Chapter 10: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Book as Event

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 of Book as Event, put as clearly as I can. Myth: All books need to be events, need to be something special.

Hogwash, of course. All books must be written as well as the author can write the book, but just because the author spent blood and sweat on the book, or the author wrote it in twenty days, doesn’t make the book either special or not special. And it certainly doesn’t make it an event.

Hard and fast rule about writing:


If you put that on your wall, you will always have a defense against many of the things I’m going to talk about in this chapter.

When is a book an actual event? Let me answer that question before I move on to other areas of this topic, the deadly areas and the areas that are hurting many indie publishers.

#1… A book is an acutal event when an author finishes his or her first novel.

Now, that’s something special and should be celebrated with friends and family with a good dinner, maybe cards, flowers, something special like a cake. Finishing a first novel puts the writer in a very small minority of writers. Most writers talk about writing, but never find the time to write, let alone to do what it takes to write an entire novel, working for weeks or months to do it. Finishing a first novel is a small event. Celebrate, then put the novel in the mail and get started on the next one.

Kevin J. Anderson sent me a great card after I finished my first novel. On the face of the card is four pictures of a very small mouse pushing a huge elephant up a steep hill. When you open the card, it shows the mouse, sweating, with the elephant at the top of the hill, and at the base of the hill is a herd of elephants just waiting. The caption says, “Great work! Now, do it again.”

Spot on the money.

#2… Publishing a first novel is an actual event. In the old world of traditional publishing it most likely wasn’t your first novel written, but it will always be considered your first novel from that publication forward. My first novel is Laying the Music to Rest, which was the third book I wrote. That first publication should be celebrated, and I remember I did. It is very special, and that specialness needs to be acknowledged by both the author and everyone around them. That is an actual event. Enjoy it!

So why is making a book an event so bad?

About a hundred different reasons, so let me start slowly into the thinking that kills author after author on this myth. And frighteningly enough, this is the myth that I fight the most. This myth has cost me years of my writing career.

Years, and I am not kidding.

And I am watching it kill indie writer after indie writer already in this new world.

—In the Beginning…

None of us start out as novelists. No one. Sorry, doesn’t happen. We all learn to write in school, from teachers, from hundreds of people along the way. And often writers start by writing poems, short stories, things like that, even when starting into fiction decades after they learned to write their first sentence. Novels are those big, complex things in a beginning writer’s mind that need to have a ton of time spent on them to do correctly. (See the myth about writing fast.)

Why do we all have this belief? Because before starting to write novels, we all read novels, and they seemed complex, they seemed long, they seemed just flat hard to do. We built them up to be something really special before we even wrote word one.

So here comes something like the November novel challenge that happens every year. Thousands and thousands of people manage to write at least 50,000 words in a month or less. Many of them found it easy, many of them had a blast doing it. But alas, to most of them the book they produced can’t be any good because it was fun to do, it was easy to do, and gasp, it was written quickly.

The thinking is that novels have to be hard and complex and thus because it was fun and easy and quick, it can’t be good. A novel must be an EVENT in the writing. Total hogwash, of course. Back to the only solid rule in writing.


Book as Event thinking puts thousands and thousands of great books into drawers every December 1st because the author had too much fun writing it.

Not kidding.

Writers don’t mail books because they enjoyed writing it. This myth is that stupid. And that deadly.

— It Must Be Perfect

Book as Event really hits right here, kicking in the myth that everything must be rewritten to death before it can be good. A book must be worked over and over and over to make it “perfect.” Hogwash, simple hogwash.

So how do you write a novel? Simply do the best you can every day during the writing, finish the book, fix the mistakes a trusted first reader finds, and mail the thing or publish the thing and start the next book.

There is no such thing as a perfect book and the more you work to make a book perfect, the more you turn it into a polished stone with no character or voice. Leave your book rough, leave your voice alone, mail the book to an editor or indie publish the book and do another.

There is no perfect book. Never has been, never will be. And you certainly won’t write the first one. Sorry.

Senator Ted Kennedy has a great quote my wife has on her wall in her office. “Never let perfect be the enemy of the good.”


Yeah, I can hear you all starting into that thinking. So let me start with a few of the doubts I can hear creeping into this.

