On Writing,  publishing

Chapter 13: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. The Myth of Knowing it All

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!

This myth fits perfectly with the last two chapters: The Myth that Writers Don’t Need to Practice and the Myth of Talent.

Here is this myth clear and simple from the writer’s perspective. “I have sold this and that and I don’t need to learn anymore. What I am doing works.”

This myth is so nasty and so subtle that many, many writers just fall into it without even realizing they are in it. When I wrote originally wrote this chapter in early 2010, I had intended to write on another topic, then I went to a wonderful convention and ran into a bunch of writers who were down this myth’s rat hole. Deep down it, actually.

 How This Myth Shows Its Ugly Head

When I hear a writer say they don’t need to learn (in one way or another), I just mentally wave goodbye. Their career is doomed to one of two paths.

First path: They stop selling and have no idea why. They will blame their agent or publisher or an event or no luck or bad covers on their indie books or stupid readers, but never themselves and the fact they stopped learning and growing.

Second path: They write and sell the same book over and over and can’t change and don’t know how to change and don’t feel they need to keep growing and learning because they are still selling. But they will wonder why sales don’t go up and they aren’t read by many people beyond their core readership and they claim they just haven’t been lucky yet.

These poor writers can last from a few short stories to a dozen novels, but eventually their publisher drops them and they don’t know why.  This myth always kills them in one way or another.

Truth: Top long-term writers never, ever stop learning.

Long term professionals are constantly learning, both in craft and business, since everything always changes so fast.

Let me be clear. I don’t just mean keeping up with business. I mean craft issues as well. Just because a writer sold a number of things or a dozen novels doesn’t mean they still don’t have a ton to learn about craft.

The reason I teach workshops for professional and near professional writers is that it keeps me learning and thinking. The reason I write these chapters is because it keeps me thinking and learning and listening. And what is both frightening and fun is that the more I learn, the more I realize how much I just don’t know.

Loren L. Coleman and Kristine Kathryn Rusch pushed me hard for two years to do another master class. They are the other two main instructors at the two week master course. Their reason for pushing was simple. We all learn so much when we teach them.

They were right. We did two more master classes, one in 2008, another in 2009, learned a lot, and stopped again because those classes are really hard on us to do them. (Learning is always hard.) We might do one again down the road after the industry settles a little, maybe, but only because of the learning. We lost money on both of them. A lot of money, but it was worth the price because I came out of teaching both master classes with a ton more knowledge and understanding about both the business of writing and the craft of writing.

There is a rule writers should always follow. Money always flows to the writer except for continuing education. Sometimes that education can be a writer’s conference, sometimes a workshop, sometimes just a trip to New York to talk to your editors.

(Remember, Indie Publishers, I was not talking about money always flowing to publishers. As a publisher, you have expenses. As a writer, your only expense in continuing education.)

A number of years back I was teaching at a major writer’s conference and Tony Hillerman was speaking and I wanted to learn from him. I was one of the invited instructors at the conference, but luckily, I had an hour off when he was giving a panel, so I sneaked into the back of the room to listen and learn. At one point I realized who was standing against the back wall beside me. Mystery Grandmaster Lawrence Block. He was another instructor at the conference, but we were both there to learn what we could from Hillerman.

(And once again I couldn’t say a word to Lawrence Block because of my shyness and gosh-wow nature with some other writers. Didn’t know our paths had crossed so much, huh, Lawrence? (grin))

How does this “I Know Enough” myth get started?

Actually, it comes from how we all start into this business. We all start by pounding the keys and trying to learn from everything and every book we can find so that we can sell. But in the back of all of our minds is the thought, “Once I start selling, I’ll have it made.”

Logical and normal.

— Of course, we also believe that rejections will stop coming once “We have it made.”

— And we believe we will get famous because publishing a book is something only famous people do.

— And we believe that having a book in print will solve all our writing problems.

Those thoughts are part of our dreams and our goals. We attach to the learning and the years of practice the idea that once “We have it made” all that hard work and pain and rejection and uncertainty will stop.

Nope. Afraid not.

Second reason is that learning makes us all uncomfortable. There are entire books about this topic and I suggest you read a few of them. Learning tosses each of us into a state of chaos and our first reaction and desire is to return to status quo.

But to apply the learning and to keep learning, sometimes we have to stay in the chaos and confusion for a while until we reach a newer and higher level of status quo. A new level of craft or understanding.

