When I began doing research for the Writer Beware website in 1998, Marcia Yudkin’s invaluable article on recognizing writing scams was among the first resources that I discovered. In this week’s guest blog post, Marcia takes a look at a different issue, but one of equal importance to aspiring writers: taking the time to learn your craft before diving into the ever-more-easily-accessible world of publishing.
IN PRAISE OF RIPENING
“Write a Book in a Weekend!”
“Write a Book Without Lifting a Finger!”
We have seen ridiculous headlines like these online for years, but a new variant from the Get Rich Quick world has sprung up, threatening much greater harm to vulnerable wannabees and to all of us who value writing worth reading.
The word has gone out that Kindle publishing is a great way to make money fast. Churn out a short novel or how-to text with series potential, follow up quickly with a sequel, price the ebooks at $.99 or $2.99, enroll in Amazon’s KDP Select program and go for as many downloads as possible during your five free days. Then sit back and enjoy huge monetary success.
Advice for making a killing on Kindle emphasizes market research, speed and quantity. I have been watching a group of beginning fiction writers trade stories about novelists whose Kindle originals became best sellers, creating an end run around the confines of traditional publishing. They share tips on how to write 20 pages a day, congratulate each other on finishing and then publishing their first draft, post five-star reviews for one another (sometimes without reading the work in question) and then discuss how to bury negative reviews that disparage their work as boring and soulless.
Rarely mentioned in these circles are tips on how to write a better book. On the contrary, they applaud the attitude of John Locke, author of How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months: “Your book doesn’t have to be world-class. You just have to write well enough to sell lots of books.” Locke admits he doesn’t know anything about plotting, narrative or dialogue, and he is proud of not letting that stop him.
Such a know-nothing stance perpetuates a notion that effective writing can be instinctive. True, there’s probably one in a million who has a knack for writing that takes him or her far without any study or instruction. However, most of us improve in writing, as in music or acting or gymnastics, only when we have concepts for understanding what we’re doing and direction from those more experienced.
When I was an aspiring fiction writer, long ago, I attended writers’ conferences and studied books like Meredith and Fitzgerald’s Structuring Your Novel to learn how to craft satisfying plots and characters in a style that was free of telltale amateur moves. I learned why it was probably not a good idea to start a story with someone awakened by an alarm clock or a bad dream. I discovered how to avoid character stereotypes and mixed metaphors, the importance of a consistent point of view and ways to start a story with strong narrative momentum. When you skip all that, you inevitably – and unnecessarily – inflict a clumsy reading experience on buyers.
And by skipping writers’ workshops, classes or critique circles, you miss out on a crucial wake-up call that every author needs in order to mature as a communicator. This is the shock of discovering that what you meant in a certain sentence, paragraph or passage of your writing did not come across as you intended, and maybe even came across as the opposite of what you meant. In the light of this jarring revelation, you realize that readers aren’t stupid and that it’s your responsibility to take into account their expectations and ideas about language and the world. Then you have the foundation for becoming an ever-better storyteller and wordsmith.
Also missing from the Get Rich Quick paradigm for authors is a role for feedback from teachers, mentors and editors. I’ll never forget a workshop leader handing me a chapter I wrote with dozens of red-ink crossouts on every page. “Listen, I haven’t butchered your work. I’ve only shaved it,” he said. “See how much stronger it is without all the extra words.” Likewise, I have learned so much from my editors – lessons about word order, pacing, punctuation, closing story loops and much more. John Locke does say he spent $2,000 early on for a critique from an editor and profited greatly from the assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.
Even so, I lean more toward the wisdom of something I heard novelist Sue Grafton say once at a conference. “I figured writing books was at least as hard as being a doctor, and since medical school is five years, I gave myself five years to learn how to write a novel,” she said, acknowledging that this was not something beginners liked to hear. Similarly, the most recent issue of Writer’s Digest quotes Chris Cleave, best-selling author of Little Bee, saying that his writing process includes “weeks where I’m working but nothing great is coming out, and then I’ll have this insight into how I need to throw away 20,000 words and rewrite them.”
You won’t ever find folks who tout ebooks as a route to easy riches talking about studying for five years or throwing away such a large chunk of effort. And that’s why, with the absence of any gatekeepers and the lack of respect for quality in their publishing model, readers and writers everywhere stand to suffer. As the current trend spreads, we risk having literary marketplaces that are drowning in unripened works, making it harder for superb new writers who deserve attention to find readers.
Publication of clunky first drafts harms those authors as well. Pre-Kindle, eager writers had to spend much longer in the learning phase. Beginning writers could self-publish in paperback, but the expenses involved deterred most neophytes until they were certain they had something that merited the investment. Publishing on Kindle, however, costs little or nothing, encouraging novices who don’t have a clue about their amateurishness to publish half-baked embarrassments. Then instead of improving from feedback in workshops or from teachers, they will get hammered by most readers and quit or get acclaimed by a small, uncritical audience. Either way, the belief that craft is not worth their time gets reinforced.
If you care about good writing, please help me spread the word that both authors and the public are better served by learning to write well before getting published. The money earned by letting your skill ripen is probably greater and more reliable. You would just get rich more slowly – and enjoy the intrinsic delights of excellence along the way.
Marcia Yudkin’s 16 paperbacks include a Book of the Month Club selection from HarperCollins and two self-help titles that were featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Her short stories have appeared in both literary and high-circulation magazines and she has delivered commentaries on National Public Radio. She teaches a course for nonfiction writers who want to join the ebook revolution while living up to traditional publishing standards: http://www.yudkin.com/kindle.htm.
I really enjoyed this. It gave me the strength to go on, lol. I have been writing as a hobby for most of my life, but only recently have been investigating making money at it. I am aware that my writing is not honed, not crafted, and some of what I'm discovering has led me to believe that writing has to be fast and focused mostly on marketing. Very refreshing to read this post. I feel inspired to hone my craft, work hard to create something worthwhile. Thank you.
I agree with Brian Rush.
I am also glad that acting was mentioned in the post. All entertainment has succumbed to the X-Factor, or Masterchef, or "Someplace has got Talent" fashion. It's the "instant star" trend. Take one person and just add water… or a microphone, or a wooden spoon, or MSWord.
There will always be a mass market for that kind of thing. The kind of audience that watches new "stars" on television is not the same that will purchase or download the new CD by Genevieve Lacey (who? Okay, you get it).
The kind of reader who downloads thirty 99c (or free) short novels in one weekend and give them all a 5* rating is not the same sort as those who await AS Byatt's new offering and savor it over three weeks.
What the expansion of markets does is segment them. In the time of Dickens they all drank small ale – now we have fifty brands of the same kind of super drink… but we don't ALL consume the same crap.
Segmentation of the market means authors need to understand how to target their promotions, how to wait for the right kind of readership, and how to understand who it is for whom they write.
They surely understand whether or not they desire to participate in the overnight star kind of crap, or cultivate a readership that has some sort of lasting reverb.
A truly insightful response, Anonymous 8/20/12.
I've seen people spend thousands on screenwriting courses and creative writing courses and come up with utter rubbish. "holding a wrench doesn't make you a mechanic", did JD Salinger, JRR Tolkein, JK Rowling and Philip K Dick ever go to a creative writing course? No. Did the editors turn George Orwell's masterpiece of 1984 from a unpublishable pile of rubbish? no. Was Tinker Tailor Solider Spy such an appalling mess that only the demigods of editors had a good enough traps of linguistics to make it an iconic spy masterpiece? No. its like acting, some people are naturally gifted. or the piano, Some musicians can just play. In fact I'd say creative writing courses pander more to vanity writing than anything because they assume that writing is something that can be learnt and the reality is a great storyteller will always shine and a poor storyteller will be a terrible author no matter how much craft you throw at them.
Yes there is a lot of rubbish in Ebooks, there is a lot of rubbish in the NYT bestseller list that has had all this honing redrafts etc and still has typos and errors in it.
Over-editing is the death of literature. I suspect the majority of books we consider classic literature these days would never have got past a NY Editors desk.
You can learn the craft all you want but the simple fact is if you can't tell an original story you are little more than a hack regardless of how well you hone your craft.
