Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Writer As Spendthrift

There are a lot of people who want to separate a writer from her money.

Let's face it; getting published is a goal for many people, but it's such a difficult goal to attain it borders on being a dream.

Dreams don't normally come true. But people will pay big bucks to keep the dream alive.

This morning I'm teaching a one day class at the College of Dupage called "How to Get Published." (Oddly enough, I'm filling in for another teacher who, to my knowledge, has published very little.)

It's an adult eduction class, only a few hours long, and costs less than fifty bucks.

For the students, it's a good deal. I know a lot about the biz, and am good at sharing what I know.

But I am a notable exception. Many writing teachers have never been published by a major house. Many don't have agents.

Yet every college has writing teachers who are willing to take your money and teach you theory they've never practiced.

The bookshelves are crammed full of books about how to write killer query letters and bestsellers. But I only know a handful out of hundreds that were actually written by bestselling authors.

Pick up a writing magazine, or surf the Internet, and you'll find many things to spend money on besides classes and how-to books.

Freelance editors. Book doctors. Fee charging agents. Vanity presses. Self-publishing. Contests. Seminars. Conferences. Conventions.

Joe's advice: Writers are supposed to make money, not spend money.

Unfortunately, because writing is such a hard business to break into, many feel that if they spend some money on the aforementioned things, they'll better their odds.

In practically all cases, no. And you are not the exception to this rule. Trust me.

Today, my students are going to get their money's worth in the first 30 seconds of class, when I tell them:


I do add that there are a few small exceptions. Taking a writing class or two isn't a waste of money if the teacher is an industry pro. You can learn a lot from industry pros. But many of these pros also have tips on their website that are 100% free.

All writers should own copies of Stephen King's On Writing, David Morrell's Lessons From A Lifetime or Writing, and a few notable others.

Conferences and conventions are a great place to meet agents, editors, and peers, and networking is just as important in this biz as in any other.

But even these exceptions come with warnings.

If you're taking a bunch of writing classes, chances are you're wasting your time and money. You could be writing instead, and joining a writing group will make you a better writer without costing a penny. There is probably a writers group already at your local library, bookstore, or college. Ask. If there isn't one, start one.

Owning too many how-to books means you're spending too much time reading about writing instead of actually writing.

I know many folks with procrastinitis. They cloak themselves in the trappings of all things literary, spends scads of money pursuing their dream, fantasizing about it constantly. Yet they rarely sit their ass in the chair and write.

If you're going to more than two conventions a year and you aren't published yet you're chasing a dream, not a goal.

As for the other things I mentioned:

Don't enter contests you have to pay for. If your story is good enough to win, it's good enough to sell.

Don't ever pay anyone to help you edit, fix, or rewrite your prose. Learn to do it yourself. I don't know a single author published by a major house who had paid help.

Don't pay an agent anything, ever. Agents don't need to have any sort of license or accreditation, and bad ones abound. For a list of good ones, visit

Don't pay to have your work published. Why not? Visit your local bookstore. Look around. None of the authors on those shelves paid to have their books published. If you pay to be published, you won't be on those shelves.

Since I'm fond of analogies, here's a good one:

When you're learning how to walk, you don't take classes. You don't read how-to books. You don't pay experts to help you, or do it for you.

You just keep falling until you learn on your own.

It's the same thing with writing.

I just saved you fifty bucks. Or perhaps a heck of a lot more.

You can show your appreciation by buying a bunch of my books. Because there is one thing that all writers should spend money on, and that's supporting each other. If you're writing fiction, and you haven't read at least a hundred novels, you haven't learned enough about craft to succeed.

And if you're curious as to what other bon mots I'll toss out in class today, here's a list of Joe Konrath quotes on writing, publishing, and marketing, free of charge:

There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published.

Before you make the key, study the lock.

People would rather fight to the death to defend their beliefs than sit down quietly and question them.

It's about what you have to offer, not what you have to sell.

You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than landing a publishing deal. But if you really want to get hit by lightning, you can improve your odds.

No one is entitled to anything.

What are the last ten books you bought, and what made you buy them? Use those techniques to sell your books to other people. Do what works on you.

Hard work trumps talent. Persistence trumps inspiration. Humility trumps ego.

Praise is like candy. We love it, but it isn't good for us. You can only improve by being told what's wrong.

Your book is your child. You can't recognize its shortcomings, any more than a proud parent can consider their child dumb and ugly.

The experts don't know everything, and they might not know what's right for you.

Fate is a future you didn't try hard enough to change.

Anyone looking for you can find you. Get them to find you when they're looking for something else.

Life gives you wonderful opportunities to conquer fears, learn skills, and master techniques. "I can't" shouldn't be synonymous with "I don't want to."

