GeneralNovel writing

Cold, hard facts for writers

From Rick:

About a year ago, I saw an article by Rebecca Dickson with this inspiring title:


Read it first then come back here for my take on it.


Done? Now that you’re thoroughly depressed and ready to give up on writing, let me voice my opinion on some of her points. I’m not saying that I disagree with only the points I mention, nor that I completely agree with everything else, although I can’t argue with most of her points.


While Rebecca Dickson in her article utters some significant truths that apply to many writers (new ones in particular), there are so many exceptions to what she says that they’re generalizations at best. This doesn’t mean you should not take her words to heart.

I’m going to start with one of her points that I strongly agree with:

(1) Your early work will suck.

If I were guessing, I’d say this applies to 90% (if not more) of all writers, but it’s certainly not true for all writers. I have encountered some truly amazing beginning writers, some of them still in high school. No, these are not the child prodigies of writing, either.

“Suck” is a relative term here. I’ve seen many brilliant pieces that had grammar issues. Did they suck because of that? Yes. But the story itself did not suck. Granted, poor grammar often accompanies poor storytelling, but grammar can be easily learned and remedied. Good storytelling is much more difficult to learn. One mark of a good writer is the ability recognize what’s good and what needs work.

Will all your early drafts still suck? Not if you’ve learned as you go along. I should qualify this by saying that some writers intentionally write substandard first drafts because their sole purpose is to get their ideas down. They don’t care about craft at that point. I’ve also known writers who work out much of their story in their heads first before they commit it to a more permanent format, and those early drafts definitely have no suckage in them.

But to state categorically that a writer’s early work will suck is an incorrect statement. On the other hand, too many writers will mistakenly believe that they are one of the exceptions. It’s usually those writers that Rebecca Dickson statement applies to.

(2) No one cares about your writing unless you’re at (or near) the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

This is definitely a wrong statement. Many excellent writers never appear on any bestseller lists. Your validation as a writer comes not from being on some bestseller list but from whether your books sell and people enjoy and comment on them. Many good books never appear on a bestseller list. Until recently, most bestseller lists were based on sales from traditional publishers. Indie authors who sold very well and whose sales were not reported through traditional channels had no prayer of seeing a bestseller list, even if their books outsold the “bestsellers.”

Most bestseller lists (at least the ones people make reference to) are based on velocity sales, that is, how fast the books are selling at the time, not how many are selling.

Here’s an example: Let’s say author #1 sells 200,000 in a year, with sales evenly distributed over the months. Author #2, however sells only 50,000 books in the year, but nearly all of those sold in the first three months, after which sales dropped drastically for whatever reason (maybe the book was hyped and it took two months for readers to realize it sucked). What’s ironic is that author #2 could be a bestseller list, while author #1, whose sales were quadruple, makes it on no such lists. Worse, an author with sufficient capital to invest can actually “buy” his (or her) way onto a bestseller list by simply purchasing a lot of the books himself, simulating a high sales volume. And this has happened.

And if you look at some of the classic novels that sell consistently year after year—whose overall sales far outreach anything on the bestseller lists—you won’t find any of those on any bestseller lists.

The upshot is that bestseller lists are highly overrated and suitable only except for bragging rights but not much else.

(3) You cannot please everyone. So don’t try.

I can offer no argument against this excellent piece of advice. You use beta readers to help judge whether your novel is ready for prime time, but if you expect every one of your beta readers will agree, you’re going to be surprised. What you look for is consensus not unanimous agreement. If, out of eight test readers, five of them agree and the other three all have different views, then those five are the ones you look at. Don’t ignore the other three completely. Take from their opinions what seems to make sense, but do NOT attempt to revise your work to please all eight. If you try, you risk making the work worse, not better. And trust me on this because I’ve seen it happen to others and to me.

(4) It’s better to lack confidence. Shitty writers always think they’re great.

While the second part is true, the first is not. If you’re not confident, you work not only will suck, but you’ll be too scared to put it out there—and that accomplishes nothing.

Most of us (writers or not) don’t like to hear that we suck at something, but the wisest among us will take the words to heart and reexamine the basis of the statements. If you’re a bad writer, you have two choices. One, you can give up and move on to another endeavor that you don’t suck at, or two, you can dig in and learn to be a good writer. It serves no one, least of all your ego, to put out a piece-of-crap novel that ends up not selling just so you can say you’ve published a novel.

If you really have your heart set on becoming a good writer, then have the confidence to believe that you can succeed if you put in enough time and effort. Anyone CAN become a good writer if he’s willing to put in the time and effort to learn. Remember the old saying “Practice makes perfect?” should followed, not “I’m not perfect, so why practice.” Listen to the honest advice of others and fix the problem instead of wallowing in self-deception.