And you won't find writers showing utter disrespect to other writers and denigrating them. You won't find rudeness and jealousy by those who resent writers who are taking a different path from that they took.
Yes, you will. Right in this pathetic blog post.
Hey, you know which people people give an author INCREDIBLE feedback, far better than the best Beta readers? Customers. Customers who paid for a book and have certain expectations. Self-publishing and being able to get feedback on a finished work right away rather than having it sit in the publishing queue for two years is incredibly useful. I'm at least two years ahead of where I'd be if I'd kept on querying.
I put out my first book, and I still stand behind it as fully worth the read and the price I charge for a download of it.
I think this author has painted the self-publishing world and its participants with too broad a brush.
It reminds me of Sue Grafton's interview, which she quickly distanced herself from after the backlash, agreeing she was ignorant to the current state of the self-publishing world. I've read the same statements elsewhere, too. It seems to be a common theme, preached by trad-pubbed authors for some reason. I don't get it.
In the last few years, I've read total crap trad-pubbed work that was in sore need of editing and proofreading, and I've read brilliant self-pubbed stuff too.
My advice: don't make the mistake of assuming that the term "self-published" equates to "short-cut" or "second-rate" work. Quality depends on the author, not his or her method of publishing.
Only one group of people is qualified to say how long one must write before one can be considered a "good" writer; and it's not you, author of this article, or any of the other pundits out there. It's the readers.
Fantastic post. I feel like giving a speech like this every time I see someone saying 'it doesn't matter if it's not brilliant, just get it out'.
Unfortunately, more people want to know about publishing than about the art and craft of making good books. When I post writing tips on my blog, I don't get nearly as many hits as when I write about publishing or self-publishing. This worries me.
Writers often ask me if they should self-publish first and seek an agent later. I tell them to seek the agent first – because it's often the first time they've competed in the grown-up publishing world. They might find they are perfectly ripe and ready – in which case they have more options than they thought. Or they may get feedback that suggests they should learn awhile longer. But they usually do get feedback of some sort, however long it takes. And they'll certainly know if they're ready.
Robin, I live in a town of 920 people and I think that by most people's definition, that would qualify as living in the sticks. However, simply with Internet access I could now join many kinds of writing classes, round robins, critique groups and online writers conferences – many of them free or low-cost. Don't let your location hold you back.
Haven't read too many comments, but looking at the article I agree. Learn to write before trying to publish. But what would you say to someone who doesn't have the resources for classes and conferences and such? Living in the sticks makes that part no fun.
Thank you to everyone for your comments, objections and experiences!
I don't have much to add, except to also say what a terrific article this is. Thank you!
@Suzanne — as a reader, it would make no difference to me if an author claimed a work had been professionally edited. But a professional looking (and well edited) description does make a difference.
I do an "initial filter" by skipping over anything with an amateurish cover, poor description, or priced $0.99. I'm very cautious of anything priced $2.99 or less.
However, I've found a few wonderful self-published books priced $2.99. The covers and descriptions — and more importantly, the contents — could have come from commercial publishers; the only tip-off that they were self-published (without looking at the metadata) was the price.
I have paid for and downloaded quite a few indie publishers e-books from Amazon Kindle, and I was shocked to find work is basically what you have spoken about.
Plot, puntuation, characterisation and simple mistakes that have been overlooked. Don't these writers have a professional valuation,and edit before self publishing?
It is making it difficult for the writers that have taken their time to produce quality work and approach a professional editor before self publishing.
Perhaps writers could put at the beginning of each novel that it has been professionally edited etc so readers and writers are not disheartened when it comes to giving away their good money.
I know I would if I was ever take this avenue.
Thanks for this post. It expresses my own concern for my writing. While I could self-publish my writing in the forms I have now, I'd be embarrassed to do so, because it just doesn't measure up and I know it. So thanks for compelling me to go and take another look at my rough drafts, and see if I can make them better
Thank you for expressing this so eloquently. I completely agree. It breaks my heart each time a writer rushes into publication before learning the craft (or at least having the book thoroughly edited) because that book will never become all that it could have become or have the impact it could have had.
