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1. Ideas: Don't Stop with One Good Idea

by Deren Hansen

Animator Patrick Smith, writing at Scribble Junkies, shared some of John Lasseter's advice in a post on the 7 Creative Principles of Pixar.

The first principle is, "Never come up with just one idea."

Here's how John explains it:
“Regardless of whether you want to write a book, design a piece of furniture or make an animated movie: At the beginning, don’t start with just one idea – it should be three.

“The reason is simple. If a producer comes to me with a proposal for a new project, then usually he has mulled over this particular idea for a very long time. That limits him. My answer always reads: 'Come again when you have three ideas, and I don’t mean one good and two bad. I want three really good ideas, of which you cannot decide the best. You must be able to defend all three before me. Then we’ll decide which one you’ll realize.'

“The problem with creative people is that they often focus their whole attention on one idea. So, right at the beginning of a project, you unnecessarily limit your options. Every creative person should try that out. You will be surprised how this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things you hadn’t even considered before. Through this detachment, you suddenly gain new perspectives. And believe me, there are always three good ideas. At least.”
The first key here, and it bears repeating, is, "this requirement suddenly forces you to think about things your hadn't even considered before." There are a lot of people out there having good ideas. If you stop with your first good idea, chances are very good that someone has already thought of it. But with each additional good idea you bring to the table, the chance of someone else thinking of the exact same ideas drops dramatically.

The second key is the perspective you gain through detachment. That is, if you have more than one good idea then you've got a fall-back if one of the ideas proves less good than you thought. More importantly, you can compare and contrast the ideas and get a better sense of their relative merits than if you have only one, precious idea ... gollum.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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2. Ideas: Rebuttal Theory and Adding to the Conversation

by Deren Hansen

I once heard that Shannon Hale's approach to retelling fairy tales is motivated by the question, "What's bugging me about this story?"

I started thinking seriously about this question after reading several books that bugged me enough that I wanted to make a rebuttal (it's hard to set aside old debating instincts). It's not that I had problems with the books themselves as much as some of the ideas in the stories.

Two interesting things happened as I thought about the ideas that bugged me in each story and they ways in which I might handle them differently:
  1. I was drawn into the "normal science" process of thinking through each idea (that I described last week) and uncovered a host of interesting ideas.
  2. The different lines of inquiry came together as a fascinating story molecule.
Shannon's question, "What's bugging me about this story?" is a powerful idea generator if you follow it with a second question: "How would I do it differently?"

There's another important consequence: as you work through the ideas until you can clearly express what bothers you about the story and how you would handle it differently, you find you have something to add to the conversation.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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3. What's it About?

by Deren Hansen

A writer considering a new project and a reader considering whether to read a new book are both confronted with the same question: "Is it worth my time?"

For the reader, it's only a matter of eight to ten hours. For the writer, the number of hours is on the order of thousands. How can you get some reassurance that your project is worth all that writing time?

Think about the way you answer the analogous question as a reader. If someone recommends a book, your first question is likely, "What's it about?

While it doesn't guarantee success, if you can answer the reader's inevitable question, "What's it about?" (and if the answer is more interesting than, "a total and utter yawn-making bore of bores,"*) you might have something worth undertaking.

The holy grail of what's-it-about-ness is a single line that captures the essence and the enticement of the book. You might have heard it called a one-line-pitch, a log-line (from film), or a hook. Beware, though, because the kind of hook we're talking about has more than one sharp edge. First, like poetry and other concise art forms, they're hard to do well. Second, if you do come up with a stunning hook it's hard to resist the temptation to think your job is done. (Snakes on a Plane, need I say more?) Third, you may come up with a line that's perfect--if you already know the story--but doesn't say a lot to new readers. (You could, for example, say Harry Potter is about a lightning-shaped scar: that line packs loads of meaning if you know the series, but won't rate as appetizing if you know nothing about the story.)

You're on firmer ground if you can work out a synopsis, outline, or even a story bible. But these exercises come with the attendant distraction of all the cool things you're going to include in the book, and you're liable to sound like a four-year-old when you talk about it ("... and it has this, and this, and this, and this ...). Once again, you'll miss the what's-it-about mark, this time with too much information.

Caveats about it's reliability aside, my favorite framework is Wikipedia, specifically the notion of writing a Wikipedia entry for your book. To be clear, this is a completely private exercise: it's only value is to help you think clearly enough about your book that you can zero in on the one or two paragraphs that explain what your story is about (i.e., the introductory paragraphs that appear above the contents box in a Wikipedia entry).

How do you do it?

Like artists who trace the masters, find a few entries that do a good job of capturing books with which you are familiar and emulate them.

Let me reiterate that while you may be able to use some or all of these exercises when it comes time to market the book, their primary value is in helping you to develop a clear and compelling mental model of the book. Your sense of what it's about will guide you as you work through the project, even it if changes over time.

The goal is to discover the glowing ember--the combustible combination of concept and passion--that is the essence of what it's about.

* Thank you, Vicar of Dibley

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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4. Organic Conflict

by Deren Hansen

Some time ago Julie Danes pointed out that conflict should not be contrived.

What is a contrived conflict?

In comic books, bad guys are bad because they're bad. Slap on a label like, "Nazi," or, "Terrorist," and your job is done. Other examples include oppressive clergy, greedy corporations, and government conspiracies. It's conflict by definition, which is the height of contrivance.

Another kind of contrived conflict is what I call irrational conflict: characters at loggerheads whose differences could be resolved with a rational, five-minute conversation. Romances are particularly liable to this kind of contrivance when the author can't think of a better reason to keep the leads apart. Yes, misunderstandings occur in real life, as do coincidences, but as a general rule (because you don't want your readers rolling their eyes) you're only allowed one of each.

