Debunking ten common “always/never” suggestions for writers

Brandon Sanderson is often quoted as saying, “in this business, you will never lack for advice.” And he’s absolutely correct. There is a veritable mountain of advice being pushed at authors—usually by other authors—every year. Many times this advice falls into the never/always mode of absolutes. Because absolutes make for good pulpit-pounding. But a lot of these are (to my mind) worthy of criticism. So let me do a little off-the-cuff debunking of what I think are some of the ten most common never/always suggestions made to authors, by authors.

1. You must never self-publish.
This was gospel when I was plowing through my proverbial first million words of “practice” fiction. And at the time, it was good advice. Self-publishing invariably meant vanity publishing, which is a form of publishing where the author spends hundreds or even thousands of dollars of his/her own money, to put his/her book into print. Vanity presses tend to be scams as often as not, and with the advent of widespread electronic book platforms (Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc.) as well as print-on-demand options like Amazon.com’s CreateSpace, vanity presses are also wholly unnecessary. Plus, self-publishing doesn’t carry the same stigma it used to. Once upon a time self-publishing was a warning flag to the rest of the genre—hey guys, I couldn’t cut it with editors! These days, not so much. There are good writers who are self-publishing, and making a decent amount of money. You have no doubt heard of a few.

2. You must always self-publish.
A lot of bogeyman-mongering has been going on the past few years, where traditional publishing and publishers are concerned: that they will always rip you off, that they don’t abide by their own contracts, that the editors suck and don’t know what they’re doing, that anyone who signs with a traditional publisher becomes a “slave” to that publisher, and so on, and so forth. Frankly, it’s up to you to know your markets. Traditional publishing is still the best bet: to make money and get exposure. And it’s also got a degree of branding power that’s tough to argue with. Why? Because writers who make the editorial cut have at least survived one kind of significant professional filter. There are lots of readers who pay attention to this. So scope out those houses beforehand, talk to writers already under contract, and do your homework. An educated writer with a bit if business savvy can do well in trad pub.

3. You must never use a familiar trope or story.
Once upon a time in Science Fiction there was this notion that once a particular concept or idea had been explored by a given author, then it was “used up” and nobody could ever go to that pocket of the SF universe again. Not without being labeled an imitative hack. Thing is, as of 2014, there have been many decades worth of Science Fiction and Fantasy stories and novels published. The chances of you actually coming up with a wholly unique and original idea, unlike anything every done before, are remote. So don’t worry about it! It will be your voice—your style of telling stories, and how this translates on the page—which will win audiences over. Not the idea itself. Yes, an interesting combination of conceits is always a great thing to work for. But I wouldn’t let lack of originality stunt or halt me writing something I really wanted to write.

4. You must always use a familiar trope or story.
It can be rightly said that certain types of stories are classic to the point of being ingrained in our Western cultural sensibilities. Taking a familiar path can often be the key to securing verisimilitude and thus winning over readers. Still, it doesn’t hurt to put your own particular spin on a thing. And not necessarily by just re-labeling all the familiar furniture and props. What is it about your particular story or book that fascinates you and how could that aspect, or character, or combination of events, be spiced up or magnified or explored, such that your particular tracing of a well-worn path suddenly comes alive in your hands?

5. You must never offend anyone with what you write.
There is a growing and well-meant trend among certain SF/F writers and editors to step tippy-toes around matters of ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, and other hot-button subjects which invariably take on a political tone. To the point that a young writer just getting started in the genre can feel barraged by a laundry list of thou shalt nots regarding characters, character-creation, stereotypes, hero-and-villain juxtaposition, worldbuilding, etc. The truth is, almost nothing anyone publishes can ever possibly be inoffensive to everybody. Publish long enough in the biz and you will offend someone. So here again, I say, don’t worry about it! Write the story you want to write—in your heart. Let the story speak to you in the way it needs to speak, and chances are good you will find an audience who responds. Not every book or story can be written to every sensibility or taste. Avoid allowing fear—especially of condemnation or judgment from other writers—block you from telling your truths as your stories demand that they be told.

6. You must always offend people with what you write.
The flip side of offensensitivity (hat tip: Berkley Breathed) is shock-jockitude. The idea that you’re not writing “real” SF/F unless you’re challenging or defying something, or someone, or some kind of prevailing notion or conventional wisdom. The in-your-face breed of SF/F has a long and somewhat (in)famous history in the genre, and there are many writers who are proud in the extreme to have shoved whatever it is they felt needed shoving, into the faces of the audience. I’ve always thought that being deliberately confrontational, shocking, grotesque, rude, or otherwise setting out to smack readers in the face with your prose, was a cheap way to gain a reputation without having to invest much effort in deeply exploring a controversial subject. Anyone can be offensive. It takes an actual artist to know when and where it’s worth pushing a button, and when and where it’s best to just tell a story readers can actually enjoy.

