The Big Lie–No More Drinking the Publishing Cool-Aid

Writers, I don’t know if you have encountered the Big Lie, but I have. There seems to be this weird belief that great writers are born. We believe that if we made As all through high school and even college that we have this magical gift that just needs to be unleashed. We believe that we should be able to sit down and type out our tome, and that our biggest obstacle is merely finishing that novel. We just know that if we can finish this Great American Novel inside of us, it will all be magic.

We won’t be like those other poor slobs who had to write five bad novels before they could even get an agent to look at them. No…we are different. We have talent. We have what it takes to be a star…no, what’s that thing that’s bigger than a star? *snaps fingers* Oh, yeah. We can be a legend. And we will never stop querying. Even if we are rejected. We know that these agents are just part of the machine and won’t they be really super sorry that they ever turned us down.

Okay, stop drinking the publishing cool-aid. Just put it down. Over there is fine.

And yes, I know it is Kool, but that is trademarked and you guys are sharp enough to get it.

Last week I started a series to teach structure, and the feedback has been amazing. It has been one of my most popular series, and I think I know why.

Plot and structure is the ED of the writing world. Lots of us have the problem, but no one wants to raise their hand and admit it. It can be a simple problem to fix, but it hits us in our ego so we stay quiet and suffer in silence, all the while believing that we are the only ones in the world with this issue.

Sorry, I know that was crass comparison, but bear with me. There are countless writers who don’t get it. We do fine writing short stories, but then we try to write a novel and we end up like Hansel and Gretel off in the woods, following our stream of consciousness and hoping we can find our way out of the woods before the wolf eats us. Wait? Is that right?

We might even try to be proactive and solve the problem ourselves, so we buy books on structure and …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh, where was I? We feel like all the other writers are just born understanding this stuff and that if we raise our hands and admit we cannot keep it straight, that we are a fraud. We really cannot write. We just were not born with the gift. We just aren’t real storytellers.  We might even think that if we just write enough really bad novels that one day we’ll figure it out and work through it. Outlines make us dizzy and spreadsheets give us hives. We might even sit there with a nice grid and go, Okay, what goes there? I think I need a sandwich.

We look to the urban legends to guide us, the people who wrote one book before their waitress job longhand on a napkin. Oh but she got published on her 975th query and now she lives in a mansion. I am here to tell you guys that this is crap. So I am on a mission to debunk the publishing cool-aid.

1. Myth: Great writers are born. You cannot teach writing.

Reality: That’s a load of crap! Writers, most of the time, are not born. Writing, like all art forms must be studied.

Did Amadeus Mozart attend music school? No, he wrote his first symphony at 8 months old (okay maybe I am exaggerating for effect. He might have been 9 months old). Amadeus was an anomaly! What if every composer after him refused to learn to read music because Amadeus was famous by age 5?

We can naturally have talent. That part we might be born with, but the skills to make use of that natural talent? They are learned and earned. We might have a nice voice. This doesn’t mean we are ready to go audition for Broadway. And if year after year we keep showing up at auditions, refusing to believe we need to learn music or take singing lessons, they film us and put us on national television for American Idol so everyone can laugh at us.

If we want to write because it is relaxing or therapeutic, we don’t need to study. Want to get traditionally published? We must study the fundamentals of our craft. To study the basics doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. It means you have talent and you are very smart. People with a good voice who want to make it big go get voice coaching. They study music. They study other types of music. They might even take up an instrument. That is what makes the difference between a professional and a wanna-be amateur.

Are there singers who learn by ear and get to the top with raw natural talent? Sure. But there are people who get struck by lightning too. About the same odds.

But I hear all kinds of new writers say, “Oh, but my friends and family just loved my novel.” I bet they did. I can dance really well. In fact, at a club, I can be downright impressive. But, am I ready to go pro? Am I ready to go to L.A. and audition to tour with Brittany Spears?

Okay, you can stop laughing. It wasn’t THAT funny.

I know most of you want to be successfully published. The best way to get there? Read all my blogs…ha ha ha ha. Okay, kidding (but only partially). Study your craft. Read all the craft books you can. Go to conferences and take craft classes instead of just focusing on landing an agent.