Of course, it's not that some kinds of conflict are contrived and other are not. Any conflict where the reader sees the puppet strings, or worse, the puppeteer (author), is contrived. Readers need and want to believe that the conflict in the story arises organically from the mix of setting, plot, and characters, and that the conflict couldn't have played out any other way.

When I think about organic conflict, whether it arises from characters or plot, I imagine the parties to the conflict as forces of nature. Picture what happens when a surge of the restless sea meets the immovable cliff. Or when the speeding car meets the brick wall.

The most compelling conflict feels inevitable: notwithstanding everyone's best efforts, the collision occurs.

Unlike the watered-down food label, "natural," organic conflict is a much healthier, and a much more satisfying choice.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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5. Conflict: Inner, Personal, and Universal

by Deren Hansen

In a discussion about narrative conflict, someone suggested that there are only three kinds of conflict: inner, personal, and universal, where personal is conflict between persons and universal is conflict with forces larger than your social circle.

As I played with the idea, I hit upon the exercise of characterizing the kinds of stories you get when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict in terms of the nine combinations of the inner, personal, and universal dimensions.

In the following table, read from the protagonist's row to the antagonist's column. For example, if the protagonist's concerns are primarily internal and the antagonists are personal, you have a coming-of-age story or a story about establishing one's place and identity.


InnerPsychologicalComing-of-age; Establishing one's place and identityThe socio-path or super man
PersonalIntervention and healingRomance, mystery, thriller, speculative fiction, etc. (i.e., Most kinds of narrative conflict)Rebels and underdogs
UniversalFatalist and extremistsOrder vs. chaos (anti-rebellion)Epic and political struggles

What I found most interesting about this exercise is that the primary locus of conflict in most stories falls in the center square (personal vs. personal). Many other stories fall on the diagonal (inner vs. inner or universal vs. universal). Asymmetric stories (e.g., personal vs. universal), are rarer.

I suspect this is because as social animals inter-personal conflict is the easiest to understand. Even if your story depends on another kind of conflict, your narrative will generally be most effective if you can put a face on the enemy for your readers. Your band of freedom fighters may be up against an empire, but your readers will identify with the dark lord who makes finding them his personal quest than with the legions of faceless soldiers he deploys. Similarly, readers will find a psychological struggle more accessible if there are other actors who symbolize the inner conflict.

It's also interesting to consider where different genres cluster in the matrix. For example, romance and mystery generally land in the upper left quadrant while speculative fiction and thrillers land in the lower right (with all, of course, overlapping in the middle).

Stories, clearly, aren't limited to one kind of conflict, so this analysis is only useful when we're considering the primary mode of conflict. Still, the moral of this story is that conflict is best when it's personal.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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6. Internal Conflict: Sine Qua Non

by Deren Hansen

There's an entire set of words and phrases which have come down to us from Latin that we're slowly losing because a knowledge of ancient languages is no longer a hallmark of a good education. Even Harry Potter hasn't been able to resurrect more than a few spell phrases from that dead language.

It's unfortunate because some ideas are best expressed in other languages. For example, sine qua non is a Latin legal term that we must translate into the more awkward, "without which it could not be." Sine qua non, captures the notion of something so necessary it's definitional.

I thought of that phrase when in a comment on Non-character Antagonists and Conflict, Anne Gallagher said:

Sometimes I think dealing with internal conflict makes a better story. Character driven narrative rather than plot driven.

I'm also under the impression (in my genre I should clarify -- romance) there ALWAYS needs to be internal conflict for either the hero or heroine. One must always be conflicted by love.
Anne is right: internal conflict is the sine qua non of story.

Some of you, particularly if you equate internal conflict with navel gazing or whiny teenagers, may roll your eyes at that assertion. You may say, for example, that your story is about action and plot and your characters neither want nor need to take time off from dodging bullets to inventory their feelings.

I understand your objection, but answer this question: what's the common wisdom about characters and flaws?

If you said (thought) something along the lines of flawed = good (i.e., relatable and interesting), perfect = bad (i.e., boring or self-indulgent), you've been paying attention. (And if your answer includes, "Mary Sue," give your self bonus points).

So why do we like flawed characters?

Is it because they allow us to feel superior?

No. It's simply that flaws produce internal conflict. That's what people really mean when they say they find flawed characters more compelling than perfect ones.

Internal conflict gives us greater insight into character. There's nothing to learn from a perfect character: if we can't compare and contrast the thought processes that early in the character's development lead to failure and later to success, we can't apply any lessons to our own behavior.

Internal conflict also creates a greater degree of verisimilitude (because who among us doesn't have a seething mass of contradictions swimming around in their brain case).

Internal conflict and the expression of character flaws arises from uncertainty. If your characters are certain about how to resolve the problem, you don't have a story you have an instruction manual.

Ergo, conflict is the sine qua non of story.

That said, stories where conflicts at different levels reflect and reinforce each other are the most interesting because their resolution can be the most satisfying.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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7. The Power of Story

by Deren Hansen

There’s a powerful story at the heart of this holiday season for the Christian world—and no, it doesn’t involve a charitable trespasser or a bioluminescent proboscis.

Setting aside distractions, like the claim that the event we celebrate didn’t actually occur when we celebrate it, the Nativity—also called the greatest story ever told—is, in fact, the most common story ever told. Until the dystopian clone factories open, I can say with absolute confidence that all of us have experienced this story as one of the major characters. And many of us have experienced this story as one of the other two main characters.

What is remarkable, as a writer, is to consider the way in which this story transformed the most common of events into something of world-changing—and some would say eternal—significance that has echoed through two millennia and counting without losing its potency.

