Monthly archives for June, 2011

Chapter Six: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Researching Fiction

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


Researching for a short story or novel is one of what I call the half-truth myths. Yet I have known writer after writer that have had entire careers stopped cold by this myth. It takes a writer a certain time and distance to find the right half-way-point with research in fiction.

So let me see if I can make some sense out of this.

Fact: Nonfiction writing requires you get it right, that you have your research done correctly in all ways and even documented correctly. No discussion on that at all. If you are writing nonfiction, research is not only a part of the process, it might be the most important part.

But this chapter, and all the chapters in this book, talk about fiction writing, and that’s where research jumps into the problem area. In fact, recently I was teaching a workshop with young professionals and this topic came up as a pretty solid roadblock for one of the writers. Of course, that writer was a full-time nonfiction writer and was carrying over the belief system into the fiction.

So let me repeat here clearly what I told that writer. If you have this myth issue, print this out as a big sign and put it over your computer.


Yup, I shouted that. Fiction, by its very definition is made up. Duh.

So now comes the really ugly word that I had to look up to spell right:

Verisimilitude: An appearance of being true.

That’s the exact definition from my dear old Oxford American Dictionary.

So, in fiction, we writers make stuff up. I give my job description as a person who sits alone in a room and makes stuff up.

But what I make up needs to have the appearance of being true, if not in detail, in character action and emotions. It doesn’t have to be true to some tiny fraction of the reading public, but it has to feel right to everyone else.

There is where the myth is true and not true.

In every story we need enough detail to make it feel right. That does not mean it has to be right, it just has to feel right.

Now details are easy when dealing with alien cultures in a science fiction novel, really hard when writing a period historical. No reader cares that you make up some gun or some uniform in space, as long as you make it seem logical to the society you are writing about. But historical readers who love certain historical time periods will care when you bring matches in a few decades too soon. Or heaven forbid have the wrong gun.

So why am I calling this a myth?

For the simple reason that I have heard over and over and over young writers use this research myth as an excuse to not write. The statement goes something like this:

“I can’t get to that story. I just have too much research to do.”

Of course, that writer never writes because every story that writer picks has too much research to do. That writer clearly isn’t a writer, but a researcher, and should realize that and go get a job doing what they love: researching.

Or, more likely, the person is afraid for one of many reasons to actually write and actual finish a story. And doing research sounds like such a noble excuse to tell your family and workshop.

Research is safer than actually writing.

But if your dream is to be a fiction writer, sit down and make stuff up. Follow Heinlein’s Rules. It really is that simple.

Or, let it put it as bluntly as I can:

Writers with the problem of never writing because of research have chosen to not write.


As with many things in writing, the answer is “It depends on the story you are writing.”

But I can safely say this after listening to other writers for decades on this topic and knowing my own patterns with research:

You will almost always do too much.

Again, you just have to do enough to make it feel right to the large majority of your readers. And trust me, putting in all your research is mostly just dull. In fact, if you are getting feedback on stories that go “You have too many information dumps,” then you might want to try writing a story without any research.

That might not be the problem, but often it is. We are all human. Once we do all that work on research and spend all that time, we want it in the book.

Truth: Most research you do does not belong in your story.

A general rule is to do just enough research to feel comfortable writing about the topic in a fiction story.


1…Write for the majority or readers, not a small faction.

For example, when using a medical procedure, make it feel right, but don’t try to write for an MD who does practice. That way lies madness, and you won’t get it right anyway. Write just enough so that it feels correct to layman.

Another example is the CSI programs on television. Anyone who knows anything about lab techs in crime labs know they are not front-line detectives, but for the sake of fiction, the authors combined crime lab techs and detectives into one person to make interesting FICTION. They use cool machines that no city can afford in real life, and everything is done in minutes instead of months. But again, IT’S FICTION! And sometimes pretty good fiction, as far as story goes.

So stop writing for the minority and write for the majority of us who just like a good story told well.

2…If you need to do research to get it to feel right, do that while writing another story.

I am often researching a project ahead of writing it, as I should if the story needs it. But does that mean I don’t write? Nope. I research one project while finishing up another. Therefore, research never gets in the way of writing.

Here is the statement that gets me and Kris is so much trouble so often. Ready?

Researching is not writing.

If you have carved out writing time, spend it creating new words.

3…You run across a detail you don’t know when writing.

And say you can’t find it quickly, just leave a white space where the detail is needed and make a note to add it in when you run through with your fix draft. Then research it after you are done with the story.

4…Make it up and move on.

Yup, I said that. It’s fiction, so if you don’t know something, pretend like you do, pretend like your character knows exactly what they are talking about, write it so it feels real (verisimilitude), and move on. 99% of your readers won’t notice and those that do notice aren’t really your readers.

5…Pick story ideas that don’t need research.

Let me simply say, “Duh.” I am a master at this art. My wife has a degree in history. I have a degree in Architecture. Which one of us loves research would you assume? She is always doing research and often helps me when I need something quickly. She loves it. I try to pick stories that need no research for the most part. She likes doing research to feel comfortable in writing. I don’t need that comfort factor to the same degree as an historian would.

Back to what I have said in every chapter: Every writer is different.

I just recently finished a wonderful project set in Milwaukee, WI and the city and areas in the city were critical to the book. The editor on board lived there and offered to help with anything I needed about the city and I was constantly back and forth with him getting details on his wonderful city. In fact, a couple of times he had to go look at a neighborhood for me. So getting help is another clue, but I was writing and working on the book and other stories at the same time.

But again, try to find projects that don’t need research if research stops you from writing. It really is that simple.


Just to be clear, I am saying that some projects in fiction require some research and it needs to be done, but not all projects require research, so you should never, ever, let research stop your writing.

If you hear yourself say, “I can’t write this book until I do the research.” And you are not writing something, anything else, then this belief system of needing to do research is slowing you down or stopping you. And that’s when research in fiction turns into an ugly sacred cow.

