Sunday, October 14, 2012

Are you a new writer? Read this.

Yesterday I received an email that said:

"I wrote a zombie poem and am kinda thinking of expanding it into a children's book. Would you be interested in helping me or point me in the right direction?"

Every month or so I receive an email like this. Someone new to the writing game is looking for guidance. I understand fully. In fact, I think asking a few questions early on is a smart thing to do. And I can help. I really can. So, if you're a new writer, hold on to your nutsack. This is me pointing you in the right direction.

Writing isn't about publishing. 
Writing is about writing.

Repeat this statement over and over. Say it every day. Put it on a t-shirt. Tattoo it on your arm.

Writing isn't about publishing. 
Writing is about writing.

If you want to be a writer then sit your ass down and start writing. Do it everyday and don't think about publishing. Think about writing.

A publisher doesn't want to invest time, energy, or money into someone that wrote a book. Publishers invest in writers. A publisher wants to know that ten years after they've published your title, you're still out there, getting attention, writing new stories, making waves. How does a publishing company know you plan on being around for a while? By looking at your history.

What have you done so far? How many short stories have you published? Have you created a blog? How many blog posts do you have? Do you attend writers conventions? Do you have self-published books? Do you have unpublished books? Do you have a fanbase? What's your writing history?

If you don't have a writing history, you are not a writer. At least, not yet. Right now you are a dreamer, and there's nothing wrong with being a dreamer. But publishing companies don't invest in dreamers. They invests in writers.

But let's pretend you can find a stupid publisher, one that thinks publishing an author's first attempt at a story is a good idea. Think about this: every single author on the planet, at one time or another, usually before they wrote their first book, thought, "I could write a children's book. That would be easier that writing a 'real' book."

And because so many people have entertained this thought, a million children's books have been written, the market is completely flooded, and breaking into the children's market the hardest thing an author can do.

Here's another thing to think about - if you haven't been writing for very long, chances are...


I'm not being insulting, not being funny. I'm being honest.

You suck. You suck long and you suck hard.

If you're just starting out you need to be realistic about your skills.

Think about this:

If you've been playing guitar for a couple months, how good are you? Are you ready to play a gig? Are you ready to record an album? Are you ready to ask investors - a.k.a. record companies - to invest in you?

No. Of course not. Why? Because:

It takes most people five years to NOT SUCK. And even longer to get beyond 'average'.

With music, knowing you suck is easy. Because… you can't play your instrument to save your life, and it's obvious. With writing it's not so obvious because writing is a skill that most people have… at least to a certain degree.

But it still takes five years to go from 'I learned how to read and write in school' to 'I'm starting to have an ounce of value in the entertainment industry'.

Oh yeah - there's something else to keep in mind. Reading fiction is a form of entertainment.

Writers are in the entertainment industry.

Can you ride a bicycle? Yes.

Can you write a story? Yes.

Can you ride a bicycle well enough that people should pay to watch you do it, because you're so unbelievably entertaining? No.

Can you write a story well enough that people should pay to read it, because you're so unbelievably entertaining? No.

So there it is.

Writing is about writing, not publishing.
Publishing companies invest in writers, not dreamers.
And until you've been writing for five years, you probably suck.

Like what you see? Please support Books of the Dead by purchasing one of our books. Thank you!


  1. I think there's some truth here, and I think you meant well, but is this really what you think about people who are new to the game of writing and publishing? I agree that time and practice improve all things. However, Books of the Dead Press was formed in 2009--less than five years ago. By your own measure of the time it takes to become competent at anything (like playing the guitar...or running a small press), your press is inside the window of "suck" as are plenty of other great indie publishers--and authors for that matter. Like you, I'm not trying to be funny here. Looking at the books you've released--have all of your authors been writing professionally for five years or more? I doubt it. Have your slush readers been editing professionally for five years or more? Should I wait until 2014 or later to give your books a chance?

    No. That would be pointless and arbitrary.

