Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

More Questions

A Bunch More Discussion Questions For Writers

I have been mostly talking to myself over the last four days, trying to make sense of some questions I have that don’t flat seem to have answers. Or at least not easy answers.

So on the idea I might keep this up, I thought for a short post tonight I would just toss out a few more questions that would be fun to talk about in coming posts. Again, just sort of talking with myself, but feel free to chime in with other ideas.

—Why is every writer I know in a hurry?

—Why are most writers totally incapable of planning longer than a few months to a year ahead?

—Why do so many writers want someone to take care of them? (This one just boggles my mind, but I run into it all the time.)

—Why are so many writers afraid to just write clean and one draft? And then release?

—Why do so many writers write checks for taxes every year when they flat don’t have to with just a little learning? And some courage to learn how not to pay taxes legally?

—Why do so many writers think they need a “story editor” or “developmental editor” or another name along those lines because they are too afraid to stand behind their own art? (Might have answered that question.)

—Why do so many writers just stop learning when they reach a few sales? (This would also be a fun topic about fear.)


I think I am sensing a theme… Fear.

So a big last question for this idea post… Why are fiction writers so afraid of everything?

Might be some interesting posts coming up. Stay tuned.


  • Stuart Jaffe

    Hey Dean, Long time follower of you and your blog. Great stuff. Thanks for putting it out here. As to your questions, I want to comment on taxes. I don’t think it’s only writers who cut checks they shouldn’t. Most people find tax law boring, complicated, and a nuisance. If you happen to live a non-traditional life, one that doesn’t fit into the check boxes neatly, taxes can be extra complicated. But it’s so important to gain a basic grasp of taxes, understand what’s legal and not, and then act accordingly. If you don’t fit into the typical structure of the average person (oh, just for example, somebody who has no W2s and gets most income reported on 1099s from Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, plus a dozen foreign countries) and if that income plus whatever else is in your life leaves you too befuddled, then hire an accountant. I understand more than an average amount of tax law but my accountant knows far more than I’ll ever know. He has saved me tons of money and oftentimes when my calculations would’ve meant paying something, his numbers end up with my paying $0.00 and maybe even getting a refund. Like a good IP lawyer, a good accountant is worth every penny.

  • Patrick R

    Plan not play?

    The question: Why do writers plan and not simply play, letting their imaginations totally dominate to rip along like when their were kids?

    Comment: Imaginative play, isn’t that all that is needed? Typing then follows, like a puppy trying to keep up to a running kid. Is the focus now on the dog and planning for so-called play…and not just playing, and being lost in it, till its over? If we ran and played when young, what changed to bring…plans for play…and stilt the true play? It is like hovering parents [critical voice] organising play for kids [creative voice].

  • Bob Tinsley

    I think a more basic question is what is different (possibly culturally) between writers today and writers who operated or, at least, got started in the first half of the 20th Century? Let’s define courage as the ability to act in defiance of fear, not the lack of fear. The Old Guys (writing pre-1950, and not, by any means, all men) faced the same chance of rejection we do today. Were they more courageous than we are? Were they taught grammar and composition differently than we are both in high school and college? Did they see failure as more of a learning experience than a soul crushing event? Were they, through their own and their parent’s experiences in the Great Depression, more apt to “cowboy up” and “get ‘er done?”

  • Sheila

    Ah, fear. Yep. Know that fellow.

    I do think some have a lack of confidence, or lack of experience, and doubt they can write a clean first draft, or do without the writer’s group, or the editor. It’s those myths, Dean. They’re deeply ingrained in our culture that art has to hurt, has to come with untold amounts of suffering, or it’s not “real”, or valuable.

    I read one post on a message board where the writer said that Author A and Author Z rewrite and rewrite and on and on, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for the poster.

    My first thought was “the fear is strong with that one”. Also, while they’re struggling to get a book a year, those who have the best chance of being successful are getting three or four books out, or more, and selling. The wonder! 😛

  • Ellen

    The answer to most of those questions is money. Money is the motivator for most of the things we do. Its the reason we stay at jobs we don’t like. It’s the reason we don’t keep writing when there is no (or little) financial reward.