And why this chapter needed to be in this book.

When all else fails, just remember:



Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean


Chapter Four: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting Part Two

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


Okay, for the second time early in this book, I’m going to dive into the rewriting myth.  But please, before you go any farther, please go read the first chapter on rewriting. You can find it here.

(Note: The workshop chapter in the book, the former chapter four, will follow this new chapter four. The fun of putting together a book like this puzzle.)

Okay, this chapter came about because of an exchange in the comments on the first rewriting chapter about not worrying about writing what is hot, just write your own stuff. It suddenly became clear to me that when Heinlein and others, including me, tell writers to not rewrite, a brand new myth appears.

Myth: Without rewriting, the manuscript is sloppy and full of errors.

Or flipped over: Myth: Rewriting must be done a number of times to make a manuscript clean.

Both, of course, are just silly because no writer is the same. All of us work differently. (I’m going to be saying that a great deal in this chapter.) And often rewriting introduces many errors into manuscripts that were not there before.

If a so-called professional writer turns in a sloppy manuscript full of errors, they are not being professional. But that does not mean they must rewrite beyond a fix-typos draft. So here we go into the rewriting myth part two.

Types of professional selling writers.

1) Rewriters. This type of professional writer usually does a fast first draft, usually thin, then goes back in second and third and more drafts layering in more and more and more story and detail and everything. This type of writer is called an adder-inner and the drafts are done with creative voice in control, not critical voice. This is a learned skill and from my observation almost always fails with new writers because they don’t know what they are fixing. And they always take out their own voice that makes their stories unique.

2) Three-drafters. This type of writer fires hard all the way through the manuscript, putting everything they can think of at the moment. Then in a second run-through, they take out what is repeated, often shift chapters around like a puzzle. Then a first reader reads it and they fix problems and mail. This method only works for professionals also because that second draft must be done in creative mind-set as well, and that’s flat hard to do. These folks are often called taker-outers.

3) Cyclers. This is often a one draft writer, but the draft is cycled through a number of times. I fit right here. I start and go for a ways until I bog down, then cycle back and run at the place I stopped, often tweaking and fixing as I go until I get up to speed and keep typing new until I bog down again. When I get to the end I have a first reader read it, fix the mistakes they catch, and mail. This method is a little easier for newer writers because they naturally stay in creative voice more often. The difficulty they have with this method is not touching it after they are done. Trust in your own craft and voice comes from a lot of years of writing and success.

4) Pure One-Drafters. This is where Harlan Ellison and others working on manual typewriters fit. This type of writer is a master of storytelling and craft and sentence structure and everything else. They make few mistakes because when they type, they are clear on what they want to put down. Computers have killed this type of writer for the most part, and replaced it with the Cycler types like me.


What have I been talking about anyway when I say follow Heinlein’s Rules, including #3? What is the definition of rewriting in fiction, because it sure seems that the examples above are mostly of professionals rewriting in one form or another. Well, sort of.

Notice a couple of details in my above examples:

1) I am talking about professional writers.

2) All are working solidly in creative voice.

Creative voice is the white-hot heat you feel when creating. Sometimes, granted, it burns like an ember and it doesn’t feel so hot, other times it is a rushing fire of words. But the words always come out of the creative side of your brain. That is the key, learning how to stay completely, no matter what method you use, in the creative side of your brain.

Long-term professional writers like me can turn the creative voice on instantly. I call it a “switch on my butt.” When I sit down in front of my writing computer (different from my e-mail computer) I automatically just drop into creative mindset. It takes time to train that switch, but after millions and millions of words, it becomes automatic.

The critical side of your brain is where your English teacher lives, where that awful book by Strunk and White lives, where your workshop and all their voices lives. The critical side of your brain wants you to write safe stuff, wants it to not offend anyone or go outside of any rule. The critical side of your head thinks your own voice is dull and will always work to take it out.

No professional writer I have ever met writes quality fiction out of their critical side. No matter how many drafts they do. All drafts are done in creative voice except for the last draft of fixing mistakes found by a first reader.

Stages of Writers

Stage One: A beginning writer is only concerned about proper grammar and pretty words and wouldn’t understand storytelling if it bit them. They think perfect grammar and spelling makes good writing and are just confused when their attempts at stories get rejected. This writer will polish and polish and polish to make sure every sentence is perfect with no regard at all for story.

In Stage One, if a story is written in white hot creative voice, the writer instantly gets worried about it because it seemed “too easy” and it was written “too fast” so it must be garbage and therefore the writer polishes all the good stuff out of it to make it “perfect” sentence-by-sentence writing.

(Yeah, I know, that hit home. We all did it in the beginning. I was no exception.)

Stage Two: A second stage writer is still concerned more with sentences than with story, but slowly the idea that character development must come in, that pacing might be important, that storytelling is what sells stories. All that starts to dawn on this stage of writer. But the focus is still on polishing those words to a shining examples of “perfect” writing.

More stories in this stage are written in creative voice than in stage one, but the writer has yet to learn to trust that voice, so they polish all the good stuff and their own voice out in critical voice. Also the writer still doesn’t understand enough about story to not take out the good stuff. Rewriting is a learned skill and at this level a writer doesn’t know how to do it. And in this stage any attempt at rewriting comes out of the critical side.

Stage Three: This is where most early professionals live, selling professionals with under a dozen novels published. Here the writer has made the jump from not worrying so much about sentences, but more about storytelling and character and setting and emotion and pacing so much more. This jump is made somewhere around a million words, different for every pro, but it takes some sort of awakening to make this jump.

By this point most stories are written in creative voice, and the writer is learning what method works for him or her. At this point the different styles of professional writers start to separate out as each writer finds what works and sells.

Also, at this stage, the focus on story and other pacing and such by the writer causes rewrites to remain mostly in creative voice. However, when a newer professional in this area, such as the ones we teach here in workshops, get worried, they drop back to stage two critical polish and hurt their own stories. They have the skills, but they don’t yet trust them under pressure and drop into critical voice rewrite, which always dulls down a story.

