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[process] Advice for mid-career writers, and the lack thereof - Lakeshore
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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-07-15 05:18
Subject: [process] Advice for mid-career writers, and the lack thereof
Security: Public
Tags:process, publishing, writing
From yesterday's Link Salad:
How to soar when you’re already in flight… — A.M. Dellamonica asks a really interesting question about how writers talk to one another. My facile answer to her is that aspiring writers outnumber established writers by a ratio of thousands:one, so the audience is distinctly different. But that's a lousy answer. I need to think on this.

This one's still on mind. First of all, to address my lousy answer of yesterday, I'm going to throw out a couple of numbers. It's early, and I can't be arsed to do real research right now, so take these with a small grain of salt.

In the field of sf/f publishing, I estimate there are less than 2,000 active, working professionals. (If I'm wrong, it's certainly not an order-of-magnitude error.) The bulk of those are writers — novelists, short fictioneers and us multimodal types — but I also include agents, editors, publishers, critics and whatnot.

Now, consider that the last time I looked, a trade publishing house might get 20,000 novel submissions a year from aspiring or early-career writers. (Again, if I'm wrong, I don't believe it's an order-of-magnitude error.) So figure that not every one of the same trade houses gets all the same novels at the same time, let's say there are in any given time period 50,000 would-be novelists with enough gumption to complete a novel and send it out. Let's take a flyer and say there's another 50,000 would-be short story writers pursuing their craft and submitting to those markets.

So what I said yesterday is wrong. The ratio isn't thousands to one, it's fifty to one. That is, 100,000 aspirants to 2,000 working professionals.

Still, that's a very different audience than mid-career writers. There are probably hundreds of aspiring and early-career writers who read my blog. If more than a few dozen mid-career writers read my blog, I'd be surprised. Just by the numbers, I can reach more people and hopefully do more good offering advice and examples to the larger audience.

All of the above and a $1.25 will buy me a Coke.

More to the point, Alyx observes in her original posting on this topic that people who've arrived at the mid-career point generally have developed enough awareness of their own process and craft to self-direct their developmental issues. With rare exceptions, this is notably not true of new writers, or, frankly, people new at any complex undertaking. That's why we have critique groups and con workshops and (sometimes) editorial feedback. To guide people whose vision of themselves is not yet suited to the task.

There is a complex interchange between ego, motivation and experience, and I've generally found that more established writers are less certain of themselves than people just setting out. That phenomenon is probably a good thing, given the psychotic persistence that it takes to succeed in this field. If you approach writing without a lot of ego strength, or some fungible substitute such as alcohol or money, you are in for a rough ride. Again, there are always exceptions, but they are rare.

For my own part, I find that Alyx is right about developmental issues. I'm painfully aware of certain deficits in my craft, just as I'm aware of my strengths. A few examples of my deficits: I still don't write female characters as convincing as my male characters, I skim over the depth of relationships and emotions that could really make my work pop out, I haven't mastered the subtleties of POV as well as I'd like, I rely on rhetorical tricks and clever language to wallpaper over cracks in my work. A few examples of my strengths: good world-building, clean line-level prose, a strong sense of style, a protean literary voice, decent mastery of the telling detail/crunchy bits.

As Alyx asks, how can someone dispensing generic advice on the Internet address my issues as a mid-career writer? The further along I get in my career and my work, the more idiosyncratic those become. All new writers need to learn about manuscript format, submission processes, what editors really do, storytelling basics and intermediates, the whole process of 'breaking in', and so forth. Mid-career writers are like Dostoevsky's unhappy families; each is developing in their own way.

I'm not sure what I'd say if I were dispensing advice to mid-career writers. I think I'd talk about meta-issues of ontology, self-critique and the learning process of writers. Or cite cases in order to extract principles. It would get pretty airy pretty fast, methinks. Still, I wish I knew the answer.

What do you think? What advice would you offer me or Alyx? As she asks, Is there something about character or plotting that’s general enough to make a good post but so advanced it’ll spark growth in someone really seasoned… a Cory Doctorow, say? A Connie Willis?

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lotusice
User: lotusice
Date: 2010-07-15 12:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think there's different levels of 'mid,' too, right?

I have a handful of published stories, across an alarming range of genres. I worry about not having jumped on the SF/F genre hard enough, established myself, I worry about my publication rate being too slow, stagnating, I worry that I'm pro but haven't broken into the top tier zines and it's clear that I'm "good" but maybe not "good enough" for a sustained career.

That's different than your issues, or the issues of someone who is published but proceeding regularly and relatively quickly up the publication ziggurat.

Women who write and have full time jobs and small children have different writing/publishing/self-promotion issues than single people with no kids.

And that's not even touching craft and how 'talent' looks different on different people and how different advice will be for someone who has short bursts of brilliance, than someone who crafts slowly and precisely and methodically.

My experience with workshops and other writers and discussions about craft is that it's less content than community.

