Why Writers Must Beware Quackery

Long story short:

Hey! I’m back from both Storyworld and Writer’s Digest Conference West in Los Angeles and I’m refreshed and apple-cheeked and full of vim and vig… okay, no. I’m actually kinda jet-lagged and dung-brained. My sincerest wish is to go back to bed and crawl into it and not wake up for like, mmm, three days.

But, oh well. WRITER GONNA WRITE.

Anyway. These two conferences — very different animals. The first brings together people of multiple paths and persuasions (writers! techies! advertisers! filmmakers!) whereas the former brings together mostly writers, and writers on a very particular path — which is to say, the path that leads to the shining temple on the hill called “The Publishing House.”

Generally speaking, conferences can be great experiences for writers new and old. Both in terms of the community you forge, the lessons you learn, and the liquor you consume in great heaping quaffs.

Wait, did I say “liquor?” I meant… er, “wisdom.”

Still.

Still.

A writer’s conference is rarely a straight arrow toward said wisdom. It’s a maze, actually — a kinky tangle of pathways, many of which in my eyes are dead-ends. By “dead-ends,” I mean, the path stops moving forward as it get stuck on some bad information or troubling advice that  makes it sound like you’ve already reached the end. There at the dead-end is a chair and a typewriter and a feeling of having made it.

Put more succinctly, these conferences always contain a measure of bullshit.

Some of this bullshit is harmless.

Some of it — to the writer willing to accept it — is actually a little bit dangerous.

Dangerous in that it will set you back rather than spring you forward. Dangerous in that it has all the air of medical quackery — untested answers that sound like truth and promise result (published book! robust boner! magic tonic!) and often require you to shell out some cash to get a taste of what sounds like the nectar of the gods but is really like, 7-Up and hull cleaner.

Five things to watch out for, then. Both at meatspace conferences and online.

Ready? Let’s rock.

Beware Answers Over Options

Here’s how this works: you, as a writer newly walking the path of penmonkey novitiate, have no idea what the fuck is going on. Right? It’s a lot to digest. Fuckbuckets of information. Data overload. So, you think, “Okay, I just need to get my bearings here. I need a map. Or even the torn corner of a map. Or at the bare minimum I need like, a compass so I know just where north points.”

Then you go to a conference like this and — hey! Look!

Other writerly humans! Pointing the way with big foam fingers!

Many of these people are helpful.

Many of them are sirens inadvertently willing to crash your seaswept dinghy into the fucking rocks.

Here’s one of the ways you can tell: they’re not there to present options.

They’re not there to present a rounded picture of the unfirm realities of publishing. They’re not willing to tell you that the whole thing is a maze: they’re willing to tell you that they have the path through it. They exist to present a single face to the entire writing-storytelling-publishing ecosystem, revealing an alarming and overly simplistic lack of diversity.

More to the point, they have The One True Way instead of saying:

Hey, Look, There Exists A Whole Lotta Ways And I’ve Done One And Others Have Tried Others And Success Is Not An Easy Equation Where A + B = Bestselling Inkslinger And I’m Sorry But It’s A Lot More Complicated Than You Hope But That’s Actually A Good Thing, Too.

Some folks will try to cover up one or many forks in the road. Or, worse, they’re focused on what happens so far down the road that you start to feel like it’s always about the singular end result rather than the diverse paths to that end. (Again, too many at these conferences want to talk about How To Get Published rather than How To Write Something Worth Publishing. It’s be like an architect learning first how to handle permits and cut ribbons before learning how to put buildings together.)

Beware Absolutes And Guarantees

DON’T EVER SELF-PUBLISH.

DON’T EVER TRADITIONALLY PUBLISH.

YOU HAVE TO HAVE AN AGENT.

AGENTS ARE EVIL.

YOU HAVE TO BLOG/TWEET/GOOGLE HANGOUT/SHILL YOUR NAKED GYRATING BODY AT THE HIGHWAY’S EDGE IF YOU’RE EVER GOING TO ACTUALLY BE A PUBLISHED WRITER AND THERE’S NO WAY TO BE A PUBLISHED WRITER UNLESS YOU BLOG/TWEET/GOOGLE HANGOUT/SHILL YOUR NAKED GYRATING BODY AT THE HIGHWAY’S EDGE.

