EXTRA ETHER: Are You a Good Writer?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

What does the online writing community hand off to good writers?

 Good writers figure it out on their own.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

The Omega “silent” starter pistol sends a “beep,” an electronic tone, to speakers positioned behind each runner on their starting block, so each athlete gets the signal at precisely the same moment.

No, this isn’t another hand-wringer about “Can Writing Be Taught?” But when I tweeted that “figure it out on their own” line the other day? The RTs went on and on.

A chord had been struck.

Or was that a starter pistol?

Since we’re all beginning to feel like volunteers at the London Olympics, I’m going to fashion this post as something of a relay. The baton of our shared thoughts here will pass from one writer to another. A quick 4×100. Ready…set…beep.

Off the Starting Blocks

Good writers figure it out on their own. Good writers develop a style that works for them. They write, they fail, and they write again.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Micah Nathan

This “self-immolating preamble,” as he calls it, is from Micah Nathan, author of this summer’s Jack the Bastard, as well as Losing Graceland, and Gods of Aberdeen.

The trick is prying apart the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and seeing how it all works.

Nathan is telling us what we don’t always remember, but we do know: those good writers aren’t dependent on finding the Magic Blog Post or the Holy Inspirational Devotion that can transform the third vampire author on the left into Michael Cunningham.

Good writers intuitively know this. They certainly don’t need me getting in the way.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave MorrisNathan’s short essay is at Glimmer Train. Maybe it’s an anti-essay. (“I find these sorts of essays difficult.”) It’s called Selectively Stubborn. It’s been pointed out by Jane Friedman, host of the Ether and hashtag unto herself.

And it arrives at a time when we need gently to consider a kind of reckoning. No, a recognition. Well, maybe a recognition of what we’re not recognizing. A reckoning unreckoned. About this writing community business we engage in.

Nathan’s piece, of course, is talking-without-talking about aptitude. A faculty. “An inherent capability, power, or function,” as I read it in Merriam-Webster. A certain receptivity to the “goodness” of “good” writing that some have, others don’t.



It’s easier if I do this in music because that’s not what do here at the Ether. So it’s less freighted with emotion.

What made Claude Debussy think he could cluster those tones into parallel chords and get some pentatonics going so well that for generations his work summoned up an ersatz Greco-mythic soundscape? Still gorgeous. Eleven years in the Conservatoire didn’t do that. It’s not what they taught in 19th-century Paris. Debussy was “good.” He had something going on inside.

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Handoff: Micah Nathan to Jane Friedman

In fact, I don’t see this concept of the “good” writer as dropping the baton in terms of  what Friedman wrote in a contribution to Writer Unboxed in June 2011. (Nor am I saying the “good” writer doesn’t have to get in those 10,000 hours of “practice,” either.)

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Jane Friedman

In 5 Things More Important Than Talent, Friedman wrote of how she dislikes getting the question from writers, “Do I have any talent at this?”

She enumerated “five questions I find more relevant and meaningful”:

  1. What makes you remarkable?
  2. What’s your community?
  3. What risks are you taking?
  4. What do you do after you fail?
  5. How do you deal with change?
Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Photo: Flickr / John-Morgan

Offhand, that might sound as if she’s saying to forget being “good,” it’s more in how you work the system. But no, she’s saying that whatever your talent does bring to the table — whatever that being “good” thing is, if you’ve got it — you don’t become successful by staring at it all day. You succeed by making something of it. And that’s where your attention needs to go. Not to “Do I have any talent at this?”

When you listen to L’après-midi d’une faune, are you worrying about whether Debussy was born with perfect pitch?

And when you read Andrew Miller’s Pure, are you nattering away to yourself about how his prose is, as Jonathan Beckham correctly terms it for the Literary Review, “crystalline, uncontrived, striking, and intelligent?”

No, they’re just “good.”

Remember, Nathan noted, “Good writers intuitively know this.”

They know who they are.

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Handoff: Jane Friedman to Jacob Silverman

Let’s say you’re part of this web of writers, fiction-lovers, literary editors, and readers in the social-media world…

Hey, sounds like us, doesn’t it?

If you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Slate’s illustration for Jacob Silverman’s piece is by Sean Ford.

This is Jacob Silverman writing at Slate. Interestingly, he’s a contributing editor to Virginia Quarterly Review, where Friedman is based. His piece is headlined Against Enthusiasm: An epidemic of niceness in book culture. And we need to pay attention to it.

It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page.

I’ve got some questions for you. Don’t answer them aloud. Just “ponder them in your heart,” as the Bible would have it.

  • How many times have you actually read the published work of your own social media contacts?
  • How many of your social media cronies must you simply never read, and you can tell that? –and not just because they work in a genre you don’t get into but because you know that if you read them, what you found there wouldn’t be…everything we might hope?
  • Have you ever helped out a social media buddy with a good review or five stars or a big thumbs up, way up, when you (a) hadn’t read the book or (b) didn’t like the book but felt you couldn’t say that, and/or (c) didn’t feel you could just be quiet, and/or (d) knew you were going to need their help with a review later — whether they liked your work or not?
  • How frequently do you tell a social-media contact that there’s something less than “fab” about their latest blog or guest post? Or do you, instead, just gush?
Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Jacob Silverman

Silverman is ready:

Why shouldn’t writers and lovers of literature construct an environment that’s wholly comfortable and safe? When your time comes, when your book is published or you finally land that big feature, don’t you want some applause too?

But after surveying the demise of serious literary criticism, he circles back to “the superstructure of the literary world,” our online hives in which “we congregate, allowing us to collapse geography at the expense of solitary thinking.”

