Fifteen Things Writers Should Never Do

This title caught my eye on a recent email from Writer’s Digest. It was written by Zachary Petit on 26 October 2020; he is a freelance journalist and editor, and a lifelong literary and design nerd. He’s also a former senior managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Zachary Petit

Excerpts from Mr Petit’s article are as follows: “Based on interviews with authors over the years, conferences, editing dozens of issues of Writer’s Digest, and my own occasional literary forays and flails, here are some points of consensus and observations: 15 of them, things anyone who lives by the pen (or seeks to) might consider. 

1. Don’t assume there is any single path or playbook writers need to follow. Simply put: You have to do what works best for you. Listen to the voices in your head, and learn to train and trust them.

2. Don’t try to write like your idols. Be yourself. The one thing you’ve got that no one else does is your own voice, your own style, your own approach. Use it. 

3. Don’t get too swept up in debates about outlining/not outlining, whether or not you should write what you know, whether or not you should edit as you go along or at the end—again, just experiment and do what works best for you. The freedom that comes with embracing this approach is downright cathartic.

4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to pitching something—always be working on your next book or idea while you’re querying. Keeping your creative side in gear while focusing on the business of selling your work prevents bigger stalls in your writing life down the road.

5. Don’t be unnecessarily dishonest, rude, hostile—people in the publishing industry talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with, and who’s not.

6. Don’t ever hate someone for the feedback they give you. No piece of writing is universally beloved. Accept what nuggets you believe are valid and toss the edits your gut tells to toss. Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.

7. But, don’t be susceptible to the barbs of online trolls—you know, those people who post sociopathic comments for the sake of posting sociopathic comments. Ignore them heartily.

8. Don’t ever lower you guard when it comes to the basics: Good spelling, healthy mechanics, sound grammar. They are the foundations that keep our writing houses from imploding.

9. Don’t ever write something in an attempt to satisfy a market trend and make a quick buck. By the time such a book is ready to go, the trend will likely have passed.

10. Don’t be spiteful about another writer’s success. Celebrate it. As author Amy Sue Nathan recalled, “I learned that another author’s success doesn’t infringe on mine.”

11. Don’t ever assume it’s easy. Success is one of those things that’s often damn near impossible to accurately predict unless you already have it in spades.

12. Don’t forget to get out once in a while. Writing is a reflection of real life. It’s all too easy to sit too long at that desk and forget to live it.

13. Don’t ever discount the sheer teaching power (and therapeutic goodness) of a great read. The makeshift MFA program of countless writers has been a well-stocked bookshelf.

14. Don’t be afraid to give up … on a particular piece. Sometimes, a story just doesn’t work, and you shouldn’t spend years languishing on something you just can’t fix. (After all, you can always come back to it later, right?

15. But, don’t ever really give up. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we have to do. Sure, we can all say over a half-empty bottle of wine that we’re going to throw the towel in this time, but let’s be honest: Very few of us ever do.”

I agree with all fifteen to these points.

Review: Just So Stories

I found a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories in a book shop in Sicily, and I decided to buy it because of memories of my mother reading to me from The Jungle Book when I was a child. I had a particular fascination for the exploits of Rikki-tikki-tavi, the mongoose, who fought the cobras, Nag and Nagaina.

Kipling was born in India in 1865. From the age of seven until he was twelve, he and his younger sister were placed in the care of a couple who boarded English children whose parents lived overseas. In 1877 he went to United Services College, Devon, but since he had no prospect of admission to Oxford, he returned to India where he became assistant editor of a local newspaper in Lahore. He live subsequently in England and America. He took an outspoken role in politics, being anti-German and anti-communist; his son, John, eighteen, was killed at the battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling wrote novels, many short stories and poetry, and was the most popular English writer for several decades. He was the first English-language writer to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1907. He died in 1936 at the age of 70.

Rudyard Kipling

The copy of Just So Stories I bought, while a paperback, appears to be a unique edition as it includes a lengthy introduction by Lisa Lewis, a chronology of Kipling’s life, and in addition to the Just So Stories themselves, there are pen and ink illustrations and related poems by the author himself, as well as explanatory notes on unfamiliar words or phrases appearing in the text.

The title of the book is derived from Kipling’s instruction that the book should be read to children ‘just so’, meaning that a particular emphasis and tone of voice should be used to best present each story. The stories are intended to be personalised as the reader addresses their audience as ‘Best Beloved’.

Some of the stories are familiar: How the Camel Got His Humps, How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, How the Leopard Got His Spots, but there are less well-known tales as well. All of the stories are intended to appeal to children. There is a contrariness and a secretiveness about them that is intended to appeal to children. The illustrations with their explanatory notes would certainly capture the childish imagination.

As remarkable and captivating as these stories are, I find it difficult to imagine that they would generally be popular with today’s children, as the vocabulary (which is not childish) and the settings would seem somewhat obscure.

It seems to me that The Jungle Book is an excellent (and better) choice for children.

Manuscript Theft

This post includes the article which appeared on the Daily Telegraph on 23 December 2020 with the title ‘Scammers Using Every Trick in the Book to Steal Writers’ Work’. It was written by Nick Allen who is the Washington, DC editor of The Telegraph.

Nick Allen

“The publishing world has been bamboozled by an email scam in which a mysterious thief is stealing unpublished manuscripts. Famous and aspiring authors have been targeted with fake emails in an attempt to trick them into sending their work.

