[Worldcon] How to Avoid Getting Published

Friday (August 31) at 1800: How to Avoid Getting Published
Panelist listed in program: Jack McDevitt

Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation. 

This is a bit different because it’s just Jack McDevitt guy talking and asking questions of the audience. He asks us questions and then explains things. This is all very basic stuff but I know it helps to have it reiterated. 

Don’t name all the characters with similar sounding names.

How many characters should there be? The absolute minimum number.

He says the easier way is to sell a short story first. Don’t be afraid to make changes, it’s not sacred because you wrote it. Send it off, forget about it until you get a response. Write another in a meantime. Keep going.

He was an English teacher for years. The students who thought they were pretty good were pretty good. “We all grow up having authority figures tell us what we do wrong… English teachers circle all the stuff you do wrong and never tell you what you do right.”

“Is it possible you don’t have a story to tell?” What drives the narrative? Can you say in 25 words why someone should care about this story? The weakest source of conflict is good guys versus bad guys. The engine that drives the story is conflict.

The protagonist should be human. Should be like us. We need to identify him. He needs to be flawed. NOT CLARK KENT.

In describing setting, you need to give the reader somewhere to put his feet. You don’t need to over describe – they will fill in a lot of the blanks on their own. But you need to give them a skeleton to hang those imagined details on.

Withholding critical information the main character knows and not telling the reader really pisses off the readers.  That’s why Watson is necessary – you can’t tell the story with Sherlock because he knows everything and there is no mystery.

You can’t drag a reader through 400 pages and have nothing happen. You can’t leave them hanging at the end, novel or short story.

Things need to be logical. It needs to make sense for people to know things.

If a major event occurs DO NOT HAVE IT HAPPEN OFF STAGE. We don’t want to just get a phone call. Especially if it’s coming out of left field. If you set it up so readers can extrapolate the event, it’s more okay.

If you’re not calling in your spouse/friends to excitedly tell them what you did and read to them, you are doing it wrong. Writing is hard work, but it’s also supposed to be FUN. You have to love it. Write the kind of stuff you like to read. If you’re not enjoying it while you’re writing it, you’re on the wrong track.

Treat your own material as material. Don’t get your ego involved. Don’t get personal when people critique. You need to listen. Your work is not sacred. When you get a correction, first ask yourself if it is correct, if the critic has a point. And then fix it. It’s better you get rid of it than someone else tell you that you should have.


Jack McDevitt didn’t really bother with the cute premise of the panel – he just cut straight to basic advice on how to construct a story that people will want to read. (And will therefore hopefully get published!) I mostly decided to poke my head in to see if there was anything I was missing out on, and because it never hurts to have someone point out the basics again.

I actually had fun being the person shouting out answers when the rest of the audience was stumped. Jack at one point jokingly accused me of having “taken this course before.”

I’m really glad that he made the point that while writing is work, it’s also supposed to be fun. I think writers tend to be a little too in love with the bit of the art that’s suffering. Because hey, we’re human. We love to kvetch. But we should also be honest that we’re doing this because it’s fun. And he made a very good point that if we’re not (beneath all the whining) having fun, then what we’re is not going to be fun for anyone to read.

I’m sure my husband could tell you stories about the number of times he’s seen me cackling gleefully at my keyboard or spinning my chair in circles because I’m just so damn excited about something I wrote. That’s how it’s supposed to be. (And he gets extra bonus points for then being kind and asking me what I’m so excited about. Half the time he manages to keep the dread from his voice, even.)

The other important part of that is writing what you like, and what you like to read. This question came up several times in panels I attended, with a writer with aspirations to be published asking the panelists what’s popular or trending. Publishing is a bit of a dinosaur (particularly for longer works) – trying to catch the wave is ultimately a losing prospect, because by the time you’ve managed to write a novel and get it published, there’ll be something new burning up Amazon. But even more importantly, you need to be writing because you’re excited about it and because it’s what you would want to read, not because you think it’s what is popular and going to sell. You’ll likely lack the necessary passion if you do that.

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