Why You Can’t Learn Business From Publishing

Over the years, I’ve developed a personal mantra: You can bring outside business knowledge to publishing, but you can’t learn business from publishing.

Sounds insulting, right? That’s because I’m horrible and no one will ever love me.

No, actually, it’s just a reflection on the levels of disruption in the industry, and the sheer opacity and incompleteness of its data due to the many different moving parts involved. To peg it down to one problem: channels. This is what’s most constantly disrupted now, and has been full of targeting problems since regional distributors left the show.

If you feel confused, it’s just the never-ending learning curve. Welcome to Sisyphus’s hill. I hope you like rocks.

Hills are not the only thing with slant.

There’s also the individual-to-corporate scale. We face an extreme skew effect due to the buyers’ market that exists in publishing.* Cross-reference that with the long tail effect (selling less of more) and the individual value of intellectual properties can intuitively be surmised to have decreased in the digital age, even without hard data.

In other words, if traditional publishing is their only contractor experience, writers don’t learn healthy things about negotiating the value of their work. They learn Grapes of Wrath things about the value of their work. (Finally, that freaking book and that stupid turtle** have a use in my literary life! That was it, folks, right there.)

Indies have to be similarly careful about the terms of their agreements. Changes in algorithms, blocking of work (or an entire author) that gets labelled as a content violation, and other issues can sweep in on an individual without warning.

All of these issues happen because business entities are trying to refine their channels, not yours. Or else they’re seeking to compensate for unstable paths in their marketplaces through financial hedging.

There’s lots more where you came from, Connie Rivers.

Unfortunately for those who want a full-time job, there’s a crapton of disposable migrant workers in this field. Writing has a lot of hobbyists who move in and then move on.

Big corporations are big partly because they’ve learned how to use churn to their advantage. Dealing with uneducated, unrealistic people is hella annoying at the editorial level, but over in the legal department, you can write all kinds of contract terms, and they mostly won’t notice.

That includes the terms of service and operating policies of online distributors like Amazon, print-on-demand services, and of course vanity publishers — that’s why those scurrilous hosers haven’t died on the side of the road yet. Predators thrive when prey is stupid.

None of this is stuff to get emotional about. There’s no blame to throw around here. It is what it is. If you can predict people, you can trust them.

And now, it’s Case Study Time.

The Mysterious Case of The Alinea Cookbook

Some Cliffs notes on the Alinea project and the Aviary book:

1) The project leads were experienced businesspeople in a very fierce market sector.

These are frickin’ restaurateurs. They knew that diving down any rabbit holes without thorough research, calculation, and innovative independent conclusions could be disastrous to their productivity and their bottom line. They have a career where it’s both necessary and possible to fight for what they’re building. It’s trained them to take the same approach to their books. (The problem with writers is, they like to pretend it’s either not necessary, or not possible.)

Although what they were facing was a mystery, they were extremely forensic investigators. And they literally wouldn’t move forward till they did their due diligence and ran the numbers to ground.

That’s the first half of the mantra: You can bring business knowledge to publishing.

2) These people actually read the contract before signing.

Uh, that speaks for itself.

I can’t believe how many authors treat their years of work like clicking the TOU on a new email account (which should also be read and checked up on). They know they’re going to use it anyway, so why read it? Tee hee, just hand me a pen!

Hey, dipshit. Read anything you sign. Ever.

3) They actually checked up on what the contract offered.

Something they couldn’t do for themselves, the same as what they could do for themselves, or less than they could do for themselves? Or just plain something totally different than they wanted to do for themselves?

They read the contract.

They comprehended the contract terms.

But they also comprehended the contract contextually.

They didn’t just compare it to other contract offers, they compared it to their own business context. You have one of those too. Either you think about it and it might go well, or you don’t think about it, and it does go well — for someone else.

4) Quote: “I’ve pushed the case in private, but have always been afraid to fully burn my bridges. Until now.”

One of the key bits of advice to teeny little writers — because each individual intellectual property is just a teeny blip on the corporate radar — is never burn your bridges. 

Mostly, that’s excellent advice. Don’t be a diva. Don’t annoy everyone who has to work with you by being clueless and demanding. (Free examples available at Life in Small Press Publishing and Life in Religious Publishing!) Don’t take business personally. If you do, definitely never take it out on someone else personally. It doesn’t matter if you’re indie or traditional, these are the rules. Forever. The end.

But how does “don’t burn bridges” translate to “don’t critique the state of the industry openly”?

People who are in it for the long haul, who have real insight beyond the surface level of disgruntled drama, aren’t necessarily going to talk openly about pitfalls. Business is relationship-driven. Pointing out the mistakes, shortcomings, or outright sins of others tends to damage relationships. (Are we sinners? Yes, we are!) In the corporate setting, it could even be a breach of job duties. As for you, random writer, before speaking, think lawsuit.

“Don’t burn bridges” really is well-meant, and not just interpersonal advice. It’s also a reference to the bridge that leads you across into someone else’s sales network. Under constant disruption, people are more protective of their networks than ever. There are a lot of negative labels for this: Silos, cliques, gatekeepers. But it’s actually just human nature, the nature that seeks mutually beneficial stability. Society lives or dies on that, so I’m not sure why it deserves being called down.

Don’t let your underpants unravel.

Nod, smile, step on by — and absorb today’s case study lesson of speaking up publicly if and when it seems the right way to pay forward a benefit to your community. There’s no time for revenge and petty drama when you’re hustling for something you love. Ideally, speaking about problems should follow the principle of seeking mutually beneficial stability.

