Tuesday 18 October 2011

NaNoWriMo and an inspiring author: Dean Wesley Smith

I "discovered" this gentleman back in March and found him to be a prolific, disciplined craftsman. It seemed appropriate to reprint the article as a run-up to the month of November when many give themselves the personal challenge of doing the unthinkable: write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Name not familiar? No bells ringing? Just who the heck is Dean Wesley Smith? This is a reminder that the world is a big place; there's a lot going on and the view from my window doesn't go much further than the end of my backyard.

Mr. Smith has written over 90 novels and in excess of 100 short stories. Known mainly as a science fiction writer, he has penned works for well known licensed properties such as Star Trek, Smallville, Spider-Man, X-Men, Aliens, Roswell, Men In Black, and Quantum Leap plus created original novels, such as The Tenth Planet series. Best known for his Star Trek novels, he has covered all five of the television series: the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. On his web site, he states that he has been making a living writing fiction for 20 years.

Is there any doubt this guy knows what he doing? This is a professional writer.

Explaining his craft: Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing
On Smith's own web site, he gives us all a sneak peek at a new nonfiction book he is currently working on, called "Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing". This is an interesting approach to putting a book together as he is creating the individual chapters as essays about his experiences in writing including the process of writing, working with agents, publishing, marketing, etc., that is, all aspects of becoming a published author from dream to reality. He states that his goal is to dispel the myths about writing and I can see that for anybody wanting further information about writing, this guy knows what he's doing.

As an aside, I couldn't help thinking of Stephen King's book On Writing. That was his opus dedicated to the craft and it was the master telling all of us what he's done over the years to make it work. And I think we can all agree that it does indeed work.

Chapter: Speed
For anybody plunking away at a snail's pace, for anybody overwhelmed by the seemingly gigantesque task of writing "a book", Mr. Smith clears the air of several myths while hauling out some basic math to make his case. Myth: writing slow equals writing well, or writing fast equals writing poorly. In setting aside this falsehood, he states his position that "no writer is the same and no project is the same" and goes on to say that "the quality of the final product has no relationship to the speed, method, or feeling of the writer while writing." Is this a telling statement or what? I'm sure anybody would be looking for some clear set of instructions, a demonstrable series of procedures with rules and guidelines when in reality, when it comes to creativity - or we could argue that it is a "craft"- there is no wrong or right way. At the end of the day, what counts are the results.

Smith brings out a little math to point out how slow and steady wins the race. His simple example is writing 250 words or one page a day. At the end of a year, you would have slightly over 90,000 words, about a normal paperback book. Of course, this doesn't take into account rewrites, but I think the point is made. Setting the goal of writing a book seems daunting, but setting the goal of writing 250 words seems quite doable. Slow and steady indeed. Especially steady.

In a blog elsewhere, Smith gave a further example of breaking the process down using math. Starting with the idea that a professional writer can do a thousand words in an hour or 4 pages, a 90,000 word novel represents 90 hours worth of work. Divide by 3 weeks to give 30 hours per week then divide by 7 days to give four and a half hours per day or 4,500 words per day. Is it at this point I slap my forehead saying, "Gee, it's that simple?" I have to point out not just the discipline but the ability to continuously "create". Repetitive work can sometimes be just shutting the brain off and letting the body repeat what it's doing. Sitting there trying to punch out something new? Thinking for the purposes of creating something can be tough.

I distinctly remember Stephen King's admission about this in his book On Writing. He apparently sets himself the goal of doing 2,000 words per day. This is less than Smith's last example but I remember King saying it takes him months to do a book, never mind the rewrites. But whatever the pace, both authors seem to underline the importance of steady. Slow and steady or fast and steady; the common word is steady. National Novel Writing Month (see NaNoWritMo: Write a novel in 1 month?) sets out the personal challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in November, a period of 30 days. That works out to be 1,667 words per day for 30 days in a row. Maybe that isn't quite so intimidating.

Chapter: Only 300 Writers Make a Living
In a nutshell, Smith's essay proves that the myth of only a small number of writers make a living by writing is completely unfounded. Once again, Smith goes beyond his opinion to offer up some numbers which more than prove his stance. He cites a report on book publishing from 2009 stating that over 76,000 new titles were released by normal publishers. This equates to over 210 books a day, every day for the entire year. The easy conclusion he arrives at is that there is no way that only 300 writers could write all those books. There are a lot more than 300 people doing all that writing. Does this give a glimmer of hope to any other budding artist out there? A little surfing around the Internet and you realise there is a lot going on in the world, and I do mean a lot. And that includes running across I don't know how many official web sites of various writers who have made themselves an on-line presence to market their product.

Chapter: Writing is Hard
Smith is dispelling a myth in this essay and with tongue in cheek tells us how a fiction writer is paid to sit in a chair and make stuff up. That, in a way, sounds like an amusing take on the process and it is obvious that Smith enjoys his work and is having a good time "working". As I've said elsewhere, all of us should be so lucky to have a job that we like doing. When you "like" or "enjoy" your work, it stops being work per se, and you start having, for lack of a better word, fun. Digging a ditch, that sounds like work, but writing? Smith is having a grand old time!

Fortunately, he does point out the serious nature of getting started

Discipline is hard. Just carving out time to write is hard. Really hard, actually. Especially in the early years when the feedback loop is so negative. Simply finding time to get to the computer is hard when day job, kids, and bills get in the way. That’s hard and very hard work. The fun starts when you get to the chair with some time ahead, but getting there is hard work early on.

