The New World of Publishing: How To Keep Production Going All Year

This is the fourth part of a series on how to set yourself set up and plan for 2013 writing and publishing. There have been three parts so far. Please read them first because this one will build on those four.

Part One: Some Perspective on 2012.

Part Two: How to Get Started Selling Fiction in 2013.

Part Three: Goals and Dreams.

So now we move to Part Four: How to Keep Production Going All Year.

Remember, any business and production plan you decide to set up for yourself is made up of goals that can be attained with work. The focus of the goals you set is to attain a dream. Read the third part again, but keep in mind a goal can be attained and is in your grasp. A dream is what you work toward with a series of goals.

So, this year-end series is continuing, but again, before reading this, please read those first three parts.

Setting Up For Failure

I’m starting this post with a warning: Understand what is failure in a goal and what isn’t failure.

Every time I do this post, or talk with writers at the end of the year, I hear goals being set that are seemingly impossible when you do the math. I’ve set a few of them myself, to be honest, over the decades.

I honestly have no problem at all with impossible goals. None, as long as the person setting the goal understands that the likely failure can also be deemed a success. But most writers I know don’t understand that simple detail.

For example: Two years ago here I set a goal to write from titles and publish here and online 100 short stories. And even though slightly behind, I felt I was pretty much on schedule to hit that goal when one of my best friends died and I took over his estate. I turned away from writing almost completely to do the estate and only did what deadline work I had.

So did I fail? Nope. I wrote and got out over thirty original short stories in the challenge, plus a number of stories for original anthologies that didn’t count in the challenge. Not the year I hoped, or even my best year, but not a bad year considering all the factors. It would have been far, far worse without the challenge.

But most writers I know, when faced with actually missing their goal, just stop all together. The problem is that the goal sets them up for a failure, and then they use the failure or life issue as an excuse to stop writing.

So caution when setting goals so extreme, you can’t make them in any fashion. And if you do set an extreme goal, have fall-back success levels.

A reminder of the first steps needed…

— I assume you have done the math to know how many original words you can produce of fiction per hour.

— I assume you have figured out how many hours you have each week to write original fiction.

— I assume you have started to set up a writing space, and have started telling your family and friends how important your writing is and have plans to start protecting your work, your time, your art in the new year.

All of this is from the previous posts. If you haven’t done the above, I wouldn’t worry about moving forward with setting goals, because without the knowledge, the goals will fail. Goals must be set from a position of knowledge, not from a position of wishful thinking.

A Sign of the Classic Want-To-Be-Writer: Another Warning

Every long-term professional fiction writer can spot a hopeless want-to-be fiction writer easily.

— They are the fiction writers who talk about writing, but never finish anything.

— They are the fiction writers who feel jealous of all your writing time because they can never find the time.

— They are the fiction writers who come up with one idea and spend years on it, talking about it, researching it, workshopping parts of it, but never finishing it and moving on.

— They are the fiction writers who believe they will never succeed because they don’t have a major fan base like a major writer, so why bother. Or worse, they finish one thing and spend all year “promoting it.”

— They are the fiction writers who decide they are going to write in the new year, but set no plans, no goals, no structure.

— They are the writers who just get to their fiction writing when they can, when the muse strikes, because ideas are hard and writing is hard.  They “just can’t find the time.” And then the following year they try the same thing that didn’t work every year before.

If you don’t want to be one of those “writers,” reread the first three posts I did in this series and set your time, set your defenses, and then set your goals for the year.

Be a writer who makes your production of new words important.

 How to Set Fiction Writing Goals in 2013

Now that I am done with the warnings and have the basics from the first three posts out of the way, it’s time to get to some ideas that might work for you.

Remember, I’m just tossing out suggestions here. There is no one way for every writer, or only one way for the same writer from year-to-year. Use what strikes you in these ideas, alter them to suit your needs, and set the goals for you.

And also I think it would be fine to combine some of these suggestions.

Idea #1

Set your plan to strictly follow Heinlein’s Rules.

The rules are:

1) Write

2) Finish what you write

3) Do not rewrite unless to editorial demand. (Meaning New York book editors who can buy your work, not someone who you hire. It is fine to fix mistakes first readers find and spelling mistakes.)

4) Put it on the market for someone to buy it. (Either a New York editor or readers indie published.)

5) Keep it on the market. (For indie publishers, this means leave it alone.)

If you are one of the very few who have the courage to even try this, let alone succeed with the attempt for an entire year, you will be stunned at how far you will move toward your writing dreams and how much fun you will have.

Warning on this one. Deceptively simple looking rules, fantastically difficult to actually follow because of all the myths that swirl around fiction writing. You will find yourself spending a ton of time coming up with excuses to not follow them. (Please, don’t comment on your excuses here. These rules are a Yoda situation. Either do. Or Don’t.)

As Robert Heinlein said about his own rules. “But they are amazingly hard to follow — which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants…”

Idea #2

Set a new word count you would like to hit for the year.

“New words” means finished words that can be either indie published or sent to traditional editors. Rewriting, researching, and all the other excuses you have do not count. New words only.

(If you hear yourself say right there, “But…” you may have an issue to deal with.)

Here is how to do this:

Say you would like to finish a quarter of a million new words this year.  A very solid, but scary goal. A very large elephant.

1…. So divide the total word count desired into 50 weekly parts. (Two weeks off for vacation.) Example: 250,000 words divided by 50 weeks = 5,000 new words per week.

2… You have determined you can do about 1,000 words per hour.  So divide the 5,000 words by 1,000 = 5 hours of writing per week.

3… Look at the fiction writing time you have figured you have each week and find about eight hours total to get those five hours of writing done safely in your schedule. (The extra three will give you a cushion.)

4… Then protect those eight hours and write during that time every week to make sure you get the 5,000 minimum words per week done.

At the end of the year you will look back and have finished one quarter of a million words. And trust me, you will be a much better fiction writer at the end of the year with that much practice, and if you finished and mailed or published everything, you will be on your way.

A quarter of a million words a year sounds like a great big elephant. But 5 hours of writing per week does not. Yet one equals the other. Weird how that happens, isn’t it?

And note: I will be talking a great deal about a week as a unit. We can all handle keeping a week in our minds because the world has trained us that way. So use that training when setting these goals and stay focused only at a week level. And better yet, a daily level.

Idea #3

Set up a production goal.

A lot of people, me included, like production goals more than word-count goals.

When I started seriously writing, I set up a production goal to write and mail one short story per week. That sort of breaks down to the same word count as Idea #2 of 5,000 words per week. But the focus for me was on the finishing and mailing. (I was following Heinlein’s Rules religiously also during the challenge and still do, which is why I am still a professional writer.)

My ongoing challenge is also production based. (I will talk about it in a post right before the first of the year.)

The reason production-based goals sometimes work better is because of the end date. If your goal is to finish one short story every week, that keeps your mind off of the larger goal. You only focus down on one project at a time.

If you are writing novels, I would highly suggest you break it down into smaller goals, such as finishing a scene per day or a chapter per week. And then only focus on that small bite.

Again the key with eating an elephant is to not think of the task, just chew up one bite at a time, only thinking of the bite.

Idea #4

Get one new book up indie published every two weeks. (Take two weeks off, so you are aiming for 25 by the end of the year.)

This is a great challenge a friend of mine is running and a lot of people are taking part on a private list. Set up your own group.

The idea is that the book can be a short story or a collection or a novel. And the key is to have the total at the end of the year.

So if writing a novel, a month or so will go by with nothing new up, then do some short fiction and then a collection before going back to the next novel.

Also, if you have some stories you have written and haven’t sold, or backlist of stories that were published and you now have the rights back, get those up as well. They would count.

There are lots of ways of doing this, and it really works. And having 25 new books in print by the end of the year is something you are going to be very happy about. Trust me.

Reporting In To Someone

Here is the key to success for every major method of goal-setting. You must have someone, or some method, or some way to keep you on track.

If you don’t make your weekly goal or word count, you must tell someone you didn’t make it. If you did make it, you must tell someone you did.

When I started writing fiction seriously with my short-story-per-week challenge, I actually had a bet going with Nina Kiriki Hoffman. If I missed my story for the week, I had to buy her a steak dinner. I couldn’t afford a steak dinner.

Sometimes you can put your progress on your web site as a weekly update. Even if not that many people show up to your web site, you know some will and your failure or success will be out there in the open. You can even use one of those word counters that you can get as a plugin for your site if you are doing a word-based goal.

When I was writing media novels, I had very hard and fast deadlines. Sometimes I was trying to beat the movie out when I wrote novelizations. There could be no excuses. (I have done about twelve movie novelizations, including Rundown, The Core, 10th Kingdom, Final Fantasy, and so on.)

And with ghost novels, it has been the same way. The one I was going to blog about the writing in December was pushed back to January because they haven’t paid me yet. (I never write anything I don’t own unless I am paid first. Duh.) And when they do finally pay me, they will be in even more of a hurry. Not my issue, but I will have someone waiting for the novel that I will be responsible to. So I will get it done. (And yes, I will blog about the writing of it daily here.)

Sometimes this person you report to is just another writer, sometimes it is a family member, sometimes a post on your blog. But with every small goal achieved or missed, report to someone or post it somewhere where people will see it. Set it up ahead so that person knows what you are doing. (No I will not be that person for anyone and you can’t use these post messages for the task either. Sorry.)

And if you don’t report to the person you have set up, make sure they know to ask you how it is going.

If you hate this idea of reporting in some fashion or another, check in with yourself to see where the fear is coming from. And then use that fear to drive you even more.

An important reminder right here. NEVER SHOW A WORK IN PROGRESS TO ANYONE. Protect your art. You can say you finished chapter 52, but don’t show it until you are ready to release the entire book to the world. (I talked about this in one of the first three posts in this series.)

 What Happens When You Fail?

Everyone with a family and a day job and a life will fail on short-term goals set at the beginning of the year. There are almost no exceptions to that rule. And if you think you will be the exception in 2013, you are delusional, I’m afraid.

So what do you do when life derails you?

Climb back on the next week. Or as soon as you can.

Say you are doing a short story per week with the intent of getting to fifty by the end of the year. Suddenly life gets in your way and you miss three weeks in April.

DON’T TRY TO CATCH UP. Just get back on the focus of the weekly goal and keep going. Trust me, at the end of the year you will be very happy with 47 stories finished.

But if you let it stop you cold, you won’t be happy by the time the end of the year rolls around. And these year-end check-in-points just keep happening every year.

