Making Mistakes is the Only Way to Learn
Only three? Well, to be honest I’ve made many more than three big mistakes writing and publishing so far. I don’t doubt for a moment I’ll make many more. In fact, it’s fair to say I can always find new mistakes to make even as I work out how to stop making the old ones.
But there you have it: it’s a journey; and like any journey it’s made of a series of steps into the unknown. Sometimes your firm-footed steps lead directly toward the goal. Other times you’ll trip and fall flat on your face. Sometimes you’ll walk in broad daylight over easy terrain; and other times you’ll crawl in the dark over rocks that cut you until you bleed.
No joke. It’s a metaphor, yes, but no exaggeration. That’s the writing life.
However, brave-hearted writer, in this post I can share with you the three biggest and worst mistakes I’ve made – and I see other writers make – so you can avoid them in your own writing and publishing adventures, and make speedier, safer progress toward your destination – whatever that may be.
It’s an adventure, isn’t it? And I would sooner be on this adventure with all its potential dangers, pitfalls, and the real possibility of the road leading nowhere – still less to my vision of a literary Shangri-La – than flunk out in a drab existence grinding the wheels of someone else’s machine.
So, enough preamble. Let’s get to it. I promised you I’d explain the three biggest mistakes I’ve made – and it’s my sincere hope you’ll avoid them.
The first and most damaging mistake is one that, even though I’m now aware of it, remains a potential danger. I have to be very careful to continue avoiding it. It’s a tricky one, and it’s one that every pen-monkey without exception has made in her writing career.
Big Mistake Number One: Serving Half-Baked Pie
It’s this: submitting or publishing work that isn’t ready yet.
It happens all the time. And the result is an absolute certainty: if it’s something you’ve submitted, rejection; if it’s something you published, zero sales.
The man that once did sell the lion’s skin
While the beast lived, was killed with hunting him
~ William Shakespeare. Henry V, Act IV, Scene III
Do you know what the worst thing is? It’s that I’ve committed it – and I assume other people continue to commit it – even knowing full well that the work isn’t ready, but hoping against hope that somehow the crazy editor will see the hidden genius in it and consider the huge effort required to make it readable and saleable as a responsibility she’s prepared to take on her own shoulders.
It ain’t never gonna happen.
Don’t even let your imagination go there. Until the work is absolutely, utterly, deeply and totally the best you can ever make it – to where you have no doubts about its perfection – it should stay on your desk, in your hard drive, or wherever else you keep your work in progress.
If you still have any doubts about it, if you haven’t proofread it, if you rushed it off this morning intending to send it out this afternoon, you’re just throwing it into the fire of failure. All you’ll be able to do is watch it burn.
Don’t. Waste. Your. Time.
So what can you do to avoid making this mistake yourself?
You need to be sure your work is polished. It has to be at its best before you consider either submitting it or publishing it. Easily said, but how do you do that? Let me offer you a simple, three-step process to make sure you don’t send your work out too soon. Here it is:
- Always account for putting your work to one side once you think it’s finished. Put it in a drawer, file it away, or upload it to your cloud drive and forget all about it for at least two weeks. The longer you leave it, the better. In the meantime, work on something else. When you come back to it, you’ll see it with fresh eyes. You’ll see many things that need fixing. Fix them. Occasionally, you’ll be surprised and delighted by just how good the piece is.
- Get someone else, or several someone elses, to read the piece for you and give you honest feedback. Don’t bother with your immediate family or your closest friends as they may find it difficult to give an unbiased critique. If you belong to a good writer’s group where fearless critiquing is the norm, fine. You have a resource more precious than gold. Never submit or publish anything until they’ve torn it to pieces and you’ve reassembled it in better form. If you don’t have access to such a group, do research and join one of the many excellent online writer’s critique forums. Failing that, reach out to someone on your social media, also a writer, and ask if they’d be interested in being your writing buddy and critique swapping. There’s no harm in asking. The worst they can say is, “No.”
- Once you’ve put the work aside, revisited it, revised it, had it critiqued, and revised it again, you might do well to pay for a professional proofread. If you’re planning on self-publishing your piece, you should absolutely do that, and if you’re planning on submitting it to an agent or a publisher, it will help give you the edge.
There are two sides to this. You will have to do a lot more work than the ever-hopeful failure; but in this competitive field, you stand a far, far greater chance of success if you exercise patience and a touch of perfectionism at the outset.
So, let’s move on to…
Big Mistake Number Two: Laziness & Hubris
Self-publishing for all the wrong reasons.
I’m a “hybrid author.” That doesn’t mean I’m a weird cross between human and alien species. It means that my work is published both “traditionally” – which means by a third party such as a print magazine or mainstream publishing house – and “independently” – which means, in my case, by my own small business, the Clockwork Press.
Many moons ago, long before I got wised up, I self-published a terrible book for all the wrong reasons. It cost me time and money and it was an abject failure. I removed all trace of it in the end. But I learned from that. My published novels are doing fine. But before, I was doing it all wrong for all the wrong reasons. Now, I’m doing it right, or at least better.
The days when independent publishing was synonymous with failure are already long gone. If anyone attempts to suggest otherwise, all it shows is that she doesn’t have a clue what she’s talking about, hasn’t done her research, and is out-of-touch with current events in publishing. And I don’t believe the two are in competition – anymore than stairs compete with elevators. They each have their turn, each their peculiar functions, and each their dedicated fans.
