Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The L Word

"So, how do you like your nomination for the Snooty Award?"

My friend was teasing me about my Shirley Jackson Award nomination for my novella The Men Upstairs. (The awards were handed out in Readercon in July and, as I expected, the amazing Elizabeth Hand won in the novella category, and in case you're wondering if the cliche is true, yes, it is an honor just to be nominated.) The Shirley Jackson Awards were created to recognize, as the organization's website says, "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic." Notice the L word -- Literature -- right there in the description.

I don't remember what I told my friend, who's won numerous awards for his own writing, but his playful question got me thinking. When I discuss literature with my college students, I often differentiate between literature with a small L and Literature with a capital L. I ask them what's the difference between the two. "There is no difference," someone will invariably say. "Anything that's written is Literature." "What about the list of ingredient on the side of a cereal box?" I counter. "What about the STOP on a stop sign?" Someone else will then say, "It's Literature if it has a deeper meaning." I then reply, "What about someone who can barely write a coherent sentence, can't spell, can't punctuate, but has a profound thought or insight to communicate? Is what he or she writes Literature?" Silence, head scratching, and more than a few frustrated looks follow.

"Literature" probably has as many definitions as there are people to define it, and of course, as an artistic term, precise definition is impossible and -- more importantly -- not desirable. Nothing kills creativity faster than some imagination-challenged academic performing an intellectual autopsy on a work and then proclaiming his or her findings as "This is the Way All Good and Proper Art Should Be Done." I'd argue that literature with a capital L possesses two important qualities: 1) It has a profound influence on other writers and the art itself and 2) It has an impact on the culture at large. By my definition, almost nothing that writers produce qualifies as capital L Literature. Even Shirley Jackson -- a brilliant writer -- only has one work to her credit that fits my definition, her story "The Lottery." To a lesser extent her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which, if you haven't read, do so ASAP) counts, but mostly in the horror genre. The rest of her work? Writers, readers, and academics love it, but the culture at large? No clue. Of course, this may change in Jackson's case. By my definition, the passage of time is required before a work can even begin to be considered as Big L Literature.

What does it matter, especially for those of us who write? It matters as much -- or as little -- as we want it to, I suppose. One thing's for certain: no one can set out to consciously create Literature with a capital L and be guaranteed of success (and a writer may not live long enough to find out). I can set out to write a short story, a novel, a novella, a blog post, whatever, and at this point in my life, I know I can do so with a bare minimum of success for I've done so in the past, pleased readers to one degree or another, and continue to do so. I also know that I can write work that's entertaining, fun, humorous, disturbing, thought-provoking, suspenseful, and that at least some people find worthy of giving good reviews and award nominations to. I can, and do, set out when I write to achieve any or all of these things, and I know I'll do so with a reasonable amount of success. (Although it's not always easy to remember that when I'm neck deep in the actual process of churning out what seems like an awful piece of crap!)  But I never think about creating Literature. I think writers who do only hamstring themselves. Is this idea Literature-worthy? Is this image, this word, this comma? That way lies madness, not to mention writer's block.

I believe we should write what we want to write, what's fun, what's challenging, what helps us grow as artists, what increases our bank account, whatever. If all you want to do is entertain people, that's fine. But if you want to do more, have your work mean more than the written equivalent of a bag of potato chips, here are some things to consider.

1) Genre fiction vs Mainstream/Literary.

Any type of writing can be good or bad, and any type can be derivative. It doesn't matter if you're trying to ape Lovecraft or Raymond Carver -- a copy's a copy. That said, genre fiction is defined by shared set of story elements and reader expectations. It's the main reason literary types look down at genre fiction. They view all of it as copies of other works. So if you're writing genre fiction, and you want to stand out from the herd, you need to remember that genre can offer as much restraint as it does freedom and be careful not to let those restraints hold you back. But be careful. Some restraints are there for a reason. For example, category romances always have to have a happy ending; it's what readers read those books for. That's a genre restraint that you can't avoid if you're a romance writer, so look for your freedom in other places. And for literary writers, you need to be careful when writing about the "real world." What makes your novel about a married woman having an affair any different from the thousands of others already written? And don't fall back on the old saw "It's the beauty of the language." A pretty copy is still a copy.