    • Teri Babcock

      If you quit doing something because it doesn’t pay well enough, it’s safe to say you’re not enjoying it.
      Putting financial pressure on an activity that you started doing because you enjoy it can easily lead to not enjoying it any longer.
      Having said that, plenty of people who achieved financial success with their writing actually develop new fears about not being good enough, not being able to do it again, etc.

  • Jason M

    “Why are fiction writers so afraid of everything?”

    That’s like, “When did fiction writers stop beating their wives?” 😉

    Re: Development editors and story editors. I work in this field quite a bit as a ghostwriter/editor. This service is useful for people who want to express themselves once but don’t have the skills, nor the desire, to become career writers. Basically, if you have “publish a book” on your bucket list, you may need some help. I know that it’s hard to conceive of, Dean, at your age and with your experience, but there are a lot of people with no skills who are willing to pay a grand or two for some creative handholding, and view it as a capstone on their lives. Many are elderly people struggling with a memoir.

    Story editing can help future career writers as well. If they’re astute, they’ll learn from watching how a professional makes changes to a manuscript. It’s a lot cheaper than a silly MFA.

  • Mary McKenna

    “Why do so many writers think they need a “story editor” or “developmental editor” or another name along those lines because they are too afraid to stand behind their own art? (Might have answered that question.) ”

    This is one I’d really like to understand. I can’t figure out why an essentially random person is so important to new writers. Especially random persons who aren’t writers and have no specific professional qualities. (I can’t decide which I would do first if I were less honest: be an agent or a developmental editor.)

    I mean, I get being afraid. I’m fighting that right now on so many levels. (It’s enough of an issue for me that I’ve been to therapy to work on it, so I really get it.) But the one thing I’m absolutely confident of is that I want to tell my stories, not someone else’s.

  • Ken

    I think the answer probably comes down to something like “maturity”. As a writer that’s not something measured in years of life in my opinion.

    Mostly, I don’t know. We all reach various levels of maturity in our writing life. In my mind I imagine someone pulling a part a puzzle. Eventually there are no more pieces. Probably there’s another puzzle beyond the puzzle. Maybe it’s puzzles all the way down.

  • Ed Ryan

    You are right on #6, it’s fear. It’s also, IMO, conditioning. Teachers at all levels insist good writing takes months or years and celebrate the kinds of writers who have “one big novel” and nothing else (or a handful that took a lifetime to produce), never stopping to think that the person they are celebrating never became famous until he/she was dead.

    I think the “tortured artist” myth appeals to people for some weird reason. I’d rather read some of the “hacks” like Robert E Howard or Heinlein over most of the “proper” authors any day.

    Funny enough in a recent exchange I saw between two folks arguing this very point, someone made the point that the folks like Howard writing for pulps wrote for 1/2 to 1 cent per word and how valueless that writing obviously was considering what they were paid.

    The funny thing is, in terms of simple purchasing power, a $1 in 1930 would be worth something like 12-15 in 2017 dollars.

    So they were paid 12-15 cents per word in 2017 money. If they wrote 1 million words per year @ 15 cents per word they made six-figures in 2017 money.

    Real “hacks”, huh?

    • J.M. Ney-Grimm

      Teachers at all levels insist good writing takes months or years and celebrate the kinds of writers who have “one big novel” and nothing else…

      Agreed. My 14-year-old son is writing a novella as his project in his English class. We are discovering that the teacher envisioned these special projects as 20 pages (or so) long, which means that she calibrated the other assignments around that estimate. Which means that my son will be adjusting his project to be “Part 1” of the novella. Which is fine. He intends to finish it on his own in the summer.

      BUT, at the meeting in which we figured out the making this adjustment, the teacher said: “Many writers take 8 or 9 years to write a novel, and the novel is the better for it.” I just smiled and nodded. Not the place to challenge that myth. My son has already read Dean’s Writing into the Dark, so he’s been getting the mythbusting early! 😀

  • Frances Pauli

    There way be a lot of underlying reasons, but I have a theory that much of it comes from what we’re told/taught from the starting gate. I’ve sat in workshop after panel after class and heard, “Whatever you do, don’t do…” “You’ll ruin your career” “No one will ever publish you if” so many times its ridiculous. (in particular since the advice tagged onto each epic “don’t” changes monthly.
    I don’t know how it started, but there’s a “culture of scare” involved in publishing/writing that I fear is detrimental to art, and in the end, to the business as well.
    The motto for the new writer seems to be (other places than here of course 🙂 Be afraid, be very afraid.

