books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, April 8, 2012

12 Myths About Being a Writer

When you’re beginning to write, you’re likely to be bombarded with advice from all quarters—your family, your friends, your hairdresser, and that know-it-all guy at work. I don’t know why, but everybody who ever watched a few minutes of Oprah’s show seems to think they know all about the publishing business.

But chances are pretty good they don’t.

And chances are even better that whatever they may have heard is out of date. This is a business in a state of rapid change.

If you don’t want your heart broken in this ever-more-complex, soul-crushing process, you need to keep those myths and outdated ideas from infecting your brain.

Here are twelve things to disregard when you hear them from those well-meaning friends and relations. (Be polite, but you might be forgiven a slightly condescending smile.)

1) Writers make big money.

How many times do you hear stuff like this? “You’re a writer! Will you still talk to me when you’re rich and famous?”

Tell them to rest easy. It’s not likely to be a problem. Even “successful” writers need day jobs these days. Royalties and advances are shrinking at an amazing rate. Yes, J.K. Rowling is richer than the Queen, James Patterson lives in movie-star grandeur in Palm Beach, and Amanda Hocking and John Locke made buckets of bux self-publishing.

But they are superstars—the exceptions that prove the rule. And even if you become a star, like Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde, and get a movie deal and six-figure advances, you're not necessarily on the road to becoming a one-percenter. (More on that to come in the book Catherine and I co-authored: How to be a Writer in the E-Age…and Keep Your E-Sanity! Which debuts in June.)

Of course you (or your hairdresser) can fantasize you’ll become a superstar, too—we all do—but the odds are mighty slim.

2) Genre fiction is easy to write

People will tell you to start out with something “easy” like a romance/mystery/kid’s book. Don’t even try. If you don’t love a genre and read it voraciously, you’ll never write it well enough to publish.

3) Never write for free.

Professional freelancers will tell you this with the ferocity of union organizers, and they are absolutely right…when they’re speaking to seasoned journalists (although even they aren’t getting paid much these days.)

But it’s a long way from writing your first essay to publishing in the New York Times. During your learning process, writing for free is good practice and a great way to get your name out there. Consider you’re being paid in clips and platform-building. And the truth is, if you write literary fiction or poetry, you may never be paid for it. (Most literary writers make their money teaching.) But the lack of paying markets doesn’t mean your work doesn’t deserve an audience.

Plus, it’s important to remember that literary agents work for free a lot of the time—sometimes for years when they’re getting started, just like writers. 

4) Don’t waste time on short fiction. 

People tell you short stories are a waste because you won’t make any money, but that’s all changed with the ebook and the advent of Kindle Singles (see last week’s post: "Why you Should be Writing Short Fiction”.)

Also, short stories are the best place to hone your skills. Publishing shorts makes you more attractive to agents and gives your self-confidence a boost. And it’s a whole lot easier to publish a short story than a novel. There are thousands of literary magazines and contests in the US, but only six major book publishing houses.

5) Don’t reveal your plot, because somebody will steal it.

Everybody’s got a story. It’s how you write it that matters. Since the copyright law reforms of the 1970s, copyrighting your work before it’s published (especially a first draft) has been the mark of a paranoid amateur. It’s copyrighted as soon as you type it onto your hard drive. (And BTW, you can’t copyright a title.)

6)With talent like yours, you don’t have to jump through all those hoops.

The old saw about 10% inspiration/90% perspiration is 100% true. Talent without skill is useless. That means skill at writing AND hoop-jumping. Learn the rules and follow them or nobody will ever find out about that talent of yours. 

7) Spelling and grammar don’t matter.

The only thing that’s important is creativity, right?

When you’re seven, maybe. Words are your tools. If you can’t use them properly, nobody’s going to hire you for the job. 

8) Be extra creative so you’ll stand out.

Sorry, but you won’t get a book deal if you write your query with animated emoticons, invent a new genre, or try to bring back the papyrus scroll. At least not when you’re a newbie. If you have any hopes of getting traditionally published, follow genre and word count guidelines. It’s a very stodgy business and if you don’t follow the rules, you won’t get in the door.

And even if you’re self-publishing, follow the three-act structure, and skip the show-offy rule-breaking, or you won’t get read.

9) Don’t read other writers’ work or you’ll imitate them.

Reading widely is essential to the growth of your craft. The more you read, the better your own work will be. If you imitate a bit when you’re a beginner, no harm done. Traditionally, painters were trained by copying the masters. It’s not a bad exercise for writers, either. Your own voice and style will emerge as you grow as an artist. 