Many of us simply hope someone will notice our stories. And none of us can predict which of the stories now being told will still be told in a hundred or a thousand years. But there are stories that resonate across time and space, illuminating the very core of who we are or hope to be.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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8. Closing the Books

by Deren Hansen

In a world where the only constant is change, how can you say what something really is? We like to think of our adult selves as relatively fixed. At a physiological level, however, the ongoing processes of cellular senescence and regeneration mean that roughly every seven years we get completely new bodies. Are we really still the same person?

Questions like that keep philosophers gainfully employed but they also bedevil other fields. Accountants, being eminently practical, have a simple solution: they close the books. While originally a concrete activity involving physical accounting books the phrase now refers to the end of one accounting period and the beginning of another. By creating accounting periods, it becomes possible to say exactly what the balances were at that point without the distraction of pending transactions.

Closing the books, in accounting and beyond, has two advantages: first, it enables us to take stock of our situation and assess our progress toward our objectives; second, it allows us to start with a new baseline uncluttered by the uncertainties that accumulated during the last period.

The beauty of the notion of closing the books for writers is that we’re greeted with a blank page when we open the new book. Some people find blank pages terrifying to the point of immobility: what should they put where? But filling blank pages is what we’re all about. How will you fill yours?

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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9. Narrative Complexity

by Deren Hansen

Complexity in fiction is … well, a complex topic.

Clearly you don’t want to write something so complex that it leaves readers perplexed and frustrated. At the other extreme, readers are quickly bored by a story that’s too simple.

Complexity, which is best understood as the degree to which there is variation in the results each time you sample something, is important in fiction only because the world in which we live is complex. Romance is a simple example of the complexities with which we deal: each time we interact with that certain someone we come away with a collection of indirect evidence that we’re rising or falling in his or her esteem but rarely anything definitive. Compared to the simplicity of species that go into heat or spawn at the same time each year, it’s a wonder we ever managed to reproduce.

In terms of plot, complexity is what makes books necessary: you don’t have a novel if you don’t need several hundred pages to fully understand what’s going on.

The art of the storyteller is to take what looks like a complex mess of unrelated threads and weave them into a tapestry that, when fully revealed, shows the reader how to make sense of it all.

It’s a topic to which I’ve devoted enough thought that I’m giving a presentation tomorrow (7:00 pm on Thursday, January 17, 2013) at the Pleasant Grove Public Library (Pleasant Grove, Utah) as part of their Professional Writers Series, titled, “Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps.” I’ve also made the presentation available online at http://prezi.com/gzcbq80jptly for those of you who may be interested but unable to attend.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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10. The Home Improvement Guide to Story Structure

by Deren Hansen

[Several people who were unable to attend my presentation last week asked about the subject. What follows is one of the topics I covered.]

There is an eternal law, inscribed into the very essence of the universe before even the gods came on the scene, that any home improvement project will require at least three trips to the store.

Don't believe me?

Many creation myths show the gods making several attempts before we get the world in which we live. Even the book of Genesis has a do-over with Noah.


Many stories are basically a series of try/fail cycles.

Consider the archetypical home improvement project:

  1. Having decided to undertake some repair or improvement, you go to the store and get what you need.
  2. After working on the project for a while, you make another trip to the store to get all the things you didn't know you needed.
  3. Finally, a few injuries and explicatives later, you make a final trip to the store to get what you really need (as well as to replace the pieces you broke).
Of course, there are times when you make one trip because you know what you're doing and what you need. The point is that you would rarely tell a story about that activity because, a, "This was the problem so I got that part I needed and fixed it," story is boring--in fact, it's not a story, it's a recipe.

For a story to be interesting, it must show how the protagonist triangulated on a solution to a difficult problem. It's like the process of artillerymen finding the range to a target: the first shot falls short so they increase the elevation; the second shot lands behind so they dial back, but not as much as the first setting; the third shot is much more likely to hit.

And suddenly, without trying, we've discovered the three-act story structure: try/fail (act 1), try/fail (act 2), try/succeed (act 3). Each try is a possible solution and each fail shows why the solution falls short as well as ratcheting up the scope of the problem. In the realm of DIY, for example, you fail to reattach the loose tile in the bathroom because the wallboard behind has water damage, but you can't just replace the wallboard because the pipe inside is leaking.

If you scrape away all the formal baggage around, "The Three Act Structure," it really is that simple.

[That said, like any good DIY project, there's a big gap between the theory and actually putting it into practice in the form of a finished novel.]

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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11. Fixing Unlikable Characters

by Deren Hansen

Stephanie DeVita, writing on the Dystel & Goderich Literay Management Blog, asked about likable--or more to the point--unlikable characters:

Over the weekend, I came to the sudden realization that the manuscript I was considering wasn’t working for me for a specific reason: I found some of the characters to be completely unlikable. ... So for a writer, if a person comes back to you, having read your manuscript, with the critique that your characters are unlikable, how do you fix something like this?


Darth Vader + Kitten = problem solved, right?

Or, as David Horton playing King Herod in the Christmas Pageant on the old BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, said, after ordering his soldiers to massacre the infants in Bethlehem, “But kill them gently!”

More to the point, likability has more dimensions than good or bad. It’s one thing to give the otherwise-evil villain some justification because of something in their past that turned them to evil. But what do you do, for example, about contemporary characters who are unlikeable because they’re annoying, or tiresome?

A simplistic answer is to change the character so they’re no longer annoying or tiresome. That answer, though, masks a deeper question that you, the author, need to ask explicitly about every character (because your readers will ask the question implicitly): why would I want to spend time with this character?

Readers expect to get something in return for the time they put into a book. When readers say a character is unlikable, they’re really saying they find it difficult to predict what their return on investing time in the character will be.

