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January 13, 2005

Displaced advice, and other sorts
Posted by Teresa at 01:19 PM * 150 comments

1.

I’ve been neglecting Making Light on account of the flu, and the catching-up that follows it; but when Neil Gaiman asked me to point him toward some good resources for people to who want to find an agent—apparently his readers have been asking about that—I sent him an infodump. You can find it here. One of the items in it is a longish list of Making Light posts about writing, editing, scams, and related subjects.*

Something I found myself saying along the way is that the more I look at the world of advice about writing and publishing, the warier I am of collecting my own articles on the subject. Years ago, Elise Matthesen and I tried to talk Patricia Wrede into letting us put together a collection of her online writing-about-writing. Thing is, Pat Wrede has a genuine gift for teaching writing. The idea of the book had come up because some apprentice writers had been carefully collecting all her posts on the subject, and had a substantial hoard. All we wanted was permission to organize them into a book.

Pat was perfectly gracious about it, but she said no. Why? Because, she said, there are already so many books about writing. We pointed out that there weren’t any books like the one we had in mind, but she still said no.

Now, years later, there are even more books about writing and publishing. When we talked to Pat Wrede, digital printing technology and POD publishers hadn’t gotten together yet. It wasn’t nearly so easy for J. Random Yourdog to write a book about writing and get it published by Xlibris, or iUniverse, or PublishAmerica, or 1stBooks/AuthorHouse (what is it about subsidy publishers and intercaps?), et cetera et cetera et cetera.

As I said in my letter to Neil,
A phenomenal number of articles about how publishing works are written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. This is partly because writing about writing, or writing about publishing, is what wanna-be authors do when they’ve given up on writing, but don’t yet want to admit it.
When I ask Amazon to show me just books that are specifically about writing fiction—not writing a killer query letter, not marketing your self-published book, not writing screenplays or making money off your e-zine—I get twenty-eight pages of results.

Not all of those books are awful, but far too many are, and the latter always seem to have an aggressively self-promoting author attached to them. For instance …

… Huh. Okay, a weird thing just happened to me. I looked at the paragraph I’d just written, and found myself wondering whether I really wanted to get into arguments with four or five combative fuggheads at once. I don’t know where this is coming from. Is it possible that I’m finally developing a sense of prudence?

Anyway, here’s that same paragraph, only shorn of its links and its more identifiable character strings:
————, whom we last saw running ———— because she’d been unable to get her work published by conventional publishers, has written a book about ————. So has ———— (a reliable source of error in online writing discussions), on the basis of his vast and successful experience: two ———— published as e-books, one subsidy-published ————, and he’s edited two ———— that were published by ————. In all the years I’ve been listening to her whine, I have yet to hear a useful word come out of ————; but she’s now co-authored a book with ———— about ————. There are innumerable others written by people who have no particular ————. There are publishers who appear to specialize in ————. And then there’s ———— (some of you may remember him), who at last report had a book about writing coming out from ————.
Have fun.

2.

Contemplating this universe of bad advice makes me feel at once curmudgeonly and appalled. It makes me want to put out a book called The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing. Sample chapter titles:
Why You Shouldn’t Write. A Taxonomy of People Who Are Out To Get You.
Myths and Legends of the Author Tribe.
Ever Wonder Why They Call It Submission?
Things That Won’t Happen.
Some Mistakes We Have Seen.
Recurrent Episodes in the Life of the Writer.
You Can Still Escape.
Alternately, I could just keep working at editing books. After all, it’s my job.

3.

This afternoon I was talking to George Scithers of the Owlswick agency, and toward the end of the conversation we got onto the subject of books about writing. He mentioned one I’ve never seen: On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back, by George Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John M. Ford (Owlswick Press, 1981, ISBN 0913896195).

I have to read this one.

Anyway, George told me the three rules of writing from their book:
1.You have to put it in a form someone can use.

2. You have to make it interesting enough to be worth the editor’s time and the reader’s money.

3. You have to put it where someone can read it and buy it.
That really does cover it. The best writing advice tends to be very simple. It’s using it that’s the trick.
Comments on Displaced advice, and other sorts:
#1 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 04:30 PM:

FIRST PO --

(Sorry, wrong thread.)

Teresa, when are you going to bolt together a successor to Making Book?

One with all the useful advice you've bolted together in Making Light over the years. Dunno about anyone else, but I'd buy it. And I don't normally buy books about writing.

#2 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 04:32 PM:

(In case my motivation for posting wasn't clear, I think the existence of the 28 amazon screenfuls of crap means you've got a moral duty to pub your ish, lest bad advice drive out good. Although maybe I'm being selfish here ...)

#3 ::: John Scalzi ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 04:34 PM:

Someone recently suggested to me that you and I write a book on writing together. My immediate reaction to that was "What on Earth would Teresa need *me* for in that scenario?" There's nothing worse than being the third wheel when there's only two people.

I second the idea of another Making Book -- "Making Book II: Electric Boogaloo."

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 04:59 PM:

That's all very well, but first I need to denounce Tobias Bucknell, who has linked to this post. Not only has he identified me as Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and identified The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing as the next book about writing that should be written (as opposed to one I have dibs on writing, and by the way I left out two-thirds of the chapter titles, so let other people come up with their own ideas), but for some reason his comment window keeps spitting me out when I try to advise him of these things. In between attempts nos. 2 and 3 it let Brad DeLong post, which is good insofar as it resulted in my getting to read a Brad DeLong comment, but is otherwise Very Irritating.

#5 ::: mistri ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 04:59 PM:

you know, I really think The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing would sell.

Truly.

Write it.


(please)

#6 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:06 PM:

May I preorder _Crystal Fire_?

#7 ::: Julia Rios ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:19 PM:

I wish you would write The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing. Your advice is honest and fascinating, and you have a deliciously witty way of putting things into perspective. I've always been too shy to comment here before, but I felt this was worth the public exposure.

#8 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:24 PM:

"Tough Love for New Writers" at Worldcon _was_ awfully popular . . .

#9 ::: Ben Trafford ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:26 PM:

I agree with the above posters. The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing needs to be written. Most of the other books I've read on writing (and more specifically, getting published) are complete crap.

#10 ::: tobias buckell ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:26 PM:

I'm sorry Teresa, if it makes things better you just misspelled my name. But I'm sorry, I was grabbing your post off of my RSS reader and got things really switched up, and then it double posted and things got weird, I was blogging on my way out of the door at work and I shouldn't do that.

#11 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:36 PM:

I'm greedy. I want to buy The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing, and I want to buy it now. With a forward by Gavin Grant, who was so charming and depressing on the Tough Love for New Writers panel.

I also want you to keep working at editing books.

(And while we're at it, a pony would be nice, but I'd give up the pony for items #1 and #2.)

#12 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:50 PM:

tobias buckell wrote: "I'm sorry Teresa..."

That's not a proper apology! A proper apology is, I think, the one from _Startide Rising_: "With my last volition, I will remove my head and place it in your trophy rack. May the next one I grow serve you better."

#13 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 05:53 PM:

More:

How To Write a Novel on a Budget (or, So You've Decided to be Poor)
On Becoming Famous

Keep on shattering those dreams.

#14 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:07 PM:

I bought Making Book--I'd buy The Oppressively Real Guide.

I did the next best thing though, and bookmarked that post of Neil's. (Well, I suppose the Real Next Best Thing would be actually utilising all that knowledge instead of reading it over and over and over and over and merely calling myself a writer. She said guiltily.)

#15 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:07 PM:

I thought Tobias apologized very nicely, actually. Though a self-beheading would be fun to watch. And Brad? Your comment appears to have disappeared. Um...[wanders away, muttering and rolling his eyes]

#16 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:13 PM:

Why don't you call it Why You'll Never Be Published?

#17 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:13 PM:

What an unexpected series of events. Brad DeLong has made me wish to read Startide Rising.

#18 ::: Mortaine ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:18 PM:

As an aspiring writer, I'd learned a lot of the advice you put out to Neil Gaiman a long time ago (that doesn't move me further than aspiring yet-- sometimes one has to wait for one's craft to mature). But it's still good advice, and I'm glad to know that things haven't changed *that much* in the 20 years or so that I've been learning (an agent who will take you when you're nobody is still an agent you don't want, for instance).

One of my new rules is: if it's a book on writing and it's not written by someone whose name I instantly recognize, and it's not a market book, then I won't buy it. There are some exceptions to that, like I'll buy it if I'm looking for something to get me started in a new genre (a beginner book), or if it's something that's just to help *me* generate ideas, not tell me what to write or how to write it. And, of course, there are some books on writing that you get just to mock.

Examples: Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Ursula Le Guin all have books about writing. I recognize their names-- they write books that I like to read. Thus, their writing books are on my bookshelves. If Teresa Nielsen Hayden came out with a book about editing or publishing, I would recognize the name from your very insightful blog and buy the book. It would not be Yet Another Book on Publishing any more than King's was Yet Another Book on Writing. It would be Good. And I would know it would be Good before I shelled out my hard-earned-day-job money for it, because it came from a reputable source.

Basically, all I'm saying is, twenty-eight pages of books written by nobody do not measure up to ONE book written by Somebody I Respect. When a writer goes to buy a book on writing, a beginner buys any book and is as likely to end up with yours as they are to end up with 1-280. When an intermediate-level writer goes to buy a book on writing, she knows what she's not looking for, and knows how to avoid the other stuff.

#19 ::: Ulrika ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:20 PM:

I think there's potential for a whole *series* of Oppressively Real Guides: The Oppressively Real Guide to the Academic Job Market, The Oppressively Real Guide to Opening a Restaurant, The Oppressively Real Guide to Instituional Reform...

#20 ::: Shelly ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:33 PM:

As someone who has hoarded copies of Patricia's posts on AOL's message boards, but unfortunately, only in hardcopy, I would love if she'd do a book. Maybe we could start a petition?

I'd buy The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing, too.

#21 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:46 PM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to Graphic Design, The Oppressively Real Guide to Web Site Design, The Oppressively Real Guide to Professional Sports, The Oppressively Real Guide to Careers in Music, The Oppressively Real Guide to Working at Home, The Oppressively Real Guide to Careers in Law, The Oppressively Real Guide to Careers in Medicine, ...


The possibilities are endless!

#22 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:51 PM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to Large Scale Information Management

There are a lot of these where you could get a room full of clever people arguing about who was the least disqualified to write it.

#23 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:56 PM:

Is it possible that Iím finally developing a sense of prudence?

Now that is funny stuff.

;)

btw, I'd really like to read "The Vulcan Death Grip for New Writers", or the "New Writers Wear Red-Shirts", or how about this one: "Buck-private Stormtroopers in the Empiriral Army, or what its like to be a new writer"

Glad to hear you're coming out from under the flu...

#24 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 06:57 PM:

...The Oppressively Real Guide to Landing on Mars,
The Oppressively Real Guide to Spreading Democracy,
The Oppressively Real Guide to Digital Rights Management...

#25 ::: tobias buckell ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:10 PM:

Xopher, Brad's comment, which was awesome, btw, got lost when I deleted a duplicate entry. I was typing this up on my laptop right before leaving the lab, in a hurry to pick up my wife's car from the mechanics (starter motor failure), and between my natural state up befuddledness and the luck I usually get, did not choose to, oh say, save the post as a draft, or come back and do it later, I had to get *things accomplished.* I usually have a couple minutes to realize my mistake and issue mea culpas, but by the time I looked over the post, tried to put up a fixed one, doubled the entries, tried to undouble the entry and the two trackbacks, I was up that special creek I seem to have a motorboat for... and Brad's post came in and I laughed...

Here is what he said (like 10 seconds after I posted/double posted and panicked trying to fix my mistake):

Genesis 2:24 does say: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." But it is possible that you will live longer if you distinguish between PNH--Patrick Nielsen Hayden--and his wife TNH--Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Ah well, another drink in honor of my technical incompetence should do the trick. Just don't tell my employers who *pay* me to advise them on tech, then the gig might be up :-)

-Tobias S. buckell

#26 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:13 PM:

Ulrika wrote: What an unexpected series of events. Brad DeLong has made me wish to read Startide Rising.

Just make sure you read Alexander Jablokov's A Deeper Sea, as an antidote.

#27 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:16 PM:

On a side note (or a Particles note), I think we should start calling fraudulent literary agencies “melanie mills.” You know, kind of like diploma mills, only not really.

#28 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:20 PM:

...The Oppressively Real Guide to Home Ownership...The Oppressively Real Guide to Dog Training...The Oppressively Real Guide to Marriage...The Oppressively Real Guide to Child-Rearing...The Oppressively Real Guide to Job Hunting...

What is the "For Dummies" tagline? "A Reference for the Rest of Us"? Feh. We've got 'em all right here on TNH's site.

#29 ::: Dan Lewis ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:23 PM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to the Galaxy.

#30 ::: JamesG ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:29 PM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing.

Just think of the cheery atmosphere you would have at the book signings! That alone should be enough inspiration to put it out there. :)

#31 ::: Randall P. ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:39 PM:

How about a book called The Obsessively Optimistic Guide to Getting Published in the Face of a Wall of Naysayers?

Sorry, I just have to spread the sunshine, because we haven't had any in Ontario in months.

#32 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:47 PM:

The chapter on booksignings in The Oppressively Real Guide starts with the advice, "Bring some crossword puzzles."

#33 ::: JamesG ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:53 PM:

The chapter on booksignings in The Oppressively Real Guide starts with the advice, "Bring some crossword puzzles."


lol! Or you could create your own game, like counting how many people try desperately to avoid eye contact with you as they enter the store.

No, I can't see you, so you must not be there.

#34 ::: Fred Ramsey ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 07:54 PM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to Owning an Independent Bookshop

I could help with that one, 25 years in and the trench is getting deeper....

#35 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 08:03 PM:

All of us regular readers/commenters want to read this book that Teresa must write. If we each donated a few bucks to cover publication costs for the first print run, it might prove that this book is worth publishing. Or is my nievite showing?

#36 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 08:16 PM:

Keith - I'm not quite sure, but I think your slip is showing. I think you'd need an advance for the author as well as printing costs. Not to mention some cash for publicity & someone to make the book look purty.

#37 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 08:18 PM:

By the way, you left one of my favorite threads out of the list on Neil's page: Follow the Money.

#38 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 08:57 PM:

May I consult on The Oppressively Real Guide to Child Rearing?

And ought there not to be a companion volume, The Oppressively Real Guide to Working in Publishing and Other Glamor Industries?

#39 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 10:36 PM:

You know, one of the posts you link to -
http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/000159.html - has one of the oldest examples of blog comment spam I've seen. It should be in a museum or something.

The odd thing about that particular spam is that it seems to have been directed not at blogs but at comments for various online stores. (See this google search) All, that is, except for the one hit on Making Light. (Perhaps the other victims have already purged the spam?)

So perhaps this is an example of accidental blog comment spam?

#40 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 10:51 PM:

Nah, the title should be The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing for the Clueless.

#41 ::: gaukler ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2005, 11:16 PM:

If we can't afford an advance for TNH's book, perhaps she could get it self published. I hear that is a great way to become a bestselling author.
mark

#42 ::: Lawrence Watt-Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:59 AM:

A problem with most writing advice is that wannabe writers will willfully misinterpret it.

Another is that they will ignore major points and focus obsessively on passing remarks of no significance, trying to figure out how they can turn this Revealed Wisdom inside out.

And a third is that much writing advice goes out of date faster than one might think. By the time you could actually get The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing assembled and into print, at least some of the specifics in it will be out of date, and many readers will focus obsessively on those, constructing bizarre and paranoid interpretations of them. (See problems 1 and 2.)

#43 ::: Steve Eley ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 01:24 AM:

FWIW, I've got the Scithers/Schweitzer/Ford book. It's been some years since I read it, but yes, it's very straightforward. So straightforward it's almost difficult.

#44 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 01:53 AM:

I would also buy The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing, and/or a book compiled from Making Light posts on the topic. I hope someday to change the 'would' to 'will'.

#45 ::: Margaret (MTZ) ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 02:48 AM:

Making Book just went on my re-read list along with The Editors Strike Back. Both are on my keepers shelf and if you do another I'm sure it would feel at home.
Just to check I went over to Amazon and not only is Making Book still listed as available, although with a rather strange bit about a shipping surcharge, but in the people who bought this book also bought listing the second listed is The Editors Strike Back. More expensive. Longer shipping time but eligible for super saver. Weird. Amazon!

#46 ::: jane ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 03:19 AM:

Okay--am adding my plea for that book. And I am someone who has written several books about writing myself.

But the stuff you write, T, is unlike anyone else's with its wide-ranging knowledge base AND witty, incisive commentary. You puncture pretensions better than anyone else I know.

DO it.

Jane

#47 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 03:22 AM:

I was going to protest that the best book I know of on the subject of writing fiction, Josip Novakovich's Fiction Writer's Workshop, is written by a non-writer. But then I sensibly decided to do a bit of factchecking, and discover he has published all sorts of fiction, but on themes I'm just not likely to stumble across.

So I checked up on David Madden, the author of my second-favourite book on writing (and editing) fiction. (It likely has more actual usable ideas than Josip's book, but it is organized in a clumsy question-and-answer format that makes it really hard to use.) I had thought he was also otherwise unpublished, but again find I was wrong. (Again, a field I'm unlikely to stumble through. But that one might conceivably appeal to Teresa.)

While I was digging around Amazon for the info on David's book, an ad came up for this Damon Knight book, which I hadn't realized existed. Revised edition yet! Anyone read it?

And when I click off that one, I was offered a two-book discount on books by Nancy Kress and Orson Scott Card. Sheesh! Who hasn't written a book on how to write a book? Then I remembered, and laughed at myself.

Yep, there are an awful lot of them out there. But there really doesn't seem to be a frank book discussing publishing and all of its warts. I'd love to recommend it to intro publishing students. Sometimes they don't seem to believe my little set "welcome to a salary ghetto" speech.

Teresa, you keep coming back to the topic of agents, quite rightly. All of what you say is, in my experience, true. I do sometimes worry that you are going to give people a jaundiced view of all agents -- and I know quite a few who provide a really valuable service for writers. I wish there was a word that would let us differentiate between the real agents (and editors) and the predators: the supposed book doctors, "editors" and so on who prey on uninformed writers. Hmmm -- preditors?

#48 ::: Jurie ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 03:43 AM:

>>One of my new rules is: if it's a book on writing and it's not written by someone whose name I instantly recognize, and it's not a market book, then I won't buy it.

#49 ::: Jurie ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 03:44 AM:

(OK, so whatever I did there obviously did not work first time around.)

"One of my new rules is: if it's a book on writing and it's not written by someone whose name I instantly recognize, and it's not a market book, then I won't buy it."

I've had the good fortune of having a writer friend, and that has kept me from buying too many books on writing. Two that I do have, and which were specifically recommended, do not seem to fit these criteria at all: L. Rust Hills' Writing In General And The Short Story In Particular and Thomas McCormack's The Fiction Editor, The Novel and The Novelist.

Both are written by editors, not by writers. See the pattern? Editors are not all emotionally tangled up with their books like writers are. They just care about making writing work.

#50 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 05:56 AM:

That list of threads you sent to Neil ensured that I spent most of yesterday cat-vacuuming. Thank you, I think. :-) I'll just add my vote for Making Book The Sequel. I'd linked some time ago to a couple of those threads on my own site, I might add a few more.

It occurs to me that if I was making more effort at proper authorial self-promotion, I'd be filling in that "And your url here:" box in order to get Googlejuice for my site. But I'm still feeling more than slightly twitchy about associating "name which family will Google on" with "name under which my slash-a-like profic is published". :-S

#51 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 07:44 AM:

Madeleine - you may write The Oppressively Real Guide to Child Rearing in toto.

- She Who Has No Kids and Doesn't Want to be Like Those Authors Who Write Books About Publishing Because They Can't Get Published any Other Way.