Critical voice rewriting, called “polishing” by beginning writers, always kills or dulls a story.

Stage Four: This stage includes me and Kris. This stage is full of the longer-term professionals. We know how to write stories that sell. We know how to rewrite in creative voice if we need to or want to. We are focused only on story.

I takes almost no attention for writers in this stage to produce clean manuscripts because we have our methods down and we have worked for decades learning how to create clean manuscripts. I cycle, Laura Resnick does many drafts working story into shape and cleaning, my wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an taker-outer, powering first draft and then putting things together and cleaning. We all do “fix-mistake” drafts, even the pure “one draft” writers. I saw one of Harlan’s manuscripts that actually had three corrections in ten pages. He read it, found three mistakes and corrected them. He had done a basic “fix-mistake” draft.

So, when Heinlein was talking to new writers in his article and came up with the five business rules of writing, he wasn’t talking to long-term established professionals of his day. Those writers already were set and knew what they were doing. He was talking to stage one and stage two writers.

Heinlein’s Rules

1) Write

2) Finish what you write.

3) Never rewrite unless to editorial demand.

4) Mail what you write to someone who can buy it.

5) Keep it in the mail until someone buys it.

Five very simple, yet very tough business rules of writing. They work.

But #3 is where everyone in this myth-heavy world has the most problems.

To a Stage One and Stage Two writer, who has no skills at rewriting, my way of looking at Heinlein’s Rule #3 is this:

In the early stages you are better off just trusting your natural instincts, your natural voice, write on the creative side, and then just let it go to an editor. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Sure, make it as clean as you can with a first reader catching mistakes. I had Nina Kiriki Hoffman catching my mistakes early on, and then Kris over the last twenty-five years.

But trust your voice. Stage One and Stage Two writers and many in Stage Three don’t know how to rewrite a manuscript and stay in creative voice. To those writers, rewrite means a hard, critical eye on the manuscript to “fix” it. Worst thing you can do.

Some reasons why rewriting in critical voice is so bad.

1) Your voice is dull to your ears and your eye. But it is there when you write from the creative side. It is what makes your story unique. But then in critical voice rewrite, your conscious brain takes out all the dullness to make the story better, and thus takes out your voice. In reality, what you are doing by taking what you think is dull out is making your story same and very dull.

2) When you write creatively, you know story because you have read millions of words of story. So you automatically write in story. But then when you switch to critical brain, you drop down to the word and sentence level. You ignore story and start fixing things that take the story, the pacing, the character out of your story.

3) Fiction is not written in perfect Oxford English. When writing creative side, your brain knows this. But when you switch to critical side, your English teacher pops in and puts fiction into perfect English and thus makes it dull and stilted.

4) When in the early stages of learning how to create story, you don’t understand story or character or setting or anything on a conscious level.

In one workshop last year someone asked a question about how to get setting into an example we were looking at. I turned to the board and wrote “Opinion.”

All setting is opinion. Can’t be anything else, because all story is told through the eyes of a character, therefore all setting must be opinion of that character. Seemed obvious to me, but it floored a large number of the younger professionals in the room.

When you are early in the learning, you don’t know story or setting or character or character voice or how most everything works. You might understand you need it, but you don’t know how to put it in purposefully from the critical side of your brain.

However, your creative side knows how to layer it in. The key is that you have to learn how to trust it.

Of course, no new writer does. The rewriting myth is too strong.

5) A writer is the worst judge of their own work. This is the biggest killer and the biggest argument for not rewriting anything (besides fixing mistakes a first reader finds).

Why can’t a writer see their own work? Because the story is in the writer’s head.

The story is clear to the writer because the writer put those little black code marks on the page to tell a reader the story. But to a reader those little black code marks might mean something very different. However, when the writer picks up the page covered in black marks the writer sees the full blown story in his mind.

It takes a lot of writing and feedback to understand how certain words, certain ways of putting words on a page, certain patterns in the black code marks effect readers. A top writer knows how to code these black marks on a page so that a retired woman in Florida reads the EXACT same story as a dock worker in Chicago or a teenager in LA. If the writer did his job correctly, they all read the same story and have the same reaction to the story.

You can not do that kind of work out of critical voice. It has to come from the subconscious and then after years of practice.

But remember, as a writer, when you look at your own writing, the story just appears back in your head. You have no way of knowing if those marks actually convey the story you want to thousands or millions of people. You are the worst judge of your own work.

6) A writer’s experience in writing a story has nothing at all to do with the quality of the final product.

This kills most first and second stage writers, and hurts third level pros as well. The best way to see this is sit down and as fast as you can write a story, not looking back until you get to the end. Then print it out and have a first reader find the typos and such without giving feedback on the story, fix those mistakes and then get ready to mail it. At that moment your experience of writing the story will overwhelm you. The myths will flood in and you will be convinced that because you wrote the story fast and didn’t rewrite it, didn’t even look back at it, the story will be crap.

On the flip side, you are in a section of a story or book and you struggle like crazy over it and it feels like writing it was like going to the dentist. You found yourself avoiding it and standing in front of the sink doing dishes to avoid writing the scene. When it is done, you are convinced it is crap.

But alas, it might be in both cases, or it might not be in both cases. Your experience writing the words have nothing to do with the final quality of the writing. As Neil Gaiman said, “It should matter, but it doesn’t.” If you start letting the experience of the writing influence you on what you do with your fiction, you are doomed.

No two writers work the same.

Laura Resnick and I are both long-term stage-four professionals. We know how to do this stuff and we know our own methods. Laura knows how to rewrite in a number of drafts holding creativity at the same time. I know how to cycle and finish in one draft. We both produce clean manuscripts. And we both do “fix-mistake” final drafts.

If you talk to a hundred other long term professional fiction writers, you will find there is no one “right way” of doing anything. We are all different.

