Writing: Don’t Get Me Started (or How to Make a Living Writing, Pt. 3)

writerI’ve been astounded by how many people have read my “How To Make a Living Writing,” and “How To Make a Living Writing, Part Two.” The tone and tenor of the comments left on those posts is truly gratifying. (I wish I had more time to respond to them, but lately I’ve been eyeball deep in a 60,000 book that’s due in about a week [!] and has been devouring my time like the Cookie Monster on a mallomar.)

You know what’s weird? I’m in the book business, right? So my life, and the lives of everyone around me, are about book ideas. The Holy Grail of publishers, agents, and authors is The Great Book Idea. It’s all any of us want. It’s what we live on and for. The better the idea for a book, the better that book’s chances for becoming a bestseller. (Failing that, what you want if you’re a publisher is a huge name on the front of your book. But that’s a whole other … trip.)

This is how valuable book ideas are: I’ve had two of them flat-out, no question, bold/bald-faced stolen from me. One was stolen by an agent (who gave my idea and the manuscript in which I’d developed it to one of his better known clients), and the other stolen from a major publisher (who never returned or responded to my inquiries about the 25,000-word proposal I’d sent them, and then, the following season, came out , under the name of a Famous Comedian, my exact book: same title, subtitle, back jacket copy, introduction, chapter headings, chapter content … all of it, just as I’d written it).

In the book business (as in all writing, as in life, come to think of it) ideas are the currency. It took me forever to realize that. I always thought ideas were just … nothing, basically. Insubstantial potentialities. Fleeting inspirations. Fun ways to combine opposing or complementary realities. Acknowledgments of obvious (or, in a pinch, teased out) possibilities. Latencies simply spoken into form. I always figured ideas were utterly … free for the picking, basically.

Man. Wrong. Turns out they’re everything.

Anyway, it’s obvious enough from the extremo response I’ve gotten from my last couple of blogs that I’ve stumbled onto a bonafide Book Idea. How that can be is a complete mystery: If there’s anything in this world I figure there’s enough of, it’s flippin’ books on how to be a flippin’ writer. I hate books on how to be a writer. I just can’t read them. I find them like chewing a huge wad of flavorless gum: bothersome, no nutrition, threatens to choke you to death, can’t swallow it. The whole industry that makes money off of people’s desire to be famous writers drives me crazy. I hate it. It’s so … smarmy and exploitative.

Not all of it, of course. I’m sure a lot of it is sincere and wonderful. I love what I’ve read of Stephen King’s book on writing.

All that said, I have long intended to myself write a book on writing. Like the gay-bashing pastor who secretly dreams of calling 1-800-MAN HANDS, I’ve always wanted to go there. There’s so much I’d really like to say about the whole “I want to be a writer” dynamic. But I always thought I’d write that book at the end of my career, when anyone would have any reason whatsoever to really care what I think about writing.

And yet, here I am. Just on the strength of how many people read my last two blogs, I could now sell a book on writing. “The Last Writing Book You’ll Need,” might be a title. “Get Right With Writing.” “Righting Your Writing.” “Righteous Writing.” (I’m now trained to think first about a book’s title, since a book’s title is about everything to a publisher. Serious business. I’ve had publishers tell me that if a book of mine they’d previously turned down had come to them bearing the same title under which it was ultimately published, they’d have published it themselves. You can sell a book with just a title. Watch: someone will come out with a book called “Righteous Writing.”)

Anyway, just now I’m not going to write a book on writing. You know why? You know why I was always going to write that book at the end of my career? Because the reason people sell books about writing is because such books are grounded in the idea that the people buying and reading them really can become successful writers. (And just what “successful writer” actually means is of course all over the board.) Such books feed on that aspiration. But the terrible, undeniable truth is that almost no one is really good at writing.

