Chapter 11: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writers Don’t Need to Practice

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 myth, that writers don’t need to practice, is so damn silly when looked at with clear vision, it seems I wouldn’t need to talk about it at all in this book. But frighteningly enough, it is one of the worst myths running, one of the deepest myths functioning in every writer’s head, and often the real difference between a good non-sold writer and a long-term professional writer. And it can also be the difference between a selling professional and a bestseller.

Practice. The ugly word for writers.

I have touched on this in a number of ways and in a number of other chapters, but let me try to hit this as squarely on the head as possible.

Here’s the question that illustrates this myth:

Would you pick up a violin, take one lesson, and think you should step on the stage in front of 30,000 people to play a concert?

No sane person says sure to that question. It’s a laughable question, yet almost every beginning writer I know writes a first short story, or a first novel, fires it off to a publisher, and then gets mad when it gets rejected. Or they put it up electronically and wonder why only their friends and family bought it.

Reactions always vary in this anger.

— “Oh, stupid editors don’t understand true genius when they read it.”

Or when indie published you hear:

— “I need to promote this more. Clearly no one is seeing it.”

And so on and so on.

The real reason your story got rejected early on? Or no one is buying the the story online?

You haven’t practiced your craft enough, so your story sucked. Or your opening sucked. Or your blurbs sucked. All writing.

My suggestion? Leave the story alone, rewriting won’t help it. Write another one.

Get more practice.

And keep mailing or keep indie publishing as is your choice. But focus on practice, practice, practice.

I don’t practice: I write!

So how come writers think every word they write doesn’t stink and get so angry at a simple rejection to an early story? How come the word “practice” is a dirty word to writers? The shout or thought is: “I don’t practice. I write!”

To beginning writers every word is golden.

Every word needs to be polished and worked over (check out the rewriting chapter to understand that myth), even though the writer has no clue what they are fixing or not fixing. You don’t think the rewriting myth applies here to the practice myth? Of course it does. When you are rewriting, you aren’t practicing writing. You are just trying to rearrange notes in the last practice session. Think of that in music terms and you see how really silly that is.

Tell a beginning writer to toss out a manuscript and write the idea (the story) from scratch and they will sit stunned and horrified. “You can’t toss out my beautiful, wonderful, etched-in-stone words.” Yet in music you screw up an attempt at a song, you do it again.

So how come writers think this way?

Lots of reasons actually. The biggest is that early on in our lives we all started writing in one fashion or another. And, of course, those who were good in school got praise by a high school or college teacher for good writing, and thus the belief is because of that praise it is possible to be a bestseller on the first book. Uhhhh….no.

Second reason: In the early days it takes special time that must be carved out of life to write, so whatever is produced in that time can’t be “wasted” in any way.

Truth: No writing is ever wasted. It is practice.

There are many other smaller reasons for this belief system. Each writer needs to figure out why they have it and crush it. Mine was because I learned to type and write my first stories on typewriters, with tons of White-Out. I felt at times like I was carving a statue on those pages. Took me a while, meaning years, to get past that feeling.

So what is practice in writing and how do you do it?

Every writer I know who is a long term professional has practice methods for almost every craft a writer needs to master. I’ll give you some general ones in a moment. But first, let me talk about how you practice.

1) A Writer is a Person Who Writes. So is just simply doing lots of writing good practice?

Sometimes yes, to a degree. If you are mailing the story or novel out to editors when you finish, or indie publishing it, and getting feedback and applying the feedback to THE NEXT STORY.

The key is getting feedback, listening to the feedback, and then writing the next story. See my caution on workshops in an earlier chapter and on how to use workshops for the feedback.

You can’t fix a practice session. But you can learn from a practice session what works and what doesn’t work and apply that knowledge to your next story or novel.

If you just write the same story over and over, the same way, without actually trying to apply knowledge to the new story, then no, you can write for years and not improve. And sadly, I’ve seen that happen.

There is a common term for what you need to do. It is called FOCUSED PRACTICE.

But first and foremost, you have to sit and do a lot of writing. No rewriting, writing original words. Not researching, writing original words. And when you are done with the story or novel, get it in the mail or indie published and move on.

2) Does everything you write in the early years need to be a focused practice session? 

Yes, again to a degree. Early on in your writing career, you are missing so many storytelling skills, just writing and not working to get better in an area doesn’t make much sense. As the words go by and the years pass, not every session is a practice session. But every session will always be a learning session.

3) Should I tell stories while practicing or just write paragraphs or scenes?

Oh, heavens, you are practicing being a storyteller, so every session is focused on telling a story. Nothing else matters. Everything you practice goes to telling a story, so every practice session should be on a story of some sort. Anyone with an English degree can type a bunch of pretty sentences. Writing a story is another matter.

4) If I am only practicing, should I mail out my stories when they are finished? Or indie publish them?

OF COURSE!!! Duh, you have to get feedback on your practice, and an editor telling you a story works, or that they read it shows your practice is working. And readers buying or not buying your story off of Kindle and the other sites is great feedback. At first you will only get form rejections and no sales, but develop a trusted first reader and use a workshop for feedback, but get everything out.

I used to write a story every week, then mail it to an editor on my way to turn it into my workshop.

I wanted feedback on the story not to fix the story, but to learn how to do something better on the next story, and to see if something worked or didn’t work. Workshop sometimes told me that, but editors told me that even more. And I trusted the editors and readers.

5) How long do you need to practice and work on your craft and storytelling skills?

Your entire life. It never ends. The learning never stops in this art form, and the moment you think you are “good enough” you are dead.

