Monthly archives for September, 2009

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Workshops

I believe writers’ workshops, when used correctly, are a good tool for a writer to use. When used for the wrong reason, they are destructive beyond all measure. And there are so many myths built up around writers’ workshops that this might take a few chapters. In this chapter, I will focus on the top myths about writers’ workshops and also get into how to use a workshop correctly.


Of course, that’s total hogwash, but many writers go into a workshop thinking just that.

Workshops, in the form that we know them today, have been around since the early part of the last century. There are lots of thoughts about how these workshops started, the most repeated being that Iowa Writers Workshops started it all. Of course, peer reading of manuscripts for writers has been around for far longer, but for this chapter, there is no reason to argue history.

Somewhere back in the baby boom, the structure of a round robin workshop came about. A group of writers sit around a table or a room and take turns critiquing the story. That form has become the standard form for most workshops. When sponsored by a university program of some sort, there is an instructor running the workshop, but in many cases workshops fall into a few standard forms.

University Program Workshops. A group of students, all at the same basic level, take turns tearing apart manuscripts without any understanding of how anything works while an instructor keeps the fighting down to a certain level and sometimes adds in an opinion. The idea is that if a student is forced to actually look at a manuscript and tear it apart for a grade, and have their own work torn apart, they will learn how to write creatively. This method fails for the same reason that giving a person a hammer and telling them to tear apart a house will turn that person into a fine wood craftsman. It creates good critics, but seldom good writers.

Peer Group Workshops. These are everywhere and run in a number of different ways, the two most used being:

1) Round robin style where a person submits a story and the group, going around the room one-at-a-time takes apart the manuscript.

2) Read aloud workshops. A person reads his story aloud and then the group makes comments in some form or another. (This method has nothing to do with selling writing, since you can’t go into an editor’s office and read your work to them, thus a person who is a good reader can slide by with awful stuff, while a poor reader gets trashed no matter what he writes.)

Of course, the biggest problem with peer group workshops is that the knowledge level is often about the same, so learning is slow and painful and requires members of the workshop to constantly go outside the workshop for new knowledge to bring back to the group. Many workshops never have this outside input and thus just swirl in place, with its members making no real progress.

Leader Driven Workshops. This type of workshop usually has an experienced professional leading a group of not-as-experienced writers. Sometimes these are round robin, sometimes only the instructor talks. Either way they work or don’t work depending on the experience of the person running the workshop.

Denise Little and I do a workshop in this form almost every year. Everyone writes stories to order for an anthology, and then everyone reads everyone else’s stories, but only Denise and I talk about each story coming from an editor’s slant and if we would buy the story or not. This helps everyone understand why a story is bought or not, and can help them match their own reading experience with two editor’s reading of the same story. This form would never work as a regular workshop, but it works great for one weekend a year.

Also note, I call all the classes we do here on the Oregon Coast “Workshops” but none of them are really workshops like what I am talking about here. They are basically advanced writing classes here, taught by advanced professionals, but the word workshop seems to be used for such things these days, so I figured no point in fighting that.

So back to the myth. Young writers think that taking a manuscript into a peer round-robin style workshop will help them “fix” that manuscript and make it sell.

Let me list a number of reasons why this myth does not work past helping you fix a few missed details, the same thing a good first reader would do.

1) See my chapter about rewriting. The best way to take your voice, the quality of your writing out of your story is to pound it like you are pounding a steak to make it tender. All rewriting does is make sameness, seldom quality. And editors buy for unique voice and unique story, never the same-old-thing written blandly.

2) Doing anything by committee never turns out much quality work. If you take your manuscript and try to fix everything everyone says is wrong with it, your remaining story won’t even look as good as a Frankenstein monster. It won’t walk or even crawl. And it sure won’t be like anything you wanted to write.

3) Writers in peer workshops know less about writing than you do. Why listen to them? (There are reasons, but I will get to that in a moment.) If they could tell you how to “fix” your story, they would be selling work themselves all the time or be a top New York editor. So why listen to what they tell you to do? Just assume they know less than you do.

4) If a manuscript fails, it does not mean your story failed. Your story is still in your head, and having a manuscript beat on only means your tool for relaying the story failed. In other words, if the hammer is broken, don’t try to tape the handle, get a new hammer (write the story again from scratch, called redrafting). A workshop will tell you exactly how to tape the handle together and I hope you know how well that will work on the next swing of the hammer.