Writing advice often comes in absolutes.

Do this. Don’t do that. This is 100% true 100% of the time.

It is, of course, a fucking sick-bag full of rank malarky.

(God, can we all just take a moment to thank VP Biden for bringing that one back? Malarky? I also want “cockamamie” to make a robust return, so let’s all collectively work on that.)

I’ve said many a time that every writer seems to dig his own way into the publishing mountain, then detonating the tunnel behind him. I’ve heard so many weird ways into the various industries the only clear revelation is that there is no clear revelation. Few absolutes (outside maybe “finish your shit, dumdum”) hold any water at all and can be disproven at a moment’s notice. This is, of course, the danger of when “writing advice” becomes “proclamations of authorial truth.”

Beware Anybody Without A Single Fucking Meaningful Credential

Writers without great success — or any success at all — are totally allowed to talk about writing. We all want to talk about it. Even those without publishing contracts have information and ideas that may be valuable.

That’s not the same thing as letting those people up on a stage to talk to you about How To [Insert Writerly Task Here]. There’s a difference between talking about writing and presenting yourself as an expert on writing, and yet somehow there exists a great many of the latter — self-proclaimed experts who want to tell you all these great industry secrets or all these tried-and-true paths and yet appear to have neither exploited those secrets nor walked any of those paths.

They are offering theoretical information gussied up to look like pragmatic practice.

They’re not doctors, yet they’re selling medicine.

Again: quackery.

You gotta treat this stuff a little bit like science: these self-proclaimed experts have to prove their mettle, first. And one aspect of this burden of proof comes in the form of, “Oh, yeah, I’m actually a writer with some success, not just another jackhole with an unfounded opinion.”

Beware Anybody With Something To Sell

Listen, I get it. We’re all shilling something. I certainly sell books-on-writing (though 90% of that information is also free here on the blog), so I’m by no means pure. But some conference speakers are very clearly agenda-based and they are pushing an agenda not because it’s good for you but, rather, good for them. It’s the same problem with fad diets and social media gurus — people promising enlightenment and success (and worst of all, get rich quick tips) largely in order to line their own pockets.

That’s not to say anybody with a writing book is bad news. I mean, I’ve read a handful of writing books that I love and to this day cradle to my bosom as I open them up just to read snippets of smart passages.

But, anybody selling anything should at least get a wary eyebrow raise. And when in combination with a lot of these other “beware, beware, beware, awooga, awooga, awooga” elements, it should paint a picture of caution, cuidado, verboten. The colors of a venomous toad, the rattle of the snake’s tail.

Beware The Quick-And-Easy Fix

I am a proponent of increasing your speed as a writer. It’s becoming one axis of survival — a swiftness of production and of the prose you produce. But a lot of the solutions often feel like quick fixes or bad spackle jobs — you get from them the informercial vibe that all you have to do is Perform This Technique And You’ll Be A Writer In No-Time! It’s less about write faster (which is an easy and fairly basic prescription) and more about get published faster (which is an impossible thing to gauge unless you’re self-publishing and therein I’d politely note that speed often exists often in antithesis to quality).

The Sum Up

I’m not saying that every speaker at writing conferences or conventions is dubious. Far from it — many are actually brimming over with really good ideas and information not from 30,000 feet but from right there in the mud and the blood of the battleground.

What I am saying is, you will also go to these things and hear a lot of bad information robed in the clothes of promises and solutions and prescriptions and you have to be prepared to go into any conference or open any blog post or book on writing advice wearing the impenetrable armor of the skeptic. Writing advice should never be about absolutes or unequivocal answers but about potential paths, about options and suggestions and actual experiences. And a lot of this falls to you, the writer.

