AdviceSo You Want to Be A Writer...

Being a series of nine articles of advice to would-be writers, originally written 1988-1990, published in various fanzines, and updated for the web in 1999. This is now thoroughly out of date; I haven't revised the text below since 1999, and the publishing business simply is not the same now as it was in 1999, let alone 1988. Please interpret (or ignore) all advice accordingly.

Part One: Why You Shouldn't Write for Fanzines or the Web

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

This is the first installment in a series of articles I wrote for various fanzines back in 1988-1990; some of it may be out of date, but I believe it should still be helpful. I think the series title, "So You Want To Be A Writer..." should make it clear what the series is about. As an established author, I'm giving advice that I hope will help. This is not divine revelation, though; it's just what I've found, myself, to work.

I'm assuming, therefore, that you, the reader, want to be a writer of fiction, probably primarily in the SF/fantasy genre; that you want to be professionally published, and to make money at it; and that you aren't so obsessed with some particular angle of approach that you can't consider any other.

If you want to write non-fiction, much of my advice won't apply. If you want to write for comic books, or write romances, again, much of what I say won't apply--but much will, because some of the basics are the same for all fiction.

And if you're intent on writing Great Art and not concerned with commercial success, then you won't be concerned with any of this.

So, you want to be a writer. Where should you start?

Not here, on the web. Not in fanzines, either. At least, not unless it's a paying market.

There is a theory, much heard in science fiction fandom, that writing for fanzines is a great way to hone one's literary skills, develop an audience, and eventually reach the attention of Important People, and that therefore, if you want to be a writer, you should start off writing for fanzines.

There are also people who claim that putting your stories on the Web will attract readers, who will point them out to wandering editors, who will then buy them from you. This, webzine promoters will tell you, is The Wave of the Future.

'Tain't so, either way.

This is not to say that there haven't been fanzine writers who went on to fame and fortune as pros, because there have been a good many such. This was not, however, because they learned their art writing fan fiction--on the contrary, they only succeeded because they didn't let fan fiction hold them back!

This, at least, is my own conviction. Here's my reasoning:

Absolutely anybody who can put together a coherent sentence can get a story published in a fanzine. Even people who can't put together coherent sentences can get published if they're willing to put out their own 'zines (as many do) -- either paper fanzines or e-zines.

Therefore, getting published in a fanzine or e-zine doesn't prove that you have any talent for writing fiction. It simply isn't much of an accomplishment, in and of itself.

However, getting published in a fanzine does accomplish one thing: it gets you an audience. Not necessarily much of one, since fanzines and webzines generally have pretty small circulations, but an audience. Not only that, it's an extremely responsive, appreciative audience--if they weren't interested, they wouldn't get the 'zine. If you write something for a fanzine that is any good at all, or at all out of the ordinary or controversial, you'll probably get a reaction in the 'zine letter column. If you post anything halfway decent on the Web and provide a mailto link, you'll probably get e-mail.

This is called "egoboo." People notice you. You get a response to what you do. It's a lot of fun; it's invigorating.

However, it doesn't really tell you a damn thing about how good your writing is. The standards are different for fanzines. In a fanzine, readers are more concerned with whether you've got an amusing concept than with such trivia as style, characterization, clarity, etc.

And the reaction won't be to tell you anything useful about what you're doing wrong; it's more likely to be either, "Boy, that was a good story," or "Wow, that one really stank!"

This doesn't do anything to improve your writing.

But, you ask, doesn't it get the story out there where people can see it, so that your name will become known, and editors will look upon you with favor when you deign to submit to them?


First off, the number of people involved in fanzine fandom is relatively tiny. If it's over 10,000, excluding the semi-prozines like Locus, I'd be surprised. Ten thousand people simply aren't a mass market. Being known in fandom doesn't translate to any significant number of potential sales at all, and potential sales are an editor's primary interest. Furthermore, the fanzine audience is not similar in tastes to the mass audience editors want; if it were, everybody would read fanzines--I don't just mean everybody in fandom, I mean everybody.