I am sure there are a lot of successful novelists who just wrote enough crappy books that they finally figured out what they were doing, but that is a really inefficient way to succeed. Yes, we must keep writing novels, but we need to make sure we are studying craft at the same time or the odds are we will just have a drawer of novels unfit for a bird cage.

Dancers need to study at the barre with a professional. The same tired moves day after day. Plie. Grand plie. Arabesque. Plie. Grand plie. Arabesque. Over and over and over. They miss a lot of steps, but they keep going, growing stronger and stronger and stronger. They must have an instructor to make sure they have proper form. If the form remains uncorrected, a dancer can suffer debilitating injury or malformed muscles that will affect her performance.

Singers sing scales. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. Do Ti La So Fa Mi Re Do. They sing until they are blue. They miss a lot of keys in the meantime, but it strengthens their voice and shapes their skills. Singers, too, must make sure they are singing properly or they can damage their voice and even lose it permanently.

Writers? We must learn the unfun stuff. Structure, plotting, character, pacing, dialogue. We have to practice and write a lot of garbage. The more we write, the better we get. But like dancers and singers, we must do so with structure or there can be devastating consequences. It’s great to be part of a writing group, but be careful. How many are published fiction authors? Writing groups, in my experience, have limited ability to help, so don’t solely rely on their feedback. Make sure you also look to industry experts for guidance: blogs, books, classes, workshops and conferences.

Just like dancers and artists and singers, we can look to the successful and blend some of their techniques into our own. But relying on natural talent and blind luck is just a dumb plan.

2. Myth: Outlines, templates, and rules ruin creativity.

Reality: NO! Just because you study your craft doesn’t mean your writing will be formulaic.

Okay, well it will, but formulas can be good things. Why? They WORK. We talked about pizza. Pizza has rules. Deviate too far and people will scratch their head and go WTH? Pizza has almost infinite variations, but it still has rules.

Great musicians still learned how to read music. They learned everything about their style…and then broke the rules. Elvis Presley was a gospel singer, so was Axel Rose of Guns and Roses. Meatloaf studied opera. Part of what made them such great musicians was their ability to bend and break rules of their art form. But we have to know the rules to break the rules or we are just being ignorant.

3. Myth: If your first novel doesn’t get published, you are a failure.

Reality: NO! Your writing can suck now, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have talent.

Um, seriously? This would be like going up to the little kid singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and telling him, “Go get a real job, you hack!” Or heckling the one little girl in the tu-tu who doesn’t wander the wrong direction off the stage. “You call that a pirouette? My dog can dance better than you!”

Talent and skill are not the same thing. We might shine in high school English, but the stuff they teach in high school or even college isn’t preparation for a career as a commercial fiction author. Those teachers didn’t care if we used 50 metaphors in three pages. Why? Because their goal was to teach us how to use metaphors, not to prepare us for submission to Random House. When we decide to embark on that first novel, most of us are baby writers. We might have loads of talent, but we need time, instruction and practice to develop skill.

Why did I write this post? Because I see a lot of talented people drinking the publishing cool-aid and buying into a lot of misconceptions. This can lend itself to following a really inefficient career plan (one that makes most people give up or settle for self-publishing when they long to be traditionally published).

I want you guys to know that it is okay not to know everything. Writing a novel is horrendously difficult. We have to have a solid core story idea that is fresh and interesting. We need great characters and setting and dialogue and arc and voice and pacing and it is positively dizzying what we have to balance all at the same time for a knock-out result.  That requires training. Are there some people who seem to do this naturally? Sure. But that isn’t the norm. Picasso studied art for years before he broke the rules and led the modern art movement.

I hope to see you guys on Monday for Part III of my Structure Series. Structure is tough, so I am breaking it down to make it easy and FUN.

What are some myths you guys have bought in to? Did you feel trapped? Did you feel like everyone else knew what they were doing but you? I know I did. I almost gave up and went back into sales after realizing my first book was DOA. Do you feel liberated after today? Share your thoughts. I want to hear from you.

Ah, the shameless self-promo. If you love this blog and just want MORE? My book, We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media  is available in all formats. Buy one today and take charge of your writing career! My book is designed specifically for writers. I want to change your habits, not your personality. Harness that same creative energy used for writing and use it to build your platform.