So, that said, here is my take (my opinion) on what I think new writers should do to advance their craft and find their own way.

1) Do not rewrite at all past a fix draft. If a new writer doesn’t rewrite will they produce a sellable story after a “fix-mistake” draft? Maybe, but not likely.

Will a new writer produce a sellable story with five rewrites? Never.

For the reasons I stated above. They don’t know how to rewrite in creative voice, don’t know story, and will take what little is original out of the story. So I suggest that in the early years new writers follow Heinlein’s rules and not rewrite. It’s why he wrote them down and why they have worked for many writers over the years.

2) I am NOT saying turn in a flawed manuscript. Fix the typos a trusted first reader finds. But let the story you wrote in a creative white heat stand. It will show your real voice, your real talent, and then after you get a bunch of words and experience and learning under your belt, you will find which method works best for you in the long run.

3) This trusting the voice will take extreme courage and very few writers can do it. From 1975 until 1982 I bought into all these myths solidly. I thought writing slow was writing well, I thought rewriting a dozen times had to be done. Of course I was a stage two writer and had no idea what I was doing. Then I started reading how long term professionals did it. Not what they said in public, but how they actually did it. And besides a clean-up fix-typos draft, I stopped rewriting and I started selling within one year. I learned to trust my own creative voice because my critical voice didn’t know crap about writing anything that would sell.

So check in with yourself. If you are not selling and you are rewriting, try sending out your stories or publishing them on Kindle with only the typos fixed. It will take a vast amount of courage. To do that you will have to overcome decades of English teachers and myths.

In the early years of writing trust Heinlein and his five simple rules of writing. He knew what he was talking about.

Besides, you can always start rewriting later if you really want.

When you know what you are doing.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean


Chapter Five: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Workshops

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


I believe writers’ workshops, when used correctly, are a good tool for a writer.

When used for the wrong reason, they are destructive beyond all measure.

Big Workshop Myth


Of course, that’s total hogwash, but many writers go into a workshop thinking just that. And not just thinking it. Believing it!

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, John Helfer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and I do a workshop sort of in this form almost every year. Everyone writes stories to order for an anthology assignment, and then everyone reads everyone else’s stories, but only Denise, John, Kris and I talk about each story coming from an editor’s slant and if we would buy the story or not.

I pretend I am buying for Pulphouse Magazine, Kris pretends she is buying for F&SF, John and Denise are anthology editors. This helps everyone understand why a story is bought or not, and can help them match their own reading experience with four professional 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 to other professional level writers, 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 last 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.

The Good Reasons to Attend a Workshop

So, why go to a workshop at all if the workshop can’t help me “fix” my work of art? 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.

And you have to have your reasons for attending very clearly laid out. And kept in focus every week, because the peer pressure to do otherwise will be awful.

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.

And not once did a critique bother me. Why? 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. By the way, if you do this, don’t tell your workshop you are doing it. Because they believe they are helping you “fix” your story, they will be insulted.

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 the trick on this reason is that you 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 the writer 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 on a new story. 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 kind of critiques 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. Ignore the bad stuff AND NEVER WRITE IT DOWN.


Of course, few of you will do that since Asimov’s Rule is strong 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. Nothing.

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.


If you can’t use a workshop correctly, they are too dangerous to you as an artist to get near.

Besides, letting people beat up on your work is just no fun. If you aren’t learning how to write the next story better, what’s the point, anyway?

Have fun with your writing. And always work toward the next story.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean

Chapter Three. Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rewriting

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


The Myth, simply put: You MUST rewrite to make something good.

That’s one of the great myths of publishing. And one of the worst and most destructive to fiction writers.

First off, I want to repeat clearly what I said in the previous two chapters in different ways:

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’s 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 the manuscript is 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 “three draft” writers 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 if I just keep typing, 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.)

More Basic Information About Writers

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?

First, 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.

Secondly, it makes writers think there is only one “right” way of writing. And that if you don’t fit into that way and rewrite everything, you are doing something wrong. That kind of thinking kills more good writers than I can imagine, and I can imagine a great deal. And have watched first hand it kill more than I want to remember.

All writers are different, so sometimes a writer works with a ton of rewrites. Sometimes a writer just does one draft.

A Wonderful Conversation with a Master

One fine evening I was having a conversation with Algis Budrys about rewriting and why so many new writers believed the myth. He shrugged and said, “They don’t know any better and no one has the courage to tell them.”  So I asked him if he ever thought rewriting could fix a flawed story. His answer was clear and I remember it word-for-word to this day: “No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.”

If you ever worry about not fixing a story because you didn’t rewrite it, just put that quote on your wall.

So, as an example, let’s take some new writer hoping to write a book that will sell at some point. This new 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. (It makes the new writer feel like a “real writer” if they rewrite because all “real writers” rewrite.)

All beginning fiction writers believe this myth, and you hear it in comments about their novel 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. It might be great, but it also might be crap. (Let me refer you back to Algis Budrys’ comment.) More than likely the first 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. Or indie publish it yourself.

That’s right, I said, “Mail it or publish it. To a New York EDITOR or up on Kindle.”

Awkkk!!!   Has Dean lost it?

I can just hear the voices in your heads screaming now…

“But, it’s no good! It needs a rewrite! It might be a steaming pile of crap. I can’t mail something that’s flawed to an editor!!!”

Or you indie published writers are thinking…

“I can’t publish a book that’s flawed or readers will hate me!!!!”

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. And if it isn’t, WE WON’T REMEMBER.

And readers on Kindle have a wonderful thing called “sampling.” If the book sucks, oh, trust me, no reader but your family will buy it. And at that point you don’t have a “career” to kill anyway. (Future chapter on that myth.)

Just because the book is bad doesn’t mean someone will come to your house and arrest you if you mail it or publish it. Editors do not talk about manuscripts that don’t work and readers never buy or read them. And honestly, no one can shoot you for publishing it.

So get past the fear and just mail it. Or publish it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. (What happens if it is wonderful and will make you a million?)

