Mental Missteps–Avoiding Common Writerly Mental Mistakes

Mental Missteps–Avoiding Common Writerly Mental Mistakes



NOVEL SPOTLIGHT (Aaron): The Road by Cormac McCarthy

I’m a sucker for stories about fathers and sons, and this one is about as gritty as it gets. Set in a post-apocalyptic future filled with cannibals and other darker perils, the father and son must find their way to a warmer climate using a road besieged by bad guys. All the while, the father has to care for his son, protect him, and teach him right from wrong. Gripping. Powerful. Unforgettable.

Firsts in Fiction

Avoiding Writerly Mental Mistakes


Missteps. First the negative.





  • You have nothing to learn. (You do. Everyone does.)


      • Even the masters still read, still study. Ask any professional–once they stop actively practicing and studying, they cease to be at the top of their game. This is true for athletes, artists, and every other line of professional work.
      • No one knows it all. Constant learning keeps the writer sharp and thinking.


  • You can write better than what’s being published even if you’ve never done it before. (Somethings are easier to say than to do.)


      • (Al) I once was asked to help a new writer figure out why no one was interested in his proposal. He began his proposal with, “I don’t read much fiction, but I know I can do better than what’s being published.” In one line, he 1) admitted his ignorance about the market, 2) insulted published authors, 3) insulted editors and publishers, 3) stated that he knew better than those who did the work for a living, and 4) since I am one author in that field, insulted me–then asked for my help.
      • It’s very easy to think you’re better than someone when you’ve not gone through the process yourself. For every professional quarterback, there are a million armchair quarterbacks who believe they’re just as good or better. Doing the work is what separates those who are published, and those who only dream about being published.


  • The genius of your story will immediately be recognized by everyone. (Probably not.)


      • I’m (Aaron) guilty of this. Early on in my career, I wanted people to proclaim my genius, and was quick to dismiss any “low-brow” readers who didn’t get my wondrous intellect. I’ve since learned that if my readers are missing something, I’ve probably made a mistake somewhere along the line.
      • (Al) Okay, I’ll admit that this next comment is anecdotal, but my experience has been that (generally) arrogant writers are not as nearly as good as they think they are, and humble writers are very often better than they think they are. That’s because the latter works harder to make things right.
        • I acknowledge that there have been many great writers who were arrogant, but not many.


  • Thinking the industry will conform to you. (It won’t.)


      • There have been very few writers for whom publishing has changed its practices.
      • Pops, a question for you: When does the new writer know they’re good enough to start submitting?
        • When a writer has taken time to learn the craft, understand the business, and has finished a decent manuscript, then they should send it off.
        • The key is not to rely too much on emotion. Creatives tend to be a little insecure about their work. It’s one reason why writers, even when asked to do so by an editor or publisher, lose courage and lock away the work in a drawer. Emotions can lead us astray. Send it in when you feel you’ve gone as far as you can go with it.


  • Believing a first draft is all you need.


      • Even if your first draft is a work of literary genius, imagine how much better it can be with revision. The reality is, in the business, we use the term “crummy first drafts.” Of course, many use a more crass term. The idea is the same–a first draft is never a final draft. Prepare yourself to do the work.
      • (Al) Don’t worry about the first draft. That’s your copy. It’s your expanded outline. It doesn’t need to be complete. Just get the story down. The second and subsequent draft, now that’s where the magic is.


  • A tendency to argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.


      • Illustration: Letter from Ben Bova


  • Thinking your manuscript is perfect. Editors exist for a reason.


    • Illustration: Al’s experiences with editing best selling authors.
    • I (Aaron) worked with a very well-known, award-winning flash fiction writer. He listened to my notes as a professional and preferred the version I worked with him to create. Everyone can continue to learn, and no matter how much you love something, it can be made better.
    • Remember what a novel is: It is a tapestry of, say, 100,000. (Sometimes more, sometimes less.) That’s a 100,000 opportunities to mess up. Mix in characters, research, pacing, etc, and the task becomes even more daunting–yet, it is done all the time.
    • I used to say, “If you expect people to be perfect, then you will always be disappointed. Expect them to make mistake. If you expect yourself to be perfect, you will always be disappointed. Humans are never perfect.




  • Writing and publishing is a learning process. Forgetting that can be a mistake.


      • There are no “overnight” success stories. No success in this industry comes rapidly or without work. A lot of it.


  • Not taking the time to learn terminology and the necessary process.


    • Give yourself time to study. Be an apprentice. Go to conferences, take college courses, subscribe to podcasts, join a writers’ group (but be careful with this one, it can be counter-productive). Whatever you need to better benefit your writing.




  • Expecting an agent to edit your manuscript.


      • Agents don’t edit, and editors don’t agent. Know what they do.


  • Expecting tons of money will be spent promoting your book.


      • Nope, Most authors are expected to market their own work now.


  • Expecting a perfect first draft and not rewriting.


      • See above.


  • Thinking that reading is unimportant.


    • We’ve tackled this one before. If you still haven’t bought in, then you need to seriously consider your dedication to being a writer.

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