I don't care much what my writer friends and I all discuss when we're at cons - the content is less valuable to me than not feeling like I'm writing in a vacuum, feeling like I'm supported and encouraged and that there are people who even if they're not all that interested in the umpteenth draft of the current novel, can pretend that they are knowledgeably and convincingly.

(Edited a couple of times for coherence because I'm pre-coffee here, zomg.)

Edited at 2010-07-15 01:00 pm (UTC)
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-07-15 13:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think mid-career is a good time for a writer to go back to basics. Beginning writers are bombarded with a lot of information about character, plot, setting, etc., etc., most of which they can't process. Once you've published some books, it's time to really master that stuff. As a reader, I would say only about one in ten books I read are properly executed. The rest contain major "beginner-type" flaws such as big plot holes, failed follow-through, pacing problems/lack of building tension, or, most-common-of-all, an unsatisfying ending. I'm still working on all of those things, and I think anyone actively publishing should also be working to get better. But what I see a lot is that once a person has published 1-2 novels, they stop striving to improve their skills. And then there's the moaning about how unfair it is to be a mid-list writer. (Note: I've never read anything excellent by a self-described mid-list writer.)
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cathshaffer
User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-07-15 13:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
By the way, Jay, this isn't a personal critique. Through some weird singularity of publishing, I haven't read any of your books yet. I do have one in the house right now, though, and am about to break that trend!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-15 13:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
All good. :)
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dancinghorse
User: dancinghorse
Date: 2010-07-15 13:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Back in the Cretaceous, when slush was made of paper and there were still transoms, I saw figures in the HUNDREDS of thousands annually for one publisher's slush pile. It was something like 275K pieces a year.

That number, supposedly, has gone up. Your 20K sounds more like the numbers for a small agency.

So you were probably closer to right the first time.

The number that makes it through the eye of the needle is 'way smaller and probably fairly constant.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-15 13:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Then I am off by an order of magnitude... :p
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dancinghorse: tongue
User: dancinghorse
Date: 2010-07-15 13:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:tongue
Yup. Still a good general point, however.
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-07-15 14:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Based on my anecdotal exposure and experience, I'd say that early aspiring writers are more concerned with the process of submission/marketing and mastering a particular form--short story or novel. They've not acquired the level of subtlety and self-awareness to go back to their own work and tear it apart, or see the holes without assistance. They have particular strengths, but glaring weaknesses. It's also unlikely that they can tell you what those strengths and weaknesses are.

Higher-level writers at the aspiring level have acquired that self-awareness, but haven't quite figured out the quirks of their style/voice, haven't figured out targeting their markets, and while they may be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses, haven't a clue about how to fix the weaknesses for voice, style and the like. They can't write to a specific length, or estimate what their final word count will be in a novel (within 20k words).

Mid-career writers, on the other hand, are painstakingly self-aware about process. The best process discussions I've been around have been with mid-career writers. While the aspiring writer is looking for publication, any publication, the mid-career writer is looking for that breakthrough that will take him or her to the top. The "breakout," so to speak. The marketing discussions are more nuanced and detailed; they're able to take an anthology premise, write directly to it and sell it; they've somewhat conquered the mysterious worlds of synopsis and outlining to the degree that they can sell a novel based on outline.

I'm in a weird position here, because I'm at two different places in my writing career. When it comes to nonfiction, I'm a dead solid pro. Should I choose to aggressively pursue nonfiction to the degree I have my fiction, I'd be a definite midcareer writer. I can pitch and sell a concept; write to the marks and land them; adjust my tone to the market; and look at an idea and tell you how to modify it to be a service piece, a feature, or an interview. I have more paid acceptances and sales in nonfiction than rejections. I know what I need to work on to improve my sales (and all that tech-type professional writing I've done for work does not hurt it one bit).

Fiction, however...I have that same awareness but the execution and sales are a different story. Part of that is the market is more competitive (and subjective); another part is that at the moment I seem to be writing ten years ahead of the market (when most of your sales are stories that are ten years old or older, that's a sobering thought). I also need to adopt a different voice for fiction than nonfiction, and sometimes that's a bit of a challenge. I'm still wishing I'd not turned off the path of fiction in the mid-90s to write nonfiction and make jewelry, but OTOH, that's probably what I needed to do. Still, if I'd continued, I'd be further along in the fiction career. I learned a lot about successful pitching and writing from the nonfiction writing and that was good.

Sigh.
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-07-15 14:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My advice would be to do what I have done: analyze your work for strengths and weaknesses, and then pick one weakness at a time to address and strengthen (for me, plot, character depth, world-building), much like targeting a weak muscle to build up with Nautilus equipment.

If there are books you've found useful for addressing those particular issues, I'd recommend those too. (There's one on plot called How to Tell a Story that I routinely recommend.)

But that's just my approach. YMMV.
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mmegaera: reading
User: mmegaera
Date: 2010-07-16 02:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:reading
Author, please? Or is it this one? How to tell a story : the secrets of writing captivating tales / by Peter Rubie and Gary Provost.

Plotting is one of my issues.
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-07-16 05:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's the one. I love that book. It's out of print, but you can often still find it somewhere. It may even be in libraries.

