In recent years, my extended family has taken to celebrating its annual Christmas get-together at a certain beach house in Lincoln City, Oregon. It dawned on me when I got there that Dean Wesley Smith, best-selling sci-fi author and instructor for the writing workshop I'm currently taking, also lives in Lincoln City with his equally amazing and brilliant wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. So on a Friday night, I emailed Smith and essentially invited myself over to visit his offices at WMG Publishing. He conferred with Kris and said the following night at about 8:30 -- which turned out to be right in the middle of my family's gift exchange -- would be great.
I promised everyone I wouldn't stay more than 30 minutes. It turned out to be almost an hour.
How can I describe the experience? In the photo shown here, you see one room of about half a dozen in the WMG facility. In this particular shot, I captured Smith looking over some of the shelves that contain publisher overflow of his and Rusch's books. Smith alone has published over 100 novels under his own and many other names, selling over seven million copies. Other rooms contain box after box, stack after stack, wall after wall of titles from throughout the history of sci-fi publishing. Take your favorite esoteric hobby, the one that you love more than just about anything in the world, and imagine walking through a museum dedicated to nothing but that. As he guided me through the place, which fills the upper level of an office building, I found myself thinking, "Only 30 minutes? Did I really say that?"
As any good host would, Smith offered me something to drink, and I refused. In retrospect, this was a terrible mistake. You see, after the tour, I sat down with Smith and two other sci-fi novelists, Christina and Steve York, in the office's main space. On my right, towering over the Yorks, was a wall filled with every first issue book ever put out by Pulphouse Publishing. (Smith and Rusch ran Pulphouse during the 1990s, and I was an avid collector at that time during college.) We sat on couches and plush rockers, a gigantic LCD TV perched above Smith on yet another loaded bookshelf. Chris worked on her knitting as we chatted. Steve fiddled with his new Nexus tablet.
If you ever played junior varsity, or whatever after-school activity came below JV and didn't even earn a name, you might recall how you felt about your professional sports heroes at that time. They existed on TV, exalted somewhere on the far side of Mt. Olympus. They were your role models, your dream, as you kept running laps and enduring ridicule from the jocks. As a kid, this was how I felt about professional authors every time someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Hell, who am I kidding? It's STILL how I feel about them. I've made a fair living as a journalist, but somehow it's always felt different and insufficient, because I never really wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a novelist, a fiction author, a storyteller. I made it to varsity level as a writer, but in the wrong sport.
This was my first time being in the presence of the real thing, people who made their living doing what I've always wanted to do. They welcomed me in, let me ask my silly questions, and made me feel at home. I wish I'd accepted that drink, if only to have that one little thing more in common with them.
I apologize if this all sounds like trite hero worship. But there I was, just turned 42, and I felt like I was 12 again, gawky, still waiting for my voice to change, asking all of the questions only a noob would ask.
"You must have seen so many wanna-be writers try to make it," I said. "I'm sure it follows the 80/20 rule, with most people never getting off the ground."
Smith laughed and held up his fingers in a tiny pinch. "Try more like 99.9%," he said. "The odds of success are terrible."
I'd expected this. "So if you had to pick one quality that separated that tiny fraction from the sea of wanna-bes, what would it be? Discipline?"
This sparked some conversation among the three, but eventually Smith replied, "No, I don't think it's discipline. It's determination. They make it because something in them keeps making them come back, even if they take years off. They do it because they have to."
Trying not to be rude, I finally stole a glance at the time on my cell phone and cringed. I thought it might have been 20 minutes. We were coming up on 45. Time flies when you're having a religious experience.
In such situations, I inevitably forget to ask the most important questions. I knew I only had seconds left, so I kept repeating the same phrase in my head, waiting until a gap opened in the conversation traffic into which I could blurt, "What about editing?"
"What about it?" asked Smith.
"I've read all your blog entries about scheduling time and output per hour and how a thousand words every day adds up to X number of novels and Y number of short stories per year. But what about the editing time? Like, I just finished first draft on my first novel. What about..."
All three of them starting chuckling.
"What?" I asked.
Smith shook his head patiently, as if he'd said this a thousand times, and the Yorks nodded along with him. "There is no second draft. You write it and send it and move on." My look of perplexity must have been obvious. "Look, forget all that stuff the English professors say. If you want to make a living at writing, you have to trust that you will always be your own worst critic. In the 28 years we've been together, there's never been a story that Kris hasn't put in my hands without saying, 'This is just shit.' And they're not. Most of them are great. You will always be too hard on yourself. Write it, send it, move on."
"No, no, no," I said. "Wait. Now, I know that the first dr-- the draft I just finished is shit. It's got structure problems, character problems, motivation problems. I didn't even figure the book out until it was half-done, but I made myself finish because the stopping is always what's killed me before. What do you do when you, the author, know it's shit, and your three alpha readers all look at you like you're off your meds or something and they tell you it's shit? Then what?"
Smith stood up, found a square of paper towel, and folded it in half. "This is the manuscript. Here's what you do."
He turned and tossed the sheet in the nearest waste basket.
"And if you think that's hard," he said, "imagine what it's like when you've used a typewriter and all your pages are covered in white-out."
"You see, when you write fresh -- your 'first draft' -- you're writing from the back of your brain. The quality of your material is here." He raised a hand high above his head, as if reaching for a shelf. "When you edit, you're using your analytic mind. It's rigid. It's self-doubting. Second drafts always, always end up down here." Smith motioned at chest level. "They never get better. So if you have to, throw it away and write it again. Everything you need is already up here." He pointed at his temple. "But real working writers don't waste time on drafts and revising. Your time is better spent creating."
(Note: I should add that I've read in DWS's blog posts that he actually goes through three editing steps: 1) Finish manuscript. 2) Give it to his alpha reader (Kris). 3) Integrate Kris's copy editing and other minor corrections. Then it's out the door. So it's not wholly without editing, but it's more copy editing than drafting.)
This practically knocked the wind out of me. It sounds like one in a long string of cliches, but it was as if I'd been buried under crushing debt and had suddenly won the lottery. Perhaps more to the point, it was like being struck with total recall after a long bout of amnesia. Hadn't I already known this? Didn't it feel like the answer had always been there, waiting for me to uncover it? The world loves to discourage, obfuscate, and distract from the simple truths. Welcome to the real world, Neo.
I already knew the answer to my next question: What if your unrevised drafts aren't good enough and nobody buys them? Why, then you write another. And another. And with time and practice, people eventually will buy them. There are no short-cuts. But there are kind people who have taken the long road and are willing to show you the way...if you're ready to see it.
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.