The Red Queen Effect — For Writers

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” ~The Red Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass.

The Red Queen effect means that staying in the same place is falling behind. Surviving to write another day means we have to co-evolve with the systems we interact with. And the systems in our writing world are evolving in a fast-paced race.

Think about the changes in writing and publishing over the past decade. We’ve moved from the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) submissions to digital rejections. Most of us write electronically—maybe a few die-hards still draft in cursive longhand—and most use some form of app to help with spelling and grammar.

And now we have Artificial Intelligence (AI) coming at us in the high-speed lane. We’ve had tools like Google and Word for some time, but this ChatGPT thing is about to rewrite the rule book. When you get on this bus, there is no stop and you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

I suppose all writers (being human) tire of running fast. However, to be “successful” in today’s writing world—success being defined as “they with the biggest backlist win”—it’s vital to accept change and work with it, not against change. Here’s a quote I dug up while researching this piece and, no, I didn’t prompt it through Chat:

Applied to our careers, we might think about adaptation and evolution as embracing change and pursuing continuous learning and development. In this realm, the imperative to evolve comes not from aspirational pursuits, such as a promotion, but from the need to continue providing value in an environment where even running our fastest as per the Red Queen effect might not be enough.

Adaptation. Continuous learning. Development. Embracing change. Providing value.

Given that change can affect a writer’s sense of value and belonging, why is it that so many of us are resistant to the community’s natural flow of evolution and are content to run with the Red Queen? Maybe these bullet points from the Journal of Applied Psychology sum it up:

  • Reluctance to lose control.
  • Unwillingness to think differently.
  • Lack of psychological resilience when coping with change.
  • Intolerance of the adjustment period involved in change.
  • Tendency to perform poorly outside familiar framework.
  • Reluctance to give up old habits.

Now, I admit to being an old dog trying to learn new tricks. But I also plead (somewhat) guilty to all the above. What’s really driving me forward, though, is the concept of value. Creating something from nothing and repeating as necessary.

I look at writing and publishing evolution not as a linear process but rather as a dynamic and ongoing race. It’s like an infinite game that never ends and whose purpose isn’t to win, but to keep playing as long as possible. The key to surviving in this game is proactive evolution where you anticipate future changes to fundamentally transform your products and/or strategy before you’re forced to do so. And by doing so, you don’t just survive—you also benefit from it.

So, all this “Blah” is fine and dandy. The question is how to beat the Red Queen. Here are some practical Queen-beating tips I sourced.

Continuous Learning — Committing to life-long learning is essential to staying ahead of the Red Queen. Fortunately for writers, there’s a pleasantly overwhelming amount of material to learn from.

Adaptability — The Red Queen effect highlights adapting to perpetual change. It’s the core survival principle in the evolution of every species, including the writer.

Persistent Practice — Developing routines, setting goals, and meeting deadlines are part of the business. Missing these is a sure sign of falling behind the Red Queen.

Networking and Collaboration — The saying “we’re all in this together” definitely applies to writers. The Kill Zone is a good example of collaboration and networking where we regularly discuss changes and advances in the writing world.

Embracing Feedback and Criticism — Can anyone say “Arc” and “Beta”? Ask these guys how you can better your work and stay ahead of the Queen.

Resilience and Perseverance — This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. Pace yourself, accordingly, but do not get behind the Red Queen.

Embrace Technology — This part of the game is moving faster than the sum of all the parts. And it shows no sign of slowing down.

Personal Brand — There’s a lot of misconception about what a “brand” really is. I think it’s simply how others see you and, in this race, it’s critical to be seen.

Innovation and Experimentation — Have some fun during your evolution. Try new things. Explore other writing forms and see what you can work into your WIF (Work In Future)

Standing Out — Do you know how Alice beat the Red Queen? She teamed up with the Queen and used the combined momentum to push ahead. Alice made up her mind—took the mindset—to stand out. And she won.

Kill Zoners: Where do you run in the race with the Red Queen? Please share some thoughts and some tips! BTW, what changes in writing and publishing do you foresee on the horizon?

19 thoughts on “The Red Queen Effect — For Writers

  1. Another thought-provoking post, Garry!

    I start with considering why I write and how I define success. I write because I have myriad potential stories waiting for me to bring them into existence and share them with readers. Success is doing exactly that. Sales represent connecting with readers and the money that results pays for the publishing and gives me some “extra scratch” as JSB once memorably put it (maybe more than once 🙂

    This means continual learning, practice, and yes, experimentation. Use the tools that work, but don’t become overly enamored of any one tool, be it a word processor, a particular pen, a distribution method etc. Each of us has to discover/decide what tools work for us, and which don’t.

    Continue to grow by writing more, pushing my pace a little, but understanding where I fall. I’ve tried to push myself to write much faster than I do, and it led to stress and burnout. Feedback is essential, which means taking the time to get thoughtful responses to my fictions from my beta readers, and work with an editor on making sure there are no errors and that my writing has clarity and no speed bumps for readers.