Regardless of how morally reprehensible they are, we like characters that give us insight or teach us something.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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12. Blooming in Unlikely Places: LTUE 31

by Deren Hansen

There is an established order to things: movies come out of Hollywood and books come out of New York. The coasts are where the interesting things happen and the middle states are what you fly over. And in an established order, you must go to the center if you want to succeed. No one will find you if you set up shop off the beaten path.

Except when they do. Sometimes if you build it, they do come.

Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31 will meet on February 14 – 16, 2013 in Provo, Utah. The symposium organized thirty-one years ago by a BYU professor has grown into one of the largest writing conferences in the Intermountain West.

Provo? Utah? There’s nothing there but snow, salt, and a peculiar religious tradition, right?

Actually, Utah boasts a surprising — some would say disproportionate — number of writers. And LTUE is only one of nearly a dozen writing conferences held in Utah. It’s hard to say whether the number of writers grew because of the conferences, or the conferences because of the writers, but we have a vibrant, vital writing community out here in what many would say is the middle of nowhere.


Because no one took any notice of the fact that portions of Utah look remarkably like Tatooine or that their Western home was far away from the bright center of the publishing universe. Instead, they devoted themselves to what they loved: they wrote and they found like-minded people who wanted to get together periodically and talk about writing. They didn’t worry (too much) about what was going on elsewhere or, more importantly, what anyone else thought.

Sometimes the best way to succeed is to forget about the established order, pursue your fascination, and simply invite others to share what you’ve discovered.

For those of you in the area, I will be sharing two presentations at LTUE 31: “Verisimilitude: How Illusions, Confidence Games, and Skillful Lying Can Improve Your Fiction,” (Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm) and “Weaving a Complex Narrative: How to Write Like J.R.R. Tolkien in Three Easy Steps,” (Friday, February 15, 2013 at 11:00 am). I’ll also be holding forth on various panels about anachronisms, archetypes, and anthropology. (And if you’re a real glutton for punishment, stop me in the hallway.)

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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13. Verisimilitude in Dystopias

by Deren Hansen

[The following is some of the material I'm going to cover in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, on Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm.]

"Truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, "was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster." (see Wikipedia)

I certainly enjoyed the humor of truthiness, but there's a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word who's original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is "the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood." (Webster 1886)

Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you're dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.

There is an art to giving readers enough of the appearance of truth in your story that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Howard Tayler is fond of saying, "Explain the heck out of something small, then wave your hands over the big things." In other words, show your readers you know what you're talking about in one case and they're more likely to assume you also know what you're talking about in others.

More generally, verisimilitude depends upon patterns and precedents, not arbitrary assertions.

Consider, for example, the recent bumper crop of dystopian novels.The societies in which the stories take place tend to cluster around the ends of the spectrum between order and chaos. At one level, this clustering is simply classic extrapolation: taking an aspect of current society, amplifying it, and working out its ramifications. But at another level, we're in the midst of creating dystopian tropes and, soon, clichés, because some authors commit a sin with their society that they would never commit with their antagonists: stereotying.

There's no room in modern literature for characters who are purely good or evil. Characters, at least the ones who ring true, are more complex. Indeed, the best villains sincerely believe they are the heroes of their own story and the fruit of their labors will be a better world.

So how do you avoid stereotypes, like a definitionally oppressive government, when developing your dystopian society?

Socrates set the precedent way back when, in The Republic, he suggested the way to understand personal virtue was to examine virtue on the scale of a state. In other words, approach your dystopian society just as you would an antagonist.

Just like good characters, societies need back stories that outline a plausible path to the present. People generally don't wake up one day and decide to be evil. Similarly, whole societies don't turn to oppression overnight. The good news is that a society showing the lengths to which reasonable people can go is far more frightening than one that's just bad because it's bad.

The proper study of how societies change over time keeps an army of sociologists, anthropologist, and historians busy. A short note like this doesn't begin to do justice to such a rich field of study. But one key to creating believable dystopian societies is to remember that there are always winners and losers: one person's dystopia is another's utopia. And the real engine of any society is the much larger group in the middle: people who are neither winners nor losers, but buy in to it because they believe they can be winners too one day.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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14. Verisimilitude: Engaging Readers

by Deren Hansen

[The following is some of the material I covered in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, last week.] 

In a post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog by agent Jon Sternfeld called, Engaging Your Audience, he said:

"What ‘engage’ means here, and it may come from my teaching days, is give your reader something to do. Readers are not passive vessels looking to be dragged somewhere and told a story. They’re looking to get involved in a storycaring about the protagonist, wrestling with any issues that the narrative brings up, and most importantly, guessing what happens. This is not just an issue with mysteries or thrillers but with all narratives. All genres are mysteries, in one way or another; don’t forget that.

"A reader that is not doing anything is a bored reader. Not only should a reader never be ahead of the author, he/she should be engaged in a back and forth with the author. Readers want to take what is there on the page and extrapolate, use their imagination, draw conclusions, make assumptions. It’s why they’re reading a book and not watching a movie."

The idea of giving your readers something to do nailed the issue for me. I trust if you've read a few of my posts here you won't be at all surprised if I confess that I like to think about things. Much of the enjoyment I get out of a good book comes from all the things it gives me to think about, not only while reading but during the times in between when I can't read.

Boring a reader by not engaging them is bad enough. But letting a reader get engaged and then invalidating their efforts with a sudden twist borders on the criminal.

You may object that such things happen regularly in the movies. If so, reread Sternfeld's last line in the quote above.

I have good reason to suspect the books I've read that failed to engage me were written by authors who looked to movies for their inspiration. I like a book with a cinematic feel, but there are important differences between the experience of watching a movie and reading a book. It all comes down to respect: crafting your story so that it is, in effect, a conversation with your reader (the back and forth Stenfeld mentions).

