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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-02-12 05:58
Subject: [process] Why new writers shouldn't listen to me
Security: Public
Tags:conventions, process, publishing, writing
Psst. You a new writer? Aspiring author? Just sold your first story? Hoping to? Got a manuscript on an agent's desk right now?

As a reasonably successful pro author with a ten-year career, here's the best advice I can give you today.

Don't listen to me.

There's a thing I called Established Author Syndrome. Basically, it goes like this. "When I was breaking in, we ..., therefore you should ..., because that worked for me."

I heard it when I was new. An experienced Big Name Author got up at a convention and told the aspiring writers in the audience to never publish in the small press because it would kill their careers permanently. This was said in front of me in 2004 at Norwescon, the day after the Hugo ballot had been announced with my name on it for Best Novella (which I did not win) and the Campbell Award (which I won that year). And me with exactly one pro appearance in print at the time, in SFWA terms, and some dozens of small press appearances. I was offended, frankly, because the advice was so stupid, given that exhibit A (me) was sitting two chairs down on the same panel as the BNA giving it.

It didn't take me long to figure out that what the BNA really meant was that given the state of the small press when he emerged, it would have killed his career then. Of course, he had over two dozen pro periodicals to sell to, instead of three digests and Realms of Fantasy. The Internet wasn't even a gleam in DARPA's eye back then, let alone online markets. "Small press" meant "subsidy publishing" in that era.

But he didn't qualify his advice, and most of the people hearing it didn't have the frame of reference to qualify it on their own.

This a function of human nature, not bad behavior or deliberate misinformation. We all believe our experience is central, core, valid. But it's also a truism that genre publishing goes through transformations every five or ten years, like a snake shedding its skin. How I broke in ten years ago was a bit unusual even for the time. It's frankly irrelevant today.

So the next time you're tempted to take my advice about publishing, markets, breaking in, or really, anything, consider this. I know what I'm talking about, for my experience. And my experience hopefully has value for you. But it doesn't mean I know what I'm talking about for you. Because I'm not breaking in today's market. You are. I've got Established Author Syndrome. You don't. (Yet.)

In other words, don't listen to a damned thing I say. Including this advice right here.

Carry on.

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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2010-02-12 14:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
LOL! and well said.
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User: manmela
Date: 2010-02-12 14:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
La La La! Can't Hear You

The thing I've learned is that for any statement that could constitute writing advice the converse is probably also true.

I found I got to a stage where I got so frustrated with "trying to do it right" that I decided I would just do it my way - whether that be right or wrong (actually I think that moment might have happened on this blog as a result of some comment).

I'm now at the stage where I've come to realise that some of these big lofty authors whose work I truly admire, honestly don't know what they are talking about sometimes (Your words have always been very honest, so no issues there). This has taken a while, mainly because what I want to write is slightly different to what's out there, is possibly very out of fashion at the moment. But I recently gave myself a good talking to, told myself that my years of working in pop culture gave my a very good insight into what people like and don't like, and the fact I didn't want to copy anyone was actually a very good thing.

I've always guarded against thinking like that, because I've always thought arrogance a real vice, especially for an author. But you know, perhaps I need a couple of years to be arrogant, to make things happen, whether those be victories or mistakes. I think I can do arrogant without being rude to people.

I call them my "F*** It Stories" - the ones I write that I'm sure no-one will ever want to publish because they don't match the current vogues. Some are good, some are terrible, but they are 'me'.

And I guess that's the important thing. Becoming a writer, feeling comfortable calling yourself that, is all about the journey and not the destination.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-02-12 14:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Arrogance" may be the wrong word, but I do believe that a writer has to carry a fundamental egotism, a belief that what they say has value outside their own head. For some people, that is perhaps courage. For others, arrogance. For me, it's more like blithe self-confidence and a sense of play so broad it never occurs me that others don't want to come along for the ride.
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User: brownkitty
Date: 2010-02-12 14:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not listening to you telling me not to listen to you ;)

I am, however, noticing that there are a few things that keep cropping up again and again for writers. It doesn't matter whether they're fiction or nonfiction, or any of the number of things that don't fit neatly into either category.

Most of the advice I'm keeping, and that I'm seeing consistently, amounts to good craftsmanship. Things like "read a lot", "learn spelling and grammar and use them consistently", "learn the rules so when you break them you're doing so on purpose", that sort of thing.

I'm never going to be more than a hobbyist, because I don't want to work that hard. I know this, and I'm ok with it. But I still want to know how it works, because I may change my mind later. Knowledge is good.
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-02-12 15:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Very good advice. I hope new writers take it to heart.
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scarlettina: Writing
User: scarlettina
Date: 2010-02-12 15:18 (UTC)
Subject: How about this?
Your post ends with you saying "...don't listen to a damned thing I say. Including this advice right here. Carry on."

If there's one thing I know you know about, it's carrying on. I will do so, happily. ;-)

Oh and yeah, about the other stuff.
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User: mastadge
Date: 2010-02-12 15:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Incidentally, this same advice might be well-taken by developing nations that have richer nations attempting to impose the political and economic systems that (more or less) worked for them without understanding that the same systems won't necessarily work right in different contexts.

But maybe that's a different story.
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User: zxhrue
Date: 2010-02-12 15:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

if I were an aspiring writer I would take this all to heart. as it is allow me to say "this":

This a function of human nature, not bad behavior or deliberate misinformation. We all think our experience is central, core, valid.

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User: celestialgldfsh
Date: 2010-02-12 20:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great advice for me to completely disregard.

Actually, it struck me as kind of odd that I'm now in a similar place to where you were during that conference. I have one pro, SFWA-qualifying publication and I'm on the first-year eligible Campbell list (though I have no delusions of winning).
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User: klwilliams
Date: 2010-02-13 01:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm sorry. What were you saying?
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Mer, rhymes with bear
User: merriehaskell
Date: 2010-02-13 14:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I tend to preface any writing advice I give out with "my writing advice, like the rest of it, should be seen as descriptive, not prescriptive."
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