Our culture has such a weird relationship with writers. On the one hand we revere our best writers: people get breathless just saying the name “Shakespeare” or “Hemingway.” (I personally get breathless saying “Twain” or “Fitzgerald.”) And yet at the same time, everyone thinks they’re a writer. Our best writers spend their lives as absolute, abject slaves to the genuine art of writing — yet every scarf-wearing, cappuccino-sipping doink you see writing in a journal at a coffee shop thinks the only thing standing between them and writing fame is luck.

Yikes. I see I’m bordering on the Crazed Harangue. Sorry.

And actually, of course, my heart is with the journaling doink. That j.d. is My Kind! I’m with anyone who ever attempts to put clear, compelling thought into words. I’ve spent my entire life learning how to do exactly nothing but that. It’s so stupid. I’m 49, and the only thing I know how to do is construct a decent sentence. Should come in real handy next major earthquake, or whatever.

Anyway, this is what I’m saying: I know that if I really told that person journaling in the coffee shop what they were really going to have to do with their mind, life, heart, and soul in order to become a real writer, they’d slam their journal shut faster than they could say, “Yo, man, you’re hurting my arm. ”


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  • Thank you John. You words are refreshing. The writing book genre is probably not your expertise. You let truth and concern for the the "journaling doink" get in the way. Life was so much simpler before we died.

    Sorry to read about your ideas being stolen!! I really like your writing and want to read more books "like" yours. Wink. Are there any titles / authors who are extremely similar to John Shore? What if I promise to get a used copy?

  • samwrites2


    After reading your advice, I've spent the last couple of days researching links and books on writing trying to compile a must-read list. I've also been reading up on scams and you'd be surprised at what's out there. Okay, maybe not given your experiences. I don't know whether to get angry or sad, but I'm definitely sympathetic. I'd like a chapter on copywriting too.

    The link to WordServe Literary Group on your blog is greatly appreciated as well.

    I'd definitely make any book you wrote lead my must-read list if only for your humor. I found King's book not much help as far as a how-

    to but more like an arrogant memoir. But with his sales I feel he earned that attitude and, after all, I did read it.

    King mentions Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," a book beaten into me at J-School. That book is again on my list.

    And I'm going to do this thanks to your encouragement – write a magazine article for publication and get it published if for no other

    reason than I miss the masochism writing entails (but do not miss newspapers).

    I know this: Writing is not as easy as it seems in blogs and comments. For me it takes intense concentration to get the sentence and even word choice precise. I get irritated easily if I'm working on a mere phrase and someone asks me a question. It's fourth down and inches to the goal, the football's slippery, hard to pick up and much less carry through 11 guys in front of me trying to keep me out of the end zone.

    That's what writing's like at times, especially on deadline. In newspapers, I never had as much pressure, pain or pleasure writing. It's a bipolar person's dream or nightmare.

    I'm thinking you can describe it even better what with a deadline beast perched to pounce unless 60,000 perfectly-arranged words find their way into its maw.


  • I cannot begin to recount the horrible stories I have read about literary agents and publishers. The writer's progress seems to be hinged on the decision of the acclaimed publisher, and more often than not, the writer ends up with the short end of the stick in this one-sided relationship.

    I quite understand that the publisher is a small fish in the river that is overflowing with sharks of authors, and I excuse him for his failure to respond to a simple inquiry. What I do not excuse is stealing other people's ideas or titles. I think the time is ripe for someone to write an how to book on not being duped by the publisher.

  • Someone has written that book: See Richard Curtis' "How To Be Your Own Literary Agent."

    People in the publishing business are morally no better or worse than any other group of people. Some are venal opportunists; some are wonderful people. My CBA agent Greg Johnson is as good a man as I've ever known, and my ABA agent, Deborah Schneider, is the very definition of honorable.

    Publishing, like all such media–books, movies, TV–can create with any ONE of its products money and fame beyond imagining. That fact makes people crazy. Turning personally expressive art into limitless fortune and fame? Bring out the straight jackets. All such industries have running thick through them the sickness of greed, basically, engendered by the kind of revenue they can, and do, create. Everyone's frenetically chasing and trying to guess at The Next Big Thing.