    It's plain to see you and your team have put together some dynamite work, despite your relative inexperience as indie publishers, and it should be recognized as such. I know it gets frustrating out here in small press land, and editors have to wade through a lot of garbage (I know this from experience as a professional writer and editor), but the post came off as needlessly condescending--not exactly the tone with which we should greet new writers. Small presses depend upon attracting talented new authors, no matter their experience level, whose good work attracts readers. You don't want to alienate any of them. It would be easy to read this blog post as saying: If you haven't been writing for at least 5 years, don't bother subbing to Books of the Dead Press. That's unfortunate.

    You're correct about this: Writing is about writing. Not publishing, not blog posts, not Twitter. Writing. Keep up the good work in terms of producing quality books.

  2. I wish I didn't have to respond to 'Anonymous' but... oh well.

    If the word "suck" doesn't sit well with you, okay. Sorry about that. I wasn't trying to be condescending, just trying to be blunt. And - in truth - a little humorous.

    But I'm standing behind what I said.

    Books of the Dead Press is my third company. My first one was a failure because I didn't have any experience running a company. The second one was hit-and-miss because I didn't have enough experience. This one has been paying the bills because of the experience I gained with the other two. Books of the Dead is not my attempt at playing the guitar; it's my third band, and I've been playing for way more than five years.

    I didn't say that you needed to write "professionally" for five years before you started to shine. I said that you needed to "write" for five years before you started to shine. And the authors that I've signed - Matt Hults, Tim Lebbon, Gary Brandner, Tonia Brown, John French, Paul Kane, and John Taff - have all been writing for more than five years. As for the 100 or so authors I've put inside my anthologies... I'm guessing that they've all been writing for more than five years. If one or two of those authors made it into my books when they were just starting out, so be it. There are exceptions to every rule.

    The thing is - I'm finding that lots of people are just interested in seeing their name on a book cover - for ego reasons. And that's not what being a writer is about. It's not about your name on the cover. It's about the words inside the book.

    And I can't help thinking that the only people that would disagree with this post are people that have been writing for less than five years, but think they're pretty good at it...

  3. There you go again, making broad assumptions about people with little reason to do so. Let me just say I have well over a decade of writing, editing and teaching at the university level under my belt, and leave it at that. But that's beside the point.

    My point is, there are so many voices out there telling young writers their work isn't worth a damn already. Hell, experienced writers get that, too, but at least they have confidence backed by experience that informs their judgment about such statements. You know as well as I do that it takes commitment and courage just to finish a story and send it out. The writer who does that for the first time doesn't suck, they're just inexperienced. I happen to believe that those in positions of power, like yourself, should use their platforms to encourage rather than ridicule. That's all.

  4. How long do you think it takes the average person to go from having never written a word to writing at professional level?

    And do you think that someone - after writing a single poem - should be focused on publishers, or developing their craft?

    My entire point was: don't put the cart in front of the horse. I was trying to be helpful. And the person that sent me the email thanked me for being helpful. And I encouraged her to keep writing.

  5. I think the time varies wildly, and that was part of my point. Five years isn't a bad number, but I found it a bit arbitrary. The truth is, there's no magic number. The writer's God-given talent and quality of the writer's experience during their formative years factor in. Is this person reading widely? Are they getting constructive feedback from experienced writers during that time? How much time are they dedicating to writing each day/week/month? A naturally gifted writer who has read widely, has a good mentor and understands the basics of story: structure, imagery, plot, character, language usage can probably be ready to jump into things in a year or two of dedicated work. They won't be great, but they're ready to take their lumps because they understand the concepts behind what they're doing. I know this, because I've seen it happen. On the flip side, I've read work by supposedly seasoned authors whose work just makes me cringe. We all have. Any trip through Barnes & Noble can make a person wonder what the hell is the point of making an effort if that's all it takes. Time is a factor, but it's hardly the most important factor. I don't think saying five years, as if it's TRUTH, helps anyone. And I don't think telling new writers (those with fewer than 5 years of experience) that they have not an ounce of value when it comes to adding to the field helps anyone, either.

