Five Myths About Writers That Non-Writers Don't Get

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Hard Work Does Not Equal Talent.
It helps, to be certain. The more you write (as long as you’re writing with the idea to improve), the more you better your chances of creating something magnificent.
But every writer knows some prodigy who writes rings around them.  Someone whose talent blossomed much younger.  Someone who doesn’t work nearly as hard as you do, yet creates stories of beauty and majesty that you can’t touch.
What sucks about this business is that all you can do is cultivate your own talent.  Some people just write better than you do, and you can drive yourself crazy wondering why they’re so good and you’re so struggling.  There’s this myth that the person who puts in the most effort magically succeeds – yet just like there are gifted athletes, there are gifted writers, and most basketball players have to come to terms with the fact that no amount of practice will give them Michael Jordan’s instincts.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be on the All-Star Team, though.  You just have to remember that every moment lost to envy is a moment you’re not bettering your own skills.
Talent Does Not Equal Success.
What is success, anyway?  Is it awards?  Money pouring through your door?  The adoration of people who admire?
Whatever it is, every writer knows an exception.
There’s always some immaculately-reviewed writer who, somehow, never makes the awards ballot.  There’s always some critical darling with a cancelled series and friends wondering why more people aren’t reading them.  There’s always some bestselling author fuming about bad reviews.
Look, if publishers knew how to generate bestsellers on demand, they’d do it.   But as William Goldman, the guy who wrote The Princess Bride says, “Nobody knows anything.”  Publishers buy a bunch of manuscripts because honestly, nobody in the world knows why one novel takes off and another one sits on the shelves.  Publishers have thrown million-dollar marketing campaigns at books that landed with a thud, whereas self-published books with an initial print run of 200 copies turned out to be bestsellers.
And then there’s the luck factor.  Fun fact: a few months ago, a prominent agent read my book Flex and raved about it.  I know that agent has recommended Flex to their friends, because some of their friends have written to me and told me how grateful they were that this agent told them about it.
I sent Flex to this agent.
They were one of the first three people who declined to represent me because they didn’t think Flex was good enough.
But that doesn’t mean the agent is terrible: it means they were in a different headspace that day, or that some minor change I made to the first chapter really made a difference, or that their assistant read it that day instead of them.  So much of success involves the right person reading your book on the right day that it can drive you crazy.
All you can do is write the best book you’re capable of, and hope to hell it resonates with the public.  It may be a brilliant book, one that broke the hearts of your agent and your publisher and all your friends and all your author buddies, and even then it might flop.  And then Fifty Shades of Grey will outsell you a million to one.
The alchemy of writing is mysterious.  Success is elusive.  And while we’re talking about that…
A Talented Writer Does Not Produce Consistently Talented Works.
The late great Jay Lake had a theory he called The Bathtub Theory, and I’ll quote it in full here (his site has illustrations):
Think of the publishing world as a bathtub.
In that bathtub there is a line which represents the level of professionalism one must reach before one can begin selling pro stories.
Into that bathtub flows the water of your talent and effort.
It fills over time, as you practice your craft, learn new techniques, refine existing ones, submit to markets, apply consistent effort to producing new materials and generally do all the writing and writing related program activities which your favorite pros spend their time at. Note that the waterline is wavy, like a child’s drawing of the ocean. This is because while you have a baseline, or mean, level of quality in your output, at any given point in your career path some work will be better than other work. Variability within an established range, so to speak.
So, as the water of your talent and effort continues to flow into the bathtub, the waterlevel rises up.
At first you sell one or two stories over a span of time. The peaks of your waves have touched the “pro line.” Then you begin to sell with some consistency, still missing sometimes. The midline of your waves has touched the “pro line.” Eventually, if you are smart, persistent, lucky, and most of all consistent in your practice, even the troughs of your waves will rise to the “pro line”.
Think of success not as a point which you pass, but as a state which you enter with increasing frequency.
The point of this is that people seem to think that a Good Writer writes A Good Story.  And the truth is, some stories you write are brilliant because you’re on fire, and some stories just aren’t that great.  Good writers have a baseline level of talent, yes, so when Stephen King writes a bad story it’s like sex and pizza – which is to say, pretty good even when it’s not good –
– but some stories you write will be wonderful, and some won’t, and damn if you know the difference.  Which leads to the next myth…
Love Does Not Equal Quality.
A friend of mine told me that the third book in my series had to be good because she knew I loved these characters so much.  “You can tell when an author doesn’t really love what they’re working on.”
Sadly, no.
Again, history is rife with authors churning out classic works they didn’t really care for – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle most notably came to loathe Sherlock Holmes and actually killed him off in the hopes of shedding light on the works he adored more.  (It didn’t work.)  Those stories were still golden.
Whereas every author has a story they adored that never got the success they’d hoped for.  And most writers have a story that fans liked way more than they, the person who actually wrote the story, did.
There is no steady correlation between “the amount of adoration you poured into this work” and “how much people like it.” We wish this was so – but according to Stephen King, Lisey’s Story is his best work, not IT or The Stand or The Dark Tower.
You may be sensing a theme here – that there’s no guarantee in publishing.  This may seem frustrating.  I assure you, it is.  But there’s one benefit to it all…
We Are Not In Competition With Each Other.  
I graduated from a Clarion class with seventeen other writers.  My classmate Monica Byrne’s The Girl In The Road debuted to fantastic reviews. My classmate Emily Jiang’s book Summoning the Phoenix won awards.  My classmate Kat Howard’s upcoming book Roses and Rot got personally blurbed by Neil Gaiman.
Their success does not eclipse my own.
Look.  My ‘Mancer series is a crazy urban fantasy series about obsession-based magic and the love of donuts.  Monica’s Girl In The Road is a cross-cultural science-fiction journey about a woman who flees assassins by walking across an energy-harvesting bridge.  Emily’s book is a children’s poetry book of Chinese music.  Kat’s book is fairy tale magic.
None of us are writing for the same audience.
And frankly, even if we were, there’s always room for good stories.  J.K Rowling’s success did not mean Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Scott Hawkin’s Library At Mount Char got squashed, even if they were basically all the same concept.
People want to read fascinating tales, and if you write one they will buy them.
Yeah, it’s sometimes a little intimidating looking at other authors’ sales numbers, but they’re not stealing from my pocket.  Rowling got a lot of kids into reading, and chances are a couple of people who were spurred to a love of books by Harry Potter picked up Flex.  What matters is the story, and yeah, maybe other authors write better or have bigger sales or are more beloved by critics…
But as always, all you can do is make your own space.
That’s the truth about writing.
Good luck.

1 Comment

  1. Angie
    Mar 25, 2016

    Another factor a lot of writers don’t accept or at least don’t acknowledge is that of taste. You can write a perfectly good story, of professional quality, with cool characters and an interesting plot and great setting and cetera, and have it rejected — multiple times, even — because it’s not to an editor’s taste. Or maybe not to several editors’ tastes. The trick is to keep subbing until you find one whose taste matches the story.
    I do the anthology workshop run by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith every year. We write up to six stories each year, ahead of the workshop, to anthology guidelines, and spend most of the workshops with the editor/instructors going over the stories in front of the class. As Dean says in his write-up about the workshop, “You haven’t lived till you’ve experienced seven professional editors arguing about your stories in front of you.”
    And they do. One of my stories this time was trashed by the first three editors, and the fourth said, “They’re all insane! This is wonderful!”
    It’s just a matter of taste. I think we all know taste is a factor, at some level, but really knowing it, at a gut level, is different. Too many writers send a story to three or four markets, or maybe only one, and get rejected, and decide the story sucks, so they never send it out again. That’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. Once you’ve worked up to pro level craftsmanship, acceptance or rejection is ninety percent editor taste. And the other ten percent is what else they have in inventory, what they bought last week, how much wordcount they have left, how their issue/anthology is balancing… all that stuff that has nothing to do with how good or bad your story is.
    Keep subbing. Rejecting you is the editor’s job, so let them do it. 🙂
    Angie

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