10) The sadder your personal history, the more publishers will be moved to buy your book.

In spite of what you’ve seen on Oprah, readers are not likely to be interested in your personal tragedies, unless you write beautifully and have something new to say that will benefit THEM. Do you enjoy listening to strangers complain about their problems?

Yeah. I didn’t think so. 

11) Sell yourself. Show them you’re confident!

Confidence combined with cluelessness will not help your career—unless you’re Will Ferrell and you do it in an elf suit.

In publishing, tooting your own horn is more likely to make you the butt of #queryfail snark on Twitter.

So when the office know-it-all claims you’re “not trying” unless you query with lines like, “my poignant and exquisitely-written memoir will be bigger than the Hunger Games and Harry Potter books combined,” smile politely and change the subject to his impending mortgage foreclosure. 

12) You wrote a whole book! It deserves to be published!! 

Uh, no. Almost all successful writers have a few practice books hidden away somewhere. Getting something published—especially book length fiction—is like getting to Carnegie Hall. It takes practice, practice, practice. 

What about you, scriveners? What did you once believe about writing that turned out not to be true? Have any myths to add to the list?

INDIE CHICKS fans: This week's inspiration comes from Women's fiction author (and new mom) Talia Jager. Read it on the Indie Chicks page here. 


  1. Good thing we don't need a sad and terrible past, because I would be screwed with my normal life!
    And writers make big money. You could've crossed out the word 'big' and it still would've been really close to the truth. (Although I've been pleasantly surprised.)

  2. Superb list succinctly expressed & should be carefully heeded!

    I will address #2. Genre fiction is NOT easy to write. As one of the great pulp writers who authored 100's (literally) of books once told me: "Each one is a pain in the ass in a different way."

    So don't delude yourself. Trust me: Just because it looks easy doesn't mean it is.

  3. Anne, and here I thought I found something better than crochet to while away my retirement :)

    Love this post !!

  4. Dearest Miss Allen,
    Great list. And now I have to get back to the computer to write some brilliant genre fiction inspired by my terrible past. Given my indefatigable confidence & decades-long habit of eschewing grammar and spelling rules, I'm bound to be discovered before I finish my uber ouvre. And I suppose I'll still talk with you after making my millions - but only if you don't steal my ideas.

  5. Great reminders, Anne. We need to have faith in Self and ignore some of the naysayers.

    Consider the source at all times.

  6. Great advice Anne! You have to take what you hear sometimes with a huge grain of salt.

  7. I love writing short fiction, in fact it's where my heart is. Please tell me 'you need to write a novel to publish short story collections' is a myth?

  8. Great tips, Anne. Thank you.

  9. Alex--Fiction writers have a much better time, because we get to give other people sad and terrible pasts. Bwahahaha.

    Ruth--Thanks. Love the quote. "Every book is a pain the ass in a different way." Words to live by.

    Florence--It might not be so bad to think of it as crocheting or tatting or any of those other crafty things. How many people say "gee, you're crocheting baby booties. Will you still talk to me when you're rich and famous?"

    CS--Ah, little did you know I've already copyrighted your title and I'm going to use it for my next erotic thriller. (more evil laughter)

    DG--It's amazing how the people who know the least are always the most pushy about giving you their advice, isn't it?

    Vera--Yes. Salt, pepper and maybe a whole lot of hot sauce to cover it up completely.

    Annalisa--Do read last week's post on the return of the short story. Trad publishers still want a novel first, but if you've had stories published in litmags and want to put them together in an anthology and self-pub, that's a very viable option. So is submitting a few to Kindle Singles.

    You're welcome, Patti!

  10. Is anybody else having trouble with the preview function on Blogger? The sentences are spilling over the borders and streaming sideways. Anybody else having that problem?

  11. Yes, I've seen that happening on a lot of blogs lately. I think things are acting oddly because Blogger is in the middle of making some changes.

  12. Hi Anne!

    I like #12. I've written a book and it deserves to be published! Anyone can publish a book now. I can't remember the name of the writer who said, "It's easier to get published than read."

  13. Great post! I have had people assume I was published just because I had written a novel. No...not sequential events. But wouldn't that be grand. And wouldn't it be grand if publication was followed by riches. And wouldn't it be grand if every time a bell rang an angel got its wings.

  14. Thank you for this.
    To answer... A story once done is finished. If it doesn't work forget about it. Hmm, not. Recently, I've learned that if I dive back into that story I can use parts to build something truly beautiful.
    Happy writing

  15. Thanks for this post, Anne! Up until a few weeks ago, I was beating myself up for preferring to write short fiction (for now, at least). I did some research and found that many writers got their start with short fiction.

