According to David Comfort, author of The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead
and The Reborn Bible 2.0
, most writers share the following personality traits: They're hateful, envious, suicidal, masochistic, and megalomaniacal. In a word, they're assholes. But they are capable of producing pithy quotes about the writing biz, and such quotes are scattered throughout Comfort's latest book, An Insider’s Guide to Publishing
(Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99). Here's one of my favorites, from Jean Cocteau: "Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work the critics don't like--then cultivate it."
An Insider’s Guide
also contains a wealth of eye-opening statistics, like this one: There's a .0000416 percent chance that The New Yorker magazine will publish an unsolicited short story.
For aspiring writers looking to save time and postage, this is useful information that you won’t easily find elsewhere. And though I’ve never submitted a short story to The New Yorker—and swore off submitting unsolicited manuscripts to anybody 20 years ago—I can attest to the general accuracy of Comfort’s calculation.
I was afraid that the well-earned and corrosive cynicism that suffuses An Insider’s Guide
would remind me all too vividly of what I already know: The writing biz is fucked. Only a fool would go into it. Therefore I must be a fool.
Instead, I found it to be an entertaining rejoinder to the rising tide of fantasyland pep talks about how to make $1 million self-publishing e-books.
Rich with anecdotes about the hard-won wisdom of distinguished authors who survived (or didn’t survive) careers spent slinging words, much to my surprise, An Insider’s Guide
left me feeling better about some of the life choices I’ve made.
I’m happy to say, at this late date, that the writing biz has not yet driven me to suicide (as it did Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and Hunter Thompson), alcoholism (as it did Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald), drug addiction (as it did Edgar Allan Poe and William Burroughs), murder (as it did Burroughs), attempted murder (as it did Norman Mailer), insanity (as it did Hemingway before he blew off his head with a shotgun), a duel (as it did Marcel Proust), or fraud (as it did James Frey).
Literary talent has little to do with success, Comfort suggests, and in many cases it can be a hindrance, because if there’s one thing publishers hate, it’s originality. According to Comfort, “Luck, Suck & Pluck” are what it takes to succeed, and he returns to this theme throughout the book. Again, I can personally attest to the inherent validity of this formula.
The fact that John Lennon’s diaries fell into my hands was extraordinary luck, for example. But I couldn’t have done anything with them if it wasn’t for pluck. That publishers rejected Nowhere Man
for 18 years, usually for the most ridiculous reasons—Not enough interest in John Lennon!
—and that the book then become a bestseller and a cult classic is a monument to pluck. The thing that’s held me back, however, is that I suck at sucking, by which Comfort means “sucking up.” I’ve never developed a strong enough stomach to frequently and with feeling kiss the assorted body parts of the people who are in a position to further my ambitions. But as Meatloaf might say, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
People who become real
writers—like Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Jane Austen—can’t help themselves. There’s no rational decision involved. For people like this, it’s the only
path to take. You hear the voice in your head and you need
to get it down on paper (or on a computer screen). An Insider’s Guide
will not save people like this from themselves—though they may be able to glean a few nuggets of practical advice from it.
An Insider’s Guide
is a great book for people who think that writing might be a good career move, but can’t quite decide if they should be a writer, get an MBA, be a supermodel, or join the navy. For those people, An Insider’s Guide
will serve as an ice-cold bath of publishing reality. I recommend it strongly.
Let me leave you with one last thing aspiring authors should keep in mind: Even the most successful writers, like Fitzgerald, and even those who’ve won the Nobel Prize, like William Faulkner, considered themselves failures and died penniless.
Need I say more?