2) Read Your Ass Off

This is Writer 101, but the wider you read in and out of your chosen genre, the less chance you'll have of being a human Xerox machine when you write. Find out who the exemplars of Literature with a capital L are in your genre. In horror (the genre I write in most often), names like Ramsey Campbell, Charles Grant, Peter Straub, Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and Caitlin Kiernan pop immediately to mind. Literary writers tend to be spoiled for choice in this area (at least in terms of quality), so I often suggest they seek out work from writers of cultures and backgrounds different than themselves. You're a white twentysomething suburban male who's never traveled farther than your tri-state area? Read Sandra Cisneros, Haruki Marakami, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

3) Go Deeper

Deeper into your characters, your setting, your plot, your descriptions, your turns of phrase. Deeper doesn't always mean adding more words, however. Deeper means going beyond the usual, beyond the expected, beyond cliche.

4) Follow Your Fascination

Many writers chose to work in a genre because they love it, but they're often too concerned with writing what they think will sell. Medieval and urban fantasies may fill the bookshelves, but if you're fascinated with ancient Egypt, use that as the setting for your fantasy series. Most how-to-write books say you need a likable protagonist, but if you're fascinated with sons of bitches, use an unlikeable protagonist. Not only will following your fascinations lead to more original stories, your passion will come through in your writing and readers will be able to feel it.

5) Strive for Quality

Here's another no-brainer from Writer 101. Take the time to make your writing the best it can be in terms of word choice, sentence structure, scene construction, etc., etc. Quality doesn't necessarily mean mean flowery language or poetic imagery, but it does mean producing the very best writing you're capable of every time and then working to make it even better.

6) Write the Stories Only You Can Tell

Draw on your own experiences for your stories, and show us the way you view the world.  We've already had Hemingway, Tolkien, Austen, Lovecraft, Chandler. What we need is you. Even if you're writing a category romance with strict guidelines or a work-for-hire action adventure novel under a house name, there's still room for you to be an individual. Right now, I'm writing a tie-in novel based on the TV series Supernatural. It's set in Southwest Ohio, where I've lived most of my life, and the opening scene takes place near a duck pond just like the one behind my apartment complex. I've been fascinated with Norse myth ever since I was a kid, and so the plot contains some elements drawn from those legends. When I'm done, it'll be a Supernatural novel, but it'll be my Supernatural novel.

As I said earlier, no one can set out to create capital L Literature with any guarantee of anything even remotely approximating success (how's that for encouragement?). But that should never be the goal. The goal is to tell the very best, most interesting, most engaging story we're capable of each time, and when we're finished, sit down and do it again. And who knows? Just like Shirley Jackson, maybe one day you'll win the lottery too.

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

It's been a while since my last blog, so I have a few projects to plug this time.

Curious about The Men Upstairs? It's still available:
My novel The Harmony Society is out in a new edition from Dark Regions:
An ebook edition of Cross County -- now retitled Beneath the Bones -- is available:
The Nekopolis Archives -- an omnibus edition containing all the Matt Richter novels and stories to date can be found here:
I have an essay on developing the style of your world in Eighth Day Genesis, a book on world building for writers:
And last but not least, my story "Thou Art God" will appear in Dark Faith: Invocations, which can be pre-ordered here:


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The One That Got Away

(A version of this article originally appeared in Speculations, April 2001.)

"They decided to withdraw the offer on your novel."

I hesitated, not quite believing what my agent had told me. "What? Why?"

"The editor said she was no longer 'comfortable' with the book. Whatever that means."

The publisher in question had made an offer on my novel The Harmony Society over a month before. Not for a large advance, but they had seemed enthusiastic about the book. After years of trying to sell a novel, I thought I'd finally done it -- finally was a Writer with a capital W. And now this.

