A Few Things Writers SHOULDN’T Worry About


Hi!  I’m back after my first extended hiatus from Magical Words in several years.  I went on vacation with my family (a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and then a week on Tybee Island, Georgia), I spent some time working on a couple of books and doing little else, and, like all of you, I took time to enjoy Jim Butcher’s contribution to our site.  But I’m back now, relaxed, fleetingly tan, and ready to return to the normal routine.

I have recently started working with a new student — a graduate student in creative writing for whom I’ll be serving as project mentor.  Not long ago, she emailed me with some questions, and included among them were one or two that I thought would be good to discuss on this site.  We are never shy here on MW about telling you things that should concern you as aspiring writers.  Business trends, quirks of the market, scams aimed at taking your meager earnings, etc.  But there are things out there that we are told to fear that really shouldn’t be frightening at all.  And I figured it might be helpful to focus on those for a while.  So here, for your peace of mind, are some things about which aspiring writers commonly express concern that really aren’t worth the worry.

1.  What happens if you come up with an idea that has been used before by another writer?  Well, if you come up with a book idea that contains literally nothing that has ever been done by any other writer, you deserve a medal.  This is actually a concern I’ve heard expressed many times (most recently by my new student), and I always respond with the same story.  When I was a grad student trying to settle on a dissertation topic, I was worried that I was going to be “scooped,” meaning that someone would take my topic before I could finish the project.  And my advisor said, “If you’re worried about being scooped, you’re thinking of your project too narrowly.”  His point was that every project goes far beyond the mere subject, to encompass the research done, the way it’s written, and the intellectual process of each individual historian.  Fiction is much the same.  Yes, there are going to be other novels out there that have similar magic systems, or that focus on similar story tropes (vampires, faeries, castle intrigue, psionic magic, etc.), but the fact is that the originality of an idea is not merely about things like  magic systems or plot devices (although, of course, these can add to that sense of novelty).  Rather, it is far more dependent on character work, voice, ambiance — the intangibles that we bring to a book, and that no one can copy.  Your book is going to wind up being unique, even if some of the foundational ideas sound familiar.  There are so many books out there that have similar bases — check out THE SWORD OF SHANNARA and LORD OF THE RINGS, Charles de Lint’s Newford Books and Neil Gaiman’s AMERICAN GODS.  When I wrote the Forelands books I worried that because I had ducal Houses connected to clans and lots of castle intrigue that people would think I was copying George Martin.  I wasn’t, but I worried about it.  And for no reason; the books really aren’t that similar.  So don’t worry about this.  Just write your book.

2.  What can you do to keep editors and agents from stealing your ideas when you submit work?  Well, to begin, you can get over yourself.  Just as you don’t need to worry about using a few familiar ideas, you also don’t have to worry about your ideas being stolen.  Faith and Misty tell a wonderful story about a writer who “thwarted” such a theft at a writer’s workshop by submitting for critique 30 non-consecutive pages from his/her book.  How unbelievably foolish, not to mention paranoid.  Ideas are a dime a dozen — yours, mine, whoever’s.  Again, the success of a book is not about the ideas inside it, but the characters, the tone and voice, the prose — all the elements of writing that transform an idea into a story.  So relax, and submit your work.  That’s how you get published.

3.  How do you deal with it when your publisher or editor makes you change your book because of worries about political correctness or other content-related issues?  This is another question that comes up a lot.  Many people seem to be under the impression that authors face some form of censorship from publishers worried that our books might offend someone.  I’ve been publishing for a long time, and I have never encountered this.  My editor has suggested changes, of course — deletions as well as elaborations — but his reasons have always been related to character or story issues, not political or social concerns.  It may be that this does happen to some writers, but as far as I can tell it’s very, very rare.  Again, relax and write your book.

4.  How do you handle demands from your publisher that you write what will sell rather than what you want to write?  This is similar to number three and yet another question that I’ve heard many times before.  There’s an assumption out there that publishers make authors write books that they don’t want to, or that “what to write next decisions” are made by the market, not by the author.  Now, I won’t deny that authors are often persuaded to write books by offers — series that might otherwise have ended are continued because a publisher offered lots of cash and the author suddenly “discovered” that there was more story to tell and that it would take another three books to complete the story arc.  But this certainly doesn’t happen all the time (otherwise we would have already seen the releases of Harry Potter and the University From Hell, Harry Potter and the Frat Party of Doom, and Harry Potter and the Blood-Oath Internship.  For most of us in the mid-list, we write what we want to write, and we follow our own creative impulses rather than the demands of a publishing house marketing department.

