Advice to new writers

Recently a fellow writer brought up this post by author Kameron Hurley. He has a lot of interesting things to say (and some cool covers in his sidebar). A Steve Martin quote features prominently: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

That sounds like excellent advice, doesn’t it?

Until you start to think about it.

Are there authors out there who strive to be just okay? That set goals to be mediocre?

“Marge, keep the kids away! Bring me no lunch. Because today, do or die, I am determined to write a middling tale about lukewarm characters with a so-so plot!”


I believe our writer of measley aspirations just might just be a strawman.

Be good enough they can’t ignore you, Martin says.

Wow, sounds good. Except let’s test it out. Let’s take some of the least-ignored authors of our day.

For millions of readers J. K. Rowling is NOT a great writer. And neither is Harper Lee. Or Steven King. Or Orson Card. Or Brandon Sanderson. Or Lee Child. Or Nora Roberts. Or whomever. Insert whom you will–the vast majority of the reading public ignores or eschews them.

The vast majority of the reading public is not moved by them in the least.

Stephenie Meyer is a great writer for some. She gave them such a moving experience they dress up and relive it all at balls. She’s a horrible writer for others. Most people haven’t read her or gone to see her movies.

The Bible is THE most life-changing, most moving book that millions have read. For others it’s a piece of trash.

It seems that following Martin’s advice is a really good way to lose a lot of time galavanting after shrubberies only to then have your throat ripped out by the Rabbit of Caerbannog.

Woe is me, for I should have stayed home with my lovely wench and lovely children and eaten more peas and read about sparrows. Zounds, but the blood my mother gavest me, at nine-month cost, now flows silently onto the sterile rocks. . .

You can create great product, stuff made with extraordinary skill, and still not be Great because you’re earth-shattering stuff speaks to and shatters only a small portion of readers.

I say forget greatness!

Just sing. And revel in the singing. And the new songs your voice can carry as your skill grows. And share that reveling with all who enjoy such singing.

Because it’s not about greatness. It’s about the song.

And then go home and enjoy the laughter and coversation of the woman/man at your hearth, the children/cats at your feet, and the lovely taste of the fresh green peas.

(Dear me, I believe I just equated children with cats. And yet, does it not sound just right?)

John, you ask, what about goals? What about being all you can be? Are you saying it’s okay to schlub your way through life and writing?

You must choose your own path. But I would never say don’t have goals. Nor would I say don’t try to write the best book possible . . . for the particular type of story you’re trying to tell.

I think we all benefit by singing our types of songs to the very best of our ability and then trying to enlarge that ability as much as we can.

That generates more joy in the giver and the receiver.

But the quest to be Great so some amorphous “they” (who is they?) can’t ignore you seems foolish. It disregards the idea that it’s impossible to write great books for all audiences. But that’s not its only problem. It also seems to be all about the writer, and not the sharing. Me-me-me is, ultimately, such a hollow prize.

It seems to me that it’s so much better to quest after singing, not to be noticed, but to deliver a service that I and the reciever can both rejoice in together. And then to increase that joy.

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3 Responses to Advice to new writers

  1. Bryce says:

    I think the problem is that too many people think about quality from a reader’s point of view, rather than the writer. Here’s an example:

    There are two authors. Both authors write a book of middling quality. Both authors take the time to edit their book, give it to trusted peers and improve it with feedback. Both authors submit the book to an agent or publisher and somehow manage to accomplish the improbable. Both books are published, selling fairly well but not quite earning out for the author to get royalties.

    Author 1 throws himself headfirst into his next book, going through the same process that got him his publishing deal. He publishes a second book, slightly better written than the first. He edits, revises, submits and publishes. He continues this process with each subsequent book, improving ever-so-slightly with each new book he writes. At the end of his life, he has written nearly 50 books, some of which are considered to be staples of the genre, some of the most excellent books written in that vein.

    Author 2 edits, cuts, and revises his book, now slightly improved from the original. He decides it’s still not enough, and goes through the same process dozens of times, each time creating a slightly tighter plot, more believable characters, and catching potential plot holes with each subsequent edit. He does this for the next 50 years, at which point he finally decides that he’s done all he can. The rights to the book have long ago reverted to him, and he republishes the book and then dies. His book is fantastic, perfectly paced and generally considered to be one of the greatest stand-alone works in the genre.

    Which author would you be more interested in reading? The man with 50 books, each slightly better than the last, or the man with 1 book that is 50 times better than the first time he wrote it? As a reader, you can have your cake and read it, too. Simply read both. But as an author, I can almost promise you that you want to be author 1. He’s had a much more satisfying life, telling new stories that excited and interested him at the time he wrote them, and his overall ability to write is almost certainly greater than author 2 on his deathbed. And at the end of the day, writing as a career is a business, and author 1 probably has a lot more cash to show for what he’s done than a guy who only wrote a single book, no matter how good. Professional authors will always value quality, but quantity is what puts bread on their table. Toiling in obscurity is not a good way to feed your family or pay the rent. Sure, not every book you write is going to win an award, but they are going to provide you with food and shelter, and let you improve your craft and continue to write for a living. Quality is something to strive for with every book, but not something that should keep you from submitting a story once you’ve been through the editing process and fixed the things that need fixing.

    In short, as an author I want to write like Poe and get paid like Sanderson, but I (like most others) would gladly settle for something in between the two.

    Sorry for the long rant.

  2. John Brown says:

    Great thoughts, Bryce! I’d much rather be author A as well. And the great thing about writing is that nobody will ever master it all. So we all might as well get used to the fact that we’re going to die before we can learn it all. So write the best you can today and share, and then write something new (“new” being the key word) the best you can tomorrow.

  3. B.D. Knight says:

    Good article and good post by Bryce. I read article after article from some authors trashing “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” and the likes. They complain they don’t follow the rules.

    And they don’t. And thank goodness I realized this early enough so I have a better chance at writing a book that entertains rather than one that a literature major says is right on. I read Elmore Leonard and was entertained. A follow the dots writer would trash him.

    Learn the rules but then try to write in a way that people enjoy reading. And if no one trashes it, you probably didn’t entertain enough. I’d rather write for the reader who actually enjoys a good story rather than the reader who reads with a highlighter to make notes where you got it wrong.