People seek out two things: information and entertainment. Offer them freely, and they'll find you.

The Internet isn't temporary. What you post today can lead people to you decades from now.

Writing is a profession. Act professional.

Always follow the advice of an editor, even if you don't agree, because then your book becomes our book. A editor will fight harder to champion our book.

No one said it would be fair, fun, or easy. But it is worthwhile.

We're all in the same boat. Start rowing.

If you can quit, quit. If you can't quit, stop complaining--this is what you chose.

There are a lot of things that happen beyond your control. Your goals should be within your control.

Just because something is publishable doesn't mean it will get published.

Write when you can. Finish what your start. Edit what you finish. Submit what you've edited. Repeat.

The most successful people on the planet have one thing in common: nothing can stop them. Don't expect to reach your goals without sacrificing things that are important to you. You can't be both happy and ambitious.

Being your own best advocate is about understanding how people react to you.

Fake confidence, and real confidence follows.

Maybe you can't win. But you sure as hell can try.

It's your name on your book cover. It's your responsibility to sell your book. If it flops, your publisher will still be in business, but you won't.

Always have two hands reaching out. One, for your next goal. The other, to help people get to where you're at.

If you can't be smart or funny, be brief.

If you're not in love with the sound of your own voice, how can you expect anyone else to ever be?

Knowing you're not original is the first step in becoming unique.

And if one of those doesn't get me into Bartlett's Familiar Quotations sometime before I die, when I do die I'm going to haunt the Bartlett family...


Terri Tiffany said...

This post is one of the best I have ever read on the craft of writing and getting published! Can I show a copy to my writers group? Awesome truth!!

MikeH said...

Great post, Joe! And thanks for saving me fifty bucks.

Anonymous said...

Amen, JA! Hope your class appreciated that they got a sub that day!

Anonymous said...

Inspiration and information -- in equal helpings, no less. Hope to attend one of your classes in the future.

Thanks, Joe

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I couldn't agree with you more, and well worth fifty bucks.

Davin C. Goodwin said...


As you know, I've taken one of your classes and I've taken one from the person you are sitting in for today.

You win hands down. The industry knowledge you bring to class is enormous. I am still bewildered how "the other" guy can get hired. And from what I understand, he teaches these classes at several colleges throughout the state. And you are right -- I googled him and can't find anything he has published.

I too fell into the "learn from classes and books" mentality. But I have found that by watching yours and a couple of other blogs and by reading your "Newbie's" guide several times, I have most of the basic information I need.

Now it's time to sit down, finish the novel, and go from there. If you want to learn to swim, you have to get in the pool -- you won't get wet in the classroom.

Thanks for your wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is the best article on "getting published" I've ever read. I especailly appreciate the wisdom of your advice on self-publishing.

Meagan Hatfield said...

Great post! I'm sending the link on to all of my writing buds.

Thanks for the pearls of wisdom and for saving me money. :-)

Dragon Fire ~ Silhouette Nocturne, tbd

Sandy said...

Great post. I'm going to forward your link to others trying to get published.


Ryshia Kennie said...

You clearly defined the difference between dreaming about being a published author and setting a goal, and sacrificing to get there. While I never thought of it like that, boy is it true - that the goal is so large that it does teeter on a dream.

Jude Hardin said...

While I agree a writer's time is better spent reading and writing than going to classes, I don't think it's fair to discredit teachers just because they've never gotten a deal from a major house.

Teaching is a discipline in and of itself; you don't have to be a bestselling author to know a lot about writing. By the same token, being a bestselling author doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be a good teacher.

Gayle Carline said...

I agree that you need to get the most bang for your learning buck, no matter what you're trying to do in life. But some people need to take writing classes, even those taught by non-published teachers. Why? Because they need BASIC writing skills before they can go on to story structure, character development, etc.

When I decided I wanted to write, I knew I already had the basics (thank you, public school system), so I went searching for info on how to write publishable works and how to improve my chances of being published. I found a writer's conference which, yes, cost money, but it was worth it. I got my novel written, met a publisher, and got a deal.

Anonymous said...

Don't ever pay anyone to help you edit, fix, or rewrite your prose. Learn to do it yourself. I don't know a single author published by a major house who had paid help.

I agree that authors should know how to fix their work for themselves. However, there are times when a manuscript crosses my desk, and it's close, but not close enough. Perhaps the direction of the story is wrong, or the POV needs to be changed out.

There are times when authors simply can't do it on their own. For those works that are close but require more rewriting than I can ask of my editing team, and I'm seriously interested in them, I've referred them to an indie editor whom I trust because he's very good. Many of his clients have gone on to sign with large agencies, who have landed them nice publishing deals.

I believe that working with an indie editor is a fabulous way to round out the rough edges of a seriously good writer. Not everyone can do it on their own.

Eric J. Krause said...

I fall into the lazy writer who uses the how-to writing books and such as an excuse to not sit in my chair and put words on the paper. I've recently seen the errors of my way and am getting into that chair much more often. Seeing this post today is pushing even harder, so thank you! This post today (not to mention all your other posts) is worth more than 50 bucks!

Donna Marie Rogers said...

Excellent post, thank you! I think you actually helped me to put some other obligations out of my mind and just WRITE. ;-)

Marcie Steele said...

I love reading your posts too. I love it when they pop into my google reader as I know I will have a great read, full of widsom and positivity. And having learned my craft for the past ten years (and finally having a positive call last night from an agent which I daren't blog about yet) I can vouch that each draft gets you nearer.

Cheers Joe

Dave Zeltserman said...


There can clearly be a lot of value for some (not all) writers to earn an MFA. David Wroblewski, as an obvious example, but there are also quite a few best-selling crime fiction/mystery writers with MFAs, so you don't want to sell that short. Myself, I attended a two-week workshop several years back that's done in conjunction with Pine Manor College's MFA program, and there was a lot of value in that. And some very impressive faculty members, including a National Book award winner. While I would've sold Small Crimes without the workshop, I still learned a lot, and it continues to help me.

One of your pieces of advice: Finish what you start. Nope. Writers need to recognize when they've gotten way off track and what they're writing isn't working, and not waste time finishing something that's worth abandoning. I'd say far more important is learn to critically evaluate your own work--recognize what's working and what isn't, and learn how to fix what isn't. And learn to toss what's worth tossing and start fresh.

Anonymous said...

Good advice, as usual, and I agree with 98% of it.

I do take exception, though, to the comment that "If you're writing fiction, and you haven't read at least a hundred novels, you haven't learned enough about craft to succeed."

Reading, as a way to learn how to write, is an anthem sung by almost every writer, and few give the concept much additional thought.

I personally feel, however, that it's vastly overblown as a learning tool. Often, it's another form of procrastination, much like blogging. I haven't read a book in over 20 years and don't feel the worse for it, at least as far as my writing ability goes.

Writing is basically the art of crafting a story. Crafting one story on your own will teach you more about storytelling than listening to 1000 other stories.

Anonymous said...

This post is so uplifting and dare I say, like a rally the troops cry?!


Anonymous said...

I've always found it peculiar that every book on how to write fiction seems to be written by a non-fiction writer with no fiction writing experience. Because of the area I'm in, I get a lot of professionally published non-fiction writers in my critique group, all wanting to write novels. The one thing they universally commented on was how incredibly difficult it was to write a novel--right before they gave up and went back to non-fiction. How then can a writer not published in fiction teach how to write fiction?

If you're writing fiction, and you haven't read at least a hundred novels, you haven't learned enough about craft to succeed.

We had a guy in my critique group (thankfully long gone) who had been working on a novel for something like twelve years. Didn't read. Not non-fiction. Not fiction. It showed in the writing. Not only couldn't he put together a coherent story, he didn't even recognize that he didn't have one!

Davin C. Goodwin said...


I agree with you about teaching.

But the instructor I am referring to is over the edge.

Here is an example from his lecture, and I kid you not. He told the class the following:

"Never, ever finish a manuscript before sending it to an agent or publisher, even fiction. They are going to want to change it anyway, so theres no need for you, the author, to send them a final version. A rough draft or detailed outline should suffice."

When I heard this, I went balistic. I paid money for advice like that? This guy should not be teaching thiese classes. He is dissiminating bad information. And that was just the beginning.

I really think that Joe is trying to say that a newbie author should be careful about attending classes in lue of writing.

If I want to fly an airplane, I need to take ground school and get some good instruction. But I'll never learn to be a pilot unless I get in the plane and take the controls. Videos, books, and MS flight simulator will NOT teach me to fly.

Jude Hardin said...

"Never, ever finish a manuscript before sending it to an agent or publisher, even fiction. They are going to want to change it anyway, so theres no need for you, the author, to send them a final version. A rough draft or detailed outline should suffice."

I think you went to the wrong class, Dave. That one was called "How Not to Get Published."

Jamie Ford said...

Excellent, excellent post!

Mark Terry said...

I agree with you, but...

"You can't be both happy and ambitious."

You lost me with this one.

JA Konrath said...

Jude--I'm not knocking teachers. Teachers are underrated, underpaid, and under appreciated.

But taking a How to Get Published class, or reading a How to Get Published book, by someone who hasn't gotten published---well, your money is better spent elsewhere.

I know several good authors who aren't good teachers. It's true that being one doesn't mean you're also the other.

That's why writers should avoid all classes. :)

Gayle--Basic writing classes are needed, and I think that can be taught by those who learn the curriculum. But I wouldn't take a brain surgery class form a guy who never cracked open a skull.