Doubt #1. “If I don’t write a perfect book, it will be rejected in this tough market. Or readers won’t buy it even if I discount it to 99 cents.”

Wrong. Books are bought for story. Sure, keep the spelling mistakes and typing mistakes down to a minimum by having some trusted first readers, but your story won’t be rejected for a few bad sentences if the story is kick-ass. Books are simply stories, nothing more. Write a good story, get it out for readers to find, write another.

Doubt #2 “But I want my story to be perfect, my characters big, my plot flawless.”

To do that, you have to trust your subconscious, and that part of your brain functions in fast, first draft mode. You come at your book from critical brain, and you’ll end up writing like your first grade teacher, without voice or anything original left in the book.

There are many more doubts, many more. I know, I’ve had them, and fell for some of them along the way. But for the moment, back to the bigger topic.

—This is too hard.

If you feel that way in a book, you are trapped in a myth somewhere, more than likely Book as Event. When did writing a story become hard? It’s not, no matter what authors want to tell you at conventions and writer’s conferences and on their blogs. And I have done a chapter on this as well.

The truth: Writing a story is fun. And those of us lucky enough to do it for a living have the best job in the world, period. I sit alone in a room and make stuff up and people pay me large sums of money to do that. And readers buy my stories and sometimes even write me fan letters. What is so hard about that?

But when it starts feeling hard, when the voices start creeping in that the story sucks while you are writing, that the plot doesn’t work, that even your first grade teacher will hate you when they see the crap you are writing, then guess what? You are trapped in Book as Event myth.

A book is not an event. It is just a long story. Nothing more. And nothing less.

Tell the story, move on to another one. And have fun. You could be digging a ditch in the rain.

—It must be art.

Oh, heavens, if that is your thinking, you are lost. Way, way deep in Book as Event. If you think every book you write must be art, stop writing now, which more than likely you already have. There is no such thing as the “Great American Novel” anymore, and I sort of doubt there ever was, actually. I have a hunch that was a myth made up way back.

The truth is that every month thousands of publishers and imprints must fill a monthly list. Those lists must be filled to keep the machine of publishing going. And now, with electronic publishing, the slots needed for novels is increasing even faster. No book will climb above that crowd, at least not as art. Your book may climb above it as a bestseller, but if you are thinking you are writing art, I’m sure you look down your nose at bestsellers. Go study the history of the books that are considered art today and you might have a hope of getting over that, since most of the books studied as art today were the bestsellers of their time.

Art need audience. If you are selling your book that took six years to write to 1,000 people, you are not writing art. Sorry.

(Oh, that’s going to make some people angry. Sigh…)

—To sell more copies, my book must be bigger.

I have to admit, I fell for this one as well for a few years, as did most of publishing because of the collapse of the distribution system in the mid 1990s. I even taught a class here on the coast in how to write a “Big Book.” Worst class I ever taught, and most destructive to writers. Sorry, those of you who took it.

A story just is what it needs to be. Some stories are small, some fit in niches, some sprawl large and wide. Whatever you want to write, let your story be what it wants to be. Then when you are finished, figure out how to market it. In these rough times, maybe get it to New York if it seems to be like a lot of other books being published by New York. If not, indie publish it yourself and get to writing the next book.

—I have to promote my new book.

This comes from Book as Event myth as well.

I have a chapter later in this book on promotion. Promotion thinking has come solidly into indie publishing because no one really knows what works. So writer after writer on blog after blog talk about how they promoted their new book. That just makes me shudder, to be honest.

Not a one of these “indie promotion specialists” trust their own book to be good enough to attract readers. They all assume that because they did promotion their book sold. Wow, what little understand of readers these people have. Books don’t sell because you promoted it. Books sell because they are good stories readers want to read. Nothing more.

I am a believer that more writing promotes writing better than anything artificial an author can do.  Just because you finished a novel doesn’t mean you have to spend six months promoting it. Why not spend those same six months writing the next one.

Yet this Book As Event thinking is causing writer after writer to stop writing and try to promote their last book. What a waste of time.

It’s like walking through life backwards, always looking back and paying attention to what you have done in the past, not what you are going to do in the future.

In traditional publishing, if a publisher asks and pays you to promote your book, do it. But otherwise, just stay with your web site and social networks and a local signing in your area to talk about your book. Let the publishers do their jobs and you do your job and write the next book.

