A guest post by Dean Wesley Smith
I’ve talked about this on my blog a few times in different ways, but I noticed a few of you have mentioned this “got to hurry” problem, so I figured it was time again.
And no doubt, as I did last week on my first visit to the Superstars Writing Seminar, I may ruffle a few feathers.
What do I mean by being in a hurry?
For some reason, almost all new professional writers have no sense of time in publishing. And no sense of the amount of time it takes to learn the craft and the business. I hear over and over again how fresh writers need to find a way to cut through the “noise” out there, how they need to “promote” their first or second novel, and how they don’t understand why they don’t sell more.
And I hear all the time how writers like me or Kris or Kevin Anderson or Dave Farland or Eric Flint have this huge advantage over beginning writers. But don’t think our advantage is because our names are known. Nope. In fact, often being known hurts us more than it helps. My bestselling novels are not under “Dean Wesley Smith” because of all the media work I did under that name. My bestselling novels are hidden pen names in both the thriller and mystery genres. Names that started fresh. Names that nobody knew.
But we do have an advantage over beginning writers.
Yes, I said it. We experienced old-timers have a huge advantage. We have taken the years and decades to learn how to write better stories and we are all still working to learn. (Do you think the only reason we teach is to help young writers? That’s a big part, sure, but mostly it’s so we can keep learning as well.)
That’s right. Shocking as it may seem, writing better novels and stories–stories that fans want to read–makes us better known. It is not promotion or some silly trick. We sell more because we write better stories.
It really is that simple.
Learning the craft of fiction writing comes from listening to others talk about their ways of doing things, or reading how-to-write books, or studying what other writers do, then putting that information out of your front brain.
In other words, learn it and then forget it. Just go back to writing, and trust that the knowledge will come out of your fingers when you need it.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen for a novel or two. And then suddenly your writing is better and you don’t even know why–but your readers will see it.
Sounds kind of silly, huh? But it’s the way it works. And that method of writing and learning how to write better stories TAKES TIME.
My first published novel was my third written novel, and by the time I had written it, I had already sold over fifty professional-level short stories. Now understand, I sold my first short story in 1975 and didn’t sell my first novel until 1987. A long twelve years, and a thousand-plus rejections.
But with indie publishing, writers today think they can put up their debut novel and sell thousands of copies in the first month. And when they don’t, they either stop writing, or get upset, or blame it on the fact that they have no name recognition. Many new writers never blame poor sales on the fact that maybe they just don’t know how to tell a good story yet.
These same new writers don’t realize that it takes years to learn how to tell a good story, a story that thousands of fans want to read.
Focus on learning how to tell a better story while at the same time learning the business. If you keep writing and learning, eventually you will be a big name writer with a lot of books out and will have to give this same advice to the next generation of writers.So my suggestion is to stop whining about how big names have all the advantages, and start focusing on learning how to write better stories. Stop spending time on promotion and spend the time on the next short story or the next novel. Your best promotion is always your next book.
Remember, every time you say to a professional writer, “The only reason you can do that is because you are . . .” then you have insulted them and all the years and years of typing and work it took them to get to where they are.
We are only better known than you because we spent years learning how to tell a better story. Nothing more. And certainly nothing less.
Focus on learning how to tell a better story. Make each story the best one you can do. Practice something new in every story. Get it on the market, then move to the next story.
And keep having fun.
Well said, Dean!
I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you at the Superstars! Someday I will get to meet you and Kris! =o)
Great post, Dean. Thanks for the reminder! I have so very much left to learn, so I’ve been feeling rather hollow from not getting to attend any new workshops this past year. I haven’t let that stop me from continuing to practice the craft though. Thanks for all your wonderful teaching.
Excellent post, Dean. The advice I give to new writers today is the same advice I’ve been giving for 20 years: take your time. Even with all the changes in the publishing industry, content is still king. There’s no substitute for craft–and craft takes time, effort, and experience. First-time novelists, tattoo Dean’s advice on your forehead. Take. Your. Time. When you rush your work, you wreck your work.
True true true! I love the part about learn it and forget it. I’ve been doing that all my writing life. I always thought I was lazy, but I like this explanation so much better!
Well said, sir! As a new writer myself, I am focusing on exactly what you say and letting the chips fall where they will on sales. I’m not letting the business end of writing get in the way of the story being first even though there are those marketers who’d sat and try to convince me otherwise.
Well… I’m one of those debut novelists who expected to sell hundreds…over the lifetime of the ebook :). It’s worked out well for me, I budgeted (thanks to Think Like a Publisher) my publishing and writing costs, and the book has earned out about 5 months early.
I just storyboarded my next novel and that process still requires me to just lock myself in my bedroom after I have a good rough outline/notes and just not leave until it’s done. 55 scenes. And the process yielded a much richer storyline, with more character intricacies, than the first time I did that process for my first book. In fact, with my debut, at about 30,000 words, my middle collapsed when I tugged on a story thread, and I had to revamp it, cutting a good chunk because it was boring. That took a weekend. I don’t see that happening with this next book because I learned from that mistake and my middle is very exciting. I’ve learned all of the crises don’t HAVE to wrap up at the end, you can schedule one to wrap up a little earlier to keep climbing that mountain.
