Very Wrong Questions

Currently I am at the Melbourne Writers Festival and thus I am fielding many questions about writing and publishing. I noticed again that many of the questions unpublished writers ask are coming at it from the wrong end of the stick. Ally Carter calls this asking the wrong questions.

For instance, after yesterday’s event an adult came up to me and explained that they are an aspiring writer working on their first novel. They said they wanted my advice but the questions they asked really confused me:

What’s the best way to get started writing fan fiction?

How do you build up a following?

Should I be using wordpress, livejournal or blogger?

It took me awhile to realise what was going on. They wanted to know what to do to get a publisher’s attention. And they had decided the best way to do that was to reverse engineer other writers’ successes. Two of their favourite writers had started out as fan fiction writers and developed big followings. Another of their favourites was a blogger who had sold a novel they had first posted on their website.

The problem with that plan1 is that there only a handful of writers in the entire world who got published that way. You’d be better off buying lottery tickets.

Besides which, none of those writers did it on purpose. They wrote fanfic because they loved it. They blogged for the same reason.2 Because they loved it and were good at it they developed a following. None of them blogged and wrote fanfic in order to develop a following.3

I stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure out how to respond to these wrong questions. Should I tell this aspiring writer that they had the cart so far in front of the horse that the two were never going to meet?

Instead I asked AW a question:

Justine: “How many novels have you written?”

Aspiring Writer: Silence.

Justine: “Have you written one novel?”

AW: “Well, um, I’m halfway into my first one.”

Justine: “You don’t have a finished draft?”

AW: “No.”

I told the AW about how I started at least twenty novels before I finally finished one. I did not sell the first novel I completed. Or my second. I sold my third novel. I know many, many writers who sold their fifth, eight, or twentieth novel first. The majority of published writers did not sell the first novels they wrote.

I explained how bad it is for you to start thinking about marketing and promotion before you’ve even learned whether you can finish a novel. It will do your head in. It’s bad enough angsting about all that stuff when you do have published novels.

I think I got through to AW. I think I finally know how to get other wrong question asking aspiring writers back on to right questions. From now on I am going to ask them how many novels they’ve written.

  1. Okay, there are MANY problems with that plan. Starting with it being insane. []
  2. Many of them still do both. []
  3. How do I know? The writers in question are friends of mine. Yes, I know everyone. []


  1. Sash on #

    Hi Justine, I’m an aspiring novelist too, but have a corporate writing career already (perhaps that’s why I’m so critical). People like that make me cringe. And I can tell you it doesn’t get any easier on the other side of the panel.

    So many people go to writer’s festivals and conferences just wanting to tell everyone about every thought they have about the writing process, and writing in general.

    You sit there just hoping for some more extroverted member of the audience to tell them, ‘hey, I didn’t pay all this money to listen to you!’

    I feel you angst.

  2. Rachel on #

    Thanks, Justine. Marketing can sometimes give the impression that writing is purely about ‘networking’ and getting seen. Selling yourself only works when you have something to sell, and certainly doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day we all have to sit behind a pen/keyboard and actually write!

    Great post!

  3. Claire on #

    I heart this post. That’s all. 🙂

  4. Justine on #

    Sash: Tomorrow—if I have time—I plan to post about all the amazingly smart questions I got asked. They really were in the majority.

    Rachel: Writing has to come first. I don’t understand how that is not obvious to some people.

  5. Shveta on #

    I think some people just want the success that they think comes with writing–without doing the actual writing. Too bad no shortcut’s going to give them that. 🙂

  6. Alissa Grosso on #

    I think writers are naturally optimistic and maybe we do sometimes put the cart before the horse, but I am surprised at folks showing up at a writing festival and asking about publishing without even having a complete work. The best recipe I know for being a writer is to sit down and write a lot, and read everything you can get your hands on. Worry about the business side of things later. Much later.

  7. Cassi on #

    If anyone writes fanfic in order to get published they haven’t read enough fanfic. Most is pretty horrendous and its’s hard to sift to find the 1. readable stuff 2. finished stuff.

    Fanfiction is fun and good practice. As an aspiring novelist who also writes fanfic I can’t imagine thinking of it as anything more.

  8. Annie on #

    “I explained how bad it is for you to start thinking about marketing and promotion before you’ve even learned whether you can finish a novel. It will do your head in. It’s bad enough angsting about all that stuff when you do have published novels.”

    So true. I think you should write a novel because that’s what you want to do–even if it stays in your desk drawer forever.

    Also, I wrote four “novels” during high school, all of which I thought would be best-sellers. I am so glad those stayed in the desk drawer. Onward and upward!

  9. Heidi R. Kling on #

    Amen. It’s a rare bird who sells her first “practice” novel.
    And an even rarer bird who is “discovered” via the internet.
    Someone asked me the other day How To Write a Novel. I answered, “well first I got a BA in creative writing, then an MFA where I wrote my master’s thesis that I never sold, then I joined a critique group and SCBWI, then I attended conferences then I…”

    *eyes glaze over* Them: Never mind.

  10. Lee on #

    I heartily agree these are the wrong questions, but publishing was once the only significant way to disseminate your work. No longer. If you want to write, then write. And write.

    I can’t get my head round this burning desire to be published. Whatever for? If eventually you want to be read, use electronic means. It’s as simple as that.

  11. Q McCall on #

    Great post, Justine.

    I have not written any novels, but this post reminded me of your past post “How do you judge your work?”

    As long as an aspiring writer continues to focus on external things beyond the writing itself, it will be difficult to become a good writer. It seems like the love of writing should guide an aspiring writer rather than a love of attention.

  12. Rebecca on #

    All I can really say to this is YES. Especially the second to the last paragraph.

