6 Mistakes that Can Sidetrack New Writers

 by Anne R. Allen

Ruth and I like to say we made all the writing and publishing mistakes so you don't have to. I figure that personally I've collected nearly the full set of authorial faux pas since I embarked on a writing career.

Here's a list of some of the things I wish I hadn't done when I was starting out.

I'm not saying these are always "mistakes" or that they will inevitably lead to disaster, but they did slow me down on my path to a career as an author.

1) Begging friends, family and co-workers to read your work

When we start writing, what we want most is to be read, so we often rush off to friends and family and implore them to take a look as soon as we've got those first chapters on paper. I admit I did. (And if any of my first readers see this post, I apologize. I know I was probably obnoxious and needy about it.)

But you'll often find loved ones can show a strange reluctance to be your first readers. (If they don't, be grateful, but realize the results may not be what you hope.) And if they say no, accept it. They're not being unkind.

They may be afraid they won't know what to say.

That's because they probably won't, unless they're in the writing business themselves.

They could end up swelling your head with over-the-top praise for your splendiferous adjectives, spritely adverbs and uniquely creative dialogue tags.

On the other hand, they might criticize excellent beginning efforts and squelch your fledgling muse from a fear of not being "honest."

Here's my cautionary tale: about a decade ago, my WIP was having problems with flow, so I gave it to a friend who had praised my published work. I thought he might be able to pinpoint what wasn't working.

Unfortunately, as a non-writer, my kind friend had no idea what “rough draft” meant. After he finished the typo-strewn manuscript, he phoned immediately, telling me to toss the book because it was a “complete mess that nobody would ever want to read.”

I tried to get him to tell me exactly what he didn't like, but he kept ranting, giving no specifics. After he shouted, "show, don't tell" about ten times, I have to admit I hung up on him. (Years later I realized I'd asked him at a very bad time in his life. He'd just lost a beloved job and my career was on the rise. His own dreams were in shatters, so he had no energy to put into mine.)

I shelved the book. I figured whatever was wrong, it must be pretty fundamental.

Years later, when I opened the manuscript again, I realized the book wasn't that bad. I'd let one uninformed person's opinion kill a project I'd spent years of my life creating. I did a quick polish and sent it to my publisher. The editor suggested a new opening chapter and a handful of tweaks that fixed the problems.

It became GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY, the first book in my bestselling Camilla Randall mystery-comedy series.

But the friendship died. And since then, I've never let a non-writer see a rough draft of any of my work.

This is why I recommend that all new writers join a critique group or find beta readers to exchange reads of new work. For more on how to get feedback, see Jami Gold's post on beta readers.

2) Trying to please everybody.

The right group or connection can provide you with the support and advice your loved ones can't give. But remember they'll all have different opinions. In the end, it's your book, so don't change anything just to please somebody else.

I do recommend groups for new writers. Working in a vacuum can waste lots of valuable time. Whether you meet in person or online, writing groups can provide invaluable information and support. They can give sympathy through the rough patches and help celebrate your successes. They can also provide a network that might be all-important to your career.

Kristen Lamb's "WANA tribe" (We Are Not Alone) is a great online community where writers can find mutual support. Another is Alex J. Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group. CritiqueCircle.com also offers many different groups in a variety of genres, with the extra benefit of critiques. There are also great writers groups on Facebook and Google Plus and in forums all over the Web.

National organizations with local chapters like RWA, SCBWI, and Sisters in Crime can also provide up-to-date industry information as well as support. Some also offer online and in-person critique groups.

But one caveat:  if the organization does involve critiques, remember these groups do not have all the answers, and amateur writing groups can often result in the blind leading the blind.

I wrote about why to ignore most of the advice from your critique group here on the blog in August of 2014.

If you're participating in a critique group, it's wise to invest in a couple of good writing books or a vetted, solid writing course as well. Also read blogs like this one by veteran authors and agents.

Remember to take everything you hear in an amateur group with a grain of salt.

