Six More Pieces of Bad Advice for Writers to Ignore

Two weeks ago I wrote a post listing some of the bad writing advice that can stand in the way of launching a successful publishing career.

But I had too much to run in one post, plus I got some great suggestions from readers in the comments. So this week we have a "Son of Bad Advice" post.

Hey, it's Groundhog Day, so I figure we can have deja vu all over again.

Some myths about the writing life have become so much part of our culture that "everybody knows" them. It's hard to accept they're not true. I've had a hard time unlearning some of them myself.

As I said in my previous post, we've been programmed with misinformation all our lives. We've watched romanticized fictional authors like Jessica Fletcher and Richard Castle and that guy who owned Magnum PI's tropical mansion write their way to fame and fortune. It looked so easy.

New myths have been added with the ebook revolution. We now hear that all we have to do is write a book, put it on Amazon, and the movie deals and fat paychecks will start rolling in. After all, it happened to Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking. And recently we've heard about Sylvia Day with her 7-figure deal with Harlequin, and million-seller indie romance author Theresa Ragan...

But those authors are the exceptions, not the rule. They're newsworthy because they're rare. If you don’t want your heart broken in this ever-more-complex, fast-changing industry, it's best to learn the facts and put the following myths firmly in the "fiction" section of your consciousness.

1) Land a publishing contract and you can quit your day job

I think the biggest, baddest lie about this business is that authors make a lot of money once they land that publishing contract. How many times have your friends joked, "will you still talk to me when you're rich and famous"?

You can tell them to relax, because it's unlikely to be a problem.

How much do traditionally published authors make?

Last month an author posted on her blog the breakdown of her actual income from a multiple book contract. It came down to about $3000 a year. More on this at Lexi Revellian's blog.

The author in question had to remove the post after a few hours because it violated a non-disclosure clause in her contract, but she was very brave to post it. Publishers seem to want to keep up this myth that their authors are raking it in.

But the fact is: publishing advances have been evaporating in the past decade. Agents are saying, "$10,000 is the new $50,000". Also, it's important to know that $10,000 comes in several installments, over a couple of years, and of course the agent gets 15% (not that they don't earn every penny.)

And according to a study reported in the Guardian on January 17th, 54% of trad-pubbed authors make even less than that. The study put the average at $1000 (£600). Yeah. Picking up cans for recycling on the side of the road would probably pay better.

Of course, some big name authors are making millions. And a lot of self-publishers do much better than the trad-pubbed mid-lister who wrote that post.

But the average self-publisher makes even less: 77% are reported to be making less than $1000 a year.

That trad/self-pubbed ratio may be a little skewed, because the trad-pubbed category counts only the authors who've reached the point of getting contracts. But as Hugh Howey pointed out, while aspiring trad-pubbers are querying agents, self-pubbers are putting their fledgling work into the marketplace, so they get counted in the stats and the queriers don't. Also, the self-publishing category includes the hobbyists who may only have one book and aren't necessarily trying to earn money from it.

But it's important to point out that the authors with the highest income are hybrid authors. A hybrid author self-publishes as well as working with a traditional publisher.

You can find a fascinating breakdown of income streams for a hybrid author from Elizabeth S. Craig on her blog this week.

You can can become "hybrid" either of  two ways:

1) Start out in traditional publishing (agent+Big 5 or smaller presses) and supplement with self-publishing.

2) Start by self-publishing, become a mega-seller, and wait to get offered a traditional contract like Howey and Hocking. Unfortunately you don't get to choose this path to hybrid-dom. You have to hit it big first and wait to be invited. Agents don't welcome queries from self-publishers unless they're mega-sellers.

This means querying agents and going the traditional route to break into printwhile it may not be as lucrative as you imaginedcan still be a good way to launch a career. Just make sure you don't sign any "non compete" clauses that prohibit you from self-publishing other work. Contracts can be full of booby-traps these days, so run it by a lawyer.

Yes, your initial trad-pub books will probably bring in less money than your later self-pubbed books, but that's not necessarily a bad trade-off.

Many self-pubbers make one or two of their early books perma-free in order to entice new readers. Your trad-pubbed book may only make $1000-$3000, but it can be a "loss leader" like those indies' perma-frees.

The marketing and cachet you get from starting with a traditional publisher (and having an agent in your corner when you start out) can still make this path attractive.

But don't make the mistake of thinking it's a get-rich-quick proposition. Write because you love it, have patience, and don't count on living the life of Richard Castle with your first few books.

2) Copyright that manuscript as soon as you type "the end" or somebody will steal your plot!