So here are my suggestions when life derails you and you miss your short-term goal.

1… Don’t even once think about catching up. Can’t happen and will make things worse.

2… Climb back onto your production challenge or weekly page goal as soon as you are able.

3… If life alters so much as to make the original weekly pace impossible, stop and reset a new goal for the year and for each week and then stick to that.

4… Somehow, with help or with some mechanism, remember these suggestions.

Chances are you will not remember.  Sadly. You will be buried in a life crisis and then when that clears you will be mad at yourself for not doing the impossible and protecting your writing time and meeting your weekly goals. And you will be swirling in the failure instead of just focusing on being successful the following week.

Wow, was that easy for me to type and so hard for any of us to do.

The real key to having a successful year writing fiction is that when you get stopped, and you will, to start back up as soon as you can.

In Summary

Follow the instructions in the first three posts of this series.

— Get your available writing hours figured.

— Get your writing speed per hour figured.

— Tell your family and friends around you how important what you are going to do is. Be prepared to remind them all the time.

— Get ready to protect your time. Set up an office without distractions and a computer without e-mail or games only used for fiction writing.

— Figure out a yearly goal for words or production, then back it down into weekly goals that will get to your yearly goal. Make sure your weekly goals have extra time in them for small life events.

— Plan in time to keep learning, to go to a conference or two, to take a class or two, to read some writing books.

— Set up someone or some place to report your progress and failures to.

— Then decide to have fun.

That’s right, I said have fun.

If the act of fiction writing isn’t fun for you, get out of this chase now.

If you aren’t excited and scared about the coming year and the learning and writing, get out of this chase now.

Fiction writing isn’t brain surgery. It is entertainment.

You are trying to be an entertainer in 2013.

For heaven’s sake, have fun doing it.

2013 is a brand new year. The world didn’t end. Traditional publishing didn’t fail. More fiction writers than ever are making money with their fiction.

It’s a new golden age for fiction writers.

Have fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  

I’m now getting back to writing fiction, so every word I write here takes time from that. And I have to justify this column somehow in how I make a living.

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

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

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated over this last year. I don’t always get a chance to respond, but the donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

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111 Responses to The New World of Publishing: How To Keep Production Going All Year

  1. Kathryn says:

    Interesting article. I am trying to plan out my year but the one area I have a problem with is my available time. What would you suggest for people (ie. me) who have an unpredictable pattern in their other job? I’m an IT freelancer so could be working 50 weeks of the year or have gaps of a month or more. Is it better to do with the worst case scenario time-wise or try to have two production plans – one for weeks when I’m working full time and one for weeks I’m not working?

    • dwsmith says:

      Kathryn, honestly, whatever feels right, but from the sounds of what you described, I would tend to do two different schedules, one for weeks off, one for bad weeks, since that is a predictable thing in your life.

      • Lassal says:

        Kathryn, your job sounds pretty much like my job. I am a freelance concept artist, and when I am on assignment, I hardly find 5 hours a night to sleep. What worked for me last year was to have a normal daily production plan, that I could obviously only follow, when I was not on assignment.

        It worked so well, I will repeat the procedure this year.

        I tend to keep the minimum aim low (because obviously I will need to catch up on sleep and things when I emerge from a job). So I set 1000 words minimum/day. I write English a bit slower because it is not my native language, so I basically need twice the time for it compared to when I write in German. If you are writing in your native language, you might want to set your minimum word count a bit higher.

        The 1000 words are easy to achieve and this set up is defined in full purpose to make me feel good (smile). In the back of my head I have a goal of 2000 words but I usually write 2500-3000 words when I have a day off. I still keep the 1000 words minimum, because … well, because I feel like a superhero when I reach 3000 words. So it is basically being nice to myself.

        As my job is really demanding, I sometimes need to get a breather and take a whole month off (otherwise it affects my health), so thanks to that I did publish 14 books last year (mostly non-fiction for a charity project of mine). This year I am focussing more on fiction, so it will be different.

        Working as I am right now, focussing on creating content, I am getting much more done than I can publish (there is always a trade off). I do not have my books out on PoD because I still have to find the time to go through the tutorials for InDesign and fixed ePubs. Worst case I can still outsurce part of the file creation process.

        For this year I have a production plan set up. I know what I want to get done and I have prepared templates for covers etc. so to not waste time on this (especially when it comes to short stories). Covers have a different standing for me because I am a concept artist & photographer. So I (unfortunately) could never live with licensing images from iStockphoto or similar. It would go against the grain. But that is just me. Thus the templates.

        Knowing how long I need for the work, best case for 2013 would be 40 books. But that is certainly not going to happen. So I have a priority list and start from the top.

        In a way, being a concept artist prepared me rather well for writing, because as in all (?) creative professions as soon as you have an assignment and a deadline you cannot depend on your muse to hold your hand or even to be around when needed. Muse or no muse, you have to get the job done. And having worked as a creative for many years, I noticed that people cannot perceive a difference between a job that appealed to me and another one that I had no fun with. It took me a couple of years to get there; it comes with a lot of experience and training. I imagine that it is the same in writing.
        So I am working on my book content, just as I would be working on an assingment for a client. Same attitude.
        Works for me.

        As an IT freelancer, I imagine it could be similar for you.

      • Kathryn says:

        Sounds good to me :)

    • Kathryn – as a long-time freelance IT writer, I’ve often been in the situation you describe. Rather than drive myself crazy missing daily word-count or production goals for my fiction and constantly having to revise them, I learned to set a weekly goal that I thought was reachable even on the worst work weeks. Because my baseline goal was doable, I never missed a single week, and was able to exceed my target word-count many times when I was between IT projects.
      Good luck to you!
      – Leigh

      • Kathryn says:

        Lassal – that’s an amazing amount of writing considering.

        Leigh – it must be hard going from tech writing to fiction.

        • Kathryn said “it must be hard going from tech writing to fiction.”

          Not really, at least not for me, but I’ve always been pretty good at compartmentalizing, whether it’s tech vs fiction, two fiction projects I’m working on simultaneously, or one client’s project vs another’s. Sure, the tech side is more what I would call “orderly, structured” writing than the fiction, but that doesn’t mean that my fiction hasn’t benefitted by my ability to organize my thoughts :) And the “research” aspect of tech writing gives me a ton of information that feeds the idea file in a variety of ways.

          I do know other writers, though, who find tech writing so brain-intensive that it’s hard for them to switch over to a fiction project. When I’m that brain-dead (and yes, it happens!), I’ve found that reading someone else’s fiction that I enjoy helps to recharge my batteries and switch my brain over to the creative side, so I can play with the words I’m putting on the page instead of forcing them to line up like neat little soldiers in numbered or bullet-listed rows.

          – Leigh

        • Lassal says:

          “Lassal – that’s an amazing amount of writing considering.”

          If you do the math, then it is not really that much writing.

          The basic thing that I changed was the way I put pressure on myself. Before I was constantly running behind (I tried to force myself to write at least 1000 words when I was on assignment and it never worked). So I basically went to bed feeling bad and got up in the morning feeling bad. And it affected the “having fun” part of the equation enormously, so I found myself starting to unconsciously trying to avoid thinking about writing. Especially because I made the second mistake of trying to catch up. So the mountain grew and grew and almost suffocated me. It was an impossible task. I was fooling myself.

          Now I am fooling myself again. But consciously and the other way around. The result? I never felt so good about writing, and am constantly looking forward to it. By constantly ending up the day ahead of plan, I constantly try to beat my additional margin. It is a bit like a drug. At the end, I get more done because I totally do NOT feel like procrastinating anything (on the contrary) AND by allowing myself not to worry when I am on assignment, I cut out all the bad feelings that were raging inside me (and at the end working against me unconsciously).

          Sounds like such a little thing. But it made the biggest difference. Everybody is different, of course, but if you know your weaknesses, you can let them work for you instead of against you.

  2. Great post, as usual, Dean. Heinlein’s rules seem so simple at first glance, but that “don’t rewrite” one is a killer. It gets me every time. I just can’t leave things alone. But I think I’m slowly learning–I know that perfection is not possible, and that I need to move on to the next story. Otherwise, you get what I had for the first couple years of my “pre-career.” I worked on the same couple stories, polishing and polishing, and had nothing new to show for hours upon hours of work. I’m really excited for 2013. In 2012, I feel like I figured a lot of things out. 2013 is my year for continuing to implement those things, and getting some good work done.

    Hope everyone has a fabulous new year!!

    • dwsmith says:

      Melanie, yup, every one of the five Heinlein’s Rules are tough. The largest number get hit with #1 and the second largest number of people can’t get past the second rule to finish. And then #3 runs smack into the face of what your English teacher taught you and all your own self-doubts.

      And the last two are just as tough. They are simple, almost impossible to follow. I know, I followed them and kept falling off and climbing back on. (My worst ones are #4 and #5, actually. I have so many stories and novels I have written and not kept in the mail, it’s stunning. But the fact that I followed them for years and kept returning to them is why I am a professional writer. And have been now for decades.

      • I’ve always thought that #2 and #3 are really the same rule. It’s just that Heinlein is closing off the self-justifying escape route from #2.

        • dwsmith says:

          Nope, they are two very distinct problems. So many want-to-be writers come up with a great idea and are afraid to finish it. Nothing to do with rewriting.

          Rewriting, even back in Heinlein’s day, was being taught in school because the myth started in the late 1890s. Professional fiction writers get past the myth or don’t last long or publish many books.

          • True, it is being taught, but I do think that an awful lot of the power of that myth is fear of finishing.

            I say this as someone who went to grad school and worked with those professors closely. They were all terrified of finishing things. So were their students.

            Rewriting is a lovely excuse to put off saying “it’s done.”

      • J S says:

        #3 don’t rewrite is the Lean Manufacturing rule .. develop your process so the story does not need to be edited and revised – it’s done right the first time. Any editing/revision is “waste”. But what are the tricks you’ve found to get it right (story plus grammar) the first time? Any key books/checklists/etc (Strunk&White I’m sure) but internalize it somehow .. how does a newer writer get there?

        • dwsmith says:

          JS, oh, my, toss STUNK & WHITE out the window right now. As E.B. White said right before his death, that is the most damaging book to a fiction writer there ever was. Period. And he regretted ever doing it. If you want to be a top flight Chicago Book of Style NONfiction writer, fine. But people do not talk in Chicago Book of Style or Strunk and White grammar. They talk like people, and since your stories are populated by regular people, those books are horrid for you as a fiction writer. Horrid.