(with apologies to our hostess, because I cannot for the life of me remember the rules for initial capitalization in titles)

#52 ::: Metal Fatigue ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 07:59 AM:

(1) Please write The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing? Pretty please? I don't know whether it would do wannabe writers any good, but I want to read it.

(2) In fact, I would love to read a number of titles in the "Oppressively Real Guide" series. The one on homeownership especially would come in handy right now, as an antidote to first-time-homeowner euphoria.

#53 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 08:01 AM:

Here is my *complete* book of writing advice:

"How To Stop Procrastinating
1. Switch off the TV.
2. Disconnect your modem/ADSL.
3. Put on earplugs/loud music.
4. Get to work!
5. Produce at least one page before going to sleep.
6. Repeat.

The End."

#54 ::: S. Dawson ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 08:25 AM:

Would it be too cruel to do a series for children with titles of the form "The Unpleasant Truth About Being a/an --------- When You Grow Up"? One could include astronaut, ballerina, basketball player, firefighter, pilot, Power Ranger, fairy princess, and of course, writer...

#55 ::: Alice Bentley ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 08:53 AM:

As a bookseller, I needed to condense any advice into sound-bites, since any conversation was sure to be interrupted in moments. My Two Step process to getting published:

1) Put the words on the paper. (Paper could be email, but the words still needed to be there, not just taked about.)

2) Put the paper in the mail. (Mail can take many forms as well - but if no one sees it, it cannot possibly be published.)

Randall P. mentioned:
"How about a book called The Obsessively Optimistic Guide to Getting Published in the Face of a Wall of Naysayers?" I would substitute Relentlessly Optimistic instead. Easier to differentiate for marketing purposes, and generally more descriptive of those persons stubborn and foolish enough to continually hurl themselves against brick walls.

And on that subject, I would LOVE to read Fred Ramsey's "The Oppressively Real Guide to Owning an Independent Bookshop". I lasted 16 years in that trench, and while I enjoyed them, I would not now go back. After all, an "adventure" is someone else having a terrible time.

#56 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 08:59 AM:

It would be useful, although perhaps impossible, to collect a list of those few writing books that are genuinely useful or contain insight. Yes, it varies for each reader and for different stages of development, but those are relatively small distinctions when compared to the gap between books written by people who understand, and otherwise.

I'd nominate Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.

#57 ::: iJames ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 10:18 AM:

S. Dawson:
Would it be too cruel to do a series for children with titles of the form "The Unpleasant Truth About Being a/an --------- When You Grow Up"?

In a word, yes. I realize you were kidding, but too many kids in the real world do get the Why Bother, You'll Never Amount To Anything treatment, and that's evil. Unpleasant truths are best presented when we have the self-identity and the fortitude to do our thing anyway, if we decide we still want it.

#58 ::: Stephanie ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 10:35 AM:

Teresa, allow me to offer up a suggestion: create some categories in Movable Type and enable category archives. Then file all these lovely advice posts under some suitable category, and you'll have an instant, automatically updated index of them -- and one URL to pass around instead of twenty.

#59 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 11:42 AM:

Actually, I think The Unpleasant Truth about... might be a better title for the adult-targeted series than The Oppressively Real Guide... might be. I'd certainly be more inclined to buy the former than the latter, if I didn't know the author.

Since I do, let me state that I will buy any book Teresa chooses to write, even if it's A Consolidated History of Feces. She would make it work, with wit and plain speaking.

Of course, she's the only one who possibly could get her shit together enough to do it...please don't kill me.

#60 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 11:44 AM:

"Would it be too cruel to do a series for children with titles of the form "The Unpleasant Truth About Being a/an --------- When You Grow Up"?"

If you got Daniel Handler, or someone with that sensibility to do it, it might work. "Dear Reader, go no further in this book if you wish to have your pleasant illusions about being a ballerina rubberstamped. Go find some other book with large, brightly colored illustrations. For here you will find, not tulle and tiaras, but hard work, malformed feet, anorexia, and incredible competitiveness..."

iJames--I'm not suggesting such books should be on the "why bother, you won't amount to anything" model--heaven forfend. One of the things about the Series of Unfortunate Events books is that, despite the tone, the kids are competent and get themselves out of a succession of horrid fixes. A career series on the same model would give the nasty truth with the same essential faith that the reader could get past the dreariness if that's what they want.

#61 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 11:45 AM:

Xlibris, or iUniverse, or PublishAmerica, or 1stBooks/AuthorHouse (what is it about subsidy publishers and intercaps?)

It's not subsidy publishers, it's dot-coms. Similar mentality, I grant you.

#62 ::: iJames ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 11:47 AM:

Xopher:
Actually, I think The Unpleasant Truth about... might be a better title for the adult-targeted series than The Oppressively Real Guide... might be

I dunno. The first association with "Unpleasant Truth" in my head was Neal Boortz's book The Terrible Truth About Liberals.

I rather like "Oppressively Real" myself. Or you could take a page from the Dummies and Complete Idiot books; say, Writing and Publishing for the Deluded.

#63 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 11:55 AM:

It might be too cruel to write a series of that sort for children, but I think one for teens would not be a bad idea, since most teens are capable of telling the difference between "You really need to know this thing before you try this path" and "You're just kidding yourself if you think you can succeed."

Also, I chime in on the liking "Oppressively Real" tag better. It's less pessimistic and it sounds cooler overall.

#64 ::: mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 11:55 AM:

I'm tempted to rename my (other) blog to Oppressive Reality. Seems so apt.

#65 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:07 PM:

Does this mean we're all part of the Oppressively Reality-Based Community?

(Someone had to say it...)

#66 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:24 PM:

Hi Teresa,

Thanks for sending Neil the list of links...I spent most of yesterday reading through them (instead of doing, um, my job). Making Light has now been added to my addictions list.

Anyway, I know several writers, including myself, who read books on writing as a substitute for actually writing. A similar phenomenon is the time-consuming process of shopping for just the right sort of pen or the perfect leather-bound notebook, and then not using them to actually write anything. This kind of thing allows me to feel like a writer, without having to go spelunking through my subconscious and getting all tangled up with icky stuff, which is what actual writing seems to consist of for me.

Fortunately, there are so few good books about writing that lately I've had no choice but to sit and write fiction, gaah! So consider this another vote in favor of The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing.

Oh, for what it's worth, one book I can recommend (imperfect, but good) is The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Shinoda.

#67 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:40 PM:

Another vote here for "Oppressively Real".

(And yes, it should be written and published.)

#68 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:41 PM:

On the late, lamented Nicktoon "Invader Zim," in the episode "Career Day," Ms. Bitters asks kids what they want to be. "An astronaut!" one says. Bitters counters, "I had a dream once, to be an astronaut." We see the young, optimistic Bitters happily riding in a rocket. "It ended in a horrible explosion." The message, which she then spells out, is that having a dream always ends in a horrible explosion.

Later on, the kids are being given the computerized results of the four-question survey that will determine the entire future course of their lives. One of them is told she'll be an astronaut. She bursts into tears. Lesson learned!

(Zim had it all: Great looking art, dynamic animation, inventive plots, eternal characters, and the most bleak, hostile universe since "Eek! the Cat.")

#69 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:48 PM:

Kip: The Zim is mighty.

#70 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 12:49 PM:

Ahem.

TOUCHDOWN.

That is all. You may now return to your topic.

#71 ::: Priscilla ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 01:16 PM:

Y'know, if you want to write "Oppressively Real", I'd be honored to sponsor it to NESFA....

And a comment in response to Kate's upline remark about "Tough Love for New Writers" at N4: it was amazing how much *negative* comment that came my way about not being thoroughly "supportive" to struggling neos.

Feh.

#72 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 01:34 PM:

Priscilla: really? Gosh. The attitude in the room seemed to me to be very appreciative. Were these people who disliked the concept without knowing about the execution?

#73 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 01:55 PM:

Jill said: Does this mean we're all part of the Oppressively Reality-Based Community?

Well, the Livejournal mirror of my blog now is. :-)

#74 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 02:40 PM:

I feel like Publish and Be Damned would make a good book/chapter title on this subject.

#75 ::: elizabeth bear ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 02:44 PM:

Somebody needs to tell Toby that he mis-spelled his last name....

(Well, miscapitalized. But that's not as funny.)

#76 ::: Tayefeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 02:44 PM:

A similar phenomenon is the time-consuming process of shopping for just the right sort of pen or the perfect leather-bound notebook, and then not using them to actually write anything.

I did that when shopping for my laptop (a slow little iBook that's completely unsuited for the games I put on my other computers). Now I have it... and my relatives insist on giving me writing implements and notebooks. And most of them wouldn't come within spitting distance of what I've been writing of late. The ones who do read my stuff know I don't need palm-sized sprial notebooks and glowing pens.

#77 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 03:10 PM:

Hey Priscilla: I was tempted to make T the same offer. If it happens, I'd be happy to be a proof-reader or whatever I could to help out.

MKK

#78 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 03:57 PM:

Alice Bentley:

Your "Two Step process to getting published" is correct, so far as it goes, but I believe that Robert A. Heinlein's other 3 parts of the 5-step process are also essential.

Philip K. Dick's Oppressively Real Guide to Reality Not Being Real.

I will buy anything written by or edited by Patrick or Teresa, whatever the title.

If Heinlein bought the Moon, Bradbury owns Mars, Vonnegut owns Titan, Clarke owns Europa, and Varley owns Pluto, whom do the Galactic Overlords approach as as agent for the complete package?

To me, some of the attack on G. David Brin (even in jest) is ad hominem. What is the literary or political critique?

I love this thread; thanks to Neil Gaiman and Teresa.

*** relurk ***


#79 ::: S. Dawson ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 04:17 PM:

I, too, like "Oppressively Real" better for the proposed book; I used "Unpleasant Truth" for my hypothetical series because it seemed kid-friendly, both in terms of having few syllables than "Oppressively" and of being (as Madeleine Robins noticed) vaguely reminiscent of Lemony Snicket (in a wholly no-plagiarism-intended way, of course).

Of course, in case it wasn't clear, I am not actually in favor of mercilessly crushing the dreams of youth. Not that bracing them up with a healthy sense of challenge would be such a bad idea.

