Five Ways to Screw Up Your Writing Career

I know you’re thinking — only five? There are millions of ways to screw up your writing career, even before it leaves the ground. So let’s dispense with the basic ones, like, you talk about writing a novel but you never actually sit down and write it. Or, the writing life looks so glamorous but what’s with this solitary, crushing hard work? Or how about this one — my mother/father said I was stupid and would never amount to anything so I’m going to write a bestseller and show them.

We’ve all probably had some of those thoughts. Our motivations for writing aren’t always pure. Writers don’t all have the same personalities by any means, but there is a commonality between us. We are moved to express ourselves, by and to ourselves first of all. Then of course we love an audience — but only one that loves us back. As writers and humans we’re insecure. And to a certain degree, we’re introverts. Sure, there are some stand-up comics, politicians, and activists among us, but we all seem to be driven to write exactly what we want to write, without compromise or committee. (Not that it always works out that way.) Then what? We want to be accepted, praised, and paid well. So how do we screw up along the way? Here are five ways. There are more — write and tell me your ideas.

1. Not taking yourself seriously. If you want other people to take your writing seriously, you have to too. That means taking the time to edit, rewrite, then edit some more. To be unflinching with yourself. To find your favorite word that you use over and over, or cut that scene you love because it doesn’t work. Before I sold my first novel to him, my editor said the book was too long. Could I cut 10,000 words out of it? I sucked on my teeth and shook my head. How could I? Then overnight I thought, of course I can! My words aren’t that golden. Yes, I take my words seriously but I also believe in the finished product being the best it can be. And if shorter is better, so be it. (And by better, I mean of course: published.)

2. Taking yourself too seriously. You set yourself up for failure if you continually brag and blog and whatever about how great your work is, or how great it will be once New York wises up, or how many books you’re going to sell. The odds are against big-time success, money-wise. They are against publication in general these days. Believe in yourself but don’t go overboard. Work hard. Be humble. Know that others have blazed this trail for you. Appreciate them. Fake it til you make it, but know you’re faking it.

3. Giving up. This should be #1 probably. Persistence is the key to a successful writing career. Don’t give up. If your writing isn’t selling, take a workshop, take a class, improve it. Join a writing group, get critiques, get a coach. It may cost you money but see #1: take yourself seriously. If you want to succeed you have to invest time, money, and energy into making it happen.

4. Not reaching out to others. Writing is lonely work. A writer never knows how he’s doing, if his writing sucks or not. If you’re like me, you love your own writing. It makes you laugh, and cry, and get all tingly. But will those same emotions be evoked in strangers? You’ll never know unless you show them your writing. Send it off, if it’s ready. Develop that thick hide. You may not like what they say, but look at it this way: somebody has read — and responded to — your writing.

5. Relying on the kindness of loved ones. So your spouse, your mother, your sister, your best friend, and/or your weird uncle think your writing is fabulous, as good as, oh, Danielle Steel or James Patterson, or whoever they read. They are patting your back, telling you to keep the faith. This is all good, up to a point. Unless your loved ones are in publishing, or are writers themselves, they are just being nice. They love you, they want you to be happy. They don’t want you to be sad if you can’t get your writing published. They may even discourage you from sending it out so you won’t be unhappy. Don’t listen to them. To have a successful writing career you need readers who don’t know you. Lots of them. The only way to do that is to publish, traditionally or independently.


Looking for a workshop for your novel? On June 22, in Jackson, Wyoming, Deborah Turrell Atkinson and I are offering this one-day workshop: Truly Richly Deeply: Structure and Depth in the Novel. Click for details.

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