    • Lee Dennis

      This is so meta, but I can’t resist — your second paragraph would be much stronger without the “I don’t” clause and “I fear.” ?

  • Marion

    Dean, I have a question for you. I have published two novels (in a series) and getting ready to publish the third one in the fall. I have used a developmental editor after writing my first draft for each novel. When do you know or trust your instincts that you are telling the story you want to tell after the first draft and not use a developmental editor? I do know it is different for each writer. But, I believe a lot of beginning writers (even ones that have published a few novels) still feel the need for a “developmental editor” as far seeing if they are on the right track in telling the story they have visualize in their head. Love to get your thoughts on it. Thanks.

  • Rob Cornell

    —Why are so many writers afraid to just write clean and one draft? And then release?

    I think this one is tough because the conventional “wisdom” all over the place is that you have to revise or you’re being lazy. “Nothing comes out right the first time,” is something I’ve heard. Or, “Everybody’s first draft is crap.” Or you hear someone like Dean Koontz say in an interview in Writer’s Digest how he revises each page twenty times before moving onto the next. I mean, it’s Dean Koontz! Of course he’s right! And he’s not the only bestseller I’ve heard say they write drafts in the double digits. I’ve heard Patterson say he works that way.

    • Patrick R

      Viewed as lazy? Perhaps. But I wonder if those who decline to perpetually revise their stories and also be seen to fret and be full of self-doubt are instead viewed as being arrogant, perhaps even ignorant. Unappreciative of the delicacies of the word, how it needs to weigh upon the soul. And who the hell are they…these …’hacks’?!!

      I wonder, too, if analogous to Dean comments on the cumulative benefit of time in the chair is that those who decry fast writers do want time spent in a chair…but thinking, fretting. Worrying what others will say. For these words are not for the writer, are they not, but they are an offering up to those who are educated and knowledgeable, and dismissive of hacks.

      There has to be something in this from schooling, too. Pupils/students spent time in seats – over years – to think and talk and write…a little. But be quizzed and corrected and shown to be wrong by those who…don’t write much.

      This has got to hurt.

      Leave school and these internalised ‘lessons’ are externalised to …gatekeepers.

      However, I have to then laugh at the opposite of this – in exams at school. I recall, and in the last few years saw my young son have to perform (well, as it turns out) fast-blasts of creative writing into the dark in exams…and be marked. Sometimes homework is like that too. So, the speed and into-the-dark creativity was valued!

      But these are rare instances over a school year, and school life. Not enough to shake off fears of a red pen. And yet it shows the contradiction.

      Interesting discussions!

  • Corrie

    I’ve been following your blog for a year or so now, and I’m still hip deep in The Fear! I don’t think I have an idealized view of the tortured artist, but I so desperately want “official” approval that what I’m writing isn’t crap before I publish it. It might be a form of “writing immaturity” as another commenter said. I’m married with four kids – and generally mature/independent – but in writing I still feel like I need permission! Is it a generational thing maybe? Or I still view every project as an assignment that needs a ‘grade’ before I can decide if it’s valuable enough to sell people?
    One thing you said a while ago really helped me, something about asking your wife if you were embarrassing yourself. Now I just ask my husband if I’m making a fool of myself with a certain story and if not, I publish it. Maybe I’ll never get over my need for ‘permission’ -but if I consolidate that need into the one ‘pass/fail’ grade from him, maybe I can keep going.
    Anyway, I’m really appreciating the ‘kick in the pants’ posts to start 2017. Thank you!

    • Sheila

      What’s the worse that could happen if you just published that story? No one would buy it? You’d get bad reviews? None of that will kill you (it will hurt your feelings, but you’ll live), so don’t let fear hold you back.

      Now, I’m probably the person with the least amount of self-confidence there is. And I found it was surprisingly easy to put up my first things I wrote with the intent of publishing. And while sales weren’t huge, people did buy. I got no reviews about how bad it was, the writing was less-than perfect. Nothing like that. People seem to like my stuff, and I’m sure if I could get myself motivated and actually write and publish enough, I’d be making good money.