Happy writing!

Until next time…


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  1. lol. funny and good advice. thank you!!

  2. This was a great post, Kristen, thank you so much for saying these things. I hope a lot of people hear them.

  3. Great, insightful post, Kristen! I am glad you tempered the talent part of writing with the fact that good writers are born with a little ingrained “something” that sets them apart. The mechanics of writing can be taught and make us all better writers; however, imagination and the ability to artfully visualize that imagination on your paper (or computer screen, today) is an in-born talent that can be massaged to fruitation but not taught into existence.

    1. Yes, I do feel that to an extend many of us are born with a little something extra…a talent of wordsmithery. But too many of us buy into the lie that talent alone is enough. I did for a long time and ended up frustrated and feeling like a fraud and a failure. It was really liberating for me to realize that I had to grow and develop that natural talent. Thanks for the comment :D!

      1. “It was really liberating for me to realize that I had to grow and develop that natural talent.”

        Exactly…And well said.

  4. This post was awesome! Fun yet so to the point. I think a lot of begining writers either take a sip of the Kool Aid, had a least a glass of it, or have gotten completely drunk off of it! You’re right though, writers need the necessary skill sets in order to make the most out of the natural talent that we have. I’m finding out about it more and more everday as I go through editing my first novel, sometimes the hard way! 🙂

  5. Hehe — some great points! I believe there has to be some seedling of talent to be successful, but we can all learn and improve.

    And, FYI, that Twinkle Twinkle kid IS a hack~

    • Ellie on November 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm
    • Reply

    this post was so encouraging to me! thanks for the good words, Kristen!

  6. GREAT post; just shared it on FB and retweeted it and really loved the confident voice and “take that” attitude. I would add only a fourth myth, one that states “The only ‘real’ publishers are traditional publishers.” So many of us use the old standby traditional publishers as the “only” publishers when today there are so many great opportunities to get published outside the few dozen or so “mainstream” publishers…

    1. True. But there are a lot of people who pay to publish garbage too. I see a lot of writers who want to believe they don’t have to learn the rules of their craft running off to self-publish instead of facing that there might be a reason for constant rejection. There are also a lot of writers who believe that these new indie publishers are easier to get published, and that is not always the case. Since these small publishers must bank on a handful of titles, often they are much more discriminating. They cannot afford to back bad books like the big guys can.

      I pitched my idea for We Are Not Alone for months before WDW accepted me and gave me the green. I had to prove I could teach what I did…build social media platforms. Finally, after eight months, I got the okay. Bob Mayer (owner) didn’t want just any book headlined along his best-sellers.

      Where we publish has to be a business decision, and you are correct. WDW Pub has been a great fit for my book. Being a technology book, it had to go to print almost instantly and also have the ability to be modified quickly if the technology changed. Thanks for the comment :D.

    • Nigel on November 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm
    • Reply

    People drawn to the idea of writing generally relish creative freedom. I think that’s why many find it an unpleasant idea that creative freedom needs bounds and direction, and so don’t feel inclined to put the fun creative stuff down for a while and study. There’s also the fact that writing is hard work to start with; I’m sure lots of people don’t look at books and blogs on character building, structure, pacing etc because, hey, they’ve already got 100, 000 words to write. I mean, isn’t that enough?!

    … Talking of which I really must get my blinkers on, my head back in the sand, and type! 🙂

  7. This is the first post I’ve read that addresses some of the realities of writing to publish. I had to learn that the structure of a short story is not the same structure of a novel. I had to learn that technique is not only a tool to help a writer communicate a story image but also benefits a reader who looks for familiar guideposts when navigating a story.