I once had an interviewer ask me why I wrote so many media novels. My standard answer is, of course, that I loved the universes and the characters and the work. And that’s very true. Writing for DC and Marvel and Star Trek and Men in Black and X-Box was just a blast for an old kid like me. Period, end of discussion.

But for some reason I answered a different way with this interviewer. I answered, “Practice.”

You see, for every media book I wrote, I focused on one thing to practice for that book. For example, on three novels in a row, I worked on nothing but different forms of cliffhangers. The reviews on those three books for the first time in my career started adding in the phrase “hard to put down.”

Focused practice, then feedback, then more focused practice, then more feedback.

That’s the loop you want to try to set up in every way possible.


For a moment, let me give you some basic hints about feedback and how to understand what a first reader or workshop reader is saying to you. These are very basic.

“Your story really took off on page six.”

Meaning: Your opening sucks, you walked or strolled or woke up to your story, and no editor on the planet will ever buy the story.

“I just couldn’t see your story.”

You forgot to ground your reader in a setting, real setting, and your characters were just talking heads yacking at each other in a white room.

Your character seemed flat.”

You forgot to give any kind of character voice or character opinion or character description.

“Your ending doesn’t work.”

You screwed up your set-up in the opening of your story and didn’t prepare the reader for your ending. Or you wrote two pages past your ending and didn’t know it. Or you haven’t gotten to your ending yet.

And so on and so on. You get the idea. Get the feedback, figure out what it really means, which is often not what you are hearing.

How to apply feedback like those samples and practice.

Say you got feedback on a story that said “I just couldn’t see your story.”

Okay, no real setting in your story. So, first off, resist the temptation to FIX the story getting the feedback. Trust me, if you have that problem in one story, you will have it in all of your stories. So you need to work on setting, you need to practice it. Just keep the other story in the mail or indie publish it and get practice in the next story.

Setting is opinion, so often a story that has no setting means you are not inside a character’s head and looking out. (Yes, setting is viewpoint.)

So, on your next story, climb solidly inside a character’s head, park your butt square in the middle of that character’s five senses, and use all five senses to describe the setting around the character.

And I don’t mean just layer it in. I mean go over the top, way, way, way over the top. Make the first five pages of your next short story opinion about a setting through a character’s eyes. Use all five senses every two pages for the entire story.

And use all five senses every two pages for every story you write for a year.

Get the idea? Focused practice.

Take feedback on a story, understand what isn’t working, then focus practice the missing skill in your next stories, your next novels. Not just once, but over and over and over until you got it.

And how do you get the knowledge to get better?

Read bestsellers (they are the best writers working no matter what your English teacher said), go to professional-level workshops, read, read how-to-write books, study what other writers did who you think do what you are practicing well, then read more and more and more.

When I like a page or a section from another writer who is doing something well and I want to learn how they did it, I type it into my computer in manuscript format. Putting their words through my fingers for a page of their writing or so is a learning experience, and I do it all the time. Yet most writers I know have never done this simple learning exercise.

Get information from everywhere and all the time.

One fine day back when I was very young, I was a golf professional working to play tour stops. On one round I needed to hook a seven iron around a tree and I didn’t do it.

After the round (couldn’t fix that round, just as you can’t fix a story) I went to the range, got a big yellow bucket of balls (about 300) and worked on hooking a seven iron. I did the same practice for 300 balls the next day, and then the next day, only working for those 300 golf balls on learning how to hook a seven iron until every damn ball in the last 300 hooked as I wanted each shot to hook.

I went out the next day, needed to hook a seven iron, missed the shot, because I was too much in my head thinking about it. But in a round a week later I needed the same shot and hit it perfectly. And I never had trouble with that shot after that.

It works the same with writing. You discover through one form of feedback or another you missed on something, go back to your computer and practice what you missed over and over in the next stories until you no longer miss and you no longer need to think about it.

Do I still practice with every story, every novel?

Of course.

I just finished a fun young adult thriller for a publisher that will first appear in serialized form online before hitting book form. I needed to use the old pulp formula and cliff hangers to keep readers coming back for a new chapter every week. Great fun, great practice.

John D. MacDonald once famously said that every writer has a million words of crap in them before they reach their first publishable story. In modern times, studies and other books have set different numbers for a person to “get good” or “become great.” Numbers like 10,000 hours. Yeah, I pretty much agree with all that. However you look at it, you must practice to gain skills.

And you must use focused practice. You can’t just type, you need to focus on something in a story, some element in a story that you suck at, and then work at getting better at it.

So in that short story or novel you are writing right now, quick, without thinking, tell me what you are practicing besides typing.

Oh, oh, caught you, didn’t I? If the answer doesn’t instantly spring to your mind, you are not doing focused practice.

One day back about novel number thirty, I was moaning about not getting started on a novel that I had under deadline. Kris asked me, “What are you practicing this novel?” Duh, I had forgot to figure out what I needed to practice in the novel. No wonder my mind wouldn’t let me start. So I figured it out and the novel went smoothly.

I have never made that mistake again. Every story, every novel, has a practice focus. And every new story will until the day I die. I want to keep learning and becoming a better storyteller and the only way to do that is practice.

So now you all know what my challenge of 100 stories this year is all about.

Focused practice and a lot of typing.


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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57 Responses to Chapter 11: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writers Don’t Need to Practice

  1. Blarkon says:

    Terry Pratchett suggested that a great career path for someone who wants to be a writer is to find a job where you get paid to write and be edited on a regular basis. That through that exercise you’d build the necessary muscles required for a career as a writer.

  2. Ty Johnston says:

    Oh gosh! I had to laugh. It’s not just fiction writers.