#80 ::: -dsr- ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 04:17 PM:

Strangely enough, I just finished reading On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back. The format is excellent: a chapter or two on certain problems, followed by a guaranteed-first-published-SF-story-accepted-by-Asimov's,
then some authorial comments on the story and further criticism/explanations of what works and what might be improved. Two authors of particular note: Barry Longyear and Sharon Farber.

It also contains all the usual soothing material on how to produce a clear ms., although it is clearly from the dinosaur days of typewriters. Even so, the principles are explained as well as the rules, so any half-clever slushpile addict should be able to extrapolate into a readable submission. To bring it fully up to date, about two chapters of this stuff should be rewritten.

#81 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 04:57 PM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing. Oh, that would be marvelous. Something written to the same audience as the "Tough Love for New Writers" panel at Worldcon -- what was Gavin Grant's advice to new writers? I think I remember it being something like "Write. Don't get published. And die." Which, as he said, is really quite manageable.

I think the trick in dealing with submitting, for me at least, lies in not thinking of the submissions as actual writing. Just -- byproducts of non-standard brain organization, or something of the sort. Every so often said byproducts stack up and I go through and send some of these pieces of paper off someplace, and then they send back another piece of paper that says they're not interested in them, which I make a note of in my database before sending the pieces of paper off someplace new. (Some of them even say nice things about the byproducts, which is always rather pleasant, if strange. They're just byproducts, after all. Not stories at all. Thinking of them as stories makes the rejections mean something, and I couldn't be having that.)

#82 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 06:23 PM:

We definitely need The Oppressively Real Guide To Life Under The Bush Administration

#83 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 06:32 PM:

Re: "Just make sure you read Alexander Jablokov's A Deeper Sea, as an antidote."

How does _A Deeper Sea_ compare to _Carve the Sky_?

#84 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 07:53 PM:

Just to say that I hope you write it, under whatever title, on whatever topic. Making Book is still great, and I still want more. As for

Alternately, I could just keep working at editing books. After all, itís my job.
yes, keep your day job--it's greatly appreciated on both sides of the industry--but don't let it eat your life. The books you edit are wonderful, but someone else can edit some of them. No one else can write a word of your writing, and you really shine at a somewhat longer length than we see in Making Light.

To acknowledge Beth's comment, which I hope doesn't render this one completely superfluous--I'll give up my pony, too. I'll have a harder time coping if you let Making Light slide a bit, but I'll grit and bear it.

#85 ::: Andreas ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 07:55 PM:

How does _A Deeper Sea_ compare to _Carve the Sky_?
A Deeper Sea is a lot bleaker than Carve the Sky.
I guess it didn't really fit my mood at the time I read it but I found some of the protagonists a bit too alien (the ones living in water) and the way they became protagonists left me cold.
Still a good read.
Carve the Sky is one of my alltime favorites.

#86 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 08:58 PM:

Who or what is "Lemony Snicket"?

#87 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 09:21 PM:

"Lemony Snicket" is the pseudonymous author of a series of children's books called (Series title) "A Series of Unfortunate Events." Slender hardcovers, dealing with A Series of Unfortunate Events.

#88 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 09:54 PM:

Lemony Snicket is also the pseudonym of Daniel Handler, who was referred to upthread.

#90 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 10:13 PM:

[L]et me state that I will buy any book Teresa chooses to write, even if it's A Consolidated History of Feces.

Xopher, I think I'd prefer A History of Consolidated Feces, which would of course be an impeccably-researched tome about how to get your sh*t together.

#91 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: January 14, 2005, 10:25 PM:

Jordin, are you sure you aren't thinking of The Origin of Feces by Billy Rubin?

#92 ::: elise ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 01:26 AM:

Dunno if you've seen Neil's blog lately, Teresa, but he was discussing this thread, and he said, "She must write this book. The world needs it."

Hey, are you gonna argue with Neil?

#93 ::: Sarah Avery ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 03:49 AM:

G. Jules wrote:

Something written to the same audience as the "Tough Love for New Writers" panel at Worldcon -- what was Gavin Grant's advice to new writers? I think I remember it being something like "Write. Don't get published. And die." Which, as he said, is really quite manageable.

My notes suggest that this was part of a four part plan. The beauty of it is that the writer only needs to complete the first three steps. The hard part, seeing the decedent's body of work into print, is left for the late writer's friends and family.

As Grant pointed out, this method does sometimes work, though he didn't name examples.

As I recall, W.H. Auden got into a bit of trouble when he awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize for 1947 to a writer he knew to be dead, when the intent of Yale University Press was to herald the beginnings of promising careers. Joan Murray's mother had approached him with the manuscript in person, and he liked it better than anything that had been sent in through proper channels. O, the uproar. And A Confederacy of Dunces was published seven years after John Kennedy Toole died. Decades later, it's still in print.

So I guess if I were writing the advice book, it would be called The Perversely Optimistic Guide to Writing and Publication.

#94 ::: Dave Langford ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 05:44 AM:

While we're waiting for The Oppressively Real Guide ... to come along, let me put in a word for Mat Coward's Success ... and how to avoid it (TTA Press, 2004). This tells the stark truth about being a full-time freelance writer, and is crammed with grisly anecdotes which to outsiders will seem hilariously exaggerated, while Those Who Have Been There nod glumly.

Chapter titles:
* Quit Now, While You're Still Behind
* Save Time, Fail From The Start
* Editors and Other Enemies
* Bad Advice and Where To Find It
* 22 Things You Already Knew

Dave

#95 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 07:57 PM:

My notes suggest that this was part of a four part plan. The beauty of it is that the writer only needs to complete the first three steps. The hard part, seeing the decedent's body of work into print, is left for the late writer's friends and family.

As Grant pointed out, this method does sometimes work, though he didn't name examples.

John Kennedy Toole springs most immediately to mind. Example wise, that is.

#96 ::: Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 07:59 PM:

Ah, I see you got there eventually. Post in haste...

#97 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 09:02 PM:

My parents highly recommend these shoe grippers for ice; I haven't ordered any yet but am strongly contemplating it.

#98 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: January 15, 2005, 09:03 PM:

Sorry, that should've gone under the open thread, obviously. I will repost there and in your copious free time TNH, feel free to delete.

#99 ::: Don MacDonald ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 01:46 AM:

Here is my *complete* book of writing advice:
"How To Stop Procrastinating
1. Switch off the TV.
2. Disconnect your modem/ADSL.
3. Put on earplugs/loud music.
4. Get to work!
5. Produce at least one page before going to sleep.
6. Repeat.
The End."

Dave Sim, is that you?
Good advice, except for the loud music...but whatever works for you. As for me, if I tried to do a page a day, I'd end up in an institution before I finished my book. (I'm working on a graphic novel, and when I'm really cranking, I can do a page every two days)

#100 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 04:41 AM:

The Oppressively Real Guide to Farming

Chapter 1:
You are a peasant. Live with it.

Chapter 2:
The successful farmer is the one who isn't broke yet.

Chapter 3:
Walmart can make millions without you. You can be replaced. They don't care.

Chapter 4:
You can't afford it.

The End


#101 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 05:00 AM:

From The Quagmatist's* Guide to Artistic Effort:

1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.
3. You can't get out of the game.
4. These are also the laws of thermodynamics, and they do not care how many blankets are pulled over your head.

*quag'-ma-tist, n. person who sees the obvious practicalities of the situation and is voluntarily stuck doing it anyway.

#102 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 09:24 AM:

Sarah et al.: I have never seen the appeal of A Confederacy of Dunces -- maybe I just know too many people like that in fandom. (The problem with being an epic jerk is that you're still a jerk?) I've wondered how much it gained from being discovered and published posthumously, in a sort of loudly-broadcast tragedy. I don't think O'Toole intended that sequence of events; it just doesn't have much future in it. I suppose it depends on whether one prefers to journey hopefully.

#103 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 01:59 PM:

Briefly, because this is a logistics-intense day:

The reason why the book is called An Oppressively Real Guide to rather than Unpleasant Truths about is that focusing on the unpleasant facts will make the book less oppressively real. If you say you're giving the readers the unpleasant truths, they'll understand that somewhere out there are pleasanter ones. If instead you give them the straight dope, they'll see that while there are pleasanter truths, there aren't enough of them to go around.

I keep forgetting about the existence of The Fiction Editor, The Novel and The Novelist. I don't know why; I'd love to hear Thomas McCormack's thoughts on how publishing works.

Priscilla, did they really give you grief for not being sufficiently supportive to new writers? ("Supportive" = "Do something unwarranted for Meeeeeeeeee!") I thought Gavin and I did a very informative panel. Besides, Gavin was wonderful. He's even better at doing elegantly mournful explanations than Robert Silverberg is, and that's saying a great deal.


#104 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 02:02 PM:

And Jim, I can't believe I left out Follow the Money. It was second or third on my prioritized list.

#105 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 05:28 PM:

That panel at Worldcon was entertaining, even if I did end up leaving half way through because I couldn't find a seat that wasn't next to someone either wearing strong perfume or chewing very strong wintergreen sweets...

#106 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 07:32 PM:

And don't forget the chapter on Writer's Workshops: Threat or Menace?

About-writing books written by real writers are interesting as a view to how that author writes, but as a how-to they aren't very useful. It's too easy for a newbie to get caught up in the idea that what works for that author can and will work for you, too.

#107 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 04:05 AM:

The Opressively Real Guide to Becoming an Adult

1. You Will Die
2. Injuries: Nature's Own Lay-Away Plan
3. No Matter how Good you Are, Someone Else is Better
4. You are Not a Protagonist
5. Spending Money: Goodbye!
6. Tomorrow Will Not be Any Different
7. You Will Die: The Good Part

#108 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 05:55 AM:

I was sent here via a fansite and Neil Gaiman's blog, and I've spent a very happy weekend trawling through all the publishing-related articles. I'm a little bit intimidated by the super-intelligence of everyone here, but there's a question I need to ask.

What is a query letter?

Is it simply a letter giving a very brief outline of one's story, and asking if the publisher would like the whole thing?