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. A future myth chapter.)

If You Don’t Rewrite, How Can You Learn?

You have to write new material to learn. No one ever learned how to be a creative writer by rewriting. Only by writing.

So, after the book is in the mail to a number of editors or published on Kindle, start writing the next book, go to workshops and writer’s conferences to learn storytelling skills, learn business, and meet people.

Study how other writers do things.

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 and don’t fall into the myth of rewriting.

When it is done, go celebrate again, then fix the typos and such and mail it to an editor who might buy it or get it on Kindle, 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. But if your English Professor could make a living writing fiction, they would have been doing it.

Putting new and original words on a page is writing. Nothing more, and nothing less. Research is not writing. Rewriting is not writing. Talking to other writers is not writing.

And what you will discover is amazing is that the more you write, the better your skills become. 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.

Well, if you want to be a professional fiction writer, it’s time to bring the word “practice” into your speaking. On your next novel, make it a practice session for cliffhangers. Mail the novel and then work on practicing something different on the next story or novel. And so on.

Follow Heinlein’s Business Rules

I believe that a writer is a person who writes. An author is a person who has written.

I want to always be a writer, so I have, since 1982, followed Robert Heinlein’s business rules. And those rules have worked for many, many of us for decades and decades.

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 addition: And then only if you agree.

And, of course, if you indie publish, substitute “publish” in #4  for “mail” and let reader’s buy it. And then for #5 just keep it for sale.

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 and many are now in college text books being studied by professors who tell their students they must rewrite. But Harlan wrote all first draft, written fast, sometimes in a window while people watched him type 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.

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 or had a book read to us. 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 like a fish biting on a yummy worm. Your critical voice 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. And always will be.

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 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. (Workshop myth coming in a future chapter.)

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. Why? Because I had no intention of ever rewriting it. I followed Heinlein’s Rules.

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 (electric) on a partially dismantled desk in a large box, 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. And now, twenty-seven years later the story is still in print and I’m still proud of it.

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 Example: 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 over weeks before the workshop. And many of those stories, first drafts, have been in published anthologies out of New York.

Even though I believed this with my own writing, I was shocked when this happened at the first Denise Little workshop. All the quick, overnight stories were better than the ones the writers had rewritten. 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 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 or teacher’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 writing and 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 must write standing up because writing comes from the groin or some such nonsense. But you do 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.”

In other words, even though the reality of professional fiction writing is often few drafts, readers still believe we must rewrite because they went to the same English classes we did.

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 100 plus novel sales and hundreds of short story sales, it seems to be working just fine.

For me, anyway.

Every writer is different.

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 for seven years. Won’t hurt your readers.

But getting rid of this myth for yourself sure might help your writing.

And make writing a ton more fun.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean

Chapter Two: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Speed

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


Speed of writing.

Or said in myth fashion: WRITING SLOW EQUALS WRITING WELL.


This comes out of everyone’s mouth at one point or another in a form of apology for our work. “Oh, I just cranked that off.”

Or the flip side… “This is some of my best work. I’ve been writing it for over a year.”

Now this silly idea that the writing process has anything at all to do with quality of the work has been around in publishing for just over 100 years now, pushed mostly by the literature side and the college professors.

It has no basis in any real fact when it comes to writers. None. If you don’t believe me, start researching how fast some of the classics of literature were written.

But don’t ask major professional writers out in public. Remember we know this myth and lie about how really hard we do work. (Yup, that’s right, someone who makes stuff up for a living will lie to you. Go figure.) So you have to get a long-term professional writer in a private setting. Then maybe with a few drinks under his belt the pro will tell you the truth about any project.

My position:


And put simply:


That’s right, one day I could write some pages feeling sick, almost too tired to care, where every word is a pain, and the next day I write a few more pages feeling good and the words flowing freely and a week later I won’t be able to tell which day was which from the writing.

How I feel when I write makes no difference to the quality of what I produce. None. Damn it, it should, but it just doesn’t.

And I just laugh when a myth like this one attempts to lump all writers into the same boat and make us all write exactly the same way book after book after book.

No writer works the same, even from book to book or short story to short story.

Talk to any writer, and I mean privately, getting them to tell you the truth, not the public line, and you will discover that one of the writer’s books was written quickly, maybe even in a few weeks, while another book took the writer a half year to finish and he was deathly ill during half the writing time. And you, as a reader, reading the two books, would never be able to tell the difference.

But yet, traditional publishing, college professors, and just about anyone who even thinks about the writer behind the words has a belief system that words must be struggled over to be good.

Well, yes, sometimes.

And sometimes not.

Sometimes a writer gets into a white-hot heat and a book flows faster than the writer can type, getting done in just a number of days or weeks. And sometimes it just doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes a writer has a deadline to hit and pushes to hit it, spending more hours in the chair, thus calling it writing fast. Some writers think and research a book for a few months, then write it in a few weeks. Some writers spend a month or two on a detailed outline, then take a month to actually write the book. Some writers start with a title, some write chapters out of order and then put it all together like a puzzle.

And on and on and on.

Every writer is different. Every writer’s method is different

There is no correct, mandated way to write a book. Juts your way.

The myth of writing slow to write better actually hurts writers.

There are two sides of our brains. The creative side and the critical side.

The creative side has been taking in stories since the writer started reading, knowing how to put words together at a deep level. The critical side lags far, far behind the creative side, learning rules that some English teacher or parent forced into the critical mind.

The creative side is always a much better writer than the critical side. Always. It never switches, no matter how long you write.

Long term (20 years and up) professional writers have learned to trust that creative side and we tend to not mess much with what it creates for us. Of course, this lesson for most of us was learned the hard way, but that’s another long chapter for another book.

A new writer who believes the myth that all good fiction must be written slowly and labor-intensive (called work) suddenly one day finds that they have written a thousand words in 35 minutes. The new writer automatically thinks, “Oh, my, that has to be crap. I had better rewrite it.”

