In the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers Group, we often discuss our current projects. Can’t tell you how often I hear of people getting hung up in author traps. They’ve been working on their first manuscript for years, (sometimes decades) determined to “get it right the first time.”
Translating from Author to English, this means, “writing which goes through an endless series of revisions, but never gets finished.”
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve been there yourself. Ever get stuck in author traps like these?
- Reading books about writing process, then applying your new-found knowledge to your old-and-never-released manuscript…
- Sending your story in for critique, then taking all the feedback and revising your manuscript again. And again. And again…
- Buying a new software tool, and porting your work into the new system, hoping it will help you finish…
- Revising your story to make it more like that hot, new bestseller, so you can cash in on the rising trend…
- Revising your story to make it less like that hot, new bestseller, so you don’t get accused of plagiarizing ideas…
I’ve been to every one of these places, and every one of them will slow your author journey to a crawl.
The good news is that just knowing about the traps might prevent you from getting stuck in the first place. Here’s the author traps I’m aware of and how to avoid/escape them.
Author Trap #1 – Your Publishing Virginity
Horror stories abound of authors who wrote their first story, got their first publishing contract, and then… their book didn’t earn out.
The bad sales and bad reviews were chiseled into the internet, AND THEY NEVER GOT ANOTHER BOOK DEAL, NEVER, EVER, FOREVER! They had to change their name, get reconstructive plastic surgery, learn a new language, and go into the author-relocation-program if they ever hoped to submit another story.
I’ve often joked that all new writers should “Take the first novel you write, put it a box, and burn it. The second one, too.” It’s true that all authors have to pay their dues. I threw away over 350,000 words before I felt my writing was submittable. But this becomes a trap if you believe that your first publication has to be Neil-Gaiman-Awesome, or you shouldn’t even bother.
Keep in mind that your first ANYTHING is not going to be as awesome as you think. Remember the first mixed drink you made? The one that tasted like cherry-mint-lime-black licorice Nyquil? Remember your first sexual encounter?
Well, your first story isn’t going to be your best, either. And that’s OK. You still need to publish it, or it can’t be your first, and you can’t be an author. You have to leave the safety net of rough-draft revisions. Set that bar. Break that publishing virginity.
But how do you know when your work is good enough? How do you escape the author trap of getting your first work published?
Slush Vs Submittable Vs Publishable
The difference between utter crap (slush) and the best effort of someone who’s learned the basics (submittable) and the finished product (publishable) is subtle but important. Publishers have a hard job, picking through the slush pile, looking for things they can work with. They have pro editors on speed-dial to make sure the submissions they accept get polished up from ‘submittable’ quality to ‘publishable’ quality. Even Hemingway’s work was edited before it was published.
Your goal can be to write a manuscript that reads like the book-on-the-shelf, but in reality, what you need to give the publisher is something better than the slush. Something the publisher can work with, even if that publisher is yourself. Very similar to the music industry, the song has to be tight, and it has to kick ass, but the producer can add the mixing and mastering polish that pushes that song further up the charts.
So don’t get trapped by the belief that your work has to be PERFECT before it can be submitted for publication. But your goal is to get your great idea into a great story structure with great writing. As great as you can possibly get it with the skills you have right now. But it will not be perfect. Then a publisher or editor can help you to take it up that next step to super-awesome-bestseller quality.
Make Healthy Comparisons
When you are first starting out, looking at professionally-published, bestselling authors as role models is normal. Aiming at that level of storytelling and writing quality is admirable. But expecting your first novel to stand against The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not realistic or healthy.
Realize where you are. Look for local authors in your genre who are at the same place in their writing career as yourself. Read what they are currently working on. Join their beta readers list, or invite them to start a crit group, and get a look at their rough drafts. That’s the level of quality you need to compete with. That’s the bar.
As you gain experience, you can start raising the bar by comparing your work to that of authors with similar experience, not to mention your own previous works. After publishing for a decade or two, you can work at knocking Neil Gaiman off the bestseller list.
You Might Want Some Help With That…
Deciding when your work is ready for publication is more art than science. Regardless of whether you seek traditional or self-publishing, you still need an external reference that is chock-full of experience and objectivity. You’ll want to put together a solid team of crit group, editor, proofreaders and beta readers.
These people will do more than just help improve your writing. They will help you decide when your work is truly ready for publication. It helps if they know your writing style, and care more about the quality of your work than your ego. If your work is not of sufficient quality, they should not let it pass. Ask them straight up, “Is this submittable? Is this publishable?”