7. Short fiction is dead, you should stick to writing novels.
I’ve heard this one a lot in the last 20 years, and if your objective is to live solely on your writing income, yes, short fiction alone is a very difficult way to try to make a living. But, short fiction is a terrific way to build your resume and your audience at the same time. Lord knows I wouldn’t be anywhere without my short fiction! Plus, if you can develop a relationship with one of the editors at one of the major short fiction markets, you can make a nice bit of money while fleshing out and developing ideas, characters, and universes which can later be harvested for longer works. Plus, it’s much easier (statistically) to put a short work onto the awards ballots, than a full novel. And awards wins/nominations too can be a great way to build both a resume and an audience.

8. Self-publishing has unleashed a new golden age of short fiction.
I’m going to put myself down as a doubter, on this claim. Readers still seem to prefer book-length works, when they browse on-line at the major e-book retailers. In particular, series are what’s liable to earn and keep the interest of fans. So while you can certainly use the short fiction angle to give readers an inexpensive taste of what’s yet to come in a book or series of books, as noted in the last paragraph, trying to make your way on short fiction alone is liable to lead to a lot of disappointment. The market just isn’t supporting self-published short fiction to the same degree as self-published novels. The possible exception being short fiction collections and anthologies, culled from short fiction previously published in magazines or other paying markets.

9. Your writing group is your life, never go without it.
Since writing can be a somewhat neurotic and lonely profession, writers tend to clump together in groups where they can talk to like-minded people about like-minded things. Stuff boring or even incomprehensible to people working in other arenas. Naturally, these groups become proving grounds where we all seek to hone our craft and our works. Yet, I would propose to you (strongly) that while a good writing group can help you strengthen yourself and your stories, the point of the group ought to not be self-perpetuation. It should be to foster the members to eventually grow skilled and confident enough to fly solo. Too many writing groups become places of dependency. Dependency, ultimately, won’t help you reach your goals, nor make you a better craftsperson, nor a better storyteller. If you want constructive feedback, get it from an editor who can pay.

10. Your writing is always camera-ready right off the bat.
I see this sentiment emerging mostly in the self-publishing realm, where people spend so much time fixated on being prolific and/or marketing, that they don’t give themselves the time to develop their abilities. That first million words I talk about at the start? That’s no joke. It’s part of the so-called ten-thousand-hour rule: that it takes about this much time for any artist or athlete to reach what might be called entry-level professional competency. Writers, figure skaters, painters, violinists, etc. Nobody (or almost nobody) is born with so much shining, innate ability, that (s)he can skip the practice stage, and emerge into the professional world fully-formed. It generally takes a lot of hard work, and, yes, a lot of waiting and disappointment. Rushing to self-publish without having devoted sufficient time to craft and personal skills development is a bit like (and I am going to paraphrase my friend and teacher Kevin J. Anderson on this) buying a football jersey from the sports store, putting the jersey on, then thinking you’re qualified to go play in the Superbowl. Publishing has now been made easy. But success? Success is hard.

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4 thoughts on “Debunking ten common “always/never” suggestions for writers

  1. I think I heard it from Dean, but he may have been quoting Algis: “There is seldom only one right way of doing anything.”

    To me, the only unbreakable rules are two:

    1. You must read.
    2. You must write.

    Everything else is advice that someone means to be helpful, but which may not be applicable to your situation at all. Think about it, don’t blindly follow it.

  2. Honestly, there’s a lot of advice out there that contradicts other advice out there. It gets confusing as all get out for a fairly new fiction writer (but one who has probably written billions of words of op-ed and non-fiction) who is trying to get the story right. I like Martin’s advice. So far, those are the universal one’s I’ve seen.

    For me though, one rule I have for myself is to just write the story and let it be as long as it needs to be. I’ve got one right now that I’m trying to find a market for. It’s 8,500 words, and too long for a lot of places. That’s OK. It’s as long as I felt it needed to be. If I had tried to condense the story down to 5,000 words, it would have suffered. I know, because the first story I ever sent out, I did that. I tried to make it fit a preferred word count, and rushed the ending. That’s why my personal rule is to write the story as long as it needs to be, and worry about where to put it later. If I don’t, the story suffers, and that’s a losing combination for anyone.

  3. I agree with all of this, and especially, item three. I knew when I started my novel that its idea wasn’t “original.” But it was the story that I wanted to write, so I did so with conviction, and that’s that. It highlights a situation I wanted highlighted and presents a diversity of character personalities, each of whom handles impending doom in their own way. And importantly, it is told in my voice and written as I wanted it to be. As much as we constantly hear the dos and don’ts of SF/F writing, I believe that having the confidence to be ourselves and write what’s in our heads and waiting to get out onto the page is of equal importance.

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