    I couldn’t count the number of young or beginning reporters who would throw a fit every time I, as a newspaper editor, would have them rewrite something. Or when I’d change it myself when editing.

  3. Great advice as usual. I’ve been working on cliffhangers in the novel I’m writing at the moment because they’ve always been one of the things that would keep me reading a book, so now I’m going to make it a deliberate practice session to emphasise them.

    • dwsmith says:

      Edward, I teach a very intense four-day workshop on cliffhangers. There are a lot of them, a lot of different types. It’s a great fun thing to learn.

  4. J. Tanner says:

    I hope some day those of us who can’t make the seminars will get to read an abbreviated version of the cliffhangers topic here. :) It’s not something that gets talked about much in a nuts and bolts craft sense.

    For anyone unfamiliar, the 10,000 hours of practice theory is covered through a number of engrossing and unconventional case studies in Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book Outliers. Highly recommended.

    • dwsmith says:

      J. Tanner, cliffhangers and other aspects of craft that we teach here don’t get talked about in normal craft sense because what it takes to do them is more advanced writing skills. In beginner classes you never get to most of what we teach in these workshops. The details I work on in the Character Voice and Setting workshop are so far beyond most beginning writers as to be like me talking Greek. Same with the cliffhanger workshop.

      That’s why I openly laugh at writers who get to a certain point, maybe sell story or two, and stop learning or even trying to learn or practice. They have no idea the fantastic areas of craft and learning they are shutting off. They can’t see it anymore than a good chess player can see what a master level chess player is doing, let alone understand it.

      Learning in the craft of telling great stories is a constant. It never ends, and with the good writers, it never ends right up until the day they die. And honestly, for those of us who love fiction writing, that’s a wonderful thing.

      Learning all or even part of the aspects of how to keep a reader turning the page is advanced. Just like understanding how paragraphs and line lengths and so on work subconsciously for readers. Most beginning writers give no thought at all to a simple tool like length of paragraphs. Or length of sentences. And what they say to readers. That’s just intermediate stuff. That has to be mostly in control and understood before any talk on cliffhangers can make any sense at all.

      Study bestsellers. Long-time bestsellers, not just the new accidental ones. Study Patterson, Cussler, and so on. They have cliffhanger of all sorts down to an art form.

  5. Jamie DeBree says:

    I think most writers I know confuse “revising” with “practice”. They think revising *is* practice, which is why revisions are so very important to them. Fascinating that you make a clear distinction here on that. Makes sense to me.

    I did have to hesitate at your question – I don’t think I’ve ever started a story with a deliberate practice goal. I’ve been focusing lately on emphasizing specific genre elements where appropriate – ie, in the suspense/thriller draft I’m working on, I really have to be careful not to let too many romantic elements sneak in, and there’s a specific feel I want that I’m struggling to achieve (first time I’ve tried writing a thriller, so I’m uncomfortable overall but pushing through). With my erotica, I’m focusing on using intimate encounters to portray emotional movement in a very specific psychological way. And with my rom suspense, I’m trying to work on my characterization – I have a bad habit of making my heroes too soft and my heroines too strong. So I’m trying to even that out.

    All of those I decided on after I started each story though – via reader feedback (serialized drafts), reviews of past work, or just a personal feeling of “this isn’t working for me”. I need to write a flash piece in the next few weeks – I’ll certainly implement picking a practice goal *before* I start writing this time so I can focus on it throughout, and maybe I’ll even crack open one of my dusty craft books to read up on techniques first.

    Excellent chapter – thanks, once again…

  6. Rob Cornell says:

    I’ve actually been practicing a couple things in the last novel I finished and the one I’m wrapping up now. Less character introspection, better economizing my characters thoughts and emotions. And cliffhangers, though I didn’t really think of it as that–I thought of it as just making the books hard to put now. I just realized a lot of that is how I end one chapter and build into the next. I’ve even taken a note from Patterson, with a few of my chapters as short as a single page, with a hard punch at the end.

  7. Jeff Ambrose says:

    Great post, as always. I’d read it when you first posted it, but at the time was so overwhelmed by rooting out the other myths I forgot about this one.

    Looking back, I see I haven’t been doing this at all. Time to take the next step.

    Question: how did you learn about cliffhangers? Was there a how-to book or workshop, or did you just sit down with a lot of thrillers and mystery novels, study the heck out of them, and apply what you learned?

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeff, yes. If a writer got me to keep going and not be able to stop, I went back and studied how they did it. Character cliffhangers, emotional cliffhangers, structural cliffhangers, and the classic physical cliffhangers. So many aspects of all of them it’s stunning, but until you actually type in what another writer did into manuscript format through your own fingers, you never really learn it. I would type in the last page or so of a chapter, then the first page of the next chapter to see how the hook on both sides attached. (Remember, you can’t have a hook just hanging out in space…it has to attach to another hook.)

      I wrote one entire book attempting to have every chapter an emotional cliffhanger. Of course it ended up being a romance. Go figure.

      Have fun.

  8. Teri says:

    Dean, I’d love a workshop in cliff hangers. Last time I watched Princess Bride, I thought, “If I just hung a few of my characters over cliffs, maybe my stories would improve.” (I mostly write children’s books, and my writing has been called “sweet”)

    I’ve been meaning to plan a trip northward for a while. Maybe one days.

    The first time I read this chapter, I wasn’t completely clear what you meant. Practicing seemed inconsistent with “send everything you write to editors or self-publish.” I know from my teaching days that first attempts at novels really are not ready for prime time. What helped me understand what you meant was your example about how each time you start a new project, you’re practicing a different skill.