    I am unpublished but that’s not a bad thing. I feel like I’m still in the discovery stage of my writing. I know what I want to accomplish and don’t want to rush the writing just to get to the next level of agent hunting, like it’s a big video game. I see many writers working on four novels at once while searching for publishers. It always puzzles me. How can they accomplish so much in such little time? I’m a slow writer. Even when I have extra time. After reading Annie Dillard’s book ‘The Writing Life’ I felt better about my slow progress when she noted the same phenomenon of writers pushing out a book every few months and, in her opinion, any novel worth reading is one that takes at least ten years to write. With few notable exceptions, of course. It doesn’t make me a better writer because it takes me longer, but I have to stop and edit and research technique and understand character development and structure along the way. Ten years? I’m right on pace…

    • Caroline Clemmons on November 12, 2010 at 5:00 pm
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    I have almost given up several times. Something inside me won’t allow me to throw in the towel. Loved this blog! Keep them coming.

  8. Thanks, Kristen. You’ve encouraged me to work even harder.

  9. Most first manuscripts don’t get published. They are a learning curve.
    Writing is a craft. Once you master craft you can move on being an artist. I’ve seen many of the ‘black beret, smoking outside’ crowd disappear, while the buckle in to the seat, treat it like a job, succeed.

    1. Bob, Your comment reminds me of:

      “Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.”
      W. Somerset Maugham

      “Great ability develops and reveals itself increasingly with every new assignment.”
      Baltasar Gracian

      “Start early and work hard. A writer’s apprenticeship usually involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin. That takes a while.”
      David Eddings

      And this one I forgot the source (anonymous, I think) “Good writing comes from putting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

      BTW, I have enjoyed your posts on Genrealty Blog…

  10. Thanks for the encouragement. I know it took Stephen King 4 novels before his fifth, Carrie, took hold. And he turned out all right, haha. So I don’t feel so bad that I’m now plotting my third novel, which I can confidently say is more structurally sound than the first two. While I haven’t dug a grave for my first two books just yet (still polishing), it’s good to know it’s OK not to be Steve Martini and have one’s first book represented by the first agent who reads it. (Would it be unprofessional to stick our tongues out at Steve?)

  11. I’ve learned book publishing is vastly different today than it was just a few years ago. Even those with talent oozing out their pores must compete in a saturated market. Now that everyone has access to publishing tools (via internet), the competition among those with talent AND skills is enormous. But add perseverance and you have a chance.

  12. Great post, Kristen. The addage in our house is “Talent without is the unemployed musician.” My novel and I are looking forward to Part III of your series. All the best.

    1. “Talent without discipline is the unemployed musician.” And quotes without all the words make no sense. 🙂

    • Terrell Mims on November 12, 2010 at 11:14 pm
    • Reply

    No sippin’ on the Kool-Aid over here.

    • Kathleen on November 13, 2010 at 12:17 am
    • Reply

    Great post Kristen. And I love your structure series! I have a file full of semi-developed ideas for novels, but without an understanding of how a novel needs to come together and the discipline to put the knowledge into practice, they’ll always remain a file full of semi-developed ideas 🙂

  13. About lacking talent… If one person perseveres, he or she would be good at it. When I was a little girl, I suck at hula hoop. I couldn’t even make one. Then, I watched, practiced and practiced and now, I am able to make it stay in my hips (even the heavy ones, 2 or 3 at the same time) for an hour or two. The point is, if we persevere, we would eventually be good at it.

    • mo on November 13, 2010 at 3:52 am
    • Reply

    A’s, not As.

    Kool-Aid, not cool-aid.

    Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, even Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, but “Amadeus” alone was is name of the movie, not the man. Though he was a prodigy, that itself got him nowhere–his father was a music teacher and he never stopped learning from others

    You prove your point, though: raw talent won’t do the job. Success comes through discipline, focus and lots of editing and rewriting.

    1. Since the A is plural and not posessive, there is no apostrophe. “Kool-Aid” is trademareked, thus I choce the generic “Cool-Aid” and shortened Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Amadeus for the flippiant, whimsical tone of the piece. Thank you for taking the time to comment, :D.

  14. Thanks for a great post! Your title is a definate attention-getter!


  15. Thanks for the humorous post! I loved the comparison to Erectile Dysfunction, LOL. I think I can admit that I have a lot to learn when it comes to plot structure without getting too shame-faced.

  1. […] quick segue here, though. I think a lot of people might have seen the title to Friday’s blog The Big Lie—No More Drinking the Publishing Kool-Aid and thought I was going to tear down the establishments of traditional publishing. I will grant, […]

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