I’ve always prided myself on the fact that the DIY publishing articles on this site have a certain lack of, shall we say, bullshit. And normally, a book called How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead would smell a little funky to me. However, Ariel Gore, Hip Mama mag creator and indie culture maven wrote this book, and like all her books (I’m particularly fond of her memoir Atlas of the Human Heart) it is excellent. As well as sharing her own considerable experience, she interviews folks like Ursula K. Le Guin, Dave Eggers, and even me, and manages to pack more wisdom and practical advice than I’ve ever seen in a book of its ilk. (It had an extremely high nods-per-minute ratio.) She even gets the folks she interviews to give “assignments” at the end, making it a writing class unto itself. Plus it’s extremely readable — I intended to skim to find something to excerpt but I found myself sucked in and reading most of it. Below is one of my favourite sections in the book.
Make a Fool of Yourself
I like publishing because it is possible to survive one’s mistakes.
If I stayed home with the curtains drawn until I’d written, rewritten, and polished to perfection each precious line of the next Great American Novel, I wouldn’t be famous enough to get it published. As it is, when I do produce my finest masterpiece, folks will say, “I always knew Ariel Gore had it in her,” and the New York Times will admit that I’m a genius, and I’ll be even more famous than I had to be to get the thing published, and I can die a goddess.
Until then, I’ll publish what I’ve got.
Most lit star’s first publications were straight-up embarrassing. This is as it should be. You live and learn. The humiliation of a bad poem doesn’t truly hit home until your ex-husband has submitted it in family court as evidence of your total mental incapacity.
I will not write such a poem again.
But even the embarrassment is good practice. If you’re going to be famous, you’d better get used to humiliation. There is no dignity in celebrity. When I finally got the L.A. Times–my grandmother’s hometown newspaper–to run a big color picture and proclaim me a lit star, they also mentioned that I’d once slept with a man for money. Thank you.
“The unread story is not a story,” Ursula K. Le Guin says. “It’s little black marks on wood pulp.” So make your little black marks live. Let a reader turn them into a story.
Look around. Great people are always kicking themselves for failing to reach impossible standards of perfection while the mediocre ones run around doing this and that and seeming never to feel the least bit bad about themselves.
So your first published piece won’t be in the New Yorker. So what? Maybe it will be in a small community newspaper published out of someone’s dirty kitchen and the only way you’ll get them to print it is by volunteering to do the dishes. It might be in a niche magazine or a small-circulation nation zine called I (heart) Amy Carter, it might be in a self-published chapbook. It doesn’t matter. Get used to publication. Get used to writing for strangers. Get used to the stupid things those strangers will tell you about your work. Get used to the awesomely heartening things they’ll tell you. Get used to the fact that as a writer, you may never know who read your work and whether or not it had any impact on them at all. Get used to imperfection. Get used to the typos that make it past copyeditors. Get used to publication. Short stories. Articles. Blogs. Columns. Blurbs. Poems. Whatever you’ve got. If you want to write for strangers, get it out there so those strangers can see it.
A lot of glossy magazines won’t even read your stuff if you don’t have a resume. But here’s the good news: You can publish the first issue of your zine for $50. If you’ve got access to the internet, you can start a blog for free. Once you’re publishing stuff yourself, you’re not just a writer, you’re a writer-publisher. If you publish other people’s stuff, too, you’re a writer-editor-publisher. You can join the club. And the listserve. You can go to potlucks with other writer-editor-publishers. You can offer to review books and write fillers for their zines and journals and websites. And voila! You’ve got a resume.
When it comes to writing a book, just write it. If the book is nonfiction, you might be able to write a proposal for it and get a contract before you write the whole thing. More likely, if it’s your first book, you’ll just have to write it. And what when it’s done? Try to get an agent. An agent can try to sell the book to a big press and get you a little money. And what if you can’t get an agent or don’t want one? So what? I know a few people who’ve spent years-coming-on-decades trying to find an agent who’ll sell their book to a huge press. They won’t even consider going for a medium or small press. This is madness. I don’t understand it. Maybe they’re hoping to impress their parents. But I can tell you that if you’re parents are not proud of you as an unpublished writer, they will not be proud of you as a published writer. If they are picky, critical people, they will find fault with your book regardless.
