The Biggest Mistake New Writers Make and 5 Ways to Avoid It

by Anne R. Allen

It's been an exciting week for the blog. Marketing expert Penny Sansevieri named us to the Top 30 Websites for Indies and blog guru Molly Greene named us to her list of must-read "leaders" in self-publishing. (I'm only recently self-published—and most of my work is still with a small pressbut I'll wear the "indie" label proudly.)

We also got some lovely kudos from superstar author Anne Rice, who linked to the blog from her FB page and said her readers were "deeply grateful" for our tips and insights. Very gracious of her.

I also heard from the producer of a new film about The David Whiting Story which is the subject of my novel The Gatsby Game. It's encouraging to know Hollywood is interested in David's case again.

All that, along with getting interviewed by the women's magazine More about my novel No Place Like Home have made me feel pretty good about the way my career is heading.

But no way have I forgotten how it felt to be down at the bottom of the publishing ladder, trapped on the query-go-round, desperately hoping for the smallest bit of encouragement. Sometimes I have nightmares that I'm still there. I'm still the same person with the same insecurities.

The difference: time. It takes way, way more time to learn to be a successful writer than anybody ever tells you.

I recently found some old diaries from fifteen years agoa time when I was about to give up writing. I'd had seven rejections in one dayincluding the return of a full manuscript with no explanation. (I know that still happens, and I wish agents knew how that can throw the most optimistic writer into pit of despair.)

What I didn't realize thenwhich my present self can see so easily, is...I wasn't ready.

Of course I had no idea of that. I thought I was more than ready. I had a degree from a fancy college. I was a voracious reader. I'd worked in bookstores most of my life. I'd also spent years in the theateracting and directingso I knew how to build a character. My grammar skills were excellent. I'd been in writing critique groups for years.

I didn't realize those things had very little to do with writing commercially viable fiction. 

Unfortunately, I'd made a promise to myself that I was going to have a book published by...some birthday or other. I honestly can't remember the number, but I had established an ironclad deadline in my mind. 

The closer I got to that deadline, the more desperate I felt. Sometimes I'd send out ten queries a day. I spent tons of money on conferences, pitching unpolished books to agents and editors who tried to be kind, but I could see by their faces I was doing something wrong.

My mistake?

Trying to start my career too early.

Here's what I didn't understand: nobody wants to read a rough draft. And even your tenth draft is probably rough if you're a newbie. Your story idea may be great, but wading through a beginner's writing vs. reading professional work is the difference between grading a student paper and picking up your favorite author's book for a relaxing evening.

This morning I saw a perplexed FB post from a new writer who had just got a bunch of negative reviews on her new self-published book. A click-through to her Amazon buy page showed a book full of errors, typos and formatting problems. It also had an amateurish cover. On top of this, the author had apparently put out a request for "5-star reviews" on social media, All anybody could tell her was: unpublish, get an editor, and learn about the business.

Here's the thing—even if your writing is polished—you're unlikely to get readership, much less an agent or publisher, unless you know something about the business of getting your work into the marketplace. You don't ask for reviews without offering review copies and you never demand a certain type of review.

So if you've got a "career plan" with ironclad deadlines like mine, make sure it includes the steps of writing several books and educating yourself about the business first. That's true whether you're planning to go the traditional route or self-publish. The rules are a little different, but both paths require business savvy and insider knowledge.

But I sure do relate to the huge pressure you're feeling to get this career on the road, NOW:

Why we rush

         You’ve got the external pressure:

    And the internal pressure:

So what do we do to get the pressure to let up?

1) Realize the "rush" is an illusion

If you're feeling pressure to rush, remember it's all in your head, like my "ironclad deadline."

Yes, at the beginning of the e-publishing revolution, some of the biggest self-publishing gurus said stuff like "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 all the beginning writers with practice novels 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.

You're probably making better money working at the coffee place than what most writers make, even if they're traditionally published, so if you're writing because you're pressed for cash, choose another profession. It takes years to build the readership that can provide you with a living wage.

2) Get lots of feedback 

There are many ways to get free feedback before you get to the editing stage, as we detailed in our August posts on editing, critique groups, and beta readers. Most of them didn't exist when I was starting out. There are now online critique groups and beta reader connection sites. There's also self-editing software. Use whatever technique works for you, but don't write in a vacuum.

Another great innovation is story-sharing sites like Wattpad and Readwave. Some of the work on those sites is polished, professional stuff by well-known authors. (Long-time trad-pubbed author Elizabeth S. Craig has taken to Wattpad with good results.) But a lot of the writing on these sites comes from beginning writers who are still learning their craft. It's a way to be read and find fans while you're in that awkward stage I was in for so long.

If you're looking to go the traditional publishing route, preparing your manuscript by using any of these may be all you need to polish your work for an agent. In fact, some agents have picked up books right off Wattpad.

I have to stifle myself when I see comments from new writers who say they won't use a beta reader or editor, and they won't even query an agent because, "I'm not going to change a word of my novel for anybody. I write to please myself, not follow a bunch of phony rules."

Then they lament that agents or reviewers won't "give them a chance."

These people are deliberately choosing to remain amateurs and not enter the professional marketplace. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As I have blogged before, writing can be a wonderful hobby.

But for goodness' sake don't take up the time of agents, acquisitions editors, or reviewers with raw, unedited stuff you're not willing to work on.