    Blarcon: Here’s what most helped my writing: I quit my job teaching english and creative writing (community college), went to law school, and became an appellate lawyer. I do criminal defense appeals, which is creative writing if ever there was creative writing. I write constantly. Of course, I make all the usual jokes about how I write fiction and people think it’s true, then I write legal briefs and the judges think it’s fiction. (My other joke is that I write for both children and appellate justices and my two audiences have a lot in common.)

    Leaving a job in which I stood up as sort of an expert and entering a job where I wrote constantly and learned the hard way what could go wrong when someone misunderstood what I was trying to say helped my writing overall become more fluent and effortless.

    Thanks for the reminder about practive, Dean, and the many forms practice can take.

  9. xdpaul says:

    You’ve done a great job hammering on the “don’t rewrite” advice, and I think it is good – however, I can think of several stories I’ve written that, with a 20 minute rewrite based on trusted suggestions that I was so much happier with – you know, key details that seemed obvious in my head but weren’t clear on the page (for example: some readers had the hardest time understanding my description of a space elevator. When I described it with one extra word – “beanstalk” – everything clicked, and that was sold the editor.)

    Do you suggest avoiding that too? Its different than cleaning up the copy, and it is only 20 minutes, but if you think it is wasted 20, that would mean something to me.

    Thanks for sharing so much. Your stuff has been really critical to some vocation/business decisions I need to make, and I hope someday I can repay the favor.

    • dwsmith says:

      xdpaul, oh heavens I would do that in a heartbeat if a trusted reader said a detail was wrong and needed fixed. That’s not a rewrite, that’s a fix. And not wasted at all. Rewriting is when you go back into a story in critical voice and think “Oh, I got to clean this up, polish this language, and so on.”

      Fixing a few details a trusted first reader finds is a great system and how most of us do it in one form or another. No right way, just what makes your stories sell.

  10. John Walters says:

    What do you do if things are rolling and you come up to a cliffhanger and you don’t know what happens next? Do you put it aside for a time or try to power through? I would suppose it’s sometimes one and sometimes the other.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yup, John, the answer is “it depends.” But I hate stopping at the end of a chapter because it makes it really, really hard to start the next session. Ends of chapters are sort of a natural break point, an end point in a scene. It is a ton easier to restart on a story when you have left off in the middle of a scene in the middle of a sentence. Just a trick, but trust me, it makes things a lot easier the next day or next writing session.

  11. Zahra Brown says:

    My weakness is setting and description. I hate long descriptions in books and usually forget the finer details because two page descriptions drone on and on. I can’t stand when someone takes five pages to describe a chair. I forget the reader isn’t in my head, so I give tiny details as the story develops. I’m sure by that time its too late and the reader has their own image already. I’ll remember the five senses thing.

    You said not to ‘fix’ past stories. It just seems like such a waste now I’ve realised (accepted) what might be wrong with them. What’s the point?

  12. xdpaul says:

    Oh okay. Good thing I’m naturally lazy. I don’t even polish the good silver. Last thing I’m going to do is polish my words. How do you polish ink, anyhow, especially digital ink? Maybe I should just dust my monitor.

    Closest I get to polish is sausage. Oh, never mind. That’s polish, not polish.

    Hm… maybe I ought to polish this up. Nah…

    Now I’m hungry.

    Seriously though, thanks. It is really good to think of my ever expanding catalog of past rejections as practice. I’ve always treated them as such, but I never looked at it in quite this way.

  13. Rob Cornell says:

    Regarding reading books on craft, I’ve found it harder and harder to read them, not because I don’t think I can learn anything, but because so many of them are filled with the Myths. Rewriting. Research. Agents. Outlining. Not outlining. Can’t make money. Never do this. Always do that.


    I rarely finish the ones I start these days, when I used to tear through them with zeal. I think it’s time I did more independent study on authors’ works I’ve enjoyed. I’ve always wanted to do a scene-by-scene outline of another writer’s work to see how their plot and structure worked.

    Can anyone think of some how-to books that *aren’t* filled with the myths? I can think of maybe two. :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Rob, you must read everything with a giant salt shaker handy, including my posts. Not everything everyone writes about writing will be right for you. Just pick and chose the things that make sense, toss out the rest.

      And that includes these posts and blogs. No right way, just the way that works for you and helps you sell and make a living writing fiction.

  14. J. Tanner says:

    Dean said: “That’s why I openly laugh at writers who get to a certain point, maybe sell story or two, and stop learning or even trying to learn or practice.”

    I’ll refrain from openly laughing (perhaps a guilty snicker?) at other’s foibles knowing I’ve got a bunch of my own. :)

    Change that “story or two” to “story or ten” and I’m sure I’m not alone out here still trying to absorb whatever can be learned from people further down the path.

    It’s easy enough to recognize the cliffhangers in various bestsellers but I’m sure your seminar provides a lot more critical analysis of how and why they work and how best to use them. Anyway, if you think it doesn’t really work in the context here, no problem. Just letting you know there’s an eager audience for 1000 words from you on the topic if you ever feel like sharing.

    Thanks for another great article.

  15. Camille says:

    I think, aside from Winston Churchhill’s “Never ever ever ever ever give in” my favorite writing mantra is “Practice, man, practice.”

    The thing that really struck me, though, was in reading the comments. Discussions of what constitutes “rewriting” and Dean’s mention of reading all of it with a giant shaker of salt:

    As you practice, you will change, when you change ALL of this will have a different meaning to you. What you need to hear will be different. What spurs you on will be different.

    Practice means more than just getting better at something. Practice means that life will always be fresh for you.