Maybe these developing writers want to make a lot of money. If so, they ought to learn a trade. Big presses are great, but they’re not the only game in town. Start with a humble book at a humble press. Start with your own press. Make 300 copies. Call a local bookstore and set up an author event. Invite all your friends. Make flyers about it. Send press releases and review copies to relevant media. Sell your 300 copies. And use the money to print more. Now you’re a published author. Onward!
Your first published pieces will be incomplete and imperfect. Who cares? It’s better to make a fool of yourself in front of a small audience than it is to steal from the world the light of your coming brilliance.
Write for Strangers
Like most writers, I started out writing for myself. I kept messy, irregular, emotional diaries. I meditated, pen in hand, across pages lined and blank. I free-associated and rambled on. But eventually, journaling to become a writer started to feel like playing with buckets of saltwater to become a surfer. Sure, had to get used to the elements I wanted to work with, but freewriting can only take a writer so far. So I started penning letters to friends, writing poems and posting them on telephone poles, and then, finally, writing short articles and profiles for Sonoma County Women’s Voices, a small community newspaper where the editors were kind enough to give me an internship.
Occasionally when I’m stuck on in a story or a chapter now, I’ll open a notebook and scrawl stream of consciousness to empty my mind and let the universe fill the vacuum, but when I’m stuck it’s usually more helpful to take a walk, have sex, paint a portrait, lift weights, go out for a drink. Freewriting helped me recover from too many years of formal education, but it’s no longer a super-effective tool when it comes to waking my creative brain.
If you want to write just for yourself, that’s fine. Get a good journal. Archival quality. But if you want to write for strangers, too, you’ll have to publish. I’ve had teachers who warned writers not to publish until they’re “ready.” This is silly. What’s ready? I started publishing my work long before I was ready. Start publishing. Start right away. And don’t be afraid to start small. Set yourself up with a public diary at livejournal.com. Print poetry on stickers and post them around town and in train bathrooms. Print short short stories on well-designed bookmarks and convince local booksellers to display the freebies on their counters. Print your words on anything you can think of — paper, walls, or the pages of cyberspace — and distribute freely.
As Marc Acito says, it’s not who you know in this business, it’s who knows you–or rather, who knows your writing. So don’t be afraid to start small.
I might need a famous author to blurb a new book. I might find that author’s website and send them an email introducing myself and asking if they wouldn’t mind taking a look at my manuscript and consider endorsing it. And that famous author might write back saying, “Sure, I know you. You wrote that weird short story in Fly By Night magazine six years ago . . .” This is exactly three trillion times better than trying to get that same famous author to remember that we shook hands once. No agent, editor, publisher, or writer has ever said to me: “Sure, I know you, we met at such and such literati cocktail party . . .”
Even if no one who’ll be specifically helpful to you ever reads your weird short story in Fly By Night or your column in the PTA newsletter, you’re taking your craft and your genius into the world now. You’re getting used to seeing your words in print. If you have an editor, you are learning how to be edited–how to revise when asked, how to let the little changes go, how to fight for your original words when they’re truly important to you. When you read your first articles in print, you may notice that they seem to have a different rhythm and tone to them once set in type. A story on a magazine page has a different feel to it than a story on the computer. That’s because written words and stories are living things. You can’t always control the editing or the subtle transmutation that takes place when a piece is printed, but you can get used to the process and begin to work with it. If my first published work had been a book I’d spent years working on, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. As it was, my first published article happened to be a 600-word story about a local First Nation farm struggling for survival. It took me a week to write. The subject matter was important to me, but not deeply personal. And so I began to learn to publish and be published not with a huge splash, but with a small offering, by lending my still-shy voice to an unseen community treasure that needed every voice it could get.