We like, favorite, and heart all day; it is a show of support and agreement, as well as a small plea for attention: Look at me, I liked this too. Follow back?

Silverman makes his best argument before we pass the baton one more time, emphasis mine:

A better literary culture would be one that’s not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.

So does the good writer hand out — or want — gushing critiques, merely to engage in the warm-and-fuzziness of it all?

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Last handoff: Jacob Silverman to Will Self

My publishers did look a bit grim when it (the new book, Umbrella) came in. I think they felt it was resolutely uncommercial and wouldn’t find readers. But you know…”

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Elizabeth Day

This is Elizabeth Day in her graceful observation for the Guardian of author Will Self: ‘I don’t write for readers.’

Five days after we meet, (Self’s new novel) Umbrella is long-listed for the Man Booker prize. It turns out that some other people must like it too.

In the UK, Self’s Man-Booker-long-listed Umbrella publishes August 30.

In the States, it’s available at this point only for pre-order at Amazon, with an American release date of January 8 from Grove Press.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

I want to show you a “good” writer at work. The kind of writer Micah Nathan was getting at in his truncated essay.

Here is Day in her piece, quoting Self:

“I don’t really write for readers,” Self says …”I think that’s the defining characteristic of being serious as a writer. I mean, I’ve said in the past I write for myself. That’s probably some kind of insane egotism but I actually think that’s the only way to proceed – to write what you think you have to write. I write desperately trying to keep myself amused or engaged in what I’m doing and in the world. And if people like it, great, and if they don’t like it, well, that’s that – what can you do? You can’t go round and hold a gun to their head.”

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Roz Morris, dirtywhitecandy, My Memories of a Future Life, Nail Your Novel, Dave Morris

Will Self

Now, contrast that to our community of kudos, our +1s and +Ks and chucks on the digital chins of our mates, all of us being so swell together, as Silverman shows us…and, again, how many of the books of your pals had you actually read when you gave it some thought?

Day is a generous journalist, who stops to be sure we don’t mistake the “Self rule,” if you will, of writing for himself as arrogance:

As it happens, Self is pleased to discover I did like the book. “It makes a difference,” he says.

Day goes on to fill us in on such details as his fondness for the robusta coffee bean — “Self’s conversation is full of such interesting digressions, the product of a restless mind accumulating facts like magpies do glitter.”

And Day’s conversation with Self is a deep and affecting profile, I commend it to you as an example of the kind of work we need to see more of when it comes to our authors.

Then again, we need good authors to profile, don’t we?


Finish Line

And here we are, our relay done, the baton safely all the way around the track…and where do we look for such authors?

Can you make them out among us between the RTs and the MTs and the status updates and the cat pictures? I’m not sure I can.

These good writers.

Micah Nathan’s work urges us to “cultivate selective stubbornness.”

By “selective” I mean paying attention to the right folks—a good writer can tell who’s a right folk within minutes—and completely ignoring the rest. It also means not lying to yourself. Hemingway called it having a “built-in bullshit detector.” I can’t improve on that.

His advice, of course, is meant for the good authors.


We’ve rounded the track, handing off and handing off —

  • from Friedman’s counsel on questions about talent,
  • through Silverman’s calling of our collective bluff,
  • to Self’s rejection of this serve-your-reader mantra we hear so much, and
  • back to Nathan’s assertion that the good writer may well be working right now, getting on with it — and not flipping batons with the rest of us.

So here’s what I want to ask you:

Are you that good writer who figures it out on her or his own? Is this back-slapping online colloquy of ours really the best thing for good work? Do we respect good work? Or are we just here for the huzzahs and chest bumps and thumbs-up? Could it be easier to pretend we’re all good writers? –just passing the tweet-baton from one pal to the next?


Reading on the Ether

Books mentioned and/or linked in our story today include:

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
Gods of Aberdeen by Micah Nathan
Jack the Bastard by Micah Nathan
Losing Graceland by Micah Nathan
Pure by Andrew Miller
Umbrella by Will Self

Join us Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com for Writing on the Ether, presented this week by Ether sponsor Roz Morris and her novel, My Memories of a Future Life.

Main image: iStockphoto / nickp37

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
Posted in Writing on the Ether.


  1. Such a refreshing post! Hurray. Writing for oneself, despite its apparent egotism is the starting point for any writer who feels the need to write at all. To find the words that explore self discovery. Not the narcissism of exposing what you know, and only too well, but the writing ‘into’ new discoveries of what you perhaps half apprehend and because you, as the writer, are that first reader you need to entertain and divert yourself. If others later also enjoy the ride the rewards are immense. If nobody does then perhaps narcissism or staleness, or cliched solutions have usurped. Or you may be too out on a limb.
    The finding of genuine enthusiasts for your work will, as clarified above, probably not be served by Facebook friends, unless they were friends before. But having been plagued by my inability to be insincere reading this was like being let out of school! Thank you!


    • Philippa, such a straightforward and eloquent response, thank you.

      I love your phrase for what the good writer does, “writing ‘into’ new discoveries of what you perhaps half apprehend.” This is the joy, isn’t it? — the being able to break free of the crowd and explore a far end of the world on your own, not as a performance (until the work is ready, at least).

      I worry that between our fine contributors here — Nathan, Friedman, Silverman, Self — we need to stop and think about the community we tout as so important. It just may not be what the good writer needs. Your good thoughts make me know I’m not alone with these concerns … and that’s a community I welcome!

      Thanks for thinking with me, for reading and for commenting,


  2. Fantastic post! And I’m astonished to report I’d read every article you reference. (Not sure how that happened—I’m usually way behind you—but I’d bookmarked all because I’m writing my own blog post.) Now I’m going to go reread them in light of your commentary, which is always illuminating.