Engaging you reader, however, goes beyond simply giving them something to do. When a reader is engaged with your story, they will feel it has a greater degree of verisimilitude--they will judge it to be a better story--because of all they contribute to the experience of reading the story.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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15. Wendig on Six Reasons to Stop Writing

by Deren Hansen

One of the secret fears that haunt us would-be scribblers in the wee hours of the morning, when sleep is scarce and we have no choice but to peer into the existential abyss, is the question, "Is anything going to come of my writing, or am I simply wasting my time?"

The good news is that this fear is natural and common to our species. In fact, it's necessary: we'd never bother to revise and improve if we didn't have the slightest doubt about the perfection of our writing.

The bad news is that sometimes the answer to that fearful question is, "Yes."

As Chuck Wendig explains in a PG-13 post about six signs that it's time to give up writing:

"Writing is a career that offers a tireless parade of moments emblazoned with self-doubt and uncertainty where you’re forced to ever reevaluate who you are and why you do this. You’ll often have to hold up your dream and examine it in the harsh light of day just to see how substantial it really is."
So how do you know if you'd be better off doing something else?

Chuck offers the following six signs:
  1. You’d Much Rather Talk About Writing Than Do Actual Writing
  2. You Spent Your Time Doing Everything But Putting Words On Paper
  3. Your Production Levels Are ... *Lone Coyote Howling*
  4. That Teetering Tower Of Rejections Threatens To Crush You And Your Cats
  5. You Got The Wrong Idea About Writing
  6. Writing Is An Endless Sisyphean Misery
(The "Wrong Idea About Writing," by the way, includes things like you love books, you want to work from home, you want to be rich and/or famous. "Writing," Chuck succinctly explains, "is about writing. It's about telling stories. That's why you do it.")

My aim in highlighting Wendig's signs isn't to depress you, but to make the point that until you're under contract you have no obligation to write. Specifically, you have no obligation to write novel length manuscripts and attempt to sell them to traditional publishers.

We live in a time when there's almost no limit on ways in which you can express yourself. From blogs to videos (with a detour through flash mobs somewhere in the middle), the opportunities to shout your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world are multitudinous. (We'll ignore, for a moment, the fact that a multitude is simultaneously yawping.) Perhaps there are other media that are a better fit for your particular genius.

And if you return from the abyss with your dream intact, then it's a substantial dream that's worth pursuing.

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16. An Announcement and a New Topic

by Deren Hansen

We don't do much self-promotion here on the Utah Children's Writers blog, so I'll be brief: I have published a series of writers guides that incorporate much of the material I've shared on this blog. You can learn more at dunlithhill.com

While I would be thrilled if you were to rush out and purchase my guides, devour them in one sitting, give them glowing, five-star reviews, and evangelize them to all and sundry, my reason for mentioning their release is to explain why I'm going to run a series of posts to share what I learned through the process of producing and publishing the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.

You see, when I began collecting, arranging, revising, and expanding the material for the guides, I guessed the project would take two months. That was nine months ago. As much as we feel entitled to grouse about how slow things move in publishing, I now have a bit more sympathy for the production side of the process.

But I'm not going to cover the how-to's. There's a wealth of information on formatting e-books, cover image dimensions, pricing and promotion strategies, and so on. Much of it is confusing or contradictory because the details frequently change.

I'm going to discuss the why- and why-not-to's--something I considered a number of times when I felt I was stuck in an editorial quagmire and the project would never see the light of day. What I discovered is that the single most important factor in completing such a project is to be very clear about why you're doing it and what you hope to accomplish.

I call what I learned, "Artisan Publishing." I'll begin to explain what that means next week.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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17. Finding the Words

by Deren Hansen

Just as many of us suffer from innumeracy—the inability to think rationally about large numbers—many of us also tend to assume that if something has been a certain way for a long time that is how the thing is supposed to be. This is very much the case right now in the world of publishing.

For a substantial portion of the last century and most of the first decade of this, the publishing industry has been defined by the logistics of distributing books to bookstores and the companies controlling that channel. There were innovations, like mass-market paperbacks and book stands in supermarkets and big-box retailers, but none of these changed the fundamental distribution pattern. Setting yourself up as a publisher required a second-mortgage-level investment to print books and a tremendous amount of legwork to arrange for distribution.

Everything changed with the advent of electronic publication. The barrier to entry was reduced to little more than the time and effort required to write the book and some initial, minimal expenses like purchasing ISBN numbers. While electronic publishing doesn’t provide an easy avenue into bookstores, for a variety of reasons their importance has waned in the last few years. The number of new, e-book-only small presses attests to the viability of the new model.

Change is difficult for many reasons. One of the subtle but most vexing ones is that our ability to describe and define the change always lags the change itself. What we used to call simply publishing (or commercial publishing if we needed to distinguish between the standard pattern, where authors were paid by publishers, from vanity publishing, where authors paid publishers) now gets qualified with words like, “traditional,” “legacy,” or even, “dinosaur.” The swelling ranks of individuals taking advantage of the opportunities offered by electronic publishing use these terms to help define what they are doing differently. And now we're awash in terms like, “self-publishing,” “independent” or “indie publishing” (an attempt to align with the success and credibility of independently produced, or indie, films), and even arguments that trading a 70% royalty for a 15% royalty and recognition by a publisher is a new kind of vanity publishing.

The problem with all those labels is that they speak primarily in terms of how you are not publishing. “Traditional,” implies you’re not publishing through the new electronic media, or that you’re not using those channels well. “Self,” and, “Independent,” imply that you’re not publishing with partners.

So how are you publishing if you choose to do it yourself?

The label that fits best is, “Artisan Publishing.”

