren’t Many Short Cuts
I truly hope that you are the person whose Twitter pitch gets bought for a million dollars. (Sure, I’ll possibly be a touch envious for a passing moment, but mostly I will be thrilled for you, in part because it will show that somebody out there is still betting on books.) But if you are not that lucky individual – and few are – then you will just have to do it like the rest of us, and in the quarter century since I began sending out my own stories, the only secret I have learned is that there is no secret beyond endless hours spent honing the craft: read books, write words, and edit them, over and over again until they sing. And if you can keep doing that until what you have is undeniable, everything else will fall into place. So – for you, and for me – back to work, and let us together stay off twitter, and never mention our agents in our bios.
Simon Stephenson is originally from Edinburgh in Scotland, but he now lives in Los Angeles. He has also had stopovers along the way in London and San Francisco.
Simon’s a writer and screenwriter, and once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away he was a physician. His first book was a memoir called ‘Let Not The Waves Of The Sea’, about the loss of his brother Dominic in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. It won ‘Best First Book’ at the Scottish Book Awards in 2011. Simon’s novel, Set My Heart To Five was released in summer 2020.
You can follow Simon on Twitter.