Not surprisingly, one of my most popular all-time blog posts is about publishing mistakes. I expect every author has made a few, some more than most. The same goes for mistakes involving our writing. In no particular order, here are five big errors I’ve made:
Not specializing: No one likes to be pigeonholed, and yet readers expect a certain consistency from the authors they love. I’ve been all over the map, publishing two YA novels, five books for younger readers, and three travel books before honing in on what I most wanted to publish, fiction for grown-ups. But even that fiction is in the general category—genre would have been a much better idea. Then I published narrative nonfiction, a biography. Oh, and there are those two books on writing. Now I’m working on historical fiction. Don’t follow my bad example. Figure out what you most want to write, figure out how to best reach that audience, and stick with it.
Believing I’d arrived: After achieving success with my first two novels, I figured I’d arrived at exactly the place I needed to be. Granted, I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d written those novels, and I hadn’t made much of a study of what actually constitutes success for writers, and for myself in particular. Writer’s group? Didn’t need it, I thought. Further study? Nope—just needed to keep doing what I’d been doing. Wrong-headed thinking, but it took me a few years to figure that out.
Running on impulse: Writers are risk-takers, and risk takers tend to trust their intuition, which is a very close cousin to impulse. I find it all too easy to get excited about a project and dive in without considering how viable it might be. This practice leads to good books for which there aren’t all that many readers, and also to books that are well-crafted but just don’t work because the premise is flawed. These days, I try not to get too far into a project without drafting sell sheet and query, an exercise that helps me think about readers. Early in the draft, I also turn a critical eye toward the premise and the characters, to make sure they have legs. Impulse has also led me to sign onto projects that rob me of writing time—I’m working on saying no as often as yes. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should do it.
Relying on the status quo: My first book came out nearly twenty years ago. At the time, authors were mostly unempowered—we relied on our publishers to connect us with readers. In hindsight, my career would have benefitted had I had the foresight to start connecting with readers early on. Instead, I acted only when the status quo shifted and authors were expected to reach out to readers through blogs and a social media presence. Today, I’m thinking differently about the status quo. I covet my creative time, and I’m more discerning about committing to projects that are distant from my creative work, even if they’re things everyone else seems to be doing.
Foregoing patience: Fluency is a great attribute for writers to covet—it’s what makes NaNoWriMo so appealing. But drafting a novel in a month can mask the very real truth that good writing can’t be rushed. Like most writers, I’ve sent work out too soon. I’ve settled for a lesser publisher instead of going the rounds to get better exposure for my work. After all these years, I’m still working to cultivate patience. It’s a process.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, between Astoria and Seaside.