Advice to new writers who want to do this thing “professionally”

One great function of the blog is to reach more people with the same message. Since I receive a few emails each week asking me to explain the best ways to “get started” as a writer or journalist, or to find an agent, publisher, or writing group, I figured I might as well get this advice down in one place. So, here’s a brief version of Rushkoff’s Advice to Writers.

Every writer is going to find a different path to success, whatever that means. And the possible paths, themselves, are changing daily. The web didn’t exist when I began writing. And screenplay deals were considered the writers’ ultimate prize. Rolling Stone was a place for thoughtful politics essays, and Spin was a counterculture magazine. So the landscape is forever changing. Navigating this terrain will always be more a matter of instinct, integrity, and intuition than it is knowlege of the map. And if you really want to know about the map, just buy one of those writers’ magazines – Writer’s Journal, etc. – to find out what’s going on.

What matters more – much, much more than figuring out how to make yourself into the writer that the ‘market’ wants to promote, is figuring out what kind of writer you want to be. As I see it, all writers – fiction and non-fiction – are like travel writers. We go to places that most people dont’ have access to, and then write about them. Whether they are physical places, emotional places, or psychic spaces, we either have been blessed with access to them, or we are crazy enough to venture into them. Our only obligation as writers, is to report back what we’ve found, and to add as much or as little analysis and commentary as we feel is appropriate.

For me, the first major place I chose to travel to and write about was “cyberia” – which, at the time, meant any of the hyptertext-like experiences of early interactivity, psychedelia, chaos math, or rave culture. Even fantasy role-playing games counted, as far as I was concerned. I started writing articles about all these areas – I was lucky enough to have hung out with acid heads at Princeton as an undergrad. And it just so happened that these acid heads were getting jobs at the earliest silicon valley companies – designing new interfaces, virtual reality, and those kinds of things. I was personally interested in why acid heads became computer people. So I started writing articles abou these people and their visions. Eventually, a magazine in NYC realized I had established a ‘beat’ and wanted to hire me as a senior editor. Two days before my plane flight to NY from CA, the magazine folded. So I got on the plane, anyway, and wrote down all the topics I’d been writing articles about. I dared to call all these things – by virtue of the fact that I was interested in all them – part of a single movement. A single, widespread, multifaceted cultural movement called Cyberia. By the time I landed, I had a 12-page proposal. I typed it up, sent it to an agent, and two weeks later it was a book deal.

The steps I believe are relevant to anyone’s writing career are these:

1. Find something you actually care about, know about, or are motivated to find out about. Ideally, this should be something, someone, or even a some -‘how’ that the real world doesn’t know about, yet. It could be a new music scene, a new sex scene, a scientific breakthrough, an unmet societal need, a growing discontent, a political snag, a spiritual door. Learn as much as you can about this thing, the people involved, the obstacles to its fruition.

2. And then, champion (or attack) this thing as if it were your own. Write articles that convince the world of how important this thing is. If it’s a new music scene, and you like it, then tell the world why *they* must know about it. This thing you’ve picked, you picked it because it is profoundly meaningful to you. Whether it is the plight of underpaid workers in Southeast Asia or a new kind of hiphop out of Phoenix. This is your area. You are the world’s expert. The more you get people to care about this thing, the more articles you’ll be asked to write, and the more you’ll be needed to write the ‘definitive’ book about it.

3. Collect up all those articles, interviews, and TV appearances that you’ve done. Wait for a moment when something about your area is going to ‘break’ – whether it’s a news event or your own magazine cover story. And then be ready with your book proposal. You’ve got to send it to an agent first. The agent takes it to the publisher. So it might be a good idea to find an agent before this moment. S/he can help you with the proposal, too. (Don’t trust non book industry people with your book proposal. I’ll write another entry about agents and book proposals, later.)

4. Pick from among the publishers crying for your book.

5. Write your book.

The key, as I see it, is coming up with what it is you want to dedicate the next couple of years to. It doesn’t have to be an issue or a scene, either. It can be a certain depth of experience – a particular layer of reality. Like, for a terrible example, take Jerry Seinfeld. His work is not about a particular culture (well it is, but that’s not what it’s about); it’s about a certain point of view on moment to moment reality.

So, you can pick a depth or layer of experience. The “thing” you can fight for other people to notice is this particular level of granularity. Tiny or meta. Or even a form of writing; say, the sonnet. Or haiku. (My friend Aaron just got a book deal for a book of Honkus – haikus written against people who honk their horns in residential neighborhoods. He started the phenomenon as a joke, and wouldn’t have thought of even trying to get a book deal if I hadn’t nudged him. Amazingly, he’d tried to get book deals for things he didn’t care about, and never thought to try to get one for something he DID care about.)

So that’s my official advice. Find something you care about, learn it for real, champion that thing, and then be there to explain it.

Our job, as writers, is to live the most fascinating life we can muster. We have to be willing to have the experiences that others are afraid to pursue. Then, we pay back the world for letting us have these experiences by sharing them, in writing. That’s the deal.

If there’s an experience you really want to have, then all you have to do convince the world they should support you in this expedition, and that your report will give them a vicarious experience worth having paid for.