Logic: The Lost Art in Being a Fiction Writer

From author Dean Wesley Smith:

I have been going on now in numbers of posts about how we fiction writers sabotage ourselves. Fear without real cause is the normal reason.

But I have another deeper reason tonight.

Lack of logic.

In a few posts I used math to try to make sense of the silliness of a few myths. Math tends to be very logical.

Simply put, fiction writers, when it comes to the very basis of being a fiction writer, toss all logic out the window and listen to people who have never written or published a book.

This goes on from the very beginning of every writer’s career.  The one uniform trait in becoming a full-time fiction writer is that you must have the ability to unlearn all the crap. Unlearn all the illogical aspects of both the craft and the business.

. . . .

— Agents. If you wouldn’t give your gardner 15% ownership of your home for mowing your lawn every week, so why give an agent 15% of your property for doing even less work? Yet writers spend years and years chasing the opportunity to do just that.

. . . .

— Wanting to Be Taken Care Of. Writers think that some major corporation only thinking of the bottom line and buying all of the writer’s rights in their work will take care of them. Yeah, P.T. Barnum had a saying for those kinds of folks.

— Book Doctor/Story Editor. Writers think that someone who has never published a novel (and wouldn’t know how to construct a novel if their life depended on it) are worth paying thousands of dollars to get advice from. These book doctors or story editors took private lessons from P.T. Barnum.

— If You Don’t Write Much You Will Get Better. This one is so stupid I have trouble even trying to talk about it without laughing. And I really enjoy the fact that writers think if they don’t write much and do it REALLY SLOWLY they will get even better. (English teachers rejoice at even less homework to read.)

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith and thanks to Deb for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

50 thoughts on “Logic: The Lost Art in Being a Fiction Writer”

  1. Does anyone actually say or think “If you don’t write much you will get better”? Because I’ve never, in my long writing life, seen that one touted around.

    • There are those who believe that you MUST MUST MUST write a million words a year (or some other huge and arbitrary figure) to have any hope of commercial success; and I have often seen such people attack anyone who disagrees by accusing them of the contrary error. Nobody familiar with the craft of writing actually makes the error; it is a straw man constructed by the speed-writing advocates. (Reviewers and academics, alas, are sometimes liable to be impressed by the slowness of a writer’s output; but we already knew better than to take direction from them.)

      The truth, of course, is that yes, improvement comes from practice, and much practice is better than little practice; but most people learn very little by writing as fast as their fingers can strike the keys. When Quintilian said, ‘Write quickly and you will never write well; write well, and you will soon write quickly,’ he was speaking from observation and experience. Writers who focus on sheer quantity of output before mastering their tools… well, most of them never master their tools.

      • Exactly. You don’t put someone in a room, alone, with a piano and say “In a year you’ll be a virtuoso”. It takes practice, yes, but it also takes a good teacher. The most efficient way to get better is to be taught and practice, not just practice.

    • I’ve heard one or two literary fiction writers (one of whom was also a professor of English) aver that slow and steady work at crafting just the perfect phrase and sentence guaranteed the best results, and that a novel a year suggested that the writer rushed and did not truly concentrate on the art and craft of writing. This is one or two people in over 20 years of being in fiction and non-fiction writing.

      • I read an agent’s post a long long time ago, on some website somewhere I can’t remember (sorry), how excited she was to recieve a manuscript the writer took ten years to write. Because of course time translated into wonderful writing. Unfortunately my bad memory isn’t coming up with any more explicit information, but I do remember this as a very common meme. Back in the days when I still read agent and editor blogs, and read Absolute Write religiously. It might very well have been from there in fact.

    • Writing less seems to be in effect what is pushed by this book:

      The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity

      I say “in effect” since I don’t recall it being explicitly stated, but I can’t see how that wouldn’t be the end result of this approach. A good chunk of it is available to be read in preview on Amazon if anyone is curious. Her approach certainly seems to have its fans, if GoodReads reviews are any measure of a following.

      Then again, the author of this book has also written a total of seventeen books.

        • Exactly. “I spent three years writing this!” is how it’s usually put forth. Versus the sneering tone towards someone who wrote the book in a month or two.

          There’s such a strong assumption/attitude that since it was fast, it can’t be any good. Or “Well, it’s genre, what do you expect?”

            • Only if a writer goes too fast for their skill level. Writing something too slowly has its own sets of problems that can result. In my work as an editor, the most self-contradictory, confusing, and incomplete writing I’ve seen was written slowly.

              • I agree on your point that it’s possible to write too slowly–writing slowly by itself does not result in great writing. But writing at high speed (a novel every couple of months) results in simpler writing and simpler stories.