“Victims said the perpetrator appears to be an expert, using terms commonly used only in publishing. But the motive remained unclear as there did not appear to be any attempt to profit from the manuscripts.

“The mysterious scam artist has impersonated agents, publishers and editors over the last three years.

“So-called ‘phishing’ emails to authors have been reported in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Those targeted include Margaret Atwood and the Hollywood star and writer Ethan Hawke. Author James Hannahan this month send his unpublished novel about a transgender woman to someone pretending to be his publisher.

“The New York Times explored the black market and the ‘dark web’ but found no evidence that manuscripts were being published or offered for sale there. It appeared that there had also been no attempts to extort money from authors or publishers.

“Catherine Eccles, who owns a literary scouting agency in London, told the newspaper: ‘They know who our clients are, they know how we interact with our clients, where sub-agents fit in and where primary agents fit in.’ She added: ‘They’re very, very good.’

“Last year, Margaret Atwood revealed that there had been a ‘phishing’ effort to steal her manuscript for The Testaments’, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. At the time, she described it as an attempted robbery. She said: ‘People are trying to steal it. Really, they’re trying to steal it and we had to use a lot of code words and passwords.'”

I can tell you that no one has tried to steal any of my manuscripts (although the publicity might be quite helpful).

Can AI Replace Authors?

An article in the Daily Telegraph two days ago written by Charles Cumming caught my eye. It is titles “The Idea of AI Stitching Together a Book is Still Novel”.

This article is part of a series by Harry de Quetteville, the Telegraph’s Special Correspondent, Technology on the Future of Work. During the series he asks holders of representative jobs what they do and then he gives an assessment of the risk of the job being performed by AI.

The chart below, prepared by ONS is a scatter blot of nine groups of jobs against the risk that they well be automated. (Sorry, the text didn’t copy with the chart. The far left vertical line is 15% and the far right vertical line is 75%. The top group 1 includes managers, group 2 is professionals, group 3 is technicians, group 4 is administrators, 5 is skilled trades, 6 is caring and service, 7 is sales & customer service, 8 is machine & plant operators, 9 is elementary operations.)

Amazon’s page on the author says, “Charles Cumming is a British writer of spy fiction. He was educated at Eton College (1985-1989) and the University of Edinburgh (1990-1994), where he graduated with 1st Class Honours in English Literature. The Observer has described him as ‘the best of the new generation of British spy writers who are taking over where John le Carré and Len Deighton left off’.”

Charles Cumming

The article says, “What does your job involve?

I write spy thrillers. I am a procrastinator but I try to write at least 1000 words a day. Of course then I delete 900. It’s hard to seize full control of characters and the suspense of the plot; there are perhaps one in seven great days. When I’m starting a new book, I feel my way into it, sketching out a general idea of what’s going to happen and where it will take place. Then I plot it out, make research visits, and read about the politics and espionage on the subject. That leads to three or more ideas, at which stage there could be a lot of plates spinning: I have to remember my characters and be true to them. And I sit with those components for the year or two the book takes to write.

Has Covid affected life?

Writing is solitary anyway. But contemporary writers do now have to make the decision to ignore Covid or incorporate it. For my latest, I’m incorporating.

How long have you been doing it?

25 years.

What training did you get?

None. Just reading other books, and a sense of self-confidence that I could write decent sentences.

How much does it pay?

They say there are 50 writers in the UK who make a living solely from writing books. Everyone else has to have another job – screenwriting or teaching or whatever. I’ve had years where I’ve made 30k and one Hollywood year where I made 350k. Income is so variable it’s hard to plan, to know how much you’re going to have at any point.

What took longest to learn?

Understanding that it’s a business, that you’re only as good as your last book and will be jettisoned if your books are not making money. I certainly began with an artistic hat on, but I realised that books will be read as entertainments, as stories and escapism. To imagine they are anything else is a pipe dream. As long as people appreciate them, though, I’m happy.

What is the most boring bit?

Correcting proofs.

Will you always do this?

If you gave me a vineyard with no frosts, I would certainly consider a sabbatical. I’m not one of those writers who must write.

Do you think your job will be the same when you retire?

There is already screenplay software that will fill in a lot of structure, and similar for fiction. But the idea of AI being able to tie it all together feels some distance off.

Analysis (at this point Harry de Quetteville takes over)

Computer writing – or at least manipulating words – became one of 2020’s hottest technological topics. In May, the American lab OpenAI announced GPT-3 software which produces almost eerily good text. GPT (which stands for Generative PreTrained Transformer) is itself an extension of Natural Language Processing (NLP) which uses a brain-like computing process known as deep learning to extract information in documents and which itself has come on in leaps and bonds. The big question is, do computers ‘understand’ what they are ‘reading’ and ‘writing’? The answer is no, at least for the moment. But does that matter, given that their appearance of understanding is increasingly perfect?

Would machines actually do better?

The dramatic improvement of AI’s handling of language suggests it’s not impossible.

Bottom line: Risky

We could well see a GPT-3 bestseller within three years. Implications for this job group: Group 3 includes many creative types, and whatever instincts may tell you, they are far from immune. The ONS for example, thinks artists (35pc at risk) are more vulnerable than paramedics (28pc). Most vulnerable of all? Sports players – half of whom are expected to lose their jobs.

ONS jobs risk estimate: 35c.”

For those of us who write, this sobering bit of information is unlikely to be welcome in the midst of a pandemic.