The Dictator of Writing Announces His Decrees, Part I
Posted on May 17, 2007 Posted by John Scalzi
Certain events of the past few days have convinced me that most of writerdom has trouble finding its own ass without a claque of workshop buddies to comment on the journey (“I like the way you used your hands to search, but did you really need to use the flashlight?”). So in the interest of all writers, who I feel crave strong, confident demogoguery, I have staged a coup, and am now The Beloved and Inspirational Forward-Thinking and Righteous Leader Amongst the Scribes, or, more colloquially, The Dictator of Writing. Having “remaindered” all those who oppose me (or, even worse, sidelined them into SFWA board slots), I am now ready to issue decrees, which all writers must henceforth follow, on penalty of death and/or being eternally blue-pencilled by the sort of officiously tone-deaf copy editor who ate the Chicago Manual of Style when she was 14 and has been barfing it up ever since.
1. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, No Writer Will Be Allowed To Write Professionally Without Having First Taken a Remedial Business Course. Because, damn, people. You folks don’t have a lick of sense about that whole “money” thing. Just as writers can write about anything as long as it’s not what they’re supposed to be writing, so can they spend their money on anything, as long as it’s not what they’re supposed to be spending it on (like, you know, bills and rent and taxes and food). Of course, it’s not just you. Dostoevsky spent all his money gambling; F. Scott Fitzgerald drank a lot of his (he had help from Zelda) and was in the habit of asking for loans from his agent, which is clearly a trick I need to try. However, just because Dostoevsky and Fitzgerald pissed away their money doesn’t mean the rest of you get to — at least we got Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby out of them.
So: Remedial business courses for the lot of you. You will learn how to manage your money, by God. You will learn how to budget. You will learn how to stretch your income so that you don’t end up eying the cat for its protein value during the final days of the month. You will learn how keep a ledger of accounts receivable, so you’ll know just who is screwing you out of your money and for how long they’ve been doing it. You will learn the tax code, so you can pay your quarterlies on time and you can be clear on what’s a business expense and what is not. You will learn how to save, damn you, so that when life hands you that inevitable surprise gut punch that costs two grand, you don’t have to pawn your children. And for the love of Christ, you will learn that just because you have a $10,000 credit limit on that plastic rectangle of evil what resides in your wallet, it doesn’t mean you have to spend it.
You say you don’t need remedial business courses? Great! How much credit card debt do you have? How long have you been waiting for that money to come in? How many minutes per pound do you think Frisky the Cat needs in the oven at 375 degrees? And on what notice is your electric bill?
Hmmmm. Well, see. This is why you need a Dictator of Writing.
2. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, Undergraduate Creative Writing Programs are Abolished. Really, what a waste of your parents’ $37,000 a year. Take a couple of writing courses, if you must (make sure one of them teaches you all the grammar you flaked out on in high school). You can even major in English, if you really want to. But shunting yourself into a writing program at an age where you don’t know a single damn thing about life is a fine way to make sure you’re never anything more than someone who is clever with words. We’ve got enough of those, thank you kindly. So no more of that. Learn something else, why don’t you. Something you can bring to the table when you start writing, so what you’re writing has something else going for it besides the vacuum-packed pedantry of a creative writing education. Or, heavens forfend, learn something useful and practical, so that you don’t actually have to starve while you’re giving writing a go once you get out of college. Related to this:
3. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, Every Person Intending to Get an MFA in Any Sort of Writing Must First Spend Three Years in The Real World, Hopefully Doing Something Noble and Selfless. Like, I don’t know, teaching. Or forestry service. Or the military or Peace Corps. Or taking housecats out for refreshing walks in the countryside. You know. Anything. (Except working in a coffee shop. Just what the world needs: Another barrista who writes.) By doing anything else but writing, you will open up your brain to the needs and concerns of other people and things, because, among other things, empathy will make you a better writer, and it will also make you a whole lot less insufferable. Also all that craft you’re learning won’t mean a damn thing if the only sort of life experience you can model is the life of an MFA grad, since among other things, most of one’s audience isn’t going to be down with that. “His struggles in a setting of academic privilege are eerily like my own!” Well, yes, if all you’re doing is writing for other MFA grads. Otherwise, not so much. Which reminds me:
4. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, Writing to Impress Other Writers is Punishable by Death. Honestly. You want to impress another writer with your emanations, set a pot of chili between you and then lock the door. Aside from that, think of the poor reader, who just wants to be entertained, and does not know or care that you are trying to impress that fellow writer whom you loathe, or want to get into the pants of, or both. Won’t you please give a thought to the readers? Especially when death is on the line?
Perhaps to enforce this sentiment, and to cut down the number of needless deaths among writers, we should institute a program like the following:
SCENE: A writer’s garret: WRITER is hammering out immortal prose. There is a knock on the DOOR.
WRITER (opening the door to find a large, burly man in the doorway): Who are you?
JOE: I am Joe, sent to you by the Dictator of Writing to help you in your task. I am a reader of average intelligence. Is that your latest work in your hand?
WRITER: Why yes, yes, it is.
JOE: Will you read it to me?
WRITER: Well, it’s a work in progress.
JOE: Of course. I understand completely.
WRITER (clears throat): “I blanketed myself with wrath incarnadine –”
JOE punches WRITER in the gut. WRITER falls to the FLOOR.
WRITER (gasping and writhing): Why did you do that?
JOE: I didn’t follow that sentence. And when that happens, I am authorized to beat you.
WRITER: Let me fix it. (WRITER crawls to DESK, grabs a PEN, and makes an EDIT)
JOE: What does it say now?
WRITER: “I got mad.”
JOE kicks WRITER in the TESTICLES. WRITER collapses.
JOE: Now you’re just being condescending.
5. By Order of the Dictator of Writing, All Writers Must Be Editors For At Least One Year. Because then you will understand why editors suggest changes: To save writers from themselves. Yes, I know it is hard to believe that your perfect prose can be improved upon a single jot, but once you’ve done heroic and dramatic rescues of other writers’ unfortunate prose pileups, you will at least have an inkling of why those editorial types do what they do.
Also, a good solid twelve months of having to slog through a slush pile will serve to tighten up your own work, because every time something you do reminds you of some piece of crap you found marinating in the slush pile, your brain will actually revulse and your fingers will spasm in the phalangical equivalent of a gag reflex, and you’ll find some other way to make your point, one that, incidentally, won’t cause some poor bastard editor pain somewhere down the line. And that’s good for you.
The Dictator of Writing is now bored with issuing decrees! More will come at a future time, when he has angrily stewed some more! Now go! And bask in my glorious rule!
Whatever Everyone Else is Saying