I think writing conferences can be a good thing, but research who is going to be there before forking over the money.

Behlerblog--Surely you can see the ethical dilemma. There have been countless scams with agents, editors, and freelance book doctors referring newbie writers to each other for kickbacks and fees.

I'm sure you don't do that, but the potential for abuse is there.

Dave--I think there's value you education. But as theory, not practice.

Learning is a good thing, no matter what you're learning about. But an MFA is useless if your goal is getting published.

I know a few published authors with MFAs. I know a hundred times the amount who don't have one. But I do know a lot of English teachers with MFAs who have very limited publishing credits.

As for finishing what you start, I stand by that advice. Writers need to understand all parts of a narrative, including the ending. Plow through it, learn from it, then move on to the next one.

I wouldn't give up on a child that was problematic, and I wouldn't give up on a problematic manuscript either.

Anon--Reading for pleasure might not help you become a better writer. But reading as a writer will help.

Reading with an eye on structure, voice, and pace can teach you a lot.

Not reading a book in 20 years isn't something to be proud of, IMO. Nor is it helpful to a writing career.

JA Konrath said...

"You can't be both happy and ambitious."

Ambition means you're unsatisfied with the way things are, and desire more.

This usually involves sacrificing things to get what you want.

Then, once those goals are met, they're immediately replaced by higher goals.

That doesn't sound like a happy way to live. It does, however, sound productive, and that's the guy I'm betting on to succeed.

Dave Zeltserman said...

JA, you are so wrong about MFAs. It doesn't mean you need one to get published--hell, I'm in the middle of a 3-book contract with Serpent's Tail and just sold a movie to Jeremy Bolt and John Tomko, and my education is a BS in Math + Computer Science and MS in CS with almost no humanity courses, but I can tell you there's a tremendous amount of value in an MFA in ways you're not anticipating. I don't want to ge into it here, but if you want to contact me offlist I'm willing to discuss it more. And if you take a look at some of the bestselling authors in our genre you'll find more MFAs that you realize.

Dave Zeltserman said...


>> I wouldn't give up on a child that was problematic, and I wouldn't give up on a problematic manuscript either.

Analogy makes no sense. Creative works are not children that you are responsible for or that you should get overly attached to. In fact, you need distance yourself so that you can look at your works realistically, and the worst thing you can do is fall in love with them unconditionally. A writer should realize when something is failing or succeeding, and if it's a failure learn from your mistakes and move on--don't waste time trying to fix something that's not fixable--or worse, convince yourself that it's something it isn't. We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, but then again my expectation is to sell everything I write (and so far I'm batting 1000 on the first 6 books that I've completed).

Anonymous said...

Only 100 novels? Or 100 novels a year since the age of 10? Humility may be a virtue among writers, but readers deserve to feel good about themselves for reading your books (and people who buy books for display purposes also deserve to feel good). How can they feel witty, urbane and sophisticated for having read your book if you aren't a major connoisseur of books?

JA Konrath said...

I appreciate the intelligent discourse, Dave, and I enjoy it when people disagree with me.

I believe education has two purposes. First, to entertain, second, to instruct.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but the majority I watch is Discovery Channel, Science Channel, Food Channel, etc.

I could watch Stephen Hawking documentaries all day. Stuff like that fascinates me, and certainly makes me well rounded in things like M theory and how Einsteinian physics falls apart at the quantum level and how eleven imploded dimensions might explain the weakness of gravity compared to the other three elemental forces.

This is entertainment.

In high school, I took driver's ed, and learned how to drive. This is instruction.

I would not equate an MFA, which I don't see to have any direct application to a career as a writer, with a PhD in medicine, which has a very direct application to a career as a doctor.

All education has value. Learning is wonderful. And it may indeed be applicable, as one day my Discovery Channel knowledge might help me write a science fiction novel.

But it ain't necessary, and I advise writers to save their money and use their time spent getting their MFA to write a book instead.

You make a good point about writers not falling in love with their own work. Being blind to the faults in your writing is a death sentence for a writer.

But love IS needed. The love of words, of stories, of your own voice. A novel is a difficult thing to write, and finishing one, even a crummy one,is a triumph. If I had no love, no passion, for writing, I'd do something far more stable.

I say that you should love your first draft. Love it with all your heart.

Then, when you finish it, you should put on the editor hat and get your hate on. At that stage you can abandon it if it isn't working.

But the passion that prompted you to start a project should carry that project through to completion. Finishing the stories you start is a more powerful learning tool than anything I'd ever been taught in classes.

It's application, not theory.

JA Konrath said...

I also want to clarify something.

"Finish what you start" is about seeing things through to the end, and is directed mostly at newbies trying to break into publishing.