Know what you are here for. Focus on that. Figure out how to get it.

Don’t expect to be spoon-fed all the ambush locations. That’s for people with no sense of fun. Learn how to read the scene and source the needed data yourself. And, you know. Maybe buy a gaming console and develop your taste for adventure and survival.

That’s the second half of the mantra: But you can’t learn business from publishing. 

You really do need to bring it with you.

There are a lot of valid experiences that will teach you useful things. Do you hold a job in a contracting industry? Do you pay attention to how your place of employment works? If you’re a stay-at-home parent, can you use Google? Use your brain. Observe things for awhile.

Be prepared to deal with the social authority of expertise. There are real experts all over the place, and they deserve respect for what they’ve learned. But because publishing is squishy on data and high on disruption… everything could be up for grabs. You’ll have to decide for yourself what applies to your business model.

Watch out for authority with agenda.

Sometimes it’s not hard skills that make a person revered, it’s positioning. It doesn’t matter whether you go traditional or indie. Of course there are misguided souls who are too focused on nurturing their social authority to look at the wider world and take notes.

Of course there are. People with egos are very useful for intimidating teeny little would-be’s into compliance with someone else’s interests. Plus, they’re essentially disposable because there’s always another one. Haven’t you read any John Grisham at all?

Welcome to the carnival.

There are also a lot of great people everywhere. People who just love, love, love the magic of meaning and emotion and connection packaged up in words. People who are in it because the learning never ends, and they actually wouldn’t be happy without that constant mental stimulus. Sisypheans who always wanted a pet rock, and are happy to help you learn how to care for yours.

Try to stick to passing the height requirements for all the rides you want to get on, instead of puking in the house of horrors. For your entertainment, we have both.


If you like this stuff, you can follow on Facebook.


*Keep in mind that it becomes a sellers’ market at a certain level of writing and targeting quality. If you can pinpoint a known sales target with a product that grabs people by the ears and shakes their brains around, you can auction your work.

**Ask me why did the turtle cross the road. I dare you.

Craftsmanship: The Power of Finishing

Gray Rinehart of Baen Books has lately had a few particularly encouraging statements in his newsletter, which led me back to his blog. Check out Heinlein Was Right: A New Look At His Rules for Writing,  where he talks about the nuanced space between writing “the end” and refining the details.

Does “finish” mean get to the end, or exercise craftsmanship? That might depend on where you’re at in your writing life. And maybe you should give yourself some acceptance and patience on that front. After all, you can’t swing a cat out there without getting badgered by “should’s” and conveniently related fast-track products. Somebody has to embrace the moment you’re in. Might as well be you.

Craftsmanship and completion take time to become partners.

At first, writing craftsmanship is overwhelming. It interferes with completion. Or rather, our own floundering does. That’s why curmugeonly editors say “don’t hire me (yet)” and “write more things.” The more time we spend with applied craftsmanship — being mentored, reading well-written things, working on our skills — the quicker we become at skilled production. As our use of time becomes better, we become more willing and able to take time on the details of crafting, because there’s room for new challenges.

I love trades work. It’s a great way to gain perspective on the value of skill. I see this dynamic all the time with the people who’ve put in 20 or 30 years doing a specialty task. Their work is both fast and amazing. They’ve mastered the little details that make it go better and create a higher quality finish on the first try.

I’ve also been the indirect victim of poor tradespeople — not ones I hired, but clueless DIYers and previous homeowners who hired questionable contractors on the cheap. Likewise, there’s a high cost to written material constructed “on the cheap,” so to speak. It’s not a pleasing mental space to dwell in, and it essentially gets the workman drummed out of business.

Ugh. Not this again.

This is also something where online experts, public speakers, etc, tend to badger writers with morality tales about completionism. Write many things, but craft them. You must learn craft. Craft craft craft. Crrrrraaaaaaft. I don’t know about you, but I get ready to pull out the scissors and glue and craft someone a glitter-soaked paper middle finger after hearing that word too often.

Meanwhile, writers have been side-eyeing negative reader reviews of known sellers such as the Clive Cussler franchise, Twilight, and the Left Behind series for years (also Hemingway and/or Emily Dickinson, depending on what bores or annoys you) and asking what gives.

If something is actually not so great, why does it sell? If being great doesn’t matter, why must we work so hard on craft?

That’s kind of like asking why there’s a major contractor in the city who puts up cheap housing and manages to sell a lot of it. Because it satisfies on the surface. Accessing it involves very obvious and prominent channels. And also, it fits the buyer who just wants temporary sufficiency in specific areas.

Good craftsmanship gives you internal power.

Industry professionals are saying something helpful, not something discriminatory. When you don’t have an existing set of prominent channels to compensate for bad work, your work itself can open doors. You can carry that potential within you. No one can take it away. It won’t depend on coincidences, markets, networks… it can actually create them. Maybe not big, flashy Hugh Howey markets and networks, but deep loyalties within your own niche.

I remember when that first started happening to me at writers’ conferences. The conferences I attended were in the wrong market sector for who I’ve turned out to be as a writer. But, nonetheless, I found to my surprise that there wasn’t much I needed to say. All that was necessary was to give people a chance to see the work. Then the conversations started and the connections took root.

If you have to choose, carry the power of the craft inside you. I’m pretty sure that’s better than killing trees to make an epic pile of crap.