    • Good on you, Jamie! Great minds thinking alike, lol. Sounds as if you’re right up to speed on things, and glad you’re thinking about all this, as well. Will look forward to your write, and thanks for reading and commenting on the Ether!

  3. It’s fine to write for a family of penguins, if that’s who you want to buy your books. But if you want to be published BY Penguin, or sell to members of the human family, you have to find that sweet spot between authorial voice and reader desire. That’s where craft comes in (the very notion of craft includes inter-connectivity with a community, in this case readers). And there is nothing wrong with becoming a master craftsman, either. You create value, and get rewarded for it.

    • Quite right, Lord Jim, and I found it particularly interesting how Will Self talks about the reception of his books. The “sweet spot” for him seems to be almost a lucky accident, his popularity being a surprise in some quarters, considering the “difficulty” of his work. (“Challenging” is another term for it.)

      Always interesting to see how much a writer has to “travel,” or not, to that sweet spot. Some seem born very close to the vernacular, immediately writing with a sensibility for trend and trouble that registers with wide audiences. Others seem to struggle for miles and miles to get even close to a general appeal, let alone populist.

      And interesting to see the ones who decide to dig in and NOT try to meet a readership even part of the way. The ones who decide to try to wait out the eyeballs. Maybe saints, maybe fools.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, sir!

  4. Brilliant post! And, yes, I am here to praise you. The “figure it out on your own” piece struck a chord with me because I did just that. I hitchhiked around the US when I “should” have been going to college. In my thirties, I took a few English and creative writing classes, then ran home to raise three sons and figure it out on my own. I have no MFA in creative writing and I’ve never been to Iowa (I may have thumbed through there). Now that I have a book coming out, I’m getting emails from people asking me to help them figure it out. They want to write, but they want me to tell them how to do it.

    As far as reading online friends’ books: I do. I’ve read many, reviewed a few. Yesterday, I tweeted a review of a book by Dan Friedman that I throughly enjoyed. I have also written Amazon reviews for friends. But I would never write a review for a book I’ve not read or not liked. Authors work too hard to be dissed by me. I may not like a book because of my mood. I’ve picked up books I didn’t like, then years later read again and loved.

    Oh, and I had also read the Will Self article. Agree on his piece as well. You better like what you’re writing. You may have to revise it a few hundred times.

    Thanks for including my tweet in your post. :-)

    • Hey, Darrelyn, thanks for the praise, lol, and for your story about figuring it out on your own. You’ve certainly got that pathway covered in your own journey to publication.

      I think Micah Nathan’s use of that term has grabbed so many people’s attention (which is what happened when I tweeted, of course) because it actually can be “interpreted on your own,” too. In other words, there are varying concepts of what Nathan may be referring to when he speaks of a “good writer,” let alone of “figuring it out on your own.”

      And this, at least, has little or nothing to do with digital disruption (and how merciful is that?). For example, consider what happened when William Faulkner figured it out on his own vs. what happens when one of my contemporary favorites, Joan Didion, figured it out on her own. His long, long, long, loooooongggg sentences came unspooling from Oxford, Mississippi (and if you’ve been to his house, as I have, you get the feeling he may have had nothing better to do, lol). And her sharp, biting, power-play snap-back prose came tickering out, as jagged as a Reuters box’s mean bursts of data.

      Both “figured it out on their own.” But what they figured out? Totally different. The “it” barely shares English as a language.

      This is why I think that when Nathan does talk of “figuring it out,” the important point may not have to do with the figuring but the it — and the writer’s biggest confusion may be not how to do it but “what it is,” as the old saying goes.

      The reasn I wanted to bring in the clarifying edge of Jane Friedman’s vision and the challenge of Jacob Silverman’s (yes, made real for me by whatever “it” is that Will Self is figuring out) is that a kind of PC -ness, a political correctness, really does hold the writing community in its thrall right now.

      When you tell me of your ability and willingness and experience in reading your colleagues and responding honestly, I don’t doubt it. But you’re not Faulkner or Didion or Self and I’m not sure that your “it” matches enough others well in the online community — well enough, I mean, for us to be able to extrapolate from your good efforts that everyone’s presence and process is so … how shall I say it, healthy?

      Somebody out there IS jacking up reviews to curry favor from each other, somebody out there IS being artificially swell to everyone else, and somebody out there IS talking the writer’s talk without even an intention of walking the walk, let alone being capable of performing storytelling as an author.

      @jamesscottbell:disqus — who also has dropped in here today with a comment — has a set of instructional videos, one of which is themed on the fallacy you find in many people who say to “just throw some ebooks up there on the Web” and wait for the money to roll in. “Just throw them up there! eBooks!” It’s funny how Jim does it. And infuriating how true this attitude is.

      So I’m in your boat and on your side when you tell me that in YOUR case, it has been “figured out on your own” and that your online presence is authentic and serious. I get that, I believe it, I’m grateful for it.

      And there are a lot more of us out there. What I’m trying to help us all think about is this: At what point does a good-hearted community effort to welcome the would-be’s and honor the hard-workings lead us into a kind of bullpen of blarney?

      Thanks, and thanks, as ever,

  5. The basic premise is flawed. “Good” defined how, and by whom? Is the author of 50 Shades of Grey a good writer? How about the author of Ulysses?

    Anyone who writes just for himself or herself has their own internally defined standard, and he or she is his or her own jury of one. That’s all that counts. But as soon as the writer asks someone else what they think, the definition of “good” expands exponentially.

    All that said, anyone who gives someone else a five star review or a thumbs-up because they like the other person regardless of the merits of the actual work is doing the writer no favor.

