If there's one question I'm most often asked, it's "How many times have I told you that your health insurance does not cover 'accidental' insertions of your genitalia into homemade sex robots?"
But the next most popular question I get is "How do you become a writer?" The answer is, I don't know. I've only called myself a writer once in my life, and I only had the balls to do it because I was asked by another writer in my agent's office while I was holding an advance check for my forthcoming novel. I'm generally suspicious of people who are too quick to label themselves "writers." They remind me of a girl I knew in college who had business cards printed up with "poet" written under her name.
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"Well, part time poet, part time philosopher, and full time horrible person."
I have no suggestions on how you can become "a writer," but I can give you advice on how to go about doing something writers do -- getting published. Anyone reading this has opportunities simply unheard of 20 years ago. The Internet has taken the somewhat secret, slow, and unprofitable business of freelance writing and converted it into something fairly transparent, speedy, and still unprofitable. But the Internet truly is a great place to get started, because it's all right there for your discovery.
#5. Pick the Place
The first step is figuring out where to publish. For reasons that will become obvious, let me suggest that you pick a site or magazine you're already reading a lot. Why? Because the bigger an expert you are on what your prospective publisher prints, the better your odds of getting published there. Why? Well, mostly for the reasons I'm going to give you in Rule 3, so I don't want to shoot my load on that now. For the time being, just imagine a big elephant that takes up a lot of space. Something like this:
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Got it? Good. OK. The elephant has nothing to do with this rule, but at least now it doesn't look so weird that this entry is so short.
#4. Learn the Rules
OK, so you picked your place. Good! What's next? Well, now you have to learn the rules, and the great thing about publishing online is that most sites will tell you. I always feel awkward and embarrassed when people ask me how to submit to Cracked because it's not like it's a secret. It's right there on the website.
And most websites are like that. And if they don't have that submission information, then it's probably not the place for a new writer to be submitting to anyway. OK, so you found the link. You found the rules for submissions. Now what? Read them. And then? Read them again. Then, and this is the tricky part, do what they say and don't do what they tell you not to do.
As someone interested in writing, you probably already think you possess a unique and special talent. You are the owner of a new voice rising up to the light of publication. You can't let rules and expectations get in the way of the glory of you! Well, you may think you're unique, but guess what? Lots of people think that. Some of you are, but all of you would be stupid to think that your talent (real or imagined) gives you a free pass to do your thing. Sites have rules. Follow them. Failure to do so simply makes you look lazy, stupid, or arrogant. The end.
If the website wants a certain font, then use that font. They want attachments, send attachments. They hate attachments, don't send attachments. Give them your email, your phone number, your blood type, your first choice to play the next Doctor on Doctor Who, it doesn't matter. Read their rules and give them what they ask for.
By the way, if they do ask that Doctor question, please suggest my son.
#3. Learn the Voice
Hey, remember that big elephant from above? Well, forget it. That was stupid. It was just a placeholder, but we're up to Rule 3, and it's the most important one: Learn the voice. This is why you should pick a site you already know very well. Publishers expect you to deliver content in the style of what they're already publishing daily.
When I was a young writer, I wanted desperately to get published at McSweeney's, which was then run by the lovely editor-at-large John Warner. (Today, the equally lovely managing editor Chris Monks oversees submissions.) In any event, I submitted there a lot and met with much rejection for my first 15 or so tries. And there was a reason I was getting rejected: It didn't sound like McSweeney's. It sort of kind of had a superficial resemblance to something they'd publish, but it wasn't a dead ringer. And that's what you need. Ultimately, I acquired the right sensibility, and after that, just about 50 percent of my submissions were accepted.
It was the same thing with Cracked. This was many years ago, before Cracked became the Cracked you know. Back when it was a just a collection of humor with not a list to be seen for miles.
"Cracked without lists?!"
In any event, at that time, my friend Dennis DiClaudio had published this hilarious piece at Cracked, and using that as a guide, I submitted about five rejected pieces. Why rejected? Because even then, that piece, although hilarious, was not the voice of Cracked. It was a fluke. And that brings us to an important rule: Don't submit work that's similar to the obscure parts of a website. In the beginning you want to aim right for the sweet spot. Your value to a publisher is giving them what they already have, but more, with a minimum amount of work on their end to conform your stuff to what their readers expect.
Once you do that and establish credibility, you can spread your wings more and let your freak flag fly, but it's almost always a waste of time to do it off the bat.