(Side note: Under no particular compulsion, I freely admit that I’m enthused about Gray’s upcoming novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds.) If you like sci-fi, I strongly suggest you’ll like it too.

Lizard Brains, Robots, and Online Engagement

Online engagement is a different thing for different types of writing. To get to the bottom of this, let’s first look at the three main audiences of the internet:

  • Robots.
  • Humans.
  • Viral resharers.

Writing for each is different. And it involves different purposes. Anytime someone tells you there are Things You Must Do That Will Absolutely Work, remember the mythic thinking of survivorship bias.

Online engagement with robots:

Robots are not smart. AIs can now learn, and even learn contextually (sort of), but they don’t have the plasticity, semantic flexibility, and associativeness of the human brain. Here, the Venn overlap is that robots exist to funnel strangers — people not part of your community — to information they’re searching for.

Copy written to tell robots where to funnel the humans tends to read fairly flat, sometimes repetitive, and without much implication.

Online engagement with humans:

Humans are smart in ways that robots can’t be, and dumb in ways that robots are smart. We’re excellent at implied meanings and associating across contexts, but not very good at indexing things in our minds. Ever sat down and wondered, “Where did I see that article I was just reading the other day?”

Social media is constantly trying to solve human search by getting robots to catalogue the content of our posts and pins, and tailoring what we see down to our main interests. If our human interests were simple, SEO keywording would be enough.

Online engagement with lizard brains:

Viral resharers are not smart. They are emotionally reactive. The Venn overlap here is that in the physical world, they pose as thinking humans. They’re sort of bodysnatchers. It could be me. It could be you.

Whichever of us it is, they’re driven by their lizard brains. Cute kitteh! Gross injury, hur hur, my friends will freak out! HAHAHA FUNNY JOKE.

Advice on building one type of online engagement may not work for other types. It may even conflict. Let’s figure out how to tune the crap filters for different scenarios.

Iffy advice #1:

Keyword the crap out of everything.

Would you like free shed plans, free shed plans, free shed plans?

In my opening paragraph, I used the terms “online” and “internet” interchangeably. That’s because human minds are more engaged by variety and surprise. If I were keywording for robots, particularly if I wanted them to funnel me people searching for “secrets of online engagement” or “free shed plans,” I should have used that full phrase a bunch more times.

If I were running a blog designed to serve ads to as many eyeballs as possible, I’d want the GooBing robots to send me as many eyeballs as possible. But is that the meaning of “online engagement”?

Iffy advice #2:

Keep it short, people don’t stick around.

What? You mean online engagement isn’t really engagement?

Short attention (or bounce rate) is only true of strangers who are seeking repair how-to’s and recipes. Consider your own behavior. You’re looking for concise, clear and simple when you want to be able to go do something else. Like build a shed.

The same is true if you’re looking for writing advice, for instance. You either want reference materials to glance back at when needed (which is why the latter link is currently pinned on this site’s Facebook page), or quick tips so you can go do something else. Like procrastinate more.

You are actively engaged in doing something else.

What about when you’re engaged with the internet instead?

My friend Shamus Young, who’s stuck with a single blog in the same amount of time I’ve been through four or five, compiled his own findings on his site’s content here. Those at The Outline tend to agree: Attention is not extinct, and reality still matters.

I concur. My previous blog specialized in creative nonfiction essays and social commentary, usually 800-1500 words. The conversations in the comments were possibly its best feature, just as they’re a strong feature at Shamus’s Twenty-Sided Tale. It’s a totally different type of information-sharing than virality or search optimization.

Long-form blogging has a strong continuity with the old days of the neighborhood coffee shop and its conversations and relationships. The post functions somewhat like the news on the TV, or the latest tall tale from that guy who’s always got some interesting twist on things. Then everybody says their piece about it.

And sometimes it rises to greater prominence by hitting on a highly popular, reshareable topic, such as Shamus’s campy parody DM of the Rings, which successfully crosses a handful of related geek fandoms.

That’s primarily human online engagement. The robotic traffic funnels are not the primary feature. The lizard brain reactions are not the primary feature. A more whole person is engaged.

Oh, yes. That takes way more. It takes more depth and quality of content. It means de-prioritizing some of the design purposes of the online machine in order to embrace more of the human. And so, as Shamus began taking his site seriously as a job, his word output rose, and his posting frequency fell.

Is it any wonder that novelists and book authors in general tend to find this task much more Herculean than, say, DIY and lifestyle bloggers? How do we embrace and express more of the human?

Iffy advice #3:

Make it visual.

In viral posting, this is true. Social media is very tailored to at-a-glance images. It wants reactive clicks before our brains engage. That’s how ad clicks lead to spontaneous surfing of retail websites. Ooohhh, shiny. That’s why so many of those tear-jerking, hilarious, beautiful videos turn out to be brand ads. They want your lizard brain.

If you write anything less lizardy and more thinky, be prepared to have a longer slog to gain visibility and community engagement. Maybe social media isn’t actually the primary tool for getting started. Maybe featured images on blog posts are totally not as effective as emotionally reactive graphical punchlines.

Social media helps some, because humans are dumb at remembering where they left things. A Facebook group, personal timeline or (sometimes but less often) page can help people remember where they left your website, and to check out the new thing. But it’s not the cornerstone of community-building.

Building a social media community works much better when it starts with emotionally reactive, visual posts like jokes, sarcasm, heartstring wrenching, or political soundbites. From there, the commenters develop their own conversations. Some of those conversations are very, very stupid, because lizards are not good at using their words.

