Hi there. Today I thought I’d talk about some stupid mistakes I’ve made with my writing career as a whole so hopefully you can avoid making the same mistakes in yours.
2012 was by far the best year I’ve had with my writing career so far. I actually made some money, not much money, but enough to pay a power bill. It’s also been the year where my writing became far more polished, again I have a ways to go but there was a marked improvement.
Why did it take me so long (other than the fact that getting any good at writing takes some time)?
1. I put the cart before the horse
I got really quite good at interacting on social media, at talking to agents and publishers online and generally at knowing what was going on in publishing.
It’s really a shame I didn’t spend more of that time writing. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t trade what I know now, I like having the skill set I have, but I would have gotten to a better place for my writing career if I’d put some of the time I’d put into social media into writing a book.
2. I didn’t plan anything
At some point I read an interview with Terry Practhett who gave a very compelling description of writing without an outline and I thought ‘that sounds like me’ and immediately charged off into writing a novel with zero planning. I wrote so many words I’ve then had to throw out.
So many. It’s like a word graveyard on my computer complete with lurching zombified corpses.
I should have planned my stories ahead of time. Pratchett is a master, and trying to mimic him was like trying to mimic an Olympic gymnast without learning how to tumble first. I’ve also head that Stephen King Like to write without an outline, however it could be said that his epic first drafts of his novels are actually an extremely extensive story plan.
I’m not saying you have to outline in the traditional sense, but having an idea of where your story is going and the steps you want to take to get there will save you a huge amount of grief.
3. I wasted a lot of time on angst
Angsting is not a productive use of your time. It’s not a good use of my time either, but I can guarantee that we’ve all spent more time on general woe than we needed to. I’m not sure that it’s possible to stop yourself from worrying about your career at all, but every moment you spend worrying about whether or not becoming a writer is possible is less time you spend making it possible.
4. I worried too much about the publishing industry
I’ve spent a really long time thinking on and researching publishing as a whole. I’ve worried about self publishing, I’ve worried about getting an agent. I’ve worried that the whole industry is going to collapse and that the only way authors will be able to make a living is by competing in bare knuckle brawls to the death.
If I’d instead spent the time I spent worrying writing I’d be far further ahead on all of this. If you want to know what to do about publishing I have three pieces of advice about it:
Remember this quote (paraphrased) from Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary and Writing Excuses: If you think that all agents or publishers are evil, or that all self published novels are terrible you are doomed to make a bad mistake.
These two words should be your guiding path: Hybrid approach.
Keep yourself open to both traditional and self publishing. I personally think you should try out traditional publishing first, but that’s not important. What is important is that you leave yourself open to both traditional and self publishing paths and then you stop worrying about it and get back to writing.
5. I over focused
For a while there I tied myself down to one idea, feeling like if I couldn’t make this one good idea work then I was doomed to failure and death. This turned out to be a load of crap, I actually started having some small successes when I branched and allowed myself to write different genres and learn about writing different things.
6. I under focused
I also swung too far in the other direction and tried to do too many things at once. Writing two novels and a script and a short story at once is like trying to drive to work whilst continuously punching yourself in the face.*
Yes technically you have a chance of getting there but it’s kind of unlikely.
Find a project. Start it. Finish it.
Then move on.
7. I started so many things I never finished
This is the bane of new writers everywhere. We start things, we get bored or think they’re bad and then we don’t finish them.
If you don’t shed this habit you’ll never be a writer, not in any professional capacity.
I know this sounds harsh but you need to know this above every other piece of advice. Writers finish things. If you don’t finish, you don’t get to even try for a career.
Finishing can be scary, it means opening yourself to criticism and risking the eventuality that what you’ve written doesn’t match what’s in your head…but you need to get over this so you have the chance to show the world what you can do.
Once again: no finishing, no career.
8. I was impatient
I got antsy about this writing thing. I couldn’t bear not to have things done NOW and published NOW and I felt like if I couldn’t get everything done and published in one year I’d never make a living as a writer. That paranoia about time frames really cost me.
It made me try and write too much in one go, it made me fret about how much I was getting done instead of just getting things done, it made me fear taking the time to learn how to do this right.
It took me six years to learn that this could take ten years or more. If I’d learnt that after the first year of trying then I’d be that much closer to having a career now. Instead my `’ten years till you make it’ started at the six year point because I’d wasted so much time and so many words trying to make it all at once.
The upshot of this is that you will have to take the time to learn to write, to edit, to finish things and to market them. You can’t learn this all at once.
9. I didn’t get angry enough
I’ve actually got a pretty good day job, especially compared to some of things I’ve done for a living in the past. It’s not a huge amount of fun but I work with good people and it’s not difficult or dangerous. In terms of what that means for my life and my sanity that’s a good thing but for the writing…. That’s not good at all.
It’s so easy to get complacent, to think that you’ll catch up on your writing tomorrow.
You (and by you I mean I) need the anger that comes from doing something that sucks to help fire you up, to get you writing even when you don’t want to because it’s all you want to do. Writing is so hard, is such an uncertain career path with such bizarre rewards and pitfalls that you need that fire to make sure you keep going through everything that life and the industry throws at you.
I spent far too long thinking I’d get around to it and then never getting there. Look at your life and look at where you need to be with your writing to be happy. If you’re slacking off then now is the time to get angry, to get back in the chair and get writing.
I don’t mean beating yourself up, that doesn’t work. You are not a bad person because you didn’t write yesterday. There is no marl equation here, the anger I’m asking you to call up is anger that you’re not moving forward, not going for the goal right now. It has nothing to do with yesterday and everything to do with propelling you towards a happier future for you and yours.
10. I didn’t set realistic goals
At various different points in my life I’ve grasped for goals that were not merely unlikely but impossible. When I was ten years old I got it into my head that I wanted to be a doctor…but the idea of getting through high school with really good grades and then hitting college and studying for almost another decade didn’t appeal. Instead I wanted to skip all that and get there by the time I was sixteen (I think I might have been watching a lot of Doogie Houser, MD).
That pattern repeats throughout my childhood, teenage years and my adult life up until recently. Launching myself at impossible goals with near religious fervour then giving up when getting there became impossible.
I couldn’t figure out what was making me do this until a friend brought it up and got me to think it through. I think this it: If you fail at something totally impossible then it somehow makes that failure okay. You didn’t really fail because the chances of succeeding were non existent.
Writing is different. Succeeding in writing is not impossible, it’s merely very difficult. It can be done, but I was still protecting my ego by trying to do things with my writing that simply wouldn’t work.
The most success I’ve had so far is by consistently writing 250 words a day. I can write more if I want, and I often do, but 250 words can be done no matter what else has happened to me that day. What I’ve written since hasn’t been as fast as before but my writing has been batter and far more consistent than ever before.
I picked up the idea from Mur Lafferty and you can read about it and look at her magic spreadsheet for tracking your progress here.
Setting an attainable goal for each and every day helps you develop good writing habits and keeps you motivated.
So, there are ten mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned through getting things wrong. I hope you can learn from my general stupidity and can go and make fresh new and interesting mistakes.
Speaking of which: what mistakes have you made in your writing career? Let me know in the comments, we can all be either good examples or dire warnings.
* I’ve never lost my love of grandiose metaphors and similes. I’m not sure if this is a mistake or not.