Under the Influence

I got sucked into the social media influencer vortex the other night, totally by accident and not exactly happily. It happened during an otherwise harmless YouTube search for videos on how to write better fiction, or at least more commercial fiction. I did this because I’m stuck in one of those writer’s block episodes that leave you paralyzed at the keyboard, fearful that if you type a single letter some ghoul will come bouncing out of the computer and feast on your brain.

This particular case of writer’s block has nothing to do with inspiration. I have several pretty decent ideas rolling around in my head, and know where to take them. What keeps me from translating them into an actual story is a nagging sense that they’ll get rejected by all the agents and publishers out there who are too mentally deficient to recognize the majestic genius of my words. The scoundrels….

Well, anyway.

The social media influencer vortex. About that.

Like I said, I was looking for videos that might inspire my inner writing mojo. Practical advice by seasoned and successful authors on how to structure a story, what to leave in, what to leave out, how to get published in a hollow, brain-dead industry that doesn’t have the goddamn sense to understand the majestic goddamn genius of my goddamn writing.

So, I typed keywords into the YouTube search bar. “Tips on writing.” “Tips on writing plot.” “Tips on getting your fiction published.” I awaited videos from the masters, ready to take me to the Next Step on My Writing Journey.

What did I get instead? Well, there were quite a few videos from a young woman I had never heard of who gets tens of thousands of views and has more than 60,000 subscribers. She makes videos about how to write. Her credentials? She’s apparently a 20-something MFA student in Canada who has maybe been published in a couple literary journals but has no books out that I can see, or anything else that distinguishes her from 8 million other MFA students who write stuff.

I also got fed a few more videos by another young woman I’ve never heard of who has more than 200k YouTube subscribers, gets hundreds of thousands of views – and seems to have made a name for herself by self-publishing Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels. I imagine she does pretty well with self-published books, thanks to her more than 200k YouTube subscribers. What she doesn’t seem too expert in is how to get an actual publisher to publish a book instead.

The one thing I learned from watching parts of these videos – beyond the standard writerly nuggets like “show, don’t tell” and “keep your readers engaged!” – is that writing, like just about everything else, is now a commoditized sideshow where PR skills are nearly as important as the ability to write a good story well.

Before you go rolling your eyes at my bitter old luddite hater self, know this: I have nothing against people putting up videos telling other people how to do something. Influencers are an essential part of the 21st Century digital landscape, and if some kid barely out of high school can earn a mint on social media telling others how to write fiction, or where to buy their underwear, more power to them. I tip my cap, because it takes a certain talent that many of us simply don’t possess.

But also know this: these people get a WHOLE lot more views on writing than established authors like Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy and Zadie Smith. I know, because I checked the scorecard.

This is what bothers me. This, I cannot abide. It would be like Steph Curry getting fewer subscribers on a “how to play basketball” video than some hotshot streetballer at your local park, or Donna Karan getting fewer views on how to design clothes than your neighbor’s funkadelic daughter down the street.

Yes, I understand that objective “success” does not necessarily translate into subjective “good,” and vice versa. But success does translate into success. And as French writer Alexandre Dumas once so astutely observed: “Nothing succeeds like success.” When a publisher pays money to finance, promote and distribute a writer’s book, at no cost to the writer, that is success. That’s what I’m looking for in a YouTube video. How to do that thing.

I do not want or need to know how John or Mary College Student write agonizingly poignant lines that thrill their friends at the Thursday Night Poetry Slam and earn them a devoted following among internet addicts. I want and need to know what their stories contained that: A) got them published by someone in the publishing industry; or B) landed them a professional literary agent. Everything else is just marketing, as far as I’m concerned. Madison Avenue hustle. If all you’ve ever done is self-publish books, then by all means make a video on how to sell self-published books.

But presenting yourself as a writing expert when your expertise hasn’t translated into anything concrete, like a check from someone who paid for something you’ve written? No no no. Not copacetic, at all.

Listen, anyone can write. If you have a hand and a crayon, you can write. You don’t even need the hand or the crayon, for that matter. You can simply tell stories into an audio recorder. Does the act of writing make you a writer? Well, does the act of cooking make you a chef? Does the act of watering plants make you a gardener?

About a year ago I bought a book on how to write screenplays at a Foyle’s here in London (Foyle’s is one of the bigger and better bookstore chains in book-happy London). I looked it over before buying it, and liked the way it neatly structured every single element of the screenwriting process. I did a brief check on the author and found that he’d written for a couple of TV shows, and maybe a movie. So I bought it.