Translating that kind of content across formats to something more substantive like a blog takes some thought and observation of the community.

Online engagement is many kinds of thing, not A Thing.

If you want a thoughtful community, such as the kinds of people who read books and then think about them, the standards of clickbait writing and SEO aren’t necessarily good predictors of what to do online. It’s more likely the community will arise around the books, not the website or social media channels.

The exception is the ubiquitous category of saccharine inspirational/self-help, which is stupid easy to launch via lizard tactical. Lizards are keen on wallowing and will return to it repeatedly.

For the human brains, once your community starts to come together, online tools may serve various purposes that can be discovered by listening. If they come, they will tell you how to build it.

If you want virality, you should know why you want it instead of just flailing for it. Does it have anything at all to do with your writing goals? Or does it just seem like something you have to achieve in order to build your reputation? If the latter, screw that bull hockey entirely.

If you want to write a how-to site that allows you to promote related products and receive sponsorship, that’s another animal than being a novelist. It can work well for non-fiction writers.

Writers are also many kinds of thing, not A Thing.

It pays to filter for where your sources of advice are coming from. It also pays to think about how you can adapt some of these practices to fit your purposes. Just don’t let all the opinions out there engage your lizard brain.

online engagement lizard brain

Writing Critique: 5 To-Don’ts and 5 To-Do’s

Writing critique is a super important part of growing as a storyteller… when it’s good feedback, presented constructively.

Here’s a general summary of critique do’s and don’t’s, drawn directly from interactions I’ve witnessed among fiction writers. These are an advance FYI of good etiquette if you’ve never done critique before. But they’re also signposts of valid things to avoid or embrace in others, if you’re in a situation that makes you wonder.

I wish you healthy, non-psychotic creative relationships every darn day of your writing life.


Don’t pick one area of writing craft and try to distill everything down to that.

In an early group, I witnessed an amazingly cinematic novel opening get cut down to only action beats by a fellow critiquer. It had scale, dimensionality, a perfect progression from scene-setting authorial narrative to character perspective, and mood… but hey, shouldn’t it be all action! And lo, two pages became half a page.

As a new writer, I thought perhaps the critiquer was responding to the writer’s choice of genre, which was a crime story. But then I saw the same critiquer do the same thing with several other genres. No one element of fiction technique is more important than another. It’s the balance that makes or breaks reader interest.

Don’t comment on the writer’s personal details: Background, experience, personality, affiliations. To be clear, just don’t comment on the writer. Ever.

As an erstwhile small-group mentor, I’ve had to protect the circle of free thinking from an outsider’s inappropriate personal commentary. It doesn’t matter what religion or political affiliation the writer is. It doesn’t matter how good or bad they are, either. What matters is acting as a team against the problems and challenges.

Being inappropriate towards other writers is a sure way to prove one isn’t part of the team. It undermines the psychological space. We can’t enter creative flow when there’s a judge with a hammer looming over every experiment we’d like to attempt.

Especially if that hammer takes personal aim.

Don’t try to avoid the give-and-take.

Some writers come to me as an editor because they either don’t want to receive general writing critique, or they don’t want to take the time to give it. In the first instance, I agree there are pitfalls and it’s important to pick your critique group or partnership carefully.

But in the second case… nah, there’s no excuse for that laziness. It’s not a sidetrack or a time-waster to learn how to perceive craft in a situation where the words are fresher to you than your own. This is how you learn to understand and apply an editor’s remarks.

Don’t take it as commentary on you personally.

You may want to hear how clever and creative you are, but this is not the right scenario. Go home and ask your lover, or maybe your cat right before feeding time.

Writing critique is about developing skillsets, not measuring innate talents and inclinations. What’s more, praise of innate talents (like being smart) is more likely to cripple your success. Check out this New York Magazine piece, and poll your overachieving and underachieving friends.

Don’t debate the feedback.

There isn’t time in a critique circle to argue back. If you have to explain what you really intended, then you didn’t write it clearly enough the first time. It’s fine to ask a question for clarification of feedback, but seriously uncool to take more of a person’s volunteered time by turning it into an extended meta event.


Do treat the writing as separate from the writer.

The writer is not the problem, the writing is. When we’re shorthanding our English, it’s easy to speak of one as the same as the other. But it’s important not to. Both people are on the same side, facing the challenge of creative improvement together. It’s you and me against the writing challenges.

Do use positive framing for all suggestions.

Yes, I really mean all. In some ways, “writing critique” should really be renamed “writing encouragement.” We need to hear many times more positive than negative statements in order to avoid discouragement — something like four positives for every negative just to balance it at all. But it’s possible to find yourself facing a piece of writing where pulling out positives is difficult to impossible. Oh, yes. If you haven’t seen one of those, you will.

Stepping away from the concept of “corrections” and into a mindset of positive opportunities means you never have to say something good about stuff that isn’t. (This also goes back to that thing about work versus talent.) It puts it all on the same level — good writing and bad writing.

My personal goal in content editing is for the writer never to know my good writing/bad writing opinion matrix. That’s my own private mental space for pleasure reading, not for critiquing and editing. Of course, I’ll factor it in if I need to inform someone that I’m not the best person to respond to their project. But the goal is to build technique, not agree about everything.

Do use mostly “what if” questions and suggestions.

“What if you tried something like this?”

