Friday, May 24, 2013

The Art of Thinking Like a Publishing Writer

Russell Davis

Our guest blogger this month is author Russell Davis, past president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He’s also a professor for one of the only low-residency (read: mostly online) MFA programs in the country to specialize in popular genre fiction, and the only one that uses successful, publishing authors rather than academics to teach the classes.

Here’s his official bio:
A best-selling author and editor, Russell has written and sold numerous novels and short stories in virtually every genre of fiction, under at least a half-dozen pseudonyms. His writing has encompassed media tie-in work in the Transformers universe to action adventure in The Executioner series to original novels and short fiction in anthology titles like Under Cover of Darkness, Law of the Gun, and In the Shadow of Evil. In addition to his work as a writer, he has worked as an editor and book packager, and created original anthology titles ranging from westerns like Lost Trails to fantasy like Courts of the Fey. He is a regular speaker at conferences and schools, where he teaches on writing, editing and the fundamentals of the publishing industry. Russell now writes and edits full time, as well as teaches for Western's MFA in Creative Writing. His newest work, The End of All Seasons, a collection of short fiction and poetry, came out in April 2013, and he is presently working on several new projects.

Russell has been a good friend and mentor to us both for a dozen years, offering useful and sometimes scary insights into the publishing world. So we decided, hey, why should we horde all the anxiety? Let’s share it with our friends!

Without more ado…

Russell Davis

I’ve been teaching at the graduate level for three years now, and while I’d done quite a bit of teaching before, it had always been as a guest or at a conference. I’d never experienced teaching the same class multiple times, trying to cover the same material over multiple students. It’s eye-opening, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not consistent – at least, not yet. Like writing, teaching is an ongoing, evolutionary process. I’m still figuring stuff out, refining what I say and how I say it, all in an attempt to give more clarity to my students.

One of the things I talk about a lot in our MFA program is “writing consciously,” but I only realized this past semester, as I was reviewing my plans for the summer session, that I haven’t been explaining myself as well as I could. Bear with me and you’ll see what this has to do with my own work as a writer, and more importantly, my most recent collection The End of All Seasons.

When I talk to my students about writing consciously, what I’m really getting at is that as writers we must pick and choose our words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, grammar, plots, characters, dialogue, and even our ideas with deliberate care. The temptation to jump on the adrenaline, roller-coaster ride of a new idea is extreme – to say the least – but far too often for the less-experienced writer, it leads to a horrible crash. The words get jumbled, the sentences contain flawed syntax, the plot is filled with holes, the characters are two-dimensional, and the dialogue flat and clichéd. But all of that is going to happen anyway. It will. That’s why it’s called a first draft.

What I really want them to do is practice the art of thinking like a publishing writer, especially when they revise. I want them to make deliberate choices then, because riding that roller-coaster is a hell of a lot of fun and I don’t want to take that away from them. But once the ride is over, far too many of them don’t want to go back and be deliberate with their work – and that’s when I see the crash. There’s no sense of revision, of picking and choosing, of making choices about what works and what doesn’t.

In my own work, I’ve made this mistake far too many times to count. It’s easy to get in a hurry. This perhaps explains why it took two years for me to finish The End of All Seasons, and that was mostly a collection of reprints. I wanted the choices I made to make sense to the reader, and that’s hard to do in a collection that includes a creative non-fiction essay, four poems, and fourteen short stories in genres as different as speculative fiction and western. I believe our language has power and beauty, even in its rawest form, but that even more can be accomplished by making choices.

So, all of this begs the question. Now that the collection is out, did I make the right choices – in terms of what I included and in terms of the individual pieces themselves? There’s the hard part, right? After the fact, when it’s too late to do anything about it, discovering not whether I think I made the right choices, but what readers think. And the only way I can answer that is if people pick it up and write a review or send me a note.

I guess I’ll have to wait, but I’m sure that I’ll find out.

And that’s the really hard part. Picking and choosing seems easy by comparison.


Thanks so much, Russell, for agreeing to share your insights, and to enter into conversations with those stopping by at our blog this week.

Find out more about/from Russell:


  1. I appreciate the advice here. I enjoy reading books when it's obvious the writer has taken care with her language choice. There's an elegance and refinement that reaches beyond the surface story. Of course, I have to be willing to get out the, as Lamott says, "shitty first draft" first. Thank you.

  2. You know, Julie, it may be worth considering the possibility that there's no such thing as a "shitty first draft". It's possible that all drafts are equally shitty in different ways, or just progressively less shitty. I'm not being flip, and have tons of respect for Lamott, but my advice would be to worry less about whether the draft is good or bad and just give yourself permission to write it: shitty or otherwise.

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  4. Julie, thanks for joining in the conversation.

    We're convinced that any serious writer has to find joy in (or at least for!) the whole process. A first draft is only a first stage and it's the freedom, as Russell suggests, to get that initial project on the ground. Then revision has to be part of the process.

    We're pretty sure it was Stephen King who defined a second draft as "the first draft minus 10 percent." That's the net, of course, since all subsequent versions add as well as subtract content from plotting, character development, needed or discarded exposition, etc., in order to find that publishable piece inside the jumble of original words.

    And to quote Russell (from another occasion than his current blog), "Ass in chair, hands on keyboard, write the book!" That's always the first step.