Thursday, March 30, 2006

Writers and other delusional people

UPDATED March 7, 2009 - Check at the end of the original post for new truths and comments.

I heard yet another story the other day of a writer being scammed by a so-called agent. What was most horrifying about the story was not that they were paying the agent to rewrite their stuff, but the sheer glee and delight with which the writer was submitting to the process.

Rule #1 in this business is: Money always flows towards the writer. If it doesn't, something is seriously wrong. If you fail to recognize this, or worse, mistake it for success, you are playing the fool.

There is no more gullible, self-delusional, fog-headed being on the planet than an aspiring writer. So predictable and common are their delusions that an entire industry of crooks, con-men and scam artists exists to exploit them, and such a sweet deal it is for them, too. Not only are most of their scams perfectly legal, their marks are actually grateful to be scammed! It doesn't get much better for a predator than that. It's like the entire herd of antelope crowding around the lion shouting, "Eat me! No, eat me!"

Wait. No. Keep reading. You may resemble this remark. Fact is, most of us do at one time or another. And if it does describe you, take comfort that you have plenty of company. I hear from these people all the time. Some of them I've had extended correspondence with, and I've learned some things.

Most of the writers getting scammed aren't dumb. They're nice, intelligent people who sincerely want to be writers, and have simply lost their way. Most of them are so invested in whatever flavor of Kool-aid they've swallowed that they not only can't see the truth, they don't want to. Yet most of them are aware, on some level, that something is wrong. That's usually why they write me. They have concerns. They have questions. Just not enough to wake up and look around. The correspondence, in antelope-terms, usually goes something like this: "This lion has actually agreed to take me on! Right now, it's chewing on my leg. And it's great! Although, I'm concerned about the bleeding. And the dismemberment. But really, it's good! It's great! Uh, should there be so much pain? But I'm good!"

Okay, here are the truths, some of them anyway, that every writer should know. Read them. Memorize them, Live them. And please, do so before you graze among the scam agents, book doctors, vanity publishers, and the various flavors of publishing delusionaries who, with the best of intentions, invite you to participate in their own mad delusions, and partake of their special Kool-aid.

Truth Numero Uno - Being Published vs. Being Read

First truth, and maybe even more important than rule #1 above (or at least as important): Writers do not need to be published. Writers need to be read. This should be obvious, but it's not. Having a pallet full of expensive hardcovers in your garage is not getting you read. Being in an ebook that's downloaded thirty times isn't getting you read. Going out through a small press or a literary zine with a print run of a hundred copies isn't getting you read (not in the way that you want to be, anyway).

Being read means selling to a national magazine, being published through a real book publisher and showing up on chain-store shelves, or at least being published on a high-traffic web-site with thousands of visitors daily. Yet again and again writers are seduced with the notion of seeing their manuscript in print between two covers. If this is you, my advice is this: Go to Kinkos and pick out a nice font, and some pretty paper. Then, once you have a book to look at, get over it and get back to the real work of getting read, or forget being a writer.

Corollary to Rule Numero Uno: The markets that will get you read most are generally also the markets that can afford to pay you the most money. Refer to Rule Number the Second.

Rule Number the Second - Payment

If you don't get paid, and I mean up-front, then it isn't a sale. People who don't have money to pay you generally don't have money because they aren't selling books. Refer back to Rule Numero Uno.

Corollary to Rule Number the Second: "Paid in copies" is an oxymoron.

Second corollary to Rule Number the Second: An advance is the only money you can ever count on, and even then, the check has to clear.

First Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 6% of nothing is nothing.

Second Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 100% of nothing is nothing.

Third Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 110% of nothing is still nothing.

Rule Third, Third, Third - Editorial Opinions

Rule Third, Third, Third: Ultimately the only opinions about a manuscript that count are yours and the person who can actually buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary One: Your mother cannot buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary Two: Your workshop cannot buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary Three: Your agent cannot buy the manuscript.

None of which means you can't listen to these other people, but the responsibility to apply (or not apply) their opinions is ultimately yours.

Scofield's Axiom (a superset of Rule Third, Third, Third): You are responsible for your own career.

Rule the Four - The Secret Handshake

Rule the Four: There is no secret handshake.

Rules 5 - Agents

Rule 5a: Any agent you can get as an unpublished, unsold writer is most likely not anybody you want as an agent. There are rare exceptions, but they are rare, and they are exceptions. Do not assume the agent courting you is either, until you have done much research.

Rule 5b: The primary job of an agent is to submit manuscripts and make deals. Agents do not sell manuscripts. Manuscripts sell themselves. If your manuscript is not equal to this task, the best agent in the world cannot help it.

Rule 5c: Anyone can call themselves an agent (just as anyone can call themselves a publisher). Saying it does not make it so. Neither does a business-card, letterhead, a web-site, or a line of snappy banter.

