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: http://timwaggoner.com/class.htm) 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 www.angryrobotbooks.com 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.