Because you need to go in with your eyes open. And you need to go in not being so hungry for answers that you’re desperate to embrace what any homeless person tells you is truth. It’s on you to be smart, be practical, and not let the quacks get their… uhh, well, I was going to go with “teeth in you,” but ducks don’t really have teeth, so let’s just go with, “don’t let the quacks gum you to death with their pond-slick bills.”

44 comments

    • @Orena:

      It doesn’t, not automatically. Given that anybody can wade into the slush, it’s not meaningful –

      What’s meaningful is what happens with that book. Maybe it looks good, maybe it got press or solid reviews or sold really well or then attracted the attention of corporate publishers.

      – c.

  • I so appreciate how this approach to the writer’s life is the same one should take to their other creative and spiritual paths — especially when it comes to NEVER EVER settle for someone else’s answer — listen to others who offer options and then decide for yourself.

  • Yes, this.

    I try and avoid absolutes in my explanations of the writing jungle and attached minefields, and the quackery is the express reason I don’t consider myself an “expert” or attend conferences (well that and the expense borders on outrageous).

    Today’s post is so good I’m rewriting my prep for my November workshop. Thank you for that.

  • “Other writerly humans! Pointing the way with big foam fingers!”

    Yeah, and guess where a certain well-known (at least in Australia) foam hand is pointing?

    Down, down… and staying down.

    (First thing I thought of when I saw the phrase ‘big foam fingers’. It’s a catchy jingle.)

  • …and Chuck says “REALLY, Paul? That’s what you got from this? More colorful predators?”

    And he takes another drink.

    Good news, though: enough drinks, and you’ll see the rattletailed poisonous toads too.

  • I have a book to sell, and no meaningful credentials. If we were choosing teams for writer kickball, I’d probably be picked after Wendig, after Scalzi, and after some lady who lists her cat as “co-author” on her self-published supernatural romantic comedy novel. But for what it’s worth, this is some good advice from the Chuckster. “Be skeptical of simplistic certainty, especially when your wallet is in play” is always good advice.

  • This is great timing! I’m new to the game and, while I like to think I wouldn’t fall for any quackery, it’s always nice to hear the opinion of someone with more experience. I’ve been watching your blog for a few months now and it’s quickly become one of my daily reads. I find myself cursing you on the weekends for having a real life and not posting every instant of the day to keep my blog-hunger in check.

  • Thanks for this great post!. Yes, there is nothing that I hate with more certainty than ‘Certitude’, where someone is so certain of something to the point that can’t explain both sides of the argument. Thanks much for this.

    My blog is largely about running, but I can’t tell you how many times I translate your blog thoughts into other areas, including marathon running, where I subscribe to the notion that “It’s all an experiment of one” and that training regiments don’t fit everybody. The results you receive are largely yours and yours alone.

    That said, I’m about to post the coolest running – zombie short story ever read in the history of the world. And yes, I am entirely and absolutely certain about this. My credentials tell me so.

  • I second Oreana’s question. Every time I go to small SF cons, the writing panels are half self-published authors or the moderator’s roommate. I can only have respect for self-published authors if they meet the following criteria:

    1) They did not make sockpuppet reviews or pay dubious companies to write fake reviews.

    2) They did not build their indie career off an existing fanbase generated by their success in traditional publishing.

    3) They can make me exclaim, “WTF is trad publishing smoking? I’ve worn out my Kindle’s page turner because this is best stuff ever!! ” (throws money at kindle). That is, they can write a great story.

    I just heard poop whistling toward the fan, so I’ll take cover now.

  • My mantra has long been ‘There is no NEVER in writing, and there is no ALWAYS’. Except one – never bore your reader.

    And possibly never drink that Old Rosie like it’s apple juice, but that’s another story and a very different type of headache.

    Anyway, always read all the advice, then use your *own* little grey cells to decide what is right for you, for your story. Make an informed decision, but make that decision yours.

  • I’m just saying… anyone using the line “It is, of course, a fucking sick-bag full of rank malarky.” gets my vote, every time.

    Good article, thanks.

