The Benefits of Being a Hack (Or: Why You Don’t Want to Be Ted Chiang)

Today’s guest post comes from writer and editor James L. Sutter, whose anthology Before They Were Giants should be on every writer’s bookshelf. Thanks for contributing, James!


There’s a thing that happens to me a lot, which I’ll bet happens to you as well. I’ll get a story idea–whether driving to work, talking science with my roommates, or snapping bolt upright from a deep sleep–and be filled to bursting with enthusiasm for it. All day while I’m trying to get work done, part of my mind will be whirring away on the story, forcing me to scribble down notes on sticky notes (or my Google Tasks list) until I’m walking around with a thousand words of disjointed bullet points in my pocket–things that would mean nothing to anyone else, like “vampire coffins = cryogenic creches?” and “Post-Rapture balloon tech–yes? Yes!” My conversations will suffer, I’ll have trouble getting to sleep, and I’ll positively vibrate with my need to write the story. At last I’ll wake up early, wait for my fiance to stumble bleary-eyed out of the house, and start writing.

And it sucks.

Oh, it rarely sucks at the start–that young-love glow usually lasts for a few thousand words. But at some point–maybe the third day that I’m rolling on it–I start to get a bad feeling. Maybe the characters feel wooden. Maybe the scenes are choppy, with nothing to stick them together. Maybe the prose itself feels infantile, and the dialogue is a bunch of head-bobbing and exposition.

I feel, in other words, like a hack.

You know the sort of writer I mean. To most folks, a hack is somebody who churns out a ton of fiction with no regard for art–the sort of low-quality stuff that, as in Spider Robinson’s famous origin story, makes you throw the book across the room and say, “Damn it, I can write better than this guy!”

Once upon a time, that moment of doubt might have been a death sentence for my story. While things were good, they were great. But as soon as a story lost its charm, it was out on the street, panhandling for semicolons.

Then I got a job editing for Paizo Publishing, and immediately realized the truth: I was, as expected, a hack. But so was everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve seen some great stuff come across my desk. But I’ve also seen a whole lot of stories (and RPG adventures, and articles, etc.) that were merely good enough. They had some merit, but they also had some flaws. As again and again I found myself buying work that was merely good (or sold stories of my own that I was sure were destined for the scrap heap), I began to understand that writers really are their harshest critics. Sure, there will always be folks out there who are better than you. But you aren’t competing against them. You’re only competing against the rest of the slush pile for a particular magazine in a particular month. And as Sturgeon’s Law teaches us, ninety percent of that slush pile is bound to be crap. Suddenly the odds don’t look so bad, eh? One thing they never tell you in school is that all professional writing is graded on a curve.

So how does this relate to Ted Chiang?

If you aren’t already familiar with his work (and I suggest you remedy that immediately), Ted Chiang is an anomaly in the SF world. Though he’s published only a dozen stories in twenty years of writing, every one of them is brilliant. His list of major industry awards is in fact longer than his list of published stories. He’s unquestionably a wonderful author–his only collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, blew my mind when I first read it, and I still think about it regularly half a dozen years later.

He’s also, in my opinion, a terrible role model for a writer.

That’s not an insult to Ted–he’s a very nice man, and I imagine he has some excellent advice regarding the writing process. But if you set your literary goals with him as your model, you’ll go insane. That’s because you can’t be Ted Chiang. He’s the statistical anomaly. The outlier. The batter who hits every pitch.

For the rest of us, writing is a series of almosts. Sometimes–never as often as we’d like–we’ll hit on the perfect word, the perfect scene, the perfect ending. More often, we’ll end up with something less than we want, but more than we fear. It’s always easy to see the flaws in your own writing, because you know where to look for them. The key is to keep going and finish the story anyway.

This isn’t to say you should ignore the holes. By all means, revise. Get someone to read your story, and listen to their comments. Make each piece the best it can possibly be, given your current level of ability. But once it’s everything it’s going to be, send it out. Even if you’re not sure you like it anymore. The world is filled with great stories that their authors were ultimately unhappy with–even Mr. Chiang turned down a Hugo nomination in 2003 because he felt his story “Liking What You See: A Documentary” didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. On a personal level, several of my most prestigious publications have come from stories that I had misgivings about, or was about to retire from the submission process altogether.