          How to get to writing so you don’t rewrite? How about trusting your own creative voice????? When you THINK you need to rewrite, that’s your 8th grade English teacher coming in and telling you how to write a professional creative story. Maybe you tell that teacher to take a flying you-know-what and trust your creative voice and just mail the story and work on the next one.

          Seems simple, huh? But trust me, most writers will go back to looking for “tricks” as you said or needing to study some worthless-for-fiction book and not just trust the ability that is already in their own minds.

          So you keep learning new craft and keep trusting your creative voice. That’s the “trick” of getting to where I am at.

          • Lyn Worthen says:

            Dean said: …people do not talk in Chicago Book of Style or Strunk and White grammar. They talk like people, and since your stories are populated by regular people, those books are horrid for you as a fiction writer

            I had an editing client a while back (I copyedit for indie writers), who had written a charming book from the point of view of a ten year-old boy. After I returned the completed manuscript to her, she asked me what style guide I’d used, because a friend had found numerous grammatical errors in the copyedited text.

            I replied to the effect that I’d used “ten year-old boy-speak” as my style guide – and that if I’d tried to apply Chicago, or any other of the formal style guides, neither her ten year-old main character or her young readers wouldn’t have studied, and likely didn’t even know existed, the strong voice of the narrative would have been completely destroyed.

            Style guides have their place, but, as I told this client, it’s the author voice we read fiction for, and author voice trumps style guide rules every time.

          • dwsmith says:

            Lyn, exactly. Author voice always wins, no matter how strange.

            And folks, if you haven’t done so, turn off your spellchecker and grammar checker on your word program while you write. A very quick way to stop creative flow and toss you back into critical voice. And if you want a computer programmer telling you how to do grammar, you really need help. (grin)

        • Get as far away from Strunk & White as you can. Not only is it toxic for fiction writers, but it is far from gramatically sound. It has no basis in linguistics or the history of the printed word in English. It only reflects the tastes of one fussy English professor from the early 1900’s and a student of his who revised and expanded the book decades later. (And came to regret it.) The book itself has numerous grammatical problems. Some of the passive voice examples aren’t actually passive voice. It’s not sure what passive voice is! This sort of thing abounds. Many of the book’s rules are broken repeatedly by the greatest writers of American fiction, both before and after its first printing. I find it absolutely absurd that this book is treasured within the English departments of the US.

  3. John Walters says:

    Thanks, Dean. Good words. Especially the part about setting goals, stumbling and falling, then getting up, brushing off, and persevering. Things are almost constantly coming up in life to deviate us from our writing goals. Sometimes these things are of such immensity that the specific goals themselves may need to be reassessed. Often in the past I have set a goal such as a daily word count, and almost immediately something happens which makes it impossible. (This is especially common with people who are responsible for others, such as parents.) The important thing is not to despair, not to quit, but to adjust and keep going in whatever capacity you can.

  4. I was disappointed because I had aimed to publish 21 titles in total (7 per name), but published 9 and wrote 13. Now I worked out that I actually managed approx 600,000 words in just over a year. Not so disappointed now. In the past I did one full-length book a year (three months writing and nine months of very boring editing and rewriting). My first year publishing, I’ve done 6 times the amount and having so much more fun. Thanks for making me feel better.

    I’m definitely an all or nothing person- very bad habit! My hand trouble means I can’t write as much as I’d like. This was a perfect excuse to do nothing instead of smaller amounts consistently. Many weeks were wasted by me lazing about when I could’ve done blurbs, covers, etc instead of writing. Using your 50-week guideline, I can do 3000 words 5 days a week and meet 2013’s 750,000 word target. I thought it’d require 5000-10,000 every day for something close to a million! Breaking it down works so well. I applied it to my weight loss and job search, but never thought of doing it for my writing!

    Just realised I’ve passed the 10,000 hours point! It’s at a million words, right? I’m not sure I believe in the idea, but still…Now the next 10,000. It won’t take 5 years this time.

  5. I love it when you talk again about these issues, Dean.

    For many writers this might be new, or partly new. But even for those of us who already know every word of it, I think it’s important to hear it from a voice outside our own heads.

    I got laid off in October, and I’ve had so many wild distractions on my plate ever since. It makes popcorn kittens look like nap time. But things are finally calming down and after processing through so much, I realize that what I need to do right now is put on blinders, shake off the distractions, and focus on word count for a while.

    For me, I’m not going to set a big goal — it’ll be daily. The distractions will be back, and I think it will be easier to just deal with them and come back to center if my mantra is just “Two thousand words today.”

  6. I can say a lot of negative things about my time in network marketing, but I’m glad I listened to the tapes about “employing yourself.”

    Most people are able to report to work on time and keep their jobs. Yet people who own businesses, such as writers, have trouble. Writers need to set their own schedules and be their own boss — demand they report to work on time and produce, just as though they were working a J.O.B.

    He also pointed out too many people fail at improving themselves because of one mistake. You’re on a diet. Tonight you eat a chocolate cake. Tomorrow you give up the diet, because you failed to keep it today. No. Yes, you went off today. Go back on it tomorrow.

    Same with writing. Don’t use missing a day as an excuse to miss more days.

  7. “For heaven’s sake, have fun doing it.”

    That right there is golden advice. The rest is great, too, but remembering this nugget is so important.

  8. drCPE says:

    you are ever generous, down to earth, with the step by step {the meat on the bone], instead of rant and air and taking bows. Appreciated Dean. Thanks.

  9. Michal Helmbright says:


    I wrote a story like you said. Just wrote and didn’t edit it.

    Then I went back and edited it.

    I gave both to my first reader to see which one they liked, not telling which was which.

    They said the one that I went back and edited was better.


    What the H, E, Double Hockey Sticks! I want to write like you write!

    • dwsmith says:

      Michal, did you “edit it” meaning just fix mistakes and typos? We all do that. Or did you “edit it” by digging in and rewriting and changing characters and cutting out a ton of stuff?

      And a second question on your very poor experiment. Is your first reader an editor or just used to your polished-to-death work? Maybe you should test this over ten or twenty stories, sending out first drafts (with mistakes fixed) to editors who might buy it and see what kind of reaction you get from real professional readers who can write checks.

      Just a suggestion.

    • To double-down on Dean’s suggestion of testing it over ten or twenty stories:

      Is there some reason you think that you can master writing “like Dean does” with just one story?

      A major reason to refrain from rewriting is to force yourself to write more stories. Rewriting your first story won’t make you a better writer, even if it were to improve the story itself. (And very often it doesn’t improve the story.) Writing another story, on the other hand, gives you twice as much experience as writing one.

      • dwsmith says:

        Very good point, Camille.

        I have always found it interesting that in music it is easy to tell the beginner from the professional, but yet beginning writers with just one or two stories think they should be as good as someone with thirty or forty million words under their fingers.

  10. Zelah Meyer says:

    There was so much I intended to get done this year – and I only managed a fraction of it. Sure, I have a boatload of excuses – my toddler son got diagnosed with autism, I get an average of 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 hours sleep a night, constant interruptions – etc.

    However, excuses might make me feel a little better – but they don’t get titles published. As of last week, I now have a sheet of paper tacked to the wall right in my line of vision. It says: “THAT, my friend, is a lame excuse!”

    That quote came from a teacher on a language course I once did. It made me smile at the time, because it cut through all those layers of excuses that we make to ourselves. This is me, it was a GOOD excuse (I’m the queen of good excuses) – but he knew that it was still an excuse, and I liked and respected that. You can bet that I never skipped homework for his class again. :)

    I’m spending the rest of December working on learning the software I plan to use (I’ve recently bought Scrivener), reading up on technique, doing the Idea to Story course & putting everything in place to make sure that I have no excuse not to get started in the New Year (and once we’re done with the Christmas festivities, I may start early, like a diary that features the last few days of December!

    My plan is to write a minimum of 500 words a day – which means I’ll hopefully wind up writing at least 1-2k. Inspired by the Idea to Story workshop, I’ve decided to adapt that to start out each writing day with an opening of at least 300 words. Then I can either continue with that opening, or switch to working on an existing project.

    I’m also planning on giving Heinlein’s rules a try. I know I’ll find that difficult, so I’m planning to use a pseudonym. Then, I can see that the world doesn’t end when I do that. It’s one of those things that I accept in theory but need to prove to myself before my sub-conscious will believe it!

    Anyway, thank you again for the inspiration & good luck to everyone for 2013. :)

  11. Yeah, the rewrite thing. Really, no editing?

    I don’t write that well, yet! Publish the crap?

    • dwsmith says:

      Carl, only you believe it is crap. You may be destroying real art by thinking it’s crap. How do you know?

      Trust me, I have never seen your work and I know for a fact you are a better writer than you are a rewriter.

      But believe in the myths all you want. Not my problem, it’s yours. I’m just trying to help people get to selling professional level fiction and having fun with their writing. Do what you want. It’s your career.

      But every time you go to rewrite something, ask yourself if you really know what you are doing when it comes to telling a good story. You can’t see your own voice, that’s the boring stuff you are taking out. And your conscious knowledge of story comes from English teachers who never wrote or sold a thing in a creative fashion.

      One more example. I stumbled across an episode of Antiques Roadshow the other night and there was a highly polished, very old lamp. The poor person who owned the lamp was looking shocked because the appraiser was telling her how much more the lamp would have been worth if it had it’s original patina on it instead of being polished down to the brass. Because she made it look pretty, she took all the value out of the lamp.

      So go ahead, polish all you want. Just think of me as the appraiser. After all the decades of editing and writing, that’s pretty much a good way of looking at my advice.

  12. Brian says:

    Thank you for this series Dean.

    In 2012, I finally finished something, only a short, but it was something. I did it. Now I want to ramp things up to a new level this year and I would like to suggest to anyone who is interested that we start our own accountability group, like Dean mentioned in this post.

    There is a website called where you setup your own goals and create a level of accountability, even your own money, that you’re comfortable with. I’m still setting my goals up but will probably lean towards making it as easy as possible at first until I get in the habit. Hopefully success will breed more success.

    My screen name on is brianb18 and my email is brian r bergquist @ gmail dot com in case anyone is interested in forming some kind of informal email group where we can have weekly check-ins. It would be great to make some virtual writer friends while we’re at it.

    Good luck to all in 2013 and Happy Holidays.


  13. Ross Lampert says:

    In general, great stuff, Dean, and advice I need to–and CAN–implement.