    (my god, that sounds spammy – I just don’t have much to say other than, “thanks, good article”)

    :-)

  • Coming from a long manufacturing background, I’ve seen companies almost go under when the big boss became enamored with Just in Time (JIT), don’t make it until you need it (Kan Ban), and all kinds of bogus charting and data collection. The employees were doing paperwork instead of production.

    I really came to hate: THIS IS THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING (pant, slobber, spittle)! I’ve thrown those books and manuals out of my library.

    This was a very good/astute post. Thanks.

  • There is so much conflicting advice on the Internet that for the most part I ignore it unless it looks like fun. That’s not the best professional plan… no, I don’t have anything to add to that. That’s not the best professional plan. It’s fun though!

    Show me the windmill, I’ll find a horse.

  • @Chuck re: your reply to @Orena

    What should we be planning toward, as far as credentials go? I mean, I know there’s writing to write – but my question is regarding what to do beyond the craft and conviction of writing, or, as one who wants to one day pay the rent by writing. Should a penmonkey have some sort of portfolio with different writing submissions/genres ready to go whenever his/her credentials are in question? Or is it better to just build that on its own? Where is the line between creativity and business?

    • @Ian –

      I’m not sure of the question. You write. You publish however you publish. And if you earn out and have some value to show for your endeavors, that’s probably good to go.

      – c.

  • @Anthony: You’re right. It’s fairly easy to get on a panel at a writing con. Most are small enough that they have to scrounge for people willing to put on an interesting and entertaining panel.

    To some extent, con-goers will get out of the con what the volunteers are willing and able to put into it. Sadly, people who are there to sell a product or a service to writers will be overrepresented, because they don’t have to choose between work and preparing for a panel.

    It’s unavoidable, and uncredentialed people can sometimes offer useful advice. But it’s up to you to learn to tell the difference between good and bad advice. After all, if you take their bad advice, it’s your career that’s harmed, not theirs.

  • @Ian : I think the term “credentials” may be misleading. It’s not like a job interview, but when you’re dishing out advice on a subject, there should be evidence beyond the plausibility of the advice itself to indicate that you’re worth listening to.

    For example, if you’re doing a panel on “How to Sell a Short Story,” then “has sold three stories to Asimov is a great credential. “Self-publishes short stories on own website” would not be. But if you moved that author to the “How to Create a Web Presence” panel, the panelist is more innately credible.

    Of course, she might know the process of selling a story quite well. It’s just not evident from her tangible achievements, and (speaking solely as a fellow hairless beach ape) a lot of people in this world think they understand a wide variety of topics far better than they actually do.

    So what sort of credentials could a person have? Depending on the subject:

    * GOOD: 100K Twitter followers
    * BAD: A Twitter account where seven tweets in ten are “buy my book!” and the other three are “Obama Rulez!”
    * GOOD: Seven self-published novels, and a steady revenue stream
    * BAD: Seven self-published novels with eighteen Amazon reviews between them.
    * GOOD: Three traditionally published novels
    * BAD: A self-published novel about the indignities suffered by a young, aspiring writer at the hands of traditional publishers.
    * GOOD: A successful agency (as evidenced by the ability to sell books to high-profile publishers with decent advances)
    * BAD: Works for PublishAmerica

    Does that clarify things some?

  • One of my best-attended sessions at a recent conference was about “choosing between the publishing options” – and ironically, I spoke with a couple of people who seemed a little tweaky that I wouldn’t give them a definitive THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA moment about which way they, personally, should go. What I did was give factors – and advice on how to evaluate them – to help people weigh the factors and make intelligent decisions about their own careers.

    Unfortunately, I think too many authors are looking for precisely what some of these panels are “offering” – the “get published quick/get rick quick/OMGWTFBBQ” publishing strategy.

    Also unfortunately – this path doesn’t exist. One does not simply walk into publishing success. To mix the references – it’s far more normal to stand there drooling and repeating “it’s full of stars….” until you remember that this is a business and you’d best get rolling forward and making good decisions.

    Then comes the hard part – slogging through all the data until you figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t – and yes, listening first to those with reasonable credentials is the best way to shortcut the slush-sifting.