5) Writing for your workshop. This starts to happen the longer a workshop has lasted with the same group. You get the member’s voices in your head and as you are creating a story, you make decisions in your story based on what another member of your workshop will think. By this point, you are lost as a writer with a unique voice and need to run from the workshop with all speed, just as you should run from any read-aloud workshop. If the voices of other workshop members are in your head while writing, you are in deep trouble. That simple. You have to write your stories your way, not anyone else’s way.

6) Work-in-progress workshops are death. This is the worst of all workshops, and often are done with novel workshops. The simple rule is that you should never, ever show anyone a work-in-progress, even your first reader. It is your story, your book, and the only hope of it being unique and original to you will be if you write it alone, with no input along the way at all. Nothing of quality ever comes out of a workshop of this type.

So, why go to a workshop at all? Actually, if used correctly, peer workshops can really, really help you learn, but you have to have a thick skin and the ability to keep what is being said in perspective.

Here are a few good reasons to attend a peer workshop.

1) Deadline. Writers must learn to write to deadline and often a workshop is structured so that something needs to be turned in to the workshop, thus giving you structure and a deadline. My first peer workshop didn’t have many rules, other than only one person could talk at a time. So I made my own deadline, deciding to turn in a new story every week. (I always mailed the story to an editor before turning the story into the workshop that week, so the deadline of the workshop not only helped me finish a story by a certain time, but mail it.)

2) Audience. A workshop gives you a built-in audience to see if a manuscript is actually working for the story you wanted to tell. But you have to understand how the audience works. If everyone loves your story, it means it hit everyone right in the middle and the story might sell, it might not. If everyone hated your story, the same thing. The story might sell, it might not, but you will know to expect some ugly rejections before it sells. But if half the workshop hates your story and half love it and they argue about your story, don’t touch a word. You have a winner. Your manuscript worked so well, the readers got arguing about content and thus you know it will sell. Editors love that kind of story.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells a story about a workshop where she turned in a wonderful little story that everyone loved. I read it and loved it also, thought it sweet and cute. At the break, she went out into the parking lot, angry as all get out. I asked her what was wrong and it turns out she was furious about the critique. To her the manuscript had completely failed and she was going to toss it. When I asked why, she said simply, “It was supposed to be a horror story.” She had used the workshop as an audience to see how the manuscript worked for what the story in her head was. The audience told her that her manuscript failed, even though they all loved it.

3) Learning from other writers’ skills. Taking another writer’s story apart as a critique seldom helps anyone, including the reader. It’s often why the best reviewers are failed writers. They can tear apart, but they can’t build. However, instead of going at a story to tear it apart, if you are using a workshop correctly, you are reading to see what the writer did correctly. That’s right, I said look for what the writer did right. Ignore the mistakes. So say the writer of a manuscript used a nifty way of introducing a villain that really worked for you. Study how the writer did that, complement them about it in the workshop and try to say what you mean out loud, and guess what, that same trick will now be in your tool box for later use. That’s one of the many ways writers learn new writing skills.

For example, without using a workshop, if I finish a book by an author that I loved (I always read for pleasure first) and really think some trick the writer did was nifty, I go back and look at that section, often reading it and rereading it up to a dozen times so I can get past the story and see the words. Then if I really like the trick, I will take those few pages of the book and type them into my manuscript format. By running the author’s words through my own fingers and mind, I will learn the trick. I might not use it for three or four novels, and then suddenly, without thinking, I will use it when it needs to be used.

Workshops, if you go at the reading correctly, can teach you the same kind of things. But you have to be focused on what works in a manuscript, and why. Not just a ripping and shredding critique. Those do nothing for you, or the author.

4) WRITE DOWN THE GOOD STUFF. When all of us are being critiqued, the tendency is to only write down what people didn’t like. Kris and I fight to get our students to write down the good stuff we say about their work. It is a constant fight.

Asimov’s Rule: When someone says 9 good things and one bad, the writer will only remember the bad thing.

Fight that rule, only write down the good stuff. Of course, few of you will do that since Asimov’s Rule is so much human nature, but I figured I might as well put that in.

5) Listen carefully to other critiques of other writer’s stories. You will be amazed that another writer in the room will see something in a manuscript that you have read that you didn’t see. Often something good or well-done, sometimes a problem you didn’t see. Since it is not your manuscript, you have no emotional attachment to it, and thus can learn from the comment. Go back into the manuscript to see why you missed it and if you agree. If you do agree, you will have just learned another trick for a future story. In fact, you will learn more by listening to other people critique other writer’s stories than from ever having your own story critiqued.