  16. Christian K says:

    Ahhh Cliffhangers. By a weird quirk of fate, I just started re-reading Amistad Maupin’s Tales of the City. In addition to his compact storytelling, and obsessive use of brand names, I love his use of the Cliffhanger. Nearly every chapter ends in a Cliffhanger. He uses everything from a Soap Opera style plot reveals to poignant character moments to funny one-liners. Great Fun!

    It’s also great as a educational tool. It’s an early work so the Cliffhangers are very obvious. I really wish someone would collect the original serials. I am a little two young to have read them, and my understanding is that he changed them to fit into the novel format. The Kindle edition was recently released and unfortunately there are some OCR errors in a couple chapters. So, if that bothers you (I couldn’t care less) I would suggest one of the paperback editions.

    @Teri I completely agree! It’s amazing how much reading Dean’s blog has changed my perspective. About a year ago, before I discovered Dean’s blog, I read Donald Maas’s Fire in the Fiction and enjoyed it. I recently started to re-read it and was throughly annoyed. The myths just leap off the page! The book is filled with chiding authors for not rewriting endlessly on the advice of their agent and other nonsense. His bits about creating multi-layered conflict are rather nice, but the majority is simply “Myths 101″.

  17. Pen Clements says:

    I would like to recommend ‘The 90 Day Novel’ by Alan Watt. I’ve read loads of writing books but none of them made me itch to put my fingers to the keyboard like this one does. He has lots of methods that help you get into the world of your story but all the way through he insists that you must give yourself permission to write poorly, to hold everything loosely and just to play. I am only halfway through but he’s made my novel come alive by taking the pressure off. It’s on Kindle.

  18. AndrewV says:

    Dean, I finally got one step ahead of your lessons. 😀

    Before I write any story I decide what my goal is going to be and write it on the very first page (currently the goal is to write evocative scenes, no more white rooms for me!). Then every day, before I type any new material, I read my goal and try to keep it in mind as I go. I write as fast as I can and try to think about my goals while letting the story just come to me.

    It’s all about having fun, learning something about the craft, and getting new content done every day. I’m sure this will pay off in the long run.

    Thanks again for the columns. I really enjoy them.

  19. TK Kenyon says:

    DWS: “So in that short story or novel you are writing right now, quick, without thinking, tell me what you are practicing besides typing. Oh, oh, caught you, didn’t I? If the answer doesn’t instantly spring to your mind, you are not doing focused practice.”

    Cool! I did!

    I thought, “I’m working on plotting the whole novel out (rather than “pantsing”) and working on incorporating the characterization exercises that Maass details in his books.”

    I don’t get to congratulate myself too often. Thanks for the “bump” today!

    TK Kenyon

  20. Lyn Perry says:

    I like your comments on how to interpret feedback. This, to me, is the key to the focused/adjusted practice that can eventually result in something better. I remember my piano teacher’s mantra that practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. So we better be careful that we’re practicing better each time. 😉

  21. Tori Minard says:

    I don’t write in chapters. I write the whole book and then “chapterize” it, putting the chapter breaks where there are natural cliffhangers. Is that wrong? I feel like I’m cheating. It’s just easier for me to do it that way, especially since I write thin and then go back in and flesh things out.

    • dwsmith says:

      Tori, no right way. Whatever works for you is the right way if things sell. If they don’t sell, try it a different way. But no right way to write anything. Just the way that works for you.

  22. Tori Minard says:

    They are selling, just not as quickly as I’d like. 😉 A few copies a month per title, except for the erotica which sells ten to twenty copies a month (novellas under a pen name). With no promotion on the erotica. I have three novels up under my own name, and I sell between one to six copies a month per title. It’s almost embarrassing to me to type those numbers. I don’t know if there’s a writing problem or if I just don’t have enough books up yet.

    I was curious so I just averaged my novel sales and for the last 7 months I’ve sold an average of 9 novels per month across three titles. So I guess that’s an average of 3 sales per title per month. Of course, only one of those has been up for all 7 months. One has only been up for a couple of weeks.

    • dwsmith says:

      Tori, first off, you don’t know how many copies you sell per month unless your novels have been up for over six months and you have a way of counting all the books sold on iBook, Smashwords, Sony, Kobo, and so on through Smashwords. If what you mean is that you are selling that many copies on a part of electronic sales only in the US, then I would say that’s pretty darned good, especially if your prices are $3.99 or $4.99.

      Kindle US is a nice piece of electronic sales in this country, yes. About 40% give-or-take. But it sure isn’t all of electronic in this country by a long ways.

      Hmmm…maybe it’s time to do a post on this. (grin) Tori, be patient, and make sure your books are selling worldwide.

  23. Tori Minard says:

    I figure you’re probably going to smack me on the head and tell me to be more patient, lol.

  24. TJ says:

    Dean, this is slightly off topic, but I’ve gone back through your TLAP chapters and it’s puzzling me.

    I’ve never seen you discuss the costs of editing when determining how much it cost you to publish a work of fiction. Covers, CreateSpace charges, office overhead, sure. But never any costs related to having the work edited. Not much of anything related to editing at all, now that I think about it.

    I know how you feel about rewrites, so I doubt that you’d bother with a copy editor. But what about line editing? Do you and Kris just do that for each other gratis? Do you just turn the editing tools in Word on when you’re finished writing and do a quck cleanup based on that?

    I can see a case for the latter with highly experienced writers; by the time a writer has put in the number of hours writing that you have, the number of technical mistakes should be low. I’m sure this is probably a case of “do what’s right for you,” but for the n00bs like me, what do you do, and what’s your expert opinion on the matter?

    Isn’t it fun being the expert? :)

    • dwsmith says:

      Actually, we worry about a copyedit pass quite a bit, and often trade with other writers for copyedit. On the short stories, we just use each other, so we miss with mistakes at times. A good friend of mine just read one of my Poker Boy collection books and every time he found a typo he texted me with the typo and location. He read the entire 140 plus pages and found only nine, and most of them were possessive issues or wrong word spelled right. I was pleased to be honest he only found nine considering they were challenge stories that only Kris had looked at.

      So yes, if you can’t trade the work, there might be costs for proofing. Never rewriting, just cleaning typos.

  25. Sam Lee says:

    This is great advice, Dean. I only started progressing when I started doing targeted practice and *analysing* what I read instead of just reading and re-reading over and over again. Re-reading helps, but not nearly as much, for me, as breaking down what I was reading and why it was working.

    I’m sure you were asking a rhetorical question (g) about current practice goals, but I’m working on making my scenes snappy and action-packed. It’s hard work but tons of fun.

    It also seriously beats manual labor! (beg)

  26. Chris Abbey says:

    I got a rejection on a novel I’d been working on for a year. Everybody around me was trying to cheer me up, and they probably thought I was making the best of a bad situation when I kept saying, “Are you kidding? She said my dialogue was great!” That was by far my biggest weakness, and my main focus.

    When you asked your question, I answered, “Applying the structure of a screwball comedy to a non-comedic horror novel.” Until that moment, I hadn’t known what I was doing. 100 pages (okay, 97, picky) in, and now I trust it will be much easier.

  27. BRILLIANT article.

    I sold my fifth complete manuscript. I have never regretted writing the four books I never sold (my PRACTICE books) because in each one I learned something about story structure, pacing, voice, genre, and character. Yes, I wanted to sell them, but I understand why they didn’t sell.

    My 17th book comes out in a couple months — and I still practice writing all the time. Short stories to try new genres/voices/ideas, for example. And I also believe that I have a lot of room for improvement and hope that I can make each book better than the last.

  28. Linda Jordan says:

    Don’t know if it’s too late to ask this, but how do you stay in ‘creative voice’ or your unconscious mind and consciously practice something? I’m trying to add more conflict to a story and my critical brain kicks in and says – “this isn’t working, you need to add more conflict here, blah, blah, blah,” which takes me right out of the story.
    Can’t seem to stay in that part of my brain where the story flows and still practice something concrete.

    • dwsmith says:


      Sort of like giving instructions to your mind before you start. Think of it like deciding on taking a trip. What you practice is the direction you take with the trip. Once you start, you just let the story flow and type, but since you set that practice topic at the beginning, your mind will be working on it, and every-so-often you do surface look at something and work to add something in or try something, then dive back in. That’s normal, but the important part is the instructions to the subconscious before the journey starts. That will focus the practice more than you can imagine. Sort of Zen, I know, but our darned minds are weird that way. (grin)

  29. Linda Jordan says:

    Ooh, non-practicing practice. Thanks!

  30. I’m often practicing multiple things in a single story (this is especially true with novels) – and I keep myself in creative mode while doing it by making the skill/technique I’m practicing integral to the story.
    Do I want to work on making characters sound different in their speech patterns, accents, culture, etc.? I introduce characters from different classes/different cultures into the same scene. Am I practicing setting (always!)? I set a scene in a location that requires me to describe it – and that might be a very complex location, like the environment on an alien planet, or an otherwise white room that I have to add layer after of interior decorating touches to in order to bring it to life using as many of the POV character’s sensory details as I can.
    Am I practicing cliffhangers? The longer the story, the more opportunities to put in useful scene breaks that let me practice variations on the technique. And so on and so forth.
    Once the practice goals insert themselves into the story, actively practicing them is integrated into the writing.
    Anyhow, that’s how it works for me. YMMV.

  31. camille says:

    Another way to put it: look at your previous work, and identify what you don’t like about it. Then set about writing a story which needs more of that, even if it’s a bad or exaggerated version of what you need to learn. So your characters have dialog which sounds alike… write a couple of dialog-only stories. Don’t worry about being subtle. Pick characters which are very different at first.

    Actually, when I think about it, the story I used to get in to Clarion was one such “practice” — I wanted to see if I could handle dialog among five or six different characters at once. I didn’t say “I’m going to practice using regional dialects and different levels of education to differentiate the dialog of multiple characters.” That’s part of what I learned FROM writing it. No, I just said “I wonder how many characters I can get into this dialog without getting hopelessly lost.”

    Set yourself a problem, and then dive into the story.

  32. It’s always astonished me the way new writers assume that their first efforts ought to be publishable. Does a singer expect to get sing his first song onstage? Does an actor expect his first role to be in a Broadway play? Does a painter take his first canvas down from the easel and hang it in a museum?

    No, of course not. But writers somehow have to believe that their first novels will get published. Otherwise, they seem to be saying, why finish the damned thing?

    I submit that you learn a great deal from writing a novel, about writing and about yourself, and that really ought to be compensation enough for the time and effort involved.

    Of course the business is complicated by the fact that some first novels are sold and published, and some are even successful. But it doesn’t generally work that way. I read a while back that Jack Kerouac wrote fifteen unpublished novels before On the Road. I’m glad I didn’t have to go through that myself, but it takes what it takes.

    • dwsmith says:

      I agree completely, Lawrence. I feel that I got lucky that my third written novel was my “first” published novel. Looking back that seemed very early to me in hindsight. The two or three hundred short stories I wrote before that helped I suppose. (grin)

      The designation of “first novel” is part of the problem as well. When writers say their “first” novel, beginning writers just think that they wrote that book first. Almost never the case. Practice is everything.

