Five Mistakes Writers Make, by D.B. Grady
My sincerest thanks to Gil for hosting the penultimate day of the Red Planet Noir virtual book tour. This post was scheduled to be written for April 1st — April Fools Day — but I’m late on the draw. For full effect, have Sherman set the Wayback Machine for yesterday, because Gil cleverly suggested a themed post on the foolish mistakes we make as writers. As I have made them all, this presented little difficulty.
Based on observation and experience, below are five common mistakes writers make:
1. Don’t read enough
I’m a member of a lot of writing groups, I know a lot of aspiring authors, and I’ve been writing for a long time. It’s a time consuming process in a world whose axis seems to be spinning at an increasingly-frenzied pace. Finding two hours to spend behind a word processor is like trying to find oil with a divining rod. (And just as valuable.) Writers understand that something needs to be sacrificed, but nothing says NOT SERIOUS like a writer who says, “I just don’t have time to read.”
To maintain one’s craft, reading is just as important as writing, if not more so. Stephen King describes reading as putting tools in the toolbox. Through the works of others, we learn as writers how literature works, and how to make it work for us. Speaking personally, I’m never quite sure if something I’ve written is good — self-criticism is my specialty — but I always know when something I’ve written is terrible. By reading voraciously, I know how my betters have done it, and I know when I fail to reach that mark. Those are the parts that I fix or delete. Obviously, taste is subjective — I’ve had critics savage things I’m quite proud of — but generally speaking, being well-read has never been a hinderance.
Looking for extra time to read? Turn off the giant picture box in the living room.
2. Don’t write enough
Writing is hard. Except for freelancing, or once a publishing contract is signed, you are your own boss. And with that power comes the ability to give yourself the day off.
“Ah, the muse isn’t with me today. I wonder what’s on television?”
This power is like a drug. Once you give in to temptation — once you close Microsoft Word and open Facebook, it’s over. It’s much easier the next day to do the same, and the day after that, and the day after that.
The only way to write a novel is to write every day. To quote Hemingway, “No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.”
THERE IS NO MUSE. There is never a moment when 80,000 words will flow from your fingertips onto the page or into the word processor. The only way to get from “Once upon a time” to “And the lived happily ever after” is to write.
I operate under the assumption that must first draft will be terrible, anyway. And for good reason. My first draft is always terrible. But once it’s complete, I’ve got that giant slab of marble to chisel away at.
John Grisham, I think, said it best, and every writer would be well-advised to tape this to his or her monitor: “Write a page a day or you’re not serious.”
It’s the only way to move a book from your head to the real world.
3. Blog about our manuscripts instead of writing them
This is for unpublished writers. Stephen King can blog until his fingers bleed, because he’s got something to say. But unless you’ve got a book on the shelves, you don’t have advice to share. Certainly nothing of value. And except for mom, nobody cares how the manuscript is shaping up. Blogging is a fun warmup exercise — review a book, discuss your dog — but stay away from the manuscript. The most I’ll say about my next book is that I’m writing one.
(Note: I’m sure somebody will find a counter-example, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)
4. Signing too early
This is a delicate point from my point-of-view, and certainly yours if you’re staring at a contract.
Here’s the deal: if you thing you’ve written a novel of literary merit worthy of serious consideration, don’t immediately sign with the first publisher who says yes. Do your homework. Bill’s Indie is lightyears away from Scribner. DO NOT SETTLE.
Once a writer starts the query process, he or she will quickly become inundated and brutalized by rejection letters. The terrible reality that a Twilight payday is not around the corner will become unbearable. So when that first “Yes” arrives in the mail, it’s like being asked to the prom by the Homecoming Queen.
Unless that Homecoming Queen’s name is Doubleday, think it over. Consider whether you can do better. (Note: Agents will do the thinking for you. This is for the lone wolves out there.) Once you settle for a small or independent press, you’re locked in to a very small box. Award eligibility is rare. Reviews are hard to come by. Writing organizations aren’t particularly interested. And shelf space at the Big Boxes is non-existent.
(Yes, there are exceptions. But again, they’re just that — exceptions.)
This might not matter to you. And if it doesn’t, autograph that contract and slap a stamp on it. But if you’ve got lofty goals, wait it out. You might regret it. Or you might be the next J.K. Rowling.
5. Buying “How To Write A Book For Dummies”
There’s an entire section of Barnes and Noble dedicated to the art of writing an novel. I’ll save you some time and money: the only way to write a novel is to read a lot and to write a lot. You have to write 100,000 words before you can write 10,000 good ones. You have to read 1,000,000 words before you can even do that. All of the answers are in Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and Atwood and McCarthy and Chandler. You’ll see them immediately.
D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir.
He can be found on the web at here (now publishing under the name David W. Brown)