    The way I “stand out” is to focus on my own “value added proposition”, what readers will experience when they buy one of my books, which ties into my own unique brand. A backlist is really the collection of books we’ve written that we can then connect with readers via sales, and build up synergy between our fictions and a readership, but I’ve learned that the important thing is to give each book its due, enjoying the process of writing each one, living it in a real sense, because, like any other experience in life, it’s unique even while it can be very similar to another like experience, if that makes sense.

    As for changes on the horizon, I think different ways to reach readers will continually arise–Kickstarter, Patreon, Direct Sales are recent examples. Kris Rusch has a new blog post series on marketing to and connecting with readers in 2023 and beyond, which is worth checking out.

    • Nice and thoughtful comment, Dale. I always look forward to your sensible views. “Value added proposition.” Good phrase. Certainly value is a subjective thing like beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Thanks for reminding me about Kris Rusch’s site. I’ll drop over there this morning for a refresher. And enjoy your day, my friend!

  2. Wow, Garry, this is an eyeful during my AM coffee-drinking-and-banana-and-yoghurt-eating start of day.

    I try to embrace all your Queen-beating tips, some better than others. And the current “change” I’m working with is the AI one (ChatGPT). I’m playing with and using it and loving the results so far.

    • Sorry for the delay in responding, Harald. WordPress had me frozen for some reason. I downplayed my Char addiction in this post but, between you and me, it’s a fascinating research and learning tool. I see the newest version is starting to put visuals with the conclusions. I think it’s only months away from answering in audio.

  3. When I was in operations research, I encountered the work of systems engineer Jerry Pournelle, who also wrote science fiction. Systems theory tells us that for any viable system to survive, whether it’s a business, culture, or ecosystem, it must be able to adapt to a changing environment.

  4. Garry, all excellent queen-beating tips that I try to practice…except for that pesky technology. Poor old lizard brain just can’t keep up.

  5. Fantastic article, Garry. As a somewhat competitive person, I love the notion of racing against the Red Queen.

    If you’re open to another tip, I’d add “Give Back.” Finding a way to help another author, whether it’s reading one of their books, reviewing a book, or offering advice to someone new, is a success in itself. I’ve been on the receiving end of those kindnesses.

    I printed your ten tips to keep at my desk as a reminder.

  6. Great post, Garry!

    This is the tip that stood out to me: Persistent Practice — Developing routines, setting goals, and meeting deadlines are part of the business. Missing these is a sure sign of falling behind the Red Queen.

    I’m a routine-sort-of-girl, thrive on a schedule (but one I can change at a moment’s notice, thank you very much!).

    I’ve recently developed a spread sheet for daily word count goals. Yeah, I’m a slow learner-this topic has popped up over and over here at TKZ. I wish I’d done it sooner, because it’s made a huge difference in my output of words on screen.

    These tips for beating the Red Queen will be copied and pasted for further learnin’!

    • Thanks, Deb. I never know which way my posts will go when I hit the publish button. I just try to find topics I find interesting and hope others will, too. As for word count, I just make a note in my daily journal. Right now, I’m not producing much in the way of words. I’m down the rabbit hole – no pun intended towards Alice.

  7. OK — send this through the “was on a fantastic vacation to exotic places for 2+ weeks” filter.
    If I’m happy writing and producing books, I’m successful, and the Red Queen can do whatever she wants with no competition from me. I haven’t opened the WIP since before I left and feel no guilt. If all the “other stuff” means I’m not doing what I enjoy–creating a story–then so be it.

  8. I never had trouble keeping up with the tech. I was an early user of computers, the Internet, etc.

    The real world on the other hand. One of the reasons I stopped writing romance was that society had run away from me. Shallow hook ups as a mentality makes the idea of a romance harder to create and even harder to believe in. Add in the expectation of kinky sex and forget it. This Boomer was out of there.

  9. Some of us have very limited ability due to lack of energy, but still manage to continue on our snail’s path at our own speed.

    I try to compensate by writing the very best books I can every time, since each might be my last, and my legacy will be short. Shrug.

    Given that part, I do tons of research – as necessary and slowly. I’ve done one cover myself, commissioned (and supervised the heck out of) the next, and will probably do my own for the third.

    Marketing – working on it. Have my first library talk and my first podcast in July!

    I had the temerity to write mainstream literary fiction as an SPA, and have known all along it would be a tough sell. So be it.

    I am far more computer-literate than many people in my retirement community (I’m the only novelist here), mostly because they’re older than we are, and have actually helped the wife of a poet get up to speed on his latest at Amazon, so I have finally been of immediate use.

    As long as I can, I will write, but there may not be a huge backlist ever.

    • Your comment got me thinking, Alicia. The Red Queen is a metaphor and I don’t think Lewis Carrol ever said how fast she was travelling so the way I look at is (for seniors like us) we only have to jog if the Red Queen is walking. Or take the HandiDart.

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