An artisan, according to Webster, “is one trained to manual dexterity in some mechanical art, mystery, or trade; a hand-craftsman; a mechanic.”

In its current usage, “artisan,” suggests craftsmanship and pride in one’s work, which of all the reasons bandied about for undertaking to publish your own work is the only one—as we shall see in the coming weeks—that stands up to scrutiny.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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18. Artisan Publishing

by Deren Hansen

The food industry in the United States is a curious one. Some words that appear on labels, like, “organic,” are carefully regulated and may only be used if the food or the process by which it was produced meets certain requirements. Other words, like, “artisan,” may be used with abandon.

The word, “artisan,” long carried the sense of common practitioner, as opposed to the artist who brought genius and inspiration to the work. But as mass production, and increasingly mass customization, has blessed us with a collective and mostly uniform affluence, artisan has come to signify a means of production where low unit cost and economies of scale are not the primary objective. Artisan bread, for example, is made by hand even though there are bread factories that are far more efficient in purely economic terms.

Why, if we are rational economic actors, would we ever choose a product that is more expensive and less available than a mass-produced equivalent? People who prefer artisan breads may argue in terms of the varieties or flavors available nowhere else, or the virtue of supporting local production, but for most people it simply tastes better.

In response to sandwich chains that have recently began advertising their bread as, “artisan,” people who produce food products that actually deserve the label were asked to define it. Some answered in terms of small production batches and traditional, hand-made methods that invite skilled crafts people, who control the means of production, to take greater care in their work. Others spoke about love, attention to detail, a greater concern with quality than quantity, and integrity.

It was in the particular sense of craftsmanship and pride in the work that I realized what I had set out to do in publishing my series of writers’ guides was best characterized as artisan publishing. It certainly wasn’t about the money. While I hope in time to see a reasonable return on the effort I invested in the project, I have no more illusion that my efforts will lead to a publishing empire than an artisan baker believes they will be the next giant food conglomerate.

Artisan publishing isn’t simply a variation on the theme of doing it yourself. The large, well-stocked home improvement centers dotting our suburban landscape owe their existence more to naivety, false economy, and hubris than to a genuine and supportable conviction that doing it yourself is the best way to get the job done well, right, and in a timely fashion. The path of an artisan publisher begins with having something worth saying and a thorough effort to determine the best way to publish that material. As with our writing, where no character, scene, or sentence is too precious to come under scrutiny, artisan publishing has nothing to do with shortcuts or showing the gatekeepers how wrong they were about your manuscript and everything to do with what is best and right for the project.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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19. A Sense of Mission

by Deren Hansen

Richard N. Bolles is justifiably well-known for, What Color is Your Parachute?, his perennial guide for job seekers. It’s a shame, though, that he isn’t equally well-known for another book, The Three Boxes of Life. Where Parachute is about the how of finding a job, Three Boxes is about the why.

One of the most important lessons every skilled craftsperson must learn is just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The greatest works of art are exercises in restraint not to excess. With the possible exception of tabloid celebrities, the greatest careers and lives exemplify the power of purpose and restraint.

Among the many mind-opening ways of living life by design, not accident, in The Three Boxes of Life, Bolles explains how a sense of mission can inform the thousand and one choices you’ll make in the course of a career and a life:

“There yet remains however, one still deeper answer to the issue of MEANING OR MISSION. That is to find, beyond meaning, some ultimate goal or mission for your life, that drives you on with the kind of sacrificial, burning passion. It is the kind of mission that drove Pasteur, Schweitzer, Einstein and many lesser names. It is the kind of drive that — in any or every profession — distinguishes some men and women from the rest of ‘the common herd.’”

The fact that so many businesses responded to the fad of creating a mission statement with platitudes and generalities doesn’t diminish the value of a genuine sense of mission.

Don’t be put off by the lofty overtones of the word, “mission.” While there certainly may be occasions when much is at stake, our mission is no more or less than being able to answer questions like, “Why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish?”

Artisan publishing isn’t a shortcut, or a way to get back at a publishing industry that failed to recognize your genius. Like the work of all skilled crafts people, artisan publishing is a patient, laborious path. It’s not enough to have the skill, the aptitude, or even the inclination to publish your own material. You need to know why, both for your particular project and for you as an individual, the way of the artisan is worth all the time and trouble it will cost you.

A journey of 1000 miles may well begin with a single step, but your chances of completing the roughly 2,000,000 steps that comprise the journey are poor if you don’t know why you’re doing it. There are many poor reasons—one of the worst being because everyone else is doing it—and only a few good ones. The difference is that poor reasons wear away when the going gets tough but good ones will see you through to the end.

No true craftsperson undertakes a work lightly — not because their work has mystical significance but because the hallmark of skill is to act deliberately. In order to act deliberately you need to know why you’re acting: you need to have a sense of mission. Otherwise, you’ll provide yet another confirmation of the old aphorism that if you’re aiming at nothing you’ll hit it.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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20. Know the Rules before You Break Them

by Deren Hansen

In her manifesto for correct punctuation and grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss said this about comma splices (i.e., independent clauses joined by a comma, creating a run-on sentence):

“… so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you're famous.... Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”

One of the rules we throw at would-be writers is that they mustn't be bound by convention--they shouldn't be afraid to break the rules. The problem with this well-intentioned advice is that it leads many writers to get ahead of themselves by trying to break, “the rules,” before they understand them.

There are countless examples of authors who make the same, “mistake,” and one is lauded while the other condemned. On the surface that seems grossly unfair. The distinction, however, is simply a matter of mastery: if you’ve shown your readers you know what you’re doing, they’ll try to understand your intent in breaking the rules; if you haven’t, they’ll take it as more evidence that you don’t know what you’re doing.