      So long as you aren’t putting out stuff people can’t understand because you lack basic skills, don’t hold yourself back. (And if you end up not happy with how things are going, there are pen names for that.)

  • allynh

    —Why are so many writers afraid to just write clean and one draft? And then release?

    I remembered a statement by Dean that he is a “three-draft” writer, saying it with massive irony, so I googled and found the quote. (Hopefully the formatting comes clear. HA!)

    Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3…Rewriting

    My process:

    First draft I do as quickly as I can, staying solidly as much as possible in my creative side, adding in things I think about as I go along, until I get to the end of the draft. Again, I try to write as fast as the project will allow since I have discovered a long time ago that if I just keep typing, the less chance I have to get in my own way and screw things up.

    Second draft I spellcheck and then give to my trusted first reader.

    Third draft I touch up all the things my first reader has found and then I mail the novel or story.

    If my first reader hates the story, I toss the draft away and redraft completely.

    That’s my process. I am a three-draft writer. (Unless I need to redraft, then I am a six-draft writer.)

    This is such a profound process. By saying “three-draft writer” when asked by others, you get to avoid being attacked, and you get to glory in the irony.

    The concept of being able to “toss the draft away and redraft completely” is so liberating. I recommend embracing that.

  • tony

    —Why are most writers totally incapable of planning longer than a few months to a year ahead?
    Let me answer this with another question: Why is every company focused on the next quarter’s results? Short term has been ingrained in the psyche.
    So, fear again is the answer, probably.
    Thanks for your posts.

  • Martin

    I also think people doe these things because they don’t know any better. No one has told them that it is possible to write a story quickly and in one draft. As a teacher, I can tell you, the curriculum does not like one drafts.

    • Indie Indeed

      I also work in a school. We teach The Writing Process. (Oh yes, it is caoitalised) It consists of five steps:

      1. Pre-Writing
      2. Drafting
      3. Revising and editing
      4. Rewriting
      5. Publishing

      And who is telling children they must follow the exact steps above?

      Teachers – people who are not writers, 99% of whom have never sat down and written for pleasure, 99.9% of whom could not sit down and write a novel if you held a gun to their heads.

      I made the mistake of handing in REAL writing for a creative writing assignment in 6th grade. The teacher’s comments crushed my innocent young soul and I didn’t write again for many years.

      Studying literature at university also twisted and destroyed my view of storytelling and fiction, and annihilated any interest I had in writing novels. It made me very jaded and cynical about the whole thing.

      I went to fanfiction because it was the opposite of literature. I went to screenwriting because a screenwriter’s words are invisible, the only thing that counts is story.

      It took me years to recover from all that and allow myself to write words of fiction. And when I did start, I was scared of my own voice and tried to suppress it, scared I would end up writing “literature”.

      It’s been really, really hard to evolve and clear out all of the sh***y beliefs left by those years of indoctrination.

  • Linda Maye Adams

    Story Editors/Stopping Learning:

    Because there’s a lot of isolation when it comes to writing, it’s hard to find information that isn’t for a first time writers. And that’s even with the internet. The beginning writers are all asking questions, even on some places like a message board, and the more advanced writers are off writing books–so all they get is advice from other beginners who probably heard it from another beginner. In the pre-Internet days, I read every craft book that I could find, but it took a long time for me to grasp that they were written for a very specific audience–the first time novelist. I go on websites and look at how they talk about writing, and it’s for that audience. I go to cons, and a lot of the panels are hitting that low-hanging fruit. I think even some of the more experienced writers (as in a handful of books) don’t realize that they are doing the low hanging fruit, and in many cases, repeating a lot of the junk that’s out there and not true. I personally wanted to learn more, but the resources I had weren’t giving me anything new. I had to take classes here, and also learn how to separate the junk information from the bits of gold and learn which writers I could trust and which I needed to stay away from.

    Now story editing does have its own culture, most of which get repeated like that low hanging fruit. Beginning writers are told over and over in those craft books and other resources that they cannot trust themselves and that they need help. There are certainly some that go to editing because they are afraid that someone will review their book and say it’s terrible. It’s a safety net. But I think there are some writers who end up with a story editor because of the limitations of the craft information available–and it’s the only way they think they can learn. There was a point where I got so messed up by all the craft advice and didn’t know it, that I might have gone with an editor because it was beyond my ability to figure out why my writing was so broken. The more I tried to learn from these craft resources, the worse my writing got.