What has just happened is that the top writing the creative side of the mind has just produced is then killed by the critical side, dumbed down, voice taken out, anything good and interesting removed.

All caused by this myth.

And professional editors in New York are no better, sadly. I once got a rewrite request on a major book from my editor. I agreed with about 9/10′s of the suggestions, so I spent the next day rewriting the book, fixing the problems, and was about to send the manuscript back when Kris stopped me.

The conversation went something like this:

“Don’t send it, sit on it a few weeks,” Kris said, looking firm and intense, as only Kris can look.

“Why not?” I asked, not remembering at that moment that the myth was a major part of traditional publishing.

“The editor will think you didn’t work on it and that it is crap,” Kris said.

“But I agreed and fixed everything,” I said, starting to catch a clue, but not yet willing to admit defeat.

Kris just gave me that “stare” and I wilted, knowing she was completely correct.

I held the rewrite for three weeks, sent it back with a letter praising the rewrite comments and a slight side comment about how hard I had worked on them, even though I wrote most of another book in the period of time I was holding the rewrite. Story ended happily, editor was happy and commented on how fast I managed to get the rewrites done, all because Kris remembered the myth and how it functions.

Now, let me do something that just annoys people, especially in the master classes we teach. I’m going to do the math. (Stop laughing, former students.)

The Math of Writing Fast

This chapter when finished is going to be around 2,000 words. That is about 8 manuscript pages with each page averaging 250 words per page.

So say I wrote only 250 words, one manuscript page per day on a new novel.

It takes me about 15 minutes, give-or-take (depending on the book and the day and how I’m feeling) to write 250 words of fiction. (Each writer is different. Time yourself.)

So if I spent that 15 minutes per day writing on a novel, every day for one year, I would finish a 90,000 word plus novel, about a normal paperback book, in 365 days.

I would be a one-book-per-year writer, pretty standard in science fiction and a few other genres.

15 minutes per day equals one novel per year.

Oh, my, if I worked really, really hard and managed to get 30 minutes of writing in per day, I could finish two novels in a year.

And at that speed I would be considered fast. Not that I typed or wrote fast, just that I spent more time writing.

God forbid I actually write four pages a day, spend an entire hour per day sitting in a chair!!!!  I would finish four novels a year. At that point I would be praised in the romance genre and called a hack in other genres.

See why I laugh to myself when some writer tells me they have been working really, really hard on a book and it took them a year to write? What did they do for 23 hours and 45 minutes every day????

The problem is they are lost in the myth. Deep into the myth that writing must be work, that it must be hard, that you must “suffer for your art” and write slowly.

Bull-puckey. Writing is fun, easy, and enjoyable. If you want hard work, go dig a ditch for a water pipe on a golf course in a steady rain on a cold day. That’s work. Sitting at a computer and making stuff up just isn’t work. It’s a dream job.

Spend More Time in the Chair

Oh, oh, I just gave you the secret to being a “fast” writer or a “prolific” writer. Just spend more time writing.

I am the world’s worst typist. I use four fingers, up from two, and if I can manage 250 words in fifteen minutes I’m pretty happy. I tend to average around 750-1,000 words per hour of work. Then I take a break. I am not a “fast” typist, but I am considered a “fast” writer because I spend more time writing than the myth allows.

That’s the second thing that makes this myth so damaging to writers. It doesn’t allow writers to just spend more time practicing their art. In fact, the myth tells writers that if they do spend more time working to get better, they are worse because they produce more fiction.

Writing is the only art where spending less time practicing is considered a good thing.

In music we admire musicians who practice ten or more hours a day. Painters and other forms of art are the same. Only in writing does the myth of not practicing to get better come roaring in. We teach new writers to slow down, to not work to get better, to spend fewer and fewer hours at writing, to not practice, and then wonder why so many writers don’t make it to a professional level.

We No Longer Have to Wait for Traditional Publishers

For the last few decades, unless a writer wrote under many pen names, we were forced by the market to write fewer books per year. But now, with indie publishing, we can once again write as much as we want.

And we can write anything we want.

We can sell some books to traditional publishers, we can indie publish other books and stories.

The new world has lifted the market restrictions on speed of writing. Now those of us who actually want to sit and write for more than 15 minutes per day can publish what we write in one way or another.

And being fast, meaning spending more time writing, is a huge plus with indie publishing. We are in a new golden age of fiction, especially short fiction, and just as in the first golden age, writing fast (meaning spending more time at your art) will be a good thing also for your pocket book.

Writing Slow Equals Writing Better is a complete myth, a nasty sacred cow of publishing that hurts and stops writers who believe it.

— The truth is that no two writers work the same and no book is the same as the previous book or the next book.

— The truth is that writing fast is nothing more than spending more time every day writing.

— The truth is that there should be no rule about speed relating to quality.

— The truth is there should be no rule that lumps all writers into one big class. There should only be your way of writing.

Be Careful!!

Sadly, this myth is firm in the business, so writers who spend more time in the chair and who write more hours have to learn to work around the myth. We must learn to play the game that teachers, editors, book reviewers, and fans want us to play.

And if you decide you can spend more hours every day writing and working on your art, be prepared to face those who want you to write the way they do. Be prepared to face those who want to control your work. Be prepared to face criticism from failed writers (reviewers) who can’t even manage a page a day, let alone more.

This speed myth is the worst myth of an entire book full of myths. Caution.

The best thing you can do is just keep your speed and your writing methods to yourself. You’re an artist. Respect your way of doing things and just don’t mention them to anyone.

So please don’t do the math about my age. I sold my first novel when I was 38 and have published over 100 novels. At one book per year, I must be at least 138 years old.

After my hard, single-page-of-writing every day, I sometimes feel that way.

Yeah, right.

But I stand by that story.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean

Chapter One: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only One Way

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!


“This is how you do it.”

How often do writers in this business hear that silly phrase? Some writer or editor or agent telling the young writer to do something as if that something was set in stone. Nope. The truth is that nothing in this business is set in stone.


