Is Taking the Hard Road a “Waste”?

by Jami Gold on March 15, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Pair of dice

My post about the ethics of fan fiction went viral this week, spreading beyond even the Twilight fandom.  From a post on mediabistro/GalleyCat to mentions at Dear Author, Jezebel, The Paris Review, and AbsoluteWrite, people have been discussing ethics in regards to writing and the publishing industry.

I don’t bring that up to brag but to make a point.  One reason the situation struck a note with so many is because the success of That Book contrasts with our hard work.  We’ve struggled to improve our craft and come up with unique characters and stories.  When we see someone take shortcuts or cheat, it’s human nature to question why we’re doing it the hard way.

The Benefits of “The Hard Way”

Instead of grumbling about That Book, I’m trying to take the broader view.  We all face setbacks in our life, and taking the hard road prepares us for the inevitable rejections and bad reviews.  Taking the hard road means we know how to adapt to changes in the industry and the market.  Taking the hard road means we learn more about our strengths and weaknesses.

Almost every published author ends up with “trunk novels,” those stories metaphorically stuffed into a trunk under the bed.  Authors rarely debut with the first book they ever wrote.  Did those authors waste their time writing the previous books?  Or is that all part of the writing process, learning, improving, growing?

Writing Is Full of Risks

My first original novel took me about 3 months to draft.  Then it took me months more to learn all those pesky grammar rules so I could write well.  And then it took many, many more months to edit.  And for now, it’s a trunk novel, waiting for the right time in my writing career to do something more with it.  Was all that time “wasted”?

Those of us on the hard path know the answer.  Not every story we write will be gold and deserve to be published.  We risk failure with every new book we start.  We accept that risk as part of our career.  On some level, we’re even okay with that risk.  Mostly.  Probably.  Maybe.

We might feel better about that risk if we think of what it says about us in the big picture.  Maybe it means we’re willing to take risks with genre crossovers, higher stakes that torture our characters to the breaking point, or signing on as the featured author of a new publisher.  Those are good things.

We can do things the risk-averse can’t.  And that’s something to be proud of.

Shortcuts Come with Their Own Risk

These writers publishing their fan fiction stories or taking other shortcuts often don’t want to take the hard road.  They don’t want to be told, “Great!  You wrote a story.  Now write another one, an original this time, please.”  They don’t want all the time they spent writing their stories to go to “waste” by sentencing them to the trunk.  And they don’t want to put in the work to rewrite their story with original characters either.

Call me a Pollyanna, but I think that unwillingness to work hard will come back to bite them in the you-know-where eventually.  Writing is hard.  Some might get a lucky break, but unless they quit at that point, they’re going to have to work for the next break and the next one and the one after that.

We hear about some actress being plucked from obscurity for a role and suddenly becoming the “it” girl.  Then in the next year, when the world has moved on, they have to hustle like everyone else in Hollywood.  Writing is the same way.

Yes, we could be upset by those who take shortcuts, but it’s like someone winning the lottery.  We’re not going to quit our day job as a protest for not having the winning ticket.  With so many publishing options available to us now, we have to power to reach our goals.  First, we just have to…you guessed it…work hard.  *smile*

What’s your opinion of those who take shortcuts?  Is taking the hard road a waste?  Do you think those who take shortcuts will have trouble when the need to work hard catches up with them?  Does taking the hard road make you feel more proud of your work?

P.S. I apologize to all those who I haven’t replied to or thanked.  The past week has been insane.  Sorry!  I do appreciate your support and friendship through this craziness.

Pin It
25 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Michele Shaw March 15, 2012 at 5:44 am

I personally think the hard road was meant for me. Though I struggle and get frustrated, it feels right. And I’d also know so much less if I hadn’t taken the path I’m on. Will the short-cutters hit a brick wall at top speed one day? Probably, but even if they don’t, I have to live MY life as I see fit. And the path to growth through setbacks and tough times is going to make success all the sweeter.

