Chapter 13: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. The Myth of Knowing it All

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 fits perfectly with the last two chapters: The Myth that Writers Don’t Need to Practice and the Myth of Talent.

Here is this myth clear and simple from the writer’s perspective. “I have sold this and that and I don’t need to learn anymore. What I am doing works.”

This myth is so nasty and so subtle that many, many writers just fall into it without even realizing they are in it. When I wrote originally wrote this chapter in early 2010, I had intended to write on another topic, then I went to a wonderful convention and ran into a bunch of writers who were down this myth’s rat hole. Deep down it, actually.

 How This Myth Shows Its Ugly Head

When I hear a writer say they don’t need to learn (in one way or another), I just mentally wave goodbye. Their career is doomed to one of two paths.

First path: They stop selling and have no idea why. They will blame their agent or publisher or an event or no luck or bad covers on their indie books or stupid readers, but never themselves and the fact they stopped learning and growing.

Second path: They write and sell the same book over and over and can’t change and don’t know how to change and don’t feel they need to keep growing and learning because they are still selling. But they will wonder why sales don’t go up and they aren’t read by many people beyond their core readership and they claim they just haven’t been lucky yet.

These poor writers can last from a few short stories to a dozen novels, but eventually their publisher drops them and they don’t know why.  This myth always kills them in one way or another.

Truth: Top long-term writers never, ever stop learning.

Long term professionals are constantly learning, both in craft and business, since everything always changes so fast.

Let me be clear. I don’t just mean keeping up with business. I mean craft issues as well. Just because a writer sold a number of things or a dozen novels doesn’t mean they still don’t have a ton to learn about craft.

The reason I teach workshops for professional and near professional writers is that it keeps me learning and thinking. The reason I write these chapters is because it keeps me thinking and learning and listening. And what is both frightening and fun is that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I just don’t know.

Loren L. Coleman and Kristine Kathryn Rusch pushed me hard for two years to do another master class. They are the other two main instructors at the two week master course. Their reason for pushing was simple. We all learn so much when we teach them.

They were right. We did two more master classes, one in 2008, another in 2009, learned a lot, and stopped again because those classes are really hard on us to do them. (Learning is always hard.) We might do one again down the road after the industry settles a little, maybe, but only because of the learning. We lost money on both of them. A lot of money, but it was worth the price because I came out of teaching both master classes with a ton more knowledge and understanding about both the business of writing and the craft of writing.

There is a rule writers should always follow. Money always flows to the writer except for continuing education. Sometimes that education can be a writer’s conference, sometimes a workshop, sometimes just a trip to New York to talk to your editors.

(Remember, Indie Publishers, I was not talking about money always flowing to publishers. As a publisher, you have expenses. As a writer, your only expense in continuing education.)

A number of years back I was teaching at a major writer’s conference and Tony Hillerman was speaking and I wanted to learn from him. I was one of the invited instructors at the conference, but luckily, I had an hour off when he was giving a panel, so I sneaked into the back of the room to listen and learn. At one point I realized who was standing against the back wall beside me. Mystery Grandmaster Lawrence Block. He was another instructor at the conference, but we were both there to learn what we could from Hillerman.

(And once again I couldn’t say a word to Lawrence Block because of my shyness and gosh-wow nature with some other writers. Didn’t know our paths had crossed so much, huh, Lawrence? (grin))

How does this “I Know Enough” myth get started?

Actually, it comes from how we all start into this business. We all start by pounding the keys and trying to learn from everything and every book we can find so that we can sell. But in the back of all of our minds is the thought, “Once I start selling, I’ll have it made.”

Logical and normal.

— Of course, we also believe that rejections will stop coming once “We have it made.”

— And we believe we will get famous because publishing a book is something only famous people do.

— And we believe that having a book in print will solve all our writing problems.

Those thoughts are part of our dreams and our goals. We attach to the learning and the years of practice the idea that once “We have it made” all that hard work and pain and rejection and uncertainty will stop.

Nope. Afraid not.

Second reason is that learning makes us all uncomfortable. There are entire books about this topic and I suggest you read a few of them. Learning tosses each of us into a state of chaos and our first reaction and desire is to return to status quo.