Well, the book was okay. Some decent instruction. But I began to notice a pattern. All of the examples he used of different screenplays were from college students. Amateurs. Kids who probably went on to sell latex or something. It turns out that the author of the book is also a college professor at some little school in the Northwest. It turns out his actual screenwriting experience included a couple minor-league TV shows nobody remembers, and a movie that went direct to video and probably sold 23 copies. But forget all that – why is he showing me the work of his college students? I googled said students, and none of them – not a single one – ever went on to write a screenplay that made it to the actual screen. What can they possibly teach us about how to write screenplays?

This is the writing world, writ large. Everyone gets to call themselves writers. Everyone gets a hand in the pot, just because they wrote something. Are other professions like this? Can you call yourself a plumber because you know how to unscrew a drainpipe?

If so, call me a plumber, by God. Because I’ve done that.

****

Speaking of writing…..

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my admiration of Stephen King as a storyteller, and raved about a book of his I’ve been reading called “The Outsider.” I still think King is a master storyteller, because he just is. But about the book….

The first half is a taut crime thriller about a gruesome murder, a suspect who maybe didn’t do it but maybe did, and a cop who believes the suspect is guilty even though he’s surrounded by nagging doubts and doubters. This part was vintage King: suspenseful, efficient, expertly constructed.

Then, in the middle of the book, another major character makes an appearance seemingly out of nowhere. She’s a private investigator called out of the blue by another private eye involved in the murder case. This is when the book takes a sudden turn into silliness and laziness. The murder we cared about so much in the first half of the book is no longer even that important. Now we’re focused on this new character, her backstory, and some supernatural thing that also appears right out of the blue.

I read a few pages of the new character arc and thought to myself: Is this some character from another King book? So I googled the character’s name, and sure enough, she was one of the main characters in a couple of King’s earlier crime books. This bothered me partly because I’ve never read these books before, and now I have to skip through all the backstory to avoid spoilers in case I ever do want to read those books. So I’m glancing past whole paragraphs and pages.

It also bothered me because, WTF, Stephen? Why are you introducing this new character – which for you is also an old character – and shifting the story on a dime? Did you get tired of the thing halfway through and decide you’d just dial it in the rest of the way? And introducing a supernatural element: isn’t that sort of like cheating? You had a nice crime thriller here, and all of a sudden you decide that maybe forces beyond our control are responsible? What happened to the good, old-fashioned whodunit part of the story?

I know you’re Stephen King, and you could probably write a manual on how to operate a microwave and sell a million copies.

But still…

4 Comments

  1. I don’t know whether the number of followers or likes translates into high sales volumes…and for self publishing, I don’t think we can find out either, because from what I hear, those platforms do not publish sales volumes – just trend info.

    But really, for me the key is always impact on readers. And in an age of social media fluff and such widespread focus on numbers rather than deeply meaningful substance, I think the numbers those people get is to be expected. The superficiality fits the era.

    I think for someone like you, these kinds of searches are probably far less effective than, for example, having a writing mentor or coach. One that is properly qualified – as opposed to what floats to the top of online search results.

    Writing groups seem to also be a big help, because we can connect to people in our same situation – past or present – and learn from each other.

    Ultimately, though, I buy into Seth Godin’s philosophy of ‘smallest viable audience’ – because I think the expectation of mass marketing and hitting those huge numbers is something that only happens to very few. If you haven’t heard or read his stuff, his book “This is Marketing” is an excellent encapsulation of his ideas and practical advice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, if I could find a decent coach or editor, I probably would. But I wouldn’t even know where to start because many of them are just hustlers, too, with no real credentials or expertise, I’ve submitted to publishers before whose first question was, “What is your social media presence? How many followers do you have? How will you promote the book?” That’s a clear sign that the quality of the work doesn’t matter, but your ability to promote it. Kind of depressing….

      Like

  2. I’ve taken some college-level creative writing courses in the past, in a group environment. And it was helpful. But honestly, it’s not that I’m uninspired to write. More about getting past the idea that what I write might never find a publisher. You can’t really think that way. You just have to write it, find a decent editor, and submit. I’ll get back on track. Thanks for the tips, though. I may look for some kind of group that critiques the others. That’s usually beneficial.

    Liked by 1 person

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