So, besides those reasons to go to a peer workshop, what is the biggest reason? Put simply:

You are attending the workshop to help make your next story better.

That’s right, there’s nothing a workshop can do to help you fix a story without killing it. But you can learn stuff from a workshop that will help you make your next story better. Your focus always has to be forward, toward learning and writing the next story. (Again, why I mailed my stories before turning them into a workshop. I never cared about that manuscript, it was finished. I did care to learn nifty new stuff that I could use for future manuscripts.)

So, get your mindset away from the myth that a workshop will help you “fix” a manuscript and focus forward. Try to learn everything you can learn to help your next story be better written.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, self promotion, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. Agents


To be clear, I like agents and have no desire to bring them harm. But the myths these days about agents are so thick and have become so ugly to new writers, I figured I had better tackle at least one of them next. And yes, there are more than one.

And in the last 20 years, the biggest myth that has blown up into a damaging myth is that you need an agent to sell a book.

This is, of course, complete hogwash, but I have no doubt some of you reading this are already resisting this idea. You want someone to do the dirty work for you, to do the research, to just “take care of you.” Yeah, that’s going to happen.

So to explain this myth clearly, I need to back up just a touch and run through some history to get to why this myth even exists and then move on into how to fight it.

Basic history. Book agents came over from theater and movies from 1900-1950. They were used by writers to help with the contracts, to get the books into movie and early television (in New York) and overseas, and to go get the coffee. They were simply a lower level employee used by writers to do some of the busy work.

It never occurred to most writers to have an agent sell a book for them. Writers worked directly with the editors, and the idea that anyone needed to be in the middle of that was just thought of as silly. Both the writers and the editors and publishers on the other side never stood for it back in those early agent times.

But then, as the industry got bigger through the baby-boom years, fewer writers lived near New York and thus mailing manuscripts to editors started to become the norm. Editors and writers still worked together, and the agent did the deal, negotiating the contract, helping with contacts overseas and in Hollywood. But up until the early 1990s, book deals between editors and writers were often done across a dinner table with a handshake, with the agent left to deal with the details later.

In fact, about twenty of my early novel deals were done over dinner clear up into the early 1990’s.

Also in those days, in the big New York publishers, there were rooms and rooms full of what is called “slush.”

Now the term “slush pile” came from the early days of publishing. An editor usually sat at his desk and writers brought him work. But when the editor was gone and the office door closed, the writer still wanted to leave the manuscript, so they tossed it through the small window over the door. The top of the door is called a transom, so thus the term “over the transom” came into being.

When the editor returned to the office and pushed open the door, the manuscripts on the floor would be pushed into a pile which looked a lot like a pile of dirty New York snow. Thus the term “slush pile” came about.

In the early 1980s, publishers had tried to slow down the growing wave of manuscripts coming at them by putting requirements that no manuscript be sent unless it was solicited. A simple thing to ignore, and it stopped only the really stupid new writers. Huge rooms of book manuscripts filled New York buildings and many, many assistant editors were hired to dig through the slush to find the gems among all the trash. And many, many major writers you read today came out of those slush piles.

Then in the 1990s lots of things happened in publishing, not the least of which was a complete distribution system collapse. Publishers had to cut back, larger presses ate smaller ones, and at the same time New York real estate prices went up and up and up. Publishers could no longer afford the huge rooms full of slush, or the assistant editors to wade through it all.

At this point in time, agents were doing more and more for writers, and the top writers had very powerful agents, simply because the agents worked for the top writers. (Agents always get their power from their clients. They have no power on their own.)

And also, writers became more of an unknown to publishers, a vast sea of people with a computer and a stamp who thought they could write and should be rich even though they had never spent any time practicing their craft or even learning how to spell. Very few of these new writers ever thought of going to a writer’s conference and actually meeting an editor, so editors became somewhat fearful of the nutballs out there.

Something had to be done to stop this massive wave coming at the money-worried publishers and overworked editors. So someone, somewhere came up with the idea “Let the agents handle it.”

So onto the guidelines went the simple line. “No unagented manuscripts accepted.”

Thus, for the last ten years or more, agents have been getting buried with the vast amount of slush. Older agents went into hiding, knowing their job wasn’t to read slush, and new scam agents popped up everywhere, taking advantage of this new guideline from publishers by milking the writer of their money and crushing their dreams.

Let’s step back for a second and look at the relationship of agent/editor/writer/publisher.