But to apply the learning and to keep learning, sometimes we have to stay in the chaos and confusion for a while until we reach a newer and higher level of status quo. A new level of craft or understanding.

But a writer still lost in the myth (that once you start selling you have it made and don’t need to learn) will really, really fight this feeling of turmoil associated with learning. The status quo is just fine and dandy. “After all, I’m selling, right?”

This book, these chapters, are aimed at helping writers learn to become long-term selling professional fiction writers. To put this bluntly. You have no hope if you don’t love to learn, go after learning like it’s a missing food group and you need it to stay alive.

Every long-term professional writer I know loves learning. We all struggle with it, sure, but in our cores, we love it, crave it, and go in search of any tiny scrap of learning, any nifty-new-way to write something that will help us through another day, make another story better, help a novel flow better.

So running into those professional writers at that conference who have no real desire to keep learning made me sad for them. Kris and I see it all the time. And the real problem is that if I accused them of this, they would become angry at me.

And that is where this myth gets really, really nasty and deadly. As with all myths, “I don’t Need To Learn” is a belief system.

With all fiction business myths, the core of the belief system is “I know how it’s done, so I don’t have to think about it.”

For example, with agents, most writers want to believe an agent will do the work and save them from having to think about it or do the work and sell their books. The belief system won’t allow the writer to keep learning about how agents really work, which is why the upcoming agent chapters caused so much anger among some people when I first posted them on my site. The agent posts forced their belief systems into learning chaos.

And the most anger came from writers who had agents, had sold novels, were happy with their agents, and didn’t want to question the system. “I trust my agent entirely,” a whole lot of people said when I asked them why they were giving a perfect stranger all their money and the paperwork that goes with all that money.

Of course, without the writer constantly questioning, the agent is free to take the money, slow down a career, and eventually kill it without the writer even being aware anything is going wrong. I will get to those agent posts in the next section of this book, so stay tuned.

Another example is the “You can’t make money at fiction” myth. Writers who do not make decent money grab onto the myth that you can’t make money in the business because it gives them an excuse to not learn how to become better writers and better at marketing to make a living.

Just lately this belief caused one writer to write me and moan about how he can’t sell, how unfair New York publishing is, and that he’s going to stoop to self-publishing his own work instead.

I wanted to point out to him that I was an indie publisher, but he was so lost in the I don’t want to learn, I didn’t want to bother trying to tell him that self-publishing his own work took learning as well. And if he didn’t learn how to write better, he would make no more sales than he did with New York. (You just don’t say that to some writers.)

In one fashion or another, every myth in this book is tied into this overall thinking that once a writer starts selling, they won’t have to keep learning.

Notice how I haven’t said a word about the 500 pound monkey in the room? The big, big issue in this particular myth.


Every writer needs an ego to keep pushing through this business. Actually we need huge egos, and mine is no small animal. But combined with my ego is the intense fear I won’t know something, that I won’t have a skill I’ll need to finish the next book, that I will be behind some business trend. Scares me every damn day.

That fear of not knowing just does a tap dance on my ego, keeping it mostly under control and learning. Never once have I ever let the ego win and thought I had enough learning. In fact, the fear always wins.


Fear of not knowing something is what keeps me learning and searching for learning.

But alas, a number of the writers I met at that confention had let their egos win. They were too-published, too-successful to need to keep learning. They had “graduated” as one said to me.  That writer had three or four novels published and was telling me (with over a hundred novels published) that they knew more than I did because I still felt I needed to learn and they didn’t. Wow, now that’s an ego.

A deadly ego.

In one panel at that same convention, Kris and I were up front doing one of our “Kris and Dean Show” things, and Larry Niven walked in and sat down. He didn’t stay long because at that moment we were dealing with beginning writer issues in the panel, but he came in to see what he could pick up.

I sat in two of his panels over the weekend for a short time for the same reason.

Writers need huge egos mixed with a desire to keep learning.

I feed my ego by letting the fear of not knowing something turn into a stroke for my ego when I learn something. I still buy how-to-write books and am constantly reading how other writers work and think. And I buy all sorts of history-of-publishing books to find out what happened in the past as well.