My agent commiserated with me a bit before promising to keep sending the book around. I thanked him and hung up. I knew publishing was a volatile business and that this particular house had a reputation for somewhat eccentric business decisions. But no longer comfortable with my book?

I felt awful. I'd come so close to achieving my dream of being a published novelist, only to have it yanked away from me -- two hours before I was due to attend a local science fiction convention as an author panelist.

Needless to say, I didn't feel like going. Even with dozens of short story sales to my credit, I felt like a failure and a fraud. I didn't want to have to sit on panels and pretend that I knew what the hell I was talking about. Didn't want to have to face friends and acquaintances and have them ask how things were going with my writing.

I was angry at my agent for pushing the editor too hard for more money and better contract terms, perhaps scaring her off; angry at myself for having been dumb enough to believe that the offer had been a firm one in the first place. Angry that I had no clue exactly what had happened to screw up the deal and that I probably never would. But most of all, I was angry that I had wasted so much time pursuing my dream. A dream which had turned around and bit me hard on the rear.

In the end, I went to the con, if only so I'd have some friends to complain to. They were all perfectly sympathetic, of course, but several of them said with a wistful tone, "At least you had an offer."

I felt like telling them the grass was definitely not greener on this side of the fence, but I didn't. I knew they wouldn't understand. I wouldn't have either, not before.

I moped around all weekend, felt miserable, talked about quitting writing, and stuck more than a few mental pins in an imaginary voodoo doll labeled EDITOR.

Then the con was over, my friends returned home, and I was left with only my wife to complain to. But I didn't feel much like talking anymore. I realized that I'd actually been fortunate to have a con to go to. While it hadn't exactly kept my mind off my stillborn book deal, it had, if nothing else, kept me busy and provided some measure of catharsis.

But now it was Sunday night and stretching before me was my first full week as a failure. The question was, what was I going to do with it?

The next day I sat down and started to write another book.

I wanted to get back on the horse, was afraid that I might never write a novel again unless I did. I used an outline which I had completed some months back so that I wouldn't have to worry about developing a plot and characters. I could just write.

And write I did, well over ten pages a day in between teaching college composition courses and caring for my then one-year-old daughter. I took all the emotional energy churning inside me and channeled it into my book, writing like a man possessed. I finished the novel, titled Necropolis, in twenty-nine days.

I tinkered with the manuscript, editing and revising over the next several weeks, then blasted it off to my agent. But now doubts began to set in. What if I'd written Necropolis too fast, hadn't revised enough; what if it was absolute crap?

Sure, my writers' group liked it, but how could I trust them? They were my friends; they knew how emotionally fragile I was just then. I could have probably scribbled out a grocery list and they'd have praised it as a surefire Nebula contender.

The con had taught me that I needed to keep busy, but I couldn't bring myself to write any more fiction, not then. Nearly a decade earlier, I had worked as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, but I had written very little nonfiction since. Still, I occasionally thought about getting back to it, and now seemed the perfect time.

I threw myself into reading about nonfiction writing techniques and researching markets. I tossed around different article ideas, finally deciding to write a personal essay about my experience with testicular cancer. I developed a query letter, sent it out to fifty magazines, and sat back to wait. A few days later I received an e-mail from an editor at Penthouse. He was interested in seeing the article.

A couple weeks more, and the article was finished and in the editor's hands. The check was welcome, of course, but I had gained something far more important than money: I felt like my words were valued again -- not by my wife or my writers' group, not even by an editor of a national magazine. But by me. And I needed to feel that way, needed it like a man lost in the desert needs a drink of cool, clean water.

I toyed with the idea of saying to hell with fiction altogether and writing nonfiction exclusively, but I couldn't do it. Despite the instability (and occasional insanity) of a fiction writer's life, I loved it too much to quit. I returned to working on short stories and noodling around with novel ideas. My agent called to let me know he liked Necropolis and would start submitting it to editors.

