Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Learning is Forever…

In Writing and Publishing…

Kris and I were talking today on the way back from lunch about some of the writers who have just faded away. And the more we talked, the more we realized that we knew the answer on what happened to most of them. They all just stopped learning. They reached a level that they were happy with their writing and stopped learning for a dozen different reasons.

That is flat deadly in just a few years.

The reason I hear the most and understand the least is the fear that learning something will upset some perfect balance in their writing and they will never sell again. Wow, critical voice working overtime on that.

Or I’m not writing that topic at the moment, so I don’t want to learn anything more. Yikes again.

Kris gave me permission to talk about something here because, to be honest, it annoys her every time, but we both find it amazing.

Kris tells almost no one that she is taking some classes at the University every semester. And almost to the person, when she does tell someone, they ask “Why are you doing that? You are successful.”

(Check in with yourself. I bet that when you just heard that Kris is taking classes at a university, you thought the same thing.)

In my opinion, that question shows two things. First, a complete failure of our educational system in its messaging. To most people the only reason you would go to school is to get a job. Yikes. Second, a complete lack of understanding that learning is forever and comes from everywhere. Just because you have a degree doesn’t mean you stop learning in any field.

Kris has been going to classes since we got to Vegas and she shares some of what she has learned with me (except in Spanish where I just stand slack-jawed as she goes on in a conversation with someone in Spanish.)

Well, in writing we have no degree of value you can go spend a hundred thousand at a university to get and tack on your wall. Nope, learning in professional fiction writing is self-directed and self-motivated and (like any art) comes with a demand for a lot of practice.

You get learning from reading and studying other author’s work, typing in their words until you figure out what they did that impressed you.

You get learning from books on a thousand topics, including sometimes even a how-to-write book. I get a ton of learning from history books on a bunch of topics.

You get learning from workshops (like ours or others) that are focused learning on a topic. I have taken a lot of workshops and lectures on business over the decades, actually. And back when bookstores were bookstores, I spent hours at times in front of the business books sections.

You get learning in the real world from trying things. I started my first business at the age of 23 with just under $200,000 in golf clubs and apparel because I was a head professional who had to have a pro shop. I had no choice. I started my first bookstore in 1977 while a third year in architecture and that store is still in existence to this day.

You get learning in writing from just writing millions of words, doing the best you can to tell the best story you know how at that moment in time. And then doing it again.

And you learn in publishing by publishing stories.

Learning is a passion to both Kris and I. When we are trying to put a workshop together, we struggle to get out an order of topics that would end up where we want the lesson to be, and both of us learn a ton doing that. That is why we still teach after all these years.

Learning is researching something new and then trying it.

Learning also comes through a lot of failure. Writers who are afraid to fail never get very far in either craft or business. Four years ago on January 1st I shut down or sold four different physical stores. Why? Because together, all four were horrid failures. I sold the bookstore and it is doing great on its own. I sold one of the three collectable stores and it is still doing great on its own. But together they were a huge failure costing WMG a lot of money and got rid of them and moved on.

So a warning sign for your writing and publishing. If you are just coasting, not focused on learning anything new to help your writing or your publishing, you have flashing lights trying to warn you away from the wreck in your future. Or more likely it won’t be a wreck. You will just wake up one day and years will have passed and you will wonder why you haven’t done much writing.

I still live by what I started out on January 1st, 1982 doing. I try to learning something about writing or publishing every day. One detail, one bit. And if I can’t spot what I learned for the day, I double down and focus harder the next day.

Today I learned not only more about why some writers have just faded away, but some details behind the motivation in the early years of John D. MacDonald to write, and why he wrote 800,000 words of short fiction in four months after coming back from the war and how he got over a thousand rejections in that time period and yet kept going.  The book is called THE RED HOT TYPEWRITER: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald by Hugh Merrill. I had read it before, but while looking for other books on our shelves today to help with a Pop-Up I am recording, I pulled that book and ended up reading it again. And learned more the second time, stuff that I would not have noticed when I read it the first time in 2000. I am a different writer now.

So keep learning any way you can. Amazing how it adds up, those one details, one skill at a time.

Especially over 40 years.



  • Ashley+R+Pollard

    Yep. This was drummed into to me when I trained to be a mental health nurse: learning is part of maintaining your professional core components. Failure to update your practice was a requirement of maintaining your registration.Twenty years of working in that culture has made learning second nature.

    Only problem, not really a problem, is that I chase down new things to learn when I should be creating. Haven’t quite got the right balance sorted out in my life. Oh look, something interesting… must learn the new shiney!

    • Cora

      I’m in the same boat with “oh…look….learn something new!!!!” And I have problems keeping it balanced. My first thought about Kris and taking a course was “oooooh, goody! What’s she taking? I want to know”

      • dwsmith

        She’s taking theater, languages, and this semester an entertainment law class. In other words, anything she wants to learn. (grin)

  • Dale T. Phillips

    Thanks as usual, Dean. Ordered the MacDonald book. Recently, I got two great ideas for improving my novel-in-progress from learning- one was a Zoom class, and the other was from studying The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne. Am always striving for more knowledge, and will never live long enough to learn as much as I want.

  • Connor whiteley

    Definitely. Never heard truer words.
    I agree with Ashley, this is why I love the clinical psychology profession and why I want to work there (whilst writing of course) and it’s a requirement. We have to keep learning or we lose our right to practice. Lots of people hate this part but I’m excited by it.

    For writing, this is why I listen to podcasts, read books, got a lifetime subscription and study another author’s work for 20 to 30 minutes a week. (I’ll increase this in future but it’s a start) because I want to explore the floors and want to get as far away from the lobby as possible.

    And learning’s fun! Why wouldn’t I want to do something fun?

  • Leah Cutter

    I will admit that prior to meeting the pair of you, I was on that off ramp. Rediscovering my love of learning was a true gift.

    In addition to that, I have the anti-stodgy campaign. I try something new regularly. Lock down had made it more difficult but I used to work at trying new things once a week. New recipe. New restaurant. Take a street I’ve never gone down before. Try a new brand of toothpaste. See a new food that I’ve never tried at the grocery? Into the cart it goes. New music, regularly. And so on.

      • Leah Cutter

        Thanks! I’ve been following the anti-stodgy campaign now for 15 years. I automatically try new things all the time, now. Or do new things.

        Today, I’m going to be patching and leveling a concrete floor. Never done that before. Will be a lot of work but the end Product should be worth it.

  • Kristi N.

    Um, how does one stop learning? I mean, how can someone live in the 21st century with the internet and a bazillion podcasts, online courses, blogs, and communities and not learn? How does one enjoy telling stories and not want to learn how to tell them better? I…I just don’t understand. Writing is an art, and in art there is no absolute perfection. Bruce Lee said he knew he wasn’t number two, but also was smart enough to know there is no number one. In art, the mastery lies in the journey. If one doesn’t keep moving forward, then the journey is over, isn’t it?

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Kristi. But the problem in writing is that many believe that selling is the end city on the road and thus when they get selling a little, they forget the road continues on to new cities and new learning and better craft. It’s why Kris and I work very hard to get people away from being focused on the end product and instead have fun in the producing. If your entire focus is always having written, an end product, your critical voice will soon stop you completely.

      • Amy Laurens

        For some reason, I have heard this SO many times, often from you, and yet it’s never hit home as hard as it did just now.

        To be fair, I have been doing a lot of work on myself this year re: critical voice issues and fear of success, so maybe I’m just finally reaching a point where I can understand it not just logically, but also in a more deep-seated way.

        …Another aspect of the learning that never ends – mindset and dealing with critical voice. Ha.

  • Kari Kilgore

    Years working in IT in Atlanta in the 90s and 2000s showed me how much constant learning mattered, over and over again. I spent part of that time teaching IT as well. Anyone in that field who decided they knew it all was finished, and right quick.

    The awesome thing about writing is it’s a whole heck of a lot more fun, and everything I learn and do now won’t be outdated by next week’s operating system update!


    • Rob Kerns

      Ain’t that the truth, Kari!