“In this section, I see a lot of description, but not as many other scene elements. What if you turned this phrase and this one into dialogue? What if this were an action beat instead of something your character observes?”

“This is great writing, but my mind’s eye is having trouble tracking where your character is going in this scene. What if you tried arranging it into motivations and reactions like this?”

“I feel like this scene ends before the action really pulls me into the next thing. What if there’s just a glimpse of…?”

This is absolutely key to getting to a place where an editor will benefit you. If you dedicate time to thinking through how to apply craft, you’ll be well on your way to bridging the vast and maddening gap between the abstract theory of fiction and its praxis.

Do choose your writing critique groups and/or partners wisely.

There are groups out there that are just awful. Some are dedicated more to toxic whining about how the world is too stupid to perceive their creative genius. (Hint: They’re not so original, they’re so entitled.)

Some are online groups established with good rules of play regarding conduct and reciprocity. Some can be found through writers’ guilds, which is a great way to find support within your preferred genre.

Sometimes, you just meet another writer and there’s a click of perspective that creates a good team out of nowhere.

Do be the critique partner you wish you could find.

That’s the surest way to attract someone like-minded about the writing journey. At the same time, don’t be afraid to step away from those who aren’t willing to engage in an egalitarian way. If they don’t engage equally, if they don’t pick up the example of kindly feedback, or even if there just isn’t a good click in thinking, maybe you haven’t found your long-term critique partner(s). Yet.

Keep looking. They’re out there.

Exchanging writing critique is essential to your journey.

Until you’ve done this, hiring an editor is just too expensive for the amount of application that’ll make sense. The wallet cost and the frustration cost aren’t worth it.

You don’t need so much advice. There’s more you can do for yourself.

Super Bad Advice: Make Them Think You’re An Expert!

You can’t make money being the long tail, but you can make money off the long tail. To understand why I’m outspoken here, read back here.

Recently, I read a bio on a website. It went something like: [Expert Person] shows you how to strengthen your reputation, position yourself as an expert, and sell more widgets of any kind at all! 

This bamboozle has been floating around non-fiction circles for like a decade longer than forever. It purports to offer the strange and ill-defined trophy known as creating social authority. Let’s Wikipedia.

Authority is the legitimate or socially approved use of power. It is the legitimate power which one person or a group holds over another. The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority and is the main means by which authority is distinguished from the more general concept of power. Power can be exerted by the use of force or violence. Authority, by contrast, depends on the acceptance by subordinates of the right of those above them to give them orders or directives.

The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority. What legitimizes social authority? What will cause people to agree to you having social power over them?

The technical answer is something called affinity. Once you know that general idea, you can pick out the false implication in snake-oil marketing promises: That you can pay someone money to gain the power to make people give you money.

This sounds suspiciously like a prosperity gospel. No, really, just pay this preacher money, and your investment will be returned to you tenfold. Look how it worked out for him, he’s rich.

Pay this expert money to make you look like an expert. Look how it worked out for her, she’s an expert and people are paying her money.

It’s very close to the truth, which is that you can buy your way into (some) things if you know how to find the doorway. But there’s a problem.

It’s a bait-and-switch.

These people are asking you to pay the wrong person. The paid media you want is not the owned media they have. They are not the doorway.

People like that are not actually pitching you their expertise. They’re pitching to your affinity for taking shortcuts and not slogging along at drudge work, seemingly wasting your creative genius in obscurity.

Unfortunately, that drudge work is exercising your intelligence effectively.

Can you buy affinity? Not the real thing. The social web has proven that market affinity can be reduced to a keyword-sorting algorithm, once it’s expressed in words. The ability to advertise to potential demographic(s) can then be sold.

But affinity is pre-existent, and there’s no special secret. It just means people who care about the same things you care about, or who view the world the same way.

Social authority easily replaces substance, quality and truthiness.

Social authority plus the right connections absolutely can levitate a product, regardless of its inherent quality. That’s how publishing can produce bestselling hermeneutical horseshit like Love and Respect (link is to a sensible review) from a person who may indeed be a psychology and counselling expert… but has chosen to speak outside that field in order pursue an advertorial agenda that provides bias confirmation to his subculture’s pervasive unhealthy relational paradigm (explanation here).

Counterintuitively, this lack of substance flourishes more easily in higher-trust environments like religious groups, political followings, or social media friend circles.*

Where does this intersect with the writing world?

1) Person A has a non-fiction concept they want to write about (let’s be cynical: express their opinion about), but lacks all varieties of expertise. They decide to build a website and try to drum up a following around their opinions and limited individual experiences.

They find they can even hire someone to teach them how to pester radio, website, and tv/video media personalities, even though nobody cares about their idea (no affinity). They acquire the misconception that being the most annoying human on the planet is the same as bootstrapping, and that persistence and hard work are the key. The only key.

Oh, yay! Another menace is born, and we all refer back to the Dunning-Kruger effect yet again.

Person B has a novel they want to write. They hear that the essential way to “hook readers” is by having a related non-fiction topic to create a free informational product, i.e., online content that will gain a following.

But people seeking information may or may not give a rat’s furry butt about a novel. Fiction delivers emotional experience, not analysis. That means experiential topics which trigger emotion are going to have a better crossover with novels, but the novel still won’t be the main product the audience is actually seeking. That’s not the audience’s primary affinity.

Why are people trying to sell this to writers?

Because they can make money off the long tail.