I'm not the only one who's had a book deal go sour on him, of course. SF novelist J.R. Dunn (This Side of Judgment, Days of Cain, Full Tide of Night) once had an editor send him a two-page letter of revision for a novel. Dunn made the revisions, turned the novel in, and it was rejected.

"Naturally you're going to be furious when your book's rejected," Dunn says, "but you want it to be rejected for good grounds, not a minor technical point." It turned out the editor "basically didn't understand what a radio was. I told my agent to drop the publisher and go on to another, and that's what we did." The novel, This Side of Judgment, came out two years later in hardback to good reviews. Dunn says the moral is "not all editors are idiots" and advises writers to "keep banging your head against a wall" until your book finds a home.

Editor Gordon Van Gelder says that having a book deal fall through is "definitely not common at all." He advises authors to research a publisher to determine size, longevity and stability before submitting. Smaller houses are especially precarious financially.

Van Gelder assures that there is "no stigma" for authors who've had book deals collapse on them, and that actually the book's more attractive to other editors because it had a deal before. For instance, Van Gelder once bought a book by Tanith Lee that had been abandoned after the Abyss line of horror novels folded. Not only did Van Gelder think it a fine book, but it was a sequel and he felt Lee's fans should have a chance to read it.

"It was the right thing to do," Van Gelder says, "plus I made some money for St. Martin's in the process."

Given the mergers and downsizing in publishing over the last few years, and the fact that The Harmony Society was a slipstream novel not easily pigeonholed, my agent and I decided to investigate the possibility of placing the novel with small-press publishers. A recent start-up, DarkTales Publishing, seemed a likely prospect. They published offbeat horror/dark fantasy novels and brought out work by such authors as J. Michael Straczynski, Yvonne Navarro and
Mort Castle, among others. We decided to give them a try.

And they took my novel, with every intention of publishing it. But after a couple of years, the publisher realized their business had grown too big, too fast, and they needed to slow things down. DarkTales would still be bring out my novel, but they couldn't say when. So, after letting out a long sigh, I decided it was off to market once more.

In 2003, The Harmony Society finally found a home with Prime Books (then a new publisher). The book came out, folks read and reviewed it, and eventually it fell off people’s radar, as
books do. But that was okay. I’d managed to get it out into the world, and I had other books to write.

Since that time, I've had a few dozen more novels published – including a revised, expanded version of Nekropolis (now with a K) – and I’m thrilled that this month Dark Regions Press is bringing out a new edition of The Harmony Society for readers to enjoy. In many ways, it’s the novel of mine that means the most to me, and now that you’ve read this far, you know why.

And what, as the saying goes, is the moral of my tale? Simply this, my friends: despite my successes -- or perhaps because of them -- I've learned the most important lesson an author needs to learn: I don't need publication to feel like a writer. The only thing I truly need is to keep writing.


As you no doubt surmised from the foregoing, The Harmony Society is now available from Dark Regions Press:

You can read an interview with me about the book here:

And you can find out what folks have said about the book here:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dreamers and Crafters

As both a writer and a teacher, one of the most difficult things for me to do at this time in my career is advise new writers on how to get published. Do I extol the virtues of traditional publishing? Do I sing the praises of self-publishing in the era of the e-reader? Do I tell them to go for either or both? Or do I throw up my hands and say "How the hell should I know? I'm just a guy who writes weird stories!"

Before I go any further, let me give you a couple links. Kristine Kathyrn Rusch -- who's been at various times a multi-genre writer, editor, and publisher -- writes frequently (not to mention insightfully) about the business of writing. Recently, she wrote a couple blogs about the brave new era of publishing we find ourselves in. They're required reading for anyone wanting to understand the shift in the publishing paradigm that's upon us. Go ahead and read them. I'll be here when you're done:

So if you read Kris' articles, you'll understand my confusion when it comes to advising writers. And it's all because of a point Kris doesn't address in either of her articles -- which isn't surprising, because really, it doesn't matter from a business standpoint. The point of which I speak is the education and growth of a writer.

You ever watched the tryouts for American Idol? Ever wondered how in the hell the worst singers -- those who sound like a tomcat getting neutered sans anesthesia -- think they sound good enough to sing in public, let alone audition for a spot on a national TV show? They have no concept of quality, no self-awareness that allows them to judge their current ability level, and they have no one to tell them this particular emperor has no clothes or they refuse to listen to those who do. They don't care about the art of singing. The care only about being in the limelight, being the center of attention, being famous. In short, they don't care about craft; they care only about making their fantasy become reality.

Now imagine that there's no panel of judges to say yea or nay to them. Imagine that all of them can be "professional" singers simply by uploading their performances to Itunes or a similar service. Now ask yourself, what's the motivation for the Dreamers to improve? They're getting their performances out there, they can tell all their friends they're real singers, they can get their friends to go online and give five-star reviews to their songs, they can try to set up live performances or perhaps teach singing to other Dreamers. They get to do all the things that they ever dreamed about, and best of all, they get to do it without any tiresome work.

Now, there are Crafters, too. Folks that want to become better singers because craft matters to them. It's the song, the music, that matters most to them. Crafters may wait to upload their performances until they feel they're good enough, and once they start uploading, they'll continue to work on improving, learning and growing throughout their careers.

So, instead of singers, think writers. Instead of American Idol, think traditional publishing.

Business-wise, Dreamers and Crafters will compete for readers' attention in the new publishing ecosystem, and Darwin take the hindmost. Readers will find quality work (however they define it), and those writers who are found lacking won't be read. From a reader's standpoint, the system will take care of itself.

But from a teacher's standpoint, the Brave New World of self-publishing poses a serious dilemma. How do you help people grow as writers? Hell, how do you even get them to value the concept of growth? I finished my first novel at 19 and sent it out to Del Rey books, and within two months received a kind personal rejection (you used to be able to get personal rejections from major publishers that fast back during the Cretaceous). I kept writing novels, kept submitting them. I wrote around ten novels before my first was accepted for publication. A handful of those early novels have been published since, but the rest will remain forever unpublished because I wouldn't inflict them upon the world.

But what if I was 19 today? Besides my sudden youthening confusing the hell out of my two daughters, I'd have no reason to even consider sending my first novel to a publisher. I could just write it, check it quickly for typos (missing most of them, probably), format it as an e-book, upload it to the Net, and dive right into writing the next book. My first ten novels would be "published" (I think "uploaded for sale" is probably a more accurate term) and maybe I would find some readers, maybe I wouldn't, but either way, what incentive would I have for working to improve? At 19, I was more of a Dreamer than a Crafter. Most of us probably are. But I don't know if I ever would've become however much of a Crafter I am today if I hadn't had to work to get published in the traditional way.

I once had a creative writing student who told a fellow classmate this about receiving feedback: "Why should I do any work to make my stories better? If publishers don't want them as they are, I'll just self-publish them. Either way, they're going to get published."

So as a teacher, what do I do? Share what I know with new writers and let them sink or swim on their own? (I'm pretty sure I know which the student I mentioned above is going to do.) That's mostly all any creative writing teacher can do anyway, and I doubt any technological advances will ever change that. But for those who are standing in that yellow wood with two divergent roads before them, one labeled Crafter and the other Dreamer, what advice could I give them that might lead them to take the road less traveled, the one that will ultimately make them the best writer they can be?

1. Commit to being a life-long learner.

Read a ton -- fiction, nonfiction, and especially interviews with writers you admire -- write a ton, learn everything you can about the business of writing, and never stop. Do you need to take a class or earn a college degree in writing? Nope. But it can't hurt (assuming you've done your homework and chosen a class that's right for you. (Here's an article I wrote a few years back about choosing a creative writing class: In fact, I suspect creative writing programs and writers who offer classes on their own will see a lot of increased business in the years to come as new writers seek ways to get a leg up on the competition.