Reply

Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 7:58 am

Hi Michele,

I agree. The hard road feels right to me too. I recognize that I value things more when I have to work for them, so I’m glad that writing success isn’t handed to me on a platter. That attitude helps me avoid any feelings of jealousy or envy too. 🙂 I’m on my path, not anyone else’s. Taking shortcuts or cheating wouldn’t feel like “my path” anymore. Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Alessa Hinlo March 15, 2012 at 5:49 am

Kait Nolan is the only self-published author nominated for a DABWAHA award.

That’s not true, actually. R. Lee Smith’s Heat (in the crossover category) is also self-published.

Reply

Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 8:02 am

Hi Alessa,

Thank you so much for letting me know! It’s great to see self-published authors landing on the nominee list. 🙂 (And I meant no disrespect to anyone else. Kait’s checking hadn’t come up with any other self-published authors, but it’s hard to be familiar with all the books in the running.) Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Susan Sipal March 15, 2012 at 7:00 am

I bonded to the hard road so long ago that I feel like just another piece of asphalt. 🙂

And congrats, Jami, on all the wonderful exposure you’ve been getting for your always fair and insightful posts on current events in publishing!

Reply

Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 8:08 am

Hi Susan,

“I bonded to the hard road so long ago that I feel like just another piece of asphalt.”

LOL! Love it!

As for the exposure… *shrug* I care more about my friends and readers than the blog numbers. In a couple weeks, this will be nothing more than a “blip.” 🙂 I’m more gratified to see the conversation happen–and continue to happen. That post is still getting comments, 250+ and counting. Yikes! I’m tempted to put in a directory pointing to the best comments. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Sonia G Medeiros March 15, 2012 at 8:03 am

Amen, Jami! Writing is hard work. Sure, sometimes it flows. But even then we’ll need editing and polishing. I’m still working on my first novel. When I started, I thought I’d whip it out and then get into the editing. La di da. It’s been well over a year now and I’m still working on a first draft. Not *the* first draft because I’ve gotten to the “the end” twice and realized the story was just too weak. Now, I’m trying to fill out all the backstory and plot points that the story needs to really, really live. Will it be my published novel someday (soon)? I sure hope so…but I know it’s a possibility that it might be a trunk novel. I’m still gonna give it all I have right now.

Reply

Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 8:09 am

Hi Sonia,

Yes, we can’t be afraid to take risks or to “fail.” We learn just as much, if not more, from our “failures” than we do from our successes. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Nancy S. Thompson March 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I know nothing about fan fiction, so I can’t comment on that aspect. But I do know how hard I’ve worked to write an original and unique story. I’ve worked even harder to make it good, to make it marketable. What’s more, I’ve spent all my free time learning everything I can about the craft so others could enjoy it, too. I can’t help but think that all that hard work will be worth it in the end, no matter what happens to that particular story. But while I do have to thank all my wonderful critique partners who have contributed to my novel, the story and characters are my own. I haven’t progressed off the backs of anyone else. And hell yeah! I am freakin’ proud of what I’ve accomplished and how far I’ve come.

Reply

Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Hi Nancy,

“I can’t help but think that all that hard work will be worth it in the end, no matter what happens to that particular story.”

Exactly. Everything we do to improve our craft and our industry/business knowledge is something that can’t be taken away from us. Success due to the fans of others or a media buzz can fade, and there’s nothing we could do about it. Maybe I just like taking the hard road because I’d rather have more control over my success. 🙂

And you should be proud of your accomplishments! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Susan Spann March 15, 2012 at 2:42 pm

The hard road does pay off. I have four manuscripts in the trunk (yeah…I didn’t think it would take me that long, but sometimes the top of the mountain is only a shoulder on the way to the peak) and signed a three-book deal for novel #5 – in a different genre altogether. Were the four years I spent on the trunk novels wasted? Absolutely not. They were necessary steps on the road to writing a really publishable work, and I can say with absolute certainty that the novel scheduled for publication in 2013 (and the follow-ups in 2014 and 2015) are as good as they are because I took the time to do this right.

Reply

Jami Gold March 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Hi Susan,

Love it! Thank you so much for sharing your story. 🙂 Congratulations and thanks for the comment!