    As I said in my first response--you were right about writing being about, well, writing. No argument there. I think it's easy to get lost in the Twitter, blogging, Facebook race. It's mostly a distraction, which has nothing to do with the quality of our work. As I said in my first response, I believe you meant well, and there was some truth to what you said, but your delivery was awful. That said, this is your blog and your press, and of course you can operate both as you see fit. And, as I mentioned before, I appreciate the role you play in the small press landscape. You release good work, and that's the important thing.

  6. I want to add that one of my personal mottos is "Suck your way to success," so reading James' article put a smile on my face. Of course, this is filtered through my own personal journey working in the entertainment industry and I have plenty of experience with both acceptance and rejection. I think this is a good example of how subtlety of expression is lost in the written word. If James was smiling the whole time he said/wrote this article, projecting a supportive vibe mixed with humor and sarcasm, which was how I envisioned it, then I 'm confident young or aspiring fledgling writers would walk away feeling excited, optimistic and confident IF THEY WERE TALKING TO JAMES IN PERSON. But that subtlety of human expression was lost in print (STUPID Print medium! You are so limited!).

    That said, I will also chime in with Anonymous and say that it IS important to be supportive with beginners. I vividly remember my junior high school art teacher saying "some artists see differently than the rest of us artists" (by which he implied lesser, or mere mortal, artists) like myself. If I'd listened to that pessimist, I'd never have become a professional illustrator. Sadly, it took over a decade before I overcame the self doubt he'd unwittingly fueled. This is indeed a fine line to walk here, between discouraging and inspiring those who are aspiring and delicately hopeful, and I believe it is the responsibility of those of us who are doing what others dream of doing, to be sensitive to impressionable minds when they approach us for guidance.

    But once again, I will blame the print medium. It subtracts a tremendous amount of humanity from the process of communication.

    Stupid internet. ;-)

  7. I'm a new writer, currently have been working at it for a couple of years now, and I agree with this post. I heard somewhere that it takes about 10,000 hours to develop a skill professionally and I feel writing is no different.

    As for encouraging new writers, it's an over saturated market and the more people who quit, the better for me :)

  8. Perhaps "suck" sounds harsh, but I have to agree. The milieu of writing may have its own "LeBron James" or "Kevin Garnetts," people who have a natural propensity towards writing and can write Bradburyesque prose, but this does not happen regularly, and they have beaten the odds. Perhaps these individuals have uncommon insight, have actually written and edited for years. Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance Cycle, was self-published and self-promoted, until Carl Hiassen ran across Eragon in a bookstore, and turned Paolini over to Knopf.

    By and large, though, the typical person who sits down to write is going to write pure dreck. We, in other words, need to continue to play college ball and build skills because we are not Michael Jordan. We think we are, though, and "how dare you tell me any different. My mother tells me I need to write books." Look at the vast amounts of "fan fiction," the self-publishers using Amazon, or other e-publishing outlets, and the writing is simply atrocious. As Wilfred mentioned, the market is crazy-saturated in my opinion. People with a notion to write do so, publish, by-passing the editor and publisher filter, and now reading really is caveat emptor.

    Simply because Books of the Dead Press is only 4+ years old say nothing about the person helming the press. He could have 20 years in the publishing industry. Thus, the recency of the press does not necessarily carry over to the editor working behind the scenes. I don't know the publisher; I'm only bringing to light the flaw in the criticism.

    Saying writing "sucks," needs to be accompanied by suggestions or recommendations, e.g. "This really sucks. The premise is trite, the dialogue stilted and unrealistic, and I cannot engage with any of your characters. Have you read any books in this genre? Have you ever held a sword/handgun/knife/baseball bat?" In other words, constructive criticism should accompany such comments.

    All that being said, if James Patterson can get published, anyone should be able to. Talk about pure dreck.

    Cheers all