5 Delusions That Block Writers from Professional Success

by Anne R. Allen

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

When we start out, we can't help visualizing our books leapfrogging over all the usual obstacles and soaring up the New York Times  bestseller list (perhaps as our faces appear on 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 keep a fledgling career stuck in Fantasyland.

They did for me.

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 started out with a couple of lucky breaks that unfortunately fed my delusions.

I landed an agent with a prestigious agency with my first query letter. And when he left the agency a few months later, I got another just as fabulous. Easy peasy.

Then, while the book was out on submission, I successfully published a second novel as a serial in an entertainment weekly with a substantial circulation. (I got paid per episode and made more money with that novel than my next two combined.)

But the first novel failed to sell and my second agent dropped me. Instead of capitalizing on my successful serial, I frantically tried to get another agent for the same book that had been shopped around by the first two.

Bad move. No agent wants to take on something that's already been rejected everywhere.

Another bad move: I started working on a huge, ambitious novel that took me five years to write instead of putting out more short stories and building up my publishing portfolio. I also disdained nonfiction. I didn't want to be a magazine feature writer.

I was a NOVELIST, dammit!!

But I didn't know that becoming a professional novelist takes a lot more than good fiction writing skills. You also need to learn to write good advertising copy, personal essays, and solid nonfiction pieces.

Plus you need to learn about the publishing business.

And it is a business. A life of creating art for art's sake is a lovely plan for an amateur with a secure independent income, but if you want to go pro, you have to learn the business side of publishing.

But I failed to study any of it and I let myself get stuck for years on the query-go-round with my old, rejected book, while I wrote and rewrote my magnum opus. I entered a few local writing contests, but didn't start submitting stories in a businesslike way. I got a couple more agents, but they couldn't sell my shopworn book.

People kept telling me to join RWA to find out the ins and outs of the industry (excellent advice, by the way), but I didn't see myself as a romance writer. Instead I signed with a small publisher in the UK that was trying to branch out from erotica into mainstream fiction. It involved getting to travel to England, so I'll never entirely regret my choice, but it didn't lead to financial success.

When I got one of the biggest breaks in my career, I didn't even recognise it as such. It came when a friend found an ad in a literary magazine for columnists for a Canadian writing zine called Inkwell Newswatch. She urged me to submit a writing sample (Thanks, Dorothy Segovia!) I wrote my first nonfiction article ever, got the job, and discovered I was pretty good at this nonfiction stuff.

It didn't feel like a big break at the time because I was deep in delusional fantasies of making it big with my second novel, even though by then my UK publisher was foundering. I put tons of energy into launching the book, but the company was soon to go belly-up.

What kept my career afloat? My little columns and articles in magazines and eventually, when the Newswatch closed its doors, this blog.

Here are some delusion-driven things I did that I still see going on with a lot of beginning writers today.

But hey, I made the mistakes so you don't have to...

1) Taking an Endless Ride on the Query-Go-Round

People who get stuck for years in query hell are often suffering from that "magical fairy god-agent" fantasy that kept me back for so long.

I'm not saying the query process isn't a long, tough slog. Getting an agent takes a lot of querying and not everybody is cut out for self-publishing. (And the most successful self-publishers have agents, too.)

But we need to keep learning and publishing short pieces and writing more books during the query process.

Otherwise we can end up endlessly going nowhere on the query-go-round. That's what happened to me.

I think I developed an addiction to the high you get with that request for a partial...then maybe a full...and then the fantasies you weave while waiting...and waiting...only to have your hopes dashed a year later when you get 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.)

Other writers get stuck on the query-go-round because they never take the time to learn to write a proper query and synopsis. They're relying on the brilliance of their work to hook the agent. 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 brags how their book is so much better than "all the crap out there." Their synopsis is ten pages long, but hey, it's okay to disregard agent guidelines when your book is genius.

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

Or they do what I did and become so obsessed with query writing, they forget to write better books. They send out queries on the same manuscript for years and hone that synopsis to perfection. They take all the workshops on querying at every writers conference they attend.

They become fabulous query writers and masters of the pitch and the synopsis...but they never write any new books and never get any short pieces published.

They don't want to discover what's really wrong:

Reality Check: Workshop the book if you haven't, and then write another one. Maybe not so trendy this time.