First: A writer sells a publisher a manuscript and there is a contract between the publisher and writer. In simple business terms, the writer produces a product and goes into a partnership with a publisher to produce and distribute the product.


Second: The editor works for the publisher. Paid by the publisher, represents the publisher’s needs.

Third: The agent works for the writer, represents the writer’s needs. Nothing more.

Agents are hired to do certain chores a writer needs done, to help in negotiating contracts, to be a pit bull with late payments, to have connections with Hollywood and maybe overseas, although that job is falling away as well. They are the business contact between the publisher and the writer on business items, leaving the editor and writer to work on the craft side.

So suddenly, because of the situation, the publishers are demanding that a writer hire an employee before they will look at their product.

Excuse me?

Let me look at why this system is about to fail and fail big.

First off, it forces agents by the nature of the requirement to be the gatekeeper for all the bad stuff publishers don’t want. That’s not their job. When I hire an agent, I don’t hire a slush reader doing someone else’s work, I hire someone who negotiates contracts for me and has good contacts. I don’t want MY employee reading slush.

It allows young agents to think they are the boss at times over writers. Of course, no longterm writers think this, and no respected, longer term agent thinks it either, but beginning writers and early professionals fall into this trap, and even go so far as to rewrite a book on demand of their agent.

Excuse me?? If the agent could write, they would be, instead of taking 15% of what a writer makes for writing. Yet beginning writers and young professionals who don’t understand how the business really works fall into this ugly rewriting trap all the time. Agents are your employee, they don’t tell you what to do, you tell them. Duh.

This guideline also helps young agents believe they have a lot more power than they really do, and it makes new writers buy into that belief. I have heard new writer after new writer get excited about “getting an agent” and the agent is 26 years old, a former editor who got laid off, and has hung out a shingle. The new agent wouldn’t know how to negotiate a contract if their life depended on it, let alone have any contacts except for maybe a few people in the place they were fired. But as a former editor, they think they know what makes a book better, so they think their job is to have new writers rewrite. And thus years are wasted and no one makes any money.

Point right here: Anyone can be an agent. There are no rules, no regulations, no training. The old joke is “What does it take to become a book agent? Stationery.”

Yet new writers put their entire business, their entire dreams, their entire hope for a future on someone who only needed stationary to get started. See how silly this all is? And sad.

Also understand that agents are not regulated at all. We all have watched in the financial world how well unregulated people do with money, yet new writers, without research, hire an agent and give them control over all their income. If you don’t think the Madoff types don’t also live in the agent world, you are sadly kidding yourself.

Another reason this system is showing major cracks and about to fail is that editors are not getting the new and innovative books they are looking for. They are not seeing the new talent, the new dangerous voices, because the agents and the system itself are blocking these voices. Often these new voices fall into the rewriting trap shoved on them by a new agent in the business and if the editors see anything, they see the watered-down manuscript that fits into the next vampire/Da Vinci Code want-to-be.

Writer after writer after writer I have met are getting discouraged and when I ask how many editors have rejected their book they say “None. But I sent it to 30 or 40 agents before giving up on it.”

No editor had a chance to buy the book.

Makes me want to cry for all the good books lost in this last decade.

So, a few basics here that are standards of this industry and you can infer what you want from these standards to help your own writing and your own fight against this myth.

1… An agent is your employee and makes 15% of what you earn, nothing more. Their job is not to sell books or help you rewrite it. You are the writer. Trust your own voice and talent. If your employee won’t do as you ask, fire them and find another employee.

2… Money always flows to the writer except for education and research. Never hire an agent, or a book doctor, or any other scam artist and send them money. Money only flows to the writer. Period.

3… Editors need new books. They have to fill a list every month. Just in case your book is the next “big book” they have to look at your pitch or query or pages. If they don’t look and you become the next Dan Brown, they will be fired. Remember, they work for corporations, their job is to find good books, fill lists, make their publisher money, not dismiss a book out of hand because there is no employee on the letterhead.

4… A form rejection these days says simply “We do not take unagented submissions.” It means exactly what every other form rejection in the history of publishing has meant: Nothing. It means that the manuscript, for one reason or another, didn’t fit their line. Maybe your manuscript sucked, or maybe it was brilliant but didn’t fit. (More than likely you haven’t learned how to do a good query letter or decent proposal and no one got to your book to see how good it really was.)

5… Most agents you can get as an unpublished writer is not an agent you are going to want once you actually sell a book. This statement alone kills more writer careers than anything I have watched over the decades.