Writers can't sell what they don't finish, and they don't learn if they don't finish.

An accomplished writer, who recognizes that a manuscript isn't working, can abandon it. But he'll abandon it because he knows why it isn't working, not because the writing got difficult or because he didn't know what to do next.

Though it does beg the question why an accomplished writer would start something that was obviously sucky in the first place.

Mark Terry said...

I am ambitious and I am happy. I am not necessarily completely happy with where I am in my career and my life--or I think most accurately, it can always be better so I work to improve both. In fact, I'm quite happy with both, but I set goals and work to achieve them. And I'm happy and satisfied with that.

I still posit your statement "you can't be happy and ambitious" is wrong.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Wonderful post. Of course, as an editor, I will help writers if they want it and they feel they need it. But, I always tell them The Truth of their chances, even if they spend money on the ms by having me edit it. I don't charge an arm and a leg, maybe since I'm a writer first and just love this business despite all this warts.

I will say this - there's no way to know (unless the author comes out and says it truthfully) whether an author had his/her book edited by an editor or consulted a "book doctor" before they found that publiher- why would they admit to this? And they don't always admit it.

Writers, before they submit, are often told by agents to have the work "polished and shiny and wonderful and perfect" - some writers would rather not have to figure all this out - some writers would rather someone else do it - if that writer wants me to help them, I will --however, for this writer/editor, the days of doing it for free are few and far between...I spend hours and hours on a manuscript- it's work. Having writers contact me and ask, "Would you just read this little thing..." became frustrating and time-consuming. Much easier to say, "this is what I charge" - if they want to do it, fine; and if not, I have my writing to keep my busy, and my volunteer editing for R&T to keep me sharpened.

But all that said, I'd rather not part with my money-who does? As it is, writers are asked, more and more, to spend their own money on marketing and promotion and travel and this and that.

Thought-provoking post!

JA Konrath said...

Mark--Why would you want more if you're happy where you're at?

Ambition means wanting more.

Kathryn--I often speak in absolutes, because I don't think it's wise to base decisions on exceptions.

There are so many folks in this industry who prey on newbie writers, I believe it's a much safer bet--and also better for the writer in the long run---to learn to edit themselves instead of paying someone for it.

I'm not saying all freelance editors are crooks. I'm just saying it can't hurt to treat them all as if they were. :)

That said, both you and I know that there are people who want to write but who will never ever be published. Whenever I teach a class, or do a lecture, I know the odds. And I've read enough terrible manuscripts to be able to lay good odds on some folks never succeeding.

But as a teacher, I encourage those people anyway. Chasing dreams is a reward in itself. Hope keeps people alive.

I'm a pretty good editor, and I know I've helped many writers make their books better. But I wouldn't feel comfortable charging them, even though I'd be worth whatever I charged.

Teaching is the only snake oil I sell, and when I teach I freely admit it is snake oil.

For me, and this is only my opinion, teaching is about encouraging, but taking money to edit something that will probably still be unpublishable is enabling.

Editing is work. And there are good freelance editors who deserve to be paid for the improvements they make to a manuscript. This in itself can be a form of teaching.

But new writers are so hopeful, so eager to get published, that the quick fix of paying a book doctor is often intertwined with high expectations.

An editor who says, "Sorry, even with my help I can guarantee you won't ever be published" will lose clients.

An editor who says, "With my help, I think we can get this manuscript into publishable shape" would have to be a fortune teller to guarantee that.

An editor who says, "This is what I can do for your manuscript, with no guarantees" is the best one of all, but there still are perceived expectations that go hand-in-hand with the hope for publication.

Then there are writer's groups, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Stunk and White, all of which are free.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, Charlie Huston, Stewart O'Nan, Tom Perrotta, all MFAs. David Wroblewski, author of one of the best selling books of the year, Edgar Sawtelle, not only has an MFA, but it's been well documented how much help his MFA provided in writing his first book. Joe, I know you can only write about your own experience, which excludes an MFA, or really knowledge of it, other than blithely saying since you got published without one then why does anyone need one, but that's shortsighted and potentially damaging to the new writers who follow your blog. Some of the highest paid and most successful writers have MFAs. Not all, but but quite a few. And there are reasons beyond learning to write in a specific way. There's a networking aspect to it. There are editors and agents who look for writers with MFAs, for example.

JA Konrath said...

Heh heh. Stunk and White.

Dave Zeltserman said...

> Though it does beg the question why an accomplished writer would start something that was obviously sucky in the first place.

My own personal experience, my false starts came early before finishing my first book. Since I write detailed outlines before starting a book, I haven't had any since with the next 10 books that I wrote. But I have read interviews with some very highly acclaimed authors who have talked about books they've thrown away half-way through, so it does happen to the best of us.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

"Anon--Reading for pleasure might not help you become a better writer. But reading as a writer will help."

I disagree with part of this, Joe. Certainly studying novels is one of the best ways to learn (in addition to writing, of course). But so much of the work of fiction writing is done in the subconscious, particularly that initial draft, that reading for pleasure is valuable, too.

JA Konrath said...

You named seven well known authors with MFAs, Dave. And there are certainly more than just those seven.

But how many books are published every year?

I have no idea of the percentages, but I can safely say that the overwhelming number of books bought by big NY publishing houses are from authors without MFAs.

I'd also love to find the statistic of how many MFAs are given out by colleges every year, and how many of those people wind up selling a book to a big NY publishing house.
I'd bet the statistics would support my opinion here too. Especially when compared to the number of people who graduate top medical schools and then go on to practice medicine.

But your points are well stated, and they should be considered by anyone who wants to further their education.

I am considered an expert in this field, as evidenced by the folks who pay me to speak on it. That doesn't make me right. Experts can be wrong.

Which is why I encourage people to research alternatives, try things for themselves, and learn the facts.

I usually end the classes I teach with, "I don't know everything, I just happen to have opinions on everything."

People SHOULD NOT follow my advice blindly.

They should carefully consider my points, come to their own conclusions, and then follow my advice. :)

JA Konrath said...

Ann, understanding what gives you pleasure allows you to find ways to intensify and maximize that pleasure.

I love going to magic shows. But I also love learning how the trick is done.

Helen Ginger said...

No arguments from me. I love your straight-forward, tell it like you see it, approach. didn't really save me $50. You just postponed it, since if you came to my area, I'd take your class.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

"I love going to magic shows. But I also love learning how the trick is done."

I agree. But the best magicians don't only find value in learning how a trick is done. They also must understand the magic from the enthralled audience member's point of view. They feel the magic. They develop an intuitive understanding of it that comes from enjoyment, not -only- study.

Do you think we've beaten this metaphor to death?

Dave Zeltserman said...

>I'd also love to find the statistic of how many MFAs are given out by colleges every year, and how many of those people wind up selling a book to a big NY publishing house.
I'd bet the statistics would support my opinion here too. Especially when compared to the number of people who graduate top medical schools and then go on to practice medicine.

Joe, not all MFA students are interested in writing novels. Some are interested in the esoteric art of writing poetry, others in teaching, others in simply learning. What would be far more interesting would be to know what's the average advance for a first book from an MFA writer compared to writers without MFAs, and same with amount of time getting an agent and a book deal.

Small Crimes got a fair amount of critical acclaim, rave reviews in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, topping NPR's list for best crime fiction of 2008, etc., but my path for getting the book published was a long and painful one, and I have little doubt it would've been much easier (and more lucrative, at least initially) if I had an MFA due to the support system and networking aspects to the degree. Since taking Solstice workshop years ago at Pine Manor college, I go every once in a while to the MFA events there. It's such a different world that I find it interesting, and I talk to the faculty and students, as well as agents and editors who sometimes show up. I know for a fact that the path can be easier with the MFA. And again, I'm guessing more lucrative, at least initially.

Btw. I have to admit I do make fun of MFA programs in my book, Pariah.

Anonymous said...

Surely you can see the ethical dilemma. There have been countless scams with agents, editors, and freelance book doctors referring newbie writers to each other for kickbacks and fees.

Yes, of course the potential for abuse reigns supreme in many areas, but that doesn't mean everyone should be painted with the same brush because they make a recommendation. Authors in this day and age have to be more educated to the industry than their predecessors, and this is no exception.

Anyone who has been given a recommendation should research that indie editor thoroughly. That said, I know several of my editor buds with much larger houses who make the same recommendations.

But as I said earlier, I agree with you that authors need to learn to do their own editing because they're the ones who are tasked with their rewrites during the editing phase.

Mark Terry said...

Are you unhappy?

JA Konrath said...

Mark-- Are you asking if I'm happy with my career?

In a nutshell, no I'm not.

I have moments of happiness. I have times where I'm content. But measured against the times that I struggle, the struggle outweighs the happiness.

That's why I blog about the struggle, and why this blog isn't called "A Newbie's Guide to Self-Fulfillment."

It's also why I'm productive and tenacious.

Helen--That's kind of you, Helen. If you'd like, you can send me the $50. :)

Ann--I love metaphors and analogies. They're my kryptonite.

Dave--If someone wants to get an MFA in order to teach, or out of the fun of learning, or to study the esoteric art of poetry, they should go for it.

If someone wants to get an MFA to get published, they should save their time and money. But you knew I'd say that, and it won't convince you any more than you're convincing me. But it's fun to discuss.

behler--I agree authors need to be educated about the business. But people who aspire to write just don't think that way.