2. Make peace with process.

Studies of the current "Instant Download" generation show that people are losing their patience with process. The idea that a series of steps may be required to reach a desired outcome loses meaning whenever we can get whatever we want instantly. But there's no app for making yourself the best writer you can be, just as buying a new pair of running shoes won't immediately make you a track star. Accept that growth takes time and can't be rushed. (Though of course, your learning curve can be decreased. See item #1.)

3. Get good feedback and keep getting it.

Find yourself the equivalent of the American Idol judges. Well-read, honest people who are not only capable of paying attention to what's going on inside their heads as they read, they're also able to articulate it in a way that makes sense to you. You might find these people in a writing class, you might create your own writing group, but however you do it, make sure you cultivate people who can help you improve your game and stay on it.

4. Don't be in a rush to publish.

This may be the hardest piece of advice to follow. Self-restraint isn't exactly one of humanity's greatest strengths. It has to be learned. But no matter how badly you want your dream, do you want to publish work that's not the best you're capable of, work that may garner reviews (real ones, not the fake five-star Amazon reviews you beg your friends to post to help sell your work or, worse, that you pay someone to write for you) that might not be flattering and will stay on the Net forever? On the flip side, don't do the opposite: never publish because you're afraid your work will never be good enough. Remember item #3. Good feedback will help let you know when it's time to publish. More importantly, if you've read widely and well, you'll know if your work is up the standards of what you consider good writing.

5. Earn your readers.

I tell this to students when I talk about publishing: "There is no reason for anyone on this Earth to give a damn about what you write. You must give them a reason." You want to attract readers to your work? Want to repay their time, attention, and money so they'll come back and read -- and hopefully buy -- more of your stuff? Dreamers think only of themselves. They think of how great it'll be when people are reading their work, how wonderful it will feel to be a "real" writer at last. Crafters think about the reader. What will make this story the best it can be? How can I make this scene more exciting and suspenseful? How can I make this description more evocative? Put the reader first, and you'll be a long way toward putting yourself ahead of the horde of self-published Dreamers out there.

The Writing Life has never been an easy one, and in many ways the rise of self-publishing, while appearing to make it easier, has in truth, made it even harder. But if the future of publishing is going to be even more Darwinian than its past, make sure that you do what it takes not only to survive, but thrive. Dream and dream big, but tend to your craft and tend it well.


The Nekropolis Archives is due out from Angry Robot Books late April. It's an omnibus edition collecting the first three Matt Richter novels, as well as three short stories featuring Matt. (And if you want more new Nekropolis, drop by and let the publisher know -- and if you buy lots of copies of the omnibus, that won't hurt either! Remember, big fat books make wonderful gifts!)

My surreal horror novella The Men Upstairs is still out, and it's now available for all e-reader formats.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Persistence Isn't What It Used to Be

My senior year in college, I was the editor of the student literary magazine. My associate editor, Vance Wissinger, was ten years older than me, and far wiser in the ways of the world. He was a poet, and he'd been writing and submitting his work for a long time, and one day when I wondered aloud how my own writing career would develop, he said, "Why don't we consult the I-Ching?" Small-town southwestern Ohio boy that I was, I had no idea what he was talking about. He took a yellow-covered hardbook book out of his briefcase -- a lot of us used briefcases instead of backpacks in those days; blame the 80's -- along with several Chinese coins. I did as Vance instructed. I held the coins, concentrated on my questions, Will I be a published novelist?, shook the coins, and dropped them on top of a desk. Vance looked up the pattern the coins made in his book, and the corresponding prophetic message listed there:

Perseverance furthers.

I was kind of bummed. I would've preferred a Yes or better yet a Hell yes, and soon, with truckloads of money, too! But even at the tender age of twenty-two, I recognized those two words for the wisdom they were. And when it comes to writing careers, they're just about the only advice that really applies.