To get started in your own path, you have to stop letting people make you into less of more. Stop letting yourself be treated as one small unit of desperate wannabe among many, many desperate wannabes, and figure out your own reasonable, realistic course.

Just ask any writer who’s had to sort through a bunch of super bad advice.


*See Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty for a concise layman’s summary of socioeconomics and linguistic registers. One of the features of the casual register is that it doesn’t require or involve factual verification. Facebook, for example, is designed to mediate the casual register.

For other social factors in success, see Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Should I Trust You if You Destroy a Word’s Meaning?

Although it once had some meaning, albeit tainted by overzealous ambitions, “#1 Bestselling Author” is now more of a meaningless fad phrase than the messy, half-assed pseudo-statistical reflection it once was.

When publishers gamed the NYT list, there were books being put out, so it stood for something about the print runs — even if the way they got counted was subject to manipulation through bulk purchases and curious sampling. Ah, the good old glory days, when publishing had quality standards.

But when it’s #1 in some tiny unknown niche, it doesn’t even reflect that.

Behind the Scam: What Does It Take to Be a ‘Best-Selling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes.

And that’s where language goes to die: Into the hands of people who are willing to make it mean anything they unilaterally desire it to, without reference to accurate communication with others.

Why Survivorship Bias Will Screw You Over

Welcome to the writing world. Attend any conference where writers get to play agent/editor/sales pitch roulette, and you will hear this from someone:

Survivorship Bias
Source: XKCD

Survivorship bias is everywhere. In books, it’s the success stories of those who made it big. Or even just those who did get a traditional contract. Or the craft admonishments of those debuts who wrote their novel according to every formula of their genre. (Experienced hands don’t do this.) Or even the income statistics of authors who, very genuinely and kindly, want people to know that “I did and so can you.”

Without accounting for the ranks of those who put their work out there and never sold a single copy, and those who never even got that far, those statistics are skewed. The advice you’re getting is not from people who are used to success, but who are used to a certain type of success.

Only the “successes” get mentioned. The failures get ignored.

That means the reasons for failure get ignored, and that’s the stuff we should really be troubleshooting.

This also presupposes a particular definition of success, and if your definition doesn’t match, you could end up feeling like a failure before you even get started.

Survivorship bias is the stuff that tells you to have a useless monthly newsletter because certain people have found it fits their audience relationship, and then tell everyone that this is what works. Those people may just be from 2002, kind of like the people who recommend blogging are from 2006. Anyone who can’t make The Success Strategy work is filed under categories like Must Be Doing It Wrong or Doesn’t Really Get It.

And this happens with everything. Like networking stuff. There are, I swear, more than fifty bazillion dawg-awful advice articles about how to market yourself as a public menace, because it worked for some people in some instances, for reasons that happened to override people’s natural reactions to the harassment factor. Or for reasons that may apply to them and not others, like existing social connections.

Never mind that you will quickly, like slap-face quickly, learn that “reminding people about your product” too often or in the wrong way is not appreciated. Being annoying is not representing your work well. Not knowing which channels and presentations are and aren’t appropriate is not charming.

Have I said enough? No, I haven’t. For people who don’t understand good social boundaries and respectful two-way communication, or who don’t respect the etiquette and conventions of various platforms, there will never be enough saying it to make them stop. The only recourse is a rape whistle.

You know the authors I am talking about. You probably also know some of the guilty culprits egging them on. I bet you even read their blogs, you soulless web crawling person.

Success is counterintuitive.

Getting things to work out well is like airplane armor. You have to pay attention to whether your brain is actually being logical, or making false connections from lack of full consideration. Our brains are liars.

Also, like airplanes, applying the armor (or publishing/marketing advice) in the wrong place really can take your plane down. That hardly seems fair to you. So here’s a story.

I have a writing/critique partner in my fiction life , which is pretty much a neglected corner of my writing life overall (I’m an essayist, not a novelist). Whenever he puts out a novel, all of us who love his work go ga-ga over it. People email him and post on his social media.

But he’s rarely there.

Neither are most successful writers. It’s called a virtual assistant, and people hire them because trying to keep up with the speed, frequency and intensity of public contact is a recipe for burnout. A larger writing franchise may find it worth hiring more than one as online channels expand.

Why would you expect yourself to do the work of three people and write?

What I learned from observing my partner early on was that being only slightly available actually increases the allure of contact. If you can just have it, then the value is low. Same with anything. If it’s hard to come by and somebody wants it, like a ruby, then it’s valued high. If it’s hard to come by but nobody wants it, like a bottled fart, then you’re not wasting any energy on being available when you shouldn’t.

You don’t need to try to be everywhere, in front of everybody.

If your business model grows enough to need more channels, then start using more channels. If you don’t really need them, why be out there waving your book cover around to a handful of followers like a drunk dorky kid in an empty room? That’s not a party.

Success is connecting.

Let’s not even talk about the myth of having to pay for promotion or boosting or whatever on social media. If your product is right for the medium, you don’t have to. One of my side projects has never cost its collaborative team a dime. Which is good, because it’s just for fun, to a niche audience. And yet our Facebook fan base is mid-five figures, and we’ve had original content go to a million page views.

The reality is, writers on social media are often boring. I don’t want to be told every week that my friend has a book and here’s the link. I don’t want to be friend requested to rack up someone’s numbers to impress an agent with their “platform.” Or conversed with only when there’s something that needs selling.

Reading is very personally tailored, and books find their way by being in the right place for those who’ll love them. And yes, for instance, BookBub may be one of those places (if your work has already accumulated some audience cred). So could many other channels.