For some reason, highly intelligent folks, leaders in their professions, still get sucked in to vanity publishing and paying for agents. They'd never dream of investing in the stock market without researching it thoroughly, but when it comes to one's own written words the craving for acceptance and approval is so strong that many are ignorant of the perils.

No other art form boasts so many clueless people.

Perhaps it's because everyone believes they can write.

Perhaps because rejection is so scary, people prefer ignorance.

Perhaps because the publishing industry really doesn't make much sense to begin with.

Maybe the problem is subjectivity itself.

Let's say I'm the lead in a rock band. We need a guitarist. Someone auditions, but isn't quite good enough, so I tell him to take lessons. The guy takes lessons, gets better, and then I'd let him join the band.

He didn't play the songs well before, went to an expert for instruction, and now he can play the songs.

But that's objective. He either hits the notes or he doesn't. The instructor taught him how to do exactly what was expected of him.

With writing, no one is sure what is expected of anyone. So there's no way to prove the person is hitting the right notes.

Jude Hardin said...

Here's mine for Bartlett's, inspired by a recent Nathan Bransford post:

If you think you're above average, then you haven't set the bar high enough.


PokerBen said...

Wow Joe, that post was chock full of useful nuggets of wisdom.

I've read "how to write" books with much less info then your one blog post.

Thanks for saving me $50.

Question for thought, why with every endeavor someone takes on, whether it be writing, playing chess, baseball, etc... does everyone always think that there is just one "secret", that will instantly make them good? They blatantly ignore hard work, and just keep looking for the magic potion.

I'm 100% guilty of this.

I'm also 100% guilty of procrastination. Now off to go read more about writing, and actually never putting anymore words to page, then I do in blog comments.

Sad, but true. I know my faults, I now have to change them.

JA Konrath said...

Ben--It's because experience is all subjective, and people draw conclusions after events have already happened.

For example, most successful businessmen will rattle off the same reasons for their success: hard work, refusal to quit, taking chances, etc.

But there are many people who aren't millionaires who do the same things.

Attributing significance to an occurrence after it happens is why so many people believe in the power of prayer. Child is sick. Parent prays. Child gets better. Prayer works.

It doesn't matter that they've prayed before and not gotten those prayers answered, because the Lord works in mysterious ways, and Skinner showed that periodic behavioral rewards are more powerful than constant behavioral rewards, which is why we have so many folks with gambling problems.

A successful businessman who thinks he worked hard will attribute his success to working hard. A writer who publishes a book will attribute that success to "writing a good book".

Because there are no control subjects in these experiments (though, strangely enough, I know of two studies that have shown sick people who are being prayed for have a slightly higher chance if dying), there is no way to prove "x happened because of y."

For it to be shown that "y will happen if you do x" then it must be able to be predicted, and repeated.

But it can't be. Because the overriding factor is luck.

Hard work, taking chances, never giving up, writing good books, all are important in that they can improve your odds.

But people don't like to think their good fortunes are based on luck, especially when they no doubt did work hard for them.

Anonymous said...

I like your site and style and advice, and the open exchanges. And the warnings. Well done.

Let me add a couple of points about writing books and teachers. When I was learning the craft, I devoured writing books and (this is important) applied what resonated to my writing. And gradually, found out what worked for me. In fact, I had a major epiphany from reading a single chapter in a book, which, after that, led to my becoming a selling author. My philosophy is, if you learn one thing that helps, it's worth it. You can both study writing and write at the same time.

That's why I don't always think it's better to write than study writing. As Bobby Knight used to say, "Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect." And then he drummed his players with the fundamentals. So do both. Learn and write (and I'm not sure a writing group is always the best venue for that, but that's another story).

Re: teachers. I don't think being published is the sole criterion to consider. The main criterion ought to be whether his STUDENTS get published. Sort of like Lee Strasberg with actors. He wasn't a major working actor, but a teacher of actors, with great success.

I agree with you heartily that not all (in fact, most) successful writers are not great teachers. But there are some great teachers who are not monetarily successful writers (in the area of major contracts, etc.), either.

As with anything in life, caveat emptor. And your site contains some excellent caveats.

Molly Evans said...

Definitely one of the best blogs for the newbie writer. I was recently at a writer's meeting where many, many people wanted to know about self-publishing. If you don't really want to go anywhere, fine. But it is a sign of the desperation people have to see their name in print, regardless of whether or not they have mastered craft. Every writing conference I go to I focus on craft, because I can never learn enough. And know what? It got me published with a major house.
Thanks so much for the insight here and I'm passing this on to all of the groups I know.

Jake Nantz said...

Joe, thanks. I'm putting some of those on materials in my HS creative writing class, and crediting you. We'll see if that at least can help to popularize some of them, and that's a start, right?