Fast forward two-and-a-half decades and change. There was a time when old pros would tell you the formula for writing success: TALENT + PERSISTENCE + LUCK = A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. They used to say you needed any two of the three elements in the equation to succeed, but as publishing began to change and become ever more competitive, they revised that to say writers needed all three elements.

But today writing and publishing are very different gigs from when I dedicated myself fully to them at the even more tender age of eighteen. Thanks to the ease of self-publishing, you no longer need any of those once so important qualities. Talent? Doesn't matter if you don't know how to shove a noun up against a verb. You can still self-publish your work. Persistence? What's that? All you have to do is write something, format it, and upload it for sale. No problem. Luck? No need for it, not when anyone who wants to can publish his or her work.

But to paraphrase a writer far better than I'll ever be, I come not to bury persistence, but to praise it. It may no longer be necessary in the Brave New World that's upon us and the Even Braver and Shinier New World to come. In fact, it's probably already viewed as a quaint anachronism by most self-published writers these days -- if they even think about it at all. But I believe there's important growth writers need that can only be gained through persistence.

If you're truly (and not self-deludedly) a brilliant writer right out of the starting gate, or if you don't mind taking risks and maybe falling flat on your face as you publicly learn your craft, feel free to stop reading right now and start self-publishing. Otherwise, consider the following:

When self-publishing eventually becomes the only publishing, it will no longer matter who is publishing you (because -- duh -- you are the publisher), how big of an advance you got (advances will also be quaint -- and in the case of my generation of writers, sorely missed -- anachronisms), or how many books you sell (especially when you price the damn things at .99 cents apiece or worse, give them away). Only two things will matter: Is your work read and do those readers respect it? Your reputation, your brand, will become your biggest selling point. if you, like most of us starting out, write books that are, shall we say, not ready for prime time, and you put them out there for the world the see, you'll be taking quite a risk. Back in Bedrock, Fred, Barney and I used to call those less-than=glittering works or art trunk novels -- works created while learning, full of clunky prose and tortured plots, best locked away, never to see the light of day. And if the Bedrock gang and I were tempted to submit these learner-novels to publishers in the almost assuredly vain hope that they were good, despite the sneaking suspicions we had that they were crap, an editor would soon set us straight. And after enough rejections, we either revised those learner-novels or trunked them and wrote something new and -- hopefully -- better.

We were able to make our mistakes in private, without anyone seeing them which, while potentially embarrassing personally, would've been disastrous professionally. Because if somehow those learner-novels had gotten published, we would've gotten reputations as sucky writers. Really, REALLY sucky writers.

But that might not have been fatal. Back then, all information wasn't accessible to everyone all the time. Reviews weren't permanently preserved in electronic amber for eternity. You could've kept on writing, could've eventually convinced agents and editors that you'd grown, that your work had improved. Reviewers soured on your earlier work would give the new stuff a try -- especially if a publisher vouched for it by bringing it out to the public with their stamp of approval -- and, with any luck (remember the formula?) you could leave your bad rep behind you and continue on to brighter days.

But that was then.

Now, the reader reviews of your self-published (and probably learner) novels -- if they are, um, less than enthusiastic -- will haunt you forever. Worse, new potential readers will see those reviews and decide to download someone else's book instead of yours. Imagine if you were a self-taught chef whose food was awful. Think you'll keep customers if you tell them to be patient because you're going to become a better cook in a few years? Customers will flee your restaurant in droves, never to return. And they'll tell all their friends to steer clear of your place. The same thing will happen with your self-published learner-novels.

The self-publishing ecosystem will be a Darwinian nightmare. Only the best writers will attract and continue to attract readers, and the rest will wonder why only their friends and relatives downloaded their first novel and why even they won't download the second. I suspect that gatekeepers of one sort of another will arise to assure some measure of quality for readers, but that's a blog topic for another day. Instead, I want to talk about how the self-publishing generation can acquire the benefits of persistence in a world where persistence is no longer necessary. Supposedly, the great thespian Sir Laurence Olivier, was once asked what the secret to great acting was.