6… Books sell themselves. Agents can’t force an editor to buy a book. The book has to be good enough and fit the line before it will sell. Nothing more. Having an agent will not give you a magic way in. Actually, it often won’t help you at all find the right publisher, because the agent may have ideas where the book fits and never try a publisher that might be just looking for a book like yours to start something new.

7… Editors never know what they want to buy until they see it. An agent who tells you he or she knows exactly what an editor wants is just full of crap.

8… Agents who blog regularly (Other than a very occasional education blog or guest blog) are dangerous, since they clearly have enough time to not work for their clients. It usually means they are selling very little. Caution!! Think it through. If you had a business and your employee was blogging all the time about your business, would you as an employer stand for that? Not hardly.

Hint: Top agents are hard to find, their agencies have static web sites, and you won’t be able to get one until you have an offer from a major publisher in your hand. Then you simply call them to hire them to help you with the contract and such. (Oh, my, have I stuck my foot into it there. Here come the angry e-mails.)

9…What a publisher is publishing is frighteningly easy to figure out these days by either simply walking into a bookstore and looking at the shelves or going to the publisher’s web site and looking at their book lists. That’s not counting all the writer resources there are these days.

10… Lower level and new agents (meaning someone you can get without a book offer from a publisher) simply mail your book like a writer would mail their own book. It goes into the same piles as everything else the editor gets, including your manuscript that you talked to the editor about at a writer’s conference. But there is something you don’t know. Bad agents are often hated by publishers and editors and anything from that agent is automatically rejected. Also, sure, I agree that sometimes agents have contacts, but often they have made enemies as well, thus cutting off some places you could get to with your manuscript on your own. In other words, if you are letting your agent try to sell your work, sometimes having an agent can be a lot, lot worse than having no agent at all. The chance of this goes up the younger the agent.

11… Young agents don’t know contracts and how to negotiate a contract, which is the main reason you hire an agent. A short time back, I was reading a contract from a student of mine who had gone and gotten a young agent, even though he sold the book himself and could have gotten a top agent when he had the offer in hand. Everything, and I do mean everything, the agent added into the contract hurt the writer and helped the publisher. The young agent was new and a former editor. I have a hunch the young agent forgot which side of the fence he/she was working on. More than likely just didn’t know. Happens all the time I’m afraid. Nothing much I could say to the writer since the deal was already done. The writer had made the decision on the agent that got him a very bad contract.

So, in closing, I would like to state my credits. I have been selling books regularly since 1992 (one in 1988), I have sold almost 100 novels, not quite, but almost. I have been represented by three of publishing’s top agents, one for 17 years. I am friends with all three of them and would call each of them if I had a project I knew fit their interests that I had sold.

I have three years of law school and know contracts, especially publishing contracts, and am an expert on copyright law. However, with only a few exceptions (all work-for-hire that couldn’t be changed) I had an agent represent me for all of my books.

But all that said, I have sold every one of my books myself. None of my agents have ever sold a book for me.

Am I any different than any of you? Nope. I just don’t believe in the myth that an agent has to sell a book. And because of that, I’m still here, publishing regularly, and making a living with my fiction.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, workshops, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting

You MUST rewrite to make something good.

That’s one of the great myths of publishing and is this chapter’s topic. So hang on, this could get interesting.

First off, I want to repeat clearly what I said in the previous chapter:

No writer is the same.

Let me repeat that with a few more words.

No writer works or thinks the same way, and there is no right way to work. Just your way.

That includes speed of writing, style of writing, and most importantly, how you handle rewrites of what you have written.

So, to make sure we are all speaking the same language, let me define a few terms that Kristine Kathryn Rusch and I have used for a long time now, and I will try to use in this discussion.

REDRAFT: That’s when you take the typing you have done and toss it away, then write the story again from your memory of the idea. When you are redrafting, you are working from the creative side of your brain.

REWRITE: That when you go into a manuscript after it is finished in critical voice and start changing things, usually major things like plot points, character actions, style of sentences, and so on. When you rewrite like this, you are working from the critical side of your mind.

TOUCH-UP DRAFT: When you run through a manuscript fixing small things, things you wrote in notes while writing, things your trusted first reader found. Often very small things or typos. This draft takes almost no time, often less than a day for a full novel, sometimes only a few hours.

SPELL-CHECKING DRAFT: Since so many of us work with our grammar-checkers and spell-checkers off, we need a spell-check draft, often done before given to a first reader. This often takes a an hour or so for a full novel.

