Writing is hard work that requires you to be in your own head so much that it can be easy to lose perspective on what you are trying to accomplish. I tend to lose myself in the short term goals of trying to finish a particular scene or story that I lose perspective on how it fits into the bigger picture.
I’ve always dabbled in fiction. I usually have a story or two in the works to break up the monotony of doing daily journalism, but never took it very seriously. Without a clear goal in mind none of these stories were ever really completed, but in the past few months I’ve had the urge to really take it seriously.
I took my usual approach when it comes to learning how to do something— read every single book that I could get my hands on. After a while, I felt confident enough to pay the money and take a writing critique class on genre fiction through the Writing Salon in Berkeley.
It was humbling to know that your writing isn’t as good as you think it is, but the critiques also made me reconsider my approach.
My instructor for the class was Nick Mamatas who was a great teacher in addition to being a talented writer. I encourage you to take his class at the Writing Salon Fabulous Fiction: Thrillers, Romance, Fantasy, Sci Fi & More! available this spring. His lessons were on point and the criticisms were honest and useful.
It dawned on me that reading all the craft books in the world won’t make you a better writer (trust me I’ve read them all these past few months) so I sought a different tact— ask the expert and try to learn from what they did.
I met with Nick again at FogCon, a convention for genre fiction writers that was held in Walnut Creek. He was kind enough to answer all my questions and even pay for lunch so the least I could do was offer you his insights in the hopes of helping all of you learn what the writing life really looks like.
Taking the Plunge
Take a look at the bibliography on Nick’s website and you’ll see that his writing credits are numerous and far ranging. There are works in fiction, short fiction, feature articles, essays, cultural criticisms, reviews, interviews, peer reviewed articles, comic strips and even a little bit of poetry.
The lesson here is really simple, but often gets lost. In order write well, you have to write a lot. Merely writing reams of pages is not enough though. You need to write with a purpose or you may find you aren’t getting anywhere.
Professionals have ambitions to put their work out there for people to see. There really is no way of getting around the fact that in order to be published you must impress all the people (i.e. editors, publishers and fellow writers) that really matter.
How long that takes is really up to you.
For Nick, it took two years from the moment he decided to make the commitment to write full time to the time his first article made it into a magazine. Up until that point he was working in the film industry.
“Well on some level I always wanted to be a writer. On some level I wanted to work in film. Then I realized that I didn’t want to wake up early and wanted to work from home.”
Nick got his first writing job by responding to an ad in a newspaper. He wrote term papers for college students while working on sets and doing lighting for various indie films.
He lived a rather bare-bones lifestyle in a New Jersey tenement.
Nick said that the term paper work was “feast or famine” and often in the summer months there really wasn’t any work to be had. It was during this time that he would explore the marketplace and really work on his stories.
He stopped doing movies and television in 1996 and switched to strictly term paper work in 1997. His first story “Your Life 15 minutes from Now” was published in Talebones magazine in 2000. His second story came out a year after then his third and fourth stories came out a year after that.
“(Two years) is pretty short. The cliche is it takes six years to teach yourself how to write. What you think in your mind and what ends up on page are two different things. When I first started writing, they were ideas I saw on TV. Slowly I moved to thinking of things only I could write. That’s when the (rejection) letters started to change.”
Accept the fact that this isn’t easy
Publishing four stories in two years does not necessarily make you a decent living, but building a writing career takes time, patience and perseverance. In my final class at the Writing Salon, one of Nick’s remarks struck a chord with me.
To paraphrase, he said that that writers have something inside of them that they want to say and that if they are truly committed to the work then nothing will really stop them from saying it; not sleep, not your day job and you may even leave your dog alone to piss in the corner.
He put it more succinctly in our interview.
“If you don’t have a love for words then really it’s not worth doing.”
There’s no getting around the fact that your commercial success is dependent on being known and the fastest way to do that is to make sure your writing is in front of as many members of your targeted audience as possible.
Getting published requires you to finish stories and then put those stories in front of editors that will decide if they are worthy to be published. The lead time between how long it takes to hone your craft enough to get the attention of editors is the barrier that stops people.