I've heard it said that writing is a lonely occupation. Smith is certainly right in that how can any of us continue to do anything if we have no feedback?

There are more chapters
Smith doesn't leave any rocks unturned. I scan down the list of chapters and see various topics like Self-Promotion, No Money in Writing Fiction, Writers Don't Need to Practice, Agents and Contracts, etc. I count 34 chapters or topics and since each one represents two, three or four thousand words, Smith has already a substantial amount of material. A quick calculation tells me he already has over 70,000 words, more than enough for a good sized book.

New World of Publishing
Like his Sacred Cows work, Smith has written a number of essays which he plans on putting together as a book at some point. The series, The New World of Publishing represents his take on how traditional publishing is undergoing a radical change with the arrival of "electronic publishing". It would seem that the tried and true of thumbing through the physical pages of a book is giving way to touching a screen for "Next Page".

I enjoyed Smith's joke in the introduction when he refers to being on an electronic bestseller list in 2000 and having an editor saying this was like being the best hockey player in Ecuador. The idea was that electronic publishing was insignificant.

Smith has certainly changed his mind and realises that the world is changing and changing quickly but categorically states that nobody knows where this is headed. While traditional publishing will not go away, thanks to the Internet and devices like Amazon's Kindle, authors will have alternatives to paper copy sold through the normal channels.

I don't know if Mr. Smith is aware of Amanda Hocking but I would direct anybody reading this to my blog Amanda Hocking: Indie author goes viral. This 26 year old woman has about 9 titles under her belt that she started e-publishing in April 2010 and according to reports, in January 2011 alone, she sold 450,000 copies of her titles through various electronic means including Amazon's Kindle. Obviously this is the exception to the rule but it underlines the potential of an individual author getting to market directly and by-passing a publishing house.

Dare to Be Bad
Smith's message is quite simple: It takes a lot more courage to write and mail something than it does to not write, or write and not mail. He goes on to expound on writing and pushing ahead rather than getting stuck on wanting to be perfect and possibly never getting anything finished. For seven years my fixing and polishing had gotten few stories written and finished and no sales. Mailing first drafts got me a career. “Daring to be Bad” got me a career, such as it is. “Daring to be Bad” has paid the bills for over two decades.

I have to smile at Smith talking about editors and bad writing. He says editors rarely remember the name of a bad writer so the risk one takes in mailing a manuscript is minimal. - Keep in mind Smith has also been an editor. He knows! - But mailing the manuscript is the important first step. Is this akin to the idea that you have to buy a lottery ticket in order to win the lottery? You have to mail the manuscript if you want an editor to (possibly) read it? This reminds me of my wife's favourite saying: If you throw enough Jell-O, eventually some of it will stick to the wall. An amusing metaphor but it seems that it all comes down to wanting to succeed.

In my blog Writing: James Patterson, I quote a Time article of July 2010, 10 Questions for James Patterson:

Q: What do you say to critics like author Stephen King who say you are not a great prose stylist?

A: I am not a great prose stylist. I'm a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don't like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do.

Not everyone can be Shakespeare, meaning a lauded writer who is held in high esteem by his peers, never mind the public. Smith says that a lot can make a living and a good one at that. Yes, writing can be art but there is nothing wrong with craft.

Final Word
Somebody pointed me to the Sacred Cows work but admittedly, I had no idea who Dean Wesley Smith was. I am now walking away quite impressed. This name may not be as well known in the eyes of the general public as a Stephen King, but let's face it, being well known does not in any way diminish the achievement of the person in question. It's a big world out there and there are a lot of things we know nothing about.

Dean Wesley Smith has been writing for a living for the past 20 years. His web site and his online collected essays offer anybody an interesting take on the process of writing and publishing with some excellent advice from somebody who has been there and done that. The voice of experience is worth its weight in gold to anybody in need of some solid advice.

Mr. Smith is a professional. He's done it; he's doing it. I am sure that unlike anybody else starting out in the game of writing, he knows exactly what he has to do to get the job done: self-knowledge, confidence, personal discipline. Technically, anybody should be able to do it, but not everybody does. I'm repeating myself but I see here in Mr. Smith what I saw with Stephen King in his book On Writing. I saw it in the writer Holly Lisle and in the indie Amanda Hocking. It may seem like a trite thing to say when one may be facing the daunting task of writing (Or doing anything for that matter!), but I somehow think that the sports company Nike managed to successfully distill the essence of the challenge in their three word slogan: Just do it!


Wikipedia: Dean Wesley Smith

official web site: Dean Wesley Smith

Facebook: Dean Wesley Smith

Twitter: DeanWesleySmith

Dean Wesley Smith has written the following Star Trek books

The Creative Penn - Oct 10/2010
New World of Publishing and Making Money as a Fiction Author with Dean Wesley Smith
In this interview excerpt, bestselling author of over 90 novels, Dean Wesley Smith explains the new world of publishing, a different way for authors to submit to publishing houses, and how fiction authors can make a lot of money with "the magic bakery". The full interview is available as a podcast from http://www.thecreativepenn.com/podcasts/
YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDLf1PEm5E4

Writing Fast Equals Writing Better by Dean Wesley Smith

my blog: NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month
my blog: NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month
my blog: November: It was a dark and stormy night...
my blog: Writing: Less is more: the drabble
my blog: James Patterson
my blog: Assembly Line Writing
my blog: On Writing by Stephen King


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