I'm not saying you should change your book after every comment you get from a reviewer or critiquer. Far from it: you should ignore most of it. And even professional editors can fail to "get" every kind of writing. But do be aware that readers have expectations, and if you want to be read, you need to write for the contemporary reader, not just your own ego.

Musicians need to learn to master their instruments. Truckers need to learn to drive big rigs. Golfers need to learn to swing a club. Writers need to learn to craft words and sentences into a story. Learning takes time.

3) Practice, practice, practice

Easy self-publishing doesn't mean the learning process has been shortened. Learning to write narrative takes way longer than most people realize. (It took me about a decade longer than I expected.)

Self-publishing guru Kristine Kathryn Rusch put it this way:

 "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 reminds us of this a lot. She often 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 polished novels I had 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."

4) Write and publish short fiction and creative essays

Remember you get great practice from writing short stories, essays, and novellas. They are the best way to get yourself noticed now and they'll be a goldmine later on. One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I spent so much time working on unpublishable novels instead of short pieces that would be valuable to me now.

Short fiction is having a renaissance and we should all be writing more of it. (I have an article on this coming in the November issue of Writer's Digest.)

Short stories and creative nonfiction pieces are easier to get published and you may even get paid or win a money prize. Which can get all those pressuring voices in your head to shut up.

This can include guest blog posts, which will get your name known and make you Googleable: all-important in the digital age.

5) Learn the business

We don't just need to learn to craft book-length narrative, which involves a steep learning curve. We also also need to be savvy about 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 as it exists NOW. (As I say above, this can mean different things depending on how you publish, but every business path has rules.)

For all of you who are screaming "No! No! I just want to write. I'm not going to corrupt my soul with any of that crass commercialism," scroll up to my link to the post on writing as a hobby.

You're choosing to be an amateur. Many happy writers have good reasons for writing for recreation rather than business. Just be clear on your goals.

I wasn't. I queried for years without having a clue about genre or where my books would fit in the marketplace. I was firmly entrenched in the delusion that somebody could "just write" and be a professional author.

I knew you couldn't run a restaurant and "just cook" or a own a dress shop and "just buy pretty clothes." But I didn't want to accept that writing is a business.

So now I'm grateful that all my rotten queries got rejected. Even when I got those seven rejections in one day.

This is the simple truth: we have to become professionals before we join an industry. Any industry.

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' slush piles or on book retail sites, unwanted and unloved.

You owe it to your book to do it right.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you feel pressured to get published? Did you self-publish before you were ready? Have you decided to be a happy amateur and leave all those pressures behind? If you're farther along in your career, what advice do you have for newbies who feel the pressure to publish before they have several books ready to go? 


I got a crash course in the publishing business when my first novel, Food of Love was accepted by a small UK publisher in 2001. Not only did I have to learn about promoting my own books, but I was invited to live and work with the company, which was located in the English Midlands, near the legendary Sherwood Forest. The setting and colorful cast of characters provided the perfect backdrop for a mystery novel. That novel became Sherwood Ltd., published by MWiDP in 2011. It is now available in a brand new e-edition, from Kotu Beach Press.

And it's only 99c for two weeks on AppleNook, Kobo, Inkterra Amazon USAmazon UK, Amazon CA, etc.  
It's also available in paper at Amazon  US and Amazon UK.  

This second book in the Camilla Randall Mysteries follows Camilla's hilarious misadventures with merry band of outlaw indie publishers in the English Midlands. Always a magnet for murder, mischief and Mr. Wrong, she falls for a self-styled Robin Hood who may or may not be trying to kill her. It follows Ghostwriters in the Sky, but can be read as a stand-alone. 

I like this book. I REALLY like this book. It's not yer typical whodunnit, nor is the protagonist anything like a cop. Ms. Allen has crafted a wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book. Good on her! Editorially, the book is also refreshingly well-done and all but devoid of grammatical or other such gaffes. This was obviously written by an intelligent woman who is also a fine story-teller. My congratulations to her...David H. Keith


It's #4 in the Camilla Randall series, but it's easily read as a stand-alone. Set in the gorgeous wine country around San Luis Obispo, it's what one reviewer called 
"A fun, witty and charming novel about the rich and the less so."
It's available on Amazon US and UK in both regular and LARGE PRINT
Amazon has it on sale right now for $10.79 and £5.99


The Central Coast Writers Conference One of the best deals around in a weekend writer's conference. And it's held on the Cuesta College campus in beautiful San Luis Obispo, CA. Mystery writer legend Anne Perry is the keynote speaker. I'll see you there! September 19th-20th

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

CHICKEN SOUP - HEARTFELT STORIES BY MOMS Pays $200 for 1,200 words. Stories can deal with the pains and highlights of motherhood, the wonders of parenting grandchildren, special moments of raising a newborn, being a role model to a teenager, or anything that touches the heart of a mom. Deadline September 30.

Steamy Romance Anthology. Fast Foreword is open for submissions for their "Holiday Hot Romance Anthology" Holiday-themed steamy romance or erotica. 3,000-8,000 words long. If the work has been published elsewhere, you must include bibliographic information and hold all publication rights. Deadline September 20th

WRITER'S DIGEST POPULAR FICTION AWARDS. Early Bird fee $20. Stories up to 4000 words in six genres Science Fiction/Fantasy,Thriller,Young Adult, Romance, Crime, Horror. Early Bird Deadline September 15th.

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