Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing. “I Don’t Need to Learn”

Here is the 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. I had intended to write on another topic, then I went to a wonderful convention this last weekend and ran into a bunch of writers who were down this myth’s rat hole. Deep down it, actually.

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, but never themselves.

Second path: They 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 will wonder why sales don’t go up and they aren’t read by many people beyond their core readership.

Top writers never, ever stop learning. Long term professionals are constantly learning, since everything always changes so fast. And 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 two 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 courses. Their reason for pushing was simple. We all learn so much when we teach them.

They were right. We’ve done two over this last year and stopped again because not only do we learn a ton by teaching, but they are really hard on us to do them. (Learning is always hard.) We might do one again down the road, 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.

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.

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. 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 that will help us through another day.

So running into those professional writers this last weekend 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, it is a belief system. With all myths, the belief system is “I know how it’s done, so I don’t have to think about it.”

With agents, most writers want to believe an agent will do the work and save them or sell their books. The belief system won’t allow them to keep learning, which is why these past agent chapters have caused so much anger among some people. These 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. Of course, without questioning, the agent is free to steal money, slow down a career, and eventually kill it without the writer even being aware anything is going wrong.

With making money at fiction myth, writers not making 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 declaim how he can’t sell, how unfair New York publishing is, and that he’s going to self-publish his own work instead. That writer is not willing to learn and keep practicing so that his work will be good enough to sell in New York.

Every myth in this book is tied into this overall myth of 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 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.

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. Always. Which keeps me learning and searching for learning.

But alas, a number of the writers I met this last weekend had let their egos win. They were too published, too successful to need to keep learning. They had “graduated” as one said to me.

In one panel Kris and I were doing, 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 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 am teaching a bunch of workshops this year to work out topics I felt I needed to focus even more on, such as Character Voice, Marketing, and New Technologies. I hope to know a lot more by the end of this year than I do now, and then find new things to learn next 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 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean