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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Twelve-Step Program for Writers • Part 1


In 1997, in a few minutes of whimsy, I knocked off twelve lines of highly concentrated and somewhat snarky advice for writers seeking to develop or repair their writing careers. If you have any familiarity with 12-step programs these lines should seem familiar; to my surprise, these words of wisdom remain available on the SFWA web site. To my even greater surprise Guy Stewart has taken the time and trouble to explicate them in depth, so without much further ado, I will turn this space over to Guy, to present his in-depth commentary. [Nota bene: the dates may seem a little off. I’m not sure exactly when Guy began writing his commentaries.]

—Bruce Bethke

The first step:

We admit that we are powerless over publishers, and that our careers have become completely unmanageable.

This has a peculiar sharpness right now as I have a story that has been received at ANALOG since June. I’m at 129 days since that reception—beyond the number at which they recommend we inquire. I did that several days ago and I haven’t heard since. DUOTROPE gives the range of response times between 5 minutes and 231 days—though the average for a rejection is 23 days and the average for an acceptance is 95 days. (Note: They did not take the story nor has it sold since…)

As I know I am powerless to sway editors, it makes it all the more difficult that former editor Stan Schmidt (who accepted the three stories I’ve had published in ANALOG) retired and managing editor Trevor Qachri ascended to the throne. The question now is: does he like my writing enough to buy my work or not? (Turns out he likes my work just fine!)

I’d submitted HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: EMERALD OF EARTH to Andrew Hartwell, editor at HarperCollins Children’s Book in October of 2011. Not having heard anything by March 27 the following year, I sent a query at which time he said he’d get to it soon. I heard from him on July 20, 2012—four days after my new agent, Karen Grencik (Red Fox Literary) emailed him about it. (The book still hasn’t been published, but I’m hopeful!)

It’s a good thing for me that my writing has not become a career. My career as a teacher with a slight change of venue recently to become a school counselor. (And since writing this, I’ve retired!) But I’d like my career to be as a writer. At least my second career as I contemplate retirement. (As the Enterprise computer said in STAR TREK:Enterprise, “Working…”)

All right, I know now that I am helpless when it comes to editors. So what does the Twelve Step plan say for writers?

The “real” first step of AA reads, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

In terms of the Writer’s 12 Steps?

This means that the first step is the biggest step. The intent here is to break through a writer’s denial that editors have anything to do with their writing. It’s a decision to make a change, to see if the compulsion to have a writing career is detrimental. To free us from a desire to please a particular editor. (This is different than writing to editorial specs. They have a magazine to put out. ANALOG isn’t going to publish a straight up sword and sorcery story—there has to be a solid science connection.)

“We admitted” is a declaration, an acceptance of our condition as writers. It’s a realization that we need help, and it implies that we are now pursuing a solution, a life-changing surrender, our biggest admission to the world. And surprisingly enough, this step can keep us in reality all by itself. A writer who fully internalizes the first step is well protected against that consistent belief that they are in control.

This is an argument against a writer’s typical line of insane thinking: that all I have to do is write a really fabulous book and it will get published. Once we do get published despite the odds, our devious minds can be planning a full-scale return to the belief that all we have to do is write. It’s this line of thinking that shows us the unmanageability in our lives: that even if we are clean for a period of time, both our obsessive and our compulsive nature leave us no way to manipulate or wiggle our way out of a relapse.

The first step is our greatest defense against relapse, because it clearly reminds us of what we are inviting back into our lives if we choose to think we are in control again.

While I may be reading way more into Bruce’s humorous piece, there is more than a grain of truth here as I continue to write and continue to send my stuff to editors.

Does any of this resonate with your condition?



Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS ( where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

COMING THURSDAY: Step 2: We believe that an Agent far greater than Our Last agent can restore us to publications, sales, and critical acclaim.


Pete Wood said...

Authors often respond to rejections from editors the same way some guys respond to breakups. They foolishly think that somehow they can convince the editor to accept the story if they just have a chance to convince them or if they just say the magic words. That logic seldom works in either scenario. It is often best to just accept rejection and move on.

GuyStewart said...

That is for CERTAIN! (It's also a sure sign to the editor that the person hasn't quite reached "professional" level...or that they may be dealing with someone who's having delusions of grandeur...)


~brb said...

Consider the feedback loop. Writers always complain that editors rarely provide meaningful comments in their rejections. But after a few dozen instances of providing meaningful comments to an author, only to have the author treat this not as an opportunity to learn and improve their writing skills but as an opening to argue with the editor and insist that their selection criteria are wrong, can you really blame the editor for saying, "Screw this. From now on we're using content-free form rejections."

ray p daley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ray p daley said...

Step 1 - Admit we don't have control over publishers.
Step 2 - Expect to fail a lot.
Step 3 - Get as many subs out to suitable markets as possible.
Step 4 - Don't self-reject, let someone else hate you.
Step 5 - Support other writers. If they're selling, you can too.
Step 6 - Expect at least 1 mental health breakdown per year. Probably more.
Step 7 - A writer does creative things all the time, most aren't writing.
Step 8 - Take time to revise & rewrite stories which aren't selling.
Step 9 - Write & sub to markets outside your genre. Trying new things opens new doors.
Step 10 - Take time to appreciate what you HAVE done. It can be repeated.
Step 11 - Even the wildest ideas can lead to something decent.
Step 12 - Not all stories sell. But write them all any way, you never know.

~brb said...

@ray - I think Heinlein cooked it down to five or six steps, but I'm too lazy to look it up now. Something like:

1. Write and finish a story.
2. Send it to someone who can buy it.
3. Don't sit waiting for their response. Write another story.
4. If a story comes back rejected, send it to someone else who can buy it.
5. Resist the urge to read and rewrite rejected stories. Rewrite only if an editor asks for specific changes.
6. Repeat.