    Your post from last week further solidified it for me: there's a future for short fiction.

    Great post!

  16. True, true, true. On all counts true! Especially #7, and I loved your last post on the merits of short fiction. I'm your #1 cheerleader! I'm a mascot underfoot.

  17. Wait? So if I buy an elf suit, I'll get published ... ?

  18. Myth number one is hilarious. Writers write because that's what we love - money is secondary and is not necessarily "Big."

    Great article,

  19. @Anne -- I'm really liking the short stories idea a lot. And I'm definitely looking into the Kindle Singles.

    @Ruth -- I copied that line about genre fiction being a pain in the ass and hung it over my computer. That is sooo true.

  20. Great post. I would add a constant rule on your way to 10,000 hours and fame and fortune: Nobody asked you to become a writer. You chose that (or it chose you) on our own. So, always keep your big boy/girl panties on. A few moans and groans are o.k. After all, this is hard work. But no pathetic whining, although wearing an elf suit once in a while is o.k.

  21. Yes, thank you, this is all so good to know.

    I'm with FIOS in the City *giggles* maybe I'll take my crochette and knitting back up too... :}

    I've certainly found writing is harder than it looks, but boy am I loving it! (And all these wonderful writers I've found to 'hang out' with) *grins*

    :} Cathryn / Elorithryn

  22. Awesome points Anne!

    One point - your formatting ate the bold-ness on your Point FIve ... just thought I'd point that out for you :)

  23. Been there with the well-meaning but clueless! And, wow, Anne,this is so comprehensive and readable.
    On #7, I was in a university extension writing class once when the teacher, rather gently, told a young man that he needed to check spelling and grammar before submitting. The guy exclaimed that was for copy editors to do, snatched up his papers and left. Never to return.

  24. Elizabeth—Not only that, but it somehow messed with my formatting overnight. I had two headers disappear, even though I swear they were there yesterday. Thanks to Charley for pointing it out. I hope they stay this time.

    Jennifer—I’ve heard people say there are more people writing books than people who read them. Sad.

    Christine—It’s amazing how many people think there’s some magic fairy who publishes your book as soon as you type “the end”.

    Leanne—I’ve heard that rule too—'finish the book and move on." Not always. I love the story of “the Corrections” which Franzen wrote by expanding one chapter of a much rejected book.

    Carrie—Writers like Anne Beattie have made a whole career of short fiction.

    Yvonne—Thanks for being a cheerleader! (“Save the short story, save the world?”) Sorry: old TV show reference for people who watched “Heroes”

    Sarah—Elf suits are a proven way to get published. Look at David Sedaris.

    Michelle—Amazing how many people out there still believe it.

    Anne—I love that pain in the ass quote too!

    Chura—Very good point. Nobody is forcing you to write. You could be watching Dancing with the Biggest Loser like everybody else.

    Cathryn—Writing is hard. But isn’t it great we don’t have to do it alone in a garret any more?

    Charley—Thanks for letting me know the formatting went kerflooey! I’ll swear it was OK yesterday. Anyway, I’ve fixed it for now.

    Tricia—I hope it will be more readable now I’ve fixed the formatting. Great story. It’s amazing how many people believe that. I think they had one of those “self-esteem” teachers in their childhood who told them any effort deserves a gold star, so you don’t have to work at anything.

  25. The one thing I wasn't prepared for was agents telling me how much they liked my mystery-thriller Tainted Souls, but how it didn't really matter because the publishing market sucked. That was disappointing. Fortunately I never expected to make much money at this. And since publishing Tainted Souls as an ebook, I haven't been surprised! Reviews are nice, though, so that's rewarding. All in all, I'd say the toughest part of writing is for most of us justifying our commitment to it in the face of tangible rewards. But somehow we feel compelled to keep at it.

  26. Self esteem teachers (comments). Now there's the basis for a dystopian novel!

    There are two types of bad teachers: those who constantly find fault and destroy self-esteem, and those that never find fault and create self-esteem where none is warranted.

    We see the consequences in those who believe only Big Six validation will do, and those who self-publish just because they can.

  27. There's an easy genre? Ok, who's been holdin out on me . .


  28. Hi Anne,

    I'll take point of number 9 and clear out the chick lit shelf of my local bookstore ;)

  29. Steven--truth is, agents are getting rejected as much as we are. Especially with adult fiction.

    Mark--Very well put about bad teachers. I don't think the UK had as much craziness from the "self-esteem" movement as the US.

