The Ideal Writer


Last week, Faith wrote a terrific post titled “The Ideal Editor,” in which she offered her thoughts on what writers ought to look for in an editor.  One of our readers commented that he’d like to see her follow up this week with a similar article about agents, and it remains to be seen whether Faith will do that this week or will offer that list at another time.

In the meantime, though, I thought it might be helpful to offer a list of my own:  “The Ideal Writer.”  Being a writer is about more than simply putting words down on a page (or up on a screen).  There are ways in which we comport ourselves through the writing and publication process that might well make our books more successful, and that will certainly make editors and agents more inclined to work with us.  The things I’ve included in this list, are things that I have tried (with varying degrees of success) to do myself, and as you work on your books and look to break into the publishing process, you should think about doing them yourself.  You’ll notice that the attributes listed below don’t have anything to do with style, or even with process.  We all work differently; we all write what we love and what we feel.  We deal with “How do We Write” issues quite a bit at MW.  This post is a little different.  (And like Faith, I’ll use the universal “he”.  No offense intended.)  So, without any more ado:

1.  The Ideal Writer hits his deadlines.  Yes, I’m starting at the end here.  I’m assuming that the other stuff — the stuff that gets you do the end of the book — has been or will be covered by other posts on our site.  But at root, a writer’s job is to write, and finish, a story or book.  Deadlines are fluid things in publishing.  Things run late all the time.  But to the extent that a writer can make his deadlines, he puts himself in good standing with his editors, agent, and publisher.  And that’s a good thing.

2.  He also turns in clean manuscript.  What does “clean” mean?  Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.  It doesn’t mean “perfect.”  But it does mean that he takes the time to proof read his work, eliminating typos and other mistakes that shouldn’t need an editor’s attention.  Yes, a manuscript will be copyedited and proofed further along in the process.  But every mistake the Ideal Writer finds on his own simplifies the production process down the road, and allows the editor and copyeditor to focus on more important matters.

3.  He accepts criticism without ego, without defensiveness, and with an open mind.  He understands that the comments he receives from his editor and from his beta readers are not meant as assaults on his creative vision, but rather as attempts by allies and friends to help him make his book as good as it can possibly be.  He is not so wedded to any phrase or element of his story that he can’t at least consider changing it to improve the piece.

4.  A corollary to #3, he views the revision stage of writing a book (and yes, he absolutely goes through this stage with every story) as an opportunity to rethink portions of his first draft that might not have worked.  In other words, he approaches revisions the way he approaches the first draft:  as a creative endeavor rather than simply a corrective one.

5.  He goes out of his way to show his appreciation for the work of the “support staff” of his publishing house(s).  I mean here the people in the publicity, art, and production departments.  These are people who work very hard to make certain that his book looks great and reaches as many readers as possible.  They can make or break a book, and they deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy.  They are also people who he *should want to like him*.  Ticking them off would be stupid, and yet you’d be amazed by the number of writers who treat them poorly, or ignore them entirely.  Don’t be that guy.  Along the same lines, he treats his agent and editor as equal partners in his work.  He always — ALWAYS — finishes his conversations with his agent and editor the same way:  with a “Thank you.”

6.  Again, a corollary of sorts to #5.  He goes out of his way to be polite to fans, to reply (when he possibly can) to emails and letters from fans.  These are the people who buy his books; why would he want to give them the impression that he’s a jerk?

7.  He works hard to publicize his work, understanding that publicists at publishing houses can only do so much for any one author.  Book signings, guest blogging, web site maintenance, con appearances — all of these things can build up readership, and since an author’s future writing success is often directly linked to his most recent sales performance, self-promotion is a must.

8.  In helping to market his books, the Ideal Writer makes an effort to get to know workers in his local bookstores.  He befriends them, he treats them with respect and courtesy (of course), he tells them about his books, and he offers to sign stock.  In short, he forges strong connections with those who are most responsible for hand-selling his books.

9.  He does not take too much satisfaction in good reviews, nor does he waste energy in responding to bad reviews.  No book can please everyone; and even the worst books get some good reviews.  The Ideal Writer writes the best book he can and lets the reviewers do their jobs.

10.  He gives thanks every day for being able to create characters and worlds and stories, and get paid for it.  He remembers that for every writer who is as lucky as he is, there are ten or fifty or a hundred or a thousand others who are just as talented, just as passionate about writing, just as committed to the craft, but who haven’t yet gotten that lucky break.

