Myths abound in every area of life, including our professions and hobbies. Here are five that I’ve found in my short experience as a fiction author.
Note: I originally published this as a five-part series, but wanted to join it together and update some of the info. Enjoy!
1) Objective Marketing Morals
This myth attempts to tell us proper and improper etiquette for marketing our work. It’s as though proponents of this idea are appealing to some higher law of morality that declares one hundred posts in a row on Facebook saying, “Buy my book!” is inherently wrong. The myth suggests that an approach should not be tried if it fails to meet a predefined set of rules on etiquette.
Of course, I wouldn’t suggest the above tactic, but I also wouldn’t declare it inherently wrong. Instead, I would stress the importance of understanding the reasoning behind avoiding that approach. Simply put, it doesn’t work, and considering that your time is just as valuable as money, why waste either on an idea that doesn’t work for you? Additionally, studies have shown methods like this one aren’t just ignored, but often create a feeling of spite toward the product. But that’s just secondary. Either an idea works or it doesn’t. That’s all it boils down to. Reality tells us to avoid any approach that returns less value than the resources it consumes.
Perhaps you’re already noting the importance of this contrast. If you follow the myth version, then when faced with an opportunity, you compare it to your list. When following reality and faced with an opportunity, you attempt to estimate its inherent value. This is obviously much more useful in the sense that no list of etiquette can ever be comprehensive enough to cover all the don’ts. But far more important is the grey area. If a new opportunity arises, do you wait for an update to the list from those in the know? Do you step out on a limb and judge for yourself? What if you opt for the latter, only to find out in the future that the list forbids it? And what if it’s on the list, but yields a desirable return? And while we’re at it, whose list do you go by? Everyone has something that offends, so is it even possible to find much (if anything) that makes no list appearances?
To help flesh this out a bit, here are some good examples that I’ve seen where I think following the law of etiquette blindly is odd or foolish:
- Never review your own work. But what if you like sharing why you wrote what you did? Sure, the famous authors might not do it, but it never offends me when I read other aspiring authors review their own work. I’m actually curious to know why they wrote it and what they like about it. I’d expect a five star review, and would be apprehensive if they gave it less, but that’s just me.
- Never comment on reviews or engage with reviewers. Why not? Is it bad to say thanks? Why? I would appreciate it if an author thanked me. Heartfelt thanks, mind you, not just an automatic reply. And if you carried that to a higher level, then when you’re a famous author, should you not interact? Are you simply starting at an early stage so that when you’re famous you can truly feel elite? I could understand not getting into an argument with a negative reviewer, but otherwise this one goes too far.
- Don’t include your cover or title in an email signature. Again, why? Are we creating a mystery that is our novel? “If you really loved me, you’d ask what my book is called and what it looks like in order to buy it.”
- Interact with other writers, but not for the sake of your book. So, for the sake of my novel, I should talk to other writers? But then I have to forget my reasons and my book so that I’m no longer interacting for my novel’s sake. Wait, what? It seems like I should be choosing one or the other. And I agree with not selfishly looking to hog a conversation, but I think you’re kind of lying to yourself if you think you can take this advice and enact the whole thing. (I plan to talk more on the aspect of marketing to writers in another myth posting.)
- Don’t talk about your book. The above are forms of this final piece of advice. Many other forms also exist, but time would fail to mention them all. This one sums up the myth quite well, really. It says that if others want your book, they’ll find it. Of course, it doesn’t mention how others will find it if you never talk about it, so that would mean that you have to talk about it at least occasionally. Or should you pay someone else to talk about it so you can maintain an illusion of purity? How is that any different at its core? Or what about a beautiful layout in a high-end literary magazine? Is that classy enough to break the rules? If so, why? Why would the rule even exist then? This touches on perhaps the worst part of this myth–how easily and often it’s broken, especially by its staunchest supporters. It seems they’re not promoting art for art’s sake, and instead are promoting acting as though you do.
Of course, in saying all of this, I still choose to retain a moral standard for my own endeavors. So I not only weigh an idea’s value, but also whether it matches my own moral code. It’s a demanding code in many ways, but it also says that the Facebook idea would be fine if it worked. And in ridding myself of this myth, I’m also rid of fear, which frees me up to find the methods that are most successful for my novel without wondering if someone out there finds it taboo. In turn, perhaps this will enable me to create a marketing method that’s entirely innovative. And I think that’s the greatest benefit. But, it’s only possible by breaking out of myth and the law of etiquette.
2) Market to Writers
If you’re anything like me, than you’ve received lots of advice suggesting–directly or indirectly–that you target your marketing toward other writers. I thought this approach defied common sense when I first heard it, and yet the idea had such a strong presence across the web that I felt compelled to try it out. However, upon further investigation I found that my suspicion of the absence of value was well-founded. In fact, this might be the most detrimental myth for new writers. Simply put, there is little in this recommendation that makes any sense when you consider its true value.
The logic behind this myth says that writers are also readers and will subsequently view your work on an objective level. After all, who decides to write unless they’ve spent a significant number of years reading, resulting in a love affair with the printed word? While this can be true, common sense reveals a low probability of this objectivity occurring. And while marketing is definitely a numbers game with a lot of misses, you still want to eliminate as many misses as you can. With that in mind, I would not suggest this for a new writer looking to pick up readers. Let me explain why.
Let’s start with time: all humans have a limited amount of it each day. Most of us have heard the advice that with such a scarce resource, we should each make the most of the little we have. Now, according to this study from Pew Internet in 2012, of the 78% of Americans who read a book the year before, the median individual read eight. This means that I have to find someone who likes to read, then convince them that they should make my book one of the eight they read this year. And that doesn’t even factor in how many of those books are non-fiction, classics, or bestsellers.
But the real crunch comes if a fellow author actually likes your work–that is the goal after all. At that point, it does you little good unless they spread the word. So now you’re asking them not only to read your work, but to promote it as well. Now consider how much time you would commit to promoting a book for another. You might be the most altruistic person in the world, but how often will you choose to promote their writing when you could be spending that time promoting your own? No matter how you turn it, this isn’t sustainable for most authors. Sure, some might be trying to create blog content for their readers, so they review your book or tell people to check out this new writer, but that’s quick and dirty–not valued marketing. Maybe this would be useful if you were out of other options, but as a primary marketing tool, it’s severely lacking.
Then we consider competition. Your ideal target demographic would be authors in the same genre, but keep in mind that marketing to them is a little like Microsoft marketing to Apple–not Apple users, but Apple itself. Sure, other writers aren’t as direct a competition as this comparison, but they’re not so far off either. To assume that a writer can compartmentalize their reading and writing to a degree that would rule out such bias bleeding through would be overly optimistic. Again, even altruism has its limits.
But in saying all of this, I don’t mean to say that writers shouldn’t network with other writers. You can learn a lot, and might find doors opening that you never had access to previously. But it’s not nearly as direct as normal network marketing, and knowing that can help you avoid major negative side effects.
3) Writing Forums Are Helpful
This myth tells us that forums are a great place to:
- promote your work
- learn about writing
- get feedback on your work
- learn about marketing
While these potential benefits were enticing enough to pique my interest initially, I eventually found that they didn’t hold up to scrutiny. More than that, after careful review I can find nothing of use in a writing forum. While this may not apply to a completely inexperienced writer, I believe that most serious writers who give the matter honest thought will come to the same conclusion.
1) Promoting your work
Everyone on these forums is a writer, and you already know how I feel about marketing to writers. Enough said. Moving on …
2) Learning about writing
I used to think writing forums had some salvageable value for new writers. In other words, if you haven’t written before, and you’re looking for tips and encouragement, then check out a forum. But now I seriously wonder about this aspect.
If nothing else, people on forums often post hurried answers. I believe this is unintentionally promoted through anti-spam policies that require a person to post X number of standard posts before being allowed to post a link to their own work. But whatever the reasoning, this rushed state often makes answers sloppy or incomplete. This means that you might come away even more confused.
Worse still, online anonymity tends to inspire greater rudeness in people. I don’t think I even need to build a case for that aspect. What it translates to is you running the risk of not getting an answer at all or possibly even getting something counter-productive. How many dreams have been killed when an eager newbie said the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time only to receive a reply filled with all the ire the internet could muster?
Additionally, I think it’s important to consider that humans have a tendency to answer with authority when they don’t actually know. And while this can happen anywhere, it’s much harder to verify authority on a forum. This means that when it’s all said and done, you can’t even be sure you got the right answer.
I’ve personally seen many answers on forums that were misleading or not taking into account cultural differences. Worse still, I’ve seen plenty of answers that refuted (with authority, mind you) previous correct answers. This makes forums a potentially dangerous place if you’re looking to build solid writing.
3) Getting feedback on your work
While a person’s technical expertise might be wrong, that’s simple enough to figure out through other sources. Ultimately, you can correct your understanding and just ignore useless information. But that’s much more difficult when it comes to general, subjective feedback. How can you tell if the person even know what makes for a good story? You can review any work they’ve submitted, but how rough was that draft? Have they improved? Do they know more than they’re able to put into practice?
More importantly, rushing and rudeness play a huge role. If someone rushes through your writing, they won’t care much about what the words are saying. Their response will be based on a lack of understanding, coupled with a hurried and possibly confusing choice of wording. When combined with rudeness, it’s not only unhelpful, but extraordinarily counter-productive.
But, the worst part of feedback on forums is groupthink. If someone is hurried, rude, or lacking actual authority when reviewing your work, they’ll set the tone for other reviews. As much as people like to believe they’re not susceptible to it, we all are. And online forums are one of the worst offenders. This means you won’t stand a chance of getting an actual review if you get a negative one to start. Alternatively, if the first review was naively positive, you’re likely to get mostly positive reviews following, which voids the possibility of actually critiquing your work.
So you’re really just tossing the dice when you submit your work for feedback on a writing forum. Even if you manage to sort the helpful from the unhelpful reviews, it’s likely that all will still linger in your mind. This means that you risk poisoning your future work, all because you simply wanted to know what others thought of your current writing.
4) Learning about marketing
Finally, there’s some hope with more detailed information on marketing for a self-published piece. Some, but not much.
It’s not so easy to find highly detailed information on this subject from Google, as it’s a relatively new matter of interest. Sure, there’s lots of general information, but very few people are sharing specifics about what works or doesn’t work for them. This was the main reason I first turned to online writing forums.
However, you still run into the question, “How do I know this person has any authority on the matter?” And there’s really no way to find out unless they release hard data about their own journey. Additionally, rushed and rude responses are killers here.
I’ve not only received unhelpful and counter-productive information, but also responses that just went way off track. Sometimes people have even responded by answering the question they wished was being asked. And I take full responsibility for my own poor wording in asking certain questions, but I’ve seen far too many examples of people just not reading the question at all.
Perhaps (and this is a big “perhaps”), if you were to take all of the above in mind and use a writing forum sparingly, you might find some use in it. That use would be its real world experience. After all, when you publish, you’ll face all of these things, but on a potentially larger scale. I don’t see it helping your writing, but it could help to sharpen your focus and end your reliance on the whims of the masses.
But other than that, I can’t find any benefit in using an online writing forum. I’m still open to some shred of hope there, but I don’t believe it’ll come.
And this doesn’t mean that all forums are unhelpful, just that I’ve frequented quite a few and haven’t found any of them useful. I’m sure those who started the forums and plenty of the people who frequent them have proper intentions, but that doesn’t change the state of things. Perhaps a better approach can be taken that makes them useful, but I can’t think of one.
Alternatively, with a Google search, at least you have a chance of finding a site that can be evaluated for its own merit. As an added bonus, the information is usually formatted better, enabling easier reading and understanding.
In fact, I highly recommend spending a bit of time in Google land. With a little effort, you can find reliable blogs on writing that have an abundance of good advice. To get you started, here are four that I stay up on and find invaluable:
4) Cart Before Horse
This myth tells us that we should focus on getting our writing out there first, then focus on marketing it. But I’ve found this to be only partially accurate. Sure, content is the most important aspect, but this only means that it should be your primary focus, whereas the cart before horse myth urges writing as your only real focus until it’s finished.
But mounds of startup advice out there tells us that we shouldn’t wait too long to begin marketing. I like the way this article puts it in point four. Logically speaking, it generally takes time to spread word of mouth about a product. If you wait until that product is ready before you begin spreading the word, then you’ll have to wait on the natural course of time for hype to build, thus leaving your product sitting on the shelf while you wait. This costs money in a startup, but for your writing startup, this might really only waste time, which is arguably more precious. Of course, time can be cut shorter through the use of money, but who has that to toss around either?
Now, some of you might pause here and consider my old post on the need for patience, thinking, “Well, what’s the rush?” While I certainly wouldn’t promote rushing, operating with intent is a very different matter–it’s a necessity. You should determine exactly what you plan to do, and you should execute that plan. Don’t rush it, but don’t wait until your book is finished either.