This goes double/triple/quadruple if you are self-publishing. Self-publishing is like taking your own virginity. You might want some help with that. Agents and traditional publishers have experience to filter out content that is not ready, and editors to patch up the rest. Self-publishers need to find weapons-grade editors and crit teams to make sure their work isn’t just submittable, but salable.
Author Trap #2 – The Infinite Feedback Loop
Feedback – from critiquers, editors and proofreaders – is essential to quality stories. But it can also trap you in an endless series of revisions. Often, this doesn’t feel like a trap. You’re improving the story, right? Making it better, right?
Not necessarily. If you keep asking for input, and revising but never finishing… you’re trapped.
Decide On Your Writing Process Before You Start
One round of crit is almost a necessity. Two sounds better. But where to stop? Three? Four? Ten? If you’re handing out your novel to each person you know, one at a time… it will never be finished.
Decide on your workflow up front. If you’re not sure, ask others how many rounds of crit they go through before editing/proofreading. (I use a round of crit/revision with three different crit groups.) Pick a plan and stick to it to get out of this author trap.
You Can’t Please Everyone
Change the story to please one critic, and two more will point out that it was better the way it was. There is always going to be someone who is put off by something in your story. Or doesn’t like the ending. If you keep handing it out until it comes back “Perfect!” … it will never be finished.
I find it helpful to get a story as far as I possibly can on my own before seeking any outside opinion. I try to get the story to a point where I see no mistakes to fix and no more polish to add. Then I send it to crit group #1.
When crit group #1 sends me their feedback, I review/process all of their critiques at the same time. I look for trends and consensus in the feedback before making any revisions. As a rule, I don’t even have the manuscript open while processing crit feedback. This helps prevent changing something for one critiquer, only to change it back five minutes later. For example, if three people say the story was too slow, and another three say the story was too fast, then it was probably just right.
I make a list of the changes to be made (in Evernote), then start revising. Once all revisions are complete, I hand the story to crit group #2 and repeat the process. After three crit/revision cycles, it’s off to a pro editor for a final coat of polish.
No doubt there will be things in the finished product that will not sit well with everyone. Midi-chloreans, for example. Do your best, but remember that you can’t please everyone.
Author Trap #3 – Fear of Completion
Some people take advantage of the Infinite Feedback Loop I mentioned above, and use it as a way to AVOID publishing their work. Why would they do this? Plenty of reasons. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of putting their work out there in the cold, cold, world where it can be Judged.
Work in progress is immune to criticism. “It’s not finished yet.” works great as a “get out of judgement free” card. But once you proclaim a work as Complete, it’s open season on your art and soul, and the critics have some heavy artillery…
To overcome this trap, you need to overcome your own fear. No easy task, but the following thoughts should help:
Realize That Published Count Trumps Word Count
Do you have a passion for word count? Do you love to get chapters finished? Do you get a sense of accomplishment when you hit each 10K mark?
If so, can you convert that passion for writing into a passion for publishing? Instead of getting excited about hitting that next 10K mark, how about the next book release? Get as excited about your PUBLISHED COUNT as you are about your word count, and start applying yourself to finishing books the way you finish scenes.
Let Others Help You
If you simply can’t stop tweaking on your story, then ask your crit group: Would they consider this publishable as it is? Listen to what they say and trust their opinion. If you don’t have knowledgeable people you can trust… then find some.
Unfortunately, your friends won’t be much help here. As Benjamin Wallace says in 5 Reasons to Have a Nemesis, “Friends and family can’t be trusted. They think you still have feelings.”
Author Trap #4 – The Never-Ending Story
You’re a writer. I mean, you write. Every day. You put in the hours, revising and hitting that word count. Awesome right?
If you measure your authorness by the amount of time you spend writing, you can feel pretty good about yourself. I’m tempted to call this the “Writing is Fun!” trap, because you feel like you are making progress. But are you actually finishing anything with that word count? Are you actually improving the story with those revisions?
You could spend an entire year adding onto and improving this story. Or you could submit it and spend that same year working on a new project. One of these is a way to finish stories. The other is an author trap.
Writing Is Not Publishing
The public doesn’t see you slaving away on the next bestselling work of staggering genius, and they don’t care. They don’t give a damn about word count, either. They measure your authorness by a different metric:
How many stories did you publish last year? How many stories will you publish THIS year?
This is how authorness is measured. This should help you to get busy, get finished, and get those stories out the door.
Target Story Word Count
How many words (give or take 10K) is your story going to be? If you know the target story word count, then it should be obvious if you are making progress, or over/under budget.