I can’t tell you how many wannabe novelists self-publish something before it’s ready then wonder why it’s not selling. They change the cover (and the price) and they try every promotion they think of or hear about, yet they never consider that maybe what’s under the cover is the real problem.

Admit that maybe you’re not a good writer then strive to become a better one.

(5) The only “equipment” you need is a writing implement.

Not true. It’s like saying you can build a house with only a hammer. You need some other basic tools, like grammar and spelling skills, and those count as “equipment.” Too many writers feel that they don’t need to worry about grammar, that some editor will “fix” everything. That’s a nice dream, but the truth is that if your brilliant ideas are clouded by poor grammar and spelling, most writing won’t even make it to the editor stage.

(6) You need an editor. If you are an editor, you definitely need an editor.

Not everyone needs an editor. I’ve seen too many exceptions. But this is a two-edged sword. For one, I’ve seen a lot of purported editors who are not very good as editors. They are the editors who need an editor. OF course, there’s always the argument that—being editor or not—you can’t always spot your own mistakes. Again, I’ve seen exceptions, but those are usually the most humble of editors who can admit that they’re not perfect as editors and may need outside help.

A great editor can probably help you, but I’ve seen even good, well-intentioned editors ruin a story. The problem is that the editor is not you. Good editors will guide you, not try to make your work theirs; less-than-good ones may take you in the wrong direction and you may never know the difference until it’s too late.

As a novice, you may not know which kind of editor you’ve latched on to. Further, not even all great editors are equally competent with all types and styles of writing. An editor should be no more than a guide, not someone you listen to blindly. All editors have their own prejudices and may not be able to spot something truly out of the box as being marketable. Therefore, listen carefully, but NEVER take an editor’s words or advice as final.

One caveat: Bad writers definitely need an editor, but they either can’t (or think they can’t) afford a decent one, or they don’t believe the editor who says their work needs work.

(7) You will not get rich writing.

This depends first on your definition of “rich.” Most bestselling writers are not rich. It also depends on your goal for writing. If you’re writing (fiction) solely for the money, then you’re writing for the wrong reason. Good writers write from the heart and write to express themselves. The ones who attempt to write for the market often fail.

A writer should first pay close attention to how people respond to his or her writing. (Negative responses should give you a clue that you may not be nearly as good as you think.) If you truly are a good writer, you will be rewarded both psychologically and financially. With the changes in the self-publishing world in the past several years, it has become more possible than ever for writers to earn or living or to substantially supplement their income through their writing. This was not possible even a few years ago.

(8) Writing helps us make sense of our world. If we didn’t do it, we’d probably completely lose it.

I could not disagree more with this statement. That’s not why most people write, not the writers I know, anyway. Most writers write to express themselves. I write first for my own enjoyment and pleasure, not to make sense of my world. (The world doesn’t make much sense anyway, so writing about it is not going to change that.) If I couldn’t write, I’d find something else to occupy my time.

(9) Most of us [writers] are on the edge already. We have to be in order to do a job that doesn’t pay, won’t make us famous and, oh yeah, is among the most difficult.

Really? This sounds like the ravings of a disillusioned writer, not of one giving advice. All artistic endeavors fall into this category, not just writing. Yes, they can be difficult, but few things truly worth doing are easy. While some writers enter writing thinking that they will make lots of money from it, many others enter it with their eyes open. They write because they want to, because they enjoy it, and because they want to share their visions with others. Not every writer embarks upon this journey to make money or to be famous. (Mostly only the bad ones do.)


I’ll close with a few observations from over twenty years as a part-time writer. I never thought I’d make a ton of money as a writer. I hoped it might provide a good supplemental income at some point. It hasn’t so far, but I haven’t given up, and I see an encouraging future ahead of me. I have come a very long way from the budding novelist I was back in 1991. I have written four novels. One has just been published for the third time—because I believe in it and refuse to give up on it. I’m hoping this third time will prove its worthiness. My second and third novels are being revised for re-publication (not because they sucked but because they’re not nearly as good as they could be). My fourth will be published soon, and I have other projects in the works.

I have grown as a writer, I have helped others become published authors, I co-write this blog (for over three years now), my wife and I publish an online fiction magazine starting its third year of existence, and I’m getting paid to edit the work of others. I’ve made a lot of progress, and while my name as a writer isn’t on the tongues of many yet, I’m working toward changing that, and I’m certainly not ready to quit.

If you believe in yourself, if are honest with yourself with regard to your strengths (build on them) and your weaknesses (work to overcome them), then you should not quit either.

One final piece of advice: If you self-published this past year with less than satisfactory result, don’t give up. Assess and regroup, seek advice. Try to figure out where the problem lies and how you might fix it.

May 2015 be a great and successful year for all of you writers out there!


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