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Bad Writing Advice

1. My pop quiz for writers regarding public (online) behavior, over at SF Novelists.

2. Mind Meld presents some of the Funniest Writers in the History of SF/F, including my contribution at the end. (Leading to a new question for the pop quiz -- when asked who the funniest authors are, do you proclaim yourself to be one of them? Really?)

3. I need to give away another copy or two of The Stepsister Scheme [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy]. Last time we did a joke contest. Any suggestions or preferences for this giveaway?


One of the panels at Millennicon this weekend was "How Not to Break Into Publishing," talking about all of the bad advice out there for aspiring writers. Needless to say, there's enough bad advice to keep the panel going all weekend. ("Don't have credits to add to your cover letter? Lie!" "Want to really grab an agent's attention? Slide your manuscript under the stall when he's doing his business!" "Don't like the submission guidelines? Ignore 'em!"*)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a prime example of how not to break into publishing. Russet Noon is "the tribute sequel to the Twilight saga". Fanfiction is one thing, but this sucker is supposedly going on sale later this year. Anyone care to take any bets as to how long before Stephanie Meyer's lawyers reduce the whole lot of them to a smoking crater?

::Grabs the popcorn::

My first contribution to the panel was that anyone who tries to tell you "This is the One True Path to publishing success" is probably full of crap. That might be the path they followed, but talk to a dozen authors and you'll get a dozen different stories about how they all broke in. The stories will probably have some things in common (the writer didn't interrupt an editor's poopy time, didn't try to sell his/her fanfiction book, etc.), but few of us follow the exact same path.

Another issue that came up is that the longer a writer has been publishing, the less useful his or her story is likely to be. I got into trouble because I believed I had to write short fiction before trying a novel. 30-40 years ago, that might have been true. But at the time I was trying to break in? Not so much. I ended up spending years working on short fiction before trusting myself to try novels. The short stuff is fun and I enjoy writing 'em, but I prefer novels, and I wish I had started them earlier. Makes me wonder how long it will be before I'm completely out of touch with the new crowd of eager young authors....

It was noted that posting your book on the web and waiting for editors to swoop in and discover you generally isn't a great idea, unless you're John Scalzi. But for every John Scalzi, there are thousands of UnScalzis. Guess which one you're likely to be?

We also talked some about publicity once you've broken in, and the idea that writers must blog and have a web site. I actually agree with the web site advice. You want to have some minimal presence that will allow people to track you down if they want to do things like buy your books, invite you to contribute a story to an anthology, find out who your agent is so they can pay you lots of money to make a movie of your work, and so on. But telling authors they must blog to succeed?

Blogging can help sell books, sure. Heck, I know a number of readers here have picked up my stuff as a result of the blog. But I do it because I enjoy it, and because it lets me network with other writers and readers, not because it sells a few more books. (Don't get me wrong, I'll take all the extra sales I can get ;-) It takes a long time to build up an audience, and a lot of writing to maintain the thing. If you want to write one, great! But don't do it expecting a noticeable effect in your sales.

So what's the worst advice you've ever received?

*Apparently this tactic only works if you're ccfinlay



( 115 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 25th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
Russet Noon is not so much commercially published as it is vanity published, apparently. Just to share.

And, yes - the legal smackdown should be delightful.
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:10 pm (UTC)
I meant commercially in terms of charging money as opposed to vanity vs. commercial, but the terms get confusing quick. I've tweaked that paragraph to hopefully dodge further confusion.

I couldn't find much on the publisher, but I guessed it was probably a vanity/self-publisher of impressive cluelessness...
(no subject) - sistercoyote - Mar. 25th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 25th, 2009 06:14 pm (UTC)
I don't know if this qualifies as "advice" per se, but it was certainly bad. Quick background: I took multiple creative writing courses in college; oddly enough, they're requirements for a creative writing degree.

Well, one of my professors in my (counts on fingers) junior year was absolutely convinced that any sort of genre fiction was utterly and objectively inferior. That's any genre--sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, western--if it can be codified into a genre, it's crap. The man told me, to my face, that I was wasting my talent.

I gave him a special thanks at the end of Gehenna: the Final Night, just because I promised him that I would when I got my first genre fiction published. ;-)

But it was astounding how much disdain he had for a type of fiction that he clearly didn't even understand. I was working on my very first novel at the time (and no, I will never try to get it published, because it was what we'll charitably call a learning experience), and I'd turned in a portion of that as a class assignment. The prologue involved an Assistant Directer at the FBI opening a package that contained the writings that made up the rest of the book.

And this professor tried to tell me that "Sci-fi fans like things to be exciting and in motion. So maybe, instead of starting with him opening the package, you should start with the package zipping through various tubes to land on his desk."

Yes, seriously.
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
Ow. My poor brain...

Out of curiosity, how many books had this professor actually published? And had he published anything outside of his own genre of literary/academic fiction? (Academic literature is totally a genre with its own tropes and rules, just like SF/F.)

One piece of advice from another panel was to try to contact creative writing professors beforehand, just to try and avoid this kind of nonsense.
(no subject) - aulus_poliutos - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aulus_poliutos - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mouseferatu - Mar. 26th, 2009 02:56 am (UTC) - Expand
Maybe I'm late to the party... - jmmcdermott - Mar. 31st, 2009 02:57 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - barbarienne - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mtlawson - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:32 pm (UTC)
You DO like me. You keep obsessing about my home country... Canada.

I knew it.

Mar. 25th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
Of course I do! Hadn't you figured that out already from all of my shameless flirting?
(no subject) - mt_yvr - Mar. 25th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:34 pm (UTC)
My favorite bit of bad advice was never to rock the boat. "You should never challenge your editor or call him/her on a bad decision, because that'll come back to haunt you." When I quit Science Fiction Eye back in '96 (I was tired of working for a publication with such a spotty printing record toward the end that it was being referred to as "The Last Dangerous Magazine"), editor Steve Brown tried to tell me that if I was going to leave, he was going to write All His Friends In The Publishing Business and let them know how unreasonable I was being. He swore that I'd never get published again if he did this, and that my best option was to come back and continue working for free for a magazine that was coming out every 2 1/2 years. We can see exactly how well that worked out.
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
::Headdesk:: I'm told that sometimes the best revenge is to simply outlast the idiots.
(no subject) - txtriffidranch - Mar. 25th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
I'm still really upset that Russet Noon isn't a novel about vampire potatos.
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
It was supposed to be, but I drew a picture of a potato once, so I own the copyright.
(no subject) - ginasketch - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 25th, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
All I can say is that if someone interrupts my poopy time with a manuscript, however good, its going to be a) probably ill-used, and b) the very last thing the author writes.
Mar. 25th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC)
Worst advice I ever got (as a teen, from a magazine) was for your query letter to be professional, which meant talking about how to market your book, why your book is important, and what is its theme. So I sweated bullets over three and four page query letters, doing stuff I hate, and I'm sure none of it was read, or if it was, it was passed around the office to be laughed at.

Bad advice I've seen? I don't want to be mean and point at individuals, so I'll just say: if someone sets themselves up as an advice dispensor, check their publication record. If they've never sold anything to a market you recognize . . . consider whether they are the best source.

Edited at 2009-03-25 06:55 pm (UTC)
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
You know, some of that actually sounds like what I've seen requested for nonfiction books, in terms of marketing and audience and such. For fiction though, not so much.

"consider whether they are the best source."

Yes! And on a related note, we were talking on the panel about how newly published writers are prone to immediately handing out advice to everyone. (I did it too.) You've broken in, which is a huge milestone, but at that point you don't realize how much more there is still to learn.
(no subject) - halspacejock - Mar. 25th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
Have you seen this essay by Guy Gavriel Kay on authors, audiences, and blogs? He makes some really interesting points that are worth some thought by anyone who is considering inviting the world-at-large into their private life through blogs and other online forums.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
I did. I don't completely agree with it, but I do think he's right about opening yourself up to that pseudopersonal relationship, and needing to be aware of your own boundaries when you're blogging.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
What submission guideline did Charlie break?

Also, if I am asked who is the funniest SF author, Charlie is a strong candidate. He's just not usually funny in his fiction.

(Er, not because he can't be, but because he usually isn't writing comedy. But dinner with him is a dangerous situation. Put him and sksperry in the same room, and you don't dare drink anything!)
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:17 pm (UTC)
I don't know if I'm supposed to share the details, but if you shot him an e-mail, I suspect he'd fill you in.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:18 pm (UTC)
Russet Noon? Is that like a "what-if Edward Cullen was a potato?"

A sparkly potato.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:23 pm (UTC)
D'Oh! Someone upthread made potato comments already and I missed it! (stupid scroll wheel).

Now, on sartorius' comment, I never understood why a writer would have to include ways to market their novel. Isn't that the editor's job? So essentially, the cover letter is supposed to tell the editor or agent how to do their job? It's a little condescending, isn't it? I've read several of those how-to books myself, and each one usually contradicts the one before. I plan on just sending the ms with my contact info on the cover letter. If it gets rejected, it's just as rejected as one where I've smacked my head against the wall, trying to prognosticate how Bricks & Mortar are going to shelve my book.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - cutelildrow - Mar. 27th, 2009 03:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
Worst piece of advice I heard: "If you want to write a short story, think about a novel and then take out the middle."
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:24 pm (UTC)
Bad advice...wow, where shall I start?

I was told (not by Charlie) that you had to have a short story publishing history to get an agent/sell an novel/be taken seriously.

To throw away the first three, four novels I wrote because they would all be crap. That would have included the book making the rounds of editors right now.

To skip the whole agent quest and submit straight to publishers.

To always write series books.

To never write series books.

That if I had what it takes, I should seeing results in six months. If I didn't start selling...something...in six months, quit.

I have pretty good instincts and I ignored anything that made me cringe. I did write a lot of short stories, but I love them and I learned things from the process.

And Russet Noon might be the worst idea and the funniest thing ever, all at the same time. Oh man, I laughed so hard.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
In fairness, "Skip agents and submit straight to publishers" was probably very good advice thirty years ago.

Nowadays, not so much.
(no subject) - stillnotbored - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
A haiku contest!
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
That could be fun...
(no subject) - alessandrastarr - Mar. 25th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - asakiyume - Mar. 25th, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)
Spotted Stepsister Scheme in the wild - one of the girls on the train trip had it, and was enjoying it very much so far. :)
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC)
The pop quiz was a delight. Thank you!

The worst advice: From a an erstwhile lover (who was studying a BA with English/Philosophy/History at the time) that I was wasting myself writing genre fiction and that literary fiction is the only way to go. He proceded to tell me my writing was "too soppy" and that genre fiction sucked.

So, I stopped writing for a decade and studied graphic design instead of journalism, like I'd wanted to but was lucky to be employed in publishing from the get-go, so I've been writing magazine and newspaper editorial for a while.

I found short stories were a good playground while I learnt about how to craft good characters, plots and settings. Spent five years playing with different ideas until I made my first sales last year – half a year after I completed my first novel, which I sold at the start of this year.

I've now developed a routine that allows for me to write a 100K novel in about 3 months while still holding down a full-time job as a newspaper sub-editor. Yes, you can tell, my husband and I don't have kids!

Of course my mother still asks me when I'll write some "real" fiction but hey, I'm doing this because I have a story to tell and it's my way of unwinding after a busy day meeting print deadlines.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
I don't suppose anybody recorded any of these panels?
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:40 pm (UTC)
Not that I'm aware of, though if I discover a recording somewhere, I'll post a link.
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:47 pm (UTC)
How about a user-pic contest for Mermaid's Madness?

Or for announcing new author "Jime Hines" or "Jime Hins" or ?
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
Or banner or icon or other pic-thing ...
Mar. 25th, 2009 07:58 pm (UTC)
To cut my wordcount down and try to sell Book 1 of my urban fantasy series as an ebook. Even as a n00b, that advice gave me a bit of a pause.
Mar. 25th, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
I'd say it was from a classmate in college who took the "Write what you know" all to literally.

I.e. I should only write about white males from South Central PA.


I read the controversy page for Russet Noon, and it took me two tries. The laughter, it hurts!

I'm going to start perusing my book collection for undrawn characters so I can copyright them! I'll make millions in back royalties!

Edited at 2009-03-25 08:04 pm (UTC)
Mar. 25th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
I haven't published anything, save for a few editorials in the local paper, and a few things on AC, but I have had some bad advice:

- Only write what you know. No amount of research counts. If you aren't an expert, don't write it.

- You have to write it perfectly the first time. (My 8th grade English teacher told me this! No drafts, no revising write it right the first time!)

- Outlining is the only way to go. Everything MUST be outlined. And it must follow the Roman numeral format. No other way is acceptable.

- Writing with music just distracts you. Silence is absolutely necessary.

- You cannot be a writer and a parent. (Another teacher, 9th grade this time.)

There are some others, but those are the ones off the top of my head.
Mar. 25th, 2009 11:47 pm (UTC)
"You cannot be a writer and a parent. (Another teacher, 9th grade this time.)"

That was probably a sly way of promoting abstinence..
(no subject) - cat_mcdougall - Mar. 25th, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 25th, 2009 08:26 pm (UTC)
So what's the worst advice you've ever received?

"Submission guidelines are for people who aren't in the know. Writers can ignore them, especially warnings not to sim sub. Insiders know that it's perfectly fine."

Of course, when I forwarded this advice to a couple magazine editors, the fact that they said everyone should follow the guidelines was proof that I was an outsider(!)
Mar. 25th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
Since I've never received "bad" writing advice (everyone has done well in shredding what I've written), I'd like to suggest the next giveaway should be based on who has the most back hair. I'll at least be a shoe-in for the final round.
Mar. 25th, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC)
I'm terrible at listening to and following advice, so I don't think I've ever succumbed to bad advice. I think I mainly do what I want. Sometimes that leads me to an impasse... then I need to change my approach.
Mar. 25th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
"(When asked who the funniest authors are, do you proclaim yourself to be one of them? Really?)"

Nope. That's like describing yourself as the best lover since Casanova or the best driver since Fangio. It can only end in tears.
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