However, rushing into publishing your own work for the wrong reasons is another big mistake and one which will lead you into the slough of failure. You should only publish independently as a positive choice. Many of the most successful “indies” never even considered the third party route. They had a positive attitude to the whole business right at the get-go.
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
~ Alexander Pope. An Essay on Criticism (1711)
And business is the keyword here. Independent publishing isn’t a straight “alternative” to third-party publishing. It’s a whole other business; it’s damned hard work and requires ability in its own particular skill sets. If you don’t get that – and you’re not enthused and motivated by all the extra work and self-education you must put in to your writer business – you will fail at independent publishing.
These are the WRONG reasons for writing and publishing independently:
- Because you have had your fill of form rejections from third-party publishers and agents. Now, if you’ve been amassing positive, personal rejections praising your work, that’s a different matter. Maybe the mainstream market isn’t buying in your genre; if you’re a savvy entrepreneur, you might well sell your work to a niche market. But if you’ve only ever had rejections and had no encouragement from professional agents and editors, it’s likely your work just isn’t any good yet. You need to be focusing on developing your knowledge, skills and experience at this stage. You’re not ready to publish. Most readers don’t give a monkey’s left testicle who published the book they’re reading. They only care about the experience they have reading it. If your work is being rejected outright, your book is not delivering a good experience – and that means it won’t sell.
- You think it will be easier than snagging an agent or getting a mainstream publishing deal. Nope. That’s not the case. It is much, much harder work (if you do it right) and there’s no-one to hold your hand or encourage you when the darkness falls. There’s a very rare kind of gutsy, self-motivated resilience needed to be a successful independent publisher. It isn’t the easy way.
- You think that readers who favor the Kindle, the Nook or the Kobo are less discerning and some of them will pick up your book even if it’s crap. Some readers only read independent authors. Some readers only read in electronic formats. All readers are discerning and deserving of your respect. If you go in with a disparaging attitude toward your readers, you’ll be blacklisted, corralled and sink without trace in the indie world.
If you have the right mind-set, the right motives, the correct resources and a steely resolve to learn and succeed, independent publishing can be one of the most rewarding options for you to take. But to avoid self-publishing for the wrong reasons, you need to be sure it’s a positive choice motivated by sound business and artistic principles, and that you’re the right person to do that work: self-motivated, independently minded, resilient, flexible, determined.
And so to the third and final devilry that might dash your hopes of writerly success – and how you can avoid it.
Big Mistake Number Three: Doing Anything But Writing and Publishing
Doing many things to do with writing, but not writing.
I get scared. I get scared every time I sit down to write. Just opening the lap-top, my paper notebook, or picking up a pen, works as a powerful occult ritual which summons all the demons of self-doubt and self-sabotage to come rushing to my destruction. I used to succumb. Now I’m far too resilient and self-disciplined. Resist, relax, and write, even as the stinky, leathery-winged nasties pinch and prod at you. More often than not, they soon desist and let you be.
I suspect that fear, self-doubt, and a simple lack of confidence, causes most procrastination or distraction from the fundamental task in hand: writing. And remember…
You will not be able to reclaim all the hours, days and weeks you wasted doing “writing-related activities” only to avoid the simple, necessary and definitive act of a writer’s life: writing.
… that we would do
We should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents…”
~ William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Act IV, Scene VII.
It’s all too easy to fool yourself into thinking you are using your writing time wisely because the tasks you’re undertaking are at least related to writing. Prime culprits for this diversion from the hard task of putting one word down after another are these:
- Fannying about on social media – such as Twitter, Google or Facebook – telling yourself you’re “platform building” when all you’re doing is wasting time. Yes, you need to build your platform. But you must assign platform building to its own slot in your day. There’s no point having a platform if you don’t write something for the people who compose it, to read.
- Doing “research.” If you need to research, related either to your work-in-progress or your writing business, then you must assign time in which you do research. Doing research is not, never was, and never will be, writing.
- Revising and editing the writing you did yesterday. You must edit, of course. You must revise. But you’ll have guessed by now what I’ll tell you: edit in your editing time, revise in your revising time. If this is your writing time there is only one task permissible, and that is to write.
There are many thousands of other ways to procrastinate, to distract yourself from writing. But if you’re a writer, there can be no activity more important than writing itself. Dedicate your writing time to writing.
It should be easy. It often isn’t. To write with greatest efficiency and productivity you need to develop your discipline. For many people discipline is a nasty word. But I assure you discipline is necessary to your success. Discipline, required for intense periods of concentrated work, is not a forced act of painful wilfulness. At least it shouldn’t be if it’s understood, developed, and applied well.
But the discipline required before deep work can be done, and the techniques for developing habits which support it, will be the subject of a future post.
So there you have it. Those are the three biggest mistakes I have ever made in my writing journey and I hope that by identifying them and offering practical suggestions for avoiding or overcoming them, you will forge ahead with your own writing, free of the trouble they bring.
If you’re a writer, or know a writer, or aspire to be a writer, I would love to hear your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments.
If you’d rather buy them or just prefer a paperback, the first in the series, Beyond the Starline, is here: Amazon UK Amazon US Waterstones Barnes & Noble Smashwords Kobo or ask for it in your library or local independent bookstore and they’ll order it for you.
If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be more than happy to help if I can, or just connect and share experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas.
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Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.