Or is it something you send out with a synopsis and the first three chapters of your story?

I have no idea.

I've also read conflicting opinions on what exactly 'no unsolicited mss' means. Does it mean 'don't send us anything at all, please' or does it mean 'we're happy for you to send synopsis+3 but please don't send completed mss'?

I'll umpteenth the idea that 'The Opressively Real...' guide should be written. Clueless people like me NEED it.

#109 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 07:52 AM:

I speak under correction, but in my experience:

A query letter is "I have written this (one-line description), these are my credits, enclosed is a one-page precis, do you want to see any more? PS here's a SASE for your reply."

"No unsolicited mss" means "do not send us mss. Read our list, make sure that what you've got fits it, send a query letter, and if we reply 'sounds interesting, send us (synopsis + 3, first 50pp, whatever)' then it isn't an unsolicited ms any more, is it?"

#110 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 09:17 AM:

Dave basically has it right. On the surface, a good query letter does four things (the same things a good book proposal does): gives an idea of what the book is like; introduces the author and establishes his/her credibility; shows how the book fits into the publisher's list; and (for non-genre books) shows how the publisher might be able to promote the book. It sometimes also mentions similar books on the market ("like Lord of the Rings but with squid instead of hobbits") -- or the fact that there are no similar books on the market.

Less obviously, the query letter is a writing sample. Even a the book idea that fits the publisher's list perfectly is likely to be passed over if the query letter is badly written or just lame. The initial goal of the query letter is to get the publisher to want to read the manuscript.

#111 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 12:47 PM:

. . .and if we reply 'sounds interesting, send us (synopsis + 3, first 50pp, whatever)' then it isn't an unsolicited ms any more, is it?

Generally, it is.

It's extremely hard to tell from a query whether the book will be any good. There are many signs that indicate the contrary, but unless the description is completely out of court -- if it's nonfiction, or uses trademarked characters without permission, or has impossible conditions attached ("I want a certfied check for $100,000 before I send you the ms."), then one generally says "Yes, send the partial." (And yeah, I've seen all the cases described.)

This is not a solicitation. A solicitation is a specific request for a piece of work, and it usually includes a specific offer to buy. This takes place almost entirely in magazine writing, where the editor will contact someone with credentials to, say, write 2000 words on "Rommel at Waterloo."

Not everybody reads slush, for a variety of reasons. "No unsolicited mss." means that this particular market doesn't want to see anything that they didn't go to the author and ask to see. The best you can hope for is to get the partial back in its Manila of Despair. They're also entirely within their rights to simply trash it.

Lots of people assume that "Yes, we'll look at the partial" is a solicitation, and write SOLICITED MANUSCRIPT in big colorful letters on the envelope, along with elaborate reminders in the cover letter that this is, indeed and truly, from the land of Solicitations. (It's probably part of the folk belief that there are Double Secret Passwords that can be used to bypass all selection criteria.) The best that can be said of this practice is that the slush readers sigh, chuckle, or make more coffee at the sight, as fits their temperaments, and read it anyway.

#112 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 01:40 PM:

Greg Ioannou wrote:

"like Lord of the Rings but with squid instead of hobbits"

This has left me pondering whether poorly battered hobbits are rubbery or tender...

#113 ::: Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 01:45 PM:

re: "Rommel at Waterloo"

The English center appeared on the verge of collapse. The last of the allied Dutch-Belgian troops had long since run away. Six hours of pounding had thinned the ranks of the red-coated squares.

Desperate, Wellington rode through the smoke and carnage, refusing to order retreat. "Night or the Prussians must come," he muttered. But would either come in time? The Prussian Marshall Blucher thought he was pregnant with an elephant--and by a French soldier! Blucher's chief-of-staff, Gneisenau, had done all he could to keep the Prussian army off the battlefield: no Pomeranian grenadiers were going to leave their bones in Belgium to cover the escape of a British army--not if he could help it.

The sun hung low in the sky, glowing blood-red through the trees and smoke. Then the soldiers on the bloody Waterloo battlefield heard a sound. It was a sound that had never been heard before. It was like, but not like the chuff-chuff of steam engines. It was like, but not like the clatter-clatter of textile machinery. It was a deeper sound, a more metallic sound, a roaring sound...

#114 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 02:25 PM:

'...one generally says "Yes, send the partial."

...

This is not a solicitation. '

Then places that don't take unsolicited but say "Send the partial" anyway do read unsolicited? Or they don't, but they've just lied to the author, and the extra effort only means they'll be rejected later (100% guaranteed rather than 99%)?

I'm horribly confused.

I've seen places that say no unsolicited Mss., and ones that say no unsolicited queries.

#115 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 02:39 PM:

Brad DeLong, xeger, and Greg Ioannou:

"... and in that infernal engine was what appeared to be the young Prince Harry, and a number of suckered and tenticular creatures, one of whom clutched a curiously glowing golden ring..."

#116 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 02:41 PM:

Madeline: Adding to the comments from John M. Ford (who read slush professionally), I suspect (from bits that have been dropped on this blog over the years) that query letters may not be called for in many cases; you may be better off researching, which may save energy and will certainly save time and a stamp. Tor, for instance, states and comments on submission requirements in the middle of its FAQ page. (I mention Tor because I remembered it being mentioned and have just checked; you should see how much other publishers have to say.)

Brad: I take it that's Rommel-at-Waterloo as rendered by Lionel Fanthorpe....

#117 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 03:46 PM:

John: that's very confusing. Some places that say they don't read unsolicited ms do invite queries. If they then say send along the ms,you do. But now the ms has to have a new name, doesn't it? It's name can't be "unsolicited" now, because someone has agreed in principle to read it eventually -- but you're saying it's name is not "solicited" either.

On the other hand, if "we don't read unsolicited ms" also means " we don't read unsolicited ms even after a positive response to a query because it's still unsolicited," that would explain what has happened to me at multiple venues (I'm not talking about rejection).

#118 ::: Steve Eley ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 04:53 PM:

John M. Ford wrote:
It's extremely hard to tell from a query whether the book will be any good. There are many signs that indicate the contrary, but unless the description is completely out of court -- if it's nonfiction, or uses trademarked characters without permission, or has impossible conditions attached ("I want a certfied check for $100,000 before I send you the ms."), then one generally says "Yes, send the partial."

Argh. Having sent out twenty query letters to agents in my genre which made none of those mistakes, and having gotten back only one "Yes, send the partial," I find that somewhat discouraging. Makes me wonder whether my query somehow came off sounding insane or illiterate without my knowing it.

(Another one of those writer self-delusions, I suppose. But it does get frustrating.)

#119 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2005, 07:57 PM:

Massive sarcasm below

John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: January 16, 2005, 05:00 AM: \
From The Quagmatist's* Guide to Artistic Effort:

1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.
3. You can't get out of the game.
4. These are also the laws of thermodynamics, and they do not care how many blankets are pulled over your head.

*quag'-ma-tist, n. person who sees the obvious practicalities of the situation and is voluntarily stuck doing it anyway

The world is full of people like the Schmuck, to whom "science" involves "scientific method," which they associate with the Rhythm Method, with is BIRTH CONTROL and birth control is ANATHEMA to them, if God meant you to not have children you should be celibate and sterile or you are meant by God to have the blessings that are children, besides the Rhythm Method doesn't work and neither does the Scientific Method and thermodynamics involves statistics and God Does Not Play Dice with the Universe....

#120 ::: Greg Black ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 09:30 AM:

Teresa said,

A phenomenal number of articles about how publishing works are written by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. This is partly because writing about writing, or writing about publishing, is what wanna-be authors do when they’ve given up on writing, but don’t yet want to admit it.

I know I’m late with this, but I’ve been away and nobody seems to have mentioned it. The above is true of writing on almost any topic, not just writing and publishing. I have about 200 technical books on my shelves right now awaiting my attention—and most of them will turn out to have very little merit, to be filled with facts that are plain wrong and advice that is just silly. Some are written by people who write books about software because they’ve given up on writing software; some are written by the authors of software that the books describe but that should never have seen the light of day; some are written by people who know better but can’t be bothered getting it right and some are written by people who just don’t have a clue. The sad thing is that they all got published.

Oh, while I’m here, I’d like to toss in my vote for Teresa to write The Oppressively Real Guide to Writing and Publishing. I would certainly buy it and I’m certain I’d enjoy reading it.

#121 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 11:21 AM:

Xopher, I think I'd prefer A History of Consolidated Feces, which would of course be an impeccably-researched tome about how to get your sh*t together.

Why yes, Jordin, that was the pun I was referring to when I said "Please don't kill me."

#122 ::: Tracina ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 12:38 PM:

Ms. Kemnitzer said: If they then say send along the ms, you do. But now the ms has to have a new name, doesn't it? It's name can't be "unsolicited" now, because someone has agreed in principle to read it eventually -- but you're saying it's name is not "solicited" either.

Perhaps "requested" is the word we're looking for here?

#123 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 01:33 PM:

There's a poetry magazine out there that states, in their submission guidelines, not to send them any poems. They want a letter of inquiry only. My uncle sent them a letter in verse asking why that was so, and they bought it (for publication, I believe).

Yes, I'm proud of my uncle. He sings good, too.

#124 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 04:21 PM:

Kip W:

Yeah, I've had a query letter turned into a request to be expanded into a feature article, which earned roughly $2,000. I've also had a query letter result in a request for a feature, which then got cut to a 2-paragraph Letter to the Editor, for which they don't pay. The former seem to me to be an anomaly in the General Theory Of Publication; not enough to change the paradigm.

Steve Eley:

re: "whether my query somehow came off sounding insane or illiterate"

Does anyone know where to find the column on Worst Ever Query Letters, from roughly a decade ago in, maybe, The Writer? My wife and I lterally rolled on the floor laughing. One said, in crayon, (I paraphrase): "you don't need to pay me for these poems. I wrote them in the Institution."

#125 ::: nanpotnan ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 05:16 PM:

"With my last volition, I will remove my head and place it in your trophy rack. May the next one I grow serve you better."

But it may take several moltings before the head reaches full capacity.

