A Piece of Writing Advice That Always Seems To Surprise People


I didn’t watch PROJECT GREENLIGHT when it was on, but I heard a story about it that I really, really like. For those who don’t remember or care, it was a reality TV show in which a complete newbie was given the chance to make a million dollar movie in Hollywood, complete with name stars you’d recognize, the whole bit.

The story: After a difficult day of shooting in which they fell behind schedule, the producer came to see the crew–director, cinematographer, key grip, the whole bunch–and he was pissed. It was way too early for them to fall behind and they needed to get their shit together.

And who was he yelling at? The cinematographer, not the director. In response, the cinematographer smiled.

Why was he smiling when he was being yelled at? Because the guy who takes the blame is the guy who has the power. In this case, it wasn’t noob in the director’s chair. It was the man running the camera. When the producer yelled at him, the cinematographer knew he was the one who was really in charge.

Maybe that’s not a true story. Maybe it never happened. I keep telling it, though, because I like it.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, over the weekend I posted a long piece about the Twenty Palaces series, and why I wasn’t going to be Kickstarting the next one. If you’re the sort of person who wisely spends their weekends away from the web but who has been hoping for book number next for Ray Lilly, give it a read. It’ll disappoint you.

The response to it has been great; thanks very much for all the kind words I’ve received. However, a number of people have suggested that the books should have been a success but for bad marketing or clueless readers or whatever.

I don’t buy that. There’s only one cause of the failure of this series, and that’s me. I’m the one who wrote them. I’m the one who decided to leave the background mysterious rather than explained. I left out a romantic subplot. I did that, and a lot more. If they had been a success, you can believe I would be taking the credit. When they failed, I pushed the blame on no one but me.

Yes, there was bad luck. The economy crashed between the time I made the deal with Del Rey and the time the books came out. Circle of Enemies wasn’t on the shelves of B&N until two weeks after publication because a palette of books was damaged by Hurricane Irene. And of course Borders had just collapsed two months before.

None of that matters. Bad luck hits people all the time and they still manage to succeed. It was my job to write books that a lot of people wanted to read, no matter what obstacles got in the way, and I didn’t do it.

Plus, the fault wasn’t in the obstacles. Other writers have released books around the same time as I did, and they were entirely successful. What they could do, I could have done as well.

Anyway, this is a rule with me. No matter what happens, failure is always my fault. Every one-star review comes from my choices. Every lost sale is the same. If I write a book that editors don’t want to purchase, it’s on me for writing that book. Never mind that their line is full for the year, or that they hate books with cannibalism, or they just picked up a UF with an ex-con protagonist and mine is too similar. Never mind that they were hung over because their cat had just died, and they rejected everything that had come in that week.

It’s my job to break through all that. It’s my job to be so compelling they can’t turn away.

If you’re frustrated with rejection (and I know how hard it can be, I’m still living it) the answer isn’t to blame others: not publishing professionals who don’t understand your work/don’t know how to market a book/don’t support new writers the way they used to, not readers, not booksellers. The answer is to look at the book you just wrote and ask yourself “What should I do differently next time?”

Sometimes the answer is “Nothing.” Sometimes you’re proud of your work no matter how many rejections it got. There’s precious little I would change in the Twenty Palaces book.

But by taking the blame for failure, you keep hold of the power to succeed in the future. Better that than giving it away to a complete stranger with a hangover.

Take the blame. Keep control over your career.