    There’s one point I have to strongly disagree with, though: your advice to never show anyone else your work in progress. That’s fine for the experienced author but as the leader of a writers’ group with a lot of new writers in it, I see a lot of work that is, to be kind, amateurish. Of course it is: the authors are beginners. But what I’ve learned from years of experience with these folks is that if they don’t get feedback on their work, and guidance on how to recognize, much less correct, the mistakes they’re making, they’ll just keep making those mistakes. For years. They need help climbing the learning curve, help that college writing courses often don’t provide and which many of them can’t afford anyway. Not all critique groups will do that, either, and some can be harmful, but if a new writer can find a group that will truly help them, they stand a better chance of getting to the point where they don’t need to show their work anymore. So it seems to me the better approach for a new writer is to build into their schedule time for review, feedback, and revision. That won’t mean as many “new words” completed in a year but the ones that are will be better–far better, one would hope–than they would have been otherwise.

    • dwsmith says:

      Sorry, Ross, but you are flat wrong on that. Why not just have confidence in your own work and not show it until finished. Anything done by a group is never as good as art done with a vision of one person. That’s just bad advice you are giving coming from a place of believing in myths like rewriting and group think.

      • Rob Cornell says:

        I don’t think Shakespeare had a writers’ group. He did okay. Charles Dickens didn’t have a writers’ group. He managed to write a few good stories. Lee Child has no such group. And could you imagine someone like Lester Dent or Max Brand in a writers’ group? How would the group have kept up? :)

        I don’t understand this modern notion that all writers need critique groups. Writers have been getting by fine without them for centuries.

        Me? I had a fantastic critique group when I lived in Chicago. Many of the writers in that group have gone on to great success (some you might have even heard of–including a guy who hosted his own TV show).

        Yet I still think that group did more harm than good for me. I wasted a lot of time fiddling with stories, trying to make them “perfect” according to the group. I second-guessed my own instincts until I didn’t trust a thing I wrote. Worst of all, I stopped having fun.

        It wasn’t until I stumbled upon Dean’s advice a couple years ago that I realized what had happened to me.

    • Desiree says:

      I disagree with you, Ross. Let a writer work it out for themselves–and I say this having survived writing groups that were forced upon me in college. This is where the “work” part of writing as a career comes in, IMO. The best thing you can do as a new writer is to write and finish and then let someone read it. A reader can’t tell much about an unfinished piece of fiction. Besides, everyone sucks at first (just like any other new skill), and a writing group isn’t going to help with that. Reading a lot and getting through your first million words will, though. People can tell you what is wrong with your swimming technique, but only practice will make you better.

    • Steven Mohan says:

      Ross, MAYBE there’s some value in showing a finished work to a group as a kind of postmortem. I think a writer’s better off having a trusted first-reader and studying the work of the bestsellers in order to learn, but for the sake of argument, there may be some value in workshopping something. (If the other writers in the workshop are at a pro-level AND can avoid the temptation not to rewrite the story as they would have written it.)

      Here’s the key though, Dean’s talking about work in process. If you show unfinished work to a workshop, you’ll get writing by committee, which is going to damage the current work before it’s even done. I think this would be especially dangerous for newer, inexperienced writers who are likely to abandon their own voice in favor of “authority.”

    • Not to pile on but….

      I’ve taught college writing, and I’ve been teaching art students for a very long time.

      What I’ve found is that people learn the creative arts best by doing, not by revising. Unlike Dean, I do believe there is a place in the process for revision…. but it’s not a beginner thing. Students have to learn to DO first.

      As Steven says, critique is best as a post-mortem process. Let them take their new knowledge and skills to the next process. Sure, you can use the critique as a learning experience. Sometimes a very specific revision request (as with “editorial order”) can be an object lesson in something specific, but that’s not for the work, that’s just a skill exercise thing. And often it’s better to have them do something different with it.

      For the students, the better thing is to keep moving forward, keep stretching their wings. Keep learning new things.

      Then, when they reach a learning plateau, it’s great to review past work or portfolio. Sometimes there’s piece that just needs some correction, but more often the result of portfolio review is to identify the skills the student is lacking and advise them to practice that skill to create new works to go into the portfolio. If you do consider revisions of old work, it isn’t to “fix” the work, but rather you ask “how would you do this differently now that you have more skills?”

      The reason revision is an advanced skill (for those of us who believe it has a place) is because revision isn’t about fixing something wrong with the work. It’s about being a whole different person — a person with more sophisticated skills and knowledge — who will see the work differently. (Re-vision. You know, vision?) You CAN’T revise until you’ve made that change.

      • dwsmith says:

        Thank you, Camille. Spot on the money and I hope everyone here reads your comment a few times. Thanks!

      • Oh, wow! Brilliant!

        Thank you for that, Camille. I hadn’t seen that (vision) and hadn’t realized the concept that goes with it. Very, very helpful.

        I’ve been following Dean’s advice to avoid rewriting or revising. Basically, I fix the mistakes and typos (takes little time, because I’m not rewriting or revising), then publish. That approach felt right. Now I understand why it feels right.

        I like understanding why!

    • Kort says:

      I’ve got to say, I also disagree, Ross. I visited a writing group my uncle was a part of when I was about 14. He brought the first few chapters of the novel I had almost finished. When people thought it was his, they were excited and loved it, declared it a new take on the idea and it would be great for teenagers. When they found out it was mine, they decided to “help” me up the learning curve and tore it to shreds. I spent the next 2 years re-writing that book until I decided to just move on because it would never be any good. Looking back, it was a great take on the idea and I may re-visit it at some point but I regret losing that 2 years.

      About the only thing I’ve ever gotten from writing groups was honing my spelling and punctuation by editing other people’s manuscripts. I’m a good writer and I’m getting better. Not because of writer’s groups who would like to “help” me but because I’m writing new stories. Stuff I wrote 2 years ago is far inferior to what I’m working on now but I’m not about to take it down and revise it because I’m on to the next story.

      • Ross Lampert says:

        WOO-HOO! Stirred up a hornet’s nest, I did! That’s OK, and some of you made points I agree with, at least in part. I did not intend to suggest that any writing group will be good for any writer; that’s clearly not true. Whether a particular group will be good for a particular writer depends exquisitely on the personalities of the group and the writer and the writer’s needs at that time. However, just because one group was not right for one writer does not mean no group is ever right for any writer!

        Can a group push a writer to write a story that’s not theirs as Steven suggests? Yes, which means the writer and especially the group must be aware of and beware of the possibility and work to avoid it. Camille makes a good point in this regard about the group not seeing the entire work, or at least a large part of it, but that can be worked around by asking the author to describe the larger arc of their story as they see it.

        Rob’s examples of Shakespeare and Dickens are the exceptions that illustrate my point. They didn’t need the help but 99.99% of us are not as good as they were.

        Desiree’s “let a writer work it out for themselves” assumes the writer can spot what’s wrong with their work and will know how to make it better. Unfortunately, those are often bad assumptions and they doom the writer to perhaps years of writing poorly before they figure out what they’re doing wrong. The same applies for her point about reading a lot: that’s true if the writer knows how to read like a writer, but if they don’t–if they read like a reader or like an English class student–it’s going to take a long time to learn to pick out the craft of a published author’s work and figure out how to apply it to their own.

        Dean, Camille, and Kort advocate taking lots of time to learn your craft. That’s fine if, like Dean and apparently Kort, a writer starts writing young and has years and years in front of them. Some writers, though, don’t start until they’re in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, when those years aren’t available, or they think they’re not. But even for the young writer, why should they spend years and years struggling when a writer’s group has the potential to help them get better sooner? Yes, of course, practice is what makes a writer better. A group that fits a writer’s needs well can make that practice more effective. I’m not saying a group is guaranteed to make every writer better sooner but it may and we should not be telling writers not to try them because of the risk they won’t help.

        Sorry folks, I’m sticking to my guns. Writers’ groups are NOT panaceas but neither are they always a waste of time. The only “right” solution is the one that best meets a writer’s needs at a given moment in their career. If that’s a group, fine; if not, fine.

        • Liana Mir says:

          I take issue with one thing:

          Desiree’s “let a writer work it out for themselves” assumes the writer can spot what’s wrong with their work and will know how to make it better.

          It does not assume that at all. It assumes that by continuing to WRITE, the writer will eventually GET better. Practice makes perfect is a truer adage than you give it credit.

          • dwsmith says:

            Exactly, Liana. You can’t make a story better if it’s wrong the first time through. You can make the next story better.

            Ross, that seems to be the place you jump off the rails. You think a story can be fixed like a car. Art doesn’t work that way. So doesn’t matter if a new writer can spot a problem or not. Just release the story to the wilds and work on making the next one better.

        • Josephine Wade says:

          I’m going to mention that reading books and stories are probably the best teachers of what makes a story work and I would guess if a writer spent the same hour reading conscientiously instead of attending a writing group the writer would be better off. Read a lot. Read broadly — skip the group.
          Just some thoughts having rewritten to committee with bad results.

        • Ross,

          Geeze louise, man, if you’re in a hurry, that’s when you really have to listen to Dean. The very fastest way to learn and learn well is to write it forward. Get as many stories under your belt as you possibly can. And that’s when rewriting will hurt you most.

          Furthermore, I did not say that you should skip feedback. I explained the actual efficient way to use feedback — whether it’s from a teacher or a critique group — is to use it to get the next story right.

          Also…. Uh, I did not say anything about the group not seeing the larger work. Maybe you got me mixed up with someone else. I was speaking as an experienced teacher. I was explaining how you can get benefit from feedback, regardless of where it comes from.

        • Kort says:

          Dude, you should be taking a lifetime to learn your craft. If you think you can get to a place and say “well, that’s it, this is the best I’m going to get, I’ll stop learning” then you’re going to have a problem in any profession.

          Of course my stuff is better now than it was 2 years ago. I’ve put in more time writing. If it takes you 8 hours to do something, you can put in that 8 hours in a single day or over the course of 3 months, it’s still going to take that same 8 hours.

          I’m not saying the writing group I went to didn’t help me, I’m saying it actively harmed me by taking away 2 years I could have spent on learning how to be a better writer. I’ve tried other groups since then and walked away in disgust more often than not because people were bringing in stories they had been polishing for years. I don’t want to be stuck in that kind of environment and I cant think of a lot of professionals who would. The only thing that is going to help them get better is experience; writing something start to finish and then starting something else.