And I am teaching a bunch of workshops this year and through 2012 to work out topics I felt I needed to focus even more on, such as Character Voice, Think Like a Publisher, and Indie Publishing Promotions. I hope to know a lot more by the end of 2012  than I do now, and then find new things to learn the following year. And the year after, all the while practicing what I am learning by pounding the keys and turning out new story and new novel after new story and new novel.

I have published somewhere around one hundred novels now and a ton of short fiction, and written even more, and I am a long, long ways from graduating in this business.

The day I think I have learned it all, just toss a shovelful of dirt on my face because I will be dead.


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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27 Responses to Chapter 13: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. The Myth of Knowing it All

  1. Ann says:

    I think there is a fundamental disrespect for the reader when a writer thinks that he/she has learned all there is to learn about writing. It’s easy to spot the writers that work to improve with every book and the ones who think there is nothing left to learn.

  2. I enjoy learning, but then I also enjoy change. I don’t think it’s in my nature to give up either and get settled. I hope not. I don’t respond to fear, but rather to the great vacuum of my ignorance pulling me forward.

    If someone sees change as a problem rather than an opportunity they’ll always be too late.

  3. “I feed my ego by letting the fear of not knowing something turn into a stroke for my ego when I learn something.”

    Yes, ego can be a motivator: “I must be better. I must be BEST. How can I be best if I don’t keep learning everything everybody else knows?”

  4. Rob Cornell says:

    It’s the fear that drives me to keep learning. Totally get that. I always feel like I know nothing about writing, even though I have a BA in Fiction Writing, have read nearly every how-to-write book known to man, and have been writing off and on for (OMG I’m getting old) 20 years.

    I remember on Christmas getting a how-to book and my brother asked me, “Don’t you already know how to write?”

    I laughed, thinking, “Don’t I wish.”

  5. Zelah Meyer says:

    It’s not just writing. Thinking you know it all and don’t have to learn is something that crops up (and is equally foolish) in all areas.

    I lived and breathed improvisation for six years. I’d be out five nights a week some times. Two nights watching, two nights practicing and one night performing.

    I stuck around classes long after I knew the basics because there was always something new to learn, maybe not that week but the practice would still be useful and I’d probably get an insight into something the following week.

    I spoke to several other improvisers who all but sneered (one of them actually did) when I suggest they try a particular class. They said they didn’t need to attend any more classes.

    I’ve stopped going to classes now but that is because I feel I want to concentrate on making stuff up on the page rather than on stage but if I went back to improvising then I’d go back to learning about it as well, no matter how much experience and knowledge I have.

    I think what people actually mean when they say they don’t need to learn any more is that they don’t want to learn any more. Or some insecure ones worry that people will think they don’t know what they’re doing if they go to a class once they’re actually ‘doing’ something as opposed to training to do it.

    You can never know everything about anything, it’s just not humanly possible.

    Besides, half the fun in life is learning stuff!

    • dwsmith says:

      Zelah said, “Besides, half the fun in life is learning stuff!”

      My first thought was, “What’s the other half?” (grin)

      Great comments everyone. Thanks!!

  6. Thank you for writing these posts.

    I also love learning, but once in awhile, there’s the sheer joy of hearing that I’ve been doing something right! Confirmation that I’m on the right track.

  7. Carradee says:

    It’s scary how easy it is to forget that you still have a ton to learn.

    I’ve been told I’m good at writing dialogue. I also know that, because I don’t think (or speak) with transitions, transitions are a weak point for me. It takes effort for me to figure out where to add them in. I didn’t make the connection that my transition problem affected my dialogue until a review mentioned it.

    I know I have more to learn. And whenever I start forgetting it, I have a few trunked novel ideas I poke at, because I don’t yet know how to pull them off.

  8. If you start selling some, the thing to say to yourself is, “Self, that’s great. Now I can afford to buy those three books from Amazon and maybe this Fall I can make it to Dean’s writing workshop.”

    For us beginners, selling something (self, indie, or however-published) should tell us we’re doing something a little bit right. Now we’ve got to go back, polish the basics we feel we have a good handle on, and start working on the next parts — such as subtext and pacing.

    Go write something great.

  9. Camille says:

    Oh, this is a biggie. Unfortunately, it’s a lot bigger than writing and publishing. This is a human nature problem.

