Fan To Writer Part 3: Beware of Bob And Snake Oil

Welcome to the third part of Fan to Writer, in which writer, editor and conference organizer Spencer Ellsworth leads us through the various steps on the path to pro writer. From having fun with stories, to making pro sales and even some money on your writing, come with us on this road.

Part 3: Beware of Bob And Snake Oil

Fan to Writer, Stage Three! Go!

To qualify for this stage, you must be working hard, submitting multiple manuscripts, and…

Well, you have to be in the grind.

And folks, it is a grind.

You might start to feel, distinctly, that you’re always writing and that your stories are never quite there. It’s human nature to feel that way. Improvement takes time. But you start to fantasize about “skipping the line.” How long can one person be stuck as a journeyman? Your writers’ group hits a slump, or dissolves, and you have to find some new blood for your critiques. Your friends keep asking, “When is your book getting published?” and you keep staring down rejections. Once in a while, you get a nice personalized rejection, or an agent reads your entire book. But it all ends up in the same place: no dice.

You get jealous of friends who score agents, publications, speaking gigs and award nominations. Not ugly jealous—you’re a professional, after all—but it’s a tough feeling to bear. You go to conventions and conferences and you wander off to the parking lot because it’s too painful to hear people talk, over and over and over and over, about their book deals and agents and publications.

It starts to invade the joy of writing.

I was there a few years ago. I sat down every day to crank out a certain number of words, whether or not I hated them—and I often hated them. I had stories piling up rejections and I was always going back to revise them, again and again, not sure I actually understood revision. I knew what George RR Martin meant when he said, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” Instead of wondering if the famously blocked Martin might be expressing his own issues, I decided that would be my mantra! Sure, it was always fun when I started writing in high school but this was serious work now. I couldn’t expect it to always be fun. I wanted a finished book to put in front of agents and editors and damn it, I didn’t care what it did to my mental health, or my home life, or… or… or…

Then I had a vision.

A vision of Bob.

Bob’s not real. Yet he is more real to me than a lot of people.

Bob is a short guy with a mustache. He wears old, worn clothes because he can’t afford newer ones. He also has loose broken glasses because he doesn’t have insurance.

In my vision, I was passing through the outskirts of Phoenix and asked my old friend Bob to meet up. He told me to come by his house where he just barely paid the rent via some odd jobs. He had a degree and work experience in a paying field but he chose not to have a full-time job “to focus on writing.” He proudly told me that he wrote 5,000 words a day. We chatted for fifteen minutes. I asked about his wife and found out they were divorcing because “she wouldn’t make time for my writing.” Then he cut me off to say, “Sorry, I had a slow day and I still have 3,000 more words to go.”

I woke up sweating.

Bob was in me.

The Bob was coming from inside the house.

I don’t even want a mustache!

Leveling up, getting to the next place in the line—that’s a long, long process, and it goes on into Stage Four and Stage Five. It goes on through learning to write different things, trying various story forms and novels, and failing big. It goes on through raising kids, starting new jobs, treating mental illness, relationship problems, grieving your lost loved ones, moving, getting sober, dieting, and exercising.

Especially once you hang out with other writers, writing can become a strong part of your identity. When that identity is constantly rejected, if that identity can’t get an agent, or, as happens in Stages Four and Five, that identity can’t sell twice to the same magazine or loses the agent… well, that can’t be your full identity. That’s a ticket to Sadnessville.

You have to live in order to write.

You don’t have to cross the Pacific on a raft, or fight in a war, or learn how to wield a 14th-century longsword. That stuff is grist for the mill, yes, but you need to remember to get out, see friends, and take care of your brain when it’s hurting, and sometimes, sometimes, friend, ease up on the writing.

So what did I do, when Bob clawed at the back of my brain?

Once I accepted that I had burned myself out, I joined a band and planted a garden and let the writing lie fallow for a while. I could garden and spend time with my kids. I could play in the band and all it required of me, creatively, was to learn the songs and play them correctly. What a relief!

After about seven months of this, I had an idea.

I started writing, and it was fun again.

Now of course, if you stop writing, you might be afraid you’ll never start again. You might already be in that place, reading this and yelling, “Spencer, I went through this five years ago and I haven’t written a word since!” I can’t speak to your situation, person yelling at your computer, but I would hazard this guess: the situation that made you stop was traumatizing for many reasons and not just the fact that you were frustrated with writing and rejection.

You have to work through that trauma.

And it’s hard to realize that writing doesn’t need to be linked to that other trauma, no matter how closely they are associated.

(I know. I also went through that! And it was worth the money I spent on therapy.)

If you’ve felt blocked for ages, try just setting some time aside to write, several times a week, and when you do that, start with something new and small. Remember that it’s fun, and like a pickup soccer game, the fun doesn’t have to be more than a couple of hours a week. Drop word count goals, finished story goals, submission goals, and just pick some blocks of time to write… anything.

Two more things: as you may have guessed from Bob’s failed relationship, somewhere in here, those who are in relationships need to have a long talk with their partners. If you’re lucky, they will be supportive of your work. Sometimes a supportive partner wrecks their own health in favor of the writer. Don’t let a people-pleaser burn themselves out on kids, jobs, and bills while you happily jaunt off to conferences and retreats.

On the other side of the coin, you might have a partner who resents any time away at workshops and writers’ groups, who belittles your pro aspirations as a “hobby.” That’s harder. It exposes cracks in the relationship in general. You need to have a good long talk with that kind of partner, sometimes as part of couples counseling, until they understand how important this is.

Final warning about this stage: you’ve now reached the place where snake-oil salesmen hunt. As Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, said, “In the self-pub gold rush, more money will be made in author services than book sales.” Anyone with a little capital can start a tiny press, a contest, and charge people a bunch of money to stick their books up on Kindle. Pay them money and they’ll edit your book, put it out, and charge you even more for Amazon reviews.

Some tough advice: if your book does not attract an agent or editor’s attention, it likely is just not as good as it needs to be for publication.

Self-pub included.

Now, if agents and editors are telling you, “This is great and with some work I could have sold it but X subgenre is dead right now,” or, “This is so weird and bonkers that I can’t take it because I don’t know how to sell it,” or some variation of this is good enough to be published but, then you should go to self-pub. Or go to self-pub if you prefer control over the whole process, including cover, flap copy, and distribution. But self-publishing is not the answer to a book you can’t sell, because if you or an agent can’t sell it, that means that readers aren’t buying.

In the next stage, we’ll explore what changes and what doesn’t when glorious, glorious publication arrives!

For now, beware of Bob and snake oil.

Further Reading: Money, Fame, Notoriety: What Are We Self-Publishing For? Kameron Hurley, Misunderstanding “Write What You Know,” Harrison Demchick


Spencer Ellsworth

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. He is the author of The Great Faerie Strike, out in August 2019 from Broken Eye Books, and the Starfire Trilogy of space opera novels from Tor. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his wife and three children, writes, edits and works at a small tribal college, and would really like a war mammoth if you’ve got one lying around.