  33. James Monaghan says:

    I had never thought of looking at my writing this way, although now that you’ve put it down in black and white it makes perfect sense. I’m definitely setting myself practice goals at the beginning of every story, starting off for the next few months with working on the opening, trying to get into the actual beginning of the story and not circling around it for the first few pages.

    All of these posts are so helpful and instructional, I just wanted to say a huge thank you. I’m launching my indie career in October (I have to wait a few months because of some tax-related stuff here in France) but I’ve been writing and learning (both in terms of writing but also in terms of business, cover design, formatting, etc) all this time. I can’t wait to get started and should have a good 13 stories and novels up by the end of the month of October.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  34. Raven says:

    I’m glad you wrote this. I had a completely different opinion on “practice” in writing before I read this (and I read it in the original version, but I’m not sure if I commented or not). I was really looking forward to this because I’ve always thought practice in writing was important, but had no idea how to do it. I was thinking of practice for writing as being similar to practice in music, though, so what I was looking for in your article is not what I found.

    Here’s how I understand practice in music: first, you have a piece you want to be able to perform. During your first practice section, you play it and learn where you struggle. Then, you find etudes that address the same issues (for example, if you have difficulties with a staccato section, you find etudes that force you to play lots of staccato sections). You also find the scale for the key of the piece, and you find ways to include staccato practice in those scales. Then, you spend 75% of your practice time on etudes and scales, NOT on the piece. The reason for this is the same as one of your reasons for avoiding rewriting: if you just practice the piece, you risk perfecting the piece without actually improving as a musician. But eventually, when you’re done practicing, you can play *that piece* well in addition to improving as a musician.

    So, naturally, I was looking for ways to find/create “etudes” for different writing problems.

    But what you’re suggesting is completely different from what I was expecting. Instead, you’re suggesting that we play one piece once and only once, then find out the different areas in need of improvement, and then pick only one of them to focus on. Then, we start a completely new piece (not an etude) in which to focus on that issue, and we never return to the original piece unless we decide it’s broken, and then we can redraft (play it a second time from scratch). This is very different from how musicians practice, but it makes sense, since, as writers, our “etudes” aren’t just exercises we find in a book that we copy in a new way (playing music is not creative in the same way: musicians aren’t creating new etudes each time they play something), and so there is value outside of pure execution. As there is value, it makes sense to sell it if you can.

    My question then is this: does it make sense to you to not only practice the areas of focus in a new novel but also in short stories and other forms while you’re writing the novel? So, for example, would it make sense that if you know you have a problem with description, you focus on description in your current novel, but also all of your other writing during that time? And then when that novel is done, you find a new focus? Or does each piece have to have its own focus? The reason I ask is that the other reason I was given for NOT spending more than 25% of practice time on the piece is that it is too long and complex and you can’t really improve it if you’re moving from one problem area to another problem area NOR if you only focus on improving one problem area. Etudes, on the other hand, are designed with one or two main areas of focus. It seems like novels are more like pieces in this regard. I guess what I mean is that you could have a writing “etude” that is pure description, but that wouldn’t be a story or a novel (because once you include it in a story or novel, you automatically have to include characters and plot, and therefore, you can no longer focus *exclusively* on description). If you’re completely new to writing, and you want to write a novel, it doesn’t make sense to me to waste a whole new novel on description. It makes more sense to me to write a lot of descriptive “etudes” and then move on to a new issue and do “etudes” on that, and finally, when you’ve covered the areas that cause you problems, then redraft the novel.

    You could, as a beginner, still manage at least 2 novels per year (not a lot, I know) if you had one novel in January, then found four areas of difficulty and spent a month on each one, and then redrafted in June. As a professional, when novels are much more accessible, it makes sense to turn novels into etudes, but for a pure beginner, this seems more helpful than a new novel every month, and you could still mail/publish the resulting etudes, which should contain the same number of words per month as a novel. The problem I see in comparing this to your system is that the novel in June would not have just one specific focus, but would instead comprise all four of the other areas of focus practiced in February, March, April, and May.

    • dwsmith says:

      Raven, whatever works for you. But I would be hesitant (and never would if it was me) to go back and revisit anything you have written. Just mail it and forget it. Or publish it and forget it. Always work forward. The moment you turn around and go back to an old piece, you are bringing back in the old habits that were with that piece. Do new. Always do new.

      And I practice in one form or another on everything I write. I’m always working to get better. Always. But I am working to get better on the next story, the next novel, not on the old one.

      Just my way. That make sense?

  35. Raven says:

    Yes, that does make sense, actually. I’ll have to try it both ways to see what works for me :).

  36. Bélier says:

    Here’s a french translation of this article :

  37. Linda says:

    Thank you very much for this. I am a beginning writer and have been concerned about writing so many different stories or pieces of stories without ever developing them or editing them. It feels right to me going forward to see each as practice for a specific skill. I am still practicing coming up with a beginning, middle and end that are related enough to be called a story. But to pick up and move on to the next practice piece, instead of editing or polishing is so liberating and really so much more honest! Thanks again. As a beginner, I am still writing in a vacuum, without much of a community so this was very helpful.

  38. My training for fiction this go-round began in the theater, and I was privileged to work with professional dancers. Ever watch those guys and gals? They’re practicing all the time, including between sets. They’re paying attention all the time. And they don’t call themselves “dancers” unless they’re practicing daily and constantly stretching.

    That’s the key: paying attention and stretching yourself. I like to set one technical challenge for myself each piece–short story or novel–and then watch for that when I read other writers. It’s the only way to get better, and it prevents boredom.

  39. When you are rewriting, you aren’t practicing writing. You are just trying to rearrange notes in the last practice session. Think of that in music terms and you see how really silly that is.

