Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Meta-Writing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This post is about the good, the bad and the ugly as it pertains to meta-writing. Some writers are good with meta-writing. Many writers are bad. And a lot are just ugly.

What is meta-writing?

Meta is a Greek word with interesting contextual meaning. I like the “transcending” definition ( more comprehension. In my line of work, I deal in metadata. This is data describing other data. For example, for a database table, metadata would be a description of what kind of data a particular field collects. “Numbers of Impressions paid for in advance per 1000 views needy by the BAs for quarterly analysis.” Tags are a type of metadata, same for JPG properties.

Meta-writing, then, is thinking about writing in order to understand writing. For today, I am going to narrow the definition: meta-writing is thinking about the writing industry in order to understand how to obtain an audience for telling stories. In other words, thinking about writing in order to become a published writer.

And some people really suck at this. “Really suck” being a technical term.

Before I go on, let me apologize in advance for sticking together three separate and related, but not equal, systems to illustrate my point. Let’s talk about these:

Writing: The actual process of storytelling as it pertains to writing a story for a reader to consume.

Industry: The system in which consumes writing and exchanges monies (via publishers) and readers for writing (via authors).

Meta: Meta-writing, the process of thinking about the writing industry in order to understand its underlying motivations.

Follow me so far? Swear to God, I am sober here. I have not even had sugar this evening (yet)!

Why would you want to engage in meta-writing? Understanding the underlying workings of the writing industry can make you a better writer. We can slice this up a number of ways, here is “Good, Bad, Ugly.”

While I pulled the amount of effort expenditure for each category out of my butt, here is how it breaks out:

The Good: A writer spends the majority of time writing. She spends a small amount of time learning about the industry. This includes what publishers are looking for, how to format a query letter, and reading resources, like blogs, to learn the publishing industry mechanics. Otherwise, she would be writing in a vacuum, and, quite simply, a person who would never obtain an audience. A hobbyist, if you will.

A even smaller slice of effort is meta-writing: trying to understand why the industry does something the way it does. Understanding the underlying concepts behind the publishing industry will make better writers, or, one can argue, simply published writers (hey, I told you these were dissimilar systems!).

And this meta-writing is pure goodness. GOODNESS. Let me give you two examples dipped in awesomesauce (awesomesauce being a technical term).

Example #1 is this article: Faith and Good Works. It’s about the success of Mormon writers. This is clearly a study in meta-writing: trying to understand why some particular Mormon concepts seem to resonate with American culture and thus sell books. The article brings up more questions than answers, which is also a clear indication of meta-writing. It is quite the fascinating topic, and is, pardon the expression again, pure Goodness. It is talking about writing and the publishing industry from a cause-and-effect standpoint. NOM.

Example #2 is this essay: read this b4 u publish :-) This is an essay by Max Leone, with an articulate argument, in which the publishing industry and authors, not the YA male reader, is engaged in short-attention span suckage. This is also a great example of meta-writing. Max is questioning underlying assumptions, disagreeing with basic fundamental concepts for writing YA fiction, pointing out the overlooked, and in general throwing a bucket of cold-reality water on people who should know better. This essay is talking about writing and the YA publishing industry from a cause-and-effect standpoint. NOM.

This mixture of Writing/Industry/Meta-Writing is a good mix. As authors, we write. We can study the writing industry and we can think about writing as it pertains to a system, and become better writers. A writer in this zone, however, spends the majority of their time, um, writing.

Now I know what you are thinking. You can probably guess where I am going with this. And you would be right. Heeeee.

The Bad: Let’s display our chart again:

Sadly, we go from Good to Bad with no stop in between, because bad is wasteful, and wasteful, like hate in Yoda’s Fear/Anger/Hate/Suffering speech to little Anikin, leads to the Dark Side.

What is the Dark Side?

Not finding an audience for your writing.


Because all the effort on learning about the industry is wasted, along with the associated meta-writing. The circle of self-reinforcement is broken. Meta-writing here does not improve knowledge of the publishing industry. Knowledge of the publishing industry does not improve writing. Actually, this is self-reinforcement. A self-reinforcement of FAIL.

Here, a writer spends the majority of the time still writing, but a significantly larger slice of time engaging the publishing industry. And not in a good way:


  • Asking questions easily found through Google
  • Engaging in debate with industry over topics not pertaining to writing
  • Engaging in debate with writers over topics not pertaining to writing (politics would be a good recent example)
  • Arguing (poorly, I might add) with writers over the publishing industry (my personal favorite: a gigantic thread over why present tense is evil right when a book written in the present tense was burning up the charts)
  • Writing about a subject as it pertains to the writing industry in which the author knows little about

I could go on and on, the major symptom is a non-trivial amount of effort on the publishing industry that does not improve a writer’s storytelling.