        • Rob Cornell says:

          Ross, Dickens and Shakespeare were famous examples. They are NOT, however, the only ones from their era on to not have a writers’ group. Formal writers’ groups were largely unheard of until the university system incorporated them into their MFA Creative Writing degrees. University of Iowa was one of the first (or most famous), but then those programs started multiplying like tribbles, and at their core was the infamous “workshop.”

          I guess that answers my own question as far as why writers’ groups are so prevalent these days.

          Writing is a solitary profession (not counting TV and movies). Trust me, nobody needed or had writing groups for centuries. Nobody needs them now.

  14. I’m afraid my approach these days is simply “don’t stop.”

    Various life factors mean that two hours a week to write is a good week. Some are more, some are less. So rather than set a specific word count or production goal, I just commit myself to doing what I can. I do keep myself accountable with weekly writing status posts which means that I haven’t been derailed yet in the year and a half since my daughter was born.

    Sometimes “don’t stop” is just a lot less stressful than anything else.

  15. Mark Fassett says:

    I had a goal in 2012 of hitting 365k words. 1000 words a day. I didn’t make it, but I’m at 253k words with a good shot at hitting 260k by the end of the year. That’s twice what I wrote in 2011 and more than I wrote in 2010 and 2011 combined.

    Where I fell short was early in the year where I would fail to write one day, which would lead in to several days or even weeks of no writing. Before July, I had 100 days of writing and 100 days of not. I’ve written every day now since July 8th, 171 days, and averaged nearly 1000 words. Committing to doing something every day, even if it’s just 100 words to keep the streak going, has been instrumental in keeping me engaged with my writing.

    My goal for next year is 1500 words, every day, doubling this year’s output. But the total won’t matter so much as long as I fill every box on my calendar with a number.

    • dwsmith says:

      Mark, well done. And yes, streaks are really important for most of us. A couple of years ago I talked about writers getting a streak going, but I discovered that when a writer falls off a streak, it’s even hard to get back on and start a streak over. But there have been some awesome writing streaks in friends around me. They are a great way of pushing forward. Thanks for mentioning that and congrats on your great streak.

  16. Jeff Ambrose says:

    Hi Dean:

    Question: Since you have production goals, do you track your total word count, or are you fully focused on what you finish, regardless of word count?

    I ask because the last three years I’ve been focused on word count, and while I’m happy with the amount I’ve written since 2010, I’m not too happy with the number of stories/novels I’ve finished. Anyway, I’ve been seriously thinking about moving away from a word count goal in 2013, and since you’re a production-goal writer, I’m wondering how and what you track your writing.

    Is it pretty much what you do with your Challenge Stories: overall production goal (100 stories) and you keep track of the number of words the story is, and how long it took you to write? Or is it pure production?

    • dwsmith says:

      Jeff, pure production for me. A 3,000 word story is the same as a 10,000 word story as far as I am concerned. The finished product is what I count. (Back to Heinlein’s Rules, where I stay firmly planted and pretty much always have.) But word count works for a lot of people, especially writers doing long novels. It’s easier to work with for short-term goals. For me, when doing novels, I count scenes or chapters, depending on the type of book I am writing.

      But again, every writer is different and often what motivates us one year won’t work the following year.

      • I really wish I could come up with a long term goal for long novels that would work as well for me as production goals for short things.

        This summer, when I did the serial, I wrote two 600-700 word episodes a week with illustration — and though there weren’t many words, the motivation and concentration evoked by that deadline was fabulous.

        I tried for a while to treat a regular novel like that, but without the actual publication deadline it didn’t work the same.

      • Jeff Ambrose says:

        Thanks, Dean. Very much.

        I know exactly what you mean that what motivates us one year may not motivate us another year. For the past three years, I’ve focused on word count — and I’ve written 1.2 million words in that time, as well as finished dozens of short stories and a few novels. Not too shabby.

        And yet, the past three months or so, I haven’t finished anything. Critical voice has been on high, among other things, as well as telling rather boring stories (not following Wilhelm’s Rule of going past the first 3 ideas). Anyway, I kept writing. That’s good. But as the words piled up, I became keenly aware that my focus was off.

        You’ve just confirmed for what I’ve been thinking since October. It’s time to make a change. In 2013, I’ll be focusing on production, not words.

  17. RD Meyer says:

    I liked this post, especially the part about the want-to-be-writers. I’ve found a lot of people want to write that next great American novel. In fact, I’ve been amazed in the last two years how many “writers” are out there…then I discovered how few have actually finished something. There’s always an excuse – no time, people don’t understand their work, they never got their shot, etc. When I tell them to just write, they sneer something at me like, “You just don’t get writing.”

    Writers write. My goal this year is to finish two novels I’m starting to outline and edit two others so they’ll be ready for market. As a bonus, I want to write five or six more short stories as well(yes, that’s a conservative estimate, but I think I can reach that realistically, and if I do more, great!).

  18. Mark says:

    “For heaven’s sake, have fun doing it.”

    Indeed. Neil Gaiman said the same, as he regretted not taking Stephen King’s advice to “enjoy it” (“it” being the success). When he saw the lines gathering at various comic-con/book conventions in anticipation of grabbing his latest work, he panicked and worried himself silly about his next work living up to his fan’s expectations.

  19. Byron Gordon says:

    Thank you for the reminder Dean. I just finished looking through my goals from this past year and how close I came to making it. I fell short of my production goals by 5 (though I might be able to make that 4 before the 1st). However, I went from 12 to 19 titles for sale, and my sales jumped ~300% this year. This year marked my first true attempt at writing a full length novel and I fell into the re-writing trap when the story ended before it reached typical novel length (at ~45k words). I’m slowly bringing myself around to seeing this not as a failure but a success because a) I thought constantly about rewriting but refrained from messing with the mss; b) it was intimidating as hell to tackle the project but I did and I finished the story; c) I have an idea for another novel and I’ve learned tons about shooting for a story that size.
    Thank you for your inspiring posts. I’m not going to say I couldn’t have done it without them but… it would probably have ended a lot different and not nearly as well.

  20. Pete Miller says:

    Well Dean, as I assess the end of my writing year, I of course obsess on the failure instead of the success. I completely blew NaNoWriMo (5000 words written) and didn’t write daily. My goal for 2013 is to put butt in chair every day, and finish 2 novels.

    However, this year I did get 4 novellas up for sale with a fifth nearly there (awaiting the cover art). I have the Nano novel outlined, and another screenplay-to-novel well under way. I established a website and some decent branding for my alt / weird history series, Uchronic Tales, and will set some goals for the upcoming year.

    I wish to offer thanks to you and Kris for all the kind words of support for the writing community (and for the occasional slapping around to get our attention.) I extend best wishes and happy writing in the year ahead.


  21. Good advice to go over at this time of year, and I needed to read it. I had one of those life rolls you talk about, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then almost died following a partial mastectomy due to massive internal bleeding. Add in all the teen boy drama with son #3, my siblings having health and other crises, my own health not being so hot, and it’s been a rough year.

    As bad as it was, I did finish the novel I was working on (my first), the print version is *this* close, and I published a couple of new short stories — with some others nearly done, which if I work at it, might get done before the end of the year as well.

    All in all, not a bad output, though my goals were huge! Next year is going to be my year, I just know it. After all, we survived the apocalypse, things are bound to look up. 😉

  22. I’ll try idea #1 in 2013, although I guess I do know of at least 6 things I have to start and finish writing (idea #3). These 6 things though are basically my publishing schedule from 2012 minus 1, so I guess you can tell why I’ll go with idea #1 this time…

    On rewriting: I do one pass and from what I’ve seen it’s mostly typos and grammar I fix. On occasion there’ s a sentence that doesn’t make as much sense as it should that I change as well, but overall nothing major. I bet I would have had the same experience with my novel as well if it wasn’t the first one.

    Anyone else would have told me to just shelf it, but I’m glad I rewrote it instead. You do need that experience, in my opinion. Almost everything changed with that rewrite and, you have to trust me on this one, the changes didn’t ruin the story or the writing. The one pass I did after the rewrite though was similar to the experiences I described above.

  23. I only wrote 85,000 words this year. It was a tough year. In terms of the output I *wanted* to create, that’s technically a failure, but each of those words are written and aren’t going away. So next year I write more.

    I do have a question about Heinlein’s rule #3. I understand the basic principal behind “not rewriting” but is there a difference between a “rewrite” and an edit of prose and story structure? When I finish a story I’ll go through it again to fix stuff. Writing raw I’ll do inexplicable things like use the word “chair” 17 times in a single paragraph (true story–apparently at the time I was concerned the reader wouldn’t realize there was a chair in the room) and since I don’t *like* when I do that, I’ll look for examples and change the paragraphs to take that out. When I was doing that with my first novel I actually wound up taking out 1/3 of a chapter at the beginning of the book and using it as the last scene in the book because I decided it would be a perfect ending (in retrospect I don’t know about perfect, but it was a much better ending than the one I had). But I didn’t consider that a rewrite, I considered it an edit–not a grammar edit but a story edit. Is there a legitimate distinction to be made there, or is it just semantics?

    I think there’s a difference, but I could easily imagine Heinlein shaking his head, saying “that still counts.” And then we’d get into a fight, which would be awkward, since he’s both famous AND dead. It’s very hard to win a fight against a famous dead guy.

    • dwsmith says:

      Christopher, the way I look at it is this: If I made the change in the creative moment, with the creative side of my brain in charge, it’s not a rewrite. If I made the change later, when looking at the story with all the training of my English teachers, then it’s bad and a rewrite.

      I NEVER trust the editorial or English teacher side of my brain. That side is dumber than a post. I trust the creative side of my brain that has been taking in and understanding story for as long as I have been alive. That side knows what it is doing and if it puts a part of story in a certain place, I am not smart enough to question that decision.

      The intellect/editorial/English teacher side can make all the rationals it wants about how it’s smarter than my creative side, but when it comes to creation of fiction, it just is not. And I have come to trust that. And that’s what Heinlein was trying to talk about. Professional writers come to trust the creative side. Beginning writers believe their English teacher side is smarter. And that’s the difference.

      • There are two high school English teachers that I will never forget. The first is the one who revised a paper of mine so many times before it finally met with his approval that I still don’t believe a single original word of mine was left on the pages. He recorded the “A” in his gradebook, and I dropped the paper in the garbage can on my way out of class. (Yes, I was an arrogant teenager.)
        The second “got” the idea of the creative voice. I aced every spelling, reading, and comprehension test he gave, but routinely failed the grammar tests. Failed them miserably. Spectacularly even. And one day, when he handed back a paper I’d written, (I always got high grades on my papers) he said to me, “For someone with as poor a grasp of grammar as your tests indicate, I’m constantly amazed that you write as well as you do.” I mumbled something about just writing “what sounds right,” and he said “then that’s what you should keep doing, because its working.”
        To this day, my “editing” process for my own fiction is still just to read the story aloud. If I stumble on a passage, if it doesn’t sound right to my ear, I revise it (and nine times out of ten, I’m just changing a word I’ve used three times in that paragraph or correcting a misspelling). But apply grammar rules to my fiction? Not gonna happen!
        Oh, and my wonderful English teacher? I went back to my old high school to visit him a few years ago and took him a copy of my first published short story. I think he was almost more excited about it than I was, and still just as supportive of my creative efforts as he always had been. That’s the only English teacher’s voice I ever let in my head these days. :)

  24. Cyn Bagley says:

    Thanks Dean–
    I needed another kick in the butt– and this helps me.
    This year I had the goal to write 400,000 new words. I made it to 177,000 words. This was another bad year for illness for me, but I am not going to beat myself up for failure. I doubled my output for the year. Yes, I normally write about 50,000 to 60,000 words a year. Next year, I have a lot of projects that I want to complete. I am thinking more of completing the new projects than how many words I write.

    I don’t know if it will make it easier for me– however, thanks again for the information. With your encouragement, I have been able to write several collections of short stories and finish some of my novels. I have also learned how to make POD interiors and covers.

    It was a busy and wonderful year for me–


  25. Linda Jordan says:

    Dean, thanks so so much about the having fun bit. I made my goal this year, but the last piece – a redraft of a novel where I still loved the plot, characters and ideas (but knew I hadn’t written it in a way that worked) – nearly killed me. So not fun at all. Won’t do that again. Well, not soon at least.

    Despite having finished and published 25 novels, collections and stories this year, I ended up feeling completely drained of energy and ideas. For a month, which is not at all normal for me. Spent the time cleaning up websites and doing other publishing things and I still felt wasted. I’ve been trying to figure out why and dreading the end of the holidays, school beginning and needing to make a choice about what to write next, since my writing time shows up on Jan. 4!

    And you nailed it. The last project simply wasn’t fun. Oops, I forgot to have fun. So I’m posting a note above my computer – ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?

    Thanks so much! I love it when you do that!

  26. daimon says:

    what i dont understand is how to make up a character completely before you begin. I’ve read and read that’s what you’re supposed to do. But my limited experience as a tinhorn/greenhorn, whatever you call the level before ‘beginner’, that would be me… in writing character is that the character keeps trying to talk to me as we go along, telling me about himself or herself. I make what feels like a jillion outlines beforehand, and then it is hard, no, it’s impossible to follow them because the character[s] keep saying no no, I’m this way, not THAT way. I mean even the mission I had planned for central character veers off into something else. Do you let the characters tell you what’s what, or are we supposed to try to wrangle the character into the bloody outline? I’d like to have fun, as you say, but I feel like i’m in a wrassle. What you said about ‘english teacher side’ is good. I think that side of me is maybe ‘foreign language teacher,’ as english is not my first or second language, and yet English is the one I write in.

    • dwsmith says:


      Writing teachers who have never written much are the ones that tell you to make up characters ahead of time. No one I know who has been around a long time does it. And I think it’s just flat silly, to be honest with you. Just write the story and make it up as you go. That’s called the creative process.

      So “You must make up characters ahead of time” is a myth. Do it if you want, don’t if you don’t want to. Every writer is different.

      • daimon says:

        thanks for the contravening reply; I’ll go with my instincts then. I’ll try hard. Thanks DWS. The characters will probably be relieved too.

      • Liana Mir says:

        Some people do. I make up characters before I write, but not the way you think. I’m not happy if I’m not playing with characters and stories and scenarios, but they aren’t for writing. They’re just play, almost like let’s pretend, and sometimes I find a character I like and mentally incorporate them with certain sets of characters until I know how they play, then they’ll show up when they do as I write stories.

        Most of my characters vastly predate my fiction since I’ve been collecting them since I was five years old. Almost all of my stories are fed from that pretty vast well of characters and premises and relationship dynamics and worlds, though I occasionally build a new world out of those characters and premises, multiple to a world. It works because it’s all creative and I can never write as fast I think, and it means that when a throwaway “secondary” character shows up, I know the story they’re a hero of and can also save that story for later writing.

        Just to round out your experience: you now have met someone that does invent characters beforehand—and has still never done it outside of the bounds of creating stories. :grins:

    • Carradee says:

      Stories feature characters, who are somewhere, who are both in a situation that they’re trying to get out of, and heading towards another situation that they think will be better.

      You can start a story knowing a character or characters (antagonist, protagonist, side character—doesn’t matter), a setting, a starting situation, an ending situation, the trail somebody’ll be taking from point A to point B…

      Doesn’t matter, though it can help to know what tone you’re aiming for, too.

      Personally, I tend to start with a protagonist character in a starting situation. I often know the ending situation—both the one the character wants, and the one they’ll actually end up in (assuming those two differ). But I know that character because I picture them and start writing, and I discover more about them as I write. I once wrote a novel wherein a character had a severe allergy—an allergy I’d written in without being consciously aware of it.

      I don’t start the lists until after I’ve a story (at least mostly) written, and then it’s to make the story “bible” to make sure details stay consistent between stories.

      I’ll sometimes start a story with one of the other things, but I’m most comfortable starting with a character. Some…issues can result from that (like fizzling out because I can’t always figure out a plot on the fly), so I’ve developed a few questions to ask myself when I get stuck, questions and a very loose “formula” that help me quickly get un-stuck. (Before anybody panics: The “formula” is really something that checks if I have a plot, since I like vignettes and don’t always realize I’ve written one.)

      Works for me, but I don’t assume that the technique will work for everyone—and I don’t assume it’ll work for every story. I have one story that would’ve been murdered into something completely different if I’d pulled in the questions and the “formula”.

      But that’s me, as a character-oriented writer. Some folks are more plot-oriented. Some are more setting-oriented. I’m sure some aren’t any particular one.

      That doesn’t make any one of our styles “wrong” or “right”, any more than “writing verbosely and then trimming” or “writing concisely and then adding” is more right than the other.

      • daimon says:

        Thanks Carradee and Liana for your thoughts. I didnt expect what richness you all and dsw gave on this issue of character planning/takeovers. Most generous. My thanks. And may your new year be brightest yet.

  27. Two comments.

    First, “Get one new book up indie published every two weeks.” Holy moly, Dean! I thought my goal of four new novels this year was overreaching! But twenty five???? Well, why not. I only made it to two-and-a-half novels finished this year. I would like to say that getting laid off and my father’s death slowed me down, but actually I had most of my writing done before those things happened. I’d have finished more if I had not automatically assumed that both finished novels had to be set aside for extensive rewriting. I won’t make that mistake again.

    Second: Lessons I learned in 2012

    Stop rewriting. It just wastes time.
    Stop researching an idea to death. It wastes time.
    Stop going to critique groups. They waste my time (and yes, I’m even including Clarion, which took me years to get over).
    Stop counting words. No one is interested in my word count. Count finished works, instead.

    So now I’m figuring out what my production goals in 2012 are, and thanks to your very clarifying remarks above, plus my experience, I’m not going to be setting word goals. One of the problems with a word goal is that if you discover that you must cut 2000 words out of a story, it feels like failure because you’re locked into that word count. I will be concentrating on finished product as my goal. I want to write four novels in 2013 and publish them. If I don’t get a job right away, maybe it will be five. I would like to aim for twenty five, but I think that would break my brain. :)

    Thanks, as always, for your excellent advice and cheerleading, Dean!

    • dwsmith says:

      Sarah, on the twenty-five new up in a year, that includes things like backlist, short fiction, collections, and novels. Doing only novels would be tough unless you had a ton of them already done and just waiting. (grin)

      And I’m with you on project focused. Always better for me to not count words and just count projects done. But every one of us is different.

  28. The Smoker says:

    365 short stories, 5,000 words each. (Novellas count for 2, novels for 10.)
    – all in paper and e-ink.

    The 365 stories isn’t the challenge. It’s the paper. It’s only an extra 30 minutes, but It tires me out most days. (My brain is usually fried for writing and I have a few bigger goals running as well that take up time – oh, and work, lol.)

    That’s my 2013.

    • Rob Cornell says:

      Smoker, I still don’t know how to even put up my work in paper, so you’re ahead of the game on me there.

      I’m scrambling to gather cash right now, because I’m going to try to do the covers and interiors design classes this spring. In the meantime, I might just have to stockpile stories.

      • The Smoker says:

        Hey Rob,

        Good on you for taking a workshop with Dean. Certainly getting skilled at covers and interior design will give your work the best chance it can get, so you are on the right track.

        I wouldn’t stress putting things up in paper so much. I started awhile back when Dean started doing his subscription books. I thought it was a good idea and it took me about 2 hours to learn based on basic experimentation and research on Google, Dean’s site and the Createspace forums, which are amazing. Admittedly I have a few hundred books under my belt and know how to format for most formats to a intermediate level (which really is enough most of the time). However, I would highly recommend giving it a try. You don’t have to publish the book, just play around and learn the system. Nothing too hard or risky.

        Also, I agree with you about stockpiling stories. You’ll find once you have hit about your 50th book then you can publish same day no issue for short stories and within 48 hours for novel and novella length works (depending on whether or not you are paying others to do work for you – I don’t because I don’t need to anymore.) It’s basically just learning a process and performing it over and over. I could publish a book to Smashwords or Amazon in my sleep and Createspace is nearly at that level (I published 3 old short stories in 40 minutes just now for example.)

        You’ll get there. Write 100s of short stories and dozens of novels and novellas and it WILL come together. I did for me and has for others too. You’ll be laughing at how easy it was later on.

        Take it easy,

        The Smoker.

  29. I think this is mostly excellent advice but I’m worried the not rewriting bit. Why should we only respond to editorial advice from a traditional publisher, not from an editor we hire? Editors employed by trad publishers aren’t guaranteed to be better than freelance ones. (I had one ruin a book so badly that I refused to have my name on it when it was published.) I paid an editor to readThere Must Be Horses for me and her comments helped me improve the book. She works for traditional publishers too and has edited my books in the past for them. Why do you think I shouldn’t listen to her now just because I’m paying for her time?