      I spent fifteen years in IT, and every time I learned of a major update (especially from Microsoft), I always wondered which best practice(s) would no longer be valid.

      It’s so, so much easier to keep ‘current’ in writing.


  • Michael Alan Peck

    “One of those men who can be a car salesman or a tourist from Syracuse or a hired assassin.”

    Donald Justice got an entire poem out of that MacDonald line:

    I’m off to hunt down the MacDonald book you reference, but I’d add you can learn a lot about writing by picking up just about any MacDonald book within reach (the McGee series in particular).

    Thanks for this post.

    • dwsmith

      I preach those Travis books to anyone who will listen and have now for thirty years. I reread five or six of them every few years like clockwork.

      • Michael Alan Peck


        “We are a long way from anything,” I told him. “Up ahead turn left and we’re fifteen or twenty minutes from Cancún. Turn right and you’ve got a batch of sixty miles of nothing. So who are we seeing, where is he and how do you get in touch?”

        I first read that quote on a Jimmy Buffett album cover and picked up The Lonely Silver Rain because of it. Then I went back to the beginning with The Deep Blue Goodbye and started reading in order. My roommate’s girlfriend borrowed that one, loved it, and found a shopping bag filled with the entire series in paperback at a garage sale. As she’d finish each one, she’d pass it on to me, and we were happy as could be. Even better, many of the covers were the old ’60s versions, so there was that delightful vintage feel to them.

        Just great reading. Disturbing as hell sometimes, especially when he only presented the suggestion of what was happening in a particularly violent episode and allowed your imagination to fill in the worst details, but that was what made those books so memorable.

        • dwsmith

          I was one of the top hired guns in all of publishing when MacDonald died. I put out the word to editors that I would love to write the Black Travis book if the estate decided to go ahead with it. Turns out me and every major writer up to King and Koontz wanted to write it as well. Estate said flat no, it would never happen with anyone writing it. I sort of respect that. But as a fan, I am bummed.

          • Michael Alan Peck

            As a fan, I’m bummed, too. But I also like the idea that TLSR served as the ending for the characters’ journeys, intentional or not. Without revealing any details that might ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the books yet, it was a beautiful way to leave it off, I think.

            (I said I’d shut up, didn’t I? Ah, well. The topic makes a liar of me.)

  • Keith+West

    Thanks for this Dean. My philosphy is that when you stop learning, you start dying. I teach a couple of sections every semester of physics in an interactive engagement format, and I learn something new every semester, even after teaching it for years.

    I knew Kris was taking Spanish classes, and I admire her and respect her for it. I’m learning Spanish via Duolingo. (It’s cheaper than tuition and more time flexible.)

  • Mo

    Hi Dean,

    Thank you for sharing. I am working on my learning of writing/craft but I am finding that I am getting so overwhelmed that I am hopping from topic to topic – today character, tomorrow, point of view, then next day, scenes – it all crazy and sporadic.

    In your view, which are the key elements of craft to learn or at least the top ones. I have done your depth and loved that.

    Thanks again

    • dwsmith

      All of them for the rest of your life, Mo. You won’t learn them and be done. Thus all of them.

      How to organize the learning is another question. I have for over 200 novels now never started into a novel without something I wanted to practice. I have been working for the last few years pretty solidly on how to do invisible writing, which is the hardest type of writing to do. If you can do an entire novel and no one notices your writing, just your story, in my opinion you are at the top of your form. It is a method that I search and work towards.

      Early on in my writing life I would pick a novel and say, “I’m going to work on cliffhangers this novel.” I would put that in my mind and then write the story.

      So my suggestion on how to organize, just one thing at a time. But a different thing every time while practicing (writing). No area is more important than any other. So I think you are on track. Study everything, just watch for the deadly attitude that once you learn it you know it.

  • Desikan

    Thanks for this amazing post. As always, a great inspiration !

    “I try to learning something about writing or publishing every day”

    What a philosophy to live by. Not just in this craft but in any field one is working on.
    A great way to build a career and a life. Very simple yet difficult to follow (just like Heinlein’s rule) and forget when we get bombarded by so many challenges in every day.

    Will adopt this as my motto too.