5.  There are things I want to do with my book, but I’ve been told by authors and writing instructors that I just can’t do them, that no one will publish me if I do.  I once had a writer at a conference ask me if her book would be rejected by everyone if she started the first chapter with a line of dialog.  I asked her where she had gotten that idea, and she said that an author teaching at another workshop had told her it was true.  There is lots of stuff like this out there:  never start a book with dialog; never write a story or book in present tense; don’t write epic fantasy in first person; etc.  Say it with me:  “There is no single right way to do any of this.”  I’m not saying you should ALWAYS start a book in the middle of a conversation, or that you should write a book in present tense or first person just for the sake of doing it.  But you need to write your book as you envision it; you need to be true to your creative vision.  I wrote a short story in first person present tense, and yes, an editor questioned me about it, wanting to know why I had made those artistic choices.  When I explained, she said “Those are excellent reasons.  I want to buy the story.”  The editor was Ellen Datlow, and the story, “The Christmas Count,” remains my highest profile, best-paying short fiction sale to date.  Write the story you want to write.  Don’t worry about the “rules” that other writers have made up to explain their inability to sell one piece or another.

6.  The mid-list is dead, if you don’t write a bestseller, you’re through — maybe I shouldn’t be doing this at all.  Yes, this is a very tough time in the marketplace, and it has never been more difficult for midlist authors to stay afloat.  And yet, we’re still out here, writing books and getting paid to do so.  We at MW have always said that if you’re going to write, do it because you love it, because it’s all you want to do.  The money isn’t good enough and the business is too hard to make it work for any other reason.  But taking that as a given, you can still make a career for yourself without putting up Rowling/Martin/Gaiman-type numbers.  That’s what I’m doing.  Faith, too.  And Misty.  And A.J.  And Stuart.  And Ed.

There are more, of course — myths about writing and publishing that scare us, make us second-guess ourselves and our work.  But as you can tell, the theme of this post is pretty simple:  stop worrying and write your book.  There are plenty of things that do warrant our attention and our concern.  Don’t make things more difficult for yourself by worrying about the stuff that’s inconsequential.

So, are there issues out there that you need reassurance on?  Let’s talk about them.

David B. Coe



27 comments to A Few Things Writers SHOULDN’T Worry About

  • Great list, David. Thanks. In a time when it’s easy to talk about gloom and doom and what’s wrong with the industry, it’s important to remember that not everything that people fret about is actually a major problem. There are some boogey-men out there that just need a blast of sunshine to put them back in their proper place.

  • Devils in my dreams, monsters under my bed. I’ve woken up so many times in a panic as I remember that something I’ve written has been *done before*. Huge terror! Gone by daylight, and for just the reasons you have given.

    I especially like number 5. As we say here at MW, there is no one right way to write (start) a book, and dialogue is often very effective. It just has to work

    We are glad you are back, David, rested and ready to go! The need to take time off, to get away is a major one for writers. We all need a break. Not taking that down-time when I need it leaves me crotchety. (grins)

  • Edmund, thanks. As you say, things are scary enough right now without having to worry about the imaginary stuff.

    Thanks, Faith. Good to be back. I still fall prey to the “done before” fear, not to mention the “I’m not worthy” insecurities. I say in the post that these are for aspiring writers, but really they’re for all of us.

  • Mikaela

    The best advice I have ever gotten was: Don’t worry about what agents and editors think. Just write the story.

    Do I still worry? Of course. But a lot less than before.

  • I worry about what #6 will look like in the future. Certainly you guys will most likely still be around. But will there be room for more? There’s a lot of stuff flying around about how the industry is changing… but so far nobody knows where it’s going to end up… And so I worry. I may not be Bestseller material – who knows anything like that – but I’m confident I could be a solid midlister. If I was ever in a position to have the chance.

    So the rest of that list, none of it worries me. But with all the structural changes occurring in the industry, #6 is the one that still keeps me up at night, fearing that there will be no room for new applicants by the time I’ve got a few novels under my belt.

  • Unicorn

    Welcome back, David!
    What am I worrying about right now? Ah, yes. Simple. I’m a clueless teenager!
    What do I know about anything? How many terrible mistakes did I make in the 5000 words I wrote yesterday? I haven’t read enough books or lived enough years, have I? How can I know enough about people to create characters? I haven’t seen enough places to build a world, have I? I’m frankly naive and know nothing at all about business, and sometimes it’s easy to believe that I know nothing at all about writing! So maybe one day – in several years’ time – I won’t be a teenager anymore but from my point of view, several years is such a long time…
    As you can see, I’m *really* good at torturing myself. Stop worrying and get back to work. Yes, sir! If I didn’t I’d really go mad. Thanks a lot for the post. Nice to know that there are things I don’t have to worry about.

  • Mikaela, that is very good advice.