Here's how I got a reality check about group critiques: when my first was book accepted by a small press in England, my editor sent it back bleeding with red-pencilled edits. It didn't take me long to realize that every single issue he had with the book was something I'd added at the request of critique groups.

Trying to please everybody in my writing groups can lead to bad habits. Here are a few:

      Repeating yourself

Groups generally ask to be reminded who the characters are and what their relationship is to each other. They also want a recap of the plot and subplots at the beginning of each chapter.

This does not mean you should put that stuff in your book.

All those "remind me" comments stem from the fact these groups only meet once or twice a month, not because anything is wrong with your manuscript.

Because of the logistics of reading a book over a long period of time, I ended up larding my story with ridiculous repetitions. Thank goodness I had a good editor.

      Homogenized, boring storylines

I'd also removed some scenes because they offended one or two readers' political or personal beliefs. Unfortunately, eliminating strong opinions left my characters with no motivation for their actions.

Often naive critiquers can't tell the difference between a character's beliefs and those of the author. A woman wearing big Germanic sandals once stomped out of a critique session when I was reading because my fashionista character made fun of Birkenstocks.

She was too busy being offended to notice that I was wearing Birkenstocks at the time. Some people thrive on being offended. It gives them a kind of high. They will look for any excuse to chase that rush. Don't let it influence your writing.

Making your characters agree with everybody in the group can leave you with something that's more like a Hallmark card than a novel.

      Bad pacing and too much description

Because of "helpful" suggestions from my groups, I'd also put in too much description because some of my readers were poets who loved detailing minutia in a way that had no place in  a thriller.

All those details bogged down the story and gave it a saggy middle that would have lost half my readers. 

In trying to please everybody, I had sabotaged my own story.

Remember everybody has an agenda

The romance writer will tell you to put in more steamy scenes. The thriller writer will want more heart-pounding action. The believer in alien abduction will want big-eyed gray persons in every scene.

These people are telling you about themselves, not what your book needs.

Remember the people who are most strident in demanding that you do it "their way" are probably the least competent to give advice. That's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Scientists have proved the most ignorant people are generally the most sure of themselves.

Think Cliff the postman on Cheers and his "little known facts." Are you going to let somebody like that rewrite your WIP? I almost did.

3) Cart before horse thinking: worrying about publishing and marketing before you master your craft.

There was no social media when I was starting out, but I did have tons of anxiety about being sent on a book tour, because I have issues with agoraphobia.

I'm ashamed to say I obsessed about this stuff before I'd even finished my first novel.

I think even more writers today are thinking about book-selling instead of book-writing long before they have to.

I heard from a writer recently who had already paid a vanity press a huge amount of money to publish his book, but he'd never had the manuscript read by anybody. He wanted to know where he could find beta readers. Arrggh! He had the process completely backwards.

Learn to write before you try to find a publisher! You need to have a manuscript (or two) polished, critiqued, edited and polished again before you even think about publishing. 

I also met a young man recently who was obsessed with marketing. He told me he had a website, X number of followers on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram and Tumblr.

He asked me...did I think he had a big enough platform to start writing his first story?

Poor guy. He had never written ONE WORD of fiction, but he'd spent a year building a platform to sell it.

This is like putting all your money into renting a store before you have any idea what you want to sell, and no money left to buy the inventory.

If you aren't compelled to write stories every day of your life, fiction is probably not your passion. If you like blogging, then blog. But don't use it for selling non-existent fiction.

There's nothing magic about writing fiction. Most professionals will tell you it's a lousy way to make money. Some people feel compelled to write it, and some people don't. This guy didn't. He might make a great social media marketer, though. And it's generally a much more lucrative profession.

On the other hand, if you're tearing away on your WIP and you don't want to stop to mess with social media, don't.

Keep writing.

You don't need to worry about social media or publishers until you've got at least a couple of books in the hopper, some published short work, and you're ready to start a writing business, either indie or traditional.

4) Expecting to make money right away.

Oh, yeah. This was me. After I got an agent for my first novel, I quit my day job and expected to be rolling in money by the end of the year. 

You guessed it: Did. Not. Happen.

The agent shopped it around, failed to sell it and dropped me. When I got the bad news, I hadn't even finished a first draft of a second novel.

I was so devastated, I went back to work and didn't write another word for several years.

I's easy to get discouraged when you've been slogging away on a book for a year and then realize revising it may take another six months. You'll probably start querying the rough draft and get nothing but rejections.

"But I've been at this for so long and I don't have a penny to show for it," you say.

Here's the thing: it turns out a year is nothing. Try ten. At least put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours. Very few authors have ever made money on a first novel. You need at least two in the hopper before anything earth-shaking is going to happen. And even then, you'll probably have to keep your day job. Most published fiction authors (both traditional and indie) don't earn enough money to pay all the bills.

Write because you love itbecause you can't help yourselfnot because you're counting on becoming the next J.K. Rowling.

If you need money, try something else. Like picking up cans for recycling. Seriously. You'll make more money than you will with the average first novel. Until you have at least five titles, you're not likely to make substantial money, whether you're traditionally published or indie.  Yes, it's been done, but those authors are the exception to the rule. Many of the big-earner indies like Russell Blake and H.M. Ward have fifty or sixty books out there.

5) Writing Novels Exclusively

Yup. This was me. Once I decided I wanted to have a writing career, I dove right into writing novels. I left short stories and poetry behind. People told me they were for amateurs. (And in those days, nobody wrote novellas because they were considered "unpublishable.")

That's because in the early 90s, most magazines had stopped publishing fiction. The only way to publish was to spend a lot of time researching the small, low-circulation literary magazines. Which of course could only afford to pay in copies.

The only way to find these magazines was to buy a pricey copy of Writer's Market along with the Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses. The bottom line didn't look good to me. I figured why should I spend more to buy the directories than I'd ever make getting short stories published? Later I did subscribe to them and started placing a few stories, but by then I had already published my first novel.

I was short-sighted. If I'd had more publishing credits and contest wins, I would have found a publisher for my longer fiction faster.

I'd also now be sitting on a goldmine, since short stories, novelettes and novellas are perfect for Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program, and many other online venues. See more about the value of short fiction in my article for Writer's Digest And here's a post on how to structure a novella by by Paul Alan Fahey.

And note that I always include short story publishing opportunities and contests at the end of this blog.

6) Not reading the bestsellers in your genre

I hate to hear new writers say they don't read bestsellers because:

A) "They're all crap." Which is usually followed by statements like, "I can learn everything I need to know by reading the classics. I've read George Elliot, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Fitzgerald,..and every word Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. You seriously expect me to learn from 50 Shades of Gray and that Duck Dynasty guy?"

B) "I'll be too influenced by them." Lots of writers say this. They'll go on to say, "I don't want to lose my voice. I might start writing like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Margaret Atwood, or George R. R. Martin."

And you know why it bothers me so much? Because I used to say that stuff too.

But I finally figured out that writing is a business. You need to know what the marketplace is looking for. As brilliant as the novels of Virginia Woolf are, they are not bestsellers right now. And even if you are the reincarnation of George Elliot, you're probably not going to attract a lot of attention in todays marketplace. You need to learn how to write for contemporary readers.

No, you don't have to read 50 Shades of Duck Dynasty.

But if you're a romance writer, you need to read Nora Roberts, and if you're a horror writer, you'd better have some Stephen King in your library. Anybody writing women's literary fiction who hasn't read Margaret Atwood is going to be at a major disadvantage. And if you write epic fantasy without any knowledge of George R. R. Martin—you're going to be reinventing the wheel.

And so what if I had started writing like Roberts, King, Atwood or Martin? I should have been so lucky. Seriously. A few echoes of the greats in our work is not going to be a problem.

The great painters all started by copying the classic works that came before them. Picasso copied El Greco and Goya, and you see lots of references to their work in his. As he said, "Good artists copy. Great artists's steal.  

If I'd read more contemporaries and fewer classics when I was starting out, I'd have had a much better idea of what might sell. My first novel, THE BEST REVENGE, which was published later as the prequel to the Camilla Randall Mysteries, was partly inspired by the novel Camilla, A Picture of Youth, written by Mrs. Fanny Burney in 1796.

I was even clueless enough to mention that in my early queries.

Yup. I did that. I don't think it impressed any agents.

I would have done better to say the book was also inspired by an unflattering interview in the New York Times of debutante Cornelia Guest.

I also spent a lot of time reading and rereading my favorite classic mystery authors like Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I would have saved myself a lot of time and grief if I'd glanced at the bestseller list and picked up some Janet Evanovich, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen earlier in my career.

I'm sure most of you aren't as clueless as I was when I started writing. In those pre-Internet days, we were all pretty much working in a vacuum. Until I started going to writers' conferences, I did not have any idea what the publishing world was about. Now you have all the information you need at your fingertips.

The e-age has brought changes to publishing that seem chaotic and daunting, but things really are getting better for writers!

And remember that when you're making mistakes, you're learning. I'll leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman:

"I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something."

What about you Scriveners? Have you done any of these things? Did they derail your writing? What do you think was the biggest mistake you made in your early career? Do you have other mistakes to add to this list?

NEWS: You can read an interview with me on Reedsy, talking about how blogging can help your career. (Reedsy is a new start-up that provides vetted listings of editors, cover artists, and other author-service providers.)


We are offering the ebook of Ghostwriters in the Sky for 99c for the first time ever! It's a spoof of writers conferences, full of funny situations most writers will identify with.

It's #1 in the Camilla Randall comedy-mysteries: a wild comic romp set at writers’ conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with a cross-dressing dominatrix to stop the killerwho may be a ghostfrom striking again. 
Meanwhile, a hot LA cop named Maverick Jesus Zukowski just may steal her heart.

Here's a review from award-winning author Sandy Nathan 

Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years...This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets.

Speaking of which, Ms. Allen's literary characters are pretty crazy/zany by themselves. I love Camilla Randall, her ditzy, former debutante heroine, and all the rest. The action gets pretty frenetic when dead bodies start showing up. I heartily recommend this book..."

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesKoboInktera, and at Barnes and Noble for NOOK. Also in  PAPERBACK for only $10.46


VIGNETTE WRITERShere's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

The Playboy College Fiction Contest Prize is $3000 plus publication in Playboy Magazine. You must be enrolled in college to be eligible. Stories up to 5000 words. Deadline February13th, 2015 $5 entry fee for non-subscribers.

Saraband Books prize for a book of poetry or literary fiction. Prize is $2000 and publication. The entry fee is $27. For fiction, submit a manuscript of 150 to 250 pages of stories, novellas, or a short novel For poetry, submit a manuscript of at least 48 pages.  Deadline February 13th, 2015

THE MEADOW NOVELLA PRIZE $15 ENTRY FEE. The winner of the contest will receive $500 and publication in the annual print edition of the journal. Submissions should be between 18,000 and 35,000 words.  Deadline February 1, 2015.

Vestal Review Condensed Classics Anthology Call for submissions to an anthology of world classics condensed to 500 words or fewer. Submissions are still open for the new anthology edited by Mark Budman titled "Condensed to Flash: World Classics." Find specifics here and Scroll down to "Condensed to Flash" and check out the sub guidelines. The payment: $15 and a digital copy for an original story and $5 and a digital copy for a reprint. The deadline: January 31, 2015.

The M.M. Bennetts Prize for Historical fiction. $10 Entry fee. $500 prize for the best historical novel published in 2014. To be announced at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June in Deadline January 31st, 2015

Do you have books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited? There's now a Bookbub type newsletter exclusively for KU books, called Kindle Unlimited Daily Discovery newsletter. My new book, WHY GRANDMA BOUGHT THAT CAR is listed today. Listings cost under $10. Subscriptions are free, and if you're enrolled in KU (all you can read for $10 a month!) this looks like a great way to find new free books.

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