And if you are the indie publisher, just talk about it in the same way and then talk about your next book as well. Face forward.

Remember, writers are people who write. Authors are people who have written (and are now promoting). Be a writer.

—Eating the Elephant.

That’s what Kris and I call the problem writers have when they can’t seem to start something. If you were standing beside a well-cooked elephant and your task was to eat every bite of the huge thing, you would say you couldn’t do it. But, actually, you could. One bite at a time, over a period of time.

Novels are the same thing. They are mostly impossible to hold completely in your mind, so when starting it looks like a huge task (book as event again) and thus it’s just easier to not start, easier to keep outlining and plotting and researching and doing all those things that are not writing. The key is to just start, write so much per day, stop when you find the ending, and then mail it. (Yup, sort of like many of you do in the November challenge.)

This problem stops all of us at times. Even someone like me who has sold over 100 novels to traditional publishers, and written more than that number. I have a sign over my computer that says simply “Trust the Process” and it’s right beside another sign. “Write Scenes.”

Scenes I can hold in my head. Write a scene, then write the next scene, and trust the process as the days and weeks go by.


This topic is so huge, and this problem so big, that I’m sure I’m missing areas of it. I will try to cover those areas in other chapters along the way.

But in short, the myth of Book As Event is the underlying problem most writers face all the time. It’s easy to start building up a book into something more than it really is, especially when people ask “How’s your book coming?” That question sort of underlines that the book is an event, and that it is the only book you have in you.

I once had a guy come up to me and say, “I hear you have a book coming out?” That year I had eleven novels coming out, just about one every month. So I said, “Sure do.”

Being a nice guy, he said, “I”m looking forward to reading it. What’s the title?”

I said, “Which one?”

He looked puzzled, like it didn’t make sense that I had more than one book coming out. To him, and to most folks, writing and publishing a book are huge events, so how could it be possible to have more than one?

When I tried to help him and said, “I have five books in the next five months coming out,” he looked horrified.

Right now, quickly check in with yourself.

— Do you feel horrified by the idea that I published eleven novels in twelve months one year?

—Do you think that because I did that, those books must automatically be bad?

If so, if those thoughts passed through your mind, then you have an issue with the myth of Book as Event.

And that myth will stop you in one way or another, at one point or another.

So, if you just finished a book and are making up excuses to not mail it to editors or not getting it out electronically because you had too much fun writing it, because it came to fast or too easy, or it needs a massive rewrite, you really have issues with Book as Event thinking.

Just because a book is fun to write, just because you wrote it fast, just because you don’t think it’s any good, doesn’t mean it’s bad.

In fact, it usually means it’s pretty darned good. Have fun getting it published.

And then get writing on the next one.


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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50 Responses to Chapter 10: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Book as Event

  1. M.E. Anders says:

    Dean – You are crushing the myths I have believed ever since hopping on the merry-go-round of publishing. I’m taking your advice to heart and thereby putting it into practice. To sum it all up – I just keep writing. :)

  2. TK Kenyon says:


    I think I feel better. I think I might go write!

    TK Kenyon

  3. Wow, you’ve just written my biography. My finishing-the-first-novel event is over and I’m wrestling with whether I want a traditional or self-inflicted publishing event. At the same time, I’m looking at an over-sized dead elephant waiting to be eaten. I may have to extract a quotation from your article to paste on the wall above my computer.

  4. Barb Rude says:

    Wow, I finally get to be one of those who thanks you for your perfect timing! My regional November novel challenge group did a July challenge, too. I decided yesterday I’m going to try to do something with it, but I had all those “but-but I didn’t feel like it was neat while I was writing” doubts clogging me up. So glad you could thwack me upside the head with that reminder.

    And the best part is, this July challenge was a novella. An intentionally little story. So thanks for the reminder that stories don’t need to be big or the-next-big-thing as long as the story is as it should be.

    And a word on keeping a whole novel in your head since that used to overwhelm me: I’ve been watching myself over the past 20 months. When I first started writing, it was one word at a time. Then I was thinking in paragraphs, then a couple hundred thousand words later it was scenes and sequences, and I noticed something… I am keeping more and more of a story in my head the more I write. Not saying I’ll ever have a whole novel in my head at once, but it does get less uncomfortable to eat the elephant the more one gets used to it.

    So much excellent advice today. Thank you!

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Barb. One of the reasons I outline AS I GO ALONG, never ahead, is so I know what I have written and don’t have to search back through for some detail and don’t have to hold it all in my head. I have no idea where I am going, thus my readers don’t either and I stay entertained, but I do need to know where I have been, thus I write that down like an outline. (I never do anything with the outlines and when I get in sight of the end I stop outlining each chapter as I finish it, but I have learned that keeping track of what has been written helps my old brain go forward faster.

  5. Another excellent post, Dean.

    I’m slowly getting past this particular myth. Or the many aspects of the myth.

    All I’ve ever wanted to do is write stories and share them with readers and make a little dab of money.

    And now I am.

    Thanks so much for your wonderful insights.

  6. I have a problem you might call “Losing the Elephant”. I understand what you’re saying when you say “Write scenes” and “Trust the process.” I enjoy writing scenes, and I can almost always see where one scene leads to the next, even when I never imagined that the next scene was part of the story until a paragraph before it happened. But when I try to work on the novel that got me started writing again, I find that my scenes seem to have led me to a dead end. I have two chapters I really like, two chapters that are a little heavy on exposition (but I love the character interaction in them), and then… nothing. The first four chapters foreshadow an interplanetary conspiracy with some average joe caught in the middle of it by his sense of responsibility to a dead woman and her children; but I can’t for the life of me figure out what that conspiracy is. I ate all the elephant I could find, and now I’m looking for more elephant.

    • dwsmith says:

      Martin, move on to another project. Write another novel and another and another and at some point your subconscious will tell you it’s time to go back to the problem book. You have project block which beginning writers call writer’s block. So just move on to another project and let your mind work on it.

      And to be blunt, more than likely your very powerful subconscious is telling you that you are not ready to write that book yet. I had one book I kept going back to off and on over twenty years and couldn’t figure out or write. Still haven’t, but it’s still there and I will figure it out at some point. All of us have books we are not ready to write yet for one reason or another. Trust your subconscious and move on. That book is not going anywhere. Stop making it into an event. Just my suggestion.

  7. Amen, brother. It took me years to get past the “it has to be art” stage. Now I’m planning on finishing three books this year, only because I can’t finish four (this indie publishing thing takes a lot of time!!!).

    I was amused at your story about the guy who was horrified that you had eleven novels coming out in one year. A co-worker told me the other day, “I hear you’ve written a book.” How does one answer that one has written SEVERAL novels, without sounding like a braggart?

    • dwsmith says:

      Sarah, go ahead and just be casual about it, because to be honest, that’s normal for most professional writers. In the last few issues of Mystery Scene Magazine, Lawrence Block has been doing a series about Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) and at one point, even though Evan was writing a number of different series under a number of different names, he thought it would be fun to write some of the “erotica” of the time. He said he had an extra few days every month to write another novel. And he did them for a time. Now understand, this is Evan Hunter, you know, the literary writer.

      So Sarah, just be honest but matter of fact and remember that with everyone you fight the myths. Sometimes it is just better to lie to people to tell them what they want to hear. Easier then plowing head-first into a myth. When I run into a fan who really, really believes in the myth that writing slow equals writing well, I tell them I really “struggle” over every book and they go away happy. In other words, I combine myths, telling them that writing is hard to cover over the fact that writing fast and often is normal for me. (grin) Works damn near every time.

  8. John Walters says:

    I really needed this one; it came just at the right time. I have been bashing my head against a short story that so far has refused to be written. It’s a good idea but something’s wrong. Maybe it’s the point of view, I don’t know yet. Some of my best stories have come out like this – numerous false starts, and then smooth sailing. Some got written right off the bat as originally conceived. But sometimes I just think too much about it and have to let go. One story with a fairly complex idea wouldn’t go anywhere until I told myself – the hell with it, just do it for fun. I alternated second person present tense and third person past tense and threw in typographic innovation to boot – because the story called for it. And lo and behold, it sold to a good market, and far faster than most. I have to keep reminding myself that in this new world of publishing I can do anything I want.

    And I love the elephant stories.