                There’s nothing wrong with pulp fiction. I can enjoy it too. But have you ever read a really great novel that was written in a month?

                • There is no real way of knowing how long something took to write. Even if someone took “a year” to write and turn something in, they could’ve easily finished it sooner and delayed delivery, as a protection against developing annoyance or unrealistic expectations in the client.

                  In the world of professional writing, that self-defense is often needed. Freelance writers tend to either burn out or figure out that (or one of a few other defense possibilities to protect themselves from that situation).

                  As a writer myself, I know I have to slow down in order to make things simpler. I don’t have the health or practice to be able to do this all the time, but the faster I write something, the more comments I get about how much research I must’ve done and how long it must’ve taken (and how complicated it is).

                  When something gets “stuck” or delayed, maybe I’m not emotionally ready to write what I need to. Maybe I’ve messed something up and I don’t have the energy or experience to be able to track down that particular problem. Maybe work’s been rough and burned through that part of my energy. Or maybe allergies are acting up and I literally can’t move my fingers or breathe well.

                  All sorts of things can slow me down, but “the idea is too complex”? Nah. Closest I’ve ever come to that is, “I’m not sure how to approach this idea to give the effect I want”—and in that situation, what’s slowing me down is testing approaches, not the actual writing itself. Once I figure out the approach, the end result tends to come fast.

                • “Animal Farm” was written in about three months. “A Clockwork Orange” was written in three weeks. Kerouac’s “On the Road” took less than a month to put down. Stephen King wrote “The Running Man” under the pseudonym Richard Bachman within a week. Anne Rice wrote “Interview with the Vampire” in five weeks–the book is 338 pages long. Hugh Howey wrote 80,000 of his WOOL series during his first Nanowrimo, which of course lasts for the month of November.

                  Kazuo Ishiguro wrote “The Remains of the Day,” a 245-page book, in four weeks.

                  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his most famous work, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in three days, and then wrote it again in another three days after his wife burned the first draft.

                • Alyssa, of course I can’t know how long a novel took unless the writer says so. My comments only apply in those situations where the writer specifically states how long it took.

                • Patrice, I don’t know all of these works, but some of them are novellas. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Animal Farm, for example. I think shorter stories like these, with simpler plots, are possible in a month.

                  Perhaps I’ll read some of the others and see.

    • I haven’t heard anyone say it like, “Don’t write and you’ll get better.” It’s more like the longer it takes a book to be written, the better it must be. I see hints of that attitude at writer’s groups when someone talks about the book they’ve been writing for years and how many drafts they’ve written, etc.

  2. “Agents. If you wouldn’t give your gardner 15% ownership of your home for mowing your lawn every week, so why give an agent 15% of your property for doing even less work?”

    Agents are commissioned salespeople. Oh, and by the way, Dean, you give a real estate agent a percentage of the sales price of your home to sell it.

      • Oh, just isn’t it. My do-nothing agent is still getting 15% on deals she didn’t make for me, that I made myself, because she was my agent of record when the contract was signed. Any moral person would decline the money. She doesn’t.

        • That part burns. I see this with overseas rights, where even though I approached the foreign publisher and sold them on the book, I have to send them to negotiate with the original publisher, who keeps 50% of the money. (That’s the deal I signed, so eh, but I went into it thinking that the publisher would be doing a lot more to flog those rights. If they’d licensed those rights to a publisher I was unaware of, I’d happily give them 50%. But it’s disappointing when I’m the one who did all the work.)

        • Why didn’t you terminate the contract with your agent before you decided to try and sell the book yourself?

      • Payment to the author come in the form of royalties, which are not a one time event. They accrue over time. An agent-a good one, mind you-may also negotiate the sale of subsidiary rights after the the publisher has purchased the book.

        • Exactly my point! Royalties are ongoing, the agent’s work to get the book to a publisher is a one-time deal. Why should the agent continued to be paid after their work is done? From the agent’s perspective, it’s a great deal for them, but not so much for the author. These things can be done on a pay-for-service issue rather than ongoing royalty share that lasts years, possibly decades.

          • I think Peter’s point is that if the author keeps making money on the sale made by the agent, of course the agent keeps getting paid. And that was in response to real estate agents. The point is, real estate agents only get paid once because the SELLER only gets paid once. They get a percentage of every dollar made. Because that’s how commissions work.

            The problem is that 15% is too high.

        • An agent-a good one, mind you-may also negotiate the sale of subsidiary rights after the the publisher has purchased the book.

          In that case, the agent would perform two discrete services. First sell the book to a publisher. Second, negotiate a sale of subsidiary rights.

  3. My favourite writing guide is still, ‘BAM: BOOK A MONTH’

    Its common sense wisdom basically boils down to write 80,000 words in 30 days and you have the first draft of a novel.

    It’s the same concept as Ernest Hemmingway’s “write drunk, edit sober” advice.

    Quality is what happens in the re-writes and editing. Getting the words down is always better than not.

  4. For beginning fiction writers, logic is a lost art.

    Many beginning fiction writers have a long history of success in other fields where logic is very much in play. Writing isn’t special.

    • I took that to mean they throw logic out the window when it comes to writing fiction.

      I wouldn’t say the same. I would say they’ve been brainwashed by what they’ve heard and read. Can’t tell you how many times well-meaning friends have given me writing advice that gels with what I was reading in Writer’s Digest in the 1990s. They seem hurt when I tell them that isn’t really how it’s done anymore. They’re so sure that it’s the secret to a writer’s success.

      • I tell business people who have never written a commercial word how things work in publishing, and they are amazed. They apply lessons they have learned in business over many years.

        When I first looked at publishing, I was also amazed. I kept looking for the missing piece of the puzzle that would make it somewhat similar to other businesses. There is no missing piece.

  5. A few items on the list aren’t exactly failures of logic, IMHO.

    Agents: That’s not so much illogical as simply being outdated information. Before ebooks, agents were a (not quite absolute, but pretty close) necessity to get published. Still are, in trad publishing – there’s a handful of trad publishers that will look at unagented publishers, but that number seems to be dwindling with every year. So that 15% was just the cost of doing business – arguing whether it’s unfair or not is like arguing about taxes or death. Now, of course, I’d never dream of getting an agent, except maybe for ancillary rights, and even then I’d probably be better off hiring an IP lawyer by the hour.

    Rewriting will improve your story: I know that’s true in my case. Perhaps the OP can extrude flawless prose from his brain on the first try, but I find a second and third passes improve mine a great deal. And I think the creative process works differently for different people, but perhaps there is a unified theory that I’ve missed along the way.

    • Rewriting will improve your story: I know that’s true in my case. Perhaps the OP can extrude flawless prose from his brain on the first try, but I find a second and third passes improve mine a great deal. And I think the creative process works differently for different people, but perhaps there is a unified theory that I’ve missed along the way.

      If you get the chance, read this chapter by Dean. This may help explain his process.

      Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3…Rewriting

      It’s an amazing chapter, and well worth reading many times.

      • Okay, I read it, and it does have some good advice. But, as he himself points out, every writer is different.

        In my case, my first drafts are more like a lump of clay with a story hidden somewhere inside, and I need to cut and shape it into a finished product. I think the end result is much stronger, with fewer plot holes, more defined characters, and better pacing than the first version. And yes, the rewrites aren’t as much fun as the first draft, but I’m always happier with the result. The novel for which I did the most rewrites is also my best-selling one.

        Now, I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m making a decent living at this, but I’m no Konrath or Howey (on my best year I moved 60,000 copies between nine novels, not exactly NYT best-seller material). I could easily be doing it wrong. I’ve tried a few different ways to go about it, and my current method seems to work for me. YMMV.

        • I see. Here is an earlier version of his book, from 2010. This may explain a different way of looking at his process. He considers himself a “cycler”, that’s number 3 on his list.

          Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Not Rewriting Does Not Mean Sloppy Writing

          The link in the post is to the earlier version on rewriting. The one you read was from 2013. I forget that not everyone has read all of Dean’s blog. HA!

          As you say, YMMV.

          • Ah. Thank you, that other post makes things much clearer. I’m definitely a rewriter: my first draft is sort of the skeleton of the thing, and each pass fleshes out the whole.

            • Much has to do with how detailed the initial outline is, if indeed the author is an outliner. Much of the structural revisions Gardeners need to do on first drafts have already been done by outliners prior to writing the first paragraph. Not all of them, but a lot.

              Either way, the work needs to be done.

    • Now I’m confused as to whether or not I rewrite as I go along. I don’t write my novels in chapter order. I write about four chapters and then get bored and jump around to scenes I want to write. But as I write, I reread what I’ve written before and tweak it. It’s more like editing than rewriting. By the end of the writing process, I find that my subconscious mind figured out how to bridge the scenes from the end that I wrote six months earlier than the chapter I need to lead into them.

      Am I rewriting or just writing? I mean, I have no intent to change the way I write. It works very well for me. But he’s also right about practice. The fourth book in my series was returned by my editor with the lightest commentary yet. (Which made me very happy.)

  6. Dean has always been a prolific writer. It’s his thing and he does it well.

    What I take out of his advice is simple:

    Don’t be afraid to write fast.
    Don’t let anyone tell you that writing fast = sloppy.
    Get the words out, get the books out and DIY publish.
    You don’t need an agent or a publisher.

    Yes, at one point, Trad Publishing was VERY unhappy with fast writers like KKR, DWS and Nora Roberts.

  7. I sometimes suspect the extreme speed-writing advocates’ real goal is to discourage anyone whose highest possible writing speed is merely human, thereby cutting down “the competition.”

    Because it seems pretty obvious that no one actually writes a book a month–as opposed to writing the rough draft in a month and spending the next 6 months revising, which I can’t see the utility of over writing a single, polished draft in 7 months if the latter is easier for you. OK, maybe some dedicated mercenary is churning out Christian werebear erotica at an actual book a month, and making decent fun money off the few hundred obsessive readers who only read Christian werebear erotica and whose appetites for it aren’t satisfied by traditional publishing…but as far as writers that anyone has actually heard of, one or sometimes two books a year is considered crazy prolific. And I consider that a good thing…I would hate it if all my favorite authors wrote a book a month, because there’s no way I’d be able to keep up with more than 8 or 9 of them, let alone ever try anything new. (But I’m guessing that if someone wrote at that rate for more than a few years, their books would quickly become so interchangeable that their readers wouldn’t feel the need for that kind of completism.)

    Everyone should write at the pace that’s most comfortable and productive for them…I know I’m far more productive writing my 1,000 words a day, 5 days a week, and being happy with that, than I would be beating myself up every day I didn’t write 5,000 words, to the point where I barely wrote anything at all. (As I’ve seen several fellow writers do.) Claiming anyone will become a better writer by writing a million words a year, if that doesn’t come naturally to them, is like claiming they’ll become a better painter by dashing off six canvases a day, rather than working meticulously on one painting for several weeks. That might work if you want to paint like Jackson Pollock, but not so much if you want to paint like Salvador Dali.

    • Actually, they do write a book in a month, including editing and polishing. Not all do, but many. They may not be as sophisticated or whatever you feel your work is, but they do it, and they make plenty of money. Now, do they write a book a month for twelve months? Maybe some do. However you write, is how you write. No one else gets to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

      • No one else gets to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

        Of course I do. If someone is better at something than I am, then something has to be wrong with them. I won’t stand for it.

    • Alice, I suggest you read what Dean says about speed writing here:

      Please note, Dean has always said everyone writes differently; even if his writing style suggests “this is the one true way”, he doesn’t intend it to be so.

      Personally, as a reader I would LOVE it if all my favourite writers put out a book a month, it would mean there would always be something of theirs I had yet to read.

    • >Because it seems pretty obvious that no one actually writes a book a month–as opposed to writing the rough draft in a month and spending the next 6 months revising,

      Except, there are people who do just that, one draft and done (minus some minor tweaking, but often without). Just because you can’t do it, or believe it can be done, doesn’t make it so.

      People, he’s not talking about typing fast, he’s talking about having butt in the chair and putting out words every day (or at least on a consistent basis). Dean is trying to kill the myth that all work must be rewritten. Maybe for some, but not for all.

      By the way, I’m one of those people who doesn’t edit my work to death. One and done. I get no complaints about story, structure nor anything else. If I was more consistent, I’d be making more money. Sadly, I’m dealing with some issues that keep me from producing more than the amount of work I do. But, I’ve been writing since I taught myself how around age nine, oddly enough the same way DWS advocates.

      If you’re happy with your process, then carry on. But please allow others to do the same. What’s it to you if someone puts out a book a month, if the readers are happy? That’s all that counts in the end, right?

      (And I read a message board post once about someone who had finally finished their book, after five years of working very hard on it. When the full details came out, it was a five thousand word short story, and it still wasn’t any good.)

  8. If you don’t believe anybody writes a book a month, I guess you don’t want to find out how Michael Moorcock used to write a book in a weekend, or how Lester Del Rey managed to write a novel in a day when he really needed to get one done.

    As Moorcock says, the real “secret” is to be the kind of person who knows exactly what he wants to write and then writes it. The plotting is usually simple, but then there are plenty of novels with simple plotting. Moorcock stole shamelessly from folk tales and made them into his own stories with very different settings, for example.

    Not everybody has creativity that works that way. Plenty of prolific authors are not particularly fast authors.

    But if your creativity does work that way, you should take advantage of it.

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