Rule 5d: Agents make their living off a percentage of the income stream of the writers they represent. Any deviation from this, either in terms of your own money or anyone else's, is at best highly suspect.

Rule 5e: Agents work for you, and not the other way around. That still doesn't mean you pay them, except as described in 5d.

Rules VI - Ideas

Rule VIa - Ideas are cheap. Ideas are plentiful. Stop thinking of them as being made of gold. A good writer can turn a bad idea into a good book far easier than a bad writer can turn a great idea into a good book. If you have only one great idea for a book, the best thing you can do is put it aside and think of a dozen more, because until you can do that, you probably aren't going anywhere as a writer.

Rule VIb - Nobody is going to steal your silly idea. Probably it isn't worth stealing, and if it is worth stealing, you probably aren't the first one to come up with it. In any case, so what if they do steal it? If you had an "idea for a house," and somebody else built it, would the house belong to you?

Rule VIc - Stealing words is a crime. Stealing ideas is frequently a smart thing to do, but always steal from the best. Start with Shakespeare and work your way forward.

Rule ala Seven - The Easy Genre

Rule ala Seven: There is no easy genre. Romance is not easy. Science fiction is not easy. Fantasy is not easy. Writing children's books is not only not easy, it is very, very hard. People looking for an "easy" genre don't want to write, they want to have written. They are pretenders. If you are the real deal, don't worry about what is easy, or what is hot. Write the stories you want to write, and the stories you want to tell. Practice. Develop your skills. You can worry about marketing later.

Rules da 8 - How Becoming Published Will Change Your Life

Rule da 8: When you make your first sale, your problems are only beginning.

Rule da 8.1: Publishers don't buy books, they buy careers. If you aren't thinking past your first book, you are of very little value to anyone. Pray the publisher forgets to ask.

Rule da 8.2: Wash, rinse, repeat. Repeating is the hard part.

Rule da 8.3: The only time a second book can be easier than the first book is when the second book is already written, and even there lie pitfalls.

Rule da 8.4: You can't rest on your laurels unless you have some, and even then, laurels don't pay the electric bill.

Rule da 8.5: Sharks gotta swim, writers gotta write. Sharks stop swimming, they die. What does this tell you about writers?

Statement of Limitation

Those are only a few of the truths that aspiring writers need to know, but they're enough for you to chew on for a while. Pretty much, success in this business boils down to do the work, submit the work, and keep learning. Don't waste your time looking for shortcuts, because none of them preclude these three basics and the search will waste your time.

And remember that you don't even have the right to call yourself a failure if you don't try, and you still don't have the right unless you've stopped trying. Until then, you're still a success waiting to happen.

Good luck out there. Just remember, you make your own luck.

Here we are a couple years later, and I find myself revisiting this post, and lo, among the comments below (you can dig though yourself to find the context, though it isn't especially important), I made the following statement:

"I have a great agent that I'm very happy with."

Looking back at that, I added the following comment, and having done that, I decided it was important enough to move up here where people can more easily find it. Here is a slightly reedited version:


Interesting reading my comment above. See, my the Great Agent I mentioned is now somebody else's great agent.

Actually, they were somebody else's great agent while they working for me too. Turns out they weren't MY great agent.

So allow me to add:


No great agent is a great agent unless they're great for YOU. It doesn't matter how good an agent they are for someone else. If you're going to work together, you have to be compatible in your goals and methods and they must be helping your career. It's a relationship. There are no absolutes.

Ask not what you can do for your agent. Ask what has your agent done for you lately.

Despite what they'd like you to think, you don't need your agent nearly as much as your agent needs you. (And if you DID need them more than they need you, why should you trust them to serve your best interests, and not their own?)

Should you discover your great agent is not great for you (or perhaps not great at all) apply SCOFIELD'S AXIOM (see the previous rules list) until the problem goes away. Not having an agent is an infinitely better situation than having an agent that isn't working for you.


Okay, let us return to the statement that started this:
"I have a great agent that I'm very happy with."

Let us add to the original list:

Just because the writer believes something is true, does not make it so. The writer's capacity for self-delusion is boundless, endless, and sneaky as hell. None of us is immune.



Not even me.

And just so you don't think this is just sour grapes aimed at my former agent, it isn't. They really are someone's great agent, from what I can see. They might be yours.

Or not.

But when you're signed with an agent and things are perking along, it's easy to ignore the problems until you've done yourself considerable damage, and that's what happen to me. I let my agent's opinions undermine my self-confidence, and I sat on plenty of perfectly good novel projects until I let my career stall. (See "Rule Third, Third, Third - Editorial Opinions" above.)

I'm not saying my agent did it to me. I did it to myself, by hanging on with an agent whose methods and goals were not my own, and whose focus was (properly, from the agent's perspective) on bigger fish, and not the careers of smaller players like me.

I sat around for far, far too long fretting in the dark, before contacting my agent with hard questions, confronting the situation, and making the break.

Self delusion.

Why do writers do it?

As it happens, I'm currently reading an interesting book titled "Lonely Planets, the Natural Philosophy of Alien Life," by David Grinspoon (apparently out of print, but you can still buy it on Kindle) and yesterday I ran across these words:

"So strong is our desire for certainty in the face of this grand mystery that we cannot resist the urge to vastly overinterpret every bit of potential evidence." and "We find signals in the noise of existence and read into them the conclusions that we want to reach."

Grinspoon is talking about our (the big humanity "our") questions regarding the potential for intelligent life in the universe, but it applies perfectly to writers as well.

It's our nature. We're all sitting alone, looking out into the darkness, pulling patterns out of nothing, weaving stories out of dreams. It's hard to turn that off when we need to put on our business hats. Maybe it's impossible.

But we still have to keep trying.

Me too.

Good luck to us all.


  1. That was great Steve. with your permission I'd like to link this post to my blog and send a couple of folks your way.

  2. To any and all. Please feel free to pass the link along. If you'd actuall y like to publish it somewhere, in your writer's group newsletter or whatever, please email for permission.

    (Random note: I have the "word verification" feature of Blogger turned on to cut down on the spam posts. Right now, the verification word for this post is "szlmlhzn," which is, I believe, the word Snoop Dogg utters in order to turn into Captain Marvel.)

  3. Steve- That was awesome! I've been looking for something like this that summarizes a great deal of wisdom that we've learned up at the workshops from experienced writers. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for that. As an aspiring writer - and one who didn't know much about anything - that was actually a helpful read...and something to definitely chew over.

  5. Lovely indexing. Thanks for the great advice

  6. Oh Steve...EXCELLENT!!

  7. I can't even begin to express how grateful I am that you posted this. It felt like a much needed slap to the back of my head that finally jolted me awake.

    Sharks must swim or they die, writers must write or they perish.

    Thank you so much for this post. This is definitely a "when-the-student-is-ready-the-teacher-appers" moment for me. Thanks again.

  8. j. steven--

    i agree that a lot of [aspiring] writers are delusional, and that these delusional [aspiring] writers are annoying in their naive hopefulness. but this posting rings more like a rant/rave than anything resembling true advice. nothing wrong with that...after all, this is a BLOG...but maybe you should caveat the term advice, when all you're really doing is bitching??

  9. Lee lee-

    Not sure where you're coming from, but it's hard to dismiss something full of specific advice and cautions as a rant. I've had dozens of people, in comments here, by email, and in person , thank me for the post, so it obviously speaks to someone, if not you.

    Heck, if I was going to bitch, I'd probably do it about something that impacts me directly, but I have an established writing career, published three (or is it four?) novels last year (and was paid reasonably well for them), and I have a great agent that I'm very happy with.

    I just don't like seeing honest, sincere people's dreams being taken advantage of by predators.

  10. Bah... Steve, ignore the naysayers. This is a pointed, well thought and incisive post ( but you already knew that :).

    Some of us are so wet behind the ears and desparate that we'd accept any deal. You've helped us avoid that mistake. Additionaly, you emphasise fundamentals that can't be ignored namely hard work and how to measure success.

    I'm in the process of writing some novels and this post allowed me to re-evaluate my approach and revise my expectations. That an author as prolific as yourself comes down from Mt. Olympus to teach us is a truly great event.

    Please post more about the mistakes you feel young writers make and lessons you've learned.

    ( Haters will always hate, but those of us with ears get your message loud and clear. As you know, we're ready to do almost anything to be published. Help us do the right things :)

  11. Wonderful! I've read numerous articles along these lines, and yet I've still managed to pick up additional information in this one. Well done!

  12. Anonymous12:58 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Interesting reading my comment above. See, my the Great Agent I mentioned is now somebody else's great agent.

    Actually, they were somebody else's great agent while they working for me too. Turns out they weren't MY great agent.

    So allow me to add:

    No great agent is a great agent unless they're great for YOU.

    Ask not what you can do for your agent. Ask what has your agent done for you lately.

    Despite what they'd like you to think, you don't need your agent nearly as much as your agent needs you. (And if you DID need them more than they need you, how could you possibly trust them to serve your best interests?)

    RULE OF AGENTS Nbr. Fore
    Should you discover your great agent is not great for you (or perhaps not great at all) apply SCOFIELD'S AXIOM until the problem goes away.

  14. Still loving this post. As applicable today as it was in '06. In the process of starting my own writer's blog I am using your above permission to link :) Thank you for the great advice!!

  15. Hi, Amy. I just belatedly freed your comment from the spam filter. Sorry about that! And glad you enjoyed the article. I still like it too, though it's well due for an update. I need to look into that...