1. Bad habit: Thinking that you have only one book in you. Many writers start out because they want to tell one particular story, a story that’s been inside them for a long time. They write that story in a white heat, and then… then what? Are they done being a writer now that they’ve written that one book? No. If you have one book in you, you have more than one book in you. In fact, now that you’ve gotten this story down, the story that has preoccupied you for years, you might find that you’re liberated now to invent new stories. And you’ve learned something about your writing process and about the structure of a story that will help you when sheer inspiration fails. (And besides, you can always write a sequel to Book #1. Did the Harry Potter series end after his first year at Hogwarts?)
2. Bad habit: Writing 3-chapter proposals, one after another. It’s tempting, yes, to just move on if an idea doesn’t work or a proposal doesn’t sell. But don’t get into that habit. Serial quitting wreaks havoc with our writing process, makes us feel like impostors instead of real novelists, and leaves us empty-handed when an editor says, “What else you got?” And now, when we can sell our books directly to the reader with indie publishing, it’s great to have a few uncontracted novels to put up for sale. But no one is going to buy a dozen partial books. Try to push past that third chapter and finish at least a sketchy first draft. You’ll probably find you fall in love with the book!
3. Bad habit: Deciding you’re good enough and have nothing to learn. You’re never good enough. You’ve always got more to learn. We all do. The moment you decide you know enough and write well enough, that’s the moment you stop being a writer and become a hack. You don’t want to be a hack, do you? Of course not. So with every book you start, determine what you want to learn, whether it’s how to design an action scene or how to hide clues or how to embed more metaphor into your verbs. And then apply yourself to that lesson. Do research. Experiment. Find models in authors who do that aspect well. This will make the writing process more interesting, and will also help individualize each book. And finally, this will help you stay current with what’s going on in fiction, as you’ll be open to new ideas and new techniques.
4. Bad habit: Making business relationships personal. Your agent is not your mother, and your editor is not your friend. You might think they’re terrific. They might think you’re terrific. But let me brutally frank here. You have to be emotionally able to fire the agent if she stops working for you. You must be ready to stay with a publisher that has fired your favorite editor. Loyalty is a virtue, but temper that with discretion. Too many writers have thrown their lot in with another industry professional who doesn’t in fact have the writer’s best interest front and center. (Nothing wrong with that—everyone must deal with her own career.) This is not a big problem unless you make the relationship personal, so personal loyalty is expected on one or both sides. I’m speaking as someone who made this error and couldn’t fire an agent who just about tanked my career. (We were best buds! How could I fire her when she was losing all those other clients? Was I going to be a traitor too?) Business relationships are about business. Save your love for your family and friends.
5. Bad habit: Forgetting that this is all about the reader. When we start to write, quite naturally it’s all about us. We have a story to tell or a problem to work out. Then when we start to submit, it’s going to be all about the agent and editor—we want to craft the query letter and the book to capture the attention of the elite industry professional who can make our publishing dreams come true. That’s all perfectly normal. The danger comes when we forget that the whole purpose of writing novels is to connect with readers. When we do what touches or moves or surprises our reader, we will be fulfilling our mission. This means we have to stop being defensive. If our work doesn’t entertain the readers, we should find out why. Often we can make that connection without losing what we personally love about our story—but we can’t get to that point if we decide the reader doesn’t matter. The reader matters most of all. That’s why we write.
The publishing world is changing radically, and we have to change with it. So next year, I might have five different bad habits to report!
So— can you add to this list? What are bad writing habits you notice in yourself and other writers?