For example, a wonderful new professional writer in one of the workshops here e-mailed a well-written query with ten sample pages and a synopsis of the novel off to an editor in New York from the workshop. The next morning she came out of her room smiling. The editor had asked to see the entire book. So being am imp, I went to that publisher’s website and printed off the guidelines, which said in huge letters “No electronic submissions and absolutely no unagented submissions.”

Lucky for her she hadn’t bothered to look at the guidelines or listen to all the people who said she needed an agent and believe there was only one way to get her book read at that company.

Nothing in this business is set in stone. Nothing.

Of course, that little story about not looking at guidelines will cause massive anger to come at me I’m sure. So before you go tossing bricks at my house because you need a rule to follow, let me back up and try to explain what I am saying here. And what I will be saying throughout this book. Then you can toss the brick.


Perfectly good advice for one writer will be flat wrong for the writer standing beside him.

Some writers need agents, other writers a current agent-rewriter would kill their work. Some writers know business, other writers need help figuring out how to balance a checkbook and wouldn’t understand cash flow in a flood of money.

So how do writers learn? And how can those of us who have walked this publishing road help out the newer professionals coming in? Carefully is my answer. But now let me try to expand on that.

How do writers learn?

1) Take every statement by any WRITER, including me, with your bull detector turned on. If it doesn’t sound right for some reason, ignore it. It may be right for the writer speaking and wrong for you. And for heaven’s sake, be extra, extra careful when you listen to any writer who is not a long distance down the publishing road ahead of you. Some of the stupidest advice I have ever heard has come from writers with three or four short story sales talking like they understand the publishing business and think that everything they say is a rule.

2) Take any statement by any EDITOR through a very fine filter. Ask yourself why they are saying what they are saying, what corporate purpose does it fill, and can you use it to help you.

Remember, editors are not writers.

And they only know what they need in their one publishing house. Editors have the best of intentions to help writers. Honest, they do. But they often do not understand how writers make money, and most think that most writers can’t make a living, since all they see are the small advances to writers they are paying. Just nod nicely when they start into that kind of stuff and move on.

And remember, they always have a corporate agenda. It’s the nature of their job.

3) Take any statement from an AGENT with a giant salt shaker full of salt, then bury it with more salt. Agents are not writers, agents can’t help you rewrite, and they only know about six or seven editors and thus not the big market. If any agent is flat telling you that you must do something, and it sounds completely wrong to you, my suggestion to you is RUN! Remember, agents have an agenda. It is not your agenda. It is their agenda.

And these days they mostly either work for publishers or are starting their own publishing companies even with the conflict of interest issues. Caution!!

Over the next numbers of chapters, mostly in the agent section of this book, I will talk a great deal about the good and the bad of agents in this modern world of publishing. And some alternatives to using agents. Stay tuned.

So how do writers learn?

—By going to lots and lots of conferences and listening to hundreds of writers and editors and taking only the information that seems right to you.

—Read lots and lots of books by writers and only take what seems right for you.

—Learn business, basic business, and apply that to writing as well. Writing is a business, a very big business.

—And keep writing and practicing and mailing to editors.

How Can Professional Writers Help Newer Writers?

1) Keep firmly in mind that your way, the way you broke in might be wrong for just about everyone else in the room listening to you. Especially today, when the world of publishing is shifting so fast it’s hard for anyone to keep up. A story about your first sale in 1992 as a way to do it just won’t be relevant in any real way to a new writer in 2011. Be clear that you understand that.

2) Keep abreast of what the newer writers are facing. I get angry at times because newer writers keep accusing me of having some advantage. I don’t, really. I have years more of practice, sure, and I have a better cover letter, and I know how to write a pitch and query and cover blurb that will sell. A new writer can learn all that as well with practice.

I still have to mail my work to editors just like everyone else. Or publish it indie publishing just as everyone else.

There is no secret road to selling just because you have done it before. I wish like hell there was, but alas, if it exists, I haven’t found the entrance ramp yet. So to help myself, I keep abreast of what newer writers are facing, I help teach them how to get through the blocks, so I also know how to do it with my work. Duh. I learn from them as I teach them.

3) Stay informed as to the changes in publishing and don’t be afraid of the new technology.

Bragging that you belong to the Church of Luddite or that you won’t touch any Apple product or that you hate smart phones sure won’t install a lot of confidence in the newer writers who live with this modern publishing world and use the new technology. And wishing things would go back to the way they were just doesn’t help either.

And for heaven’s sake, understand sampling.

Newer Writers Need Set Rules

Writers, especially newer writers are hungry for set rules.

This business is fluid and crazy most of the time, and the need for security screams out in most of us. So in the early years we writers search for “rules” to follow, shortcuts that will cut down the time involved, secret handshakes that will get us through doors. It is only after a lot of time that professional writers come to realize that the only rules are the ones we put on ourselves.

Writers are people who sit alone in a room and make stuff up. The problem we have is that when we get insecure without rules, we make stuff up as well.

When we don’t understand something, we make something up to explain it. Then when someone comes along with a “this is how you do it” stated like a rule, you jump to the rule like a drowning man reaching for a rope. And when someone else says “Let go of the rope to make it to safety,” you get angry and won’t let go of that first safety line.

In all these chapters that’s what I will be trying to tell tell you to do: Let go of the rope and trust your own talents and knowledge.

When I wrote these chapters online over almost two years, my suggestions caused some very “interesting” letters from writers mad at me for challenging their lifeline rules.

The desire for safety and rules is one of the reasons that so many myths have grown up in this business.

Rules/myths like you must rewrite everything, you must have an agent, you must do self-promotion, you don’t dare write fast or it will be bad.

Rule upon rule upon rule, all imposed from the outside. Most are just bad advice believed by the person giving the advice at the time.

The key is to let go of the rope, swim on your own, and find out what works for you.

