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November 24th, 2014

One of the advantages of train travel, (or disadvantages, if you are as antisocial as I am) is the chance to meet new people.

It is not so much a chance, as an obligation. In the dining car they seat you wherever you fit. If you are traveling alone, you are guaranteed to be with three strangers. To give you an idea of the average age on the outbound trip, table conversation at m first supper was about how much better it was when Johnson was president.

I was in grade school then and didn’t have much to contribute.

But on the way back, I’d gotten more comfortable with the table talk. And that was how I ended up talking writing with a self described hillbilly trucker. He was a big guy, younger than the Johnson fans, and had a shaggy beard and overalls. But he was friendly enough. And of course, he was writing a book.

Everyone is.

But his was a 900 page young adult Western with three separate love stories. One of them had an Englishman in it. He was also worried that his Hillbilly grammar might cause a problem. What did I think? And how hard was it to get an agent, anyway?

What do I think?

900 pages is three books, not one. Grammar is important. Westerns don’t sell. YA westerns sell even less. Do not write about English people, it is too much work. And grammar is important. Stop right now, and learn it. How hard is it to get an agent? Damn near impossible, especially for a 900 page YA Western.

But he is hardly unique. My gut instinct, in almost all of cases, is to say that whatever the idea is, it is probably horrible. Frankly, so is the book I’m working on. All ideas are horrible. The idea of writing a book is just the first horrible idea. Nothing will sell. Ever.

We are all doomed. We should probably just get real jobs. Except there aren’t any of those, either.

But it’s not too late for you, H B Trucker. You have a job. Keep on truckin’. Save yourself. Burn the book, before it’s too late.

This is the first reason to keep my mouth shut. Writers are not the most optimistic people, especially not about their profession.

The second reason to shut up is that I have no idea what will sell. I know what I like. I know what I think will sell. I know what has sold in the past. But I can think of multiple times when I have heard ideas from people, and smiled and nodded encouragingly, all the while thinking, “Poor thing. So hopeful. That will never sell.”

And I was wrong.

I can’t even tell you which of my books will sell, since the ones I like the best invariably end up with the lowest sales, and the ones that I couldn’t quite get into do just fine. If I dislike a title or cover, or scratch my head in confusion at the back cover copy, it is almost a guarantee of good sales.

Some of us are put on this planet to tell the Wright Brothers to stick to bicycles, and then plunk down cash for a ticket on the Hindenburg. For all I know, 900 page Westerns are the next big thing, and I’ve missed a chance to get in on the ground floor.

So I told H B Trucker what I was pretty sure was true. That writing is hard, but possible. That a desire to improve and a good editor can overcome grammar problems. And that the important thing is to get the story down on paper, then work on making it the best story you can using beta readers, writing groups, etc.

I did my best to swallow my doubts, since nothing good will come of squashing other people’s dreams.

Actually, nothing good comes from swallowing your doubts, either. Why H B was talking, I took a big bite of Amtrak steak. (Have the steak. Trust me. It’s good.) But I was having trouble chewing, and didn’t want to choke or spit it into my hand. So I took a big swig of my drink, and gulped and smiled and was supportive.

And that’s how I managed to swallow a twelve hundred dollar dental crown.

So, I guess my main advice to young writers would be, go ahead and spit that steak into a napkin. Fake teeth are expensive, and you aren’t going to make that much as a writer.

Or maybe you will. I don’t know.

But I’m pretty sure about the spitting in the napkin thing.