I have yet to see someone on the subway reading Anvil or Holier Than Thou.

So editors aren't impressed by popularity in fanzines--if they're aware of it at all, which they probably aren't. I doubt most editors have time to read fanzines; most editors are horribly over-worked. Besides, editors know how easy it is to make a name in fandom, because some of them did it way back when; it takes more persistence than talent.

And webzines have almost the opposite problem -- the Web is simply so huge that editors are not likely to notice your little corner. There are hundreds of e-zines and display sites, and editors don't have time to look at 'em.

And most importantly of all, editors really don't look at the name, they look at the story. When Isaac Asimov still had stories rejected sometimes (which he did right up to the end), do you really think being a Big Name Fan is going to help?

The most it can do is to get your story sent to the editor's desk, instead of the slushpile. Big deal. You get rejected faster.

"But," you ask, "doesn't writing for fanzines provide necessary practice? Won't you see what you've been doing wrong, and improve?"

Well, yes, you just might--but because the feedback in almost all fanzines is virtually worthless, you won't get any more insight than you would if you wrote the stories and didn't send them to fanzines, but instead just showed them to friends, sent them to professional markets, and so forth. And you'll get much less feedback, and less valuable feedback, than if you joined a good writer's workshop, with at least one participating pro.

So fanzine publication, I say, is worthless--but it's relatively harmless, if you avoid one great danger.

Writing for fanzines is addictive.

It is, really, it is! Because you do get reactions, it does provide egoboo. And fanzine editors can never get enough good material to fill up those pages, so if you are a decent writer, once editors know where to find you, you're likely to have a steady stream of requests. People will send you 'zines, hoping for letters of comment. 'Zine editors will ask for articles or stories. And if you don't have iron self-control, you'll give in to them, and you'll spend hours writing LoCs and 'zine articles when you could be working on a novel, or a story for Analog, or even just a book review for the local newspaper--something for a professional market! Something that would probably be rejected, but, if accepted, would Pay Money.

I mean, when I wrote the original version of this I should have been working on the third novel in the Ethshar series, but instead I wrote this silly article for Low Orbit!

It's insidious. Consider a list of winners of the fan writer Hugo, compiled by a quick glance through the award winners up through 1975, and leaving out people I never heard of: Dick Lupoff, Robert and Juanita Coulson, George Scithers, Alexei Panshin, Ted White, Harry Warner, Jr. (twice), Bob Tucker, Richard Geis (twice), Terry Carr, and Susan Wood.

First off, you'll notice that most of these people did not go on to be big name pros. Several did make it as pros--except that that's deceiving, because Bob Tucker and Terry Carr and maybe Ted White (I'm not sure about him) were pros before they won their fan Hugos!

Furthermore, when was the last time Tucker or Carr or Panshin actually wrote professional fiction? I haven't read Panshin; Carr and Tucker wrote really top-rate fiction--but very little of it.

Maybe, if they hadn't been so involved with fandom, they'd have found the time to write more. It's too late for Terry Carr now; Bob Tucker and Alexei Panshin still could write more, but somehow, I doubt they will.

Because let's face it, even if you break into writing professionally, you aren't automatically rich and famous. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. has about twelve hundred members now, and there are plenty of writers (like Harlan Ellison or Piers Anthony) who are not SFWA members. When you sell a novel or two, you'll probably just be a face in the crowd, one more mid-list writer turning out space opera or elf-and-unicorn books. And writers don't make much money; last I heard, the annual average income for a published professional writer was $7,800.

But if you can write professional-quality stuff, it's easy to make a big splash in fandom, to be a Big Name Fan; egoboo is much easier to come by on the amateur level.

So it's awfully tempting to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than a small fish in a big pond--especially when those fanzine editors keep asking you for articles and letters...

And the more time you spend on fanzines and fandom, the less you have for professional writing.

So if you're serious about writing professionally, then write stories, join workshops, read Writer's Digest and all the how-to books, take courses if you must--but don't waste your time on fanzines and webzines!


All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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No reproduction permitted without permission of the author


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