    • dwsmith says:

      Diana, if your “hired book doctor” editor has worked in major publishing as an editor, then fine.

      But I stand by a simple question. How do you, as the author, know she is making your book better or worse? You, the author, can’t judge that. Only readers can. So all she is doing for her money is making you feel better while maybe not hurting your book or your vision too much. Sometimes, granted, making an author feel better is a good thing. But understand what you are buying from her. You are buying confidence you don’t have in your own work. And with luck, she’s not hurting your book much.

      Trust me, if she knew how to be a professional writer, your editor would be. She would create professional stories. So anything she brings to any table is lower than your ability.

      Harlan Ellison followed Heinlein’s Rules, never rewrote, and has done just fine. And he added a very important clause to Rule #3 of Heinlein’s Rules. “Only if you agree.”

      I once had a major New York editor give me fifteen pages of notes on the book I turned in. Most of the notes would have just flat ruined what I was trying to do in the book and turn it into some monster.

      So I fixed a few small things the editor wanted at the beginning, one small thing near the end that I agreed with, and then wrote the editor back with the manuscript praising the editor on their insightful read and how much their comments really helped the book. Of course, they never read the book again, or even if they did, they thought I had fixed their problems, and the book went through just fine and got a ton of positive from readers and critics alike and was one of my best-selling books.

      So I stand by my statement that if you can afford to hire an editor, chances are they are not good for your book in any way, and you are doing it only to make yourself feel better, which is fine if you know that.

      But it sure seems to me that this process of getting art through a flawed publishing system is hard enough without bringing in and paying for even more problems.

      • How do you, as the author, know she is making your book better or worse? You, the author, can’t judge that. Only readers can.

        Trust me, if she knew how to be a professional writer, your editor would be. She would create professional stories. So anything she brings to any table is lower than your ability.

        Dean, thank you for answering Diana’s question! It was one I entertained myself. I sensed you were right, but I couldn’t see why. Now I see why. Very clear and very helpful. Gives me confidence to go forward as I’ve been doing: fixing typos and any real mistakes pointed out by a first reader, and then publishing and moving on to the next story.

        • dwsmith says:

          And I want to be very clear here. A COPYEDITOR is someone needed in indie publishing. Often they can be good friends with a focus on spelling and details. Copyeditor fixes typos and spelling mistakes that we all miss. I am talking about what is the myth that an “editor” can help your book. Sometimes a traditional editor in a major publishing house or a major magazine can help fine-tune a story to what the author wanted. But as a beginning writer, if you write a novel, some “editor” will not magically turn it into a professional story. Nope, doesn’t work that way.

          So copyeditors who fix typos and mistakes = GOOD.
          “Editors” or “book doctors” who pretend to help you with story and character and pacing = BAD.

          • dwsmith says:

            One more point on this. English teachers are great deconstructionists. They are trained to take anything apart and tell you the hidden meaning that not even the author thought about.

            So here is the example I use. Give a person a hammer and saw and tell them to tear down a house. They will get the job done just fine in time.

            Then give that same person a hammer and saw and tell them to build a finely crafted home and you’ll be lucky to get something that stands up.

            They are two different skills, folks. Creative writing does not come from tearing things apart. It comes from learning the skills that hold story together for readers. “Editors” or book doctors you can hire come out of deconstructionism. They have no creative skills. Again, if they did, they would be writing their own books instead of tearing yours apart.

          • Rob Cornell says:

            Hey, Dean, when it comes to indie publishing, what is the difference between a copyeditor and a proofreader? I’ve been pricing services that can proof for me since I don’t have any friends/acquaintances with the skills. I’ve been proofing my own stuff up until now and have the Amazon reviews to show for it. :(

            I’m running into both terms, sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes told they are two separate things, though I’ll be damned if anyone can explain exactly how they differ.

            There is one person I found with reasonable rates and fantastic references who says she only proofreads, and does not. Thus I’m left even more confused.

            Is there really a difference?

          • dwsmith says:

            There is a technical difference, Rob, but you are right, the terms are often exchanged. Copyedit works down in the details, the spelling, making sure things are in a house style. A proofreader finds if you changed a character’s shirt color from chapter to chapter.

            Copyediting is what is needed more than anything else. Proofing can be mostly done by first readers.

          • Carradee says:

            Maybe this is an issue of different folks defining the terms differently (particularly since it’s not uncommon for companies to hire copyeditor-proofreader hybrids and to call them “proofreaders” because they don’t have to be paid as much), but I and several of my friends have been copyeditors and proofreaders for various local presses, so here’s the definitions we’ve learned from folks who solely edit/proofread and don’t write:

            Proofreaders are the final formatting/typo checks. Missing commas, misspellings, font size change from 12 to 11, line spacing change in chapter 12… That’s a proofreader’s job to find.

            The name comes from looking at final page proofs. (The job is actually easier to catch on a page proof than on the computer. These days, I often proofread on my e-ink Nook.)

            Copyeditors are the ones who are supposed to catch detail changes, typos, grammar errors, etc. Thus why their fees usually start at double proofreaders’ fees.

            “Copy” is writing that’s meant to provoke a response. Thus where the “copyeditor” title comes from.

            If the proofreader catches a detail inconsistency, in some businesses, the editor will get in trouble for missing it. (More often, the copyeditor gets in trouble if something gets past them that’s against company content policy.)

            The distinction between “line editor” and “copyeditor” is way more fuzzy. Those two, you have to get defined by the person you’re discussing them with. A “line edit” is usually a heavier edit than a “copyedit”, though.

            You can always send a sample for an edit or proofread. Most folks will do a free sample of about 500–1k words.

            Not saying I disagree with Dean’s comments on English teachers or on the detail that you need a copyeditor, but not necessarily a proofreader. When I’ve been hired as an English or writing teacher, I make sure to teach the difference between objectively wrong and subjectively wrong—and I specify when something I want to see is objective or subjective, like the Oxford comma.

      • Sometimes I wonder if we’re not being seduced these days by how *easy* is to revise a work.

        I started writing on a manual typewriter, in the late 70s. (Yes, I was fairly young, but first impressions matter.) When you’re revising on a typewriter, you have to take that stack of pages – those scores of hours of work – and mark them all up with changes you have in mind. Then you have to retype the ENTIRE THING. Every single word.

        The good thing about that is it tends to drop one back into creative mind, at least it did for me. I’d tend to re-envision the story as I went, rather than just mechanically type in the words.

        I’m having an interesting experience with this recently, in fact. A few years ago, I wrote an SF book. I printed a copy off to revise it (was still in that mode). This was the first book I wrote when getting back into writing fiction after a break (doing fiction for computer games and such), and it was…OK, but rough. Bought into the revision myth and planned to fix it. (Sorry, Dean! *grin*)

        And then something happened and the file got corrupted, and I lost it. No backup. So all I had was this printout. And now, four books later, I’m re-writing it. I’m not just retyping it into the computer, I’m reading the old story and then re-envisioning how it should go, putting the last couple of years of experience into the words, the flow, the storytelling.

        In a way, the process reminds me of how I used to write back before computers made tweaking so seductively easy. However, I don’t generally recommend losing your files; back up your work. 😉

        And consider the workpath of writers in years gone by. They didn’t have computers so they could tweak a word here, restructure a sentence there… Rewriting was hard work, and took a lot of time which could be better spent on another story. New technology allowing us to do a thing does not necessarily mean doing that thing is better.

  30. Just an addendum: thanks to the discussion here and a few other things, I’ve figured out my goal.

    I’m going to do the ‘A Round of Words in 80 Days’ challenge. And I’m setting a goal of 2500 words a day. Although 80 x 2500 adds up to 200k, I’m not setting an overall goal of 200k.

    The reason I’m not setting the larger goal is because my life is in flux and I know there are going to be days I don’t get any writing done… but I don’t want to plan for failure by putting buffer days in.

    Instead, I want to retrain my brain to stay on course day after day. To not to be distracted by crises all the time. The actual goal is to do the zen “Mind Like Water” think — react to what comes my way, and then come back to true. Come back to the task at hand again and again.

    To really do that as a habit, I have to focus on the day’s goal. It doesn’t matter what I did or didn’t do yesterday, today I’ve got 2500 words to write. Furthermore the goal has to be low enough to achieve much of the time, but high enough that I can’t just get it done early and go off to do other things. I need the habit of repeatedly coming back to the task.

  31. I’m interested in the replies to my query about editors. Bad editors are everything you describe. A good editor is like an extra eye, giving me feedback on how the story works for a reader. Amongst other things, she’ll pick up places where the motivation isn’t clear, where the pacing drops and where I’ve left out vital information. But she’ll never, ever tell me how to put things right. That’s up to me because I’m the creative writer. She’s really a creative reader and, when I’m paying, I’m free to ignore any of her comments. (That’s harder to do with an editor provided by a publisher).

    A good editor can help make a book better. That’s why publishers invest money in editing and, if we’re taking on the publisher’s role, shouldn’t we do the same?

    • dwsmith says:

      Diana, I agree but in all my years of being in publishing, I can count on one hand the good editors like you describe I have worked with. And it wouldn’t talk all five fingers. And honestly, I would work with them in a heart beat again if they called me with a project. Remember, editors pay authors, not the other way around. Money always flows from publishers to writers, even when you are the publisher.

      So yes, if you find one of those rare editors who can leave a story alone and help the author make it better to the author’s vision, then stay with them if you can. Hire them? NOPE. But work with them in their jobs as editor for publishing houses? Yes.

      Editors give money to authors and the good ones, the rare ones, can also help a book be better. But their job is to pay publisher’s money to writers for work to put together either an issue of a magazine or a line of books. That’s their job.

  32. Sorry, Dean, you’ve lost me. What you appear to be saying is that I shouldn’t have paid my editor a reasonable price for her time in order to get her to comment on my book. Instead I should have signed up with the publisher she normally works for so they can pay her instead. But if I did that, I’d be granting them all rights to the book for the duration of copyright, giving them the bulk of the profits, waiting for at least a year for the book to come out, surrendering all control over the cover and pricing and accepting a non-competing works clause that will restrict my future career. That doesn’t sound sensible.

    Feel free not to publish this if I’m getting on your nerves. But I’d still be interested in your response.

    I wonder if the confusion is because I’m on the other side of the Atlantic and subtle differences in terminology is getting the editor/publisher roles muddled up. Here editors never pay authors. Editors are paid for their work by the publisher so, if I’m the publisher, that’s my job.