It's true that plagiarism is a big problem these days, but not of unedited, unpublished manuscripts. Pirates can lift books right off fan fiction sites or Amazon, so why would they want somebody's first draft?

No matter how original you think your concept is, plot theft is unlikely. The truth is that everybody’s got a story. It’s how you write it that matters.

As Anna Quindlen said, "Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had."

Since the copyright law reforms of the 1970s, copyrighting your work before it’s published has been the mark of a paranoid amateur.

Especially if you're sending it off to agents. If you mention in your query that you've copyrighted the material, "so don't think you can steal this fabulous idea and publish it yourself" you can expect instant rejection.

Also, the agent will inevitably ask for changes, and and so will your editorif you're lucky enough to get a contractthen it will be a different book, needing a new copyright.

A copyright only costs $35 in the US, but if you register a rough draft, and every subsequent draft, that can add up.

And it's unnecessary: your work is copyrighted as soon as you type it onto your hard drive. (And BTW, you can’t copyright a title.)

If you want to read more on why you can put that paranoia aside, here's my post on "Hey, James Patterson Stole my Plot"

There are lots of things to fear in the Big Bad Publishing World: non-compete clauses, "in-perpetuity" contracts, shrinking advances, and overpriced vanity publishers, but plot theft should not be high on your list.  

3) If you have talent, spelling and grammar don’t matter.

"You'll have editors to take care of all that stuff," people will tell you. "The only thing that’s important is creativity."

That may be true when you're seven, but not when you're trying to launch a professional career. 

Would you hire a plumber who didn't know how to use a wrench?

Words and grammar are a writer's tools. If you can't use them properly, nobody's going to hire you for the job. Not an agent; not an editor; not a reader. 

The old saw about 10% inspiration/90% perspiration is 100% true. Talent without skill is useless.

Today's author needs more polished writing skills than ever before. Readers have access to more books, and on tablets they can switch from your book to a magazine, movie, or TV show. You have to work harder than ever to keep their interest with fast pacing and lean, powerful prose.

In the e-age, authors also need top-notch skills with marketing and social media. Nobody's born with those. You have to learn them and keep up with rapid changes.

Work on perfecting the nuts and bolts of writing and keeping up with the latest industry news, or nobody will ever find out about that talent of yours.

Yes, you need editors, and they give necessary polish to a solid manuscript. But they can't take a total mess and make it into a masterpiece, no matter how much raw talent you may have.

4) Put a lot of skin on your cover: sex sells.

A woman I met at a party recently told me I should have my publisher put a semi-naked guy on the covers of my books and they'd sell better.

She was wrong on two counts: first, putting a cover on your book that isn't right for your genre will backfire. If people buy your literary novel thinking it's going to be a sizzling love story, they will not be pleased. Sell a cozy mystery as a dark thriller, and the reviews will be nasty. And if you sell realistic women's fiction as romance, readers who don't get their HEA ending will be unhappy forever after.

Genres have rules, and cover art is very genre-specific. To learn more about covers, designer Melinda Van Lone is running a great series on specific requirements by genre. Or follow Joel Friedlander's blog, The Book Designer 

Second, as I said in a post last November, sex may not sell mainstream fiction as well as it used to, now that rules are enforced by algorithm. One of Amazon's criteria for putting a book in the porn section is how many pixels of flesh tones are on the cover. 

Too much shirtless man-flesh (or even a baby's face) on the cover of your book may relegate it to the erotica section, where it won't be discovered by your target readers and the erotica fans will find your book a major let-down.

5) You're doing writing wrong. There's only one way to write a good book. 

Thanks to soldier-novelist Linda Adams for suggesting this one in last month's post.

There is no "right" way to write.

Yes, the Internet is packed with writing blogs and forums, all imparting advice, rules, and caveats. We do it here. But reading a lot of Internet advice can be overwhelming (and plenty of it is downright wrong.)

I see new writers so terrified of using adverbs they can't get beyond chapter one. Others spend years eliminating all forms of the verb "to be" from their manuscripts, only to end up with an incomprehensible, stilted mess.

Unfortunately, many writers are passing on this rigid advice as if it had been chiseled on tablets by the Almighty.

We need to be aware that most writing "rules" are simply guidelines that can help with your editing. But they should be banished from your mind when you're writing a first draft.

For a lighthearted look at some of these "writing rules" see my post on writing rules from December.

6) You wrote a whole book, so it deserves to be published!

Thank Mom for her enthusiasm and support, but this isn't true. Yes, writing a book is a huge achievement, and they say only about 3% of people who start writing one will finish. You deserve major congratulations.