  9. I’ve known lots of aspiring writers — both novel and screenplay — who are far too attached to their stories and hence never get them finished and sent out; personally I have so many ideas I want to write that I’m more concerned with getting this one finished so I can write the next.

    I was interested to see your comment above about how you can’t hold the entire novel in your head, because that’s something I’ve been struggling with as I get this one ready to send out to some readers; I’d wondered whether more experienced writers somehow learn to do it.

    • dwsmith says:

      Edward, oh, heavens, no writer I know can hold an entire novel in our heads. And we don’t try. That way lies madness. We do remember what we have written in general. But not all the details and such of a novel. Human mind doesn’t work that way. So what most long-term (and notice I used the world long-term) professional fiction writers do is just write the book from start to finish, have a reader read it, fix typos and mistakes, and move on. If the story works, fine, if not, well fine. Your words “struggling” tell me that you are in some sort of book as event thinking with the novel. Just finish and release and move on. That’s the key.

  10. “Your words “struggling” tell me that you are in some sort of book as event thinking with the novel.”

    Yeah, this one is based on the first feature-length movie script I wrote years ago so it’s one of the few story ideas that I do care about enough to want to try to get right rather than just get written; it’s also far too complex for its own good, which is why getting it right is hard.

    But I wrote the first word of the novel in May and aim to have it on Amazon and Smashwords in September so I’m not going to be spending years revising every last comma :).

  11. Pretty much exactly what I’ve done, Dean; and with your inspiration, I now have two sales, a WotF Finalist, and a WotF Honorable Mention. I also have a list of project ideas that grows faster than I can write them, including a novel idea where I DO know where most of the elephant lives. That one I’m ready to write any time I break away from my shorts.

    But I do love those first few chapters, especially the opening and one other. Every time I come up with a new story idea in that same setting, I look at it and say, “Is this the rest of the novel?” So far, the answer remains “No.”

  12. Jeff Ambrose says:

    Dean wrote:

    “And to be blunt, more than likely your very powerful subconscious is telling you that you are not ready to write that book yet. I had one book I kept going back to off and on over twenty years and couldn’t figure out or write. Still haven’t, but it’s still there and I will figure it out at some point. All of us have books we are not ready to write yet for one reason or another. Trust your subconscious and move on. That book is not going anywhere. Stop making it into an event. Just my suggestion.”

    Thanks for saying this. It confirms what I’ve been thinking about my own work for a few weeks now. Started writing a novel in the summer, but suddenly wanted to start writing short fiction again — a very powerful feeling, too. And for the past week, I’ve been thinking about redrafting the first novel I wrote that sits in the attic, it’s so bad. Don’t know where that came from…but I can’t get the sucker out of my head.

    And yet, there’s that novel I started this summer, and when I think of writing it, I get physically nauseous. I think what happened is that I killed it with outlining and planning — too much reliance on the critical voice — and I gotta send it back down to the basement so my creative voice can get a hold on it again.

    Still shocked at how excited I am about going back to that first novel. Wow. Never expected that!

  13. J. Tanner says:

    This is a tough one. :)

    Or perhaps just a tough one to not apply your other advice “every writer is different” to.

    It seems there is so much conflicting evidence from other writers that they do outline novels. They do have some general sense of where they’re headed if not ever beat.

    It’s pretty easy to do at the shorter lengths but wow it feels like sailing into the wind for something as long as the novel to have NO CLUE about the destination beyond the protaganist’s problem will be resolved. Particularly when the kinds of books you enjoy feel more tightly plotted (which admittedly may or may not be true of the particular author’s process.)

    However, even as I write this, I’m off on another attempt at sailing into the wind. I’m older and wiser (thanks in many cases to the advice you posted here) since my last attempt to break from the length I’m comfortable with so we’ll see how it goes.

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, heavens, some writers do outline, even long-term bestsellers. On outlining everyone is different and there is no “right way” just your way. I didn’t mean to say that not outlining is the only way. However, holding an entire book in a person’s head is almost impossible to do for basic size and physical reasons. Not how a brain works, so if you, as an early professional, have a belief that you have to hold an entire book in your head to be able to write it, you are stopping yourself. That feeling is a myth that comes from years of reading books and imagining how writer’s write, knowing all from the first moment, starting with the perfect sentence, and then putting it all in until the perfect last line.

