The Top Eleven Ways Not to Write Your Book

by Leigh Michaels

Of every hundred people who tell me that they’re going to write a book, ninety-eight never finish. What makes these people so spectacularly successful at not writing? Here are the most common reasons why authors never finish that first book.

11. Read every book and magazine article ever published on how to write. Buy every tape. Make notes. Cross-index. Memorize all the rules. If you break one, you’re in big trouble.

The fact: Many how-to books are crammed with great ideas and information, but someone else’s methods aren’t a magic carpet to success. Try what the author suggests—and then keep what works for you and ignore the rest. The right way is whatever works for you, and you can judge that by looking at whether you're making progress toward your goal and enjoying your work.

Learning about writing is fine, and if your work loses its pep, reading a how-to book may give you a refresher and get you back on course. But the only way to learn to write is to write. This is a skill, like tennis. You can't learn to play tennis by reading Sports Illustrated. And you don’t do it by trying once. The only way to get better is to practice.

Ask yourself if your time might be better spent in learning about the subject you’re writing about, or simply in putting your words on the paper.

10. Look for a trend. What’s hot right now? Editors have a secret list of things they’re looking for, and if your idea isn’t on it you’ll never sell.

The fact: By the time a trend appears in the bookstores, it’s usually overripe at publishing offices. A book hitting the shelves today was written at least a year ago, more often two. Only a rare trend lasts that long.

Beware of writing a book to fit a series, or a trend, or a market listing, if it’s not something you want to write. It’s tempting to try fitting into a line which obviously has some openings right now. But no matter how good the writer, not everybody can write everything—nor should they try.

Especially for your first sale, concentrate on the good solid non-trendy story which will be just as saleable in five years. We hope it won’t take that long, but the fact is it might.

9. Write or call every published author you can get in touch with and ask for help, advice, and the name of her agent. There’s a foolproof combination for success, if only someone will share it with you.

The fact: Actually, there is a pretty-much foolproof combination for success: Study the field, learn how to tell a gripping story about engaging characters, write with the reader and the marketplace in mind, and be willing to do it over and over and over. The short version of that is: put your rear in the chair and write.

There is no substitute for hard work. All the networking in the world can’t get your book written, and you can’t sell what you haven’t written.

8. Plot the whole series before starting to write. You don't want to set up something in book #1 which will make it more difficult to write sequel #12.

The fact: Getting the first book written and published is tough enough. Plotting several at a time in order to keep all the strings untangled is asking for trouble.

Too much planning is the best way not to write. Certainly you need a blueprint, but you can't sort out every detail ahead of time.

Are you actually writing your story, or only thinking about writing it?

7. Tell everybody who will listen all about your story. They might have some good ideas. Even if they don't, it’ll make them respect you as a writer.

The fact: With the exception of brainstorming with a trusted individual or group, telling someone your story is a bad idea. The average person’s ideas are almost guaranteed not to be helpful, and talking about the idea often disperses the desire to write it.

Another disadvantage of talking too casually about your work is that for the next two years you’ll have a hundred people asking when your book is coming out. You won’t like having to admit that the idea didn’t work out after all, or that the manuscript isn’t completed yet, or it’s been rejected—so be careful who you invite into your confidence.

6. Research every detail before you start to write. You never know what fact you may want to use, so you’ll have to know everything about the historical period, the place, and the background. That goes for your characters, too. If you don’t know all about their past, how can you tell their story?

The fact: Certainly we need to know the basics about the historical period, the place, and the characters before starting to write. Some mistakes are so huge that there’s no fixing them once the story’s started, and the only option is to throw it all away.

But once you have the basic background, stack the research books under your desk, prop your feet on them, and start writing. If you’re stuck for a detail, you can look it up. It’s easier to fill in gaps in your knowledge than to learn everything there is to know about the subject.

That goes for your characters, too. Let them tell you some of their history as you go along. You may be surprised at what they come up with.

5. Polish the first chapter until it’s perfect before you begin the second one.

The fact: Revising as you write is almost guaranteed to make you lose momentum. By the time you’ve got Chapter One glossy enough to satisfy, you’ll have lost interest in the rest of the book—or forgotten what you intended to have happen. Certainly your work will need polishing, revising and rewriting—but get the story down on the page first.

4. Never stop questioning. Maybe your other idea, or your alternate plan, was better. Don’t be surprised if after you write three chapters, you conclude another story idea shows more promise. Go for it!

The fact: Every writing project hits a spot, about a fourth of the way into the work, where the idea suddenly seems stale, the plot illogical, the conflict dull, and the entire story impossible to finish. Sometimes that’s true, and the book is better off left on the scrap heap. More often, though, it just means that the honeymoon’s over. If you push on through this rough spot, you’ll probably find your enthusiasm coming back.

You don't learn to write a book by writing a synopsis, or even a partial. You don't learn to write a book by entering the first chapter in contests. You learn by slogging through the whole process from Chapter One to The End and then figuring out what worked and what didn’t so you can apply the lessons next time.

3. With every paragraph, ask yourself how an editor will react to your work. Is there a way to make this sentence better? Clearer? Closer to what she’s looking for?

The fact: Writing is an art, editing is a craft. Writing is creative, editing is practical. Writing is right-brain, editing is left-brain. Nobody can do them both at the same time and do justice to either one. When you’re editing a sentence, you can’t be thinking about what fragment of the story should be in the next sentence.

The temptation that goes along with this is to wait until it’s all clearly in mind before trying to write it down at all—so we can get it just right the first time and not have to revise. It doesn’t work, but it makes a great excuse not to write.

2. Wonder if readers will think your sex life actually includes the things you write about.

The fact: They will. Even worse, people who don’t read your books will believe your sex life actually includes the things they think you write about—and their imaginations can run pretty wild.

They’ll also believe that you must have had up-close and personal experience with everything you write about—including wealth, servants, bank robberies, scandals, kidnappings, and murders. Learn to live with it.

And the grand prize winner:

1. Wait for inspiration.

The fact: Every once in a while, a writer gets an adrenaline rush where ideas fly and paragraphs write themselves and life is grand. But those times seldom produce a quantity of work, and they don’t come frequently enough to make a would-be writer into a professional. The pro goes to work, whether she feels like writing or not. Often, after she’s been there for a while, inspiration pokes its head through the clouds. But even if it doesn’t, in the end it’s literally impossible to tell which paragraphs came in a flash of light like the Ten Commandments to Moses, and which ones the author sweated over and rewrote eighteen times.