Reply

Buffy Armsgtrong March 16, 2012 at 4:23 am

This author has won the lottery so to speak. It’s a fluke. A one in a bazillion chance. It happens sometimes. I have read books that were the “it” book at the time and finished it scratching my head and wondering what was wrong with everyone. The book was just awful. And guess what? The author never wrote another book or if they did, it failed to sell like their first. They got lucky the first time out. They didn’t builf a strong writing foundation and it did come back to bite them in the, well, you-know-where. 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold March 16, 2012 at 9:02 am

Hi Buffy,

Yes, at some point, books, movies, TV shows, etc. start getting buzz about having so much buzz. That’s usually a sign that it’s all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s the entertainment industry’s version of a housing or stock market bubble. 🙂

One interview I read with this author claims she’s working on a book four for the “trilogy.” Time will tell whether she has a legitimate storyline for it, or whether she’s just trying to ride this wave as long as she can. Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Gene Lempp March 16, 2012 at 6:46 am

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when I was squandering away my life on video games, cheat codes were the big “in thing”. I always made myself beat the game once, fully, before engaging – but, yeah, like most people I grabbed the codes that I wanted. What I found from this was that a game I loved lost its challenge, i.e. its fun value, and soon I’d be on to something else.

I think the same applies to writing. One can take “shortcuts” through fan fiction, direct emulation or formulaic methods, however, it will have side effects – specifically, lack of personal passion for the writing and a lusterless voice. Anyone can publish drek these days but who will buy it or read it (not counting newbie e-readers that stock up and never read anything – essentially, collectors).

In the end, there is no way to cheat the work and find long term success in this or any endeavor, except for maybe Wall Street, but that is entirely another subject.

Great post, Jami 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold March 16, 2012 at 9:10 am

Hi Gene,

Yes, let’s not touch Wall Street. *shakes head* 🙂

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on “cheat codes.” I understand what you mean and can think of an old-school example I do every day. My newspaper (yes, I still have the dead-tree version delivered, and yes, I recycle) prints a daily Sudoku game just a few inches from the answer grid. But I’m never tempted to cheat and look at the answers because if I do that, what’s the point of playing at all? Proving I can write numbers? There’s no satisfaction in that. 🙂

Thanks for the great comment!

Reply

Carradee March 16, 2012 at 8:35 am

I think we have different ideas of what constitutes the “hard road”, Jami. (I use UK style quotation marks on purpose, btw.)

See, an author can “Work smarter, not harder,” designing stories that fit their strong points, thereby hiding some of their faults until they’ve enough practice that it’s easier to tackle those faults.

For example, when I’m stuck on a scene or in a story, my instinct is to add another character. (I’m a character-based writer.) My first novel (trunked) therefore has something like 7 major POV characters in 40k words.

Third person POV makes it easier to add more POVs, so I avoided third person POV for years, practicing with single POV in first person novels and third person short stories, until I could easily stick with one person’s story. Then I started playing with dual POVs, and only after I could manage that without struggle did I move on to multiple POVs, again.

See? I took a shortcut.

Short stories and I have a love-hate relationship. I love the idea of them, but I hate coming up with ideas for them, because I naturally come up with convoluted intricate ideas. It helps to use a formula to limit myself to produce a short story: protagonist; what the protagonist wants; antagonist; what the antagonist wants; and how those two goals contradict (when it isn’t immediately obvious).

So that’s another shortcut I use.

Are such shortcuts really such a bad thing?

Reply

Jami Gold March 16, 2012 at 9:39 am

Hi Carradee,

Great question! I don’t see the examples you gave as shortcuts at all. Because of your hard work, you knew your strengths and weaknesses, and you had a plan for how to fix them. Coming up with a plan isn’t a shortcut, it’s–as you said–working smarter.

Working harder doesn’t mean that we have to blindly stumble around without knowledge or a plan until we accidentally figure things out. The hard road isn’t a winding, twisting, and turning path. The hard road can be straight and the shortest path between points A and Z.