I agree with Ms. Yudkin, that a writer needs to learn their craft. I spent one lonely semester in college in a fiction writing course. I wanted to improve my character development, but I learned so much more.
For instance, I've always wanted to write science fiction. I've trained in the sciences, and now want to pursue the fiction part. But I learned I write a pretty fair mystery, and I was surprised at that.
Romance novels often draw me for reading choice, but I would never want to write one.
While I intend to publish POD with a kindle option, I have no misguided belief that my work is earth-shattering or that I will "get rich quick."
Writing is a sweat-soaked effort for me. I sit at the computer or typewriter (yep, still have one) and hammer out words that make no sense or are incoherent thoughts, only to edit them over and over again until each word is painstakingly selected and placed just where it will have the most impact. I never understood that concept until I began that fiction-writing class.
So writing drivel is incomprehensible to me. Why would I want to attach my name to that? Why would I want that kind of reputation to follow to my next, more important and substantial, work? It tarnishes everything that follows. Writing, becoming good at it, and finding my audience are hard enough without starting out with such low expectations of myself.
Writing is easy. The late Ray Bradbury told us in a master class years ago – and I have never forgotten – "You just open a vein and bleed."
You've so thoroughly expressed my own complaints about electronic self-publishing so well that I can barely add a thing. In the absence of gatekeepers, articles by intelligent writers can at least help erect sign posts for those who are looking for something better than amateurish crap.
I'm going to strongly disagree with something in this post and that's what my comment will say, so I want to preface it by saying that in general, I agree — the rules of good writing haven't changed just because the rules of publishing have. Learning to write is still important, and for the huge majority of us this is not a get-rich-quick activity, nor should it be.
Disclaimer done, here's where I disagree:
And that’s why, with the absence of any gatekeepers and the lack of respect for quality in their publishing model, readers and writers everywhere stand to suffer. As the current trend spreads, we risk having literary marketplaces that are drowning in unripened works, making it harder for superb new writers who deserve attention to find readers.
This is simply not true. That isn't the problem that emerges from writers publishing unripe garbage. It is by no means hard, nor does it take long, to eliminate those works that are not worth reading. I find that those who think writing doesn't require polishing and editing will usually present an incoherent description, often with spelling and grammatical errors — that's an immediate elimination. A glance at the first page or two of the sample suffices to eliminate the rest, and to narrow the range of choices dramatically. We're talking seconds per book, max. (And that's after using categories of writing and the search feature to narrow the scope before even doing that much.)
The ones who suffer from what you have described are neither readers nor the writers who do polish their work. It's the writers who don't — and they're the ones who deserve it. We have a new world in publishing and it requires some adaptation and new methods on the part of both writers and readers, as well as an occasional reminder that not EVERYTHING has changed. But there's no reason to lament the loss of the gatekeepers. That's a net gain for everyone except the gatekeepers themselves.
This is an excellent post. I do think the media needs to carry some of the can for the current situation (though the responsibility of course is with writers). As long as self-publishing is only a story when someone makes a lot of money, we will have this constant rush to make a killing. We desperately need the biggest coverage to start going to the best self-published books and not the best selling ones.
Great post, one that I think every aspiring writer should read! As a matter of fact, I shared it on Facebook and tweeted it – that's how much I respect this article.
I have nothing against self-publishing. I am self publishing my first book of poetry. However, I've been writing for about 40 years, and grew up studying the classics. Much of the poetry I write is in traditional formats – which is something very difficult to get "traditional publishers" to invest in. It's a "niche" that is quite narrow – so in my case, self-publishing made sense.
But I'm also working on two novels, and have been for years. Whether I seek traditional publishing or decide to self-publish, I know one thing for sure – they won't hit the public until I'm positive that they are the very best work I can possibly make them.
Great post. It's too bad the message will blow over many authors like so much wind. The do it yourself e-book has pushed vanity to a new destructive level for publishing.
You only get one chance to make a good first impression with a reader, that's why you don't publish crap, or your learning experiences. Many practiced writers can write very quickly, but they spent years honing their craft, to do so. Like the apocryphal story where Picasso drew on a napkin and wanted $100,000. Yes, he did it in seconds, but it took fifty years of learning before he could do it.
I wrote a post asking my fellow new writers to be patient. Instant gratification takes too long, these days…
Awesome post. I recently spent six months writing a 160,000 word novel, with the usual dreams of getting published within a year and selling movie rights in two. Then, I reread the book and realized that it sucked. So I started over, going through chapter-by-endless-chapter in the hope of transforming it into the story I've always heard in my head.
Point is, my dream of being a published author hasn't died. If anything, its just waiting to grow up a little. Shameless plug: If anyone's interested in reading one man's evisceration of the most popular YA series ever, come for a visit.
Of course you should only publish your very best work. I'm not arguing against that at all, and I totally agree with this post on that point. But the truth is, there is no objective measure of literature–what's one person's masterpiece is another person's piece of garbage.
What I'm saying is to take the best work that you can produce right now, throw it up under a pseudonym, don't tell anyone about it, and see what happens. It's not like you're taking shelf space away from any other writers–and if you don't flog your book everywhere like all those annoying newbie indies, then you aren't really harming the readers either. Just throw it up, get a feel for the publishing side of things, and forget about it while you write the next one.
Worst case scenario, no one buys any of the stuff under the first name–but at least you learned something from putting your work out there, which will build your confidence for when you actually do write something worth putting under your own name. You can always scrap all the stuff published under the pseudonym, after all.
And in the best case, perhaps there's a sizable group of people who actually like that early stuff. Perhaps what you thought was "crap" really wasn't "crap" after all. As long as you keep your expectations realistic, you've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
If Heinlein were around today, I get the sense that he would advocate a model like this one.
I'm a slow learner. It took me about 10 years to get my first novel in shape for publication. Another two or three years later I was ready to rewrite the whole thing, which I did.
Nine more books later I'm still learning — and writing dumb things.
What a wonderful post! Every writer should read this.
While I am not a professional writer of books intended for human consumption, I am a professional writer of source code intended for computer consumption. I think a lot of what you say applies to us as well. Many people think having a computer, a text editor, a compiler, and access to an app store or web site or blog or what-have-you through which to share your program makes you a computer programmer. It does not. Just as you would encourage people wanting to write a novel to practice writing to refine their skill set, I would encourage people wanting to write software to practice programming to refine their skill set. Letting it out for free to get feedback and learn what works and what doesn't is fine. Throwing it up on the Kindle store or an app store for $0.99 or more just because you can isn't good for you or your "customers".
I'm with LJC on this one.
Just because a mechanism exists that makes it possible to do something does not mean you should do that thing through that mechanism.
You could self-publish your college term papers. You could self-publish your thoughts on the 2012 presidential campaign. But just because you can doesn't make it a good idea.
I think the same is true for writing. You make it the best you can. I agree that "best you can" is a term that feeds one's inner critic. But there are plenty of people who could really stand to give their inner critic a few square meals.
Yes, you can wade through blogs and youtube videos until you find something you like to read or watch, but what happens if you see a video or read a blog you don't like? You stop reading/watching that creator.
If an author wants to be professional and earn money from his or her work, the work needs to be professional. The author needs to respect the reader and offer something of acceptable quality and entertainment value.
It does the author no good in the long run to rush to the marketplace with mediocre work.
I 'practice' my craft on my crit groups and beta readers, not paying customers.
Instead of encouraging writers to wait until their craft is "good enough" to self-publish it, why not encourage them to publish now and learn the craft as they go along? If writers are sensitive, they can publish their early work under a pseudonym until they feel they've earned their chops. Otherwise, by encouraging them to wait for an unspecified period of time, or until their writing reaches an arbitrary and subjective level of quality, you run the risk of feeding their inner critic and stifling their creative voice.
At the heart of this issue is the myth that the "flood of crap" is keeping the really good stuff from rising to the top. I call it a myth because 1) the "flood of crap" predates electronic publishing by several decades, and 2) it represents a fundamental lack of understanding of how people discover and consume digital content. Hundreds of thousands of blogs are started each day, but that doesn't stop me from finding an audience through that venue. Likewise, one hour of video content is uploaded every second on Youtube, but that doesn't keep me from finding the videos I really want to watch.
