I am not an expert

I occasionally get letters from beginning writers and newly published authors who are confused by some of my writing advice and observations about the publishing industry. Confused, because they have read exactly the opposite information elsewhere.

This is my disclaimer for everything I say about writing and publishing1: I am not an expert.

I do not know everything there is to know about writing and publishing. What I post here may or may not apply to you. That’s especially true if you’re looking for publishing wisdom. I’ve only been in this game a bit shy of five years.2 There’s still a TONNE I don’t know or understand. I’m constantly bewildered by publishing. Fortunately, I know lots of more experienced publishing folk whom I can turn to for explanations, like my agent. Though sometimes it’s hard to ask because I don’t entirely understand what it is that I don’t understand. The publishing industry is arcane and weird.

As for writing. Well! There are zillions of different ways to write a novel. Me, I’ve only written six. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to folks like George Sand or Joyce Carol Oates. I’m still learning.

The novel I’m writing right now is unlike anything I’ve written. Previously, I’ve started at the beginning and written my way through to the end. Makes sense, right? This new novel I’m writing scene by scene but so far not one of these scenes follows directly from a previous scene. This novel refuses to be written chronologically. It’s making me relearn how to write a novel. It hurts my head!

All writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe it’ll work for you, maybe not. There are no hard and fast rules, only guidelines. Do what works, chuck what doesn’t, but stay open to it maybe working for you at a different time or for a different novel.

Well, there is one rule: All novels are improved by the addition of zombies. VASTLY IMPROVED.

  1. or anything else for that matter []
  2. And only if you count from the offer. The actual contract wasn’t signed until late 2003. []


  1. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    And this is precisely why the internet can be such a help with the whole how-to-write thing. Zillions of ways to write, zillions of writers, zillions of said writers willing to share how they do what they do—you are bound to find stuff that works for you, just as you are basically assured of finding stuff that doesn’t.

    I especially want to echo the bit about staying open to stuff to try later. That one I learned from experience.

    And, of course, ZOMBIES. Must-haves. Tis the only rule of writing that applies under all circumstances.


  2. Jonathan Shaw on #

    It’s not widely known that a certain novel, before the publisher’s editor got at it, began, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in search of a husband is likely to find a zombie.’

  3. hereandnow on #

    The publishing industry is arcane and weird.

    YES. A thousand times yes. I am shocked if a day goes by without a new vista of the industry opening up to me. The more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know! Simultaneously one of the best and worst things about publishing.

    I agree that writing is one of the least one-size-fits-all activities around, but your advice is always sensible. Particularly about zombies.

  4. Steve Buchheit on #

    Zombies! ::smacks forehead::

    I forgot the zombies. thanks, Justine.

  5. Hillary! on #

    I have a VERY IMPORTANT QUESTION ABOUT BOOK WRITING!!!!!!!!! My Friend Weslie is writing a book and I’ve been helping her, but she won’t exactly tell me what the plot is, but i feel that since I am helping her with it anyway, she SHOULD tell me. What’s your take on it? PLEASE ANSWER PROMPTLY!!!!!

  6. Patrick on #

    If a story could only have zombies or quokkas, which should it be?

  7. Justine on #

    Zombie quokkas!

  8. Patrick on #

    Well, the rule is, zombie quokkas means there has to be unicorns…

    At least that’s what I heard…which is why I was wondering which would be better, zombies or quokkas.

  9. Justine on #

    Patrick, who has been telling you such outrageous lies?

  10. Patrick on #


  11. carrie on #

    Yay!! I have zombies in mine! w00t!!

  12. Caryn on #

    I think it’s helpful to disregard what doesn’t work for us with our own particular writing techniques, but to sometimes keep a variety of techniques in mind for when our tried-and-true methods fail. And they will sometimes.

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