: Some things “they” say that might be true for them but not for you

Write about what you know. You must write a book a year. You should outline. You should write spontaneously. You should write for the market. You should ignore the market and write what excites you. And my-personal least-favorite, You must write every day.

These are all statements that I’ve heard some writer or other industry professional make with great firmness. This is the right way—ignore me at your peril. In fact, there is no “right way” to write. The right way is whatever gets the job done for you—and what’s right for you may be wrong for someone else. Let’s take them one at a time.

Write about what you know. Taken to extremes, this statement would wipe out the genres of SF and fantasy, horror, historical fiction, and severely curtail mysteries. At least I hope all those people writing about murder haven’t committed one. Of course, no one means for this to be taken literally, and of course, having a background in what you’re writing about can help make it feel authentic without you having to do tons of research. But if you want to tell a story about something you don’t know anything about, don’t let this dictum stop you! The first novel I sold was a young adult SF/fantasy combination in which my heroine was an apprentice Inuit shaman who lived in an undersea habitat. I live in Colorado, I’ve never even been scuba diving, and I’ve never met either an Inuit or a shaman in my life. So I did some research, and some more research, and some more research. I hit up a physics professor who did scuba dive for the science, and tracked down a grad student who was doing her thesis on Nordic type shamans to read my manuscript for errors. And though there were some errors, I didn’t have to change very much.

You must write a book a year. True, editors and agents want you to write a book a year—and in fairness to them there are good reasons for that. Particularly when you’re trying to establish yourself, the more books a reader can find with your name on them, and the less time they have to wait for your next book, the better off you are. Speaking as a reader, I want the writers I like to write at least one book a year and preferably more! As long as they can keep the quality up, the faster the better. On the other hand, several of my favorite authors write a book every two years…or three…or five. I love their books, so if I have to, I’ll wait. If each of your books sells better than the last, agents and editors will buy them and book stores will stock them. You do have to write a book that’s sufficiently outstanding that a reader will remember your name during that long interlude—but if you bring that off, no you don’t have to write a book a year.

You should outline. You should write spontaneously. This one is based on the fallacy that everyone in the world is like the speaker—and let’s face it, who doesn’t succumb to that? I’m always amazed when people don’t think like me, react like me, agree with me and vote like me. They also don’t always work the same way I do. (And frankly, if I could change just one thing on that list, I’d concentrate on how they vote.) There’s a whole range of MO’s between the extreme outliners and the extreme spontaneous school, and whatever technique works for you is the best technique…for you. I do think the people who go for the spontaneous technique let themselves in for more revision than the outliners, but the most extreme spontaneous writer I know absolutely loves to revise. I guess it takes all kinds.

You should write for the market. You should ignore the market and write what excites you. This one is interesting because there’s a germ of truth in both statements. You should ignore the market and write what excites you, because if what you’re writing doesn’t excite you odds are very high that it’s not going to interest anyone else. And the market can change fast. It takes most people a year to write a book, and at least a year to sell it, and two more years before it’s published. What’s hot now may be stone dead in four years. On the other hand you can write great books, but if the market’s dead you’ll have a very, very hard time selling them. I wrote children’s fantasy for a decade before Harry Potter, and you couldn’t sell a fantasy for love or money. Believe me, I tried. There’s a friend in my writers group who writes brilliant YA historical fiction, that’s absolutely ready to be published, but no marketing committee will take a chance on YA historical fiction right now. Writing for a genre that’s not selling is like beating your head against a stone wall, and having done it myself for over a decade I’m not sure I can recommend it. Mind you, when the fad finally changes and you can sell your chosen genre, having a big backlist of publishable manuscripts can work in your favor. I suppose it really depends on whether your head is harder than a stone wall…which says something about me, but we’re not going there.

And finally: You must write every day. This one is pure (stronger-term-deleted) nonsense. It probably works for some people, but most of the writers I know, both published and not, don’t write every day. When I finish a first draft I take several months off, to get some distance from it and allow my critiquers time to read it and comment. When I finish a revision I take more time off, because after a while you need a break or you burn out. I take the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas off, because trying to do any serious work over the holidays just makes you crazy. Many writers, of whom I’m one, need time off to let their creative energy replenish itself. I haven’t quite got to the stage where I can regard my down time as the necessary part of the creative process that it is—which means that if I take too much time off I feel guilty about it—but I should get over that. Put your Victorian work ethic aside for this one. You don’t have to write every day.

So what do you have to do? So far as I can tell there are only three things that everyone has to do in order to get published. The first two I’m borrowing from another writer—I think it was Heinlein, but I may be wrong about that—but I disagreed with his third rule anyway, so this is:

Bell’s Modification of Heinlein’s Three Rules:

You must write,
You must finish what you write.
You must submit what you have finished to editors who are likely to buy it until someone does.

If you want to get published you must do these three things—all the rest is up to you.

Summer 2006