What is worse in “The Bad” category is the amount of meta-writing that goes nowhere. Yes, it is very possible, and quite probable, to engage in meta-writing in a bad way. A classic example is trying to understand a literary agent’s motivation for not replying to a query letter (silence means no) by arguing this policy. How, someone please tell me, can an understanding of this policy (not the knowledge of the policy itself) help an author in the publishing process? Do I really need a deep understanding of this policy? Anyone? Anyone? Didn’t think so. It does not help to wrap my brain around this. It goes nowhere! It is the Black Hole of Effort. Zip. Zilch. Nadda. Zed Omega Fin.

Yeah, it is wasteful, and I am here to tell you, emphatically, to knock that shit off.

The Ugly: Oh my God. OH MY GOD. This is (and we’ve met them in person and online) the writer who is trying to understand the underlying system of publishing books in order to change the system so they can publish.

Now, on the surface, that sounds possible, and it is. It’s been done before. One example is the very rare Publish On Demand (POD) book author that is successful. Not only do they have a good story, they have a good story that people buy, and they understand the market to an extent where they sell books at steady clip on a weekly or monthly basis.

Do these people change the system? You bet they do. We may not see it, but somebody in the industry is looking at those dollars the author is pocketing and going “Now how do I get me some of that?”

But, my friends, this is a major digression. The majority of the time, this type of meta-writing is full of badness. Why?

Because the writer has a poor understanding of the underlying system she is trying to change.

Why do people do this? Why? Why why why why? It drives one batty. BATTY I SAY. It is well and good to meta until one can’t meta no more. But if one has no frack’n clue about the actual system, in this case, the system of getting published, what, exactly, are we accomplishing here?

Nothing. And I can prove it to you. Let me pick on literary agents again (I do this because they blog and are easy targets). Let’s go back to the example from the Bad Column: A writer is trying to understand a literary agent’s motivation for not replying to a query letter (silence means no), and then complaining about it in order to change that policy.

This is a classic case of not understanding the laws of cause-and-effect:

  • Agent: I have too many clients; I need to cut down on the time it takes to process queries. Silence means no.
  • Writer: That policy sucks, you should change it, it is rude, I am going to tell people not to query you!
  • Agent: I WIN POLICY! OMG, I hope they post that everywhere.

Here, the total lack of understanding of the relationship between the agent, her clients, the publishing industry, and other writers, drove someone to do the complete opposite of what they were trying to accomplish.

Frankly, this erroneous meta-writing pertaining to publishing baffles me. My current running theory: entitlement whores masquerading as writers. Lazy entitlement whores.

Now now now, I am not calling YOU a whore. But I point this out so you can avoid these people, because their Black Hole of Non-Effort will suck you dry if you hop on one of their bandwagons.

Conclusion: Now you may be thinking a self-professed hack writer, unpublished, is very arrogant telling people how to write.

But I am not. I am being ultra-arrogant: I am telling you how to think about writing. I may not be much of a writer, but I have a knack for looking at a system and saying, “wow, that part right there is a lot of wasted effort.”

Only learn details about “the industry” as they pertain about making one a better writer.

Only engage in meta-writing if it allows you to transcend your knowledge of the industry in order to understand it as a whole system.

In other words, stop fucking around and get back to telling a story.


  1. Excellent piece - thank you for posting it, Anthony. I'm not saying I have this right, but I have been coming from a place of finding out what I need to know to improve my work to get it published. That's all.

    I'm not too fussed about query formats and the like. I'm sure if I write a polite letter that tells people what they need to know all will be well and my work will find the right home.

    As to arguing with people about other writing issues that don't matter to me - I have zero interest. I wouldn't argue with an employer over how they decide who they are going to interview.

    I think people who are leaping up and down and trying to change things need to look at what they are really trying to achieve, as it doesn't seem to be writing a book for publication.

  2. Fantastic post! (And I love the graphic). So much of writing is about balance. Thanks for offering such an entertaining, but realistic and helpful discussion.

  3. ah snarky goodness w/ so many nuggets of truth ;) Seriously, and this is just an aside, Uppington & I were sitting at the conference workshops this weekend just looking at each other w/ the deer in the headlights look: 8 out of 10 questions asked were 1) easily answered online, making it look like the questioner was either refusing to do homework or oblivious to the information age as we know it and 2) simply asked so that the questioner could speak and thus showcase her ignorance.