    Donna--Oh, yeah. Mysteries are a snap. The butler always does it, right?

    LK--I'll fight you for the Marian Keyes!

  30. While your points are well-taken, I'd like to offer the other side of the story. As a new writer, I've seen literally dozens (if not a hundred by now) articles saying essentially the same thing that you do here. That doesn't make it any less worthwhile, but I have reached a point where I have to ask: Where's the encouragement? Where's the support and collegiality? Where's the part of this industry where the veterans, be they agents, publishers or writers, remember that "newbies" are full of fresh passion, ideas and work? I don't think I've ever seen an industry that is so terribly negative and discouraging to its community members, and I think it's something that the industry as a whole may want to examine. See some more on this at my blog:

  31. Srpaulson--Actually, we make a point of being encouraging to new writers on this blog. Part of the reason I posted this is to help new writers avoid heartbreak by having expectations that are based on things that either never happened or haven't happened for thirty years.

    Did you scroll down to last week's post with the good news about publishing short fiction?

    You might like next week's post, from literary writer Samuel Park, who's going to talk about how new writers can take care of themselves in this tough business.

  32. Great advice! I enjoyed that post a lot. I especially love the point about grammar. I've read a few things lately that were riddled wit typos, and it was enough to make me put them down.

  33. I would just like to say thank you for #3. It is so refreshing to see someone else say this as well.

  34. Ahh haven't I heard some of these before! I write because I want to add to the bubbling pot of imagination that writers provide to the masses. I don't do it for the money, I do it because I have ideas,pictures and scenes in my head that I want to share with others.

  35. aklepha--We've gotta have somebody else proof our stuff. Our mistakes are invisible to us. This is so important for self-pubbers, especially.

    Merlyn--I think it's especially dangerous when newbies are told they should expect to be paid right away. They end up not taking gigs that could really help them learn to be better writers as well as help with their careers.

    Submeg--It sounds as if you write for all the right reasons. :-)

  36. Oooo, Marian! Now she is one of my favourite authors. Good taste :)

  37. Great list!! I had to laugh at a lot of these. Oh boy...

  38. Yup, great list. The writing for free thing is something I have to explain all the time. People don't understand why I blog for free. I don't think I know anyone who blogs for any real money. It's all about practice and presence.

  39. Yup, great list. The writing for free thing is something I have to explain all the time. People don't understand why I blog for free. I don't think I know anyone who blogs for any real money. It's all about practice and presence.

  40. LK--Isn't she great? The Jane Austen of our era, IMO.

    Carol--Isn't it fun to laugh at our former, clueless selves?

    Nina--Me, too! My accountant couldn't believe we didn't "monetize" a blog with such a great Alexa rating. I had to explain we have so many readers because we DON'T monetize.

  41. Wish I'd have read your list fifteen years ago. Maybe I would have come up with a sensibile career plan that didn't involve 'rich and famous author.' Or maybe not. Once you're hooked, well, you're hooked. And who needs money when you can play God with imaginary people?

  42. Tammy - I love your last line! YOu may have just inspired my blog post for this week. *grins*

    :} Cathryn

  43. I saw your post a few weeks ago and shared it with some writer friends. For #12, I love the term 'practice books,' and I giggled to myself a little bit. Anyway, thanks for posting this list and giving some great advice. I also thoroughly enjoyed your post about writing short fiction, and why to do so. Thanks!

  44. Tammy--I think it's true about being hooked. We'd do it even if there was no J.K. Rowling to give us fantasies. But it's those friends who think you're rich that drive you crazy...

    Cathryn--Gotta read that blogpost!

    Eric--Thanks much for sharing the post! And keep writing those short stories. They'll pay off.

  45. One of the very best commentaries on being an author I've read anywhere!

  46. Thanks for the kudos, Lorna! I'm glad this post spoke to you.

  47. @Anne and Tammy - I have finally written the post about not needing money when you can be a God (of imaginary people). *grins* A month later and I finally was able to get it written and up *giggles* :}

  48. Thank you, especially for the news about potential for short fiction. I didn't know that, and I am going to look up that post right now. This post is a keeper, btw: refrigerator door material, right up there with the list of the 10 super foods.

  49. Melanie--hanks so much! I love being on refrigerator doors!

  50. That was supposed to be "Thanks" Although Hanks wouldn't be so bad. As in Tom. Sleepless in Seattle version. :-)


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