But your book may not deserve publication. Almost all successful writers have a few practice books hidden away somewhere. I sure do. I recently unearthed one and realized it has too many characters, too much plot, and no dominant story arc. I might take one chapter and use that for a jumping off place for another novel, the way Jonathan Franzen did with the Corrections.

Successfully publishing book-length fiction is like getting to Carnegie Hall. It takes practice, practice, practice.

If you query too soon, or self-publish a book that has huge structural flaws, you won't just waste your own money and time: you waste your readers' time.

I know some self-publishing gurus tell you to publish everything you've ever written and "let the market decide." But remember an ebook is forever. When you get to be a better writer, that fledgling book is still going to be lurking on a Kindle somewhere with your name on it.

Patience. Give yourself time to learn to write at your own best level before you send your work out into the unforgiving marketplace.


Don't let these facts discourage you. Yes, writing is a tough way to earn a living. If you quit your day job "to write a novel" and expect to start paying the bills with it by the end of the year, you're heading for disaster. Especially if you have student debt.

But still, writing is one of the most fulfilling jobs around. You get to create worlds. You live a life of the mind. And it's fun.

And, in spite of the discouraging reports about how little authors are making, the self-publishing revolution has actually improved an author's chances of earning a living wage.

As As Hugh Howey says, "The simple fact is this: getting paid for your writing is not easy. But self-publishing is making it easier. How much easier? We don't have sufficient data to know. But a conservative estimate would be that five to 10 times as many people are paying bills with their craft today as there was just a few years ago. And that should be celebrated."

What about you, scriveners? Have you been led astray by any of these myths and misconceptions? Do you have any to add to the list? 



The Gatsby Game is available in ebook from Amazon US , Amazon UK , Amazon CA, and Barnes and Noble for NOOK, and Kobo and in paper in the US and in the UK.

The Gatsby Game is based on a real unsolved Hollywood mystery. It was inspired by the mysterious death of David Whiting, a man I knew in college. Nobody knows what happened the night he died in Sarah Miles' motel room during the filming of a Burt Reynolds movie, but I have a theory, and this is a fictionalized account of it. Like David, my anti-hero Alistair Milbourne is obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and imagines himself to be "the ghost of Jay Gatsby, in a straw boater and spats, whistling a tune by Cole Porter."

"Like a finely woven tapestry... a vivid portrayal of a woman's life and how it intertwined with a man who authors from an earlier time would have called a cad. It seems to be a love-hate relationship, an inexperienced and trusting young woman skillfully taken in by a man who was a scoundrel, a true user of women, a man who always seemed to show up like a bad penny throughout Nicky's life... and a man who saw himself as Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel."...
John Williamson

"I was thoroughly entertained by The Gatsby Game. It has all the elements for a good mystery, and would also appeal to readers who enjoy romance in a women’s fiction style. I give the characters, cultural references, story building, and especially the slightly sarcastic narrator voice a 5 star rating" --Donna Hole

And you can now get The Gatsby Game together with Ruth Harris's The Chanel Caper together in one volume: Two comedies for the price of one

Hollywood and Manhattan: it's Bi-Coastal Comedy!

Available at
NOOKKobo, and Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CA


Win a critique of your novel from a literary star and Cambridge professor. Winners will get full critique valued at $800. Contest sponsored by the Writers’ Village Foundation, a not-for-profit UK organization established to help new authors. The top eight submissions will win a session of personal feedback from the award judge, novelist Michelle Spring, a Royal Literary Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Entry is $19 and the deadline is 31st March.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline March 31.

Women Writers:  MSLEXIA SHORT STORY COMPETITION  £10 ENTRY FEE. A competition for unpublished short stories of up to 2,200 words. First prize £2,000 plus two optional extras: a week’s writing retreat at Chawton House Library outside of London, and a day with a Virago editor. Second prize: £500. Third prize: £250. Three other finalists each receive £100.  All winning stories will be published in the Jun/Jul/Aug 2014 edition of Mslexia. Deadline March 17

Dark Continents Publishing's Guns and Romances anthology. They're looking for previously unpublished short fiction from 3500-9000 words. Any genre as long as there's a tough protagonist, weapons, and... at least one reference to music. Sounds interesting. Payment rate is a one-off of $20 per story plus a percentage of the ebook royalties. Publication estimated in late-2014. More info on the website. Deadline February 28.

ERMA BOMBECK WRITING COMPETITION $15 ENTRY FEE. Capture the essence of Erma's writings and you could win $500 and a free registration to the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop!  Personal essay must be 450 words or less (entries of more than 450 words will be disqualified). Two categories: humor and human interest.  Deadline February 17.

Labels: , , , , ,