    Stephen, I understand the fear, but I also know that publishers can’t survive without midlisters. We don’t have much clout and we don’t make a lot of money, but we still sell books and we still provide income to publishers. And despite our quest for immortality, none of us will live forever. So keep faith. There will be room for you in the industry.

    Unicorn, you sound like one of the most mature, self-aware teens I’ve ever encountered. I won’t insult with assurances about how your 5,000 words were flawless, or by saying that your work now is probably publishable as is. You know better. The important thing at your age is to write, to feed this passion for writing that so obviously burns inside you. You’re improving everyday — of that I am sure, and you’re going to have a leg up on every other writer of your generation because of the work you’re doing now. I know — that’s a long way away. But you love what you do now, right? That’s its own reward. So keep writing, keep pushing yourself. But if you can ease up on the torture, that would probably be a good thing. Because for now, you really don’t have to worry about this stuff.

  • niknicnac

    Great list! Some of those questions have certainly troubled me before and not having the answers was frustrating. Now I can let go of some of that stress and just get back to what I enjoy, the writing!

  • Regarding the advice to never start a book with dialogue:

    Tolstoy began War and Peace with dialogue. in French! in a Russian novel!
    That obviously killed his chances of the work ever becoming popular.

  • Unicorn

    David, thanks. I needed that. If your dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough. Butt In Chair. Right. Right. Now, back to work – and you’re right, the writing is its own reward.

  • So as far as writing unique stories vs commercial stories (sorta items 1-4)…

    Say a book is like a pizza. It’s interesting to have a new and unique pizza, say, for instance a salamander and dandelion pizza. I’m sure some gourmet chefs would love the challenge of turning those ingredients into something tasty.

    Me, well, I don’t want that. When I eat a pizza, I want the memories that go along with a good pizza. TImes from childhood eating pizza with my friends. Crazy pizza parties with my coworkers. All of that stuff. And those memories come with the standard pepperoni, sausage green pepper and olive pizzas.

    Mundane, but if the cooks are truly skilled, and they use the best ingredients, they can make something truly delightful.

    Books? I don’t want utterly unique ideas. I want familiar places and plots that bring me back to my favorite worlds. I want my nighttime non-sparkling vampires. I want my werewolves. And I want truly great execution of those worlds and stories.

    I will experiment from time to time, and find great enjoyment in those stories, but I’m definitely not put off by stories and worlds I’ve seen before.

    And commercially? I’ll buy those books. And I suspect many others will as well.

  • Jeremy Beltran

    What about flashbacks? Are they really something to be avoided? If not what about small flashbacks? I wrote two openings for my WIP and I like both. One jumps right into the middle of action and the other builds up to pretty much the same action. I was thinking of combining the two so I’m jumping right into the action. Then flashing back to what lead up to it, and finishing the chapter back in the action.

  • Thank you for this – especially the “get over yourself” bit. I’ve always thought that people who believe their ideas are so good that an agent or publisher will want to steal them is full of themselves. After all, if that writer has already written the book, why would a publisher or agent want to steal the idea rather than take on the writer him-or-herself? It would be so much more work to either A) write the story themselves, or B) get another established writer to actually agree to write something that wasn’t his/her idea. Honestly, I think it just shows a lack of confidence in the submitter’s own skill, and an unrealistic perception of the time/shit-given by the agent/publisher.

    On another note…I just got a full manuscript request from my #1 agent choice! Cross your fingers for me!

  • I still fall prey to the “done before” fear, not to mention the “I’m not worthy” insecurities. I say in the post that these are for aspiring writers, but really they’re for all of us.

    You are so right, David. When Mad Kestrel was getting ready to be released, I remember worrying that Tor only bought it as a favor to my agent. Which, if true, would have been the most amazing favor of all time! *laughs*

  • Ugh, I just realized how mean my reply sounded. Sorry, guys! I’m either about to pass out or throw up because I’m so nervous. I’m on a roller-coaster of doubts and elation right now, and I’m half blind with nerves. I keep telling myself it’s a fluke, and the next time I check my email there will be a follow-up note from the agent telling me “nevermind. I re-read your query and it sucks.” Or that the exposition in the first two chapters will be clunky and awful and she won’t read on because it’s not perfect NOW.

    BLARG. GAAAHH. RRRRRR. <–my eloquence.

    Anyway, I apologize for how my previous reply may have come off–I've been irritated in the past by a few individuals on that very subject, and it's one of my pet-peeves. Hahaha. ha. Ehem.

  • Welcome back, David! Hope you had a nice break.

    My WIP is first-person, present-tense, and I *have* had people tell me that it won’t sell. It’s how I wrote it and how the story came to me. For *this story*, it feels right.

    That being said, writing (and editing) it is very intense, and I do get rocked by self-doubt sometimes.

