"On Writing" by Greer and Shaun Kilgore

David Trammel's picture

In the March "Open Post" on Ecosophia, there was a discussion on writing I thought was quite good. I've copied the comments, which came from a aspiring writer named StarNinja, and got replies from John Michael Greer and Shaun Kilgore.


Dear JMG,
I recently had the pleasure of interacting with a professional manuscript reviewer. He told me in no uncertain terms that I would never sell a single WORD to a publisher as long I remained an amateur rather than a professional writer. I asked him how to do that exactly and he proceeded to demolish a five year old short story I’d written for a silly writing prompt. He insisted that my writer’s toolkit was severely deficient, especially since I didn’t even know the lingo. (I learned for instance that MRU’s, or Motivational-Reaction Units, are a key building block of fiction writing.)

I thought he made some fair points, but I was definitely picking up the gatekeeper vibes he was putting out. So my questions: what does a good writer’s toolkit have in it? Is formal training essential or at the very least preferable? How many books on writing should I pick up? (He suggested three). I’m always looking to improve my craft and I would love to know what I should be putting in my toolkit of narrative fiction. Many thanks!

Shaun Kilgore (editor of "Mystic")
Hello. A writer’s toolkit will vary with the writer. You were right to about the ‘gatekeeper vibes.’ Now, I am a writer as well as a publisher and I’ve spent a lot of time looking at both industries and studying it. I’m still doing this.

When it comes down to it though, you need desire first and foremost. Next, you have to read good books. Read all kinds of stories, short and long, in different genres. Study the thing you want to do. Always be learning. Yes, craft books can give insights but ultimately, it comes down to simple practice. You have to put words on the page. Let the creative side of your brain take the driver’s seat and put away that critical part that is often motivated by fear.

Your toolkit can be quite simple: Get Busy Writing. Practice. Practice. Practice. Most important of all: Have fun!

John Michael Greer:
StarNinja, oh dear gods. Ignore everything you hear from such a person, unless you want to become a pieceworker in a literary sweatshop, turning out interchangeable generic book-shaped objects to order for not much more than minimum wage. Take the MRUs and all the rest of the pretentious jargon and flush it down the nearest toilet. A fixation on that sort of thing is the reason why there are scores of gargantuan warehouses in the New Jersey suburbs of NYC full to the bursting with crates of books from the big publishers that were released with huge advertising campaigns and lavish reviews from all the usual paid reviewers, and had everything going for them, except that readers found nothing of interest in them, rolled their eyes, and left them on the bookstore shelves.

You become a writer by reading books you love, reflecting on why you love them, paying attention to how the authors of those books handle prose, plotting, characterization, and all the other things that go into a novel, and then applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and the tips of your fingers to the keys on your keyboard, and trying to do something similar. It’s fine to be an amateur author; J.R.R. Tolkien was an amateur author, and he didn’t worry about MRUs, either — he studied the stories he loved, and started writing and telling stories like them, until the process of writing taught him to find his own voice and Middle-Earth came spilling out of his typewriter.

We are in the early stages of a revolution in the publishing industry, as significant as the rise of the pulps in the early 20th century or the paperback revolution of the 1960s. Now as then, the big gatekeeper publishers are losing their grip on the market as many smaller and less spiritually constipated firms seize market share from them by scrapping the canned formulas and publishing things that haven’t been produced by way of a cookie cutter. Plan on catching that wave, and you won’t have to worry about MRUs — just about writing the stories you want to write, for the people who want to read them. That’s what I’m doing with The Weird of Hali — and if current market trends are anything to go by, I’ll get as much distribution and make more money going that way than I would have done by going with one of the big boys. You can do the same.

Thank you for the advice. After that little encounter, I felt my self esteem flitting away but it was your words on literature and culture that reminded me that professional manuscript reviewers maybe don’t know everything. Your practical approach to writing has greatly improved my own work. Thanks again for the perspective!

John Michael Greer:
StarNinja, you’re also most welcome! Right now manuscript reviewers who work for the big publishers know perfectly well that they’re on board a sinking ship, and they’re motivated to do everything they can to bully and browbeat writers into conforming to the big-publisher model of writing. That benefits the big publishers but it does not benefit authors. At this point, big-publisher contracts have gotten so predatory and the support given to authors and their works so minimal that bestselling authors are bailing out on the big firms and going into self-publishing or working with small presses, and making more money than they’d get from the big boys. So relax, have a beverage of your choice, and then sit down and get writing.