Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 8): Yeah, I Already Know That

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I recently read a novel by a traditionally published writer who’s been a favorite of mine for forty years. The novel was good—her work is always good—but it lacked dramatic tension. At one point, Dean asked me what genre the book was, because the cover didn’t communicate a genre clearly.

I was about 100 pages from the end. I paused, frowned, and said, “I have no idea.”

I’ve finished the book. I still have no idea what genre it is. Written one way, it could have been a thriller. Written another, it could have been a heist. Written a third way, it would have been romantic suspense. While it had elements of all of those things, it was none of them.

If you forced me to label it, I guess I’d say it was a character study, which is why it had no dramatic tension. She’s written a few books like that in the past ten years. Not character studies, but books without dramatic tension. We know how they’ll end. We even know how the journey will go. But the book is…not compelling, exactly, but not a bad read.

I didn’t put the book on my recommended reading list because I slowed down as I got toward the end. Even the villain wasn’t really villainous, in that he never really threatened our hero, past the middle of the book.

So why mention the book here, without the author’s name and without the title? Because the book was clearly an experiment. She was trying something new. She does that. She’s branched into other genres many times, all under her bestselling names. Sometimes the branching is successful; sometimes I find it so annoying that when I see that she’s writing in that genre again, I don’t pick up the book.

I admire the hell out of what she’s doing. She could just rest on her considerable laurels. She doesn’t have to write anymore at all, and she does, at the same pace she wrote forty years ago. Only the books are different.

I know it drove her former editors nuts. I suspect her current editors have long conversations about the marketing for some of her books.

That’s the publisher’s problem. Because the writer is keeping herself fresh. She’s trying new things, and she’s not afraid to fail.

At the same time I was reading that book, I was also working on a large editing project. I had opened the project up to writers outside my usual stable of writers, so I had a lot of manuscripts to read.

Some of the manuscripts were from writers I’ve personally known for decades. They’re amazing writers. Even if their stories fail or didn’t work for me, these writers are trying something new. I bought a number of great stories by writers who were experimenting or operating at the top of their game.

I also bought some from new-to-me writers, who left me breathless.

Then there are a few other writers whom I’ve known for twenty or so years. A couple of these writers are making the same mistakes they made when I first met them. One or two of the writers have—in my opinion—gone backwards. They’ve forgotten (if they ever knew) what makes a good story.

One writer sent me a story that was all dialogue and confusing as hell. Another wrote a six-page treatise on the way that a machine operated before getting to some semblance of a story.

These were not experiments. I’ve seen work from these writers for years now, and the stories are all the same, with the same problems. Nothing is changing, and nothing probably ever will.

One of the writers had come to a craft workshop years ago. They worked in a writing profession—one that used different skills than fiction writing. I spent quite a bit of time showing that writer how they could build on the skills they already had, but also showing them that they needed to work on other parts of the fiction-writing craft.

I know how to write, the writer snapped at me.

True. They’re still in a writing profession. But they haven’t sold much fiction at all, and their fiction skills are at the same level they were at over a decade ago.

In fact, all of the writers whose craft has not improved have had similar conversations with me. They wanted to know the “trick” to selling more fiction, but when I’ve told them that the “trick” is to improve their craft, they would argue with me.

I know how to write, they would say.

Then they would poke around on other things. More advertising, maybe? If they’re in indie publishing, they ask a better cover artist, maybe?

Now, when I talk with them, I just nod, and say, Well, it wouldn’t hurt to try those things.

Because I’m done mentioning craft to these writers. These writers figure they know all they need to know about writing and see no point in improving what they do. They’re not interested in learning.

I do not understand this attitude at all. I love learning. I love testing myself, not just in the writing, but in many other aspects of my life. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been studying Spanish lately, and some of the fiction I’ve read in the course of the classes inspired me to see if I could use some of the techniques (which I’d never seen before) in English.

In one case, I experimented right after reading an amazing short-short, written before I was born. The techniques could translate to English (some can’t). I didn’t end up with a short-short, but I ended up with something I liked.

In another case, I tucked the technique into the back of my brain, trying to figure out how/if/when it could be used. I was sitting in the union at UNLV, getting my daily words in, when suddenly, the technique leapt out. My subconscious had solved the problem.

Although I did wander down a wrong road as my critical voice told me that I needed to switch viewpoints so people could understand it. As usual, the critical voice was wrong. Very wrong.

I had to throw out those pages and go back to the story, written in a voice I’d never used, and wrote something that scared and shocked me. The story sold instantly, and even before it comes out, has received quite a few comments from the various readers at the traditional publishing company that’s publishing it.

Yes, I still experiment with traditional publishing—in short fiction only—and I do so often to stretch. I need to push myself. I need to feel slightly off-balance as I write. There’s a feeling that I get in the middle of a project which is I’m not capable of finishing this. I’m not a good enough writer to do this.

Or worse, some part of my brain literally whines: I can’t do this. It’s haaaaaaard.

Yep. Hard is good. Hard is what makes art memorable.

That off-balance feeling means I’m pushing.

People who work in the arts grow and change or their art stagnates. We all have favorite writers who are no longer favorites because their work got boring.

The artists who learn and grow are the ones we remember. In the actual art world (painting and such), the work of visual artists who live a long time and have a long career gets divided into periods.

As I wrote that sentence, I was thinking about Picasso (his Blue Period, to be precise, since I’ve seen some of the work in person), and so I looked it up and found this article by Kelly Richman-Abdou about his work on My Modern Met. She writes:

Throughout an artist’s lifetime, changes in approach, subject matter, and even style are to be expected. This phenomenon is apparent in the evolution of modern art‘s most beloved painters, from Monet‘s move toward abstraction to Van Gogh‘s brightened color palette. Though prevalent among most master painters, it is particularly emphasized in the paintings of Pablo Picasso.

Let me emphasize this for you: changes in approach, subject matter, and style are expected. Expected.

We expect our visual artists to grow and change. The work is interesting, no matter what period it is from. Sometimes the visual artist moves into a style that no longer speaks to us. Sometimes the visual artist started from a place that was old-fashioned or stilted and moved to what they’re famous for.

In this article, Richman-Abdou shows the different periods from Picasso’s 79-year career. Take a look if you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about.

79 years. My god. If I’m still doing the same thing that I was doing in my twenties in the 2040s, I’m failing somehow. My writing should be different. It should grow and change. I like to think it will improve, but that’s insulting to the readers who like the earlier work.

What growth and change show is, quite simply, an artist continuing to develop her style.

It’s not just about craft either. There are writers who’ve gone indie who don’t want to be told that they need to write better promotion copy. (I’m a writer; I know how to do that.) They don’t want to be told that their covers need to improve. They don’t want to be told that they need to learn some other skills to make their indie publishing business thrive.

And then there are the traditional writers who “just want to write.” They refuse to research other ways to get their work out to the public. They don’t want to learn copyright, because if they do, they’ll realize just how much control of their work they’ve lost.

They certainly don’t want to learn business because they’re “artists, not business people.” Someone else will take care of that for them…and pocket all the money.

But those traditional writers (or the wannabe traditional writers) never believe me (or anyone else) when they’re told about the freedom of indie.

This attitude permeates everything. Every writer I personally know who has been published regularly for decades has a desire for more knowledge so vast that they seem almost feral about it.

Tell me more or How do I do that? or Can I do that with the time that I have? or How long will it take me to learn that? and on and on and on.

The biggest problem for writers who “know how to do that” is this: They have some success. Just enough to taste it. In some cases, enough to feed their insecurities or hijack their egos.

And then they get stuck. The publishing world—the reading world—moves away from them, and they have no idea why that early success doesn’t translate into more success. Usually, they sell a story or two every few years or, if they’re working indie, they sell a few copies of their books to friends and no one else. These writers can’t grow an audience, because they don’t grow themselves.

I feel sorry for the writers who “already know how to write.” Because their ego or their sense of self or their unwillingness to put in the time or something prevents them from finding that scary space where craft and idea meet.

I still have ideas that I’m not sure I’m capable of writing. I’ll need even more skills to do so.

Or maybe I’ll need more courage.

I certainly need more time.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again. A writer friend asked me why I’m wasting my time studying things that have nothing to do with writing. He asked this question after hearing me complain about the lack of time in my day.

I learned when I was at Clarion Writers Workshop in 1985 that if I don’t do something other than write, I stagnate. I stagnated at Clarion in less than three weeks. I started walking the campus and doing things with non-writers after that, just to get my writing brain interested again.

Learning new things—seemingly unrelated things—is part of my process. It keeps me challenged and thinking. It takes me to new communities and brings in new ways of viewing the world.

All of that informs what I do. Often that influence is not direct. I can rarely trace the influence to a story or an idea (like I did above). Usually it’s just an opening of my mind. It brings back the enthusiasm. It makes me as a person stronger, and a stronger me is a stronger writer.

This all sounds so self-focused, but there’s one more aspect to this.

A writer—an artist of any type—has to be humble. We have to admit when we don’t know something or when our knowledge is limited. We have to understand where our flaws are in our work—and where we are successful. Because both inform what we do next.

If I’ve ever snapped I know how to write at someone, it wasn’t when I was talking about writing fiction or nonfiction. It might have been after someone who doesn’t know me questioned whether I could write a paragraph or a memo.

To my knowledge (and the best of my occasionally spotty recollection), I have never said I already know how to write about fiction and nonfiction.

Because I don’t. Not really.

I know a lot of craft. I know how to tell some stories, but not all kinds of stories. I know there’s a vast sea of craft tools that I’ve never even picked up.

I want to learn them all. I work at it. As do my successful, longterm writer friends. We’re constantly trying new things, figuring out new ways of viewing the world.

We keep the doors open to new ideas and new thoughts.

The writers “who already know” have slammed doors closed. They’re trapped inside their own beliefs. They can’t even see what’s outside of them, let alone figure out why their behavior has held them back.

That’s sad, but it is fixable.

You just need an open mind and a willingness to experiment.

And yes, I know. That’s not as easy as it sounds.


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“Business Musings: How Writers Fail Part 8: Yeah, I already know that,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / AlexanderPokusay.

12 thoughts on “Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 8): Yeah, I Already Know That

  1. You may have just hit the nail on the head.

    I have had an extraordinarily difficult time publishing the second book in my mainstream trilogy, mostly because of huge physical problems and total exhaustion.

    But I’m now wondering if part of it isn’t that I have taken huge risks with this book, and could legitimately lose ALL my readers over the decisions that have been perfectly plain to me since the first page of Book 1 – and which I’ve written exactly as I wanted to.

    The two people who said they were waiting have not commented since I sent them the ARCs a month ago. This scares me – because no matter what they say, I won’t change a word.

    I have the time. I will try to take a nap, then write the short list of steps I need to take, and then start. And if not today, then the day after tomorrow (Heinlein?), because tomorrow is an all-enveloping medical test and I will be a basket case after.

    After all this time, Alicia? Fear? Gets me every time unless I realize what’s going on, write down and then FACE the fear, and get it done.

  2. I might be guilty of growing stagnant, and it’s been only 10 years of writing. Not that I don’t learn new things, or attempt to learn new things, but I find that my stories got weirdly predictable. Writing romance a lot, there is this desire to make that character likable, and maybe I go overboard. Ditto with avoiding too m much bodily harm, body count, and so on.
    This came to me because I hopped genres, and my characters are suddenly in mortal peril. And now I had to let it sit and let it fester, because I didn’t want to kill them. Physics is not optional in near sci-fi, so there has to be a logical way for them to solve the problem.
    This pickle I got my characters into showed me that I’ll have to do something I would, probably, never dare do in romance. Or, maybe, that I read the wrong kind of romance.
    In any case, it’s interesting. Reading about established best-sellers who experiment, and who occasionally have a middling result, is really encouraging. I somehow thought that best-sellers who experiment always get it into publication right. Maybe not everyone will toss a few pages, or maybe they don’t toss the right few pages. In any case, thank you for sharing, Kris. This was useful.

  3. The writer who claimed “I know how to write” may not have known enough about how to read, or continued to take joy in it. He also demonstrated that maybe he didn’t know how to write, because “writing” is an act in furtherance of communication. He probably did not sit down, read the introductory six pages on how the machine works, and ask himself the obvious question: What has he communicated to the reader at this point,† since the reader doesn’t know the rest of the grand plan for the work? Put another way: By that point in the story, has what the reader learned made a difference to the reader?

    † Too often, arrogance and contempt, especially to readers who have prior knowledge of how machines of that nature generally work (or don’t), or how people in those circumstances generally act (or don’t). Don’t spend six pages describing how the Magic Genetic Analysis machine works based on ten-years-out-of-date science, technology, and reporting standards and expect an audience that might include a few wet-behind-the-ears kids who’ve taken a junior-level course in genetics with a lab component to stick around for the rest of the story. (Would that more lawyers — especially judges — and politicians understood this.)

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more, Kris. I’ve been teaching physics in an interactive engagement, inquiry-based format from a couple of decades now, and I never want to go back to teaching traditional lecture. I’m always learning new things. Every semester there are students who come at some topic from a slightly different angle and ask, “What would happen if we did…?” My response is almost always “I dunno. Let’s try it and find out.” I’m trying to bring that attitude to my writing.

  5. I have a friend who lives in my head (she also lives in town). But the part that lives in my head gently murmurs, ‘gee, shouldn’t you have some description of the location every once in a while? I need more than talking heads!” She likes living in my head and tells me that saves her getting out her Pencil of Doom in real life as much. And reading scenes at the local writers’ meeting lets people tell me when they want scenes expanded and not just glossed over. Since I write Ghastly Long anyway, what the heck, right? Also, knowing I’m expanding gives me leeway to chop out paragraphs where the current protagonist is whining too much without worrying that I might run a bit short in length.

  6. There’s this weird space between needing to be confident enough in yourself to actually produce, and being insanely curious. I’m sure there are exceptions, but too much of one and too little of the other (either way) and you probably get a writer who isn’t going to stick around for real long.

    Lisa S. and I were talking about that last week. So few of the writers we were hanging with in the “old days” are still working in the field. As best we can tell, anyway.

  7. This has always somewhat baffled me– like, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t 100% agree with you on, but I’ve never understood people insisting they have nothing else to learn about writing. Yes, the first time I got back something that had had a full-on line edit I spent a couple of days going “AGH IT’S COVERED IN COMMENTS,” but after that I… sat down and made edits and it improved not just that story but all my subsequent writing.

  8. “A writer friend asked me why I’m wasting my time studying things that have nothing to do with writing.”

    Um. Wha-??

    The best thing for our brains as we age is to learn new things, to challenge ourselves.

    I’ve been saying for a couple of years that I wish I could take six months off and do “Dayle University.” An hour a day of practice on six different things I want to get better at (Welsh language, ukulele, piano, photography, and I forget what the last one was, but it was probably related to writing/business). It sounds like FUN!

    1. Yes, learning new things is fun! Preparing taxes for others was actually fascinating because there are so many different ways to end up with income besides the usual stack of W-2’s–hint to day traders, FILE QUARTERLY–cough cough. I find out what some people have done with their real estate. I have run into successful gamblers. I hear family stories all over the place, and I er, steal–wait, research, some of it. I have a hard time taking classes right now because I’m a caregiver (also, never wanted to know as much as I do about bedbugs, arrgh), but I know more medical stuff than a lot of people, too.

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