Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own

The Salt Lake Comic-Con is basically a literary convention, because we have such a high concentration of genre fiction writers nearby that a plurality of the panels here are all about writing. Consequently, whenever Comic-Con is near (by the time this post goes live, it will actually be occurring) I start thinking more about writing. It’s the one creative career I’ve put more effort into than any other except maybe the far smaller market of tabletop roleplaying games. So, y’know, focusing my efforts on that second one was probably a bad idea.

In any case, I was recently linked to this website, and it’s given me very mixed feelings. On the one hand, the specific publishing strategy this guy is advocating is not a bad idea. On the other hand, he’s positioning himself as someone who knows the secret truths about the publishing industry, and while that may be true to an extent, he seems to completely lack any understanding of why what he’s doing works at all.

To start, let me briefly sum up his publishing strategy: Always keep writing, revise as little as possible. Now, if you read his publishing myths series all the way through, you will soon notice that this is a filthy lie. He actually makes reference to editing as he goes, he just doesn’t have a separate editing stage to his writing process. That’s not generally a good idea, because usually this leads to constant revision of the first chapter and almost no work getting done on chapter two, but apparently he can make it work. The important takeaway, though, is that he does do revision work. His process is just kind of weird. This also means that when he talks about how he can draft a book a year working fifteen minutes a day and then never revise, he’s lying, because he does take time to revise, it’s just mixed in with the writing of the first draft.

That’s not to say that I think he has a secret workshop full of Chinese word slaves who produce all his writing for him. I’m sure that every one of his absurdly mega-huge bibliography really was written by him, and that he can release ten books a year, which is just about an order of magnitude greater than what’s considered standard. The strategy of “take what you learned from the last book and use it in the next one” is potentially effective, in that it lets you drive the time it takes to create a single book way down without completely sacrificing quality.

What the dude doesn’t seem to realize is that what he’s really doing is riding the 80/20 principle. 80% of a book’s quality comes from the initial 20% of the effort, and that’s recursive, which means that even if you take 20% of the time to produce a book that’s 80% as good, you can loop that again to put in 4% of the time to get a book that’s 64% as good. This principle is a rough guideline and the exact numbers don’t usually bear out. For example, in terms of military hardware, the Soviet Union pursued a strategy of using material that was 80% as good as United States gear but had 50% of the cost. That’s not nearly as good a ratio as the standard 80/20 principle, but you can see how it’s still cost-effective.

The sweet spot that Dean Wesley Smith seems to have stumbled across is that he can make a book 80% as good for approximately 10% of the effort (alternatively, he’s nailed the 80/20 principle exactly, but also works twice as much as other writers, which is entirely possible since he claims his method reduces writing down only to the fun parts). If your goal is to produce a masterpiece, or even to have each individual book you write be really good, this is a terrible strategy. If your goal is to be financially successful for writing, this is a great strategy, and that’s a perfectly noble goal and I entirely endorse that strategy. In fact, for a few months in late 2015 and early 2016, I came up with and pursued exactly that strategy before being distracted by a series of unfortunate events and mostly abandoning the project (it’s now part of my backlog). If you write ten times as many books as a professional author and each one gets one-tenth the sales, you will also be a successful author, financially anyway.

And there’s other benefits to this strategy, too. The Exposure Effect means that if you market each new release to the same place, the frequency with which people see these book ads means that people will see them a lot, get used to them, and come to like them out of nothing else but pure familiarity. The depth of your backlog means that if you catch a few fans who really like your style and have a lot of disposable income, that can turn out hundreds of dollars from a single person (probably spread out over 6-12 months, but still) who really likes your style or your niche. If you’re the only one writing space western fantasy erotica, 80% as good can still make you the best one on the market, and every fan of space western fantasy erotica is going to buy every single book you write for so long as they can afford to do so.

So make no mistake, “suffocate the enemy with your soldiers’ corpses” is as valid a tactic in professional authoring as in 40k. Not only that, it’s the best tactic for early writers. The hardest hurdle to get over is just to finish your first novel. That’s what NaNoWriMo is all about. Just write a big long story and finish it. Few people make it that far, so the strategy of “don’t make it perfect, just get it done, put a bow on it, and ship it” is great for first timers even if they’re in it for the art (or, more likely, the fame) and want to maximize the odds of competing with Brandon Sandersen in terms of popularity and recognition rather than maximize the amount of money their books bring in. And in addition to that, cultivating such a mercenary attitude towards writing will certainly make it easier to ignore bad suggestions from writing groups and beta readers (both concepts which Dean Wesley Smith despises), and the reality is that if you cultivate a writing group or set of beta readers drawn from a more or less random sampling of readers or fellow writers, 25-50% of them will not understand the genre in general or the importance of authorial voice and will provide advice which is mainly “make it more like a different genre/voice” and about 5% of them will be incompetent narcissists whose advice is only intended to build up their own importance or sometimes specifically designed to hurt other people. If you’re trying to produce great art, then having 30-55% of the people who read your book say they don’t like it for dumb reasons means there’s pretty good odds you’ll make dumb changes to try and please them. If you’re trying to bury the market, you’re only going to implement suggestions which don’t slow down your process, which means any suggestion that drains passion is right out (also, you’re going to implement the suggestions which don’t slow you down to the next novel, not the current one, because you publish stuff as soon as you finish the initial draft).

So it’s not like Dean Wesley Smith is advocating a strategy that can’t work. It’s just that he’s completely misidentified what that strategy is and why it works. The guys who run Writing Excuses include some of the most culturally influential genre fiction authors currently alive. They’re pretty supportive of most of these “myths” that Dean Wesley Smith is banging on about. On top of that, I know from personal experience that going into a story with scenes that didn’t really work the first time around and rewriting them can drastically improve the story for very little effort (despite having followed the “bury them with your corpses” strategy, I did have a revision period during my brief foray into self-publishing). My revision process is pretty light compared to the norm (advantage of being a fairly heavy outliner), but it still exists, and I was able to get three ~25k short stories out in about as many months. That was with all previous writing experience having been purely hobbyist and while treating the writing as a side-job done mostly for fun. Revising a ~25k story usually took about three fully dedicated evenings (which in practice usually took about a week, because again, online classes), and that was with tons of careful line editing because I decided partway through to change from present to past tense. The point here being, revising my work drastically improved certain stories and also didn’t really prevent me from taking the “bury the market” strategy at all.

Do the Dean Wesley Smith thing if you want. It’s not a bad strategy. Just remember, it’s a mercenary strategy. Despite his protestations about “pride in your work” and “being confident in your art” and so on, the actual strategy here is to sacrifice a relatively small amount of quality in order to quintuple outputs and thus be able to deliver pretty good content which can still sell at full price or close to it, but in vastly greater numbers.

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