"The key to great acting is sincerity," he said. "Once you can fake that, you've got it made."

So how do you "fake" persistence?

A huge service that agents and editors at publishing houses used to supply was feedback. When I started out, I submitted to small-press publications because I quickly learned they were more likely to provide feedback along with their rejections. I gathered personalized, detailed rejections for two years, then one day I sat down and collated and charted all the comments. I saw clear, specific areas where my writing needed improvement, and I got to work on making my writing better. It's no great surprise than I began selling much more regularly after that.

So if you're not working with agents and editors, and not getting feedback, what can you do?

Find a writers' group

Yeah, there's always the danger of "the blind leading the blind" with writers' groups, but if you gather a group of well-read, honest, self-aware writers, you can all help each other become better by simulating the submission and response process of Old Publishing.

Take a writing class

Try to find a well-published professional who teaches. All too often, creative writing classes are taught by college professors who have published little or nothing. Don't just look in your area. A lot of colleges and even individual writers offer classes online.

Get a writing degree

Whether you go for a certificate program at a community college or an MFA, going through the rigors of a program will definitely help teach the lessons of persistence, as well as giving you tons of feedback. Creative writing programs have grown exponentially since I was in college, mostly because they're moneymakers for schools. I suspect they will grow even more in the Self-Publishing Future as writers seek to gain an advantage. Again, make sure you select a program with well-published faculty and graduates who have gone on to publish their work successfully.

Get beta readers

Gather a cadre of trusted readers -- regardless of whether or not they're writers themselves -- who will read a draft of your novel and provide honest feedback.

Invite online feedback

Use your website or other sites where beginning writers can post their work to invite feedback on your learner stories and novels. You'll have to deal with some trolls, of course, but ignore their comments and take the decent feedback you get.

Give readings

Whether live or video-recorded and presented online, readings can be a great way to test your work before an audience. Invite feedback, not so much on your performance, but on the work itself.

Hire an editor

The bad thing about the Self-Publishing Future is how much money writers will have to lay out in order to by truly competitive. A whole industry of freelance content editors, copy editors, typesetters, and cover artists is already emerging, and if they're any good, they won't work for free. If you decide to go this route, make sure to hire someone with expertise and a track record, who will refer you to past and current clients who can vouch for them.

Enter contests

A little competition can be good for the soul -- especially if you get feedback from the judges, win or lose.

Attend conferences and workshops

Look for conferences and workshops where you can get feedback on your work. Check out the conference/workshop's reputation and quality of faculty first, though, before deciding to attend. You may have to pay a fee to have your work read, and it's doubtful you'll get feedback on an entire novel, but it's a good chance to get your work read by a pro writer. At some conferences, you can pitch your work to Old Publishing editors and agents. These pitches are usually verbal in nature, so you probably won't get detailed feedback on your actual writing, but the feedback you do get will still be valuable.

Read interviews

Read interviews and biographies of Old Publishing authors to see how they persisted in their careers and what they learned from it. It won't be the same as gaining experience for yourself, but it can still be instructive.

And by the way . . .

Don't ask pros for free feedback. We're too busy writing. If we choose to teach classes or give workshops, that's a different matter, of course. But don't come up to us at conferences or send us emails out of the blue asking us to read your stuff. We won't.

In summary . . .

A writing career has always been about producing the best work you're capable of at any given time, and then trying to make your next work even better. It's still true today, and -- if you want to be read -- it'll be even more true tomorrow.


The new edition of my surreal horror novel Like Death is still available in both print and e-book formats. You can pick it up online at Amazon or B&N or direct from Apex Book Company:

I have an essay titled "I Dream of Zombies" in the recently released book Zombie Writing!:

Recently, my college recorded a video interview with me for their Office Hours series. If you want to see and hear me in all my glory, you can check out the interview here: