The Internet Hates You: Five Writing Habits to Crush
"People are suckers for charlatans who provide positive advice (what to do), instead of negative advice (what not to do)," says professionally grumpy Nassim Taleb. My April column on how to create good writing habits seems to have been enough of a success for me to wonder whether I'm a charlatan. So, in the spirit of giving negative advice, here are five things I think you shouldn't do when trying to get your writing done. I'm not your dad, but I hope at least one or two of these help. And note that when I offer advice on "how to break the habit" at the end of each section, it's because I'm still a charlatan.
Don't let anyone interrupt you, under any circumstances, including: Apocalypse.
This is obvious. But it's hard to be cruel. We're all weaker than we pretend, and saying "no" is a good test of weakness. If you can't say "no" — or only when you're really angry — at least learn to say no during the writing. Not much is as important in the creation of a solid writing routine as the ability to tell people to piss off. Build the muscle. Like the brawniest guy in the bar, people may not like you, but they won't mess with you.
"Want to go for coffee?" No.
"Hey, do you have a minute?" No.
"Hi Phil! Guess what I —" No.
"Why was your phone off all morning?" I was writing.
"OH MY GOD, SALLY JUST GOT STABBED AND TIED TO SOME—" No.
How to break the habit:
If you can't say no at the moment of the interruption, have a "talk" with the people who are likeliest to bother you during the writing. Promise that you'll spend extra-quality time with them if they leave you alone for a specific chunk of time during the day (and make sure you honor this promise, which is not as easy as you think when you make the promise). Most of the time, writing has to be a selfish act. It has to be a lot more selfish than most of us are comfortable with.
Don't send your work out as soon as you've finished it.
Say you're tempted to send out this piece you think you've just finished. You've done the whole editing bit. Conveniently, Duotrope is bookmarked on your browser. Within five minutes you've found a few places to which you want to submit your story. Why not? The story's finished.
The reason why not is: just because it's easier than ever to submit something (most places now seem to accept electronic submissions) doesn't mean it's easier than ever to write something good, and it takes real time, not digital time where everyone is on speed, to notice your work's flaws.
This is a bad habit that breeds other bad habits. When you get that polite email back saying your story was declined, you can benefit from looking at your story again and trying to read it for the first time again. But if submitting is easy and painless, you're probably just going to submit someplace else, or more likely, you've already sent out the story to a few places and you'll feel a pang of hatred for about three minutes at most, then forget about it. I think this breeds indifference toward submitting the best version of your story. You won't get those fresh eyes just by going for a ten-minute walk.
How to break the habit:
Wait at least a week after you've "finished" your story before you submit. If you finished editing on Friday the 1st, set a date on your calendar, maybe Friday the 8th: SUBMIT STORY. You're not allowed to submit before. If you're really disciplined, you should also not even look at the story before then. (I challenge anyone reading this to try the calendar idea. Try delaying even letting anyone see it until three weeks after you've decided you're happy with it. Try it, you coward.)
Get off the internet. The internet hates you.
This will be preachy and many people will disagree with me, but try to think of the internet as someone who hates you. Then exercise your freedom and cut that person out of your life as much as you can.
I've steadily reduced my online time to what you might call the sociable minimum: you could reach me online, but not as easily as you might like. I don't reply to emails very quickly, but I'll reply to them; I don't subscribe to newsletters, but I'll read something I get linked to; and my Facebook account is usually deactivated, but it's there for the occasional big update.
What's happened since I reduced my online time to about a tenth of what it used to be? No surprise: I've been able to get a lot more done. I'm happier. I'm less anxious. I'm having better, longer conversations in person. I sleep more soundly. (My income has gone up by 5000%, too, and my penis is fifteen inches longer.)
But killing the internet did something else: writing itself has become a different kind of activity. It's personal again. I'm writing in my style, doing things I might have feared trying because they'd be considered non-commercial or boring. I don't pay attention to what's trending — and paying attention to trends always affects us somehow, even if we don't notice in the moment.
The noise in your head from the internet may be one of the silent killers of your imagination. Instant gratification is the fastest way to lose the craving that leads to art. See also my *cute little footnote.
How to break the habit:
Disconnect. Get a ten-dollar cell phone that doesn't let you check your email. Tell people to call you if they want to talk. If you feel jittery without the internet, you can't pretend you don't have an internet problem. Do your writing before you check your email so you don't get distracted by unexpected bad news. Do your research before you write a story that needs research so that you don't just click link after link. Take your laptop somewhere without any internet, if you can. Join the fight against the web.
Don't enter into a stupidly competitive relationship with other writers.
It's harder than ever with the hundred trillion writing workshops that exist online, but don't compete with people the "bad" way. It's harder said than done, and although it sounds like obvious advice that we all know we should take, almost nobody seems to take it. So take it with me. Let's stop allowing other people's successes or failures to affect us as writers. This is different to letting it affect us on a daily basis. The distinction is important. You can be as interested as you want, as jealous as you want, as dismissive and bitchy and unwilling-to-be-outdone as anyone — but these emotions can get in the way of your artistic integrity, and that's when they need to be curbed.
Nothing changes the atmosphere of a group of amateur writers more than a sudden success, which makes everyone else resentful. And just because someone is pumping out a new book a year doesn't mean that the same should be your goal. When you see their new book's amazing cover being shared around, you don't need to feel horribly insecure about your own covers. If someone else got a book deal with a major publisher, that's not a reason to stop going for small presses. And just because all your friends have decided to write erotic dragon novels doesn't require you to follow suit. Be happy for people when you can; be secretly amused when some loud asshole fails. But try to leave all of that out of the writing. And, more importantly for your writing, you won't have other people's opinions and successes at the back of your mind when you sit down to create your own work.
How to break the habit:
Avoid gossip. This is probably the most important thing you can do as a writer among writers. Gossip is not the same thing as reading about it on some public website or hearing it announced in public. When someone tells you something about some other writer in secret, you become emotionally involved. You feel it's an "advantage" somehow. It isn't, and the less secret the information is, the more neutral you can be toward it. Also, see a therapist. You probably need it anyway.
Don't try to influence how people will read your drafts for the first time.
When you've worked hard to achieve a certain effect in your writing, it makes sense to ask someone else if they think you've succeeded.
Unfortunately, some of us, myself included, have a lingering worry that the entire point of the work will be missed if one particular thing isn't noticed by a reader. This makes us want to ask our test readers to pay special attention to the thing we've been freaking out about. In general, this can be good practice — but not if it's done at the cost of corrupting the reader's mind before they've even turned the first page. You need the naive response of a fresh reader, and you can only get it once from each person.
Plus, you can't bully an ordinary reader into seeing your story the "right" way. Unless you're writing for a very small group of people you already know, you'll never have control over the idiots who completely fail to get your story (they think it's a love story set in Paris; you thought it was a subtle psychological insight into the ingenious ways people justify staying in troubled relationships to avoid dealing with the overwhelming truth of their regret and failure to live authentically). There are lots of stupid people, and also lots of good, discerning readers who won't need you to prep them.
How to break the habit:
If you have regular early readers of your work, tell them explicitly that they shouldn't let you prep them. Ask them to call you out on it if you try. Let them give you an an innocent, unprepared opinion. This is just as valuable to you as an artist as any other reaction. If you don't have regular early readers, keep the email you send with the attachment as short as possible. Say nothing in person if you hand them a paper copy except "Thanks for reading this."
*Cute little footnote: More specifically, my concern is that "being a writer" while surfing the internet is training us to think primarily as brands, as self-marketers who happen to write, and that the writing-advice industry is making us increasingly insecure and passive, more concerned with how to promote a book than how to write the best book we can, more willing to waste our energy typing long posts on online forums or how-to articles like this one than using it to type out another page of enduring work.
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