The Number One Mistake New Writers Make

Most complaints about authors by agents and editors as well as reviewers can be boiled down to the same offense. It's the major reason so many reviewers won't read self-published books by unknowns.

What is that mistake?

Rushing to publish too early.

Nobody wants to read a rough draft. Your story idea may be great, but wading through amateurish writing vs. reading professional work is the difference between grading a student paper and picking up your favorite author's book for a relaxing read.

Also—no matter how polished your writing—you're unlikely to get an agent or a readership unless you know something about the business of getting your work into the marketplace.

So if one of your New Year's resolutions is to get that NaNo book published, make sure you include the steps of writing a few more books and educating yourself about the business first.

Unprofessional gun-jumpers waste time for reviewers, readers, editors and agents. They can sabotage their careers by condemning themselves to the slushpile or no-sales hell—and risk branding themselves forever as mediocre writers. They can get themselves dismissed as ignorant whiners who can't take criticism and think writing a book is a magical get-rich-quick scheme.

How do I know this? Because I was a gun-jumper myself.

I totally relate to the huge pressure you've got to get this career on the road, NOW:

         You’ve got the external pressure:

We’ve heard them all. But I've finally learned the trick is learning to ignore them. We have to learn to listen instead for that small inner voice when it finally says:
At the beginning of the e-publishing revolution, some of the biggest self-publishing gurus hammered us with all that stuff about how, "every day your book isn't published, you're losing money." I think the gurus intended to speak to traditionally-published mid-listers who had out-of-print backlists.

Unfortunately, it became a mantra for every beginning writer with a practice novel in their files. Whatever the reason for the advice, it's not wise to follow it any more.The "bubble" in which the random amateur's 99-cent self-pubbed ebook could make the big time has deflated.

These days, every time you edit, you're giving yourself a better chance at a long-term successful career. (Up to a point. Don't re-edit the same book for a decade—a mistake I made. Write new ones. You'll get better with each manuscript, I promise.)

I cringe when I read comments from beginners who consider themselves qualified to write a novel or memoir because they know how to write legal briefs or medical reports or academic papers. These are entirely different skills from writing narrative. Grammar skills are necessary for a novelist, of course, but they're not at the core of storytelling.

Learning to craft book-length narrative is a long, intense process. As I've written before, a writer needs to put in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours" in order to develop real proficiency.

We also need proficiency in the business we're trying to enter. These days, being an author means not only knowing how to write, but understanding the business of publishing.

I was reminded of this recently because my publisher wants to look at some of my older manuscripts. I dug out the many drafts of the book I'd worked on for way too many years. It wasn't quite as bad as I feared, although it's still not ready for editorial eyes. (An editor can only clean up something that's already there. We can't expect them to work miracles.)

I can now see my biggest problem was ambition that exceeded my skills. Most first novelists can't handle sweeping sagas that span fifty years like my magnum opus.

But to my embarrassment, I also found some truly awful query letters I sent out on that book. I'd been querying without having a clue about genre or where my book would fit in the marketplace. Or what kind of writer I was or wanted to be.

Now I'm grateful for all those rejection letters. Not only was my book not ready—I was not ready.

Recently I saw a comment thread on a writing forum started by a young writer who is now about at the stage in her writing that I was when I wrote those letters.

But she had already self-published her book—and just received her first review: a two-star. I read the review and the "peek inside" sample and saw the reviewer had actually been kind. He said he liked the premise but the author didn't seem to know what a novel was.

The heartbroken author wrote, "I don't know how there can be anything wrong: my sister liked it just fine." When advised to unpublish and hire an editor, she said she couldn't afford one.

I remember thinking like that.

But at the same time, I would never have thought of trying to get a job styling hair without getting trained as a beautician. Or working as a chef without a long apprenticeship. Or going on a professional golf tour if I couldn't afford golf lessons.

This is the hard truth: we have to become professionals before we enter the marketplace.

I hope this young author will take the kind advice other authors offered up. (One suggested she try—which I've heard great things about, too. It's not a substitute for an editor, but it's a start.)

If she doesn't, she could get a few more bad reviews, no sales, and decide to give up. But if she goes back and spends a little longer learning the basics, she might have a great writing career ahead of her.

There's something to be said for the old query system that made me slog away for years before I found a publisher.

Easy self-publishing doesn't mean the learning process has been shortened. Learning to write narrative takes way longer than most people realized.

Self-publishing guru Kristine Kathryn Rusch put this very nicely in a recent post.

 "Do you remember how much work you had to do to learn how to read a novel? It took you years to get to “big” books of more than 20 pages...It’s much easier to read a novel than it is to write one. Why do you think that writing a good one is possible on the very first try? If you want overnight success, this is not the profession for you. If you want a writing career, then learn it... It takes practice, practice, practice, learning, learning, learning, and patience, patience, patience.

And the wonderful Kristen Lamb also blogged about the subject this week. She points out that Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours equal pretty much the length of time it takes to write three books. (That's how many I'd written before I got my first publisher.)

 " ...all you indie/self-pub authors who put your first book up for sale and you haven’t sold enough copies to buy tacos? Keep writing. 10,000 hours. 3 books. Traditional authors? Three books. Rare is the exception."

This post isn't meant to discourage anybody. It's meant to urge you to learn to be the best writer you can be—so you can have that career you've always dreamed of—not one unpolished book languishing in agents' slushpiles or the Kindleverse, unwanted and unloved. You owe it to your book to do it right.

What about you, scriveners? Did you try to start your career too soon, the way I did? What advice do you have for eager new writers who are anxious to dive into the marketplace. 

Blog News: I see that we've reached 1300 followers! I remember when I thought if I could just get 50 followers, I'd feel like a success. Everything is relative, isn't it? Welcome new followers!

Update: On 1/13/13, this blog got 1300 hits as well as reaching 1300 followers. Any idea what that means in numerology terms? Kind of awesome, anyway. 

Next month: we'll have a guest post from bestselling indie phenom Mark Edwards, who with his writing partner Louise Voss rocketed to self-pub stardom and landed a major deal with HarperCollins. Mr. Edwards attributes their success equally to a compelling story and a compelling book description. He's going to tell us how we can learn to write professional copy to sell our own books.

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