  • Kath

    The idea is the thing — I think lots of books do have the kernel of a good or even great idea, but there just not fully developed (or whittled down). My test: once you get at the real heart of the idea, there's both an "aha" and an "of course" response.

    Hope you went after the publisher who stole your proposal. It may not be copyrightable (or maybe it is) but this is certainly in the area of intellectual property — isn't it?

    Lookiing forward to the new book.

  • dsilkotch

    “This is how valuable book ideas are: I’ve had two of them flat-out, no question, bold/bald-faced stolen from me. One was stolen by an agent (who gave my idea and the manuscript in which I’d developed it to one of his better known clients), and the other stolen from a major publisher (who never returned or responded to my inquiries about the 25,000-word proposal I’d sent them, and then, the following season, came out , under the name of a Famous Comedian, my exact book: same title, subtitle, back jacket copy, introduction, chapter headings, chapter content … all of it, just as I’d written it).”

    Any advice to aspiring writers about how to protect themselves from that sort of “idea theft?” What copywriting steps do you recommend before handing over one’s idea to an agent or publisher?

  • dsilkotch

    I meant “copyrighting,” of course.

  • Thanks for sharing these great ideas. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Some of these I already do, so the point resonated most strongly with me. Keep feeding the creativity.

    I am currently on holiday so, for this reason, I’ve nothing better to do than surf the web for art, lie around and update my blog. Well, more or less anyway.

    Doug C

  • Hi, John.

    Is it possible to copyright your work even before submitting it to an agent or publisher? Would you be sufficiently protected then, such that you can lay claim to your intellectual property in case they give it to a Famous Writer?

    Thanks very much for your series, man. You’re a blessing!


  • Aww c’mon John. 😛

    You knowww you want to keep writing about becoming a writer. You just wrote a whole article essentially tip-toeing around the idea of doing such, the validity of doing it, and the appropriate timing for doing it. Stop teasing us, the abject masses! We value your opinion and want to hear what you have to say if you have a realistic path one might take to becoming a professional writer.

    Though I did learn from this article; ideas are key and be wary of all you provide said ideas to. I’m looking forward to subsequent entries on this!

  • The stuff about copywriting/righting/protecting your work: it’d take me longer to say it than it would for anyone to learn it via Google. You can copyright anything for a fee. I think it’s 30 bucks per.

    No, I didn’t go after the publisher who swiped my book. I was quite young; I’d never published anything. I couldn’t imagine then what I COULD have done. Worse, in the intervening year between when I submitted that proposal I totally switched all my stuff from Apple to “IBM.” I had nothing left of my old stuff.

    Stupid, I know. I’ve learned since.

    Also, I have some kind of dysfunction thing that, career-wise, stops me from going backwards. I just … keep going. If somebody wants to stoop so low as to steal an idea for me, f*** ’em. They’re bottom feeders. I know it sounds intolerably … well, arrogant, I guess, to say, but the bottom line is that I’ve got ideas–good ideas, ideas I know can be fleshed out to really good work–coming out of my ears. Losing one is like losing one apple when I’ve got an orchard of them. I just don’t care that much.

    For the record, I’ve only been in the book writing business–that is, writing books that have my Actual Name on them, for … 2.5 or 3 years. I BARELY have a career going. I’m lucky in that right now I’m making embarassing money to do some work that’s a sheer blessing to me, but basically, all my life, I’ve been insanely lazy about making a LIVING writing. To be perfectly honest, all I ever cared about is the art of it. THAT I killed myself over. I could blog my whole little trajectory as a writer, if anyone wants.

  • Actually, I might be interested in hearing that. Or reading it, rather. Whatever.

