Training The Writer

One of the things that came up, as we were discussing Charlie’s guest post, Timshel was that some people think people going indie or small press are just “impatient.”

I confess to having thought that myself, but it was six or seven years ago, and in a different world.  And even then I was probably wrong at least about ALL the people who went indie or small press.  Some, are, of course, impatient and also so enthralled of the fact that they finished a WHOLE novel that it never occurs to them it shouldn’t see the light of day.  I’ve talked about those before and about the sheer pain of seeing someone with unbounded talent get stuck in a very-beginner phase through thinking publishing themselves is enough and it means they’re good enough now.

But that, as I said was in another world.  It’s changed so much since then, that if it were a person, its own mother wouldn’t recognize it.

Will there still be people who publish only one story and never again?  Oh, yes, of course.  Will there be people who think their one novel is perfect because it’s up on Amazon?  Of course.  Will there be those who don’t GROW?  Of course.

But in the end it means nothing whether they’re going indie or trad.  There were enough people published in traditional presses who never grew.  You know them.  I know them.  They came in at “good enough” and at the height of some wave that carried all before it.  Say, gothic romance, or horror, or cold war thriller, or urban fantasy – the type of wave where an addicted public will buy anything that’s vaguely reminiscent of the genre.  And then the subgenre collapsed, and they crashed.  Hard.  And they never wrote again.  Because they hadn’t grown.

And also, it could be argued the directions in which traditional publishing made you grow were not the ones in which you wanted to go, or rather, they weren’t the ones that would get you the readership you want.

For instance, I have a tendency towards what could only be called intellectual snobbery.  Blame my dad who read Roman poetry to me in my cradle.  Blame it on the other people in the family who would drag home “classics” and “improving books” – often because they were the cheapest you could get at the used book stores where were shopped and because printed matter was printed matter.  I got in real trouble at elementary school for having Thus Spake Zarathrusta under my history book, and it took me years (YEARS) to realize how funny the situation was.  In our family it was just “normal.”  (And I’m not going to lay down any great claim to genius.  It’s just what I had around, so I read it.  Some of the stuff I read made no sense till years later.  Some still makes no sense.  We once were talking to our pediatrician over the possibility of adopting – something still not wholly off the table, (says the woman who mourns everytime they find the remains of a newborn and wishes the mother had left the kid on our front porch, instead) – and I explained that we’re an akwardly intellectual family and what if we adopt a little kid who doesn’t GET us and is terribly unhappy.  The pediatrician snorted and said “I wouldn’t worry.  Any kid raised in your house will have a good vocabulary and at least the appearance of intelligence, and people adapt to what they know.”) It took no intelligence on my part to become an intellectual snob.  It was inevitable, given what I was surrounded with (I can sort of see an alternate world where I don’t read at all and probably do carpentry for a living.  There is an attraction in that too.)

So, why do I say it is a vice?  It’s a vice because most people weren’t raised as I was.  Therefore most people view anything that requires them to google a name or look up a word as “work” and so it’s a bad thing for a writer who aims to entertain and to sell widely.  (I have a friend whom I’d like to note for the record is worse than I am in this – you know you are — and who reads my blog and periodically chides me when I slip into French or (bad, mind you) Latin.  He says it’s off-putting to the reader.  And he’s probably right.)

BUT that tendency to intellectual snobbery and abstruse philosophical chasing of my own tail is precisely what the publishing establishment (do I need to say not Baen?  And no, Baen is NOT intellectually shallow.  It’s just confident enough it doesn’t need to show its erudition.  It enlightens while entertaining – when it chooses to enlighten) encouraged in me, so that I became more and more caught up in my own mind.

Did that make for better books?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I’d stack Darkship Thieves which is almost (not quite, but almost) free of it against my Shakespeare series, and happily.  But the latter would be considered better than the first a priori by what we’ll call “the publishing/critical complex.”

So the sixteen years I spent working towards publication were mostly spent working away from popular/plot oriented stories and towards intellectual snobbery.  While I’ll never totally free myself of the later, I don’t think it’s good for my commercial success.  In fact, I’ve found that indie, the stories that sell better were the ones I couldn’t sell before.  (Mostly unabashed space opera.)

Did it take patience?  Of course it did.  And a series of kicks in the teeth as each of my “babies” got killed.  But was it good for me?  Doubtful.

I’ll add I’m not denying the possibility of growth or the possibility of intrinsic literary value.  Right now my “popcorn reading” – you know what I mean.  One after the other, very fast – has swung away from regency (yay) and towards historical mystery.  I’ve been alternating two series, both bestsellers.  One of them is NOTABLY lighter than the other, in the sense that it leaves less impression in the mind.  The emotions evoked are superficial and by the numbers.  To me, the other series is “better” and shows both more talent and more depth.  BUT let me note right now that they’re BOTH bestselling series, and also that I’m reading them both – in fact, usually two books at once, because I default to the lighter when I’m tired.

Let me also say that there is such a thing as “incompetence” in writing.  We’ve all seen it.  Plots that go nowhere.  Meandering arguments where there is no story.  BUT some of these still sell quite well.

And the ones that don’t?  Where do we go in the era of indie?  How will people know if they have to learn?  Who will administer those kicks in the teeth that publishers were so apt at doing?

READERS.  Trust me.  I was talking to a fellow pro who told me most “kids” going indie think they only have to put stuff up and it will sell like crazy and support them for life.  I too know people like that and they fall into two camps:

If you put stuff up and it doesn’t sell, about half (perhaps more) of the people will get upset and sad, and try to find other reasons, and/or turn completely against indie publishing.

But the rest will continue trying, and working harder, and reading what sells in the kind of thing they wish to write, and they will try to write more like that.  More importantly they will write more and more which – I hate to say it – is the greatest way of improving your writing.  And eventually they will sell.  Will they sell thousands of one thing?  Probably not, but there is a very good chance they’ll sell enough in aggregate to support themselves.  (If they work hard enough.)

So – if you’re impatient and aren’t also incredibly lucky, indie and small press is not for you.  And the same quality of persistence that would have allowed you to eventually break into publishing will eventually make you an indie success.  Don’t give up and keep at it.  You have the consolation of not having to unlearn bad habits that put the general public off.

And for my colleagues who came in the old way and think the new way means everything will go to h*ll in a hand basket: don’t worry.  The kids are all right.

33 thoughts on “Training The Writer

  1. Dean has been making these points across various posts, if you dig for them. Indie has no more guarantees than traditional, but really no fewer, either. The odds against you in indie are high, but so are the odds against you in traditional. Indie success requires roughly the same skills as traditional success.

    The real differences are: indie requires you to take on more responsibility; but it also gives you more control. And generally it lets you work faster and see your results (good or bad) sooner. Traditional, on the other hand, gives you money up front (though not necessarily as much as you might think), and at least the possibility of some marketing push (though not necessarily as much as you might think).

  2. I won’t say that I grew up in an “intellectual” family but we were a family that often had conversations that ended in “Let’s look that up in the Encyclopedia”.

    Of course, like many “lovers of reading”, I’d read the Encyclopedia for enjoyment.

    As for “going independent”, I really think success there (just as in traditional publishing) depends on the writer’s support group.

    Since traditional publishing doesn’t provide such support (if it ever did), IMO there’s going to be a need for strong support groups for the independent writer.

  3. Darn. And I still have a stack of Regency I haven’t put on the shelves yet. (I process incoming books for the used store where Sarah buys popcorn-books by the armful.) I’ll make sure tomorrow that the historical mysteries are easy to find.

  4. The main problem with self publishing with be, well, people like me.

    I’ve got a small group of beta readers who are useful, but none of them are published writers, and so while useful, they are not the expert tutors that I need. And somehow I doubt I’ll get a lot of guidence from reviews on Amazon. I lost one copy editor, the second one took the money and didn’t produce. So . . . I’m going to try a third one? Yeah, maybe. Sometime.

    So I go to panels on writing at cons, go to workshops . . . and wing it and hope the betas are right, when they say my writing is getting better. And hope I catch the worst of the typos. :: sigh :: And try to get those tenses all in agreement.

    Training? Umm, for some definitions of Do-It-Yourself training.

    1. Got any nitpicky friends who know their way around a comma? May not be a pro copy editor, but may be much better than nothing. Do you ask your betas to mention any typos they catch? Every typo caught by a beta is one that another reader won’t!

        1. When I started going to writers’ groups, I went to two different ones here in town. When One would say I suck thusly, I’d take the same prose to the Other. Most of the time both the One and the Other would indicate the Same Thing didn’t work in my prose. Then I’d know where I needed to grow. Writers groups can be a cul de sac. If you find you’re too discouraged to write, flee. EVERYONE SUCKS until they’ve written a million words. Either King or Bradbury said it, so it must be true. So, write every day like a professional musician practices every day.

          1. I finished book number two (which is off getting style edits) and went back to work on book number one. It was horrid – clunky, rough, typos all over, chapters that start in the middle of nowhere . . . I cringed through the first two re-works (I’m getting ready for number three). Boy howdy am I glad that book two went out to the publishers before book one did. As you say, practice, re-read, polish, repeat.

        2. If one has a writer’s group handy! I’m not sure there are any in my neck of the wilderness, for instance. (Most of my beta-readers are online, and at least a few of them are also writers of some stripe or other, so that’s the “writer’s group” I’ve got…)

          One might also consider looking for a fanfic site and asking if there’s anyone who’d be willing to beta/nitpick original fic.

    2. Pam, it’s always ultimately do-it-yourself. While the results are universal, the way we get there is individual, if that makes sense. I know what I should have done, but it might not be what you need to do. It’s what makes this field so fascinating (and by fascinating understand “pull your hair out and scream” frustrating.

  5. I too am a reader and I do understand your comments. Though I don’t entirely agree with them. I believe that your opinions are a bit legalistic and to be honest quite boring, but seeing that this is America you are entitled to your own opinion. And, I can listen freely, so don’t stop posting.

      1. Pfui – I marvel at a person willing to admit they’ve so much leisure and so little commanding their attention that they’re willing to read stuff that they find “quite boring.”

        Why spend time on “quite boring” opinions when there are ingredient labels on laundry detergent just crying out to be read? And after that there are shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, tins of soup and frozen meals. Oh the inhumanity of it all.

        1. I just think “legalistic” doesn’t mean what this person thinks it means. It’s the second time in two days that I looked at a comment and went “what?” Are they putting crack in school air conditioning systems again?

          1. Oh, I agree with you on that, it’s just: I cannot remember a time in my life when I willingly resorted to reading stuff I knew would be boring, not when the ratio of stuff I know I am interested reading exceeds the available reading time by … oh … 1,000 : 1.

            As Beloved Spouse & I were wont to respond to daughterial complaints of boredom: only boring people get bored. Find something to interest you or be put to work. There’s silver wanting polishing, rugs needing beating and chimneys to be swept.

            An utter lie, of course: there was no silver; it all went to buy books.

            1. My response to “I’m BOOORREED” was “I can fix that.”

              And then a list of chores needed doing around the house. End of whining about being bored.

  6. Part of the thing about the Indies route as compared to the traditional path is the two are at very different stages of development. Traditional publishing is a transcontinental highway: limited access and the sedans best make room for the big trucks but it is well paved (although discerning drivers note an increased number of unfilled plotholes) and easy travel once you’re on … although you’ll find that gas & eats are limited and rather more expensive.

    The Indies route (whether you try the East or the West Indies) is still being hacked through wilderness in search of feral readers. Some will wander around in circles, some will fall off cliffs, but some will persist and gather unto themselves readers who will follow them and sing them praise.

    I dunno – mebbe I ought have used a metaphor based on cattle ranchers contra cowpokes willing to whack the bushes for maverick readers to be driven to market.

  7. In our household what Sarah terms “popcorn reading” is known as “chewing gum for the eyes” for reasons that ought be obvious: no nutritional value, exercises the related faculties, you can spit it out once the flavor is gone … and you can leave it on the bedpost overnight.

  8. I hope your “popcorn reading” includes the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters. I saw one of the PBS adaptations and it was execrable–nothing at all like the novels. My friend Albert Bell has also done some scribbling about Pliny the Younger sleuthing with Tacitus.

  9. Tangent:
    I think the Human Wave is taking off, at least as a marketing tool. I went by the library today, and nearly every book of yours was checked out.

  10. I don’t really think that I’m going Indie because of impatience. I put off doing more than “practicing” for over a decade because I knew just enough about the publishing industry to feel like I wasn’t ready. I wanted more experience honing my craft. I wasn’t ready to be ignored and stepped on (I can’t learn from that). I wasn’t really afraid of the critique if I made it past the ignoring and being stepped on stage – I was more concerned about being taken advantage of.

    I’m glad I waited, because I feel like Indie is what I was waiting on without knowing I was. I know I would have made some really bad decisions if I’d been picked up traditionally. I feel like I even saved myself from some poor decisions in the last few months by taking more time to research my options and the e-publishing wave.

    I’m perfectly happy to learn through feedback – whether it’s from editors/betas/peers/etc, readers, or lack-of-readers. I have the experience. I started out on the internet writing fanfiction. Then I started drawing to bring more attention to my fanfics. It took a few years of study and dedication to my artwork and I’ve taken some blows along the way (deserved and undeserved) to get me to a place where I’m not constantly mortified by my artwork.