None of this means marketing is useless. It means naively following formulas without understanding their application is useless.

Sounds a lot like why not to hire an editor too soon.

Survivorship bias is why you want to give up.

The most pernicious part is how this tells you that certain genres sell (probably not so much yours). Certain market areas have become oversaturated and are starting to sag (like your favorite thing to write). Certain conventions of composition and structure have been met by every book that’s on the survivors’ list, so every new prospect must meet them too. Certain people work hard and that’s The Reason why they find success.

But whether you’ve put out ten books or zero, your unpublished works aren’t on the survivors’ list.

You don’t know what will happen until you do the thing.

End of story.

Do Not Hire This Editor.

Do Not Hire This Editor
Don’t you do it.

You don’t need so much advice.

An editor can help a lot at the right time, in the right circumstances. But there’s no point if you’re not in that place. And the same is true of a lot of other things in the writing life.

If you’re new to writing fiction and not sure how to get on, here are the essentials of story. Apparently numbered lists are de rigueur, so FYI, my list has like 7 things or something.

Feeling discouraged? Here’s all you really need to be a good writer. 

Stringing Words Into Sentences

Voice comes from honesty.

The hardest thing about starting to write is finding your honesty. Not just telling the truth as you see it on the surface of your mind, where we lie to ourselves.

Honesty becomes a way of life on the page eventually. The easiest way to get there is to trigger emotions so strong and immediate that you have to say exactly what you feel deep down.

For a lot of people, that involves a detox from institutionalized writing. Five-paragraph essays. Being forced to write about the weather or how great your mom was on a sheet of pre-printed lines. Being forced to engage with basic literacy before you were developmentally ready (maybe your motor coordination wasn’t there yet, or your reading comprehension had a schedule of its own that said Oh yeah, well eff you to the institutional timeline). Or being corralled into limited, educational-agenda-based forms of expression that had nothing to do with what really interested you.

That’s why Pat Schneider’s breakout creative writing technique begins with detoxing from various aspects of our early lives. Her exercises tap into our experiences of injustice, shame, and disappointment, and perform strategic lifesaving surgery by excising those inner barriers onto a page. First, courage. You have to get rid of the fears about exposure that you didn’t even know you were dealing with.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Clear expression and topical engagement come from feedback.

One reason I’ve heard for hiring an editor (or for seeking feedback in general) from a few different people is this: People will read total crap, so their feedback may not mean anything.

Oh, thank goodness. That’s a fantastic starting place. But you’ll need to come back to it when you get your first negative review, okay? Also, good luck with that!

Feedback doesn’t teach creative writing technique in the technical sense. Practice teaches technique. But feedback teaches you about being interesting and being resonant.

People will ignore you when you’re not interesting and not honest.

People will read you when you’re connecting with what matters to them in a way that rings true.

And finally, it teaches you where you’re not communicating clearly, because someone will pipe up and say, “I have no idea what you mean by this! I’m confused!” Beta readers and critique groups or partners are excellent for pinpointing the places where we didn’t say what we thought we said.

I’ve found blogging is also great that way, because then you get to try again in the comments. You can even start an argument about it, which is definitely not allowed in critique groups, at least the better ones. There might be some cage-fighter crit groups out there.*

I don’t know. But I do know you can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Strong writing comes from personal literacy.

I touched on this in my initial post here. A lot of people who are just fixated on the shiny aura of “writing a novel” are also very unimaginative. For starters, they can’t imagine a “serious” (ping me on my “serious writing” rant sometime) writing form other than the novel exists. For another, they’re much too busy imagining having their name splashed on the cover of a novel to imagine a good story. But when do we get to the cover with my name on it!? Are we there yet???

The truth is, many people don’t read well. I have in past chalked it down to impatience, based on the lack of reading my reply emails coherently. These days, I also suspect a general literacy problem in the Now We’re Seriously Adulting population of people who are past their twenties.

As children, and teens, and trailing into young adulthood, we’re encouraged to read stories of wonder. But there’s an agenda. Wonder is only allowed when it Promotes Literacy In Children. Once that task is completed, we drop the habit of seeking out thoughts and expressions that amaze us. It’s not “useful.” It “wastes time.” We start skimming everything. We lose imagination.

Constraining ourselves to a grownup sense of wonder, atmosphere and importance is another invisible wall that prevents honesty. It kills voice. Seeking out your favorite themes in other forms and places will help you realize what you really need (not just imagine you want) to communicate, and how many ways there are to communicate it.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.


*We’ll talk about critique etiquette another time. Short version: The number one rule is to say “thank you” and move on without further comment, taking what works for you and leaving the rest.

For a deeper look: Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others.

Stringing Sentences Into Paragraphs

5 Active Scene Elements,
Plus One Other Thing (Okay, Two)

Once you’ve got your sense of honesty, a little organization goes a long way to helping readers along. You can look at the technicalities of experiential expression as about six empty boxes we can fill in, but that won’t matter if you don’t put things in them that matter to someone else.

Fiction creates a mental picture. Mere words have to compensate for all those things that occur wordlessly in the real world. But the toolkit isn’t very big. And of the few things we use, they divide fairly easily into internal and external components of experience.

The thing that doesn’t go over well with contemporary adult audiences is giving internal details from a non-viewpoint character’s perspective. But that’s entirely dependent on the readership. The younger the intended audience, the more narrative, the more overt explanations, and the more we include the perspectives of non-viewpoint characters, because kids don’t read implication. It’s a brain development thing. Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux illustrates this very well.