2) Believing Social Media Marketing Schemes will Make you a "Kindle Millionaire"

On the other end of the spectrum from the query addicts are the self-publishers who eat up all those books promising they'll become instant "E-Book Millionaires" by playing clever games with algorithms and social media. Thing is, those "Kindle Millionaire" books are as out of date as a 1970s book tour.

Partying like it's 2009 is not going to get you anywhere today.

There are thousands of online courses and books that promise you instant riches with ebooks and social media. I read some of them and tried some of the tactics after I finally found another publisher. Some of them worked very well. Then.

But nothing is certain in this business (except rejection and bad reviews.) What worked six months ago is probably useless now. And nobody can fulfill a promise that you'll make the bestseller list or become a millionaire.

I know lots of people are still falling for this old advice because I see them all over the place:

I suppose there's some new bad advice floating around out there saying: "Author-bloggers who already work 18 hours a day, LOVE to give up their few hours of sleep to promote newbie writers' work for free—especially newbie writers who can't bother to read their blogs or books. Make sure you bully them with phrases like 'I'm counting on you' and 'comment on my blog by the end of the day!' "

Um. No, kids. This is not how to sell books. Maybe some of this stuff worked 6 years ago, but it sure doesn't work now.

Reality Check: Look at what actual successful authors are doing. Hugh Howey built his huge audience by connecting with fans on his blog and Kindleboard 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.

Get great advice on what really works in book marketing from experts like Frances Caballo at Social Media Just For Writers and Penny Sansevieri at Author Marketing Experts.

3) Signing the First Contract You're Offered by an Agent or Publisher. (Especially a Self-Publishing Company.)

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 agents and publishers insist that you give them the right of "first refusal" for every word you will ever write. 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 or "subsidy" 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.

Ditto if you believe the vanity presses that tell you if you just throw enough money into marketing a book, you'll make millions.

Reality Check: 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 Preditors and Editors.

If you're thinking of going with a self-publishing company, read this piece from Jane Friedman: 10 Questions to Ask Before Committing to Any E-Book Service.  And this one by Joel Friedlander: Is Your Book Held Hostage by a Subsidy Publisher?

And if you see any clauses you don't understand, especially if they contain the phrase "in perpetuity"—get thee to a lawyer.

4) Chasing Trends

An awful lot of writers have files filled with half-written Twilight clones, a couple of Dan-Brown artifact-chasers, a YA Dystopian, and 25 ½ Shades of Mommy Porn…with zombies. They never quite finish any of their projects because, well, what they really like is family sagas and women's literary fiction, but everybody says those aren't selling.

Yes, some fast-writing professionals can chase trends successfully. But if you're a newbie, your chances are slim. Most new writers can't produce a marketable book fast enough to cash in on any current trend.

Reality Check: Don't follow trends; set them.

Any subgenre 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. (What's hot on TV was probably trending in publishing a decade ago. Even zombies are stumbling a bit these days.)

Who would have thought that in the 1990s, an English boarding-school story with Halloweeny characters would ever sell? English boarding school stories went out decades before and fantasy wasn't selling. Besides, where would anybody put Harry Potter on a shelf? It wasn't horror like Goosebumps or a standard Enid Blyton boarding school story.

I'm sure there were people who told J.K. Rowling, "Joanne, sweetie, it's cute, but that boy wizard stuff will never sell. You should be writing chick lit like Bridget Jones Diary" or heartfelt women's fiction like Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchley. Or write about dinosaurs. Do something like Jurassic Park. This is the 1990s. You have to write what people are buying now."

And we would all have been the losers.

Write what you love. Because you love to write it. There is no other reason to write.

5) Expecting Instant Financial Success.

There's no such thing as overnight success. Learning to write stuff people want to read takes way longer than we imagine.

Also, it's increasingly tough to get paid to write. Yes, there are lots more opportunities out there for writers in the digital age, but there's also more competition..and lots more writers working for nothing and giving away free books.

I cringe when I meet writers with fantasies of making a living from writing from the get-go.

Writers like this may imagine they're practicing the "law of attraction" by acting "as if" and 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 see the whole ladder.