There’s my list of ten.  What would you add or subtract?

David B. Coe


27 comments to The Ideal Writer

  • Smart, helpful stuff, David. Thanks. I wonder if you might offer any thoughts on how writers deal with adversity, be that the struggle to get published or the kinds of difficulties that can arise later in your professional career? This last has been a hard year for a lot of people in the business and it can get very depressing. I spoke to David Morrell (famed author of First Blood–among other things–and all round nice guy) when I was having some problems and his advice (very much from experience) was simple: out last the nay sayers. That’s not a direct quote, but it’s in the ball park. I guess that’s what I’d add to your list: persevere. 85% (or something) of success is showing up. So don’t quit, ever. Not if you really want it.

  • 11. Understand that the writing arena is just as political as a regular office situation and watch what you do/say around your peers. New York is a very small place, and everyone knows everyone else, so resist the temptation to enjoy yourself too much at a convention.

  • I’d like to second Kim’s #11 and add that watching what you say/do at a con is also important to fans. I’ve seen some downright horrible behavior from some well-known authors at conventions. They seem to have the attitude that their numbers are so good they can do what they want. To some extent that might be true, but only in the short run. See, I had intended to buy a book by this one author — and if I liked it, I’d probably have gone on to buy several more. To date, this author as received ZERO sales to me. That author’s behavior cost several sales to just me alone. How many other potential sales were lost at that con? In the long run, that author’s numbers might go south because of this type of thing.

  • David, great list. I wonder the ideal writer understands that writing is a progression and that getting published doesn’t mean you stop learning or improving, or that becoming a bestseller doesn’t make you too good for an editor’s advice.

  • Yes, yes, yes, and yes! All great additions to the list. AJ, I probably should have put as my number one, “The Ideal Writer puts his butt in the chair every day and writes, even if its just a page or two, regardless of whatever else is happening professionally. Perseverance, refusing to fail, stubborn faith in oneself. However you want to phrase it, that is an essential ingredient for success. I think I was so focused on the professional relationships and comportment, that I ignored one of the fundamentals of writing professionally.

    Kim, absolutely; this is crucial. It’s not just a matter of being polite, although that can be hugely helpful. One also has to be discreet. Once, early in my career, I had a con moment that could have destroyed me. Fortunately, the big-name writer I insulted was generous and understanding, and I managed to grovel my way back into his good graces. But that was a lesson I took to heart.

    Stuart, I’ve witnessed some truly boorish behavior from writers whose work I love, and yes, it soured me on their books. It is remarkable that professionals should need to be told, “Don’t be a lout; it might hurt your sales,” but it seems that common sense doesn’t always get people there.

    Dave, thanks. Glad you liked the list. And thanks as well for the great addition. I totally agree. The ideal writer is constantly learning from pst mistakes, drawing on new experiences, improving his craft. He can alway learn something new from his editor or agent or fellow writers or fans. Humility and a willingness to learn: incredibly important.

  • I’ve witnessed some truly boorish behavior from writers whose work I love, and yes, it soured me on their books.

    It happened to me at WorldCon last year. I screwed my courage to the sticking place and approached the author of a book I admired. Actually, that’s a mild way to put it. I loved the book so much I’ve been known to force it on people! Anyway, I walked over, introduced myself and said, “I loved Mystery Title so much.” She rolled her eyes, looked at her friend and said, “Why do they always want to talk about that book? As if I never wrote anything else.” I was horribly embarrassed and escaped as soon as I could. I can understand she wanted me to gush over her newest book, but making me feel bad for loving her old work guaranteed I wouldn’t read anything else.

  • David, love this! (I may try my hand at the Ideal Agent, but it’s a whopping 48 hours away and so who knows…)

    I’d like to add a coment to solidify the *watch your big mouth at cons* statement. Yes, I know you didn’t say it that way, you are far more polite than I, but I’m paraphrasing for *my* big mouth. One time at a con I had just gotten bad news about the placement of a book in the romance shelves of the chains. Again. It was frustrating, infuriating, and…um…remember the big mouth part?

    A writer friend was at the con, and I told her how unhappy I was. I should not have done that no matter how kind she seemed when she asked how I like my current pub, no matter that she told me I could tell her anything, no matter how much she enjoyed telling me the things she didn’t like about that same house. No matter than she seemed so friendly.