Now it’s also true that you have to have something to market, but that’s where the natural creativity of authors really plays to our advantage. If you’re working on a novel, then by all means release excerpts of it on your site and drive traffic to read those excerpts. Or if you have the time, write other pieces that relate to your novel, and release those on your site. Or try a mixture of both. I tried this plan with my debut novel, Things Grak Hates, and it worked quite well.
So, if you want your novel to be read by the most people possible, then get your name and your story out there now. Why wait?
5) Error or Style Preference?
Every author has something to say about other authors. Many have very bad things to say. Lists like that abound, and I used to take heart that eventually I’d get some horrendous criticism, but it needn’t affect me or my writing. Now I have a slightly different view of such commentary. It seems to me that it’s often just a matter of style or content preference, masquerading as expert knowledge.
Take this article, for example. The author feels that italics should be used sparsely. Period. No exceptions. She says it’s “jarring to the reader.” I agree that too much can be jarring, but so can too much dialogue, theoretically. But the problem is that too much is too relative. So while she makes a good point about the intimacy of first person limited writing, she misses the wide range of beautiful literature that can be created and has been created using italics for a character’s inner dialogue (also known as thoughts).
While I respect her opinion on style, posts like hers concern me because they often lead new writers down the wrong path. I’ve seen casualties like this on numerous occasions. A new writer reads something like that and attempts to eradicate italics from their own work. But any time you follow a rule as a rule instead of following the underlying reasoning, you risk sucking the life out of your story and driving yourself insane.
But this post has relevance closer to home for me. When I was shopping editors for my debut novel, Things Grak Hates, I asked each one to give me a sample edit of chapter one. I’m so glad I did that, as it helped me weed out a number of them. While I respect all of them and the work they do, I had to pass because of the suggestions they made. Many asserted their own stylistic preferences as matters of proper writing.
For example, one fellow said that I should never write in present tense. He followed this up by saying it would be a quick change to convert the 90k+ words into past tense.
Another thought that my humor was good, but insisted that it needed more of a slapstick style. He pointed to his own work of comedy as an example of proper humor in writing.
Another editor felt that my story didn’t have enough action and intrigue to propel the plot along.
In hindsight, it seems they said these things for the same reason that many authors suggest not writing in obscure genres. They’re trying to help you build a bestseller. And I get that. If that’s what you’re out to do, then have at it. But what about the rest of us? What about writers who want to write a story in some niche genre and with a peculiar style? Are we wrong? Or do we simply have different tastes? And if we do have these tastes, then wouldn’t there be more like us out there who would be interested in what and how we’re writing? I certainly believe so.
Editors and professional tips are vital. And you should definitely know the rules of writing, if for no other reason than to know when and how best to break them. But you as the author need to have the final say in your writing. You have to make the decision if that tip, that rule, that edit is going to improve your work or hinder it.
To me, the written word is meant to come alive. For that to happen, it should mimic reality down to the very formation of the words. If thoughts feel more natural in a given passage, then by all means use italics to convey those thoughts. If passive voice conveys the concept best, then use it. If your tense and style fits the story best, then don’t change them.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that an author simply toss grammar out the window. While I’m a zealous advocate of the author’s voice shining through in a story, I think it’s just as important to understand that the rules of grammar and punctuation are there to help us make sense of this crazy jumble that we call the English language. In other words, when I refer to the author’s voice, I don’t mean misspellings, poor grammar, and lack of punctuation. After all, if I opted to write my sentences any way that felt right to me in the moment, you wouldn’t be able to understand me, and my point would be lost. Or to put it another way, my sentences you wouldn’t that felt right my point me If I be lost to me any way to understand be able, in the moment, and would opted to write.
Only when you understand the English language and all of its idiosyncrasies, as well as the reasoning behind its rules, can you dance with words without losing meaning or comprehension. Only then can you hope to break the rules with any credibility.
6) Show Don’t Tell
To think I had planned it all so beautifully.
My rant for this final myth was ripe, waiting on my mind’s tongue, hoping to dispel what I believe is the ludicrous myth of “show don’t tell.” In my experience, it has often loomed out there at the lethargic threshold of criticism, conjured by those who would sound like experienced writers, thrown at new authors when their writing has an unidentifiable lack of substance. Or when it simply diverges from a critic’s oddly formulaic set of tastes.
My first task in dispelling the myth was to research it a bit and pull direct quotes that promoted this apathetic principle. But then I found this. When a person takes the time to say exactly what I want to say, exactly how I want to say it, I feel it’s best to pass the credit on to them.
Bravo, Mr. Joshua Henkin.