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.
Enjoyed your post! I agree – it’s important to take time to get every phase of the process right. And the amount of time varies with every writer. I’m a firm believer that writers should always present their best work to readers…every single time. Take the time to get it right!
Have a great week!
Excellent advice! Greetings from another slow writer. All told, it takes me about a year to work a book from initial idea to polished draft, ready for querying. I also write in scenes, though usually in chronological order. Some may be able to churn out quality work at a faster pace, but I prefer to respect my limitations.
Wishing you happy writing in August.
LOL! What a great post! I agree- Write no line before it’s time! Get your creative sh–stuff together before you begin chapter 1. X- words a day? Shudder. I’m ADD/OCD and it would make me crazy. I’d be constantly checking my word count. NaNo is a no-no. I do believe in blocking off my writing time (and banning social media from it!). It takes a while to hone a process that works . . . and then it goes and changes. Roll with it, and write on!
Good lord! I couldn’t imagine writing a novel in a non-chronological manner. It’s hard enough to keep track of things when you’re moving in a straight line through time. But if your brain can handle it, good on ya.
I disagree with your philosophy on first drafts. I think this is what holds many authors back: the idea that they have to polish, polish, polish, until they have something that is so goddamn awesome that the Hugo, Nebula, and Pulitzer Prize committees came calling.
All the processes – writing, editing, beta reading – are important, and I don’t think someone should stop at one and say “this is where the real shit gets done.” I know without my beta readers I’d be lost; there are plenty of snafus in my writing (and not just the minor stuff) that I just don’t see, no matter how many times I edit a draft.
I do agree with you on time and word count. I read some of Chris Fox’s books recently, and setting up a spreadsheet with your word count numbers, while perhaps helpful from a data standpoint, still has the potential to drive you insane. If you wrote 2000 words yesterday, but only 800 today, have you failed? If your words per hour has dipped from 500 to 250, do you need to have a WPH boot camp?
I prefer to just go by hours spent writing. If I’m sitting on my butt typing away for X hours a day, something will get done. If I keep this up, at some indeterminate (but not too distant) point in the future, my novel will be done. That’s all I need to know. No deadlines, no grueling daily word counts – those things grind down the mind.
Good advice! Sticking to artificial schedules never works for me, especially the word count thing. I keep deleting and re-writing and in Scrivener, that counts for minus words 🙂 In reality, I have thrashed out quite a bit, but counting words does not give me any satisfaction.
Lots of good advice there, I quite like the idea of writing scenes because I find I am one of those people who tries to write the x amount of words and then hates every one of them 🙂
Enjoyed your post a great deal.
Yes, I do a lot of research before I start writing. I’m a recovering screenwriter so I have a strong visual sense of my scenes and what happens in them. I do know where my story is going before I start but I don’t always know how my characters are going to get me there. In that sense, I’m more like a reader who’s writing what happens next while I’m reading. I don’t know if that makes sense to you but I suspect that it does.
It takes me time to write my novels. I’m on my third one now. I feel guilty that I’m so slow but your post helped to relieve my stress a bit. It usually takes me two years from idea to finished manuscript. I try to work steadily for four or five hours each weekday (I give myself weekends off). I treat it like a job, even though it doesn’t pay like one. I have learned to accept the fact that it takes me as long as it does to write a novel and not worry about it.
Your post helped. I’m gonna look for your books.