7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mark Peters

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Mark Peters, author of BULLSHIT: A LEXICON) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

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Column by Mark Peters, author of BULLSHIT: A LEXICON 
(October 27, 2015, Three Rivers Press). Mark is a humorist
and journalist who writes about euphemisms for Visual
Thesaurus, comic books for The Bark, and jokes for 

McSweeney’s. Find him on Twitter

1. Embrace the heck out of your obsessions and inclinations.

I’ve always known I loved to write, but it took me too long to realize that all I really want to do with my life is make jokes. Once I realized it, I pursued it several ways. I have three different joke-oriented Twitter accounts. I’ve written a bunch of humor pieces, which I’m constantly trying to get into better magazines, just as I’m trying to get better at writing them. I went through the Writing Program in Second City, the hallowed halls where Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and plenty of other comic groundbreakers studied. I tried standup comedy. I also write about humor for McSweeney’s and Psychology Today. All of this has been fun, if not profitable, but it’s turned out to be surprisingly practical too. Eventually, I had a diverse enough comedy resume that it became an attractive part of my bio—my publisher liked that my book (on BS-related terms such as bunk, malarkey, twaddle, and truthiness) was being written by a humorist as well as a language guy.

2. Networking sucks, but it sucks less if you let it happen naturally.

When someone likes what you do on a social network or even (gasp) the real world, stay in touch with that person. If it’s an editor, maybe you could write for them. If it’s an artist, see the following point. Networking isn’t such a chore if you do it when someone has already shown an interest in your work.

(11 literary agents share what NOT to write in your query letter.)

3. Collaborate with artists if you can.

Working with someone in another medium is fun, and it can open doors you wouldn’t be able to get near on your own. My friendship with New Yorker cartoonist Drew Dernavich directly led to my book contract, which Drew illustrated (and vastly enlivened). I do a cartoon blog called Nachos…From the Abyss with a good friend and awesome artist, Shane Swinnea. Odin willing, I think those cartoons could be a future book. Working with artists is an awesome experience, and you never know where it will lead.

Are you a subscriber to Writer’s Digest magazine
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year sub here.

4. Combining interests is a good thing.

I don’t have a ton of interests. I love language, which is what I’ve written about the most. I also love comic books, comedy, dogs, and craft beer. That’s about it. In my desperation for things to write about, I often look at the intersection of my interests. This leads to some cool convergences. I’ve written about collaborations between craft beer and comic book creators. I’m Comic Book Editor-at-Large for Bark, writing about dog-centric comics. I can connect language to pretty much anything. Combining interests gives me a clear focus for writing articles, and it often makes the ideas more intriguing to editors. That’s a sweet combo.

5. Don’t get too attached to one writing gig.

In other words, diversity your crops. When I landed my first columnist gig, I was ecstatic. Then I was devastated when it ended. But now I’ve seen several regular gigs come and go, either due to financial constraints or editorial shakeups. You should be prepared for every single one of your freelance jobs to disappear at some point. As long as they don’t all disappear at the same time and you keep getting new jobs, you’ll be fine.

6. Follow your instincts—even the most immature ones

I make dozens of mother jokes every day. I just can’t help it. I make these jokes in my secondary Twitter account—@cnnyourmom—which is rapidly overtaking my primary account in terms of followers. In that account, I take real headlines (from CNN and elsewhere) and substitute “your mom” for something, so “Stress At Work Is Just As Bad As Secondhand Smoke” becomes “Your Mom Is Just As Bad As Secondhand Smoke.” This account has no practical purpose whatsoever, and no connection to any of my projects. But it was a point in my favor when I got a book contract, because the followers are almost totally different from my regular account’s. Improbably, mother jokes helped build my platform. Joseph Campbell was right when he said “Follow your mom”—er, bliss.

(How do you boost web traffic to your writer blog? Here are 7 tips.)

7. The impractical can be very practical

Tweeting, doing comedy, working with artists, reading comic books, and a lot of others things that have helped me out have a common denominator: they didn’t seem very practical at the time. I keep coming back to a line from Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu I’ve always liked: “All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.” That’s a great way to think about the value of things that don’t scream “Value!” As it turns out, in the weird word of writing, there are a lot of unprofitable things that can turn out to be profitable later.

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