If you believe you must rewrite, write a story or two and mail them without rewrites to see what happens. If you are having no luck having an agent read your work, send it to editors instead. If you think you can’t write more than 500 words a day, push a few days to double or triple that and see what happens. Push and experiment and find out what is right for you.

Will it scare you? Yes. But I sure don’t remember anyone telling me this profession was easy or not scary. Those two things are not myths just yet.

Okay, all that said, here are a few major areas where following rules blindly can be dangerous to writers. I will talk about these in coming chapters. But for the moment, I want to touch on them right here because they are major.

1) “You must rewrite.”

This is just silly, since writing comes out of the creative side of our brains and rewriting comes from the critical learned side.

Creative side is always better. But again, this is different for every writer no matter what level. Some writers never rewrite other than to fix a few typos, others do a dozen drafts, and both sell. Those professionals have figured out what is best for them. But if a younger writer listens to someone who says you MUST rewrite everything, it could kill that writer’s voice. This rule is just flat destructive. Keep your guard up on this one. Experiment on both sides and then do what works for you, what sells for you.

2) “You must have an agent.”

This is such bad advice for such a large share of writers these days, it’s scary. I will have an entire section on agents in this book.

These days there are many ways of not using or needing an agent.

—Using an intellectual copyright attorney is one way. Cheap and you don’t have to pay them 15% of everything.

— Doing it yourself is fine as well.

—Or hiring an agent just for one project at a time is fine as well.

Read all my chapters on this topic and then decide what you feel right about. And remember the old saying that the agent you can get as an unsold writer is not the agent you will want when you start selling. You don’t need an agent to sell a book. But again, every writer is different. Just don’t take the agent myth as a truth. Figure out what works for you.

3) “Editors don’t like (blank) so you shouldn’t write that way.”

I can’t begin to tell you how many thousand times I have answered questions like “Can I write in first person? Editor’s don’t like that.” No rules, just write your own story with passion and then send it to editors.

If they don’t like it, they will send you a rejection. No big deal. Stop worrying about what editors or agents want and write what you want.

Be an artist, not some sick puppy licking the boots of editors and agents looking for the secret.

Think for yourself, be yourself, write your own stuff. No rules.

4) “It’s a tight market so you need to do (blank).”

You want a secret? It’s always been a tight market. Things are always changing in publishing.

Right now there are more books being published every year than ever before, more markets, more ways for writers to make money. This silly “tight market” statement always sounds so full of authority coming from some young agent. And it will drive a new writer into doing a dozen rewrites on a novel for someone who really doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Caution when you hear those words. It should be a huge RED FLAG. I know, I heard them in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s and every year lately. Just silly. It is nothing more than a statement to discourage writers. Don’t listen to it.

Truth: Publishing is always looking for good books and new writers. And it has always been tight in one way or another.

A Brand New World

Right now publishing is going through some major changes, all rotating around distribution for the most part. Writers have been so shut out with the system in New York that they are turning more and more to taking control of various aspects of their own work with indie publishing. POD and electronic publishing is allowing authors to become both writer and publisher and electronic distribution is allowing readers to find more work from their favorite writers, often either new work, dangerous work, or work long out of print..

This new area of publishing is quickly becoming full of “rules” and future myths. For the longest time publishing your own work was looked down on by “the ruling class” (whoever they are). Now, except for a few holdouts in the basements of the Church of Luddite, writers are taking the new technologies and running with them.

Before you run that way because selling to major markets is too hard, be cautious. There are no rules, but there are some things that are common sense.

Common sense #1: It takes a lot of practice to become a professional-level storyteller. You may think your first story or novel is brilliant because you rewrote it ten times and your workshop loved it, but alas, it might not be. In this new market, just as in the old one, the readers will judge. Let them, either through traditional channels or indie publishing. And then write the next book and the next and keep working to become better. Keep writing and learning.

Common sense #2: New York publishers can get your book into the hands of thousands and thousands of readers and help your online sales of your other works. Or you can put your book up first, do a POD, and then try to market the book to traditional publishers while it is selling for you and making you a little money along the way. But just because you are an indie publisher, don’t rule out traditional publishers.

Again, in this area, there is no right way. Just do what feels right for your writing and ignore anyone trying to give you a rule.


As I said above, writers tend to have this fantastic need for rules. We all want to make some sort of order out of this huge business. And actually, there is order if you know where to look and how to look. So instead of giving you rules, let me help you find order without myths and rules.

1) Publishing is a business. A large business run by large corporations in traditional publishing or your own home business when you are indie publishing. But it is always a business. If you remember that, learn basic business, understand corporation politics and thinking, most everything that happens will make some sort of sense. Don’t take anything personally. It’s just business and that is the truth.

2) All writers write differently. And that includes you. My way of producing words won’t be correct for anyone but me. So instead of listening to others looking for the secret, just go home, sit down at your writing computer, and experiment with every different form and method until you find the way that produces selling fiction that readers like and buy. Find your own way to produce words that sell.

3) Learning and continuing to learn is critical. This business keeps changing and the only way to stay abreast of the changes is to go out and keep learning and talk with other writers and find advice that makes sense to you and your way. Go to workshops, conferences, conventions and anything else you can find to get bits of learning. Read everything you can find about the business.

My goal on this is learn one thing new every week at least. I’ve been doing that since my early days and it has worked for me, and kept me focused on learning. Find what works for you.

I know those three things don’t seem to give you any secrets, don’t really show you the path to selling. But actually, they do. And if you just keep them in mind and don’t allow yourself to get caught in strange rules and myths, you will move faster toward your goal, whatever that goal in writing may be.

It’s your writing, it’s your art. Stop looking for the secrets and stand up for your work.

Trust your own voice, your own methods of working. Get your work to editors who will buy it. Or indie publish it. Or both. And if your methods are not producing selling work, try something new.

Keep learning. Keep practicing your art.

The only right way in this business is your way.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

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
Class #15… Aug 9th … Teams in Fiction
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