Now, let me say right up front here that I am a three-draft writer. Most long-term pros are that I have talked to in private. Not all, since we all work differently, but a vast majority of the ones I have talked to use a process very near mine.

My process: First draft I do as quickly as I can, staying solidly as much as possible in my creative side, adding in things I think about as I go along, until I get to the end of the draft. Again, I try to write as fast as the project will allow since I have discovered a long time ago that the faster I type, the less chance I have to get in my own way and screw things up.

Second draft I spellcheck and then give to my trusted first reader.

Third draft I touch up all the things my first reader has found and then I mail the novel or story. If my first reader hates the story, I toss the draft away and redraft completely.

That’s my process. I am a three-draft writer. (Unless I need to redraft, then I am a six-draft writer.)

Some more basic information about writers before I go any farther. There is a way of describing and dividing writers into two major camps. Taker-outers and putter-inners. In other words, a taker-outer is a writer who over-writes the first time through, then goes back and takes things out.

As a putter-inner, I write thin (my poetry background still not leaving me alone) and then as I go along, I cycle back and add in more and then cycle again and add in more, staying in creative voice, just floating around in the manuscript as I go along. Some people of this type make notes as they go along and then go back in a touch-up draft and put stuff in.

Okay, so terms down, on to the major topic.

So, what’s the great myth about rewriting?

Put simply, our colleges and our training and New York editors and agents all think that rewriting can make something better. Most of the time this is just wrong, flat wrong when it comes to fiction. It might be right with poetry, or non-fiction or essays, but with fiction, it can hurt you if you believe this completely and let it govern your process.

But again, all writers are different, so sometimes a writer just works with a ton of rewrites. Or at least that’s their public face.

As Algis Budrys once said to me about rewriting, “No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.”

So, let’s take some new writer hoping to write a book that will sell at some point. This writer does the near impossible for most new writers and actually finishes the book. That’s a huge success, but instead of just sending the book off and starting on a second book, this poor new writer has bought into the myth that everything must be rewritten before it can be good.

All beginning fiction writers believe this, and you hear it in comments like “Oh, it’s not very good yet. Oh, it needs to be polished. Oh, it was JUST a first draft and can’t be any good.” I even hear that come out of some newer professional writer’s mouths. I never hear it from long-term pros (over 20 plus years making a living).

Of course, for the beginning writer, the first book just isn’t very good most of the time. Duh, it’s a first novel. Let me refer you back to Algis Budrys’ comment. More than likely the book is flawed beyond rescue, but the writer won’t know that, and the first reader won’t be able to help “fix” anything besides typos and grammar.

So, what is the new writer to do at this point with a finished novel? Simple. Mail it to editors who could buy it. (I’ll deal with the “Need an Agent to Sell a Book” myth in a future chapter.)

That’s right, I said mail it. To a New York EDITOR. (I can just hear the voices screaming now. “But, it’s no good! It needs a rewrite! I can’t mail something that’s flawed to an editor!!!” And thus the myth has a stranglehold on you.)

The great thing about editors is that we can’t remember bad stories. We just reject them and move on. Most of us, over the years and decades, have bought so much, we have a hard time remembering everything and everyone we bought. So you have nothing to lose by mailing it and everything to gain, just in case it happens to be good enough to sell.

Just because the book is bad doesn’t mean someone will come to your house and arrest you. Editors do not talk about manuscripts that don’t work, and no one can shoot you. So get past the fear and just mail it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

One true thing about writing that is a firm rule: There is no perfect book. (No matter what some reviewer wants to think.)

Also, there is a very true saying about writers that I will deal with in another chapter. Writers are the worst judges of their own work. Why is that? Because, simply, we wrote it and we know what was supposed to be on the page. It might not be, but we think it is. We just can’t tell.

So, after the book is in the mail to a number of editors, start writing the next book, go to workshops and writer’s conferences to learn storytelling skills, learn business, and meet people. But keep writing that second book. Trust me, it will be a lot better than the first one, especially if you just trust yourself and write it.

When it is done, go celebrate again, then fix the typos and such and mail it to an editor who might buy it, and then start writing again. A writer is a person who writes.

Rewriting is not writing. Yeah, I know what your English professor tried to tell you. Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less.

And what is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become, and with each story, each novel, you are telling better and better stories. It’s called “practice” but again, no writer likes to think about that evil word.

Robert Heinlein’s business rules have worked for many, many of us for decades and decades, and his rules go simply:

1) You must write.
2) You must finish what you write.
3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.
4) You must mail your work to someone who can buy it.
5) You must keep the work in the mail until someone buys it.