There are many areas of endeavor where you need to show you know the rules before you can be trusted to break them. While nowhere near as critical as a licensed profession like medicine, publishing is structurally similar because in both cases you’re asking people to trust that you can actually provide what you claim to provide.

In the days of the craft guilds an artisan began as an apprentice, graduated to a journeyman when he had mastered basic skills, and became a master—and independent businessman—only after producing a masterpiece to prove he had actually mastered all facets of his craft. We are well past the day when the only way to learn was by doing, and it is neither practical nor necessary to apprentice ourselves to established publishers in order to learn the business, but the prerequisites of skill and mastery still apply if you want to be an artisan publisher.

Fortunately many of the skills you need as an artisan publisher are the same ones you need to live and work in the modern world: you need to know how to use the technical tools of your trade, particularly computers and the Internet; you need to know how to organize your time and work effectively; and you need to master both editorial and marketing communication.

But beyond that, you need to understand the industry in which you will be participating. Artisan publishing is about breaking the rules—at least the ones that held true in commercial publishing for roughly the last 50 years. Both as a matter of personal integrity and in order to lay the foundation for credibility with your readers, you need to understand how the publishing industry worked and how it is changing. Only when you understand the strengths and weaknesses of all the modes of publication now available can you, as Peter admonished the early Christians, “give reason for your faith,” in artisan publishing.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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21. Why the Traditional Separation between Authors and Publishers?

by Deren Hansen

The broad-brush functional differences between the right and left hemispheres of the brain have become a mainstay of pop psychology: the right brain is the seat of creativity while the left brain has a monopoly on detail work. Some people personify the two as the accountant and the artist in your head.

It's hard to say whether that simple dichotomy will stand the test of our growing understanding of neuroscience, but it is a useful way to characterize the traditional division of labor between author and publisher. It's easy to caricature the author as artist in contrast to—and sometimes in conflict with—the publisher as accountant and business manager.

As with all common notions, this analogy has a kernel of truth: authors provide the novel (in both senses of the word) content and publishers take care of all the details involved in preparing, packaging, and presenting that content in the marketplace.

Of course, the divide isn’t between creative and non-creative work. Writing involves plenty of drudgery and the best marketing is thoroughly creative. But there is an important distinction between the kinds of creativity and detail work that are most effective in the traditional roles of author and publisher. And now that many authors are expected to provide a substantial portion of the marketing effort they find they need to master an entirely different set of skills.

As challenging as it may be for an author with a traditional publishing arrangement to switch writing and marketing hats, self-publishing means that you have to wear both hats all the time. Put another way, whether you know it or not you’re signing up to bridge the traditional right brain/left brain split between authors and publishers in your own little head when you self-publish.

If you think that editing is an endless round of fiddly grammar details, wait till you're stuck trying to figure out why the formatting for your e-book is off on three devices but looks great everywhere else. Getting covers right requires attention to the art design, graphic file formats, scale and resolution for different platforms, and a host of conventions like including your ISBN as a barcode on the back cover and listing the book’s category. Then there are details like copyright statements, warranties, and metadata that all have to be both correct and correctly presented. Making sure all of these things right requires constant checking and double checking.

Setting aside whatever frustration with the old or fascination with the new that you may have, there are good reasons for the traditional division between producers and distributors in many areas of the economy. You need to understand both the reasons for and the substance of each role if you want to walk the path of the artisan publisher because you’re signing up for both jobs.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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22. Gatekeepers and Advocates

by Deren Hansen

We often talk of all the gatekeepers we have to get past in order to get published. We even say things like, “vetted by publishers”—as if publishers where somehow the guardians of all that is good and true. Unfortunately our sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking about the role of publishers. Specifically, we confuse gatekeeping with advocacy.

Gatekeeping means choosing who will pass and who will be excluded. It also implies an endorsement: if the bouncer at the club lets you past the velvet rope you know you're one of the cool people.

Advocacy is an important element in maintaining the social fabric. Obvious self-interest makes us wary of both the promoter and the product. But if a nominally disinterested party champions someone’s cause, we take it as evidence the case has merit. That’s why we need lawyers and agents.

Publishers provide advocacy through investment. Talk is cheap. Backing up that talk by investing a substantial sum in a book says something. Of course there’s no direct correlation between the amount invested and the quality of the book. But assuming publishers are rational economic actors, if the publisher is willing to bet so much on a project, perhaps it’s worth our attention too.

Publishers are not pure advocates because they have a financial interest in the sale of the book. To compensate, the industry has developed layers of structural advocates. From the wholesaler, distributor, and retailer model of the distribution chain to the web of reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers who promote books and reading in general, the publishing industry, which is just as commercial as any other, manages to come out looking like a cultural institution.

The new world of frictionless, costless e-publishing doesn’t change the need for advocacy. You may be able to establish a reputation by building an online social network. You may inspire readers to recommend your work. Regardless of the expression, the underlying pattern remains the same: to be credible you need independent third parties willing to expend their own time and resources to vouch for your work.

One of the few things you can’t do as an artisan publisher is be your own advocate. Clearly you must put a great deal of time and effort into promoting your work. But no matter how much effort you put into it, marketing can never become advocacy because you’re not an independent party.

If your artisan publishing effort expands to include other authors, you can become an advocate for their work to a small degree. But compared to the major publishing houses that have the financial wherewithal to lavish seven-figure advances on celebrities your own investment will hardly stand out.