If you don’t know, then you should probably stop writing and find out. If your novel is at 238,000 words and the ending isn’t in sight yet, then you have a problem. You might even need to stop writing and start cutting to get your story where it needs to be.
Enlist Social Pressure
Announce to your friends, family and followers on social media that you’ll be finished by a certain date. Put those dates on the calendar: rough draft date, revision date, final draft date, submission/publication by… Your fans and followers won’t let you forget.
A great example of this came up when I was hosting this year’s Local Author Showcase – Kate Bitters pledged in front of the entire audience that she would write a story every week for 52 weeks. Her fans are watching, and I bet that added social pressure helps motivate her writing!
You can ALWAYS continue to edit and enhance the story. FOREVER. But that’s not a very efficient plan. You need to stop somewhere, or you’ll be trapped in one of Zeno’s paradoxes, constantly moving toward your goal in smaller and smaller increments, until it’s impossible to tell if you’re making any progress at all.
Is your time is better spent writing a new story, or going back for another round of “how many adverbs can I eliminate?” Remember that an editor will help put the finishing touches on your story, so if you’re fussing over the exact color blue of your heroine’s eyes, you’re wasting time by changing things that no one else will notice. Your time is better spent somewhere else.
I’m not suggesting you compromise quality for quantity. What I’m suggesting is that you try writing ten Appetite For Destructions every decade instead of one Chinese Democracy.
Author Trap #5 – Newer, Better, Even More Awesomer!
You just downloaded the new Mega Novel Creator Software Platinum Plus software. And you just read the latest tips on how to outline your story! And then you heard the latest super author bestselling genre is… Steampunk! The steampunk craze is back and hotter than EVER!!!
You can’t revise that manuscript fast enough. Port it into your new software program. Run it through the new outlining method. Give your protagonist a mechanical arm, a pair of goggles and a dirigible…
…what you’re NOT doing is finishing your story. Welcome to the author trap.
One Genre Shift Per Story
If you want to chase the market, fine. But promise me you won’t do this more than once per novel. Otherwise, you’re doing something wrong. You don’t want to rewrite your novel every three years just to keep on top of the latest market trends. If this sounds familiar, maybe you’re falling into one of the previously mentioned traps, like fear of completion.
Likewise, one software tool shift per story. Go ahead and transfer the work in progress over to y-writer or scrivener. Once. Then, finish your novel and stop letting new tools, techniques and trends trap you.
Save The New Cool Thing For Your Next Story
All of your work is inspired by things you’ve read, seen or experienced. Adding to that knowledge base is great… unless its keeping you from finishing. Are you reworking your manuscript after every movie you see and every book you read? Your manuscript should not just be a catch-all for every cool new idea that comes your way. If you try to do ALL THE THINGS, you’ll be stuck in an author trap.
Instead of putting that new tool/technique/idea into THIS story, how about using it to motivate you to get this story published as is, and use that new cool thing in your NEXT story instead? I write down new ideas in Evernote, so I don’t lose them.
Author Trap #6 – The Quest for Originality
It never fails. You’re watching a popular book or movie that was made ages ago, and there’s a scene/character/idea that’s JUST LIKE THE ONE IN YOUR MANUSCRIPT!
You can’t have people thinking you plagarized that idea! Or were writing fan fic! Gaa!
You can’t open that manuscript soon enough, and start changing things. Change your heroine’s name and eye color. And the model of your antagonist’s getaway vehicle. Get rid of that double-crossing character who’s too much like Cypher from The Matrix.
If you worry at every movie you see and every book you read that there might be similarities to your current project, you’ve fallen into the author trap.
You are not original!
Just when you think there’s something new under the sun, think again. I thought The Matrix (1999) was original until I rewatched Total Recall (1990).
This is why you need to know your genre, so you can avoid all the tropes and elements that fans of the genre have long known. But you also can’t let this trap you. You can’t hold off publication until you’ve read the entire #DarkFiction section.
Do the best you can with what you have right now, and realize that no matter how hard you try, it’s all been done before.
You can’t write like J.K. Rowling. No matter how hard you try. Guess what? J.K.Rowling can’t write like you, no matter how hard she tries. Even if you have the same ideas. Even if both of your heroines have the same name, and the same color eyes. Even if you both have a double-crossing character that is just like Cypher from The Matrix.
Only you can write like you. So write your story, because only you can write it.
Beyond the Author Traps
There you have it. Hopefully these tips will help you to recognize, escape, and/or avoid the author traps that can keep you from achieving success.
Did I miss anything? Feel free to add your thoughts to the comments below. Best of luck on your writing!