    I’m way late to the party for this article but it raised a question for me. What do you think of the idea of actually ‘rewriting’ the story after the first draft? I’m not talking about rearranging notes, but trying to compose the piece from scratch all over again… knowing that you have a better understanding of characters and where you want the story to go.

    Appreciate your response!

    • dwsmith says:

      Phillip, we call that “redrafting” and Kris and I do it all the time. We often do a draft of an idea that flat doesn’t work. When that happens, we toss it out and just write it again from scratch, without ever looking at the first attempt. Neil Simon in his books “Rewrites” is doing that. But he calls them “rewrites.” (grin) We call it redrafting to keep it distinct from what beginning writers think of as rewriting.

      Pros redraft a great deal.

      And weirdly, I often sell my first story. Then try the idea again from a different perspective. I’ve been doing that now for thirty years on my Jukebox series of stories. All basically the same story, all attempts to get it right. A ton of them have sold. (grin)

  40. Roland says:


    One big question arises for me after this important but resisted chapter on practice. I have become inspired after reading your free version chapters on Killing the Sacred Cows about Publishing and Indie last night. For which, thank you very much; it was simultaneously riveting and generous on your part.

    I am the newest of the new here: 7 years ago, I wrote a short story, posted it to a board, and 7 people liked it. I’d never had a class on creative writing in HS or college or read any books or articles on that. Just had a ‘clever ending’ in my head and finally sat down to write the story that would culminate in it. The fact that 7 people liked it suggested to me that maybe I could do another at some point.

    Never did anything with it, but last night I read KSCP here and this series on indie publishing. So now am thinking of moving forward, despite what someone in a brilliant comment here referred to as the equivalent of ‘stage fright’. Which brings up one big question now that I’ve been daunted here about having to do all kinds of practice.

    Having been unemployed for 5 months, I naturally want to MAKE BIG MONEY RIGHT NOW(tm)! (grin). I agree that as you have said, all writers are unique. But, in general, for someone at this very early point, which of the following would you recommend?
    A) plunge in by writing 10-20 crap short stories, then try a novel.
    B) plunge in by writing crap novel or (gasp) two first.
    C) Get a book/articles at library on plotting/pacing/characters/dialogue, etc., read that, then proceed with A or B above.

    Your thoughts appreciated,

    P.S. I have sent these articles to a colleague who has a brilliant sense of humor, in hopes of inspiring him down this road as well.

    • dwsmith says:

      Roland, except for the word “crap” which is a value judgement on your part and means you think that writing fast equals writing crap, there is no short route into an international career. None I’m afraid. Luck helps some hit quicker than others, but if you don’t love writing for just writing, no amount of short term planning is going to help. You have to be in this for the long haul. It might take you five years of steady writing, it might take ten. But writing ten short stories won’t make a living, but it will help you get started.

      But the key is to get out of the idea that writing can make you rich quickly. It can make you rich, but it is not quickly. And those that do get rich love writing more than anything else and are passionate about learning the skill. And if that isn’t in you, my suggestion drop back on the writing and just have fun with it. Take the pressure of money off of it. You might be surprised how much fun it can become then.

  41. Roland says:

    I appreciate your rapid response. I should have been more clear about my question–which you were able to answer nonetheless. You quoted John D. MacDonald in this set of articles. His thought, if I understood it correctly, was that a writer has perhaps a million words of crap in him before the first good (salable? best-seller-level?) work will come out. Akin to the 10,000 hours of practice idea from Outliers.

    While I would like to think that a lifetime of reading the good stuff (every bit of Heinlein, MacDonald and Cussler, etc.) and some decent verbal fluency will reduce the curve to some modest extent, I accept the concept. I was trying to inject some humor with the bit about making “big money now”. Agree with you that if I hated doing this, it wouldn’t be worth doing. I’ll surely find out for certain how much I like it as I get into this. I understand that I need get better at this than I am now just starting out of the gate, before I can think about earning coffee money and then maybe more.

    I had put the word ‘crap’ in, because that seemed to be the assumption from MacDonald, that that would be the quality of those first productions. As to fast writing, I’m loving the idea that I could write quickly and have it be good, once I have the skills to do so. Did not mean to imply that fast writing was crap, it’s just an astonishing concept to me. For example I was dead certain, for decades, that a novel was at minimum a year’s worth of hard labor.

    In sum, I do think that some long roads are longer than other long roads–you have pointed out that starting with 10-20 short stories may be the lesser of the long roads. So I will be taking that road. After several stories, I’ll find a beta reader and see what they think, and perhaps submit to a few contests. And I think I am getting your vision, which is that adding lots of little streams of income, over several years time, really does add up. I have specifically sent your Chapter 8 about the ‘Magic Bakery’, to my colleague who is a natural story teller, to get him thinking about this.

    I am very happy to share that I have just been offered a 6 month contract on the road starting the end of January. So after I get back on my feet a bit, I will be trying out a few of your video lectures. Am thinking to start out with
    #3 How to Write A Short Story
    #10 Master Plot Formula
    #14 How to Write Endings
    for starters. Do those sound like reasonable choices for raw beginners? Maybe you can sell a few more by bundling certain ones together in sets. I.E., the ‘Raw Beginner’s Bundle’. Just food for thought.

    Thanks again,

    P.S. This reply was longer than I intended, but I wanted these concepts to be clear for any other newbie who reads this far!

    • dwsmith says:

      Thanks, Roland. That makes a ton more sense. Appreciated and looks like your attitude is in the right spot.

      As for starting off, I always think the best place to start is right where I was saved and got really started. Heinlein’s Rules, the first lecture. That’s a foundation for all the others.

      Thanks again. And remember to keep making writing fun.

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