Caveat Scriptor

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I was brand new at this, I more or less put all authors on the same plane. Didn’t matter what genre they wrote in. If I had a novel in my hand, I assumed that the person who wrote it was more or less in the same mystical pantheon as all the rest of the authors. I’d never heard of the mid-list, didn’t understand anything about bestsellers versus blockbusters, wasn’t aware that genre existed apart from ‘mainstream,’ and was blissfully ignorant of the fact that very few people ever get rich on their first novel. Or their fifth. Or their tenth. In fact, very few people ever get truly rich — as in, independently wealthy for the rest of their lives, with money to burn — working as fiction writers.

To me, the perception was that all fiction authors were rich. They had to be, right? Their books were on the shelves at B. Dalton — dating myself, I know — and only rich ‘n famous people have their books on book store shelves, right?

Also, I didn’t understand that there is a big difference between a “young” writer who has published a handful of novels or stories, and an “established” writer who has tens or hundreds of novels and stories, going back over a career that spans decades. To me the “young” and the “established” were mashed together in one nebulous pile of “famous” names that were all equally impressive because they shared space on the shelves.

I didn’t know books could die, along with authors’ careers. I also didn’t know that not all authors are equally equipped to dispense good advice to aspirants.


I remember in my teens and early twenties, I hero-worshipped Carl Sagan. So much so that I was devastated by his death. It really upset me, emotionally. I created a memorial web site in his name, wherein I praised the man wall-to-wall as one of the true greats of our age.

Until I read Keay Davidson’s biography on Sagan.

Wow, talk about having the scales fall from one’s eyes. Sagan was hardly the man I’d imagined him to be. In fact, when I got done with the biography, I gradually pruned down my memorial web site until it vanished entirely. Because I felt like I’d been deluding myself: the Sagan I’d been hero-worshipping didn’t exist. And most of what I wrote in praise of him, actually looked quite foolish.

I still love some of Sagan’s products. His COSMOS series is something I proudly own on DVD. But I no longer put Sagan on a pedestal.

Back to the topic….

Published authors aren’t any more special than Sagan was. Yet we was as aspirants often perceive them to be: enlightened, wise, set apart, elevated. They are what we wish to become, so we gobble up whatever they throw at us, seldom stopping to wonder whether or not what we’re being told is, in fact, good information.

In the last five years I’ve gradually become aware of the fact that published authors exist on a very large spectrum. There are tiers within tiers within tiers. The mere fact that a person has a novel in print does not automatically make that individual an expert. Not at writing. Not at publishing. Not at anything. Heck, even having several novels in print doesn’t make that person an expert. It just means that person has been successful at selling stories to a publisher. Anything else coming out of that person’s mouth — or from their pen, or their word processor, or their blog — is their opinion. Trust it if you feel like it.

As an aspirant, what to do?

1) It’s okay to conclude that a published author — even someone who has won awards — is full of shit. Give yourself permission. Not all authors are created equal, when it comes to dispensing advice or information. Since many authors are flaming egotists who love a rapt audience, they sometimes get used to not having anyone walk up to them with a bullshit detector that is loudly pinging.

2) Your bullshit detector is simple: contrast what one author is saying versus what other, even more prominent or long-experienced authors are saying. If the less-experienced author’s words don’t jive with what several other, more-experienced authors are saying, chances are that’s your answer.

3) Realize that every author’s path to publication and/or success is a unique experience. There are parallels, but when viewed in detail, no one author’s experience will duplicate another author’s. Thus what worked for one author won’t necessarily work for another author, or for you. Also realize that you emulate an outlier at your own risk. Authors who took a truly unusual or exceptional path to get where they are, will be the toughest to follow. In fact, it might be impossible to follow them.

4) Beware of the fact that outliers are sometimes the ones who talk the longest and the loudest. Can’t blame them. They’re proud of having gotten over, under, around, or through certain barriers the rest of us are forced to sit and gnaw on for protracted periods. Again, emulate an outlier at your own risk. Certain problems are just going to be par for the course. If an outlier makes broad statements to the contrary, whip out your bullshit detector.

5) Look widely at who is going places and doing things in the publishing world. Be prejudiced about who you get tips and advice from. Some authors love to tell aspirants what to do because they get off on telling aspirants what to do. Other authors are genuinely interested in helping aspirants and aren’t in it for their own ego as much as they’re in it because they remember how tough it was, and they think they can help. Again, use your bullshit detector. And never take any single author’s word for it. Especially if that author insists that they — and they alone — have unlocked the secret mysteries of publishing.

6) If you must have a “hero,” make it several “heroes” and make them people who have been writing and publishing successfully for a long time in the area(s) where you also want to be published and successful. Careers rise and fall. And rise again, if the person is adaptive and can work within the changes. Authors with ten years or less under their belts aren’t necessarily bad sources of advice, but if you can get access to successful pros with two or more decades under their belt, chances are they know what advice to give, and when, and have plenty of cautionary tales.

In the end, you are your own businessperson. Your writing is your single-employee, single-boss business. Set your own goals and benchmarks. What do you want to do with the business, and where do you want it to go? How hard are you willing to work? People who have successfully run similar businesses — aka: other authors — are where you go to ask for information on how to run yours. Don’t be fooled by a fancy wrapper. There is no replacement for age or experience. If you feel you’re being used or abused, don’t be afraid to dip your cup in different pools of knowledge. Cast your net widely. Compare and contrast.

And remember that there will always be some chump — maybe a little further down the road than you are — who will be ready to call you an idiot because you’re not doing it the way he thinks you should be doing it.

The world is full of people who all think they know how to do everyone else’s job better than it’s already being done.

Did you ask for advice, or was it forced upon you?

Chances are high that there is another author, even further down the road from the chump, who will refute the chump on all counts, and call the chump an idiot for being arrogant enough to call you an idiot.