    Aside from being annoying, it seriously wasted the time of the presenter & attendees. Instead of going deep and discussing complexities, we were short-circuited into a shallow two-inch exploration of non-essentials.

    Unfortunately, it's possible to not only waste your own time in the swamps of dorkitude, but it's probable that you'll also waste the valuable moments of those you're arround... Yikes ;)

    Awesome Post!!

  4. Insightful commentary, thanks! In reading over a lot of discussions about the publishing industry, it always got to the point that I felt the signal-to-noise ratio was dropping fast. Although I didn't have the terminology at my disposal before, now I do: they were entering the zone of dorkitude, and it was time to move on.

  5. i've wondered what meta writing was! thanks for this post, and thanks for stopping by my blog. i've been moving across country, but now that i'm back, i'll be posting regularly again. thanks!

  6. Holy cow, you had me at awesomesauce! That was interesting and it helped give me some perspective. Thanks!

  7. I totally agree that all the arguing about the query process, the agent process, why they don't give me feedback (most of the time you really don't want to hear it. They are actually being kind) is pointless. Write a good story, craft a good query, and don't give up.

    By the way Alex and Anthony, the new corollary to dipped in awesomesauce is wrapped in bacon. I expect you both to be using that from now on. :-D


    I'm teaching that to my kids tonight.

  9. If I truly believed everything you said, I wouldn't even bother to comment ... and I would probably get more writing done.

    Comments are meta-meta writing. We are commenting on writing about writing. That makes comments about comments ... Never mind. It's all talk.

    So why bother?

    I guess that I just like hearing what people have to say and I hope that I learn something along the way.

    Thanks for the visual and the reminder that writing and industry research is more important than talking about writing. It is something that I have been thinking about.

    There is one aspect that may be missing from your equation, and that's connections. Sometimes talking about writing gets you connected with people (everyday people) and that may matter. It may or may not make you a better storyteller, but to some, it may matter.

    I'm hoping that I get to see people that I have blogged with get published. It would be cool to follow that transistion.

  10. "Agent: I WIN POLICY! OMG, I hope they post that everywhere."

    You made me laugh out loud. Nice post, and very apt!

  11. @Dave: Ah, but I am not talking about relationships and outreach. I am talking about systems.

    I tried to very narrowly define the scope of meta-writing, because, if you step back, thinking about writing itself is a major aspect, and thinking about writing as it pertains to publishing is just a segment of that.

    But I am not too sure I was successful in that endeavor. Your example is off in that commentary is just a form a communication. Having a discussion about writing (or writers) is simply that. If we were engaged in a topic trying to understand segments of writing in order to comprehend why the publishing industry works the way it works, that is meta-writing as it pertains to publishing.

    And that is fine.

    However, if you and I started thinking about writing in order to modify how things are done, without actually understanding the entire area we are talking about, then that is bad.

    Consider my example of the gigantic thread on present tense. Over a dozen vocal writers, some actually published, went out of there way to bash it and the lone fan. Yet, during this time, a young adult novel was selling like mad, and in was in written in present tense.

    On the onset, this isn't necessarily meta (but certainly a waste of time). It crossed into that territory when people were trying to rationalize tense as it pertains to why publishers would favor one tense or the other, and why people seemed to favor one or the other.

    Again, on the surface, that is not bad. But if the goal of meta-writing, or meta-thinking, is to be able to write better, or think better. Thus, argumentative discourse without basis in fact, or logic, or missing key data points, does not make one a better writer.

    It is a nuanced distinction, and I am not too sure I have the capability to explain it properly, but there is constructive thinking about writing, and then there is just silliness.

    Am I making sense?

  12. Thanks for the response. And that does narrow things down. I can see where you are coming from much more accurately now.

    I'd be interested to know why you think that what we do here at Adventures in Fiction is a better use of time than the meta-writing about the industry you had issues with.

    And, I could add, that I do see that your argument is valid the way that it is presented. My problem with it, or mistake in accurately reading it, was that I was not narrowing it down quite as far as you did. Perhaps my own concerns got in the way.

    There is a practical application to all of this. We must make a choice about how much we write and how much we write and read about writing. I think that if I made a chart on how much time I spend writing my novel versus how much time I spend blogging it would be upside down from what it should be. This has not always been true. Just the last three or four months.

    Hopefully when the Summer starts, and my job ends for a couple of months, I can fix that problem.


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