The Three Great Myths of Writing

This article, by Joan Marie Verba, originally appeared on SFF.net.

For a long time, many people thought that they could get warts from handling frogs. Now we know that this was a myth–something "everyone" thought was true, but which had no basis in fact.

Writing, too, has its own mythology.

In writing, as in everything else, mythology is perpetuated for a reason. People use myths to explain phenomena they do not understand, or to deal with realities they do not wish to face, or to avoid confronting the fact that events are often random and unfair. Because myths have such powerful uses, myths are seldom questioned, and people become very upset when their cherished myths are challenged. But myths, because they are untrue, can cause people who believe in them to feel hurt or lost or confused when they rely on these myths to guide their actions.

That is why I believe that writers should become aware of the myths that exist in our profession. In my experience, I have discovered three myths which I believe are particularly misleading, and are worth further discussion.

Myth #1: If your writing is good, you will have no trouble selling your stories; if you are not selling your writing, it means your stories are no good.

This myth has a factual basis. A lot of writing does get rejected because it is poor. But the myth, as repeated by many experienced writers, is that good writing guarantees acceptance and, conversely, non-acceptance surely means that the writing is poor. To debunk this myth, researchers have recently taken classic novels–The Yearling comes to mind as an example–and submitted them as manuscripts to publishers. These were seldom recognized by the publishers, and almost universally rejected.

The reason is that publishers nowadays are less interested in the quality of writing than they are in the commercial potential of the writing. If the publisher thinks the writing will sell, even if the manuscript is flawed, the publisher may be inclined to buy it. If the publisher thinks the manuscript will not sell, the publisher may not take it no matter how well it is written. This, for instance, explains rejection slips which say, "good writing, we just don’t want to publish it."

Myth #2: Once you sell a book, or several short stories, you will not have any trouble getting an agent, and you will not have any trouble selling any more of your own writing.

I recently read an interview with an award-winning author who said that she was not able to get an agent until after she sold her fourth novel. Another author, a friend of mine, also worked out her fourth book contract without an agent, though she was able to get an agent for her fifth. I know a third author who has had five novels published, but for the past three years has not been able to find anyone interested in the two novels she has written since then. And I recently read an account from a writer whose first book sold tens of thousands of copies who reported that she did not have an agent for her first book, and has had trouble finding an agent for her second.

With so many counter-examples cropping up, this myth is beginning to lose its hold, though it still persists. My guess is that those who perpetuate this myth are the lucky authors who were able to find an agent after (or even before) their first book came out, and had no trouble finding a publisher for any novel they wrote thereafter. Such authors do exist, but I suspect they are not as numerous as mythology would have it.

Myth #3: If you follow the advice of experienced authors, you are certain to get published.

I recall the advice that the late science fiction author Robert Heinlein had for writers: write, finish what you write, and keep sending the manuscript to publishers until it sells. Experienced authors tend to add other advice: study the markets, improve your skills, and so forth. This third myth is very seductive because the advice is sound. But the fact is that novices can read and follow every word of advice that experienced writers print and still not get published.

The problem is not simply that no method works for everyone, and to say that writers must find a method that works for their particular situation is too superficial. The problem is that many writers who give advice imply–if they do not say it outright–that any writer who follows their advice will absolutely, positively, get published….now, if not sooner.

This leaves novices who follow such advice beating their heads against the wall in frustration. ("But I did everything J. Doe said in the article ‘How to Get Your Story Published’ and I still have not placed my story.") Novices will be helped, instead, if they are told that writing is a complex task involving a lot of intangibles and random variables (or, in other words, luck). Authors need to be told that no one piece of advice will guarantee acceptance; at best, following good advice merely increases the probability of publication.

Writing, as a profession, is tough enough without well-intentioned authors passing along useless myths. A writer who has a stack of unpaid bills on one hand and a stack of rejection slips on the other is not helped by being told that if the writing is good, it will sell; or that once the first story is sold, there will be no problem selling the next one; or that if the writer just follows J. Doe’s advice, the acceptances will start rolling in.

Encouragement and reassurance need to be based on a realistic appraisal of the obstacles writers inevitably face. Writers can and do sell stories. Good writers can and do get rejected. Writers with track records can and do have problems placing succeeding stories. Advisors can and do fail to give suggestions that work.

I suspect there are other myths making the rounds, but either I have not yet come across them, or I have not yet found out that certain statements I have heard are myths. I am interested in hearing from anyone who has other myths to report (that is, myths that writers tell other writers, as opposed to myths that the public has about writers). Myths about writing may never disappear, even if exposed as falsehoods, but at least those of us who love frogs should be able to handle them without fearing that we will get warts.

Copyright 1994 Joan Marie Verba.

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