But a writer still lost in the myth (that once you start selling you have it made and don’t need to learn) will really, really fight this feeling of turmoil associated with learning. The status quo is just fine and dandy. “After all, I’m selling, right?”

This book, these chapters, are aimed at helping writers learn to become long-term selling professional fiction writers. To put this bluntly. You have no hope if you don’t love to learn, go after learning like it’s a missing food group and you need it to stay alive.

Every long-term professional writer I know loves learning. We all struggle with it, sure, but in our cores, we love it, crave it, and go in search of any tiny scrap of learning, any nifty-new-way to write something that will help us through another day, make another story better, help a novel flow better.

So running into those professional writers at that conference who have no real desire to keep learning made me sad for them. Kris and I see it all the time. And the real problem is that if I accused them of this, they would become angry at me.

And that is where this myth gets really, really nasty and deadly. As with all myths, “I don’t Need To Learn” is a belief system.

With all fiction business myths, the core of the belief system is “I know how it’s done, so I don’t have to think about it.”

For example, with agents, most writers want to believe an agent will do the work and save them from having to think about it or do the work and sell their books. The belief system won’t allow the writer to keep learning about how agents really work, which is why the upcoming agent chapters caused so much anger among some people when I first posted them on my site. The agent posts forced their belief systems into learning chaos.

And the most anger came from writers who had agents, had sold novels, were happy with their agents, and didn’t want to question the system. “I trust my agent entirely,” a whole lot of people said when I asked them why they were giving a perfect stranger all their money and the paperwork that goes with all that money.

Of course, without the writer constantly questioning, the agent is free to take the money, slow down a career, and eventually kill it without the writer even being aware anything is going wrong. I will get to those agent posts in the next section of this book, so stay tuned.

Another example is the “You can’t make money at fiction” myth. Writers who do not make decent money grab onto the myth that you can’t make money in the business because it gives them an excuse to not learn how to become better writers and better at marketing to make a living.

Just lately this belief caused one writer to write me and moan about how he can’t sell, how unfair New York publishing is, and that he’s going to stoop to self-publishing his own work instead.

I wanted to point out to him that I was an indie publisher, but he was so lost in the I don’t want to learn, I didn’t want to bother trying to tell him that self-publishing his own work took learning as well. And if he didn’t learn how to write better, he would make no more sales than he did with New York. (You just don’t say that to some writers.)

In one fashion or another, every myth in this book is tied into this overall thinking that once a writer starts selling, they won’t have to keep learning.

Notice how I haven’t said a word about the 500 pound monkey in the room? The big, big issue in this particular myth.


Every writer needs an ego to keep pushing through this business. Actually we need huge egos, and mine is no small animal. But combined with my ego is the intense fear I won’t know something, that I won’t have a skill I’ll need to finish the next book, that I will be behind some business trend. Scares me every damn day.

That fear of not knowing just does a tap dance on my ego, keeping it mostly under control and learning. Never once have I ever let the ego win and thought I had enough learning. In fact, the fear always wins.


Fear of not knowing something is what keeps me learning and searching for learning.

But alas, a number of the writers I met at that confention had let their egos win. They were too-published, too-successful to need to keep learning. They had “graduated” as one said to me.  That writer had three or four novels published and was telling me (with over a hundred novels published) that they knew more than I did because I still felt I needed to learn and they didn’t. Wow, now that’s an ego.

A deadly ego.

In one panel at that same convention, Kris and I were up front doing one of our “Kris and Dean Show” things, and Larry Niven walked in and sat down. He didn’t stay long because at that moment we were dealing with beginning writer issues in the panel, but he came in to see what he could pick up.

I sat in two of his panels over the weekend for a short time for the same reason.

Writers need huge egos mixed with a desire to keep learning.

I feed my ego by letting the fear of not knowing something turn into a stroke for my ego when I learn something. I still buy how-to-write books and am constantly reading how other writers work and think. And I buy all sorts of history-of-publishing books to find out what happened in the past as well.

And I am teaching a bunch of workshops this year and through 2012 to work out topics I felt I needed to focus even more on, such as Character Voice, Think Like a Publisher, and Indie Publishing Promotions. I hope to know a lot more by the end of 2012  than I do now, and then find new things to learn the following year. And the year after, all the while practicing what I am learning by pounding the keys and turning out new story and new novel after new story and new novel.

I have published somewhere around one hundred novels now and a ton of short fiction, and written even more, and I am a long, long ways from graduating in this business.

The day I think I have learned it all, just toss a shovelful of dirt on my face because I will be dead.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
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