      Luckily it doesn’t work that way. A reader reads a book from start to finish. A writer writes a book often in scattered fashions, jumping around in space and time in the book. The writing process has nothing to do with the final reading experience. I think of myself like Billy in SlaughterHouse 5. I am unstuck in time in any novel and can write any part of the life of that novel at any time. Even though the reader will experience it in a front-to-back fashion doesn’t mean I wrote it like that.

  14. J. Tanner says:

    Thanks for clarifying. On second read, the things that got me on the wrong track were in the comments rather than in the original article so upon reflection I don’t think others would misinterpret the concepts in the article itself as I did.

    Pretty much none of my book is in my head and that’s never stopped me before so I have nothing to worry about! 😛

  15. I can’t possibly hold one novel in my head, let alone the six I have waiting in the queue. For one thing, it’s easy to give in to the impulse to jump from one project to another, which leaves me with several unfinished projects! (Not that this is true for everyone, but it is true for me.) I found my way out: when I get the urge to drop book A and go write book B, I give myself one day to work on book B. I outline the hell out of it, which seems to scratch that itch. Then I go back to A. That means that whatever inspired me to work on Book B gets to express itself, but without derailing book A. Because let me tell you, it is all too easy to wander about a garden of bright images, while your writing slowly dies of neglect. Or as Ernest Bramah put it in the Kai Lung books:

    “When struck by a thunderbolt it is unnecessary to consult the Book of Dates as to the precise meaning of the omen.”

  16. I think what you’re saying is true, but I still have enough of the academic in me to fight it at the same time. But I know I’m fighting it so I’m going to ignore that part of my brain and dive back into my WIP.

    Earlier, you posted about writing fast and I wanted to tell you that because of that post, I got my daughter to indie publish three of her books that were mouldering on her laptop, unread and unloved, out of some notion that she’d written them too fast and thus they couldn’t be good. They ARE good. She writes stories sometimes as easily as she breathes. I want to be like her when I grow up :)

  17. Well, I feel better now, in the fact that I’d rather write than worry about the sales (or lack of) of my first two novels. I’ve done a couple radio interviews, one drew some sales, one didn’t. I’ve been asked to guest blog and do blog interviews as well, and have, and gotten wonderful, glowing comments of encouragement, but nothing really translated to any big boost in sales. Sales are climbing, a little, but they seem to do it on their own terms.
    I’ve never paid for any ads anywhere, and often wondered if I should, maybe investment a little.
    I’m putting the final touches on my third novel in two years, (I thought that was a pretty fair amount of writing in that time, but I guess not lol) start drafting my query soon, and dust off my favorite prospects. and get started on the next.

    The best advice I have ever gotten from another writer, is just write, write like the devil himself was on your ass… cuz he just might be.

  18. Linda Jordan says:

    I must still be stuck on this myth. I spent all day yesterday trying to yank a short story out of the depths of my brain. Finally, I got it, but it was really hard. Short stories seem much harder than novels for me, novels are more my natural territory.
    I was sitting there dreading it was a piece of garbage, etc. I really do understand that how it feels when you’re writing it has no bearing on whether the story works though. Still it’s difficult to shut those voices up.

  19. Eric says:

    If you write novels like Billy in SlaughterHouse 5 and outline only what is already written, how do you avoid ending up with a dozen disconnected pieces that do not fit together at all?

    Keeping in mind that you hate to rewrite…

    • dwsmith says:

      Eric, after this many years, story structure is so solidly in my head, I can’t write anything down without it being a story, or tell anyone anything without it coming out as a story. Kind of sad but true. And if I do miss a connection, my first reader spots it sometimes. The rest of the time I don’t worry about it. Back to no book is perfect. No story is perfectly told.

      • dwsmith says:

        Also, Eric, by outlining as I go along, I can see when I have a major plot thread I haven’t dealt with. Or I haven’t been back to a viewpoint character in four chapters and the readers are going to be wondering what happened to that character. Outlining as I go along helps with that stuff as well.

  20. Love the quotes hanging over your computer. I have “don’t get it right, get it written” (stolen from Marcus Sakey) hanging over mine. :)

    Right now, my self-imposed Event is the readers who read the first book in my series, tell me something they loved about it, then ask when the second one is going to be available.

    I start writing and then worry they’ll be disappointed, won’t like the main character as much this time around, yada yada yada.

    I think I needed to hear it is just a story. Thanks for another great post!

    • dwsmith says:

      Melissa, Kris and I call that “letting people in our office.” It’s hard to stop, but when you realize it you must get them out and just write for you. When you find yourself writing for other people, the writing grinds down to a stop and your critical voice takes over. Write only for yourself, get everyone out of your office, and then go have fun. That’s the key to tricking our brains to put out the best work.

  21. Camille says:

    I don’t know if I should admit this or not, but I don’t have any trouble at all holding a whole book in my head, or even a whole series. Or even four or five versions of the story. I may not recall every bit of dialog or whether I named the waitress “Jenny” or “Ophelia,” but I have no problem keeping the details of the story straight.

    My problem is that I never remember which are the parts I actually got down on paper. The story happens in my head and it moves too fast to get it down as it goes.

    Luckily I really enjoy playing it again. And again.

    I think this is because I harnessed my “dream” part of my mind when I was a little kid. My stories work like dreams — with simultaneous, irrational and sometimes completely incompatible versions going on at once. And my dreams work like stories, with strange twists and motives and adventure all over them.

    But I think that’s just how my mind works, or maybe a working method, and not really an _attitude_ difference, and not really incompatible with anything you’re saying.

  22. Chris Abbey says:

    Hmmm, I’ve always thought that the parts where it went quickly and easily were the parts where I was getting it right. The parts where it is a slog just means something is way off.

  23. Rob Cornell says:

    Dean said: “I have a sign over my computer that says simply “Trust the Process” and it’s right beside another sign. “Write Scenes.”

    Scenes I can hold in my head. Write a scene, then write the next scene, and trust the process as the days and weeks go by.”

    I love this idea of writing scenes. I wonder if you could elaborate a little. I’ve heard a thousand different definitions of what a scene is. Is there a certain length, structure, or set of elements that define a scene?

    I know this is pretty amateur stuff, but I’ve always been dissatisfied with my understanding of scenes.

    • dwsmith says:

      Rob, there are lots and lots of ways to describe a scene, but I like to think of it as one event. Just one event. Either a plot event or a character event. I tend to let each scene run between 800 and 2,000 words, but mostly to the shorter side. In fact, I love the Lester Dent plot structure for writing a short story.

      Dent suggests having each “scene” be around 1,600 words. He was describing the pulp formula, of course, since he was a major pulp writer. But today James Patterson and Cussler and Nora and so many other major bestsellers follow the Dent plot structure. Patterson goes so far as to actually break each scene as a chapter while most of us link scenes into thematic chapters.

      But I like thinking of each scene as just one tiny event, nothing more. So I set the scene (lots of setting as opinion of the character at the start), a problem of the scene, then the event, then the ending of the scene usually with a form of cliffhanger (lots of cliffhanger types. I teach an entire weekend class on the different forms of cliffhangers.) And, of course, the most important part of the cliffhanger is the hook at the beginning of the next scene.

      Short stories tend to be one scene or a couple of linked scenes at most. Hope that helps a little.

  24. Zahra Brown says:

    Exploding kittens? Eating elephants? Dean, you’d better watch out for PETA…

    On a serious note, I really needed the part about length. I just wrote a short story and wondered whether it would work better as a novel. Now I know otherwise. If it was meant to be a novel, I’d have started it that way.

  25. “My problem is that I never remember which are the parts I actually got down on paper. The story happens in my head and it moves too fast to get it down as it goes.”

    Coincidentally, this is exactly why Dean says you can’t judge your own stories. You see the story in your head, not the story on paper.

  26. Mark Terry says:

    You know, this is exactly right. And even with 13 books under my belt with a 14th in the delivery room, I get caught up in various parts of this. Damn, there are hundreds of thousands (at least) books published each year. Not every one is an event. They’re all special in their own way, but jeez…

  27. Rob Cornell says:

    Thanks, Dean. That’s quite helpful.