    I know it won’t be the same when I put out my writing and someone says they don’t like it without even attempting to articulate why (I’ve always identified more strongly with writing than art, so I know it’ll probably feel more personal) – but it won’t be something I have no experience with handling. I’ll probably have my feelings bruised and get mildly offended when someone makes an implication about me because of what I’ve written – but I’ve been there and done that and it doesn’t usually take long for me to separate myself from the critique and weigh how valid it is and what I can learn from it.

    I’ll perservere because it’s what I want to do with my life. Frankly, it’ll take more than what I’m likely to have thrown at me (being ignored/poor sales, ridiculous reviews, people being snide about me being Indie/saying I need an editor when I had one; etc) to discourage me. I don’t know that anything would stop me but being physically incapable of taking my stories from my head to text. I wrote when it was just scrabbled handwriting on a notebook I tossed under my bed when I was 14 or so and obsessed with whichever of the three possible sources of my first fanfic. (Xena, X-Files or SWAT Kats? Hmm.)

    As for people not improving – yes. I oddly don’t seem to notice that easily in writing (I notice when authors have improved, but not so much stasis unless it feels like they’re repeating themselves in a way that’s not even taking a fresh angle). But I have seen it in art before. Their work from five years ago is exactly the same (sometimes even better) than their current stuff. The really confusing bit is when these are people who have gone to art school – and are even working professionally as artists. These are people who are happy to accept critique. These are people who seem to be doing everything right (studying, working consistently, learning) and are spinning their wheels.

    The only thing I can think of is that they were also largely people who got sort of trapped into a particular loop where they knew the “right” thing was to be open to learning, steadfastly believed it and advised it, but couldn’t seem to apply it to what they were doing… mainly because they had such positive feedback that I think there was never that kick in the pants to make that final step. Come to think of it – I think that the writers I can think of off the top of my head who seem to be in that same position are the same – they have a big enough following that there’s a safety net of never having to push themselves because they have enough response to feel comfortable in where they are and what they’re doing.

    1. I got trapped in a loop, as a writer, for very long, because I knew that my books would be killed on arrival. So, why bother? I made little incremental changes, but I think I’m entering a time of much larger changes. Because now I can.

      1. Mmm… I think we’re talking about two different sorts of loops.

        To me, I’d guess you were on a roundabout. You saw the exits, but also saw the traffic on the available exits and knew you might as well stay on the roundabout than take an exit and get stuck in traffic/get in an accident/be redirected back to the roundabout to take another exit anyway. Now you see several new exits that have freer traffic.

        I’d guess if an author was stuck on the metaphorical roundabout for too long, then they might be more like what I was thinking. I’ll just go with the metaphor I used above. The authors I was thinking of had stayed on the roundabout for so long they were running out of gas and their car was falling apart, but they didn’t care anymore. They knew that someone would always be happy to run up and refill their gas tank with a little more gas or at least put new tires on their car – so it didn’t matter to them that the bumper had fallen off and the rearview mirror was dangling by a few wires – no one had indicated that this was a problem. They never even noticed – or just stopped noticing like how you get used to a worn steering wheel in a car you’ve had a decade.

        Editing gone to shit? Eh.
        Formatting in even the print editions ending up with things actually missing? Not the author’s problem.
        Characters obviously the same you wrote three books ago, just renamed and given a single new personality quirk? People liked them, after all…

        1. What you’re identifying might also be “author stopped being edited.” And I SWEAR copyediting has gone to sh*t at most trads.

          But illness or tiredness can get ANY artist on the sort of loop where you use the same situation/character.

  11. I decided to go indie because every ten years or so I start a new career where I feel overwhelmed, stupid, outranked by smarter/younger people, and where the horizon of competence seems to recede every hour I work at it.

    It’s been perfect training for indie publishing.

    And I never understood why people are supposed to dislike ten-dollar words and foreign phrases in their books. Most of the half-baked, pretentious literacy I displayed as a young woman came from reading Dorothy Sayers.

  12. Impatient? I’ve been writing for more than 20 years (although there’s a pretty large gap marking where I started college, got married, got a job, etc. before restarting my writing “career” such as it is). While the vast majority of my writing to date is short fiction I’m starting to move into novel length works including a fantasy novel that’s actually finished and currently looking for a home.

    I don’t think “impatience” is my problem. Maybe the novel sucks (that’s my usual opinion anyway) but I’m pretty sure it sucks less than a lot of stuff that does get published so….

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