    • Hey, Paul

      So glad to have your input here, thanks for being with us.

      In the spirit of the post — and its several folks who are trying to help us move past various standard ways of looking at things — I’ll just point out to you that saying we don’t have an adequate definition of a “good writer” is a rather common way of dodging a difficult issue.

      “Well, how do you define so-and-so?” — #cmonson, we hear that in every single debate that treads on someone’s toes.

      I’ll bet that you and I could get ourselves up a ripping fine list of “good writers” together if we were having a few drinks (I wish) at a bar right now. Ten minutes, we’d have our own little Man Booker long list. You know that, too.

      It’s not the definitions, Paul, it’s not a flawed premise, and I’m not sure I trust you when you say you think it is.

      It’s what we’re doing in the gray area between definitions.

      Sometimes it’s that kind of review-stars nonsense. And absolutely, you’re right that it does the writer no favor to get a lie of a review or a set of stars he or she didn’t earn. I care less about that writer, however, than I do about the industry, the culture, the world of literature that really could use a few stable hand-holds right now. What does that kind of falsehood do to books and their world, to our work and place within them? How quickly we all become suspect when the parameters go melting away in “community” fuzziness.

      I don’t think it’s good, I don’t think it’s excusable, and shrugging as we see it happen isn’t really enough.

      So I’m trying to see past and around such politically correct evasions as “well, how do you define so-and-so?” I’m not sure I’m happy to be part of a community that shrugs with an “authors-will-be-authors” sickly smile as such falsehoods fly by and wants to know “how do you define ‘good writing?” when someone tries to question it.

      If you don’t know what a “good writer” is, I sure do. And I don’t see a lot of them around us here these days online in our high-five community. And I think one reason is that the community is more about boosterism than honest creation and reaction. Why would good writers hang around that?

      Today, the best we may be able to do is call a spade a spade. But I’ll call it. “How do you define ‘good writing?'” uncovers no “flaw,” as you seem to feel it does. I’ll gladly oppose you on that, cordially and as colleagues.

      The premise is not flawed, you’re wrong. The argument is uncomfortable, unattractive, and a bit unpleasant, but it’s a good premise. Calling the debate the problem won’t work this time, sorry.

      And thanks for your input, seriously, Paul. I fear you might feel a bit roughed up here — I hope you don’t. I wish you nothing but well. You’ve just helped me understand an element of what’s happening here better than I did.

      I value that, and appreciate it.

  6. Love this post. As Randy Susan Meyer said in a fantastic post in Beyond the Margins, I write for the reader in me. I don’t think about markets or penguins, because I don’t know what they want. I know what I want and I can only write that. So Andrew Miller, Gavin Maxwell, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene send me back to my desk to try and do better. For me, that’s honing my craft.

    You raise many provocative points about the back-slapping culture and integrity. I’ll review books if they are what I like to read and I can recommend them, otherwise I’ll keep a dignified silence and let them find an appropriate audience elsewhere. But I know how hard it is to find the right readers, so I’ll happily retweet book news or reviews, to wish them luck.

    • Hey, Roz, and thanks so much for chiming in.

      As I work my way through these comments from so many folks, I’m glad to find yours, not least because you don’t sidestep any of our shared issues here with politically correct dodges. Some do. This is part of our culture, mind you — both in the States and in the UK — and I do realize that.

      What I find nourishing in what you write here is your mention of Miller, Maxwell, Maugham, Greene, Bradbury. “Hey, how do you define a ‘good writer?'” You just did it, thank you, no need for the politically correct evasion demanding one define “good.”

      And what I’m trying to question here — I know you know this, I’m holding forth on your time to clarify my thoughts — is how we come to be so poor in this happy, happy community of writers, poor of such talent (Nathan is not afraid to call it that), poor of such intelligence (I am not afraid to call it that).

      As Silverman is trying to get across to us, the fist pumps and ‘atta-boys are turning us into cat-shower-curtain fanciers. How many “best-ever” blog posts will add up to literary genius? — let’s not even try to think of it.

      That search for the right penguin, yes (funny, we’re indebted not to Will Self but to the tweeter @VictoriaLondon for that!). It’s our biggest problem. I’ve just confirmed that with Laura Dawson in an exchange yesterday or today. Mercifully, she’s someone who doesn’t need a gold star to feel fulfilled for the day. That is our issue. Discoverability, the 32 million active listings on Books in Print, and before we even count self-published work? That’s our issue, you’re so right, Dawson is so right, when will we look up and see the vertical slate face of this mountain of competitive content looming over us?

      Andrew Miller. I’ll take him from your list because this is a writer I love who’s working and living with us now. If his career had started in this “digital age,” would we know him now? We could have missed him. Missed “Ingenious Pain” and “Oxygen” and “Pure” and others from him. And what is our bounding community doing about that? Who are the Millers we don’t even know right now because they’re lost in the LOLs and +1’s?

      I think Silverman is on to at least a part of it. The glad-handing, it does get to you. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

      If we go back to the top of the relay, is it what Nathan is telling us? That the good writers have no need of community, if you will — or a very different need — because they’re “figuring it out on their own” and not given to sharing the ride? OK, but then what happens when they need to sell?

      How will our “good writers” who aren’t ahead of the digital overwhelm (as Miller is) beat the 32-million-book mountain? Being a “good writer” will not save you that battle. Great stuff does not always rise to the top, as ignorant people say it does. Great stuff gets lost.

      Thanks for your good comment. It’s helping me in “honing my craft” — as you’re gracious enough to remind us we might do from time to time.

      More of this anon, I’m sure.