  28. JohnMc says:

    BILL QUICK EMAILS: “Well, it’s taken a while to get it pulled together, but I finally managed to retrieve the digital rights on my early cyberpunk stuff, and I’ve now got it all reissued as Kindle books at Amazon. I’ll be issuing all my short SF in digital as well, as soon as I can get it converted from dead tree. I’ll price the shorts at 99 cents a pop, and maybe also offer five-story collections at $2.95. I agree with that post you had up a few days ago – I think $2.99 is the sweet spot for reprints, definitely. I might go a buck or two more if I publish a new book in digital only format, just to see how it goes. That 3-tiered price structure is already in place, more or less. Publishers are just fighting over the price points now. The first short I’m going to issue is one I had in Analog back in 1989 called ‘Bank Robbery.’

    Another author following a similar pricing strategy.

  29. Eric says:

    Just invested $276 of my student job money into two DVDs worth of RWA recordings. Your blog is a treasure trove. Also: Amazing how much of your time you invest to personally help out newbie writers. Kinda like Bill Gates emailing students to give them programming advice.

    What you said about story structure being “solidly in [your] head” has stuck with me for the last three days. Did you also learn that by the Kamikaze-Heinlein approach or is there a book on that? Can you recommend something or someone?

    • dwsmith says:

      Eric, trust me, you will get every penny’s worth out of those RWA DVDs. Fantastic information, but you will have to wade through some myths. Caution on that, but otherwise great business stuff.

      And thanks for the nice comments.

      As for story solidly in my head, yup, it got there because first off, like everyone else, I have read a ton of fiction over the years, so my subconscious knows how story works. From there I got rid of the myths and just let my subconscious control and let the storage of knowledge about story drive my stories. It missed early on at times because I didn’t trust it, got in my own way, thought I consciously knew better (when of course I didn’t.) But now I never question what appears in stories under my fingers because I know my subconscious knows story and knows what it is doing and planting and so on.

      But to get to that state of trusting your own deep knowledge? Yup, lots and lots of powering on Heinlein’s Rules, story after story. For example, read Lawrence Block’s writing about his early days writing quick novels for the “erotica” market and how those short, quick books were great training. And how he and Silverberg and Resnick and Malzberg and Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) and others did them, some lots of them, as great practice. But the key is to keep learning and then just let it go and trust yourself and then finish and move on. Rewriting never taught anyone anything. Writing original is wonderful practice if you combine outside learning and study at the same time, which you are doing.

      Hope that makes sense. Sort of Zen. (grin) But there is a madness behind Heinlein’s Rules that really works.

  30. Laura-F says:

    This was one of my favourites the first time around and is still something I need to hear…so I just wanted to say thanks for that and for your advice to Martin above, which is very timely for me.

  31. Eric says:

    That would be these:

    Audio quality is not that great, but the content is definitely worth it.

    I also came across a couple of episodes of “Prisoners of Gravity” airdate 1991, featuring your wife and Mercedes Lackey among others. Don’t know why these only have 500 views. Would have loved to get in on Quark’s poker game though.

  32. Jeff Ambrose says:

    Eric –

    Could you provide the link for those DVDs? I got on the RWA website, but couldn’t find them. Thanks.

  33. Rob Cornell says:

    Hey, Eric. Where did you get the DVDs? I’d like to check them out. Did a Google search, but didn’t find much.

  34. Eric says:

    My comment has been lost. Has it been moderated away? I will send you the link through the contact information on your websites.

  35. Thank you Dean; this was an inspiring article. I did NaNoWriMo for he first time last year and was elated to get to the end of the 50,000 words and the end of the story but for a long time I didn’t return to it because I had it drummed into my head that a marketable novel had to be at least 80,000 words. I have since realised that the story ends where it ends; it’s good to know somebody else thinks so. I was so fixated for a time on this “minimum” length that it escaped my notice that I have probably written a YA novel.

    Thanks for sharing. I an a quarter through editing my novel for spelling and grammar and the occasional tweak and will have it to a beta reader before the end of the month. Reading your article makes the task that much more worthwhile.


    • dwsmith says:

      Hey, Gayle, congrats on finishing it and working on getting it out. So many writers who do the NaNoWriMo challenge just don’t do anything with their books, which is a shame. Congrats!!

  36. Bélier says:

    Here’s a french translation of this article :

  37. Joe Zieja says:

    Dean – I just wanted to say quickly that this is exactly what I needed. I’ve made some sales, written about 750k words in the last year or so, but lately I’ve felt stuck. This book of yours has been one word: Liberating. Thanks.

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