Even teen (especially early teen) brains don’t understand how to interpret facial expressions, and we cue them overtly on interpersonal interactions a lot more at that reading level. That may be partly why adults eschew it and react like the reading material is too basic or flat. It doesn’t leave enough room for the fully-fledged imagination.

Here are those five active scene elements. They’re considered active because they’re the tools we use to advance the character’s perspective and desires onward through the story.

The 5 active elements of fiction prose

1. Description

It helps to start any new moment with a brief description. Just a few general reference points will do, like a sweep with a movie camera. Otherwise, when your characters begin speaking and doing things, they’ll be doing them with no surrounding setting or atmosphere.

Description is the special darling, because if you give it from the character’s viewpoint, as indirect internal monologue, it’s internal. If you give it using narrative summary (the author’s voice), it’s external. That makes it a great tool for controlling the “zoom” on the story lens. The author’s voice is more distant, and the character’s thinking is more intimate. Transitioning between the two controls the emotional scale and intensity.

2. Dialogue

It also helps, according to acclaimed author Nancy Kress, to include some dialogue as promptly as possible. In a workshop of hers that I attended several years back, she mentioned that her work began to get a lot more requests from publication editors when she did this. If you read her current fiction, which is amazingly skilled, her use of dialogue drops you right into the moment and anchors you to the character.

What if your character is alone? Kress outwits that problem beautifully in the opening of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. 

Dialogue is external. This is important. Implication and nuance in dialogue often require that we combine it with an internal technique, so we can see intent, and also the contrast between what’s said and the real thoughts behind it. This is because most of our meaning isn’t conveyed through syntax. It’s given through vocal inflection and body language, and those are lost when words go into print.

Do we have to tell the reader how the character spoke or what gestures they made? That can be useful with non-viewpoint characters, but nonverbal semantics are perceived subjectively, not factually. They have the most impact when shown from the viewpoint character’s perception, which may not be accurate.

3. Action

Action is external, rather obviously. It pairs well with dialogue or internal monologue, because those tend to express the character’s goals. Of course, we immediately want to see those goals acted upon, once we know them.

This is the part where everyone says to kill all the adverbs. Why? Because adverbs tell you how a thing was, not just what it was or did. They’re a summary tool.

Yes, that means you can quite properly adverbialize in narrative summary. You can also do it anytime the emotional tension or intensity is low, because generally we summarize that more and intense action receives more detail.

4. Internal monologue

This means the viewpoint character’s thoughts, so naturally, internal monologue is internal. There are two ways to express it: Exactly as the character thinks it (directly) in more of a silent-dialogue style, or by paraphrasing in more of a narrative style (indirectly).

5. Visceral emotion

This is the one you don’t want to use often, or there’ll be accusations of giving your characters some kind of dysentery. This is the maximum-intensity, “the adrenaline punched him in the gut” stuff. It’s really hard to do without resorting to cliches, and even harder to do without inventing really weird physiological analogies. It works best when used very, very rarely.

And a 6th: Narrative summary

Narrative summary is when the author talks for a bit (sometimes called authorial voice or authorial narrative), just to get you on to the next part, or to skim over something relatively boring but necessary. It doesn’t sound like the character’s vocabulary, but the author’s, and doesn’t suffer the restrictions of the character’s viewpoint. It’s a pariah in basic fiction instruction because, quite simply, it’s telling. It’s passive rather than active.

The Hunger Games trilogy is high in narrative summary compared to an adult novel, keeping in mind that Suzanne Collins had a lot of prior experience writing for even younger children. The author understands the psychology of communicating with kids. The distance of using authorial voice to step back from the character experience can shelter children and teens from the intense emotional impact the same story would have if told mostly with active scene elements. Alternately, that distance can be closed by telling the story in first-person point of view, which will also be narration-heavy.

And in terms of adult fiction, why write a whole scene to make one tiny point of detail? Actually, you shouldn’t. Scenes have a specific purpose in the story, and that’s not it. Sometimes telling is the right choice to get past the parts that don’t need more depth.

Very occasionally, authorial narrative can successfully be used to break point of view and carry the reader to a side event with another character, without changing scenes. As a writer from a time when authorial voice was more accepted, John LeCarre continues to achieve this very well in his later work, for example Single & Single. 

Narrative as rough drafting tool

Many people draft their first run at a story with a lot of narrative summary. They’re telling the story to themselves. That’s a great way to get it all down and figure out what happens and why. Later on, it’s fine to go back and replace the summary with active scene elements where they communicate the emotional experience more effectively.

The red-headed stepchild: Flashbacks

The advice out there about flashbacks is weird. This is because, when embedded within an ongoing scene, it tends to subsist in an odd limbo between internal monologue and narrative summary, and because it’s so easy to end up in extensive narrative summary rather than using flashback as indirect internal monologue.

If a flashback has to go long, then it’s not a flashback, it’s achronological plotting. Again see Single & Single

The short and simple is, if you learn to understand internal monologue and narrative summary, you won’t have a problem writing flashbacks. There’s nothing special, scary or mysterious about them. You likely have seen them done right and wrong, but if it’s hard to peg why, this way of looking at the elements of fiction prose may help clarify that.


For a deeper look:
Randy Ingermanson/Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies
Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

Reading for reading’s sake:
Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux
Nancy Kress, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
John LeCarre, Single & Single