      • How, indeed, will good writers find a way to be noticed? This continues to bother me. The Millers etc aren’t going to be able to compete on numbers – one of the ways the new intrepid breed of self-publishers get their presence felt.
        As I’ve said to you often enough – and I repeat it because it’s worrying – my agent remarked that the one consolation the mainstream publishing industry has is that writers still have the problem of getting readers to discover them. Heavens, it’s just not what we’re good at – nor is it what we’re meant to be good at. If we were, we’d have been marketers, not writers.
        We need our communities, then, for two reasons. One, as comrades on the journey. Two, as the only possible way to find readers who click with our work.

  7. This is a tough one. I can relate to Jacob’s standpoint, but as someone who lives and breathes ‘writers helping and supporting writers’ I see the good that support brings each and every day.

    In an industry where writers are told on a daily basis by gatekeepers that they are not good enough, support of their fellow peers is what keeps them going. Most often, rejections come because the writer is not ‘there’ yet. But as someone who has seen thousands of manuscripts and written thousands of critiques, I know writers who ARE good enough still be told, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Sometimes it’s because a publisher is looking for X when the writer has Y. Or, the house has a book that’s similar on their list, or the writer doesn’t bring something else to the table which might tip the scales (like a strong platform). Other times, the publisher is not seeing enough profit from a type of book, so they choose not to take more on like it–something that has nothing to do with the writer or their novel’s quality, just the bottom line.

    Regardless of reasons (or a lack of reasons), a writer must take the rejections as a matter of course. The smart ones learn from them if there is something to be taken away from the feedback. They grow, adapt, change focus and otherwise move forward however is needed–often with the help and encouragement from others in the trenches. The ones who don’t, quit. They find something else to make them happy and fill that creative need. Or they label nay-Sayers as idiots, and go on to self publish without bothering to try and hone their work further.

    Can a supportive force be destructive? Certainly. As a moderator for one of the largest critique sites on the web, I have viewed my share of critiques infused with rainbows and fluffy kittens. When writers allow friendship to impede their judgement, it does the receiver no favors. Criticism does not need to be brutal, but neither does it need to be swathed in glitter. Honesty should always win out when one is asked for their opinion.

    I have seen writers pen gushing five star reviews for books (some that are backed by a promotional gold rush by the publisher) to boost start up sales, only to have the book’s ratings tank once the public weighs in. Ultimately, does this hurt or help the author? I think we know the answer to that one.

    However, it is a long stretch from liking someone’s author’s page or
    tweeting links to a writer’s blog posts for visibility to
    falsely writing reviews (especially for books a person hasn’t read). One is supportive, one is just stupid.

    Encouragement is a good thing when it is wielded with wisdom. As an optimist, like to believe that most writers who support others do it for the right reasons, and I HOPE they have the good sense to be the voice of honesty when it is needed, even if they know it will hurt. Because when you are not honest, that’s when the real harm is done.

    • Hey, Angela, thanks for reading and for your long, thoughtful commentary here.

      I don’t think anybody can disagree with you on the idea that “encouragement is a good thing when it is wielded with wisdom.” Quite right, and easily 95 percent of what you say here is aligned with that.

      I think, however, the one area in which I’d want to follow up is to point out that there’s an assumption that the only thing that’s helpful is comment, criticism, guidance, instruction that arrives wrapped in positives. I think this is a mistake. I think there are times when I, certainly, have needed to hear that something I was doing in my own work was simply wrong-headed, futile, silly, misguided, whatever. And I really didn’t need it to come in some sugar-coated warm-hug of a package.

      If we start by agreeing that the business of writing is difficult — aside from so many other reasons — because there’s always some unhappy input to handle, then isn’t it better if we help our colleagues, students, associates understand that happy talk doesn’t save the day?

      The complaints Jacob Silverman is leveling against the overly upbeat online community are simply correct. There’s so much boosterism — and it’s very hard to understand how that rose-colored translation of everything is helpful to anyone who needs to face a of hard realities, most immediately including (for all of us) that one’s work simply might not be the paragon of literary genius we want to think it is.

      I think we could roll back the high fives quite a ways before we started to err on the side of being too harsh or rude or mean or downbeat. In fact, I think the community as a whole might well operate in ways that are more professional, forthright, and productive if we demanded better of each other than happy talk and thumbs up and plus this and smiley-faced that.

      We can agree to disagree on this, of course, and with perfect respect for each other, which I know we have. But in the spririt of trying to seriously look at what might be best for our community and its writers, I guess I’d just ask that you consider — just consider — that the almost gleeful tone with which everybody’s slightest effort is greeted online (the “best ever, fab” stuff I discussed in a Writer Unboxed column) is simply over the top. And it’s potentially as dangerous for covering the truths we need to address, surely, as too much negative input could be.

      I hope that makes sense, do tell me if I’m not being clear enough on this, and thanks so much again for taking the time to weigh in so extensively, much appreciated.

      • HI Porter,

        Oh, I don’t disagree–I guess perhaps I have been fortunate to have found a strong critique group as I was forming my writing roots that challenged me at ever step, so I can always read through any fluff feedback. I am also able to deliver criticism with diplomacy, which is different than robing something in glitter. I have seen the dark side of criticism where is it not only given raw, but with the belief that ‘crushing spirits will make the writer stronger’. This can cause a lot of damage. Those with this attitude often have an inflated sense of self, and could do with their own long look in a mirror.

        Certainly there are empty support platitudes out there, but I just wouldn’t want to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater. A lot of writers are doing a lot of good by offering encouragement while steering people to the path of stronger craft and supplying information on how to do this, linking to trusted sources which will help to elevate a writer’s skills along with elbow grease. :)

  8. Yes, I am. Like Self, I write for me, to entertain myself. I figure if I like it and get jazzed reading it, then there’s probably one or two other folks who will feel the same. They might even be willing to buy a copy of my book someday.

