Learn, But Be Careful Out There

Hi Folks,

Note: I’m not sure why this post missed going out on June 1, but I’m looking into it. In any case, here it is a day late. Harvey

This is an important blog post. I first posted it over on The Journal in slightly different form. I encourage you to sign up for that blog. It is the more important of the two, and if this one goes away, that one will continue.

As you know, I advocate that writers never stop learning. The best way to learn (once you have a good working knowledge of grammar, punctuation, etc.) is to read for pleasure. Then, when you read a passage or a story or a scene that absolutely floors you, GO BACK after you’ve finished reading for pleasure and read it again, this time with an eye to HOW the writer did what he or she did to knock your socks off. Study. You’ll get it.

When you enjoy a particular writer’s style—the way the story flows or the rhythms or the unique word choice, for example—I even advocate writing the passage or scene or story again yourself, word for word, NOT to publish, but just to experience that flow or those rhythms.

I’ve gone so far as to write an alternate ending for a novel of one very famous writer to see how closely I could keep to her style. Others to whom I showed the work couldn’t tell a difference. Writing parodies or take-offs is another excellent way to study.

Now, will such exercises supplant your own personal style? Absolutely not. But they will inform it. They will help you grow as a writer, help your writing improve.

And best of all, you won’t have to THINK about it consciously. What you need will have seeped into your subconscious as you did the exercises, and it will flow out of your fingers into the keyboard as you write.

One of my personal favorite writers is James Lee Burke. The first book I read of his (a few months ago) was In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. I intend to read everything he’s written before it’s all over.

Another of my favorites is whoever wrote the screenplay(s) for The Godfather series. Another is whoever wrote the screenplay(s) for the Lonesome Dove series. And for the film Tombstone (with Val Kilmer). And pretty much every episode of NYPD Blue.

Okay, so learning is good. We probably agree on that. And improving is even better. So what’s the beef? What’s that “But Be Careful Out There” part all about?

I know dozens, maybe hundreds, of writers and would-be writers who listen to and absorb at face value pretty much anything anyone says or writes about the craft of writing. That goes double if they’re listening to or reading something from a successful writer.


Now it would take a whole other blog post to talk about false instructors, people who apparently get some perverse pleasure from teaching something they know absolutely nothing about. On that particular subtopic, I’ll just say this: If they say something that sounds ridiculous (like “get rid of all instances of ‘had’ from your work” or “I can’t explain xxxxxxxxx but I know it when I see it”), stop listening immediately. Seriously. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about and I’d be more than happy to debate it with them. I DESPISE false instructors for all the harm they do.

But in this post, I want to talk about writers who are successful under pretty much any definition of success: they’ve hit bestseller lists, they’ve made a ton of money, they’ve achieved prestigious award nominations, they’ve sold tons of copies, etc. Any or all of the above.

Doesn’t that mean everything they say is gold?

No. Absolutely not. They are human.

Humans have quirks and prejudices, and no human being knows everything about any topic.

Also, no human being knows the intentions of other human beings. Period.

Please, be skeptical. If you’ve attended my own writing conferences over the years, you’ve heard me say you should Question Everything, even from me. Questioning costs you nothing and it helps you learn. And if the instructor (famous writer, etc.) becomes defensive or angry when you question what he says, listen to his future musings with an even larger grain of salt.

Let me give you an example of a usually great source of information who sometimes completely blows it. This guy has touched all the success markers I listed above. He’s written bestsellers. He’s sold millions of copies of his books worldwide and made good money (I assume) doing it. He’s also been in the business as a writer for over 30 years. Good credentials, yes? But he’s also human, with all that entails.

Dean Wesley Smith is my own unintentional mentor. He and I are about the same age, and we’ve both lived very active, physical lives albeit in different ways. We’ve both endured severe physical trauma (though again of different types) and come out the other side. And we speak at least the same family of languages, those that arose during the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.

I have learned a great deal listening to Dean and reading what he’s written. I’ve learned more about writing in the past year, mostly from Dean, than I learned over the previous 60+ years combined, and I will be forever grateful to him for that, above and beyond all the money I’ve paid for his online workshops and video lectures.

But again, he’s human.

The fact is, sometimes Dean throws a broad blanket of degradation over anything he doesn’t understand or doesn’t like. He tends to generalize, and for me it’s a red flag. Generalizations indicate ignorance. Not stupidity, but a lack of knowledge or a lack of desire to gain knowledge. Just for a few examples, in the past, he’s written that

  • Nobody who edits can possibly be a good writer. (There is no possible way he can know that.)
  • All book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists. (Some of them are, but certainly not all. I suspect he had a bad experience with a bad freelance editor in the past.)
  • The only legitimate editors work for New York publishing houses. (Doesn’t WMG publishing, Dean’s own house, have an editor?)
  • Never have your work edited by anyone who hasn’t written at least [select any number over 50] novels (Huh? I thought editors can’t be writers.)
  • Nobody who started writing in this century can possibly be a polished (“Stage Four”) writer. (I started writing way back in the previous century but I don’t buy this for a second.)

And the list goes on.

These generalizations—like ALL generalizations—are myths, and they’re absolutely as bad as the generalization that “If he writes fast, he can’t possibly write well.”

For one thing, claiming to know someone else’s intent (all book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists) is a massive dose of bovine excrement. That’s no less silly than claiming to know how well someone writes when you haven’t read so much as a paragraph of that writer’s work.

And really? The twenty-something straight out of college who is working for a New York house is a “legitimate” editor whereas people who have a gift for the language and a thorough knowledge of all the rules of grammar and punctuation are not?

Now, had Dean written that

  • SOME people who are great editors couldn’t write fiction well, or
  • SOME book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists, or
  • SOME book doctors and freelance editors are scam artists,

I would agree.

You get the point.

But what bothers me most about this is that, judging from the comments on his posts, a LOT of young writers (in experience, not necessarily age) are ingesting whole everything he says.

So I’m just sayin’, don’t be one of those. Develop a healthy level of skepticism.

Certainly you should continue to learn from those with experience, especially those whose work you admire. When you hear or read something that makes sense to you, use it.

But when it doesn’t make sense to you, ask for clarification. And if when you ask, the source becomes defensive, then I recommend 1) disbelieving what he said and 2) listening to anything in the future from that source with even more skepticism.

And the same thing goes for generalizations.

‘Til next time, be careful out there, and happy writing!


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