#126 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2005, 09:21 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer wrote:

>> On the other hand, if "we don't read unsolicited ms" also means " we don't read unsolicited ms even after a positive response to a query because it's still unsolicited," that would explain what has happened to me at multiple venues (I'm not talking about rejection).

Okay, I'll bite. What are you talking about? Response times of a geological age?

#127 ::: Madeline Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2005, 04:57 AM:

Dave Luckett said: A query letter is "I have written this (one-line description), these are my credits, enclosed is a one-page precis, do you want to see any more? PS here's a SASE for your reply."

Greg Ioannou said: Less obviously, the query letter is a writing sample. Even a the book idea that fits the publisher's list perfectly is likely to be passed over if the query letter is badly written or just lame. The initial goal of the query letter is to get the publisher to want to read the manuscript.

John M. Ford said: "No unsolicited mss." means that this particular market doesn't want to see anything that they didn't go to the author and ask to see. The best you can hope for is to get the partial back in its Manila of Despair.

Okay. I think, from what you've all said, that a query letter is the shortest of shortcuts for the publisher to get an idea of your writing style/standard.

The thing that confuses me is that the publisher could also get a sense of your writing standard by simply looking at the first few paragraphs of your submission (whether solicited or not).

The "send-out-query-letter, wait-for-response, send-out-partial" process seems to be very long-winded. It requires more work on the part of the publisher (reading query letter, wondering about asking for the partial, returning SASE with request/denial, and then possibly having to read the partial at a later date) and the writer (carefully composing the query letter, sending to publisher, waiting in anguish for response, and then either despair at being rejected or even more tension when the partial is sent out).

Just to display my cluelessness again, could anyone tell me if query letters are more of a non-fiction market thing? If they ARE used in the fiction market, how do they save time?

#128 ::: Greg Ioannou ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2005, 07:44 AM:

Madeline Query letters are more of a non-fiction thing, but they are used in fiction too. The basic idea is to save labour for the publisher. It is less work to send back a quick "no thanks" than to bundle up a manuscript and send it back.

When you are reading slush, more than 90% of the submissions are so obviously inappropriate that you can make the call to reject them within the first page or so. It fails (usually spectacularly) to meet one or more of four criteria: engaging content, acceptable writing standard, marketability, and appropriateness for that publisher.

In one legendary example about 20 years ago, the editor decided to reject a submission after reading just one word. A fiction house was sent a non-fiction book of religious studies that began "Bibble students..." I think I still have my copy of the first page, which the editor faxed to all of her friends. ("Bible" was misspelled throughout, as were most words.)

The query letter is supposed to let the publisher weed out that 90% right away. My experience (in two mass-market paperback houses, quite a while ago) was very different from John Ford's -- only a very small proportion of people sending in query letters were asked to send in more material.

The successful query letters were the ones that worked like successful book cover blurbs -- they made you want to read more. In fact, the goal of the query letter is the same as the goal of the blurb. It is designed to make someone want to buy the book. And many of the good ones read very much like well-written book blurbs.

#129 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2005, 12:09 AM:

tangiental question:

Anyone heard of windstorm creative? A friend of a friend on LJ is being asked to put together a media kit. I went and took a look, and nothing seems to out and out violate Yog's Law, but it smells fishy.

They say they've been around for fifteen years but none of the pages has anything. The retreat testimonials have been "divided into seasons" but there's nothing on the calendar. The other stuff is much the same.

I'm afraid she may have been taken, but I couldn't point to anything other than a ague distrust. It sounds good, but rings hollow.


TK

#130 ::: Tracina ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2005, 11:05 AM:

Terry Karney, you may want to e-mail Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors and ask if they can tell you anything.

#131 ::: Jane Patterson ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2005, 12:22 AM:

Windstorm Creative has been an invited publishing guest at Norwescon several times; Editors Jennifer and Cris DiMarco both give *very* good panel. I have bought one of their titles (Kevin Radthorne's Road to Kataishi from a book dealer at Orycon.)
I do agree that the website has some issues, and I know that some lines are more well-developed than others. (I believe they mentioned that their erotica and unauthorized fan guides were their strongest sellers, at least back in 2001)

I have no connection with WC other than just having been added to their file of possible book cover artists.

#132 ::: Spam deleted ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2005, 06:04 AM:

Spam from 165.21.154.8

#134 ::: miranda elizabeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2005, 09:27 PM:

Oh dear god YES.
It's long been a bugaboo of mine that nearly all writing books are written by failed writers. Sometimes these failed writers are pretty good writing teachers, and the book will be passable... obviously, often not. Then there are two or three different types: the publication-process guide that offers little valuable advice on the writing process. The book meant to "free your creativity" that is full of boring writing prompts, meant (IMO, and I'm a snob) for people who want to call themselves writers but have nothing to say ("Writing Down the Bones"). The generalized book about how to write - not in technical terms, but in terms of overcoming procrastination or writer's block ("Bird by Bird" - also a book by an otherwise failed writer). My special pet hate, the Julia Cameron "Artist's Way" series, which is not specific to writing but which may be responsible for half of some publishers' slush piles. The only writing books that I value anymore are those written by editors (HINT HINT!) and those with interviews with (or instructive quotes from) successful writers. But so much of it is just "writing pr0n."

Honestly... I don't know if I can write for real. I don't expect great fame and success... it would be nice to sell a few books, someday, maybe make a few thousand dollars every few years. But reading these writing books was always a depressing enterprise for me - not because they were Oppressively Realistic, but because they were so... boring. To the point where I thought, look, if this is what I have to do to Be A Writer, you can Count Me Out. On top of that, you hear horror stories of what some idiot or other did in terms of trying to get published, and you think, Well, You Know, That's Not Me. But that tiny little voice says, But what if it is? Don't let it be! - and I very much fear that a lot of books on writing do their ultra-damnedest to drown that little voice out. LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU SEND IN ALL YOUR MANUSCRIPTS ON RED PAPER AND DO NOT FORGET TO ENCLOSE COOKIES!

Right off the bat, none of these books ever want to mention (because the ego blow isn't good for sales) that, you can write and write and revise all you want, but if you aren't bright enough, or skilled enough with language, or any one of a dozen other variables, you're doomed. Then, with all these gifts, you're STILL probably doomed... just further down the road. So there's always the sense that "Anyone can write!" - which, by that logic, means that nobody can write well. It is true that anyone can write, and that writing can be enjoyable and therapeutic for many people, but damn, that doesn't mean they should be mass-mailing manuscripts to every publisher in the Market Guides. More people should be encouraged to keep it to themselves. (Like that guy who kept a website of his rejection letters and his snotty replies to them.) This may be one of the best functions of workshops, but they have to be good workshops.

Anyway. Chris Baty's book "No Plot? No Problem!" - intended as a NaNoWriMo tie-in - is kind of interesting because it will teach ppl to write a first draft that is actually a FIRST DRAFT. The product isn't intended to be good, feet are kept pretty firmly on the ground regarding publication prospects, etc. It's not exactly a good writing book per se, and especially not for sf/fantasy (where worldbuilding is usually so important), but it might help perfectionists loosen up a little, especially if they are like me and get too caught up in research to actually WRITE anything.

#135 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 24, 2005, 11:05 PM:

miranda elizabeth, I'm just puzzled. Why does "anyone can write" mean "nobody can write well?"

I don't believe it (full disclosure: ordinarily I teach the kids nobody expects to do anything right, to read and write, though not this year, so I may have a skewed perspective: but be patient with me).

The problem is that when we talk of writing, even when we talk of writing books, we are not talking about one thing. And we're rarely aware of that -- rarely aware of all the other things people could be talking about when they're talking about writing. Inexperienced or naive people are frequently confused as to which thing they are talking about, and don't get that applying the rules and ideas relevant to one writing thing to other writing things results in -- I don't know, messes of various kinds.

When somneone cheerily announces that anyone can write, they're saying something true, but it's not relevant to professional publishing. Self-expression, communication with one's family and peers, self-defense, archiving, are all purposes among others that anyone can engage in. And it's dangerous, I think, to be snobbish about those kinds of writing, though it's tempting. It's tempting because the con artists deliberately exploit the ambiguity of talking about writing to sucker people who are doing perfectly reasonable and honorable things in casual homegrown writing to think that they can take their homegrown writing and their homegrown approach to writing and make a mint and be famous all over town. That's infuriating for a lot of good reasons.

But. I staunchly believe that anyone can write and even and that it's extremely important to defend that perspective. For one thing, I think new, innovative, interesting writing arises out of a milieu in which a lot of people just write because it's a wonderful thing to do. And better readers too. All of which is good for the whole.

So -- anyone can cook dinner for themselves. It takes a professional to cook professionally. Similarly, anyone can write something for their own use. It takes a professional to write professionally.

I do think professionalism can be partly taught, but it mostly needs to be acqujired by practiced. (are we there yet?)

#136 ::: Glen Fisher ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2005, 08:53 PM:

miranda elizabeth wrote:

> It's long been a bugaboo of mine that nearly all writing books are written by failed writers.

How do you define "failed writer"? I'd think that some of those books are from really-truly-money-towards-the-author-traditional publishers. So whatever makes a writer "failed" isn't not getting published.

> Sometimes these failed writers are pretty good writing teachers,

They are "failed writers", yet they write well enough to be good teachers through the medium of the written word? I don't understand how that's possible. So whatever makes a writer "failed" doesn't involve writing ability, either. What else is left?

> The book meant to "free your creativity" that is full of boring writing prompts, meant (IMO, and I'm a snob) for people who want to call themselves writers but have nothing to say ("Writing Down the Bones").

"Boring", like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Consider the counter-claim (the exact words and source of which I can't lay my hands on): "Anyone who has lived through childhood has the material for a lifetime of writing."

> The generalized book about how to write - not in technical terms, but in terms of overcoming procrastination or writer's block ("Bird by Bird" - also a book by an otherwise failed writer).

Again, I question your definition of "failed". Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird, seems to be doing well enough (thirteen published books, as best I can tell from Amazon.com). From what I've read, many around here would be thrilled to have failed so miserably. What does it take to count as "successful" if she's tarred as "failed"?