It took me 17 years of hard work to get good enough to find an agent. During that time I worked with critique groups, read many, many books on writing, attended conferences and worked with freelance editors to help hone skills I knew I lacked. To me this is important. Fine musicians, dancers and elite athletes have coaches, why not writers? Writing is a skill that has to be learned, just like anything else. Even though I'm a successful non-fiction writer, novel writing is another skill altogether.
I wrote several novels in those 17 years and I'm glad none of them were published! Even though I have an agent I wouldn't dream of sending these old manuscripts to him. They should stay under the bed where they belong.
The wait was worth it, by the way, early this month my agent sold my novel to one of the Big Six publishers. : )
Great post! I wrote my first novel(unpublished)last year and learned in the process that I had forgotten so much. It prompted my decision to go back to school.
I have been amazed at the amount of work out there that should never be on the market. I do not want to be lumped in with mediocre work so I am anxious to do whatever it takes to improve my work.
Thanks for posting this! It was a great confirmation that I am doing the right thing.
Marcia: Then I am happy to say we agree entirely. 🙂
Peter, Thank you for the opportunity to clarify that I agree that on the whole, easy access to self-publishing is a good thing. For readers, it allows us access to an even greater multiplicity of voices, and for writers, it eliminates the need to compromise one's work to fit the fashions, constraints and prejudices in the mainstream publishing world.
With that said, I still stand by what I wrote. Writers should master their craft before publishing themselves.
This is the post I wish absolutely everyone would read and understand. I think self-publishing is evolving,and that's not inherently bad, but it's not evolving as fast as bad writers who are "publishing" and diminishing what real writers do. I'm not a snob — but writing and publishing takes some real effort, (I wrote my first published novel several times over on typewriters for crying out loud) and I'm tired of being held in the same esteem as a tosser who's written a check to have his nonsense made into a book and calling himself a published author. Yes, this article points out something very very important, that I wish more people knew.
Terrific Post! I couldn't agree with you more and echo Michelle's comment about the frustration with e-publishing. Thank you.
"the belief that craft is not worth their time gets reinforced."
Thank you for taking this issue on. I get really annoyed at the get rich quick cheerleaders who are at the forefront of this deception and encouragement to self-deception, especially the ones who make money teaching writers in a hurry how to bypass the mean old publishing gatekeepers.
Bravo! *gives standing ovation*
You've basically articulated my major frustrations with the self-publishing explosion. THANK YOU.
I think the democratization of access to any communication medium is always, in the long run, a good thing for both the communicator and the communicatee. (I know, it's not a word. [wanders off to the trademark office])
The problem lies not in the new ease of publishing but in the natural human desire to find shortcuts to success. I hope people who read this don't jerk knees (as I was about to do) and treat this as an "easy self publishing is inherently bad" treatise. I don't think that's what you were trying for. But it's easy to read it that way.
Fifteen years ago, when I was beginning to think about writing, I read The Writer and Writers Digest and lots of writing books. The thing that struck me most was how many authors said that their third or fourth manuscript was the first to get published. And, even more interesting: Most of them said that looking back, they're very glad their first books didn't get published. They had learned so much through the process of writing three novels that it was the fourth that finally rose to the level of quality they were proud to put their name to. My own experience echoes that.
I agree wholeheartedly that there are no shortcuts to success. We should all counsel young/new writers to take their time. Don't rush a book to publication just because you can.
On the other hand, once you've achieved that expertise, don't let your good work wither and die. New avenues are open to us all, and when the time is right, go for it.
Many take exception to the advice that good writing takes time.
'Taking time to ripen' isn't always understood – you have to want to improve and want to learn from the experts. You have to be willing to consider the feedback outside of those who 'know' your work. Some costs are involved, but it's an investment in yourself.
Mentoring (offered by some organizations to their members- some charge, some don't) is another good option.
Good advice. It's the route I've chosen.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Great post! So very true. Sometimes it takes 5 – 10 full rewrites to find out what your story is and how to make it work. If you engage in a never-ending cycle of publishing early drafts, I don't see how you can develop as a writer.