Although it isn’t for everybody, writing short fiction is the fastest way to do this because they can be turned around pretty quickly and allows you to practice all the skills necessary to produce much larger work.
Nick says that he likes to write short stories because they don’t take hours and hours to churn out. He said that by 2006, 40 to 50 of his short stories have been published.
These days, Nick doesn’t have to solicit people to publish his works anymore. Many times publications come to him asking him for stories and he gets to pick which ones he gets to do. He said that the big breakthrough came when his first novel was published in 2004, but really the foundation was built long before that with the reams of pages he wrote that were never published.
He also wrote other things aside from fiction to pay the bills. In addition to writing term papers, he also did service journalism writing features on technology during the height of the .com boom in the late 1990’s.
He moved from Jersey City to the Bay Area the first time in 2004, moved back to the east coast then later moved back to the Bay Area where he now lives in Berkeley.
Often the most difficult part of the writing life is balancing writing with real life. Right now Nick has a job with Viz Media, which affords him healthcare and a regular 9-to-5 job, but he finds the time to write all the things that he wants to.
He said that for a while there wasn’t a real good balance between writing and real life as he struggled through health and money problems that caused him anxiety.
“This was the hardest way to do it. I had to struggle. When you have no choice; it’s either write or starve then you have to write. I love working at home,” Nick said. “I enjoy my job at Viz, but I always think I should be at home.”
Successful writers read A LOT
For all the craft books that I’ve read about writing, being successfull really comes down to doing two things— reading and writing. All other things are really just ancillary and if you don’t do both of things then it’s impossible to be good.
Nick said that what stops people from being successful writers are the quality of work, which stems from the fact that they don’t read enough.
The reasons people don’t read are far ranging. Maybe they don’t have the time or patience for it. Perhaps they feel resentful about reading rather than spending time writing, but in the end all of those things are excuses. Watching television and movies or playing video games with a critical eye aren’t a substitute for reading.
Writers read a lot and there isn’t any way around it.
The way you read is also important. Read your books on multiple levels as a writer, reader and also a critic. In an ideal world you would reread your books on multiple times with those three perspectives in mind.
Nick says that he doesn’t read books multiple times, but he does keep those three perspectives in mind when he does read. He admits that he does miss some things by not rereading books.
“You look for a story that makes sense and works together, whether all the facts are together, whether it’s persuasive or not, whether it shows the limits of language.”
Don’t put any limits on the things that you read. Read anything and everything that you think is good. If you are a fiction writer then read some non-fiction books. Read features in magazines and articles on the internet. As long as it’s good writing then it’s worthwhile to take a look at.
“I read tons of non-fiction, political science and tons of articles. I read features and all the hard news. There are some great feature writers out there and it’s good to know how the world works.”
Some notes on habit and parting advice
Being a successful writer really comes down to the choices you make each day. Every successful writer differs in the way that they produce their work, but they all make the decision to write something and follow through.
Being selective about the things what you do aside from writing is often the thing that either holds you back or ensures your success. Just remember that time spent watching TV, movies and going out with friends is taking away from the time you could otherwise be using to write.
The key is being able to balance those things with the two things you have to do— read and write. If it’s getting in the way of doing enough of both those things to be successful then maybe you need to reorganize your priorities.
Here are a few tidbits from Nick on various subjects.
• On copying the style of your favorite authors:
“I do it purposefully. I’m a pretty talented mimic and I’ve done stories in the voice of Jack Keruac. I like mimicking other people’s voices, but they are still Nick story.”
• What a typical day looks like.
“Back when I was freelancing, I’d wake up goof around looking at email, read the new, have lunch, walk my dog, and mess around online. I’d do everything aside from writing, but while doing all this procrastination, I’d be thinking in the back of my brain about my story. When I write novels I try to make myself write a page a day if it’s going great then I’ll go until I get tired.”
• On writing toward a certain market.
“I have firm idea in mind of what I want and I don’t care if it’s commercial or not. I just do what I like to do. It’s very destructive (to write to what the market wants.) It’s all about the gap between in knowledge between that is produced and what is not.”