Those rules do seem so simple, and yet are so hard to follow at times. They set out a simple practice schedule and a clear process of what to do with your practice sessions when finished. But for this chapter, note rule #3. Harlan Ellison added to rule #3. “You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.” Harlan: And then only if you agree.

Let me be clear here. Trust a New York editor if they ask you to rewrite. Not an agent, not your workshop, not your spouse, no matter how loving. But if a New York editor, who can pay you money for your book, asks for a rewrite and sends you a rewrite letter, you do EXACTLY as they say, fixing the things you agree with and telling them clearly why you didn’t agree with other things. Do not add in more stuff, do not rewrite to your workshop. Just do what the editor asked and send it back. New York editors are super readers, they know their book lines, they know their markets. It’s their day job, so if you have a project that comes close and they want a rewrite to get it on house target, do it. Nothing more. And only what you agree with, as Harlan Ellison said.

An agent can not write a check for you, has no book line, and wants everything to be an easy sell. Do not rewrite to agent suggestion. (More on that in a future chapter on Agent Myths.)

Speaking of Harlan, many of you know that over the decades he has tried to prove this point (and many others) to people. He would go into a bookstore, have someone give him a title or idea, then on a manual typewriter, he would sit in the bookstore window and write a short story, taping the finished pages on the window for everyone to read. He never rewrote any of those stories. He fixed a typo or two, but that’s it. And many of those stories won major awards in both science fiction and mystery. All first draft, written fast, in a window while people watched every word.

I know, I was going to publish a three-volume set of these award-winning stories written in public back when I was doing Pulphouse Publishing, but alas, he was still writing them, a new one almost every other week at that point, and the book never got out before we shut down. He’s done enough since then to fill two more books at least.

Every writer is different. I would have a tough time doing what Harlan does, but alas, it does prove the point that rewriting does not necessarily make a story better. And when you win as many awards in science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and mainstream fiction as Harlan has, you can argue with him. But trust me, if you are rewriting everything to death, that will never happen.

So how come rewriting makes stories worse instead of better?

Back to understanding how the brain works. The creative side, the deep part of our brain, has been taking in story, story structure, sentence structure, character voice, and everything else for a very long time, since each of us read our first book. It’s that place where our author voice comes from, where the really unique ideas come from.

The critical side of the brain is full of all the crap you learned in high school, everything your college teachers said, what your workshop said, and the myths you have bought into. It is also full of the fear that comes out in “I can’t show this to friends.” Or, “What would my mother think?” That is all critical side thinking that makes you take a great story and dumb it down.

In pure skill level, the critical side is far, far behind the creative side of your brain.

So, on a scale of one-to-ten, with ten being the top, the creative skills of a new writer with very few stories under his belt, if left alone, will produce early on a story about six or seven. However, at that point the writer’s critical skills are lagging far behind, so if written critically, a new writer would create a story about four on the scale. So take a well-written story that first draft was a seven on the scale, then let a new writer rewrite it and down the level comes to five or so.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a great story ruined by a number of things associated with this myth.

For example, take a great story, run it through a workshop, then try to rewrite it to group think. Yow, does it become dull, just as anything done by committee is dull.

Or worse yet, take a first chapter or two of a novel to a workshop and watch them ruin a good work in progress. Rule here is never let anyone see a work in progress. Ever. Run from workshops like that, and read-aloud workshops. All worthless, even for audience reaction. (More in a future chapter about the myth of writing workshops.)

I helped start and run a beginners workshop when I was first starting out. None of us had a clue, but we were all learning fast. I would write a story a week (all I could manage with three jobs at the time) and mail it, then turn it into my workshop for audience reaction.

That’s right, I mailed it before I gave it to my workshop.

And I sold a few stories that the workshop said failed completely, which taught me a lot, actually. If I had listened to them, I never would have made some of those early sales.

If you would like to see a first draft of one of my early stories, pick up Volume #1 of Writers of the Future. I was in the middle of moving from Portland to the Oregon Coast , actually packing the truck, when my then-wife, Denie, asked me if I had the story done for Writers of the Future that Algis Budrys had told me was starting up. I said no, the mailing deadline was the next day and I didn’t have time.

Thankfully, Denie insisted I go finish it while she packed. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t even started it yet and had no idea what to write. I put the typewriter on a partially dismantled desk, sat on the edge of the bed, and wrote the story from start to finish having no idea what I was writing or where the story was going. Three hours later I finished the story called “One Last Dance” and mailed it on a dinner break.