    No, but the right amount and sincere amounts, helps now and then.

    Yes, we do, and it’s frustrating to see what we know to be poor work touted and promoted ad nauseum all over the bloody place.

    No, no, and hell no to the last three questions.

    • Thanks, AJ, appreciate your reading and commenting on the post here.

      I agree, seeing bad work held up as something better than it is? Hard to take. And it hurts the industry, the community. Interesting that we can tell it’s bad, isn’t it? Someone else in comments here today, has suggested that the lack of a definition of “good writer” presents a flawed premise. I say that if we know what’s bad when we see it held up and applauded, we know what’s good, too.

      Keep the faith, thanks again.

  9. Some people are talented and others aren’t. Yet talent doesn’t always matter.

    Some are self-taught and others pile up advanced degrees. But what we learn doesn’t always matter.

    Some consciously employ craft and others discover it by accident. How it comes doesn’t really matter.

    Great writers sometimes write terrible books and terrible writers sometimes write great books. All that matters is what works. Everything else is commentary.

  10. Food for thought as always, Porter. As for the four questions you asked us to ponder in our hearts:
    1. Not enough
    2. Way too many, mostly because they’re irritating.
    3. Not yet, thank God.
    4. I don’t gush,which is not news.
    The trend online amongst writers is to be wildly enthusiastic in the beginning and downright snarky later on. I don’t know if it’s reality setting in, or just a serious inferiority complex. This makes them equal to others on the internet, such as those who praised Gabby Douglas’ gold-medal winning performance only to criticize her hair the next day.
    I don’t care if you (not you, personally) have an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. I care about whether your writing speaks (or sings) to me. That’s my only criteria. It may speak to me by enraging me or transporting me or making me cry. I don’t know if the author is writing for me or not, but it works.
    As for me? I don’t have an answer, Porter. I’ve always assumed I just wrote for myself, but that doesn’t seem to be true anymore. Maybe my writing couldn’t improve until I acknowledged an audience larger than one. Don’t know. But it’s worth pondering.

    • What I like about your comments here, Viki — and thank you for them — is that you come around to questioning whether anybody really writes for her- or himself anymore. And in saying that maybe your writing couldn’t improve until you acknowledged that, I think I’d answer, well why would it? Until you had decided you were going to write for publication, you could write any way you wanted and nobody saw it. The outward-facing writer (and I believe we all are that), is the one who must have viable text, the one who improves.

      For all my regard for Will Self, I’m unconvinced that he doesn’t consider readers, publishers, critics, family, friends, the usual, when writing. Self’s no sellout, and I’d say he does err on the side of making the reader work for it. I’m sure he *believes* he writes for himself, since he says this to Elizabeth Day. It may well be the place he needs to be, in order to produce his excellent work, and, I’m all for whatever gets that going for him.

      On the other hand, I would have said you were always writing for readers, at least your Friend Grief content. Your experience and work around grief over the loss of a friend is something you want to get out to others who might need it, right? That’s not writing for yourself — that’s writing for others who need it, as well.

      Unless any of us truly plots never to let our work be seen by anyone else, we’re not “just writing for ourselves.”

      And it’s an odd thing, this desire for people to say that — “I’m just writing for myself.”

      It starts to sound a little precious in most people. I suspect it’s a fig leaf. For most.

      I’d never say that. I’ve always written to be read, except for some journal stuff or private correspondence that was meant to be read by one person or another. The idea of writing a story or an article or a book “for myself?” That, to my experience, is preposterous. Writing well, at least, is too important to keep to oneself.

      Ms. Douglas will be just fine, by the way, no matter how her hair looks or what leotard the team puts her into.

      And she’s not “just doing the balance beam for myself,” either. :)

      • I do think that it’s a little precious to say “I’m just writing for myself”, even though that’s true at times.
        Some people take a long time to get to the point of accepting that (1) they have something to say that others want to hear and (2) that their writing is good.
        For me, the second took a much longer time. That’s the real issue, I believe: many people don’t really believe their writing can stand up to scrutiny.Maybe most.
        And yes, I have a lot of writing that (I hope) will never see the light of day. I have even more that has had an audience of 3, including me. And while none of that is for publication, the discipline of writing something – anything – every day makes me better. At least until an editor rips it apart. 😉

        • Yeah, exactly. I would go so far, however, as to say that the people who cannot overcome the idea that their writing isn’t “good enough” to be seen? — probably AREN’T producing writing good enough to be seen. I think this is what Micah Nathan embraces in his piece. Good writers get down with what they’re doing and work with what they have and figure out what they need in order TO place themselves out there at the right time. Moving from not a good writer to a good writer may be exactly this process, or at least include it.

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  12. Great post as usual, Porter. Friedman’s “5 Relevant Questions” really do hit the mark. Talent, regardless of the nature-vs-nurture question, is a proverbial
    tree in the forest; it doesn’t truly exist in the absence of an audience, and without perseverance, resilience, and self-belief (even if delusional) one can’t hope to endure long enough to capture anyone’s attention.

    Interesting observations regarding the “mutual self-esteem” etiquette of our online hives. I’ve read blogs by literary agents who warn against offering any sort of criticism of other’s books on Goodreads, for fear of tarnishing one’s online “image.” Online discourse seems almost puerile at times, in that it has difficulty modulating between the unspoken expectation, “Like me and give me 5 stars and I’ll Like you and give you 5 stars,” and the ranting of trolls who spring from their anonymous lairs to ravage opinions that don’t blend in with the agreeable, uncontroversial herd and have been denuded of every whiff of passion or controversy.