    2017 is Year of Craft for me. I posted on a writing mailing list that I was experimenting with putting a source of light in every scene, which isn’t one of those low hanging skills everyone mentions. I was surprised at the questions I got because wanted to try it out. Anything beyond first time novelist is difficult to find.

  • Colleen

    Dean, a very long time ago, a brilliant college professor of mine in the school of business spoke to the men in class saying that “wives and children are hostages to fortune.” (Did I mention it was a very long time ago?) He went on to add that other obligations – debts in particular – as well as these hostages would bring stress, angst, and fear to into their decision-making processes, sometimes so subtly that they might be unaware of the source. He said it was important to be aware so that decisions could be made clearly. I don’t think you can ever escape the impact of obligations, and that is the fear that assaults so many of us – the fear of letting other people down and/or failing in our obligations. So I believe you’re right to name fear as the enemy of creativity; other problems arise from that fear, in my opinion.

  • P.D. Singer

    Coming in late to the party, but I ran into an interesting twist on the rewriting issue.

    Several years ago, I took an online course from another writer who advocates some massive rewriting. (Dean probably knows who I mean; the philosophy is exactly the opposite of his.) The class was all about the rewrites, and I took it deliberately, hoping to find a way to file off the serial numbers on my historical fanfic novel. (Didn’t work, the canon was too woven in.) I learned an *incredible* amount from that class, but not, I think, what the teacher thought she was teaching.

    Basically, while I was slogging through this mountain of exercises, I muttered under my breath that it would be a hell of a lot better to get the book right the first time, instead of enduring this torture. And since the “getting it right” part was there in the course, explaining about relative importance of objects and characters, scene construction, and other craft issues, I decided to cut through the nonsense and start with all that inserted from the get-go, or, since I cycle, the relative get-go. And in the books since, I have been able to publish first-and-only drafts. I don’t consider the copy cleanup and addressing of beta comments as rewrites, since it’s usually “clarify this” or “this sentence is tangled.”

    Perhaps it was the application of extreme pain in that rewrite class, but it turned into aversion therapy for major rewriting. Also, I could hear my late father’s voice in my head, bellowing the same thing he told me as a child when I’d done a half-job on something. “You don’t have time to do it right, but you have time to do it over?”

    So I think that class was the making of me as a writer, because I never, ever, want the fun sucked out of a book like that again.

  • J. D. Brink

    I have to agree with Colleen and Ellen: money/support/stability is a big fear factor.
    Personally, my biggest fear is not having the stability of a “real” job to support the family and pay the bills. In my dark corner of reality, and especially in my family, everyone works their whole lives, never gets far, is afraid to retire because they’re not sure they can make it not working, and then dies poor. (Depressing I know — sorry.) But one “myth” I don’t know if I can get past is that there are people who *don’t* exist in that shadowy reality. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that anyone could write *for a living*. Blows my mind. And even though there are obvious examples to the contrary (like Dean and others here — though maybe you’re all just phantasms in the internet ether…?), I’ve never known anyone that didn’t live and die clutching at jobs they hate to go to every day.
    So for me, believing I can let go of the edge of the pool and swim on my own, while still preventing my family from drowning right along with me… Just hard to accept. But that’s the dream!

  • Anthony St. Clair

    Dean, I’m loving this post. I’ve been a full-time self-employed professional writer since 2011, and you’re asking things I wonder about too. Here are some other questions I’ll put out there for your consideration:

    – Why are writers afraid of seeing themselves as professionals?
    – When writers receive interest from someone, why do they second-guess? (I’m remembering a conversation from the Willamette Writers Conference a few years back. Someone was saying an agent wanted to see some of her manuscript… and then she convinced herself that the agent hadn’t really meant it.)
    – Why are writers afraid of technology? With so many low-barrier, easy-ramp-up tools for things like websites, why do writers think that tech is mystical or unusable
    – Why do so many writers think inspiration is required, instead of just sitting down and making a goal and working toward it?

    So many thoughts. Looking forward to your next posts.