Nobody pole-vaults from the slush pile to the bestseller list—any more than a new hire jumps from the mailroom to the boardroom after their first month.

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. Even full-fledged agents often have day jobs.

Reality Check: Accept that everybody has to start on the first rung of the ladder. Put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours. And meanwhile check our weekly Opportunity Alerts and get your short work into the marketplace.

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. And enter contests! The prestige you get from placing in a well-known contest or a prestigious litzine can be worth more to your career than getting a story into a slick, commercial magazine.

Next week I'll talk about five more delusions that plagued my early career and may be blocking your own success. 

And we'll have a big announcement about major changes happening with the blog.

What about you, scriveners? Do you recognize any of your own delusions here? What gave you your first reality check as a writer? Did you have any delusions I missed here?


The Gatsby Game is a fictionalized take on a real Hollywood mystery. The mystery of the death of David Whiting, a highly delusional con man, during the filming of a Burt Reynolds' film in 1973 has never been solved. Anne R. Allen knew David, and this is her idea of what might have happened.

David Whiting's death is also the subject of the 2015 LA Critics-Award-winning film The David Whiting Story, directed by Walter Reuben.

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When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead in a movie star's motel room—igniting a worldwide scandal—the small-town police can't decide if it's an accident, suicide, or foul play. As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She's the only one who knows what happened. 

But she also knows nobody will ever believe her. 



The Poisoned Pencil: New YA publisher open to submissions! The well-known mystery publisher The Poisoned Pen now has a YA imprint. They accept unagented manuscripts and offer an advance of $1000. Submit through their website submissions manager. Response time is 4-6 weeks.

Open call for the Independent Women Anthology: short stories (flash fiction included), poetry, essays, artwork, or any other woman and/or feminist-centered creative work. 10,000 word max. All genres but explicit erotica. $100 per short story, $50 for flash, poetry, and photography/artwork. All profits will be donated to the Pixel Project Charity to end Violence Against Women. Deadline January 31, 2016 with a goal of publication on International Women's Day, March 8, 2016.

Win $$$ and BEER!! SCHLAFLY BEER MICRO-BREW MICRO-FICTION CONTEST  $10-$20 ENTRY FEE. Fee includes a subscription to River Styx literary magazine or one issue depending on amount of entry fee paid. Submit up to three stories of 500 words or less each. All stories will be considered for publication. $1,500 first prize plus one case of micro-brewed Schlafly Beer. Deadline January 1, 2016. 

The Writer Short Story Contest judged by Literary star Colum McCann
. You can have your work read by the acclaimed author of Let the Great World Spin. $25 entry fee. Write a 2,000-word short story responding to one or both of the quotes below by Mr. McCann: "There is always room for at least two truths." or "With all respects to heaven, I like it here." Deadline December 6th 2015

TETHERED BY LETTERS' FALL 2015 LITERARY CONTEST ENTRY FEES: $7-$15 Currently accepting submissions for short stories (1,000 to 7,500 words, open genre), flash fiction (55, 250, or 500 words), and poetry (maximum of three pages per poem). All winners will be published in F(r)iction. All finalists will receive free professional edits and be considered for later publication. The prizes are $500 short story $150 flash fiction, and $150 for poetry. Multiple entries accepted. International submissions welcome. Deadline December 1.

HAMLIN GARLAND AWARD FOR THE SHORT STORY $20 ENTRY FEE. $2,000 and publication to the top unpublished story on any theme. One story per entry, multiple entries acceptable. Maximum 7,000 words. All entrants will be considered for publication. Deadline December 1, 2015.

The Ernest Hemingway Flash Fiction Contest. $10 fee Unpublished fiction. 1500 words or less. Simultaneous submissions ARE welcome. All entries will be considered for publication in Fiction Southeast. (a prestigious journal that has published people like Joyce Carol Oates) Winner gets $200 and publication. Deadline: Dec. 1st

Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award winter 2015. Cash prizes totaling $3200.Ten further Highly Commended entrants will have their stories acknowledged at the site and gain a free entry in the next round. Entry fee $24 INCLUDES A PROFESSIONAL CRITIQUE. Any genre of prose fiction may be submitted up to 3000 words, except plays and poetry. Entries are welcomed worldwide. Multiple entries are permitted. Deadline: November 30th.

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