    Lauren – congrats on the request! I totally get what you mean about the worry and self-doubt, and about worrying that even if part of it is good, the rest is not “good enough”. We have to have faith in ourselves. We can do this! (Says the girl worrying about her own manuscript …) 😮

  • Great list. One day I’ll offer a very slight rethink of #3, but not today, and your point is a good one. I’m in ransit today so that’s all I can offer. Good to have you back.

  • OH, I forgot. Rule #23 of ideas in the modern age. If you can think of it, someone has already done it, royally screwed it up, and then posted it on Learn From My Fail.

  • Alan Kellogg

    In short (regarding #1) it’s not the story you choose to tell, it’s how your choose to tell the story.

    West Side Story was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Most every tale is a re-telling of an even earlier tale. Use your own voice and tell the story as you wish it to be told.

    And Dave, thanks for reminding me of a retelling of Beauty and the Beast I need to get back to. Now to find it it my stuff.

  • Razziecat

    This is a great post. Re: #6, no one can predict where the next new bestselling author is going to come from. I’m not competing with the likes of Rowling; that kind of lightning only happens once or twice a generation, and I think I stand a decent chance against the rest of the crowd, provided I put in the time and effort. Jim Butcher says on his website that you don’t have to outrun the bear (published writers); you only have to outrun the guy next to you (other wannabes). Sounds good to me!

  • 1 – Welcome back, David! Great post. I think the I’m not worthy bug bites us all on a regular basis. Worse that mosquitos!

    2 – Lauren! WooT!!! Congratulations! Breathe, breate, breathe. Giggle. Dance. Laugh. And send the silly mss to the editor before you really get dizzy!

  • Lots of things to respond to — I’m in Atlanta tonight at an airport hotel. My older daughter leaves tomorrow for a semester in the Costa Rican rainforest. I’m not going to respond to everyone, because there’s just not time. But….

    Lauren: Woot!!! Congratulations! That’s fantastic! Well done!

    A.J., I’ll look forward to that tweak on number three.

    Unicorn, no problem.

    Jeremy, flashbacks can be useful as long as they’re not overused, and I would avoid starting a book with them or even using one in an opening chapter. Even an exciting flashback or memory can slow down your narrative, and so they need to be used sparingly and placed in the book with care, perhaps in between a couple of action scenes. But I would never say don’t use them at all; they can be quite valuable as you establish character and backstory.

  • One thing I don’t worry about is there being a market for mid-listers, new entrants or what have you.
    That article estimates how much Amazon sells each year. The answer: 15.6 million hard cover, 22 million kindle and even more paper back. That is just Amazon and they have only 19% of market share. So each year hundreds of millions of books are sold. If you need to sell 20,000 books a year to get you by, that represents just 0.000063% of total market share (assuming total sales of about 315,000,000 books). The market is probably bigger than I’ve estimated and it is growing as population grows if for no other reason. There’s room yet for us to make some sales.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Very nice article, David. Regarding your first point, I remember Junior year of college translating Pascal from the French and coming upon the line: “Nothing is written until I write it.” For some reason, that has epitomized for me the idea that every author has their own take and their voice will tell the story differently than any other author would do it.

    That being said, it does happen sometimes that a publisher gets too many stories with the same concept. I recall hearing an editor talking about how they got three books about veterinarians in fairy land within a month of each other. They bought the first one but did not feel they could put out more than one book on this subject at a time.

    So…what does an author do in a situation like that? Wait and submit again, either elsewhere or even the same house several years later. If the book is good, the fact that they had a similar one several years ago will, eventually, stop being a stumbling block.

    So…how was the World of Harry Potter???

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    As I navigated away, I started chuckling because it struck me that every author who does not worry about their work being too much like someone else’s usually worries that their work is too different from what is currently selling and won’t find an audience. 😉

  • John, I wouldn’t even attempt to challenge your numbers, particularly because I agree with your conclusion. These are not easy times to be a midlister, but that doesn’t mean that the midlist is about to vanish.

    Jagi, I think that even in the case you cite, of a publisher suddenly being inundated with something very specific, that doesn’t necessarily doom you with other publishers. I remember several years back, Hollywood kept on coming out with movies that seemed too similar — DEADWOOD and WYATT EARP, ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE, and those two movies about asteroids on a collision course with the earth. The fact is, like Hollywood, publishing repeats itself all the time. Yes, that one publisher might have seen too many vetrinarian/fairy land stories (really?) but some other publisher might have dying to put out their own treatment of this. So I think, in a case like that, an author keeps submitting until all avenues have been tried.

    As for HP World — it was a little disappointing actually. We are all HP fans and were expecting a lot. Too much maybe. But while it was visually stunning at first glance, the rides were only so-so, the lines were LONG and the prices were outrageous. That said, the butter beer really was terrific.