    I respect good work, and I believe most of us do. The “back-slapping online colloquy,” though? Good question. Where does one go to receive honest, blunt, painful if necessary, but absolutely necessary criticism of one’s work? If there’s no agent or editor in the picture, I suppose this sort of useful criticism has to be obtained from the same source as always — friends whose opinions one respects and can rely upon. Such friends can surely be found online, but only a friend — and I mean the traditional, non-Facebook sense of the word — would commit the time to slog through a MS and give worthwhile feedback.


    • Thanks for your input, as always — and yes, La Friedman (sometimes known as Porter’s Brain) can always get you going in a better direction, she’s good that way. Even when you don’t fully agree with her, she has this way of delineating what you do believe vs. what you don’t and why. And hey, Hegel, that’s the definition of an understanding.

      The day Jane opens her Understanding Concession Stand, I’ll be cheerfully on staff.

      Now, about that thing of friends and their opinions: Not overcome-able.

      Give it up.

      Because I’m a professional critic and I have some very good, astute, sharp, seasoned friends, I feel confident in telling you that one of two things will happen when friends read you:
      (1) They will cut you too much slack because you ARE a friend, even if they’re the meanest snakes in the garden professionally; or
      (2) They’ll just as unwarrantedly rip you a new one to prove that they’re NOT being overly friendly and “treating you just like I would anybody else.”

      Bottom line: You can’t trust a friend’s input. This is not negotiable.

      What do you do?

      You hire someone. And you do it earlier than later. Don’t spend 18 months dicking around with friends reading your thing before you show it to somebody who can tell you to flush it at once.

      Good, professional, do-it-for-a-living developmental editors are to be had. They understand that the money you pay them may, in fact, be money you hand over to buy bad news. (As in, “Boy, this MS you sent me totally sucks, what is wrong with you?” only in more uptown terms.) Or, if you actually have created something good, they’ll praise it for you — AND IN FIENDISHLY SPECIFIC TERMS. Unlike your friends’ hot-air ramblings, the paid analyst gives you a quantifiable reason to take heart or shoot yourself. Either way, you have something you can depend on.

      You get what you pay for. Friends are free. And their input adds up to something pretty much worth … $0.00. Not because they don’t love you but because they do. The nice way to put this is “priceless,” right? They’re good dinner companions, crying shoulders, and rides to the airport.

      When it’s your work at stake, you want a pro.

      • I’m not touting for business here, but I thought I’d jump in to give you a measure of the kind of detailed feedback and tuition you might get from a professional editor. The last client report I did came to 50+ pages.

        • Which is a fantastic return, really. I know that when I had my last developmental edit done, it came back with close to that many pages, plus the entire manuscript full of tracked changes for me to consider, a lot of bang for the buck, realy.

      • Terrific advice Porter, thank you. My problem is that I have a 180K MS that I’m in the process of winnowing down substantially. I already know I need to flush about half of it. I’d expect that my MS should be as close to finished and polished as I can make it, before handing over the $$ to a professional editor. Am I wrong? One way or another I’ve made the commitment to writing this thing and have already spent a few years on it … and I’m not stopping until I’m finished. The next questions of course are, where and how does one find a reputable editor at a reasonable price, what is a “reasonable price,” and all other factors being equal, who is the best editor to read my work? SRW

  13. To be honest, I think I’m a below average writer at this moment in time. I like to think I’m a decent storyteller, but I have so much to learn about writing still

    I’m still refining my voice, I’m still learning about technique, and I’m still finding my confidence in things. I just have to keep trying, keep learning, and strive toward something better.

    I actually just wrote a Blog Post similar to this. Comparing a quote from both Steven Pressfield and Sean Platt, two good, but very different writers. the idea of writing from the ve heart versus writing for your reader. Agreed with both views to a point, but like with most things, feel it requires a balance

    Now I just need to figure where that find line lays :)

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • The finest of lines, Matt, lies where you stop looking for it.

      It lies where you leave off the worry. It lies where you give up the comparisons and the rationalizing and debating and analyzing.

      That’s where it lies.

      It’s an odd thing, but writing works much like bicycling so famously does. People love to say that you never forget how to ride a bike. That means, of course, that once your body has learned the feel of the balance required on a bike, sense-memory will bring that balance back to you when you get onto a bike years after your last ride.

      The kind of writing I think you want to do is going to feel to you like that years-later bike ride when it happens. You will have thought about Pressfield and thought about Platt and worried and wandered and wondered and whither this and what’s more that…until you’re pulled on to other things (either in writing or life in general). Then, one day you’ll sit down. And the worrying and wandering and wondering and whithering and what’s-more-ing will have peculiarly synthesized into (ready for it?) your voice.

      Like a cat chasing its own tail, the harder you try to spy that voice, capture it as it whispers past you, the harder it is to grab. Always just around the next bend, right? Almost heard it that time — damn, gone again. So you have to stop looking, stop listening for it.

      That’s because your voice is the sum. It’s the sum of the stuff you’ve studied and the oh-so-wise sayings you’ve gleaned from various gurus and the oh-so-killer blog posts you’ve practically committed to memory, and the oh-so-important books on writing and sayings on writing and great quotes on writing and inspiration, inspiration, inspiration, and you have to belieeeeeeeeve in yourself, as the Christian bloggers never tire of telling you (that is their siren song to bring you back, of course), and you have to permission yourself as Seth will tell you, and you have to discipline yourself as Steve will tell you, and you have to do this or that practice every day and those or these voodoo teachings every fortnight…

      Just do a little writing. Less talk about it, more writing. Less worry about it, more writing. Fewer analytical dance routines, more writing. Every time you want to start yakking about What We Have To Remember Above All Else, just pipe down and write.