The difference between the hard road and a shortcut is that the shortcut is like a transporter that doesn’t give the person a chance to learn steps B, C, D, etc. along the way. Someone who takes a shortcut is missing knowledge. Maybe they never learned how to tighten their writing, or write a plot with increasing stakes, or how to create a character from scratch. Sooner or later, that lack of knowledge will cause problems for them.

In contrast, working smarter–but still on the hard road–looks like your examples. You learned the knowledge you had to learn. How you gained that knowledge might look different than how someone else gained that knowledge, just because our strengths and weaknesses play out differently, but you still learned it. Ta-da, no missing knowledge, no shortcut. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

Reply

KimBoo York March 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Some of the best stories I’ve ever read were fanfic, written with grace and style and complete mastery by those taking “shortcuts” as you say. They outshine by yards so much of the tripe I see being published by writers who take “the hard way” that it’s fairly ridiculous to even compare. If any of those authors go “pro”, I’d have a hard time accusing them of taking a short cut, given that their writing is that damn good and that they obviously spend a hell of a lot of time and effort to make them that good.

I’m sure it feels great to villainize a whole group of writers with a broad brush to satisfy your ego, but it’s completely unfair. I’m not saying that there isn’t some horrible fanfic out there, because there is, but there is just as much if not more bad writing in original fiction.

The hard path is something you create for yourself, in a quest for personal improvement in your art. Some people do that through fanfic, and some through original fic — to claim that just because they have written fanfic means they are cheating cheaters looking for shortcuts suggests to me that you’ve never actually read really good fanfic, and are comfortable putting down other writers you know nothing about for the sake of building yourself up. That’s just sad.

Reply

Jami Gold March 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Hi Kim,

No, I’ve written fanfic before, so in no way am I slamming fanfic authors. 🙂 I know fanfic can be well written, engaging, creative, and every other great thing we wish to discover when we read new authors. However, those who choose to publish that fanfic, profiting off someone else’s characters or world, are taking shortcuts.

This post is not anti-fanfic, but anti-being-disrespectful-to-readers-and-the-writing-craft, whether those who do the disrespecting are fanfic authors or not. These same points and complaints I make in this post can be applied to many self-published authors as well (and some traditionally published authors too).

I will say that a good fanfic story is not on the same level of difficulty as a good original fiction story, because there is more to storytelling than plots and dialogue. An original fiction author has to do more work creating the worldbuilding and characters from scratch. Acknowledging that fact is not slamming anyone; it’s just a statement of fact.

The shortcuts involved in the FSoG fanfic had to do with the world-building that was taken from other Twilight fanfic stories and the characters who were copied from Stephenie Meyer. If the fanfic author wanted to be published, she should have taken her success and translated that into original fiction, where no one would accuse her of stealing characters or the fandom base from another author. She didn’t. And she didn’t put in the work to take her original idea and rework it with truly original characters. Using someone else’s characters instead of coming up with your own–and then publishing the story for personal profit–is a shortcut.

I’m sorry you thought I was slamming fanfic authors in general. That was certainly not my point. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

Reply

E. P. Beaumont May 12, 2012 at 11:47 am

I found your blog by way of a link to your post on ‘Does Every Scene Need a Goal’ and then saw the aforementioned viral post on the sidebar. Reading through the comments and your responses, and following the links, sparked all sorts of interesting thoughts about apprenticeship, and craft.

You’ve said here what ought to go without saying: only work gets work done. The hard road is the only way that actually gives you the skills that you need for overcoming either failure or success.

Why “overcoming success”? My tax accountant and business advisor makes the point with me, year after year: successful artists can have the same awful outcomes as lottery winners. Hard work aside, the element of chance still makes this business both maddening and exhilarating. It’s got to be about the work, because that’s the only part under our control.

Excellent blog, by the way; I’m having a great time reading through your posts.

Reply

Jami Gold May 12, 2012 at 11:57 am

Hi E.P.

