Do you wonder what’s holding you back as a writer?
You know you want to write. It’s compulsive.
You find yourself scribbling stories all the time.
Your friends say good things about your work.
So why aren’t you a more successful author?
Don’t feel ashamed to ask yourself that question.
Every writer asks it, even if their books glitter at Amazon.
New writers ask it all the time—if they’re serious writers…
So how can you achieve the success your work deserves?
You face not one roadblock—even one can kill a writer’s passion—but seven.
But each has a remedy.
How do I know?
Over the past six years, I’ve worked with more than 2000 students at the Writers’ Village Academy, possibly the world’s most advanced coaching program for serious fiction writers. Helping story tellers to perfect their craft is what I do each day.
Almost every one of my students has hit these barriers, as their writing experience grew. And—they have overcome them.
Here’s what you need to watch out for.
1. The Apathy Trap
Some days, we’d rather go back to sleep than churn out new words.
And revise what we wrote yesterday? Yawn…
But we know we have to complete x number of words every day or we’ll have nothing to revise. And if we don’t revise, our work will be drivel. No argument.
We must also brush our teeth every day or they’ll fall out. No argument.
And we do brush our teeth, despite family distractions and holding down a job.
Why should writing be different?
Here’s a tip: turn your writing into a game. I once suggested a fun new way to lose weight to a student who’d told me she was on a diet. Just match the number of calories you eat each day to the number of finished words you’ve written, I said.
So if she achieved 2500 good words, she could eat well.
Just 500 words? Starvation.
I meant it humorously but three months later, she emailed me to say it had worked.
She’d finished her novel and lost eight pounds. (As her email to me was 300 words, she could now eat a sandwich, she said.)
What games could you play, to get out of the Apathy Trap?
2. Fear of the Unknown
When you’re starting out as a writer, you don’t know if your work is any good.
You’re afraid it’s not—and you’re probably right.
Can every newbie golfer hit a hole in one? No.
On their first swing, they may not even hit the ball.
But have you ever considered: getting it wrong is part of the fun?
If you can win a game the first time, every time—it’s not a game. Nor is it fun.
Setbacks, failure, and rejection go with the territory, whatever game you play.
How many bruises did Jahangir Khan suffer before he became, reputedly, the greatest squash player of all time? He doesn’t count them. Nor should you.
If your work hasn’t been rejected yet—by an agent or contest judge—you’re not an author. Just a scribbler.
Got 50+ rejections? You’re in with a chance of being a successful author. Why?
Because you’re persistent. And persistence is 90% of the writing game today.
Talent? That’s the remaining 10%.
3. Distrust of Friends
You can usually trust your friends to say the right things.
Show them your story and they’ll be polite: “I like it,” “Very good” or “It’s so you.”
Those are the wrong replies! They don’t tell you how to improve your story.
Even a writers’ group or web forum may not help. “I don’t like your character.” “Why?” “She didn’t ring true.” “Why?” “Can’t say.”
That gets us no further.
Thoughtful feedback is better than none, of course. And sometimes you will get good advice. But people in amateur writing groups are unlikely to know more about the craft of writing than you do.
What’s the answer?
First, consult only those friends who are writers themselves, and have faced the same dilemmas. Second, give them specific questions to respond to.
Not: “Did you like this story?” But: “Is my main character plausible/interesting/well depicted? If not, exactly why not?”
Or: “Does my plot sag at some point? If so, where?”
Or: “Could my closing lines be stronger? If so, how?”
And so on.
Only then will you get feedback that you can trust and use.
4. Terror of Achievement
Are you frightened by the thought of success, of gaining great sales, of being known as a successful author, if only in your community?
It sounds absurd, but many writers are terrified of achievement—if it brings them public attention.
Harper Lee, J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon… all shrank from the media spotlight.
Not everyone wants it. Nor does it necessarily sell books.
When I published a guide to heirloom gardening The Lazy Vegetable Grower in 2002, I was interviewed by my local newspaper. It gave me a generous half-page review along with full purchase details.
Had I bought that space as an ad it would have cost me at least $2000. Just as well I didn’t. It sold two books.
Other authors have attested that radio and TV interviews barely brought them enough sales to cover their travel expenses.
Exposure in mass media is great for the ego—and everyone needs an ego massage at the start of their writing journey—but don’t expect it to sell many books.
Because if your book is targeted to a specialist market (as mine was) or sits within a specific genre, unless it’s already a bestseller—and by definition has a broad appeal—it won’t interest a mass audience.
So don’t worry if you’re shy.
You don’t want mass media interviews or speaking engagements? Just say “No.”
You’ll lose few sales. Truly.
But if you’re not shy, enjoy the buzz!
5. The Hurdle Race
It has always been hard for an unknown author to get published.
But debut writers today face more hurdles than ever before in publishing history.
The first hurdle—and the greatest—is to find a competent agent. (Today, only small independent publishers are likely to accept un-agented submissions.)
London’s top agent Luigi Bonomi of LBA Associates once told me that in a given year, he receives around 6000 submissions but takes on only three new authors. That acceptance ratio of 0.05% is probably similar for other agents.
However, once an agent takes you on, the chances are excellent that they’ll find you a publisher. Simply because they wouldn’t give you a contract unless they had a good idea of where to place your work.
Don’t be daunted (too much) by that 6000:3 ratio. All ratios lie, because they make no allowance for exceptions.
English author Berwick Coates had spent twenty years trying to interest agents in his historical novel The Last Conquest. Last year, it caught the eye of agent Jim Gill. Immediate result: a $130,000 deal plus a two-book contract from the renowned publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Mr. Coates is aged 80. Suppose he hadn’t persisted?
If your work is competent, just persist, and you’ll beat the ratios too.
6. Sour Grapes
Have you hit the Fifty Club yet?
That’s when you’ve sent your work to fifty agents.
Eight have rejected it outright, two have said “If you don’t hear from us in three months, consider it a rejection” (and you don’t hear from them), and forty have not even acknowledged your submission.
Incidentally, those figures are not a guess. One of my students kept a precise log of his submissions across 18 months. He did everything right. But four out of five agents never did respond to him.
Who can blame you if you decide the game isn’t worth the candle?
Hope Clark of Funds For Writers confessed that she got 71 rejections for her brilliant debut novel Lowcountry Bribe. I bet she felt like quitting.
But Hope’s a fighter. With submission #72 she gained an agent and a publisher.
Now Lowcountry Bribe is riding high at Amazon, four books have followed, and Hope is recognized as a successful author.
No, the grapes aren’t sour. Just don’t let those early rejections sour you.
7. Acceptance of Mediocrity
So you’ve had some successes. Won a contest or three. Sold a few hundred copies of your book.
You’re an author! Indisputably.
That’s when a lot of good writers go wrong. They lose the passion. It’s so easy to trot out old tricks, isn’t it? And the game’s no longer fun..
Let me tell you a true story.
I recently had a student who was so determined to become a successful author that he gave up a lucrative job to focus on his novel full time. (Unwise, I agree.)
But now, he had to succeed! And persist. And he did.
If I emailed him a critique of his chapter one evening he’d send it back to me next morning, totally rewritten. He’d worked on it all night.
He was a ‘so-so’ writer when he started out. By the time he’d finished the novel two years later, he was a great one. He tells me he has just signed a publishing deal. And I’m not surprised.
Would he have achieved that deal if he’d been content to stay a ‘so-so’ author?
Settle for mediocrity and you cheat only yourself.
How to be a successful author – what else is missing?
Did you notice some startling omissions from my list of roadblocks? For example…
- Writer’s block? It’s a myth. Do as journalists do and write 1000 words of drivel. Then come back the next day and edit it. Anyone can write drivel and edit it, don’t you think? Result: no more writer’s block. It works.
- Lack of inspiration? Take three reports at random from today’s newspaper. Mix them together and ask yourself: “How can I get all those elements into one story?” At first, your story will be absurd. Just play with it and you’ll have a plot. It works.
- No idea how to develop a story? Study a great story that you love, and analyze it. Its opening and close, tricks of dialogue and character depiction, its ways of moving between scenes… Tear it apart. Then you’ll know precisely how to develop a story of your own. It works.
Story writing should be fun. It’s a game. You have to lose a lot of games before you become a grandmaster.
The more you lose, the more you learn, and the faster you achieve your writing goals.
Does that sound perverse? That you have to lose to win?
If you’re a new writer and haven’t faced any of these roadblocks yet, you will. Trust me.
But if you have, and you’ve overcome them, congratulations. You’re an author, and well on your way to being a successful one!
Which obstacles have held you back in your writing? How did you handle them? Share your experiences in a comment below. All comments get a fast, helpful reply.