      Here you go: See how I just capitalized “To” in “To Remember” in the above line? Know why? Because in that case, “to” is part of the verb, “to remember.” If “to” were being used as a preposition in a title, as in “My Trip to the Lighthouse,” it would be lowercase, Ms. Woolf, because it’s not part of a verb.

      When it’s a preposition? Lower case.
      When it’s part of a verb? Upper case.

      There. You just learned one hard, actionable thing for your writing. When to capitalize a sometimes preposition in a title or headline.

      These are the only things you need. Mechanical things.

      Because when Micah Nathan talks about the good writer, he’s saying that the good writer intuitively knows what to do with his tools (those words and how they’re used). He just needs the tools.

      You get a good grammar guide. You get a good dictionary. Those are your tools. You write. Your voice will be waiting.

      The problem with the community is the problem with the church: It needs you to be needy. If you’re not concerned that everything’s going to hell in a laptop case, you won’t go to church. The church needs bad times and worried people. Keeps it in business. (I’m a minister’s son, I know this.) The writing community is the same way. It needs things to seem rough in order to keep people coming around to talk about how rough it all is. This is how it perpetuates itself. It sets up The Trials and Tribulations we’re all going through and then endlessly fires those things up into the air, shooting up a flare, to get everybody charged up and confused.

      Don’t be confused. Don’t fall for the community which, as Silverman shows us, is way too happy and boosterish for anybody’s good. Just do a little writing, it’ll all be OK.

      That’s where your fine line lies. Cross it by yourself. Like a good writer.

      • wow, thanks Porter, some great advice. And it’s true, I should stop trying to replicate others and trying to learn too much

        those great things always come when you stop looking :)

        However, I’m also keen to learn so enjoying reading, listening,a nd finding new things. Each day is a lesson. Is it confusing sometimes? Is it a chaos of crazy?


        But, I’m also learning. I live by the notion of being a filter. Listen, read, learn…but always add your own spin on things. don’t simply take things as gospel, no matter who is saying it to you.

        I suppose my voice is part of that, and I’m closer today than I was last year. But you’re right, I should stop worrying about it and trying to think too much.

        Thanks again, top reply :)


        • You’re doing everything right, Matt, just don’t confuse the learning for the doing. That shadow career business we talked about with Pressfield. It can creep up on you and pretty soon you’re a “lifelong student” — in the wrong sense, lol. :)

  14. Lots of food for thought here, Porter and a great discussion. Here are my thoughts-
    1. Talent is important but I think persistence and focus trump talent any day. There’s always the exception- Augusten Burroughs whipping up a bestseller in a matter of weeks while most of us spend endless hours learning our craft and writing /rewriting/editing before we launch our book. I have spent the past three years learning my craft -taking courses,etc and am finally at the point of giving myself permission to just write for myself, write what I feel I need to say-own my story and be done with it.

    2. IMO,writing with the reader in mind is important and if I am clear on who my target audience is, when I write for myself, I will be writing for my reader.

    3. I appreciate the idea of diluting literary criticism by giving blanket 5-star reviews,etc.That is blatantly irresponsible. Support is essential in this chaotic and uncertain publishing environment but Nathan’s proposal to “cultivate selective stubbornness by paying attention to the right people” makes perfect sense to me. I love helping others promote their work through book tours on my blog- when I have read their work and can endorsed it wholeheartedly.

    Thanks for another lively and provocative discussion, Porter!

    • Hey, thanks, Kathy – and I agree that the preparation is worth it IF — like you — the writer finally stops preparing and starts actually producing.

      The danger, as in the cases of folks we’ve discussed before who go to all the conferences and never write a word, is that it gets too easy to prep and never get going.

      My guess is that most of us are over-preparing — at least those of us in this online community at its widest — by about a third. We’re being told we have to prep like this by people who want to sell us courses and other how-to products. (Books, webinars, whatnot.) And while this is a natural and predictable result of a disruption that’s heavy on the DIY side, eventually I think we’ll see that we over-compensated in the “get ready” direction.

      At any rate, thanks for reading, as ever, and responding. If we can keep the online experience from turning into a total back-slapping festival, we’ll be fine. :)

  15. I have definitely put in my chair time, done my homework, and honed my craft over a period of many years. The problem is that advice books on writing (as well as recent blogs, magazine articles, and workshops) warn writers that they must: build a platform, join social media, market their book, study the markets, start a blog, review on Good Reads, and ‘keep the reader in mind.’ With all this dizziness, it is hard to hear your own voice amidst the noise.

  16. Thank you for an extended discussion on what I think is an important issue. Everyone seems to be jumping on the social media bandwagon, outdoing each other, reaching for trendier comments and blogs, yet the writing seems to be more and more narrowly defined regarding plot, character, and narrative, with little to feed the literary soul. Thanks also for the several references here on better works.

  17. You have made my morning. I thank you.

    When the unreadable Porter Anderson writes an article entitled “Are You a Good Writer?” it provided my first laugh of the day.

    I am sorry, Porter (I’m Canadian, we apologize a lot), but your rather hodgepodge style is one I find difficult to follow.

    It seems others, including Ms. Friedman, just adore it.

    Mine is only one opinion. Please do continue.

    But it was a good laugh and I thank you.

    Have a very pleasant morning.

  18. Hmmm, Porter you have given me much to consider. I agree, the only way to become a good writer is to write. I haven’t found any shortcuts. It’s a personal journey and I believe I am becoming a better writer with every passage I write.
    I write the story as it comes to me, without regard for the reader – in the first draft. After that, it’s a blend of reader and writer and a large glass of Chardonnay. :)

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