    Of course, there was a short period when somebody could get a 9-5 job (or a factory line job) and count on doing the same thing until they retire, thinking optional (and perhaps even discouraged). But those jobs are now gone.

    We see that a lot at the college “I learned that, can I go now?” Or worse “I read the material (without learning), can I go now?”

    BTW, are you going to do a separate chapter for “I published something, and now I’m good for life”? This chapter covers that well, but somehow I feel it needs to be stated as a myth.

  10. Jane George says:

    I think being a life-long learner is essential to all artists whether we write, paint, dance, make music etc. Once an artist becomes comfortable with their art, boredom sets in.

  11. Steve Spohn says:

    My biggest fear is that I’ll never know what I don’t know I should know, y’know?

  12. Learning never stops. What else is there? It’s how we grow regardless of our field. I love learning and I love that there are amazing authors out there who are still learning and growing – I think this is what makes them amazing authors.

  13. Steven Mohan says:

    When you first start writing, it (can) take years to get good enough to sell a piece. In the mean time the new writer seeks validation by learning stuff about the writing field. This stuff might be right or wrong–but it’s the only “accomplishment” they have. Later, when someone comes along and says, “Hey, um, that’s not really the way it works,” they don’t think they’re learning something new. They think someone is trying to take away their accomplishment. I suspect this is why some of these myths are so deeply engrained.

    If you’re going to be a pro, I think you always have to be ready to learn–even if, maybe ESPECIALLY if, it forces you to question what you think you know.

  14. Silver Bowen says:

    The thing that amazes me, and goes to prove your point, is this – I’ve read a bunch of how-to books by writers, and learned a ton from them. Every one of those books was different, had different advice and perspectives, different technical ideas. All around different. And all by great writers, really accomplished folks.

    And I’ve only read a small portion of the total of these kind of books. There a probably enough out there to keep me occupied for the rest of my life. That’s not even counting books by screenwriters, movie-makers, playwrights, comic book artists, etc. There are storytellers everywhere in this world, and most of them wrote a how-to book.

    So if each of these writers put the stuff they thought was most important about writing in a book, and they all came up with different stuff, what does that tell me? There’s a whole bunch out there to learn, that’s what.

  15. Ty Johnston says:

    Any writer who feels they have nothing to learn, I have to wonder why they are writing in the first place. It’s a journey, not a destination.

  16. Wayne Borean says:

    You can take a break and stop learning when you are dead.

    While you are alive? Better get used to learning for life, no matter what your profession is. Because learning never stops. My grandparents lived in a world that went from horse drawn conveyances to space shuttles during the course of their lives.

    What will it do during our children’s lives?


  17. The other half? Why, the groupies, of course! 😉

    • dwsmith says:

      Ty, I agree, it is a journey, but so many writers don’t think that way. Most are focused on selling, selling, selling, not ever putting it together that maybe if they learned more, they might write better stories and sell more.

      Thanks for the great comments, folks.

  18. Nancy Beck says:

    Of course, we also believe that rejections will stop coming once “We have it made.”

    OMG, this was me! A few years ago, I cranked out a short story and managed to sell it after only 3 tries. I immediately wrote another short, but a slew of rejections came in. At first, I was upset that these markets weren’t astounded by my brilliance ;-), but then depression set in.

    Fast forward to this year, and I’ve taken the germ of the idea behind that short and have turned it into a novella series. Since I haven’t a clue where the document ended up, that’s all I can remember about the original short. And I’m having fun with it.

    I admit I like to go through how-to books and see how others do the writing thing. In fact, I have a short fight scene in the 2nd in this series, and it came off lame-o (because I wanted to get the idea down while I had it in my mind), so I did a Google search and will incorporate what I’ve found. (I’m a putter-inner more than a taker-outer, lol.)

    And I’ve also bought another how-to book, although it’s an ebook this time around.

    Thanks for the great post, Dean. Much appreciated.

  19. Great stuff Dean, as usual.

    The desire to keep learning stuff is what makes the internet such a dangerous distraction for (many) writers, far too easy to get sucked in. (Now that I have the space, I’m following your example and setting up a separate office area for writing with no internet connection.)