  13. Cameron on #

    So you’re saying I should stop editing the video trailer for my story?

  14. LR on #

    Your way works, but it’s kind of mean to the kid. Unless the person asking it is old enough to know better. Adults should know to do some research about how the publishing industry actually works. Maybe teens should know to do that too, this is the age of the Internet after all…
    Some years ago I learned a lot from reading Neil Gaiman’s list of links that are relevant to publishing on Teresa Neilsen Hayden’s blog, makinglight- I can’t remember the link now, I don’t seem to have it saved, but it started me off on a lot of research. Now I don’t think I would go around asking authors stupid questions. I hope, anyway!

  15. Justine on #

    LR: As I mentioned in the post the AW was an adult.

    To be honest I’ve never had a teen ask such wrong headed questions. It’s always the adults.

  16. Brittany Landgrebe on #

    I started blogging because I thought it would be fun. I get excited when I get new followers.

    The thing is, my blog didn’t start out being directed by my writing. I started my blog to post random thoughts, but it began to morph into discussing my writing process as I began to work on my first ever full length novel. I never intended for it to become a writers blog, it just grew organically. And thats they way it should be. I’ve come across many “writers” blogs that haven’t been posted to in months or even YEARS. Just because you have a blog and you’re a writer doesn’t mean you can actually build a following. Content is important.

    Beyond that, if you have nothing to show for all the work you put into building an author platform of followers, then you are no author. Writing is first and foremost the name of the game, above all else.

    Write a novel. Then another. And another, until you’re ready to go into the process of finding an agent, shopping your book to publishers and all that. An author platform can be built then, easily.

    Thats all I can really say to what you’d been asked, Justine. I’m still surprised and a little sad to come across those abandoned writers blogs.

  17. Rachel Starr Thomson on #

    I work as a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, and I hear a lot of similar questions (and some that are even worse). As an author, I’ve written fourteen books and self-published five. I’m using those, along with things like blogging serial novels and giving away free e-books, to build a following now. I do want to break into traditional publishing (and am attempting that the old-fashioned way–sending queries and attending conferences), but I don’t expect my experiments to do that for me. I’m hoping to build a following I can carry into traditional publishing with me.

  18. Tony Noland on #

    JL says: I started at least twenty novels before I finally finished one.

    I am so relieved to hear this! I have started and abandoned six or seven novels. I have one novel at the first draft stage, lousy enough that I’m not convinced it’s worth fixing. I’m working on another at the moment, which I think has a lot more potential than the false starts.

    I thought I was exceptionally ham-handed for running into these blind alleys. It’s nice to know I’m at least somewhat par for the course.

  19. Kirby Crow on #

    I know the writers who ask questions like these are just being naive and that they’ve been snared by the instant-gratification, reality-show mentality that’s prevalent, well, everywhere, but thank you SO MUCH for this post. Now I have something to point to whenever anyone starts chatting about their “someday” novel and how they’re already making Big Plans for marketing it.

    It seems difficult for some aspiring writers to realize that there’s no shortcut to actually putting their butt in the chair and writing a novel.

    And I have to agree with Brittany above when she says that it’s sad to see old, abandoned writing blogs. 🙁

  20. Jess on #

    Reminds me of Anne Lammott in her book on writing “Bird by Bird.” If anyone asked her how to become a better writer she’d just ptrend to be a mime who was writing. There’s no way to get better at something than to practice at it a lot. (and reading a lot doesn’t hurt etiher) It’s unfortunate that some people want the sucess without putting in the hours (and hours and hours) of work.

  21. Jeff Soesbe (yeff) on #

    I think the difference is questions from people who want to “be a better writer” versus questions from people who want to “be a writer”.

    I spent a lot of years wanting to “be a writer” – thinking about writing, talking about writing – without actually doing any writing. Finally I managed to say “enough talk, start writing”.

    This way is a lot better and more enjoyable…

    – yeff

  22. ruzkin on #

    Hi Justine,
    Wish I could have come to your presentations at the MWF but I drew the short straw and got caught at work just up the road all weekend (Of Science and Swords bookstore, maybe you’ve passed through?)

    I did get to the MWF in 2008, and most of the aspiring writers I met there seemed to be in the same position. Many had started novels, and some had epic scifi trilogies planned, but none had ever finished a book. What struck me was how many of the AW’s there didn’t see this as a hindrance to searching for agents or writing letter to publishers. A few even had deep, personal grudges against local agents for rejecting them, even though they had nothing more than a basic proposal to submit.

    Where do you think this instant-gratification culture of writing has come from? Whatever happened to people being satisfied with the slow route to success?

  23. L. L. Daugherty on #

    Excellent reminder to aspiring writers to keep their head down and practice the craft before worrying about anything else.

  24. Paul Chernoch on #

    Hope, stamina, self-confidence.

    Two or three years ago, that AW would have been me, and the three qualities above would be the answer I really needed to hear. If I am weak and do not think I can do the hard work required, then I must find a shortcut, an easier route to success. I do not have patience, I must get the book written quickly and settle for mediocre. (Which is still better than meaty okra in my book.)

    Another blogger wrote of “mid-life novel crisis”. There is nothing like lacking self-confidence and trying to write a novel to get it, when the very process of persevering at writing demands self-confidence to be fruitful.

    I have written one novel (and nearly finished drafts of two others), sent the one out, got the rejection letters, edited it some more, and sent it back out. Rinse and repeat. There are too many skills to be mastered to get it right all at once, but who wants to be told that? I can write a mean query letter now, but I still need a great book to follow it with. It is wiser to focus on the obstacle closest at hand: does anyone like reading my stuff?

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