  • sheryl

    Wow John. I don't know whether to be encouraged or discouraged. By the way what is a "journaling doink". I'm too lazy to Google it, and I'm not familiar with all this writing lingo. What you said about ideas was over my head. Some of it I understood, but not all of it. I found it interesting that you referred to Stephen King's book, because just a few sentences before that, his book came to my mind. I read the first part of it (years ago), but never finished it. It was very informative. But (knowing me) I probably quit reading it because (knowing him) it was probably full of expletives. I don't remember. So if you do write a book on writing can you leave out the expletives? I'm not familiar with your writing. I don't think I've ever read anything you've written. Except for these blogs. But I would be tempted to read one of your books (amidst the stack of textbooks I've yet to tackle). Speaking of textbooks you said that the writing industry takes advantage of peoples desire to write in order to make money (at least that's how I interpreted it). Would you say the same thing about those who write textbooks about writing? If not, would you say it's safe to read textbooks if one has aspirations to become a writer? I realize textbooks are quite expensive, but I've found them in used bookstores for next to nothing. In closing I want to say again that I don't know if part three of this article encouraged or discouraged me. When you said " every scarf-wearing, cappuccino-sipping doink you see writing in a journal at a coffee shop thinks the only thing standing between them and writing fame is luck" I thought to myself "I don't wear scarves, I don't drink cappuccino (I prefer coffee), and I don't know what in the world a 'doink' is, but I love to journal." Are you saying I should throw my journal away, and just give up. I don't know what my aspirations are. But I know what my passions are. And one of them is definitely writing.

    Signed ,

    Confused in Indiana

  • sheryl

    Remind me to never google the meaning to a word I don't know again.


  • Kath


    I'd be interested in seeing a description of your writing trajectory — nudge…


  • Hjordes

    Title: OMG, You Don’t REALLY Want to Write a Book, Do You?

    Title: Write, Write, Left-Write-Left

    Title: Journaling Doinks in Coffee Shops, Part 1

    Title: Get Published? Yeah, Write

    Title: Copyright This

    um…. too much coffee….

  • Hjordes

    You know who rocks? Those guys who write the Dummies books. They are so funny I buy Dummies books about things I don’t even want to know about.

  • Hjordes: Your book titles are awesome. Also, I’ve actually helped write two of the Dummies books–two of the best-selling ones, actually. It’s cool you’re a fan of them generally. I love their design.

  • I knew it!

    After reading your "Mankind, the Preview", I knew you could write Theology for Dummies!

    God bless you!

  • Mark@DR

    Hey John,

    Re: Stephen King's book on writing. Two words: Eula Beulah!! Rarely have I laughed so hard…

    BTW, I will *finally" get around to posting a review of one of your books on DiscerningReader.com next Tuesday. What tardiness, eh? How embarrassing for me…


  • Joseph Arnet


    I've been, at least in my mind lately, all about what I feel is a great idea that needs to be written about. I've also been praying about weather or not I should pursue this avenue as a career option. Seemingly in answer to my prayer, as I go on-line in search or devotionals, I stumbled onto your blog. This is the 1st blog I've ever read.

    Thank you so much for the invaluable ideas on how to begin making my writing a job rather than a hobby. If my writing ever gets anywhere I'll be sure to let you know, in writing.

  • Karen

    Wow… I like this blog. I was at crosswalk.com and the link led me to you. What friendly,straight-forward advice. And Stephen King's book on writing. I picked up a copy years ago and just read it a few days back. Loved it.

    Been told all my life I should be a writer. Now I have a friend who has listed as her hobby organizing my poetry, writing and the rest of my life. All she wants is a copy when its published.

  • Is 1-800-MAN HANDS a real entity? If so, how do you know?


    John, these were very timely pieces given my pending blog and my back-of-mind thoughof on it somehow leading to income at some point in the future. But, I suppose it won't do so unless I really have a plan for that.

    In any case, they are timely posts, and seemingly good as well!

  • Ooops. I know I didn't proofread that last post. Confused fingers, premature post . . . :/

  • When travelling in Australia I was surprised how relaxed about the shark danger most Austalians seemed to be. I would never go in the water expecially in the south where they have many Great White sightings!