Yes, there is a HURRY feeling for some of us; I feel it all the time. Readers now tweet you “When’s the next book coming out?” And thanks to ranking, and seeing the ratio of rank to our own sales, we can spy on the competition/colleague in real time. That also adds to the atmosphere of if you’re not publishing something, what are you doing? As far as the marketing goes, I confess I spend too much time there, but it’s fun for me. I love the people aspect of all of this. So for the extroverted writer, it’s really hard to pull our fingers away from our social media status update. 🙂
Actually, without contradicting anything you said, I’d point out there is a way to speed up the process – write more, faster. Like you and Kris and most of the other successful pros I’ve met do.
Thank you for your onpoint blog. I have written three novels and I am taking the time to learn the craft, so that in the revision process I can implement all the trainings, and teachings, and craft books I’ve read, lisented to, and discovered. I don’t want a book in print with my name on the cover (or e-book), that isn’t my best.
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Great post, Dean. And thanks for the admonition to “get it on the market, then move to the next story.” I need the reminder that I don’t need to wait until I’ve perfected my craft to publish…mainly because I’ll never ‘perfect’ my craft. There are always new tools to add to my writer’s toolbox.
I agree with this so much! As a side point but related, you hear people moan about how long it takes to get from contract to book if you get a contract with a publisher, but I know for me, tons of that time was spent perfecting the novel with my editor. I’m SO GLAD it didn’t go faster. The finished product was SO MUCH BETTER than the manuscript I sold and I thought was finished.
I’ve been writing for 7 years, and I’m just starting to feel like I know what I’m doing. Of course, when I completed my first ms, I thought the same thing. Looking back, I am so glad it was rejected because releasing it in that current form would have killed the story.
Thanks for the reminder that mastery of craft takes time. I don’t feel so bad that I have nothing published yet. Soon that will change.
Fantastic, fantastic post. It’s very encouraging, and very true. I’ve been trying exactly what you’ve said. My first novel was over ten years ago and I’m just working to get better and better.
This post *especially* encouraging, though, because it takes (a little bit) the pressure off having to promote the hell out of my work. It’s not that there’s no promotion required, but it’s a stressful and time-consuming task that suits none of my skill sets. So it’s great to know that the increase in quality over time is a promotional feat in and of itself.
Ah…so sad and happy and true. 🙂 I remember the second, or was it third, workshop I did with you in Lincoln City. I complained mightily that I had read been writing for publication for the past three years, had read every craft book, written four novels, and still only received rejections even when others told me it should sell. I was feeling like a complete failure and couldn’t understand why because “everyone” told me I was a good writer.
After asking simple three questions, you said something I remember every day sit down to write and every time I go to a conference or take a workshop. The conversation went like this:
“How many years did you spend in college to get to be proficient in you profession,” Dean asked with just a small lift of his lip, not quite a smirk.
Maggie counted on her fingers, never being quick at math. “Um, seven.”
Dean nodded. “And how many years did it take until you believed you were an expert?”
“I thought I was an expert at many times. The first time was about four years into my employment. Then it happened again at around year 12. Now that I’m 25 years on the job, I’ve realized I’ll never know it all.”
“Then why do you think in only three years that you know everything about writing novels? It takes time. It takes practice. It takes rejection. And more practice. And you keep learning and getting better.”
You may not have realized it, but that little talk has saved me every day in so many aspects of my writing life. And best of all, it’s true. I continue to get better. My stories continue to get better. My rejections continue to get better, and I occasionally get a sale too. 🙂
I’m not sure I live long enough to wait another 25 years to become an expert, but I suspect I’m getting closer each writing day and year.
Thank you a million times for your down to earth perspective.
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Focus on learning how to tell a better story while at the same time learning the business. If you keep writing and learning, eventually you will be a big name writer with a lot of books out and will have to give this same advice to the next generation of writers.
Those two sentences burst butterflies in my body. Though I am in a cocoon stage, I know that one day I will pass on advice to the next generation. Let the legacy come! Words are wONEderful!
I agree abut perfecting the craft of writing. But there’s no excuse for the publisher who took ONE YEAR, THREE MONTHS AND SIXTEEN DAYS to respond with a no info ‘not for us’ rejection.
Fortunately, I’ve now been welcomed into the Musa Publishing family, where things are much speedier!
Author of The Silent Hills – Best Mainstream Story in the Preditors & Editors Readers’ Poll 2011.
Some of us definitely need to hear that. I know it takes time. It’s always a struggle for me to know how much time to spend promoting and looking for reviews or writing. I’m currently writing the sequel to my first novel Shadow Eyes, which I love doing! But I still feel promoting and getting your name out is importan, even if it doesn’t result in tons of sales. 🙂
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