    As for ego — well, there are some legendary egos in the field, but few people know that Arthur C. Clarke — always eager to learn and rather soft-spoken — went by the nickname ‘Ego’ Clarke in his early days in British SF fandom (late 1930s).

    Of course, we also believe that rejections will stop coming once “We have it made.”

    Hah. I sold three stories in a row to Analog, the first place I sent them. Yeah, I felt pretty cocky about that until the next couple came back with non-rejection rejections: “I like the story, but I’m overstocked at that length right now. Let me know if it sells elsewhere” (meaning, “I may buy it if a slot opens up before you sell it somewhere else”) Made me realize that while I may hit the mark with one particular editor, I’m still missing with others (because they didn’t sell elsewhere) and I need to up my game.

  20. Louis says:

    As I have said before even though I haven’t posted any comments I’m still reading your posts. Too much time working on various aspects of writing to posts anything but I had to say something about this “cow”.

    Even though obviously I don’t know everything about writing my question is how much do I know? I bought some writing books from Borders, at 25% off, but while there I had to decide do I get a book on the basics or something more advanced. I like to think I know something about the basics of writing but I really don’t think I know everything. I ended up buying a book on writing novels that I consider very basic but I still feel like I don’t need it. I will read it and I will more then likely learn something. And this Sunday I will go back and see if they still have that small grammar book I spotted. Another one couldn’t hurt especially since it’s the last grammar book I will need. :)

    One thing about thinking I know everything though. I know myself well enough to realize that I could fall into that trap. I wouldn’t even know it either until something reminded me that I don’t. It probably won’t take much, just a thought, to show me I don’t. I try to guard against thinking I know everything but at times I can be egotistical enough to feel like I do; at least on certain subjects. As I said I will keep an eye on that though. These type of posts do help.

    So my thanks also, for it.

  21. Sam Lee says:

    Yep, Dean, this myth will stop people dead no matter what field they’re in. There are plenty of writers who may be on fire to learn about craft and promo and stuff…and then don’t want to learn and handle the business end so they let their agents be their boss.

    I know I spent years learning business and then not applying it to writing until recently. Slow learner, but I guess the upside is that I learned it eventually, heh.

    I perked up at the master class mention since I thought I’d never get a chance to go to one. Please keep us in the loop about dates! (bg)

  22. Learning something new IS scary, but there’s nothing like the thrill of realizing you’ve figured something out. Lately I’ve been learning ebook formatting, and boy can that be a headache. But yesterday I did something that wasn’t in the formatting guide and I was so proud of myself when I did it right. It was a little thing, but it reminded me that the tough parts of learning are worth it for the “I did it!” moment.

    There’s always something new to learn, and that’s exciting.

  23. Raven says:

    Learning may be uncomfortable, but not learning is boring. I’d rather be uncomfortable than bored any day. I honestly cannot imagine not learning. Half the time, I don’t even realize that learning is uncomfortable because I’m so immersed in it.

    And with writing in particular, I just can’t imagine writing without learning. Isn’t that like a fish out of water? I’d have to try really hard to *avoid* learning, and that would probably involve stopping writing (and that may be a reason for my periods of draught).

    Sometimes, I think pauses are necessary, but they’re temporary, and usually, during that time, I learn something else in some other field. I honestly can’t imagine stopping learning. It doesn’t make sense to me.

  24. Cyn Bagley says:

    I love learning. Most of my learning has come from books and I read not only how to write books, but science, string theory, evolution, algebra, and anything else that is challenging.

    Unfortunately for me, I am probably past the traditional learning stage – not because I don’t like to sit in a classroom, but because of my disease and my immuno-suppressed immune system. People make me sick. 😉 really true.

    So I guess I need to try a few online workshops. I haven’t wanted to spend the money. BUT – it looks like if I stop buying books for a week, I can save enough money to do a workshop.

    Good luck with your learning. It makes the world interesting.

    Yours, Cyn

  25. So true. I haven’t been writing for nearly as long as you, Dean, but I too always try to learn new things about writing. I know that I have a lot to learn and will keep learning even if I someday do make millions of dollars off my work (which I doubt will ever happen, but it is always a possibility).


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