Not every story is destined to win an award. Plenty of good stories are just that–good, not great. As soon as you make peace with that fact, you can quit psyching yourself out and just write the damn story. And when you’re done, you can write the next one. Who knows? One of them may turn out to be an award-winner after all. Experience is the best teacher, and an author who has a dozen books in print is far more likely to find a groove and an audience than someone with just one Great American Novel. He or she will also be far more equipped to pay the rent–it turns out the pay is the same whether your story is a glittering jewel or just pretty good. (And if you’re really lucky, the editor footing the bill may be able to help you turn the latter into the former.)

Of course, some people will argue that being a true artist means demanding perfection, and that if a given piece isn’t a Great Work of Beauty and Truth, then it should go in the drawer. They’re welcome to their opinion, and I’ll be happy to read their work, presuming they ever finish.

But me? I’m a hack.


James L. Sutter is the author of the forthcoming novel Death’s Heretic, as well more than twenty-five short stories for such publications as Apex Magazine, Black Gate, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death. His first anthology, Before They Were Giants, pairs the first published stories of such SF luminaries as Larry Niven, William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, and China Mieville with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, James has written numerous roleplaying game supplements, and is the Fiction Editor for Paizo Publishing, creators of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He lives in the Ministry of Awesome, a house in Seattle with 4 other roommates and a fully functional death ray. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com.

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  • Ace

    All hail us hacks! *fistbump*

  • Erika Holt

    I LOVED this post! While it would be wonderful to write an award caliber story one day, the vast majority of us won’t reach that goal, and speaking for myself, that’s okay (though of course I will always strive to improve). I think sometimes writers can become paralyzed with anxiety–worrying about what their peers will think, what editors will think, about getting a story published and then subsequently feeling embarrassed by it etc. We begin to feel as though we’re writing to impress someone, rather than just writing. The points you make are good ones: write often; do the best you can–which will probably be less than perfect; send stuff out; repeat. Couldn’t agree more. 

    And as an aside, can I just say how happy I am that you used “eh”? See! Americans say it, too!

    • “Eh” is incredibly useful. 🙂 As is “y’all,” actually… it’s the English vosotros!

  • John Remy

    This is so encouraging to hear. Ted Chiang is one of my heroes, but I’ve gradually learned that I can never be him–I don’t have the drive to perfect a story that he does. I suffer from some level of perfectionism, but I accept, at some level, that I am a hack. Solidarity!

  • Anonymous

    Very true! Makes me think of Scalzi’s recent post, that you can only have your own career, not anyone else’s. While trying to hit every single one out of the park is a good goal, at some point a person needs to consider if that’s the kind of writer they are, or if they’re maybe not that writer but a different kind of writer. Just be true to what you are and what you create, and instead of trying to be better than those amazing authors, just try to be better than yourself 🙂

    Great post!

  • (I mention “y’all” just in case you were looking for some American loan words. Literary exchange program FTW!)

    (Whoops, this was supposed to be a reply to Erica. My blogging skills are poor.)

  • Absolutely loved this post. Was just taking a break from writing, and now I feel rejuvenated to hack my way through another couple hundred words.

  • Thanks for the post, James!! It makes me feel so much better about my own hackedness..hackiness..hackage… SEE??

  • Great post. I will add that, when I write one of those really great stories, I tend to know it; and it makes me feel amazing.
     
    I still submit all the crap, though.

  • I write under multiple names. One of my pseudonyms is a devoted hack.

  • Great article! I highly doubt I’m going to write something as award-winning, awesome, mind-blowing as some of my genre fiction idols, but that doesn’t matter that much. I love the thrill of being published, of knowing that my work is out there for other people to read or collected in anthologies somewhere.

    There have been times where I’ve submitted things I thought were okay and they get accepted, and then there have been times where the opposite has happened. And once! Once I submitted something I thought was good–actually good–and it got accepted! Imagine that!

  • Having hit that very trough of disillusionment with the story I’m writing at the moment (not to mention the countless times I’ve hit it before), this was exactly the post I needed to read today. Thank you. 🙂

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  • Reader

    Ted Chiang, we need more stories. Don’t you dare to leave this world without writing and publishing another collection of short stories!