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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.



( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 17th, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
Otoh, there can be quite a time lag between submitting and getting feedback (if you get any at all). Often a story is rejected without comment, so you'd have to guess at the reason, which may have nothing to do with its quality.

Perhaps the best of both worlds is a fanfic site that gives very quick feedback. If one story goes up in the ratings and another story (same category) flops, you have something worth studying.
May. 17th, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
I think the rejection IS the feedback. What the editor might or might not say about the story is irrelevant. The feedback is that the story wasn't good enough for that publication at that moment. The message is, always, write better.

In the meantime, while the author is waiting for the feedback, she/he is writing something new, which is also a good idea instead of spending all the time and energy promoting the self published work.

I haven't seen the fanfic sites, but anything that gives feedback promotes reflection and change, which is what you want.
May. 18th, 2011 01:02 am (UTC)
And much as those who have not gotten the personalized feedback may not realize it, the rejection is some of the nicer forms feedback can take.

Just wait for the personalized reject when you discover you have risen to the level of being told how bad you are.
May. 17th, 2011 05:52 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I'd never thought of it quite in those terms, but I like it.

I think it also accounts for why some tradiationally published authors seem to plateau. You write, "The writer realizes that acceptance means very little. Growth must continue." But I don't think the system necessarily reflects this. Once you're writing saleable material, there's less clear pressure to continue to improve and write *better* saleable material, if that makes sense?

I think a lot of writers do push themselves to continue to improve, but the pressure isn't as explicit as when you're trying to break in.
May. 17th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
Hi, Jim. It's a developing theory. LOL!

I think that you might be right about a published author's "plateau," although I'll bet there's a gazillion other reasons why an author might get stuck in one place beside that too.
May. 17th, 2011 07:53 pm (UTC)
Another goodie for my weekly links list.

Thanks for sharing :)
May. 17th, 2011 11:21 pm (UTC)
It's been my experience, combing through samples of dozens of self-published books, that most of these these authors do lack skill, but not imagination. The plot outlines sounded fantastic (which was what made me seek out the samples), but the execution was usually poor. I can count on one hand the number of s-p books whose samples compelled me to buy.

I think this is an argument in favor of your point here. They have the chops to create the idea for something wonderful--they just need the practice and discipline to pull it off.
May. 18th, 2011 08:11 am (UTC)

In my 45 plus years of driving a car, this is how I see most people learn to drive. They drive; crash; get tickets; drive some more; crash; injure others; get tickets; go to jail; drive some more; crash more; pay more fines; go to court; crash; pay high insurance costs; get more tickets; etc. :o)

I'm taking writing classes through ed2go.com. It's more of a hobby now, since I'm over 65 and can't spend the next 25 years learning the writing craft through the school of hard knocks rejections.

I'd be willing to pay a professional editor to go over my work, but the three I've contacted have failed to respond. Except the one here with her on LJ. She contacted me; we made an agreement but she has yet to contact me further.

So, when the best advice for any new adventure is to "jump in, 'sink or swim' cause yer on yer own", why bother in the first place?

May. 19th, 2011 08:11 pm (UTC)
This is timely for me in that I just finished reading a friend's self published short story anthology. Some of them are reprints from where he sold tales; others are things he wrote and did not sell. I was musing on how to explain that the traditionally published ones are better than the simply self-pubbed ones and - voila! You've given me a direction for my remarks. Thank you for that.
Karen Lafreya Simpson
May. 23rd, 2011 08:44 pm (UTC)
Great explination. will be sending other to look so I don't have to explain why self publishing is not the answer to get their work out in the world.
Shannon Taylor Hodnett
May. 24th, 2011 12:25 am (UTC)
The problem I'm having here is that you seem to assume *every* self-publisher is a traditional publishing reject...also that every self-published author lacks skill and the ability to write a polished novel. Sure there are crap novels being self published, but crap comes out of traditional publishing as well. Typos and other mistakes are not limited only to the realm of the self-publisher. ;o) I've heard agents say what frustrates them is not the lack of good work being submitted to them, but the amount of good work they have to reject simply because it's not the right time, or some other arbitrary reason. This could be why some writers--even first timers--decide to S-P...not necessarily because they were rejected themselves. There are self-pubbers that believe in quality work and have the skills to get it done...and as the trend continues there will be more and more of them. The evolution doesn't only happen to the writer...it's happening in the industry, too. Thank you for a very thought-provoking article! =)
May. 24th, 2011 02:59 am (UTC)
Good points, but I don't assume every self-published author is a traditional publishing reject, but the vast majority of them are, and I mean VAST. A very small percentage of those self-published authors do have the ability to write a polished novel, and those are the authors whose names drive a lot of not-so professionally skilled into thinking they can do it too.

I agree that there's no doubt that the industry is changing, though. Possibly in the future there is no middle-man (agent/editor/publisher/bricks and mortar book store) between everyone who wants to write and their dreams for publication. Publication, then, will become a true meritocracy. Every book goes out and has an equal chance of drumming up its own word of mouth or buzz or whatever will replace a traditional publishing push to sell books.

I think, though, in the foreseeable future that there will be arbiters of acceptance whose imprimatur will be worth an unknown writer's time to achieve, whether they are responsibly edited magazines, e-zines, traditional publishers, e-book publishers, or the future equivalent of Oprah. Those arbiters of acceptance will be the ones who will promote the writing that will instantly gather more attention because of they have marked it as one of their own for all to see.

As long as those arbiters of acceptance exist, self-publishing will be the slow road for the vast majority of writers who hope to achieve the levels of professionalism that they think they've already gained.
May. 24th, 2011 03:24 am (UTC)
Good article. But i don't expect that every rejection is because a story is bad. Some rejections are circumstances that have nothing to do with the story's quality. They can be because the publisher has already purchased a story on that theme or is changing their focus.

Edited at 2011-05-24 03:25 am (UTC)
May. 24th, 2011 03:29 am (UTC)
Yes, definitely. George Scithers at Amazing Stories rejected a Connie Willis story that eventually won a Hugo. The stories of great manuscripts that gathered rejections first are legendary.

I don't think that changes my point, however.

A rejection should just tell a writer that the manuscript wasn't right for that market, and if the writer still believes in the story it should be sent out again. In the meantime, the writer should be writing an even better one.

Jay Lake calls this feature of a writer, "psychotic persistence." Jay is wise.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )