[process] Why new writers shouldn’t listen to me

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.

12 thoughts on “[process] Why new writers shouldn’t listen to me

  1. dystophil says:

    Excellent advice (and of course I won’t listen to a word of it ;)) Thanks anyway.

  2. Damián says:

    excellent. I will review your blogposts “process”. I think I’ll find something interesting

  3. But, Uncle Jay, you don’t get it. Everyone’s a Philistine.

    (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.)

  4. Rick York says:

    I’m 65. I volunteer at several places here in Portland. May of the folks I work with are much younger than I. From time to time one of them will ask me for advice on some aspect of his or her life. Of course, they seem to assume that age has made me wiser.

    Well, I learned long ago that there is no direct relationship between age and wisdom. Unfortunately, many of my contemporaries don’t get that.

  5. tetar says:

    Do not follow me. Find your own way. — The Buddha

  6. atsiko says:

    Great advice. Now shut up and delete your blog. You’re advising me badly.

  7. Heh, I think you make a good point. I enjoyed Stephen King’s book on writing – he has a lot of great advice and examples. But his advice on the process of getting an agent and getting published has a few problems. Most notably he implies that an unknown author with a few “pro” periodical credits can get an agent by querying a partially written novel. In his defense, he uses an example of someone who did just that in the late 1990’s when he was writing the book. I don’t know how possible it was then, but it sure doesn’t seem likely now.

  8. Like the movie sez…

    CHARLES DE MAR: I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.

    If anything seems apparent, it’s that there are multiple roads to becoming Successful — which is a whole other Oprah unto itself; the definition of that word — and that everyone who has attained Success is very eager to share that wisdom with everyone else, because they’ve more or less forged a path through the elephant grass and they think new authors should follow it.

    Problem is, no path can be exactly followed. It might lead somewhere for a time, but sooner or later we lose it, and suddenly we’re standing in the middle of nowhere, and it’s time to yell for help, or bust out the machete and begin hacking.

    There are a select few authors I consider mentors — people who have been doing this so damned long I trust some of their experience and wisdom to be near-transcendental. These people tend to preach that while there are suggestions they can give, there is no Sure Way. Authors must learn to think and act independently and experiment.

    Lately I’ve been ping-ponging around on the agent-vs-no-agent debate. In the end I have concluded that having no agent versus having a bad agent, is preferable. But passing up a good agent just to remain unagented — out of fear the agent might screw me — is probably an equally poor option. Because clearly agents have worked out well for so many others. Still, I shall remind myself to be very cautious, if and when I solicit an agent’s services.

    Perhaps that’s the only real advice possibly? Be cautious, but experiment? Be determined, but be realistic?

    1. Jay says:

      Perhaps that’s the only real advice possibly? Be cautious, but experiment? Be determined, but be realistic?

      You are spot on, sir. The only canonical advice I give anymore is “Write more.” Everything else is merely information, or possibly just data.

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