    Yep, my complaints got carried back to the pub. Likely embellished. Likely sweetly embellished as only a Southern woman can. (Yes, I am Southern.)

    I deserved their ire. Keep your complaints to yourself and to a *very* small number of *very* close friends. Smile as you grit your teeth. And assume that you will be get sandbox politics from other casual acquaintances.

  • Robin

    I think it’s amazing how much of that advice is just normal, how-to-be-a-good-[insert profession here] advice. I’ve heard so many stories (like those shared here) about writers who seem to forget that they’re in a profession that requires professionalism. As if they feel that their creativity is stifled by common decency. Seems to happen everywhere: actors and singers can be divas, too, and can lose fans just as easily by forgetting to be professional and gracious. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

    While we’re on the subject, I’m always impressed with the professionalism of the MW contributers. Thanks for the good exmples!

    My favorite (right now) is #4. What? Revision is supposed to be creative and not just corrective?!! But, that sounds like more work!

  • Kate Elliott

    Excellent comments.

    I would add, to #3 & 4, which I completely agree with, that also the Ideal Writer knows when his conception is the right one, and sticks to his guns on some detail or plot point. This gets tricky because it is easily turned into always “sticking to your guns” and never seeing what is right and or helpful in criticism, and refusing to changing anything (as some writers are rumored to do), but at the same time, the writer has to stay true to her vision and trust her instincts in those cases where two visions of the book are colliding.

  • Again, thanks all for the great comments. I’ve just come up for air (I’ve written 4,500+ words today….) My apologies for not replying earlier. Misty, I remember you telling us this story and being simply horrified. It’s one thing to say, “Thanks so much. I’ve gotten to the point where that’s no longer one of my favorites, but I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” or some such. But to make you feel awkward or foolish for paying her a compliment!!! Unbelievable. That would make me strike her off my “To Read” list, too.

    Thanks, Faith. Yes, this is a very small community, and word travels through it very quickly. There are people we all can trust, and we know just who those people are. If you’re not sure, assume the worst and find a more trustworthy person to whom to complain. Guess you learned that one the hard way….

    Robin, yes, it’s really common sense stuff. We should all be courteous and circumspect regardless of what field we’re in. But because writing is often thought of as “different” and not “a real job/business” we often forget that the rules still apply, even here. But yes, those of us make a living doing what we love, have, I believe, a special obligation to be grateful and therefore to pass along that gratitude by being friendly and polite to those who make our careers possible. It just seems right. And thank you for saying that about MW. One of the reasons I love doing this site is that my colleagues are all exceptional people. Another is that the folks who visit the site and comment seem pretty terrific, too. And yeah, #4. Revisions can be truly amazing, but you have to commit to them.

    Hi Kate! Great to see you here. Thanks — glad you liked the post. You make a great point. Arguing for one’s creative vision — firmly but respectfully — is something every writer has to do. We’re not perfect. But neither is whatever editor is working on the book. Sometimes we’re right and they’re not. That doesn’t mean we argue every point. But when we truly believe in what we’ve done, and we don’t want to see it changed, we have to be willing to fight for that belief.

  • The Ideal Writer understands that writing is the art and the book is the baby, while publishing is the business and the book is your product.

    It’s just what I gather. I think it’s hinted here and there, but I wanted to emphasize this. Writers often crack, because while in the publishing phases they still view their writing as extension of themselves, while it should be done with a professional look on how to sell, whether it will sell and if it doesn’t get the needed experience. I haven’t lived through this experience, so my advice might be not so correct and to the point, but many blogs have discussed this one.

  • Emily

    I’ve heard horror stories of writers being pretty rude to fans, but I have to say, I’ve never had it happen to me. And I’ve met all the folks who write regularly here, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences!

    I did get blown off by a rock star once. I was 16 and saw him in a hotel lobby. He signed an autograph, but was clearly way too important to be talking to the likes of me. 🙂 I think I’ve still got the autograph somewhere… Ahh, hair bands…

  • Harry, you make a good point. There is a split in the writer’s psyche, in a way. On the one hand our book is art, and, yes, “our baby.” On the other hand, there are business realities to be dealt with, and it is most definitely a product to be sold. The Ideal Writer needs to understand that it really can be both, and that the boundary is rather fluid at times. We write, we create, but we also sell and market. Thanks for the comment.

    And Emily, thank you as well. I know I speak for the others when I way that we’ve very much enjoyed chatting with you at cons, too. I once met Bela Fleck in the Nashville Airport, and he was as nice as he could be. He even told me that my daughter, who was about 3 at the time, was beautiful. I’ve since bought every one of his albums…

  • I sure hate that I missed this post yesterday. Thank you for an insightful post.

  • Thanks, April. It’s never too late for you to add your observations and/or questions to our discussion.

  • Dino

    Emily, I must have gotten your share of rude writers.
    As has been said, I have removed several people from my read list after having met them.

    But these people are far outweighed by all the great writers I have met over the years, David being at the top of that list.

  • [Toes the dirt, blushes.] Awww . . .

    Thanks, Dino. I’m just waiting until I’m REALLY successful. Then I’m going to turn into a jerk. I’m entitled, right….?

  • Dino

    Sure,but I kinda doubt it would happen.

  • Dee

    Great list! But isn’t it terrible that a list is needed? All of these things are basic professionalism and should be a foregone conclusion for anyone pursuing a writing career. Yet I can’t tell you how many people are:
    A. blissfully ignorant of
    B. surprised and englightened by
    C. vehemently opposed to
    many or all of the things listed here, including #1 through #5 which is really mind boggling. As you guys have mentioned, this is a job, and I wish more writers realized that not doing the things on this list puts them on par with that guy who shows up to the office late with sweat stains on his shirt, is rude to everybody, never does anything on time and complains when he doesn’t get a promotion just for being there.
    Thank you for posting this. If it can give just one more writer or aspiring writer that ah-ha! moment, that’s a great thing. I will definitely be linking others to this 🙂

  • Many thanks, Dee. Glad you found the post valuable. Yes, there are a striking number of the clueless wandering the streets and, more to the point, the hallways of convention hotels. Sometimes you can get through to them and save them from themselves; sometimes not so much. Thanks for the links, and the comment!

  • Great list! I wonder if there’s a correlation to how people act at conventions and wedding receptions?

    By the way, love the new cover for The Dark-Eyes’ War.

  • Hmm, maybe I should stay away from cons. ‘Cause my first response to that author Misty mentioned would be to explain bluntly and in detail why I chose to gush about that particular book and why maybe people weren’t gushing about whatever it was she wanted them to gush about. Now, I don’t read in the mystery genre much, so if necessary, imagine I’m talking about some hypothetical author in whatever genre I _do_ read(Spec Fic).

    Of course, over on Whatever, I responded to the post about “writer mystique” by saying I didn’t believe in it, so maybe that colors my response. Maybe she is frustrated that no one will talk about anything else, but perhaps instead of being a whiny ass in front of a fan, she ought to actually look into the reason seriously. Everywhere I go on the web, I hear about how authors should be productive with their feedback, and everyone commenting on one book and not any of the others sounds like pretty important feedback to me.

    Okay, tangent aside, this is a really nice list, David. Especially point 6 😉

  • Hi, CE. Good to see you here again. Yeah, I think that people who are jerks at one venue will be at others, too…. And thanks, I like the art as well.

    Atsiko, thanks, glad you like the list. I think that’s a great comment about Misty’s story. You’re right: the fact that people want to talk about the book Misty loved but not the others probably says a great deal about those others. Sometimes people don’t want to get the point, if you know what I mean. Given your insights, I don’t think you should stay away from cons at all….

  • Oh, I was joking a little about Kim’s #11. Insights or not, I have a big mouth. 🙂 Of course, I don’t have any fans to piss off yet, so maybe going to a few cons now could teach me to keep my mouth under control.

  • I have a big mouth, too. New Yorker, Jewish, a bit too self-assured for my own good; I come by it naturally. Join us at ConCarolinas — you’ll fit right in.

  • bren

    Hi everyone names Bren and I just wanted to thank you for all you help. I have been reading MW for about a year now. Now that I have a laptop I am trying to learn more. Even though I love reading I have a eye problem that makes it hard. I have never let it stop me. I am writing three fantasy book for the fun of it. I love my story lines and my characters. There is no way I can truely tell you how much I have learned from all of you. Thank you!

  • Hi Bren! Thanks for the comment and for being a loyal reader on the site. I know I speak for all my fellow authors when I say that I’m delighted to know that you’ve found our posts valuable. Best of luck to you with your writing, and now that you’ve commented here, I hope you’ll join in future discussions as well.