May 17th, 2011

Saturn Ring Blues

Evolution of a Writer

I've made the argument that new writers shouldn't dive into self publishing partly because going the traditional route will help them improve as a writer while self publishing will either stop their development or slow it.

I'd like to modify that stance, however.  Writerly growth is not solely the province of the traditionally published writer. 

My theory is that most writers who have failed to make inroads selling to traditional publishers are having problems because they don't write well enough yet, not that the mean-spirited, short-sighted traditional publishing world has failed to recognize their quality.  I base that theory mostly of what I've read from the self-published.  The vast majority of it is just not very good.  I know, that sounds subjective, but there is a difference between a story that I don't care for and one that is not written "professionally" (see Top Ten Rookie Mistakes).

The theory goes on to say that what writers who are not published yet need to do is to improve their craft.  They need to write better.  The traditional publishing model provides a near-perfect evolutionary environment to grow better writers.  It works like this:
  • The writer writes a story
  • It is rejected
  • The writer tries to figure out why the story was bounced (and sends the story to another place)
  • It is rejected
  • The writer seeks feedback through other writers
  • The writer seeks instruction (this could be a class, but it also could be focused reading of writers he/she admires or books of writing advice)
  • More rejection
  • The writer writes a lot
  • Writing becomes more internalized and less self-conscious (it's very hard to write if you're trying to apply all the advice to every sentence as you write it)
  • Time passes: writerly growth and maturity naturally accrete.
  • A story is accepted
  • The writer realizes that acceptance means very little.  Growth must continue.
  • Repeat any and all steps as necessary.
The problem with self-publishing is that it skips the rejection process.  A writer who self publishes is saying, "My writing is already good enough to appeal to readers, so I'm not going to wait for an affirmation from a traditional publisher.  I'm going to do it myself."  The flaw in that thinking is that writers are notoriously lousy judges of their own writing.  Someone other than the author has a better chance of identifying if the writing is ready for an audience or not.

However, I don't think that writers' evolution has to stop because they have self published.  There are evolutionary pressures on the self published side too.  Writerly evolution can still occur, but the mechanism of rejection is not driving it.  The motivating power to improve for the self published has to be the internal drive to be better than the last time, and sales.

The evolutionary environment for the self-published looks like this:
  • The writer writes a story
  • Self publishes
  • No sales
  • Chooses one of two paths (or both to a greater or lesser degree): self promotes the story better and/or tries to write better
  • The writer who believes poor sales are solely the result of poor self promotion blogs/twitters/facebooks/and e-mail bombs everyone in an attempt to find readers, but does not consciously try to improve the writing
  • The writer who believes he/she needs to write better, takes all the steps of the writer in the traditional model, including seeking feedback and instruction, reading, etc.
  • Regardless of conscious effort, time, maturity and continued writing will probably improve the writing (this is a slow process)
  • Setbacks cause writerly evolution more quickly than successes and more quickly than the passage of time.  The self published can have setbacks too.  The work may not garner many sales, or reader feedback could be poor, or reviews could be non-existent or bad, or the writer might just develop a nagging suspicion that he/she is capable of better.  There are evolutionary pressures on the self published too.

So, I think a writer can grow through self publishing and through the traditional model, but I believe the traditional model provides greater pressure and tells a writer more definitively that the writing isn't good enough, at least to the point before the writer begins selling the work.  A self-published writer can spend a lot of time believing that the writing is good enough, so the incentive to change the writing is reduced.

Whew!  After all that, I think that I'm saying that that writers, the unpublished, the self-published, and the traditionally published, should continue to work on their craft.  The goal is always to write better today than yesterday.

This is a long post to suggest that self-published writers shouldn't feel like they don't need to improve because they're now published.  If they tried the traditional route and couldn't find a publisher, they should at least keep in mind the possibility that the reason they are self-publishing is because they aren't strong enough as a writer yet.
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