    • dwsmith says:

      Yes, editors are paid by publishers. So we are talking on the same terms there.

      What I am trying to stop as cold as I can, at least on this blog, is the idea that writers NEED editors. We need copyeditors. Yes. But we do not need editors. That’s a myth.

      Now, as you said, if you get lucky, (which you may have from the sounds of it) you find an editor working for a traditional publisher than can help you with a book. Most of the time editors just do no harm to your work. And occasionally, just a regularly as you find a great editor in a traditional publisher, you find a horrid one that thinks they should be the writer and they do harm to the book.

      When you are the publisher, the indie publisher, of your own work, you need first readers and copyeditors. There is no reason to hire an editor and 99.9% of all editors any writer could hire would do harm to the book. Those sorts of “book doctors” play into the insecurities and fears of writers and scam them, for the most part.

      So I never said you should go to a traditional publisher. What I have been trying to say is this, as bluntly as I can. YOU DO NOT NEED AN EDITOR. You need a good first reader and a copyeditor. Not the type of editor you are talking about.

      I always will fall back on the premise that it is ALWAYS better for a writer to trust their own art.

      But writers, as a group are gullible and insecure and full of fear and thus the idea of trusting their own art is an alien concept. So (as a group) writers go looking for that “magic” someone who can turn their work into something that will sell instead of working to become a better storyteller.

      Sorry, after thirty-some years and a hundred plus novels and being an editor and publisher, I have yet to see an editor be able to take a pile of crap writing and turn it into something that will sell. A writer either writes something that sells or they don’t. No magic “fixes” out there on shelves or in some magic editor’s touch anywhere.

      Sorry, Diana, you credit your “magic editor” with a lot, but I stand by the fact that your success is because you are a damn fine writer.

      • I think we’re finally on the same wave length. When I talk about an editor, I’m thinking more of a skilled first reader than a book doctor. It my opinion, all writers need their work read by someone else because, by the time we’ve finished it, we are too close to spot the problems. A first reader who just says “that’s nice dear” is no use. We need someone who understands the type of book we’re trying to write and who is capable of making constructive comments. That takes skill and there’s nothing wrong in compensating a skilled person for investing time in your work, either in kind (by commenting on their work in return) or by paying them money.

        Like you, I want to protect beginners from the scammers who prey on them but we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are some lousy plumbers out there, but that doesn’t mean I should never pay a plumber to fix my leaky pipe. I just need to find a good one. The same is true of editors/first readers.

        I agree that no editor can turn a pile of crap writing into a successful book. But just writing more crap won’t turn writers into a success either. They need some idea of what they are doing wrong before they can improve. Years ago, my first novel was turned down by an editor with the comment “weak plot and a flat ending”. That was devastating at the time but I took it to heart, learned to plot and became a much better writer as a result.

        • dwsmith says:

          Exactly, Diana. But as you said, you listened to comments from a professional editor at a publisher in a rejection and then worked on that with learning and practice. So many beginning writers I watch think they can hire that “professional editor” and don’t need to practice and learn, the editor can “fix” it for them.

          So not tossing any baby out, just in this new world, trying to be clear on what an editor is vs. a good first reader. Yes, we all need good first readers that we trust. And I guess compensating them for their time is valid in certain circumstances. But on this blog, just don’t call them “editors.” They are first readers. And that was my objection.

          Editors, at least professional editors, work for major publishers and can get the publisher they work for to write checks to writers.

          Scam editors charge writers and can’t help them in any real way.

          Good first readers are needed by every writer. And every writer needs a copyeditor.

          Now I hope we are on the same terms. (grin)

  33. Just one counterpoint on the English teachers example Dean gave. (Yes, he’s right as I’ll mention at the bottom of the post, but….)

    There are an awful lot of engineers and architects and such who learned to build things by first tearing existing things apart and studying how they work. And I’d go further to say that if you want to build a unique house or a machine, you don’t start by winging it, you start by tearing apart what’s been done and examining how it works in detail.

    What you don’t want to do is waste time studying the freakish little house you built on the first try, and then tear it apart and study it and put it back together, and tear it apart and put it together again.

    You want to study houses that WORK, look at the difference with your odd little shack, and then build another.

    That said…. most literature classes and schools of thought aren’t actually about how stories are built. They’re about what they mean after they’re built. Unfortunately, creative writing programs — even the best of them — were created not to teach people to write, but to turn them into creative writing teachers. (It’s why I quit grad school, frankly.) An actual writing pro generally can’t get a job teaching creative writing.

    • Carradee says:

      That was one of the things I enjoyed about one college I went to—the playwriting and poetry writing class teachers actually were writers.

      The poetry writing class was particularly interesting, because were weren’t taught anything about iambic pentameter and such. No, we were just handed a book of poetry to read and told to write three poems for the following week. We weren’t really taught poetry mechanics (some of which I remembered vaguely from high school literature classes).

      Got my poems back with comments like “Great sense of rhythm and meter,” and ones with further jargon that I didn’t understand. I blinked at them and scribbled in pencil before “sense”: “^and instinctive” because I had no idea what he was talking about.

      One poem, my favorite in the class (and one of those first three that I wrote), confused my classmates a bit, so I added a line or two to “fix” it…and I don’t remember anybody liking the new version.

      I often forget my teacher’s comments that I was a natural poet. (Though I smile when I remember his comment that if I weren’t so cheery and good-natured, he’d be worried about the very gothic blood/death/insanity focus in my poems.) But every so often, that class comes in handy—like the time I forgot to buy a card for a friend’s wedding gift—a friend who liked poetry. Fifteen minutes later, I had a card.

      So while I do think it’s possible to find good writing teachers, I think it’s telling that they pretty much hand a book with samples and tell you to go write. Yanno, like Dean already does, without charging you anything and letting you pick the genre of the reading assignment? *grin*

    • Talea Nea says:

      I think most of the analyzing and tearing apart is done by being a reader, by reading.

      I learned writing at first by reading the most excellent works in my fields, and afterwards I learned by reading a lot of rather bad stories of beginning but enthusiastic writers.

      Both kinds of stories have taught me very much. The first has taught me storytelling, quality, style, and what I love to read, the second has taught me what not to do, how to recognize clichés, and what others love to read (and write).

      My most invaluable writing teachers were authors teaching me through their fiction books. The few writing teachers that also taught me helped me, sometimes, to correct course, yes, but mattered so very much less than the first method: reading, that I barely count it anymore.

  34. Pati Nagle says:

    Great post, Dean! You nudged me to make a plan for 2013. First on the list: writing first. I kind of took last year off after a long streak of daily writing, and focused on publishing, but I’m ready to put writing back at the top of the list.

    I created a plan with 3 tiers of goals. The first tier should be easily attainable so I’m guaranteed to succeed – that’s important to me, as I’m one of those for whom failing to hit a goal is discouraging. The second and third tiers are goals to strive for, but there’s no shame in missing those, and I’ll hit the first tier so it’s going to be a win.

    May 2013 be a great year for you and all your readers!

  35. Ryan Casey says:

    Amazing post. I’ve worked out that I’d like to write three novels (around 80k each), two shorter works (I’m thinking a short story collection at 25k-30k and a novella at 30k-ish) and a non-fiction (probably at 40k).

    When I tell people that this is my goal, they can’t quite believe it. ‘All that in a year?!. This post helps me break it down perfectly. My target is (as outlined) around 350,000 words. I have worked out that I write roughly 1,500 words per hour. 5 hours of writing per week therefore sees me well on my way, with extra words to boot.

    Cheers, Dean. Great post.

  36. Julie Kolb says:

    Already figured this much out on my own, but hearing it from a word wizard pushed the knowledge from a thought to fact.
    Getting there at my own pace.

    • dwsmith says:

      Julie, I think what you said is a key. “At my own pace.” Exactly. If a writer can learn to be patient and not get trapped in the stupidity of promotion and instead just write and publish and keep learning craft and business, then money flows, a little at first, more as you have more things up, and maybe a traditional publisher comes calling and you can then say yay or nay with knowledge, not because you’ve been chasing them for years.

  37. Thanks so much, this is perfectly timely for me. 2013 is the first year I have any real financial goals for my fiction writing. I have already laid out a month-by-month production plan with submissions goals, but I am going to add a couple more “make it available for sale” goals to the year, as per your suggestions.

  38. It’s a good thing that I read this at a time in my writing life when I can face the truth about myself without running off in a corner to lick my wounds. Naturally, I was intrigued with this subject of goal setting, ect., but I hadn’t expected that blurb about the “wanna-be-fiction” writers. Although I did manage to self-pub my first novel in 2009, I’ve been working on the follow-up since about that same time. I know so much better than what I’ve been doing, but if I keep it up, it’s going to take me the same amount of time to finish the second book that it took me to finish the first. I’m too embarass to how long that was. After reading about myself in that blurb–the writer who writes when the muse hits her, the writer who has a zillion ideas but fails to complete them for one reason or another–I decided to take immediate action! That evening, I scheduled an hour of writing time and I made it happen! I was so proud of myself! There’s no doubt in my mind that I AM a writer! However, I need to make some serious changes in my writing life to acquire the SUCCESSFUL writing life that I desire! Thanks, Dean, for telling it like it is!

    • dwsmith says:

      L.A., no worries, we all start that way because the myths of writing are so strong and all those myths are designed for one reason or another to hold us back. They are scary strong. I was lost in them from 1975 to 1982 and managed two short stories a year during those years. That was it, all the while claiming I wanted to be a writer. (grin) So I was no exception to the rule that we all get lost in the myths.

      I have a lecture coming in our new lecture series about Heinlein’s Rules where I talk a lot about those myths and how Heinlein’s Rules are designed to get past them. In 1947, the myths were just as strong as they are now. Or almost as strong. (grin)

      Good job getting started. That’s the key. One session at a time and have fun.

  39. Steve Turner says:

    Hi Dean,
    Thanks so much for taking your own precious writing time to share your knowledge and insights in all 3 parts to this series. It is generous of you, as we all know that time is such a precious commodity for a writer.
    I did appreciate your views on the publishing industry and its recent ups and downs and laughed out loud when I saw a few very familiar traits of my own in your section about recognising a want-to-be fiction writer.
    This year I am being stricter with a daily word count goal and recently arranged with a writer friend to get together once a week and sit down opposite each other to make sure we actually wrote something – the increase in writing with someone else to account to does make a difference. Will definitely visit the tip jar to show my appreciation.
    Good luck with your next writing project.
    Thanks again.

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