Aww, thank you for the kind words about my blog. 🙂

Yes, until the invention from Matrix comes along with the ability to imbue us with all knowledge, we learn by doing, by trying, by failing, and by succeeding. (And I totally want that invention by the way (theoretically, at least, for some things like learning foreign languages)–but not as much as the one that will allow me to pause time. 🙂 ) And you’re absolutely right about how there is a real “fear of success” issue. I know I have it. I don’t want the fame and exposure that comes with mega-success like James has experienced (just one of many reasons why the “you’re just jealous” attack is laughable to me).

I’d rather reach that slow burn where I build on my successes. Then I’d have more confidence in my ability to follow up with my ever-increasing skills. As you said, my skills and my abilities are the only things I can control. Thanks for the great comment!

Reply

daemon August 27, 2014 at 11:55 pm

Here is a real scenario in which someone takes the “easy road” for a reason that you did not mention. You might want to consider it next time you make assumptions about why people write what they write.

Mary writes a fanfic from the perspective of an original character who interacts with main characters from the source material.

Sue likes the story but thinks the writing could be much better and the story could be written just as easily in the form of a novel (not fanfic). The story has the potential to become excellent literature that wins the praise of critics and of millions of readers. It does not reach that potential because it is fanfiction (therefore, it limits itself to a niche readership) and it is not written very well (therefore, it does not win praise from critics). Sue wants it to reach that potential. She is willing to work for free, and for no recognition, to benefit readers’ lives by making a good novel available to them.

In order to help the story reach its potential, she reworks the story significantly to turn it into a good stand-alone novel, maintaining the basic premise, story arc, and conclusion, but changing all the characters’ backstories and relationships with each other, merging some characters together, removing some characters, adding some characters, choosing a different setting, changing plot details, etc. This is done for the sake of improving the story and making it work without the context of the original source material, not just for the sake of making it different from the fanfic.

Sue posts the novel free to read on the web. She does not put her name on it, leaving it as an anonymous work. On the first page, she states that the novel is derived from Mary’s fanfic and she provides a link to the fanfic. She gets the word out by creating a Goodreads page for it and by recommending the novel to people, first on forums dedicated to the fandom (in order to reach fans of the fanfic and to create buzz), then on forums around the web (in order to reach the general public).

Personally, I would commend Sue for that. If I, as a reader, have one more great novel available to read, then I am happy. (And my happiness is Sue’s only motive for writing the novel.) And she cannot be accused of laziness. She is not taking a shortcut toward commercial or critical success because she does not even have anything to gain from making it anonymous and posting it for free. She is not taking a shortcut toward developing skills because she is already an experienced author who has decided to use her skills for the benefit of readers. It would be juvenile for another author to think “I put blood, sweat, and tears into my setting, characters, and plot, and Sue cheated her way to the end” because there was never a competition in the first place, just someone who had a gift to give to the world.

What do you think?

Reply

Jami Gold August 28, 2014 at 10:26 am

Hi Daemon,

Interesting scenario! And I wouldn’t have addressed that situation in the post because I’d hardly call that the “easy road,” so you’re missing the point of the post if you think I’m making assumptions along those lines. 😀

I’ve written fanfic, so I’m certainly not bashing the practice. Rather, the shortcuts I’m discussing here are those that lead to publishing fanfic (where the fanfic author has taken shortcuts by using existing characters, etc.) for profit and “fame.”

I have another post here on my blog of a fanfic author who reworked one of her fanfic stories down to the premise and then released that story as an original novel. She essentially started from scratch, reworking all the characters and plot elements. As I mentioned at the time, I didn’t consider that story a fanfic anymore, and I wouldn’t call that approach taking the “easy road” either.

The scenario you mentioned takes that even a step further, with an anonymous free posting to avoid any aspect of exploitation. I wouldn’t see Sue as taking shortcuts or being lazy. She’s doing something she enjoys without expectation of financial rewards. The fact that she’s working from the ground up isn’t taking shortcuts on skill development (even if she was an inexperienced writer). There’s no cheating there. No ulterior motives. Like you, I would commend Sue for her choice to give a no-strings-attached gift to the world. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

What do you think?

25 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: