12 Dumb Things Writers do to Sidetrack Our Own Success

by Anne R. Allen

We writers tend to be a delusional lot. Most of us know the average writer doesn't make a bunch of money, but we secretly believe our own efforts will bring us fabulous fame and fortune.

Or at least pay the rent.

When we start out, we're certain our books will leapfrog over all the usual obstacles, and in record time, we will land on the NYT  bestseller list and the cover of Time. 

Don't be embarrassed. The delusions are necessary. If we accepted the reality of how hard it is to make a living as a writer, we'd never get that first sentence on the page.

But those delusions—and the fear of losing the comfort they bring—can take us on dangerous detours that can derail a fledgling career.

They did for me.

My own personal detours happened because I didn't learn enough about the business. People kept telling me to join RWA to find out the ins and outs of the industry (excellent advice, by the way), but since I didn't see myself as a romance writer, I didn't join until my career had been stalled for several years.

I was sure I didn't have to learn the business side of things. I'd have a magical fairy god-agent to deal with all the boring stuff.

I actually landed an agent with my very first query. Who promptly left the agency without telling me. I'd read in the literary agent guidebooks that the process is slow and you should never phone an agent, so I waited over six months before I called to ask what was going on. (Yeah. I wasn't kidding about the "dumb" part.)

I wasted most of that time writing almost nothing, because I was waiting for my agent to guide me. Should this be a series? Should I rewrite it as romance? If this doesn't sell, what other kind of book should I be writing?

I had four more agents after that. None of whom sold my books. Or gave me any guidance.

Turns out I might have been just a tad delusional about those magical fairy god-agents.

Here are some other dumb things I see a lot of beginning writers doing today. If you recognize yourself or a friend, check out some of the "get back on track" solutions to get that career off and running again.

1) Aiming too low 

Lots of brilliant writers never leave square one. They settle into a pleasant little comfort zone and never try to climb to the next step.

They enter—and win—the same couple of local contests every year and publish stories in the same handful of little magazines for decades. Nobody but the three judges of the contest and the five subscribers to the litzine have ever seen their work. But the writers get a thrilling little buzz every year from their wins and are scared of facing rejection in the larger marketplace.

Others never send their work out at all. They'll read the same book to a critique group for a decade or keep reading first chapters of books they never finish. I've met people at writers' conferences who always bring the same chapter of the same book to the workshops, year after year. I don't know if any of them ever get published. Or even finish their novels.

How to get back on track: Face your fears and accept that getting rejected is part of the process. Look at the "opportunity alerts" at the bottom of this column. Submit to a new magazine. Enter a contest with higher stakes. Finish that novel. Expand your world!

2) Aiming too high (a.k.a. not knowing you're a beginner.)

I cringe when a newbie writer with only a handful of credits tells me she will never write for free. Or after publishing four or five short stories an author says he'll never sell to anybody but Asimov's, Ellery Queen, or The New Yorker. Writers like this may say they're practicing the "law of attraction" by visualizing the big bux, but what they're actually doing is aiming to fail.

If you want to visualize yourself making it to the top of the success ladder, you need to visualize the whole ladder.

Even twenty years ago, expecting instant success was self-defeating. Nobody pole-vaults from the mailroom to the board room after their first paycheck. Especially in the publishing business.

And now, alas, we live in an era when everybody in this business works for free some of the time. Interns apprentice for no pay in literary agencies and publishing houses. Agents don't get paid until when/if they make a deal.

Even the rich and famous do it. Anne Rice pens Facebook posts all day long. Stephen King tweets. Tons of bestselling authors blog. All without remuneration.

How to get back on track: Accept that everybody has to start on the first rung of the ladder. Put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours. If you write nonfic, write for smaller magazines, anthologies, and blogs and collect your clips. If you write mostly fiction, send those stories out to the non- and lower-paying litzines. The prestige you get from writing for some of them can be worth more to your career than getting a story into a higher paying slick monthly.

3) Taking an endless trip on the Query-Go-Round

Some writers never take the time to learn to write a good query. They keep sending out the same letter that calls their work a "fiction novel" and addresses the agent as "To Whom it May Concern" and talks about how their book is so much better than "all the crap out there."

Or they might fall for scams like this one, which charges $700 to write queries for you. (All query-mill letters are automatically rejected. Agents can tell.)

Or they can do the opposite and become query addicts. They send out queries on the same book for decades. They hone that query to perfection. They take all the workshops on querying at every writers conference they go to. What they don't do is work on the book. Or write another one.

These people don't want to discover what's really wrong:

But they'll never know if they're trapped on the query-go-round, addicted to the high they get from that rare request for a partial, then maybe a full, then waiting a year for the form rejection that says nothing. (Agents are very cagy these days. Their rejections are crafted to say nothing but "no thanks." And more and more, they reject with silence. Unfortunately, they've learned that any feedback at all can draw angry retaliation from crazed newbies.)

How to get back on track: Workshop the book if you haven't, and then write another one. Maybe not so trendy this time. Or look for a small press that specializes in your brand of zombie zeppelins. Or self-publish (but not until you've written zombie-zeppelin book #2. It's very hard to market a singleton title as an indie.) 

And if you're querying and have never read the Query Shark  or networked with the good people at QueryTracker, do. They may solve a lot of your problems.

4) Getting trapped with a bad agent and/or signing the first contract you're offered without reading the fine print

In these days of "forever" books and eternal bookshelves, bad contracts are much more dangerous than they were in the pre-ebook days.

You may end up signing away the rights to your book and characters for a lifetime—and even your children's lifetimes. 

Some publishers insist that you give the right of first refusal for every word you will ever write. Here's a cautionary tale from Jordan McCollum. There are lots of bad contracts out there, even with well-known agents and publishers.

And unfortunately, there are lots of incompetent and disappearing agents, scammers, and vanity publishers eager to lead you astray and deplete your savings.

If you have fantasies of a magical fairy god-agent, you could easily fall prey.

How to get back on track: educate yourself about the business before you jump in. Join professional writing organizations like  RWA  or SCBWI . Keep yourself informed by checking Writer Beware, and read popular publishing industry blogs like the Passive Voice. (Very indie oriented, but usually solid advice.)

5) Chasing trends

Some writers have files filled with half-written Twilight clones, maybe a Dan-Brown artifact-chaser, a couple of a YA Dystopians and 25 ½ Shades of Mommy Porn. They never quite finish any of their projects because, well, what they really like is family sagas or space operas, but everybody says those aren't selling.

How to get back on track: Don't follow trends; set them. Anything that's on the bestseller list now will be saturated and waning by the time you get a book finished, polished, edited and ready to go. Write what you love to read, not what's on the bestseller list or a hot TV trend right now.

6) Forgetting the part where you learn how to write

We've all met newbie writers who say stuff like: "Why should I have to study writing? I read all the time and I edit our Justin Bieber fan club newsletter. I'm a great speller. So I can write a novel, no prob."

These people don't understand that writing narrative is an intricate, specialized craft. Eating a sandwich doesn't teach a person how to bake bread. They wouldn't expect to be able to knit a sweater or play golf without some kind of instruction. So why do they think they can write a novel in a total vacuum?

I'm amazed how many people would rather spend 20 years flailing around writing badly rather than pay a few bucks for a workshop or a book on plotting or structure. 

Some of these people think they can hire an editor who will magically turn a bunch of random pages into a coherent novel. Anybody who's worked as a freelance editor has had to deal with a few of these. It's amazing when you see the horror on their faces when it dawns on them that writing a novel involves a whole lot of work.

How to get back on track: Take a writing class or workshop and buy a few books on writing. Nathan Bransford has a brilliant one called How to Write a Novel for only $4.99. Or try Save the Cat by Blake Snyder or How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey.

7) Partying like it's 1999

Some writers are hooked on old media. They don't want to know anything about online marketing and every year they launch a new paper book with a signing party at a local bookstore announced by an ad in the hometown newspaper, or postcards sent to a local mailing list.

The same twelve people come. Every year. Twelve people who would have bought the book anyway. Nobody else knows these authors have books, because they don't have a website or a blog or an Amazon author page and consider themselves "above" social media.

You Google these people and up comes the picture from when they campaigned for John Kerry in 2004.

If they're with a traditional small or mid-sized press, they may have an ebook, but they don't know how to get online reviews or set up an Amazon author page, so their book ranks at about #7,891,000.

Or they self-publish with a vanity press and insist on putting tons of money into a hardcover novel that nobody can afford.

How to get back on track: Join the 21st century. It may seem scary, but it's more fun than you realize. Take baby steps. Get a friend or relative to help you set up your Amazon author page. Start reading blogs. Molly Greene and Kristen Lamb give top-notch info on how to use social media on their blogs. Pick up Molly's Blog it!, Kristen Lamb's Rise of the Machines or, um How to be a Writer in the E-Age by yours truly and #1 Amazon bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde.

8) Refusing to accept that publishing is a business 

An amazing number of writers seem to think the writing life is a perpetual high school English class where there are gold stars for everybody. They are offended when publishers and agents are "mercenary" or "only out for money."

Newsflash: people don't run businesses in order to lose money. Not everybody can live off the Bank of Dad forever.

If you want to make a living as a writer, you have to learn how the business works.

You wouldn't try to open a restaurant if you'd never worked in one, but most new writers know nothing about the business they're trying to enter.

How to get back on track: Give up the magical fairy god-agent fantasy. Then go read the archives of Jane Friedman's awesome blog, subscribe to (free) Publisher's Lunch and follow a few agents on Twitter. Or pick up a solid book on how to self-publish like David Gaughran's Let's Get Digital.

9) Chasing that first-draft high 

We all live for that moment when we're in the zone and the muse is dictating that story as fast as we can write it down. Nothing's better than that.

But most of us know that euphoric high is fleeting.

Sooner or later we have to confront the reality that this book is not, in actual fact, the greatest cultural achievement in all human history, and we may have to, um, write a second draft.

In the middle of which we will be sure the book sucks.

But people hooked on that first-draft-high never get to the "my-book-sucks" stage. They never let a beta reader tell them about the holes in the plot or how it's totally confusing when Estella's name changes to Ralph halfway through. They'd never use a critique group. They never rewrite or hire an editor.

These self-adoring geniuses just go write another brilliant masterpiece instead. And another. And can't figure out why nobody wants to read them.

Whether they endlessly send the masterpieces to agents, or self-publish and constantly tweet "buy my book", they fail to become professional writers.

How to get back on track: Learn that the first draft is between you and your muse, but the final draft is for the READER. If you don't keep your readers in mind, you won't have any. It's simple as that.

10) Spending all your time and money on iffy marketing schemes 

There are thousands of blogs and books that promise you instant riches with ebooks. Most of them are out of date and all of them are lying. 

That's because nothing is certain in this business (except rejection and bad reviews.) Nobody can  fulfill a promise that you'll make the bestseller list or become a millionaire.

I know lots of people do fall for the hype and bullbleep because I see them all over the place: 
And in case you still think tweeting your book boosts sales, I now have personal experience that says it doesn't. A sweet friend put one of my books into a tweet circle a couple of weeks ago and it got tweeted at least 500 times.

Guess how many books I sold that week? None. Zip Zilch Nada. I'd sold 40 the week before. So if anything, those tweets made people NOT buy the book.

How to get back on track: Look at what actual successful authors are doing. Hugh Howey built his huge audience by connecting with fans on his blog and on forums. Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne Rice have constant interaction with their readers on Facebook. Catherine gives away lots of free books from her blog.

All these bestselling authors are connecting with their fans one-on-one, not "targeting" a faceless "them". Books have to be hand-sold. Marketing schemes don't work unless you're the Big Five and can load every chain bookstore in the world with huge front-of store displays.

And don't tweet your book unless you have news about it. Like that it's free for the next 24 hours, and you just got a rave review from Big Al.

11) Failing to write the book at all 

Speaking of gimmicks, I can't believe how many newbie writers get drawn into the Kickstarter game. They spend a bunch of money on a video ad for Kickstarter explaining how if you just give them a bunch of money, they will sign a book for you that they plan to write someday.

Oh, and they'll also need your money for an editor, a formatter, and a cover designer and of course, a book trailer, which will only cost $10,000.

Okay, it's true that if you do something truly outrageous on Kickstarter, like ask for money to make potato salad, a bunch of idiots may give you money. But this is not a good business plan.

Because here's the reality: anybody with a BookBub, Pixel of Ink, EBUK or KND subscription can get any number of brilliant books from bestselling authors for 99c-$3.99 these days.

Why would readers give $500 to a newbie who's got nothing but an idea? We all have ideas. Would you hire a hairdresserfor 500 times the going ratewho hasn't yet attended beauty school, just because he has a mental picture of a choppy bob with feathered bangs which would look totally sweet on you?

Kickstarter is a wonderful tool for things like reviving Reading Rainbow and the Veronica Mars movie. But you need to have something to offer the world besides your own neediness.

Here are some other ways wannabes avoid actually writing:

How to get back on track: Either put your butt in a chair and your fingers on a keyboard or figure out what you really want to do with your life. Hint: it's okay not to be a writer.

12) Not reading (especially in your genre)

I'm amazed at people who claim to want to be writers, but when you ask them what they're reading they go totally blank.

Or they’ll mention a bestseller of a decade ago as the last book they read. Or they say they read nothing but classics—which you strongly suspect they haven't read since college. They may even follow by telling you "there's nothing good out there."

It's awfully hard to write a novel contemporary readers are going to like if you haven't read anything published since The Great Gatsby. And it's impossible to write something Romance/Mystery/Thriller readers are going to like if you don't read (and love) those genres.

How to get back on track: Make time for reading every day. Especially new books in your genre. Consider it part of your writing routine. If you'd rather watch Dancing with the Stars or play a videogame, ask yourself why you want to be a writer. Are you trying to please Mom? Or Mrs. Hoolihan from fourth grade? Would you rather be designing videogames or sequined dance costumes? That's okay. 

And probably pays better. 

This is a great profession if you love it, but there are no shortcuts and the pay is pretty lousy for all but a handful of superstars. If you'd rather be doing something else, let go of the delusions and go follow your bliss, wherever it takes you.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you been sidetracked by any of these detours from your writing path? How did you get back on track? Do you have any other pitfalls to warn us about?  

Oh, and you can hear a half-hour excerpt of my comic novel NO PLACE LIKE HOME narrated by C.S. Perryess and moi every Sunday night at 9 Pacific time, streaming at http://esterobayradio.com/ or 97.3 FM if you're in the Morro Bay area.


How To Be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide has been republished again! 
It is again available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA and all the other Amazon stores. 

It was not un- & re-published by choice. Our agent suddenly left her agency where we had been published with an "agent-assisted self-publishing" program, and without warning, the agency unpublished the book and sent us the files about two weeks ago. It was a "Yikes!" moment for this cybermoron. Especially since Catherine was on vacation at the time. But with some generous help from the kind tech blokes at EBUK, the book was back up within 24 hours. It took another two weeks and several requests to the Zon for our reviews to migrate, but as of this weekend, they're back. 

And I think this means that I am finally over my fantasies about those magical fairy god-agents (not that it was our agent's fault, but intra-agency squabbles happen, and authors need to be on our toes.)

Unfortunately all this happened the day the paper book was supposed to go to the printer. Needless to say, that has been delayed. I'll let you know when that finally happens.

This is one of the few guidebooks that addresses both the writers who hope to traditionally publish AND indies. We even give some info to help you choose. Also lots of stuff on how to blog, use social media, get critiques, deal with agents and avoid scammers...without driving yourself nuts.

"The moment I started to read "How to be a Writer in the E-Age" I knew it was a winner in every sense. The information is not only valuable to new authors, it's relevant to published authors who might be thinking about making the switch to e-publishing, too." Ryan Field, reviewer

"This comprehensive, humorous and down-to-earth guidebook covers our ever-changing industry, our growing choices, and lays down what we can expect at the end of our road so we plan our travels well." Joanna Celeste, reviewer at Joanna Celeste's book blog

"I hadn't done much writing in recent years, but this book opened my eyes to many new things. I've now started a blog and following the suggestions in this book, have many more followers than I thought possible"...Travel Blogger Sil Cadenasso


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Want to Appear in Writer's Digest? Here's how. Have you ever tried to write a book in a month-as part of NaNoWriMo, with a writing group, or just on your own? What was your experience? WD wants to hear from you. Tell them about your write-a-thon! Send your story-along with your full name, city and state to writersdigest@fwmedia.com with "BIAM" in the subject line. Responses may appear in Writer's Digest publications and/or on WritersDigest.com.

Short Romance stories with holiday themes: Crimson Romance Ebooks (A division of F & W, publisher of Writer's Digest Books) is looking for holiday themed shorts (10K-20K words) Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa 2014, New Year's Even 2015, Deadline: August 15th

BLUE EARTH REVIEW FLASH FICTION CONTEST $2 ENTRY FEE. 750 words or less. Limit two stories per entry. First place $500. Second place $250. Third place $100. Winners will be published in the Blue Earth Review, the literary magazine of Minnesota State University. Deadline August 1.

A ROOM OF HER OWN FOUNDATION ORLANDO PRIZES $15 ENTRY FEE. Four Orlando prizes of $1,000 each and publication in The Los Angeles Review are awarded twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and an essay by women writers. Deadline July 31.

Mash Stories: No entry fee. $100 prize. Quarterly short story competition aimed at promoting new talent. Flash fiction up to 500 words. Must incorporate the words: monkey, cathedral, relativity. Stories are voted on continuously throughout the submission period. Shortlisted stories are featured on the Mash website, professionally narrated on Mash podcast, and included in their magazine Deadline July 15.

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