Just was trying not to pander someone else's book in someone else's LJ. :)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-16 13:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Just was trying not to pander someone else's book in someone else's LJ. :)

That is never viewed as a problem by the Management of This Blog, I have been assured in our weekly staff meeting deep within the fur-lined Editorial Pit.
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Keikaimalu
User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-07-16 15:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good to know. Thanks, Jay.
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mmegaera: reading
User: mmegaera
Date: 2010-07-16 17:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:reading
I appreciate that!
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mmegaera: reading
User: mmegaera
Date: 2010-07-16 17:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:reading
Thanks. My library had it, so I put it on hold.
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Twilight
User: twilight2000
Date: 2010-07-15 15:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Dude - the only advice I can think of is this: you need to buy your cokes from a cheaper vendor!
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A large duck
User: burger_eater
Date: 2010-07-15 17:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
cathshaffer makes a good point. Many times a new writer will break in because they have enough chops to do some things well (esp voice and character), but not enough to get the full readership they want.

Another part of the problem is that writers have such different goals. Donald Maas has books that offer advice for mid-career writers, but would you offer them to Hal Duncan?
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Talekyn
User: talekyn
Date: 2010-07-16 02:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Tons of good points made by those commenting before me, that it seems silly to reiterate. As a beginning / aspiring writer (with a few articles / book reviews, one short story publication, and one self-published book to my credit), I don't think I'd presume to offer advice to you, or my friend Joseph Pittman, or Win Scott Eckert, or any of the writers I know / know of who are "mid-career / mid-list." I'm still struggling with productivity, submitting, etc. Reading you (and those others) has inspired me to be more productive, more consistent with submitting, and so on, though.
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User: mbyerly
Date: 2010-07-16 18:13 (UTC)
Subject: career advice
You need to create a network of writers at all levels of their careers whose advice you can seek. Someone you can trust who has reached a career level you want to enter or are to enter can give you better advice than any generic online advice, and you'll more likely get the truth privately than online.

I have a social group of writers who help me through the various ups and downs and who understand what a rejection or writer's block means unlike those not in writing. Writers who are genuinely happy when you succeed are a rare and true blessing.

I also have friends who have succeeded far beyond what I have so far, and they are there for me when I need career advice.

If you have an agent, you should also talk to her about career advice.
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Talekyn
User: talekyn
Date: 2010-07-17 04:46 (UTC)
Subject: Re: career advice
I have a nice "real life" writers group that are all very supportive of each other and very very honest in critiquing. But we're all at about the same phase in our writing careers although we all write in different genres. When one of us does sell something, we're all happy, and when one of us gets a rejection, we're all supportive. It's a great little group that meets over dinner.

I also have a few writer friends that I have made through LJ, and who have read and critiqued and advised as well. And reading Jay's journal is always helpful. I don't have an agent, and should probably get one.

Thanks for the advice -- I'd love to chat more!
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wonderbadger
User: wonderbadger
Date: 2010-07-17 03:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That reminds me of an idea we were presented with when I was studying conducting. One moves from:
unconscious incompetence (you're not very good and you don't know it)
to conscious incompetence (you're not very good and you're aware of it)
to conscious competence (you can do things, but you have to think about it)
to unconscious competence (where it all seems easy).
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-17 13:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes. By no means did I intend to be dismissive of the confidence of brand-new writers. As you say, how would anyone get better without a running start?
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Janni Lee Simner
User: janni
Date: 2010-07-18 23:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So I'm reading this (having been went here by half my friends list, as sometimes happens :-)) and thinking that I'm not sure the generalizations I'm seeing (in comments as well as the post) about new writers make any sense, either.

New writers are supremely confident? Nope, missed that stage, mostly. New writers can't yet write to anthology themes? Wait, my first half dozen or so sales, when clues were still thin on the ground for me, were all to theme anthologies.

I think the biggest mistake SF writers at ALL stages make when talking to other writers is assuming we're all alike. The only difference is beginning writers are more likely to be derailed by it.

The best we can do at any stage is talk about what's true for us--never forgetting that it is only true for us, and not universal--and hope it resonates for some of those who create in ways more like us than not, too.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-07-18 23:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think the biggest mistake SF writers at ALL stages make when talking to other writers is assuming we're all alike. The only difference is beginning writers are more likely to be derailed by it.

The best we can do at any stage is talk about what's true for us--never forgetting that it is only true for us, and not universal--and hope it resonates for some of those who create in ways more like us than not, too.


You are absolutely right.

I will note that my observation about the confidence of new writers is probably more accurately expressed as an observation about the development of self-awareness, which for me arrived only after years of critique and careful thinking. I will also note that I have seen a lot of aspiring writers (myself included) go through what I call the "unsung genius" phase, which could be characterized as confidence.
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Janni Lee Simner
User: janni
Date: 2010-07-21 16:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And no disagreement here that it does take time to develop enough awareness to see the flaws and places for improvement in one's work, whether or not failing to do so translates to overconfidence for a given beginning writer.
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