That’s right, it was a first draft on a typewriter. No spell-checker, no first reader, nothing. Algis Budrys and Jack Williamson loved it and put it into the first volume, and because of that story, I ended up meeting Kris a couple of years later after Denie and I had broken up. I also got lots of wonderful trips and money and a great workshop from that three hour draft.

All because I had the courage to write and mail first draft. I trusted my creative skills, I trusted my voice, and I was lucky enough to have someone who gave me support at that point in the writing.

Another point: Every year, editor Denise Little and I prove the same point again to early career writers. We force them to write a short story overnight to an anthology idea and deadline, and those quickly written stories are always better than the ones the same writers wrote before the workshop.

Even though I believed this in theory and with my own writing, I was shocked when this happened at the first Denise Little workshop. It has happened every year since. Only one writer, who loves rewriting, was better rewriting than not. Only one out of almost 60 writers now. Again, all writers are different, but for the most part, the human brain works the same for most of us.

The creative side is just a better writer than the critical side, no matter what the critical side tries to tell you. Remember, the critical side has a voice, usually a voice of restraint and worry, but the creative side, as Kris likes to say, is your two-year-old child. It has no voice of reason and no way to fight. But if you let the child just play and get out of its way and stop trying to put your mother’s or father’s voice on everything it does, you will be amazed at what you create.

One more point.

Every writer is different, granted, but I have only met a few writers who really, really love to rewrite. Most find it horrid and a ton of work, but we all, with almost no exception, love to write original stuff.

If you can get past the myth of rewriting, writing becomes a lot more fun. Following Heinlein’s Rules is a ton of fun, actually. And you end up selling a lot of stuff as well.

However, this myth is so deep, I imagine many of you are angry at me at this moment, and trust me, even if you get past this myth in private, out in public you will need to lie.

That’s right, I just told a bunch of fiction writers to lie. Go figure. Maybe you don’t need to go as far as Hemingway and tell people that you write standing up. But you need to hide your process. I know one writer who at writer’s conferences tells people with a straight face he does upwards of ten drafts. I knew better and one day, in private, I asked him why he said that.

He just shrugged. “I like making my audience happy, so I tell them what they want to believe about me. It makes them believe my books and stories are worth more if I tell them I rewrote them ten times.”

So, out in public, you will hear me say simply that I am a three-draft writer. It’s the truth. I write a first draft, I spell-check the manuscript as a second draft, and I fix the typos and small details my first reader finds as a third draft.

And after 90 novel sales and a hundred plus short story sales, it seems to be working just fine. For me, anyway. Every writer is different.

But if you are rewriting and not selling, try to stop rewriting and just mail your work. You might be stunned at what happens.

Just remember, the writing process has nothing to do with the finished work. Never tell anyone you “cranked that off” or that it’s a “first draft.” Let them believe you worked like a ditch digger on the story, rewrote it 50 times, workshopped it a dozen times, and struggled over every word. Won’t hurt.

And getting rid of this myth for yourself sure might help your writing. And make writing a ton more fun.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on agents, bestsellers, workshops, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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Class #11… Aug 8th … The Business of Writing
Class #12… Aug 8th … Character Voice/Setting
Class #13… Aug 8th … Adding Suspense to Your Writing
Class #14… Aug 8th … Ideas into Stories
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#1... Heinlein's Rules... Dean Wesley Smith 15 videos... $75.00

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#18... How to Think Like a Science Fiction Writer Lecture... Kristine Kathryn Rusch....11 videos... $50.00

#19... Why Some Books Sell More Than Other Books... Dean Wesley Smith.... 9 videos... $50.00

#20... How to Write a Page Turning Novel or Story: Basics and Tricks ... Dean Wesley Smith.... 8 videos... $50.00

#21... The Basics of Designing Science Fiction Covers ... Allyson Longueira .... 8 videos... $50.00

#22... The Basics of Designing Mystery, Cozy, or Thriller Covers ... Allyson Longueira .... 8 videos... $50.00

#23... Paying the Price: A Working Writer's Mindset ... Dean Wesley Smith.... 10 videos... $50.00

#24... Writing into the Dark: The Tricks and Methods of Writing Without an Outline... Dean Wesley Smith... 12 videos... $50.00

#25... Reviews: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly... Dean Wesley Smith... 10 videos... $50.00

#26... Organization... Allyson Longueira... 8 videos... $50.00

#27... Confidence... Dean Wesley Smith... 10 videos... $50.00

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