  • Chuck, that was one of the first things that brought me to your site and kept me coming back for more:
    A lot of writing experts out there trying to sell you shit with the promise that you’ll get published, make big money, and get daily blowjobs.
    I’m not falling for that again.
    You have honest answers based on your grizzled experience in the trenches, and you don’t promise anything except it’s going to be work and if you want it, you have to do the work.
    You’re like a beacon of light on a stormy night…or a dilapidated neon sign over a less-than-sanitary bar. Thanks, man. Just–thanks.

  • @Chuck: I agree with you, dude – the only absolute advice in writing is “Finish. The. Damned. Story.” Everything else is “YMMV”.

    The reason James Scott Bell’s “Plot and Structure” is still one of my favourite writing books is that it was the first one I read that presented a spectrum of plotting strategies, from complete seat-of-the-pants to an OCD level of outlining (with several points in-between), rather than “my way or the highway”. That really freed me up to try things out and discover what worked for me, instead of following someone else’s beaten path.

    Moral of the tale: if you’re going to read how-to books (or blogs), read widely – just like with fiction. Or you could just read Chuck here, ‘cos he’s cool :)

  • I love writers conferences for the energy and the sheer geekdom. However, the last one I attended had a half-day seminar of the aforementioned snake oil with the presenter actively trawling for clients. I poked my head in because I was curious and ducked out just as fast. The combined fug of smug and desperation was just too much. I also heard later, that said snake oil purveyor made it a big point to snub and ignore the industry pros during social events. Smurt . . .

    From the real pros the formula is usually a variant on the same:

    1. Write a crap ton.
    2. Read a crap ton.
    3. Realize your first crap ton of writing is, well, crap, and hide it from public view.
    4. Write a second crap ton.
    5. Query a crap ton.
    6. Lather, rinse off the crap, repeat.
    7. Publish

    I am at step 4. Most I see sitting in the *magic* seminars are at step 1 or just having an inkling of step 3.

    I have your writing guides on my Kindle for when I need a laugh and an inspiration. It is worth it to me to pay you a buck or two to distill and compile the blog pile.

  • And never ever bother with anyone whose answer to every question is “Just read my book.” What was the point of my coming to your panel if I couldn’t learn anything from you besides how you spent your summer vacation?

  • Chuck, I had a jolly time at your “How to Earn Your Audience” workshop, and it wasn’t just because you were dressed funny. I thought the conference was generally pretty good, though their decision to hold the pitch slam in the utility closet made for a stampede that could have used some cattle prods.

    But yeah, publishing industry blather: don’t get any on you.

  • Amen. And now, my fav word of the day is “fuckbuckets.”

    This applies to almost anything in life. Look at the world upside down, sideways, and inside out. Listen to reputable authors that you aspire to, and you will most likely find that they will tell you that each path is different. Even King talks about big macs and writes about his stories, not his plots, scenes, and other devices that get shoved down our throat as absolutes.

    I would stress one caveat here, however. As an editor of fiction (a picky fucking editor,) I am damned tired of the soon-to-be and new indie pubbed (and some seasoned) indie pubbed authors that have never researched the trad pub processes and learned how the industry works. They adamantly refuse to go through the editing process, or think that they can skim over it with just a proof or a very light copyedit (or don’t even know what those terms mean,) and are so over-emotional about the lightest critiques, adamantly refusing to make editorial changes. They provide manuscripts that aren’t even worthy of a first draft. I feel like I have to put newly-pubbed indies through a psychiatric evaluation, and they balk when I tell them that I am going to review X percent or WC (word count) before accepting.

    Not all of them are that way, but even the seasoned won’t pay enough to keep the fiction editor in ramen; even those with tenure. The editing industry has become flooded with editors willing to take a buck a page for indies, and crap gets pubbed with no gatekeepers.

    So the only thing that I would state as an absolute would be to fucking get your manuscripts edited. And do NOT skip the final proof. And please, for god’s sake, provide your manuscript is an acceptable manuscript format to your editor.

    Okay, getting off my platform now.

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