The practical upshot is that in order to succeed as an artisan publisher you must nurture a network of independent advocates without any of the structural advantages enjoyed by large publishing companies. Moreover, you will have to compete with those companies for readers’ attention every step of the way. The only way to build credibility and to attract advocates is to keep showing up: to consistently deliver high quality content. You need to be prepared for a slow, patient game.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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23. A Propper Comeuppance

by Deren Hansen

When you began to believe your writing might actually be good enough to be published, you were determined to do everything right: you read writing books and blogs, went to conferences, found a critique group, polished your novel, researched agents, and sent the perfect query letter. And in return you got nothing but silence punctuated by the occasional rejection.

You did everything right and you weren’t asking for special treatment, so why didn’t you get any kind of positive response?

Even if you understand publishing is subjective, as time, rejections, and silence wear away your enthusiasm, it’s hard not to suspect agents and editors of conspiring to suppress your genius or being willfully ignorant.

Vengeance and vindication make a powerful motivational cocktail. Like many intoxicating substances, a little might help but a lot is a recipe for trouble: a desire for vindication may be good if it motivates you to finish and polish your project but leaping into artisan publishing because you’re going to show all those shortsighted publishing professionals how wrong they were is a recipe for frustration and failure.

To begin with, the people who rejected or ignored you will probably never know that your project has been published because there are simply too many things being published for anyone to keep track of it all. Should they hear of your project they will likely give it little or no notice: agents and editors are looking for new material to sell.

The only thing guaranteed to get the attention of the gatekeepers is to release a book whose sales go off the charts. But even that won’t convince an agent or editor she was wrong. Beyond subjectivity, there’s so much serendipity in the process of producing and selling a book that having different people involved could produce wildly differing results: a different agent—your dream agent—might have sold the project to a different editor whose sensibilities might have colored the story just enough to miss striking a popular chord.

At a practical level, the slow, laborious path of artisan publishing means that you must invest a tremendous amount of work and patience into something where the odds of it making a big enough splash in the market to cause the gatekeepers even a twinge of regret are extremely small.

But the deeper truth is that artisan publishing is about love and devotion, which makes it fundamentally ill-suited for revenge.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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24. Short-circuiting the Great Chain of Rejection

by Deren Hansen

One of the down-sides of becoming an artisan publisher is that you must forego the luxury of getting rejected by agents and editors.

“A luxury?” you sputter.

Yes. Instead of the gentle buffeting you’ll receive from publishing professionals, who respond with a polite, but vague, “it’s not a good fit for us,” you’ll get slapped around by readers who have no qualms about telling the world they think your book is a piece of crap.

As hard as it may be to believe, rejections from agents and editors offer several layers of comfort:

  • They readily acknowledge their opinions are subjective and that perhaps someone else will like it.
  • There’s always the opportunity to revise: when you submit a manuscript to an agent or editor, you do so knowing they will generally ask for revisions.
  • Agents and editors are always open to future submissions. Even if the piece you’re shopping now isn’t right for them perhaps your next one will be.

Compared to that, readers have no mercy.

  • Most readers believe their opinions are objective, or at least representative: if they didn’t like your book, why would anyone else.
  • Readers expect a finished product. If they don’t like your first version, they’re not going to read your book a second time no matter how much you revise it.
  • Readers hold grudges. If they hate one book, they’ll hate the rest sight-unseen.

If you’ve turned to artisan publishing because you’re tired of rejection you’ve come to the wrong place. Electronic publishing does let you bypass the gatekeepers who in the past might have kept you out of the market altogether. But the price for that access is that you also bypass the safety net those gatekeepers provide. If you’re not careful, you open yourself up to getting rejected for everything from typos and grammar errors to characters and stories that don’t resonate with readers.

Offering your work directly to readers requires more courage and a thicker skin than letting a publisher bring out your book. If you have a publisher and your book fails in the marketplace, you can always take consolation—whether it’s true or not—in blaming them. If you publish your own work, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

If you can listen to readers rant that your loathsome book defiled the electrons used to store and transmit it and that the author should be hunted down and forbidden from ever putting pen to paper, and then return to your writing with full confidence and vigor you’ve got what it takes to become an artisan publisher.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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25. Jack of all Trades, Master of None

by Deren Hansen

For the vast majority of our history as a species, humans were content to live in relatively small groups and spend their time hunting and gathering—and no wonder: most hunter-gatherers work about twenty hours a week to get their living. Yet in the last 10,000-year blink of the evolutionary eye we suddenly have cities and civilizations exploding all over the planet. The culprit, according to a number of anthropologists, is the specialization made possible by agricultural surpluses.

The power of specialization is obvious to every writer who dreams of walking away from the oppression of the day job and devoting his or her full-time to the craft. Imagine the all books we could write—perhaps two or three a year—if we weren’t limited to an hour or two of writing each day.

If you think artisan publishing offers a shortcut to becoming a full-time writer, I have bad news for you: artisan publishing is actually a shortcut to becoming a full-time publisher.

The difference between a writer who is published and a publisher who writes begins with the contrast between the passive phrase, “a writer who is published,” and the active phrase, “a publisher who writes.” One of the reasons for the traditional separation between authors and publishers is that it allows each partner to specialize: the writer delivers a finished manuscript and then the publisher goes to work.

There’s so much to do as an artisan publisher that you can’t afford to specialize. Serious writers understand how much time and effort it takes to go from idea to finished manuscript. Publishers understand how much time and effort it takes to go from finish manuscript to book for sale. You’ve got to be a generalist if you’re going to do everything that needs to be done between the idea and the book. Even if you engage freelance editors and designers you still need to understand enough of what they do to be able to review and approve their work.

But it’s worse than that. You actually need to become a serial specialist. Many of the nontrivial tasks—like writing and design—require focus and skill. And yet just as you’re getting the hang of it you need to move on to something else. In practice this means you’re constantly relearning things. If you feel like you’re being pulled in too many different directions when you try to write now, you’ll find artisan publishing more frustrating than fulfilling.

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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