> Honestly... I don't know if I can write for real.

How do you define "for real"? You appear to be assuming that there's a Secret to writing, one that "real writers" know, and that if you read enough how-to books, you'll eventually find out what that Secret is. Unfortunately, there is no secret. The way you become a "real writer" is by writing. If you're doing that, then you're a "real writer".

> I don't expect great fame and success...

Then why are you so obsessed with finding out how to achieve it? If what you want to do is write, then stop reading how-to books and start writing.

> [R]eading these writing books was always a depressing enterprise for me

Then why are you reading them? If "how to write" books are keeping you from writing, then they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, and you're wasting your time reading them.

> not because they were Oppressively Realistic, but because they were so... boring. To the point where I thought, look, if this is what I have to do to Be A Writer, you can Count Me Out.

What you have to do to be a writer is write. What you have to do to be a published writer is to write, and then convince a publisher to publish what you've written. How do you say that in a way that isn't boring?

Why expect the advice they offer to be anything but boring? Do you expect the advice to be exciting or entertaining? Robert Heinlein's "Rules for Writers" are pretty boring:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

No sparkle, no wit, no action, no nothing. How dull. Does that make them any less valuable?

> On top of that, you hear horror stories of what some idiot or other did in terms of trying to get published, and you think, Well, You Know, That's Not Me. But that tiny little voice says, But what if it is? Don't let it be!

Word around here seems to be, lots of writers wonder whether what they've written is "good enough". Including writers with many publications to their credit.

> Right off the bat, none of these books ever want to mention (because the ego blow isn't good for sales) that, you can write and write and revise all you want, but if you aren't bright enough, or skilled enough with language, or any one of a dozen other variables, you're doomed.

Perhaps they don't say that because it's not true. You appear to be making contradictory claims: "failed writers" are routinely getting books published, yet one needs extraordinary talent or skill to get published. The inescapable conclusion is that those "failed writers" have the extraordinary talent or skill. How, then, do they qualify as "failed" when they are both extraordinarily talented and published?

> So there's always the sense that "Anyone can write!" - which, by that logic, means that nobody can write well.

By what logic? The two statements are unrelated, unless you define "related" as "having words in common." The only conclusion that can be reached from "anyone can write!" without introducing a second premise is the tautology, "no one can't write." (And to reach "no one can write well," you have to make your second premise "only those who can't write can write well".)

> It is true that anyone can write, ... but damn, that doesn't mean they should be mass-mailing manuscripts to every publisher in the Market Guides.

Why not? The manuscripts have to reach the publishers before they can be published. No publisher is going to publish a manuscript that was put into a desk drawer and forgotten. Certainly, the prudent would-be-published-writer will do it one publisher at a time, following the appropriate procedures, but that's a far cry from not mailing out manuscripts at all.

> More people should be encouraged to keep it to themselves.

The problem is deciding just who those people should be. I suspect that the people you'd want to "keep it to themselves" aren't the same as the people I'd urge that on. I've read books that have had praise heaped on them by Those Who Should Know, but which I can't for the life of me figure out why. (And then you have the Emily Dickensen problem: she did "keep it to herself", being discovered only after her death. Should she have remained forever unknown?)

> Anyway. Chris Baty's book "No Plot? No Problem!" - intended as a NaNoWriMo tie-in - is kind of interesting because it will teach ppl to write a first draft that is actually a FIRST DRAFT. The product isn't intended to be good,

Bad idea. The product should always be intended to be good. It may not attain that goal, but it should most certainly strive to attain it. What draft should you start taking into account whether anyone would want to read what you've written?

> feet are kept pretty firmly on the ground regarding publication prospects, etc. It's not exactly a good writing book per se,

So the main reasons for recommending it are that it says you don't have worry about quality when you write, and that it stomps on fantasies of Being Published? Hardly what I'd look for in book for would-be-published-writers.

> but it might help perfectionists loosen up a little, especially if they are like me and get too caught up in research to actually WRITE anything.

And there you have the problem: not putting words on paper. Writers write. Someone who spends all her time researching is known as a "researcher". If you want to be writer, you're going to have to stop researching and start writing.

#137 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2005, 09:58 PM:

Glen, your response is much more eloquent than what I was going to say, which would have been something along the lines of <SARCASM>"That's right, what we need are more cynics telling would-be writers to STFU, because there aren't enough stifled voices in the world"</SARCASM> which wouldn't really be adding much to the conversation.

I, personally, adore Cameron and Goldberg's books. They both go out of their way to give the reader permission to write. Not all of us were raised by parents who bought us typewriters and blank notebooks when they saw us scribbling; for some people, Natalie's "For the next ten minutes you're free to write the worst crap in Pennsylvania but just keep that pen moving" approach was the first encouragement they ever ran into. Until then, they were being told STFU by everyone in sight, which just ain't healthy.

Now, I also adore Chris Baty's book, but Miranda gives a rather skewed review of it, in my opinion. No Plot? No Problem! is A) the story of how NaNoWriMo got started, and B) a primer on how to go about taking the 50K-words-in-30-days dare yourself. The main focus isn't on writing crap, so much as it is on writing. Stop saying "I'm going to write that book someday," and start writing 1,667 words of it each day. Many of the November participants do it just as a dare, but many others of 'em (myself included) do it to produce an actual first draft which they mean to revise as much as necessary and then attempt to publish.

I lent my copy of No Plot? No Problem! to my husband, who read the whole thing in a night (he didn't stop cackling for hours) and then sat down and wrote his first 500 words. To which perhaps Miranda might say, "Keep it to yourself, you probably have nothing to say," but to which I say, "Go for it!"

#138 ::: miranda elizabeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 25, 2005, 11:00 PM:

Everyone can write means no one can write well means that we are currently in a culture where it's mean and wrong to critique anyone's precious creative efforts. This is the very front end of Oppressive Realism, I think... beyond all the bad stuff that will probably happen even if your submission is actually good is the bare fact that a lot more people want to write than are capable of doing it well, and there's a whole industry of creativity and "writing" books that encourage them along. What I meant was that comment is something alongside stuff mentioned in "The Incredibles" and was mostly meant as a reference to that: when everyone is "special," nobody is.

I also did not say that a first draft or a NaNoWriMo novel or whatever should be crap - just that its relative crappiness should not be the writer's first concern. (NP?NP! also has a basis involving lots and lots of ways to pump up word counts, so yes, it is indeed more focussed on that specific logorrheic activity than on writing a first draft in general. But most of the good books I've read agree that the first draft is meant to be a mess. It's OK. The point is that if you are too concerned that the first draft has to be quite good on its own you may be too intimidated to finish it.)

And again, I'm just talking about my personal opinions of a few specific writing books. I don't have time to deal with replies to a line-by-line dissection of what I said tonight (haven't read it, just know it's there) - not feeling well and have to be up for work in, oh, about six hours. Until later.

#139 ::: miranda elizabeth ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 12:17 AM:

Told you I wasn't feeling well!

What I meant was that comment is something alongside stuff mentioned in "The Incredibles" and was mostly meant as a reference to that: when everyone is "special," nobody is.

should read

What I meant WITH that comment...

And as to the line-by-line dissection - don't assume on my assumptions. I'll just get to the writing prompt thing right here and read the rest of the post later: I assume that if someone really wants to write about their childhood, or an elderly person they meet on the street, or a time when they were embarrassed, they will. I don't think the majority of these sorts of prompts are that valuable to speculative fiction writers because it isn't the kind of thing they want to be writing. Yes, their characters have to be True; so does the whole texture of their work, to be any good. BUT. These exercises, in terms of writing, are meant to churn out the sort of stories that have come out of mainstream literary workshops and MFA writing programs - the much-mocked "epiphany story" is an example. I've never seen a book of this sort that is of any special value to a fantasist. (I'm not saying that they have no value to any fantasist - I can't say how other people write - but that the value is likely limited, and also that I suspect a gifted writer who is capable of taking notes and thinking deeply and revising things that don't work probably doesn't need to sit around doing these essays that most resemble assigned work from high school English courses. Thus blowing this theory that I regard writing as a special activity.)

I would define a "failed writer" in terms of people who write writing books as "someone known for writing a writing book, who has possibly also written novels that have received mostly middling-to-terrible reviews and not sold well." I would also like to define people like Dan Brown as failed writers - because they're terrible stylists - but the fact remains that they are selling well. (Whether I think they deserve to or not.) And sales, or good reviews, or both, have to be some measure of success. Then, there will always be people who, while not spectacular or successful writers themselves, are good teachers and critics, and I do think their work has value, but you have to find it for yourself: Lamott and Goldberg and so forth have not held much value for me.

and of course, for pete's sake, it's MY OPINION (duh)... my opinion of the many reasons why most writing books suck, or at least have sucked FOR ME. You can take it with a grain of salt, but it's pretty dumb to argue with me about it, or try to baptize me with your "wisdom" (which from this end reads like condescension). You really assume too much, and of what I have read of that reply, it's a remarkably obtuse interpretation of what I was trying to say. (Given that, perhaps I didn't say it so well.) The writing book I actually like the most and found the most valuable is The Modern Library Writers' Workshop by Stephen Koch: YMMV.

It is illogical to sit around and talk about how huge slushpiles are and how hard it is for talented people to break into the business and how much vanity presses and fake agents suck and so on and on while ignoring the elephant, which is simply that not everyone can write, not everyone should be encouraged to write with professional ambition, and not everyone who writes and is encouraged to write should try to publish, and if they do, not everything they write is going to be worth publishing. ALL of these problems are the results of this fact-set being ignored.

Writing has tremendous therapeutic value for many people: given. Some people have words and worlds that they HAVE to get out of them: also a given. Not a given is that the whole world need to have access to all of it. Emily Dickinson - whose work, incidentally, I've never really liked - did publish during her lifetime, here and there, and was encouraged. It was just that she was sitting on thousands of poems at home. She was not submitting them constantly and receiving endless rejection. She was a reclusive, privileged 19th-century spinster with both societal and private reasons for her peculiar situation. I don't feel that she is in any way germane to this discussion. Someone like the artist Henry Darger might be a more appropriate example (he also wrote, but I think his work is now appreciated more on its visual merits than on the story itself).

And if you want to put it that way - sure, yeah, I do mean that more "would-be writers should be told to STFU." Just not in those terms. I think that more would-be writers should be given more realistic ideas of their chances and of the market: for example, you can be fantastic, but conventional wisdom has it that a vampire novel is still a tough sell. I also think that people need test readers - prior to trying to publish something - who are NOT interested in saving their feelings. Family and friends are not good beta readers, nor is any situation in which the guy who doesn't like your book is "just being a jerk." There is totally a market these days - in writing books, creativity books, "life coaching," whatever, where people make quite a lot of money and sell quite a lot of books and workshop seats and so on with a fuzzy, feel-good idea that everyone can be a talented creative artist. The truth is that anyone can make art of whatever sort, and even call it art, and feel free to do so. But the obligation of others to hold their hands, reassure them, tell them their work is good and valuable... it doesn't exist. Most creative work has value in terms of whatever sort of outlet it is for the creator, nothing more or less. If it has value to others, that's gravy.** It is not realistic to automatically expect it to have value to others. While understandable, it is not realistic or healthy to base your self-worth on it. And plenty of people do, and are led to do so. That's what I'm talking about. Art is for yourself first, and (with the exception of patronage situations) only incidentally for an audience.

Now it's bedtime. If I can write this much by just glancing over a response, is it really a good idea for me to read the whole thing? *wink*

**being completely fair, I believe most of the "You're already a creative artist, you just don't know it yet!" market does start its customers with the idea that they're doing stuff for themselves. But I don't think they emphasize it much, because it's too jarring a note in the soup of happy-fuzzy-encouragement. Especially with writing, where the whole idea of it that we have as a society is that it is done with the idea of having other people read it eventually. Can writing ever not be a self-conscious act?

#140 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 01:45 AM:

There's a big difference between giving would-be writers a realistic picture of the marketplace, and telling a would-be writer that he shouldn't even try. I'm in greatly in favor of the former, which Teresa's book, should she write it, would help accomplish. But I'm dead-set against the latter.

Encourage a dreamer to pursue his dreams, and the worst that can happen is he'll try and fail. Discourage him convincingly enough, and whatever potential he had in him will die unrealized.

When it comes to that yet-unrealized potential, I subscribe to the logic "you can't prove a negative." There may indeed be this mystical thing called talent without which the would-be writer is doomed to failure, but no one on this green Earth can point those doomed writers out. Sure, we can tell the difference between "talented writing" and incompetent writing, but there is no way we can say for sure that someone who is currently outputting dreck will never in his/her life produce writing that'll knock a nation's socks off. That "never" is the negative we simply can't prove.

In other words, there may well be people who shouldn't bother trying. But it isn't our place to say who they are. We don't have that kind of divine knowledge, and we have no right to pretend we do.

So I think a little more focus on improving our own craft, and less on identifying all those other "failed writers," would be a healthy thing.

#141 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 03:43 AM:

There is no 'good'.

There is I liked it, This sold well, This has sold well over generational time, and This has extensively influenced subsequent artists.

Only the first one -- the individual, personal one -- is likely to be known to the artist in any kind of usefully immediate time frame; only the second of the subsequent three things can be known during the artist's lifetime.

You need all four to make an argument that something is, in artistic terms, "good".

All these notions of 'good writing' detectable immediately are snares and delusions, unless and until directly connected to some tangible result which it is possible to know.

In which case, you'll find out its a collapsed code phrase for something else entirely. Attempts to have conversations about the subject without un-collapsing the code phrases aren't recommended from this corner.

Yes, this is a claim that there is no such thing as inherent value.

As for 'failed writers', well,


Praise ale when it is drunk
Ice when it is crossed
A friend on the pyre
The day at evening time.

The only meaningful approval cannot come before we are, each and severally, quite dead. So there's no point at all in worrying about it, or exercising demons by trying to extract it from the present.

#142 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 04:13 AM:

I liked "The Incredibles," but I hated that line. I was really relieved when they didn't spend a whole lot of time on the stupid false argument that promoting equality (or equal access) dulls excellence. Instead, they went off in a direction which I think is more true, more helpful, and better drama: that a person's eccentricities are inextricably bound with their unique gifts, that being unique does not preclude cooperative action, etc.

And I think the elephant is this; it's shaped like a fan. No, it's shaped like a snake. No, it's very big and scaly. No, it's like a little rope bell pull. Wait, aren't there supposed to be five blind philosophers? How come I can only remember four?

(I did have a point) I'm going to repeat what I said before: the problem is that there are multiple things we can be talking about when we talk about writing, and scam artists exploit this ambiguity. Grammy writing her memoirs might or might not be also writing a professional-quality book -- but if she's not, and we only speak of writing as if it were all that quality, we back her into the corner where she has to dream of Dasnielle Steele's place on the best seller lists, we blind her to the possibility that amateur writing is a good enough thing as it stands. It dfoesn't need a magnificent print run. It needs to go to the copy shop and thence to the post office and into the hands of those who need it and care for it -- friends, family, genealogists. Once in a while it needs to go farther.

But. Part of the problem is raw capitlaism, where nothing is deemed good unless it is making aome management folks a lot of monmey.

#143 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 04:42 AM:

There are actually two more blind philosophers: the one who thinks an elephant is hard and pointy like a spear; and the one who thinks an elephant is soft and mushy.

(Thank you, S. Gross.)

(I tried to do one of those fun little pop-up-on-mouse-over asterisks like Teresa does, but it wouldn't let me. Bwah.)

#144 ::: Pete Darby ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 05:40 AM:

"Everyone's special and all must have prizes" is one reason why my child is now home educated: the currency of being praised has been debased by the false goal of promoting self-esteem in everyone.

(scholarly ref: http://tinyurl.com/5k56t for why this is a blind alley, though it was fairly obvious to me, smug get that I am)

Me, I'd rather make sure schoools promoted self esteem in kids by giving them the toolboxes of literacy, numeracy, culture and science to give them the ability to achieve anything, rather than a fiver for turning up to class (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/4201329.stm ).

But back onto topic... Yes, everyone has a story to tell, and can, conceivably, write it well enough so that people will read it. But simply knowing that doesn't get the story written. It does not mean that, having written it, that has the virtue of being written well. Nor does writing it, however well, grant a right to be published, let alone read widely.

The best, I think, any writer can do is, as Heinelein says, write. I'd disagree about re-writing (he was very lucky in many ways with his talent, editors and market that he could afford to only re-write to order), but yeah, the best you can do is write, make sure the work's good enough to keep you from bursting into tears when it's brought up*, and submit it to the sort of places that would, conceivably, publish it. And, realistically, keeping it on the market costs you nothing but stamps.

From what I've seen around here, just doing that puts you considerably ahead of the game.

But what do I know, me with my NaNoWriMo first draft to my name and nothing else? Roll on NaNoReWriMo...

* This presupposes some sort of self-critical faculty, of course. If you have none, there may be no hope for you, especially if you believe you don't need an editor. I can, however, recommend several prestige self-financed publication agencies, particularly Canterbury Associated Self-Publishing House. All cheques made out to CASH, please.

#145 ::: Ray Radlein ::: (view all by) ::: January 26, 2005, 08:46 PM:
There is I liked it, This sold well, This has sold well over generational time, and This has extensively influenced subsequent artists.

Only the first one -- the individual, personal one -- is likely to be known to the artist in any kind of usefully immediate time frame; only the second of the subsequent three things can be known during the artist's lifetime.

Actually, the last of those can also be known during the artist's lifetime. Out of sheer laziness, I'll shift the field of play from literature to music, where the examples are ubiquitous, from The Velvet Underground and Nico to Nevermind to Radio City to Smile (which achieved the difficult trick of being widely influential despite never actually existing) to Birth of the Cool, Bitches Brew, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Another Green World, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, The Message, Run-D.M.C., It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, et cetera.

It can certainly be argued that music — especially popular music — has a faster cycle time than literature; but that only makes examples more plentiful and somewhat easier to come by. With a bit of carful consideration, it should be easy enough to come up with comparable examples from literature (actually, it can be argued that Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, above, is an example from literature).

#146 ::: Alex von Thorn ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 02:22 AM:

I am currently reading How Not to Write a Novel by David Armstrong. I got it for Christmas. For a masochist procrastinator like myself, it is humorously motivational.

#147 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 27, 2005, 07:57 PM:

Ray --

I know almost nothing about music, so I shouldn't really try to address that example. (And this reply is probably way down the thread by now, too.)

Certainly you get interactive artist communities -- the Inklings, or the Scribblies, say -- and 'hey, that's cool!' reactions, but the kind of thing I'm thinking of when I talk about 'extensive influence' is the sort of influence that Paradise Lost had and has, where the artistic landscape changes, and people who have never heard of you or read your work are nonetheless influenced by it. (Either because it's become culturally pervasive or because you've changed the language.)

So, yes, you can know that other artists have gone "hey, cool! I can steal that!", and that should go on the list, but that's not what I meant by 'extensively influenced'.

In the case of music, extensive influence might well happen fast enough to be known in your lifetime, too; I know there are people who would make a case for that about the Beatles. I just have no clue how to evaluate their arguments.

#148 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: January 28, 2005, 07:43 AM:

There's a program on TV right this moment, where some poor woman is trying to sell lots of stuff she's collected in order to raise £600 for printing fees to get her novel published.

She believes that it will change her life, make her famous and wealthy, and so forth. I have Teresa to "blame" (well, okay, thank) for the fact I'm sitting here thinking "no it won't, not if you're paying for it to be printed".

But it makes the program a lot harder to watch; I keep wanting to gently point her in the direction of this blog. :/

#149 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2006, 10:29 AM:

If you just got here from The Mind Control Lasers Lied to Me, please understand that this post doesn't explain Lawrence Watt-Evans. It's just a cautionary discussion of the difficulty of sorting out good writing advice from the masses of bad advice available out there.

#150 ::: tykewriter sees Doubletalk spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2010, 05:17 AM:

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