Jennifer Roland said...

Great post. I've enjoyed the back and forth in the comments here, too. You have quite the engaged readership!

Anonymous said...

Cool post! But I'm surprised to hear you're not all that happy, Joe. From my seat, I would be THRILLED to have your career. But I guess being perpetually dissatisfied is part of your success "secret." Come to think of it, I know writers who envy the fact that I had a big-name agent once and I've had a few short stories published. Big whoop. I'm still an unpublished novelist.

I wouldn't give up on a child that was problematic, and I wouldn't give up on a problematic manuscript either.

I finished two novels--the second led to representation. I got 20k into my third novel and realized the premise was flawed, so I kicked it out of the house. It wasn't my "child"--it was a bunch of words on paper that were making me miserable.

But if you happen to be a writer who's never finished a novel (like a friend of mine), then I think this advice applies.

I'd also like to add that I've learned more about writing by reading and "dismantling" novels than I have from any class or any how-to books.

Oh, and there's a woman I know who teaches a lot of writing classes and workshops--and yet her bio mentions that she's written five unpublished novels. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Anonymous said...

Loved it, Joe.

Writing is a profession. Act professional.

Shouldn't that last be 'professionally'? ;-)

JA Konrath said...

Anon--Envy is a slippery slope. It's easy to look at other writers and wish you had their breaks. But chances are those writers are also looking at other writers and wishing they had their breaks, and so on.

Isn't productivity a result of dissatisfaction, at least on some level?

jwhit--your way is certainly more correct. :)

If 'professional' modifies the preceding verb, it should be "act professionally" describing how one acts.

But used as an adjective, 'professional' can also modify the unwritten subject. "Act like a professional" or "be professional" would have sounded better.

Maybe if I had an MFA I wouldn't abuse grammar so much. But maybe not.

Strongblkwmn said...

I am so glad I found your blog. I'm a new writer who is like a deer caught in headlights right now. I'm in the second stage of editing my book but i'm so worried about what to do next that I almost cannot concentrate.

Thank you for all the wonderful information.

Stacey Cochran said...

On Sunday, I led a discussion in Wilmington, North Carolina on the topic of how to publish a book.

Watch Video of the Discussion

Now, I have not been widely published. In fact, I've received over 2000 rejection letters over the course of 15 years and have been completely unable to find a publisher or literary agent for my fiction.

Nonetheless, this has been my full-time occupation... for almost half my life now.

And I think doing discussions like these help (me and the attendees). To be fair, I often interview better established authors, editors, and agents because they do have more credibility. Still, I know attendees grow and learn from the kinds of discussions like I did in Wilmington.

Not only that, many of them go on to self publish (a few have found traditional publishers) and then in turn go into their communities and lead events themselves.

I think is a healthy and positive way to contribute to your community, and I disagree with the idea that only traditionally published authors should lead discussion on publishing and writing.

As long as you're giving something back to your community and the people around you...

I will be balanced and happy my entire life as long as I'm giving something back to my community.

Melissa Amateis said...

Great post, great discussion.

On the topic of MFA's...I would say most (but not all, of course) writers who have MFAs write literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction. True or false?

Anonymous said...

AMEN to the point about the how-to books by writers who have never published anything worth noting. I was just looking at not one but TWO highly touted and well-marketed books on novel-writing by an author who has written several, but all were self-published. If you can't write a novel that a publisher is willing to pay you money for, I don't want your advice.

Besides the King and Morrel books, I'd add Elizabeth George's "Write Away."

Sarah Cypher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacey Cochran said...

I'm gonna go out on a limb here...

And say it...

Traditionally published authors don't know squat.

I advocate that only clueless, money-hungry thieves and bandits should be allowed to give advice to aspiring writers.

In fact, the more brain damaged the speaker, the better!

Surely, I'm not alone.

Join me in the revolution, folks!

Let's take back the publishing business from those who actually know what they're doing!

Visit if you believe you've got a better story to tell than 99.9% of the traditionally published authors out there!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the world is full of people who are ready willing and eager to "teach" something to others that they can't do themselves.

I myself am going to teach swimming this summer. I'm going to do it in the shallow end of the pool, though, because I sink when my feet don't touch.

Anyone want to sign up? The classes are only $150.00 a hour--very reasonable.

Patry Francis said...

Great post, but I'm with Mark. Ambition--stretching myself as a writer--is what makes me happy.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Great post, Joe! A lot of truth in there.

Best bit of advice I can give to others: finish the damned book. Too many would-be writers spend years writing but never finishing anything. The worst part is, the first book anybody writes is likely to be crap, so the sooner you get it done, the sooner you can move on to the next story you want to tell, which will be a lot better.