IWSG Question o’ the Month: What pitfalls would you warn other writers to avoid on their publication journey?
This might take a while — you got a week or so?
Honestly, I’ve stepped in pretty much every pit there is on that writing journey. Every single one.
To keep this post somewhat reasonable and readable, rather than a long rant on all the shit I did wrong — and still do wrong, for that matter — I’m going to focus on the writing side and forget that such a thing as the “business side” actually exists.
Which is…err…one of those pitfalls. Okay strike that paragraph above, here is some business advice: do NOT neglect the business/financial side of things! There are very good reasons why more experienced (jaded? cynical?) writers tell new and aspiring entrants into the field “don’t quit your day job.” It’s not disparaging, it’s not paranoid or reflexive, it is legitimately earned knowledge. Day jobs come with nice little perks like insurance and regular paychecks. Writing comes with deadlines and slow paying clients and that wonderful feeling of being nickel-and-dimed to death pretty much every day.
Okay, enough of that. If you’re reading this as an aspiring writer, just do yourself a favor and Google the crap out of the freelance writing topic, and read those pieces that point out the reality of the business, as well as the traps ahead. If you’re getting into the longform writing game, spend an equal amount of time and effort learning how novelists actually make money — and trust me, it’s nothing even remotely close to what you see on TV (or even read in stories). There’s a lot of crap in the sausage-making behind the writing business that no one really likes to talk about…
Phew, now I can talk about the writing pitfalls.
Probably the biggest pitfall I can think of, and the best advice I can give in respect to it, is to not shortchange yourself on time. Don’t write to some artificial schedule, don’t put arbitrary limits on how long various tasks should take. Until you’re working on about your fifth novel (a number which does include those early “trunk” stories we all have), you have absolutely zero idea as to just how long things should take. If you write to some early, artificial schedule, you will inevitably cut corners, and your story will suffer for that. Yes, you need goals and some kind of timeline, but those are tools that should serve and help the story, not the other way around.
To start the process, take what time you need to prepare your story-ground first: conception, research, backstory, character depth & detail, plotting, planning, etc… For my current sci-fi series, that early prep time amounts to roughly three months per story. Now, I will admit to going in for a bit of overkill there, but the time and depth of that early prep really does help me to understand and explore the story in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.
By the way, for my pending fantasy stories, I expect the initial series research & prep to take about four months, and only then I will get into the planning and preparation for the first book…
I have similar advice for the second part, the actual writing/creation phase: write to your story, not your schedule. I’ve talked about it before, but I don’t agree with the concept of writing X words per day. I think, when you do that, you end up only with…X words written. Those words may be good, but they also may be bad. No, I think it’s better to set up your story in coherent scenes that are “writable” in one sitting/session. For me, a 125,000-word novel should have between 55 and 60 such scenes, of which I should be able to finish 3-4 per week to a realistic First Draft status (which entails not just the original writing, but also an initial editing/revision pass).*
*To save space, and brain cells, I won’t get into just how that scene-based writing lets you jump around and write whatever scene strikes your fancy at any particular. Over time, I’ve discovered just how strange I truly am in my complete unwillingness to write a story in a coherent, chronological, beginning-to-end fashion. I figure I probably shouldn’t try to inflict that particular vice in an “advice” post…
Now, the third and final “phase” of the writing process is where I (originally) wanted to focus the advice about giving yourself enough time. Hell, giving yourself more than enough time. But — and this is the big but — but, I’ve found that giving advice about editing and revision is dangerous ground. Instead, I’ll simply be honest and point out the pit I stepped in early on. As a new writer, I very much had the attitude that I just needed to get words on the page, and that I could fix any problems and shortcomings in the revision process. At that point, writing a scene was simply “word-vomit” to get the concepts on the page, and the editing process was the time to fix, well, everything.
I’ve changed my thinking on that.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean you should shortchange the editing and revision process. Quite the opposite, in fact. You need to give it more time and effort than you think you do, trust me! No, what I mean is that I find it better — both aesthetically, and in terms of results — to get the writing “right” during the First Draft process. A while back, I wrote another IWSG post about that, but damn if I can find the right one to link to…
The editing and revision process should not be there to “fix” the language or narrative itself. It should be used to finalize things like scene placement, plot timing and story structure/pacing. Only after all that should it be used to polish the language and delivery. Honestly, I plan about three months worth of revision and editing for every story…and then another month (at least) to assimilate and incorporate the feedback and suggestions from betas/editors.
All told, the whole process of writing a 125,000–word story takes me roughly 10-12 months. Could I do it quicker? Probably…but then I would be shortchanging myself. Worse, I would be shortchanging my story…and they do not like it when I do that!
So, in the end, this post about pitfalls is really about one big pitfall: time. Give yourself enough time — and flexibility — to write the story you want to write. Or, if you’re nuts like me, to write the story as it wants to be written The worst thing you can do, I think, is write to some artificial expectation of how long things should take. The corollary to that, however, is that everything will take longer than you expect, want, or plan for.
That, of course, is simply how I do it. Your mileage may vary.