Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Deadly Problems For Writers…


This might take a few posts to fully explain and add to. So hang on…

Over the last month or so the biggest and most deadly issue I have tried to help writer’s through is the desire to make a lot of money with book sales quickly.

In other words, the writer is not focused on the fun of writing a story, but on how the book is selling after they have finished it.

This is what I call “Product Focused” vs “Process Focused.”

The real problem comes in when the product focused gets into the process of writing and usually stops it cold, or makes in difficult and no fun.

Sitting alone in a room and making stuff up should be fun. What else would it be? No one is going to come and hurt you if you write something that doesn’t work for every reader on the planet (a silly goal on its face.) No one is going to die at your hands (besides characters) if you mess something up.

And best of all, no one cares. You are free to sit in that room and make up whatever you want. No one cares.

When you should start thinking about the product is after your write the last line of the story or book AND NOT ONE MOMENT BEFORE.

But if you start caring too much about the product WHILE WRITING, or even thinking about the product, your process becomes no fun and just stops.


Let me list a bunch of ways, and I know I will miss a bunch of major ways. Add them in the comments if you want.

1… Need to make money quickly. It is the “quickly” that is the killer. Your writing, over time, will make you more money than you can imagine if you keep it fun and keep learning. But if you focus on the writing needing to make a lot of money quickly, it will not. If you need extra money, get a part-time day job and take the pressure off the writing.

2… Writing for other people. Setting deadlines for others puts all the focus on the end product. Deadlines for some can be a motivating thing. They often are for me, but I never attach people to that deadline, or do I ever care what any reader, fan, or critic will think. (Anyone who has watched this blog over time knows how often I have failed on deadlines. If the motivation works for a project, great, if not, great.

3… Writing Series to a sales deadline. You didn’t have the series done before you put the first books out and suddenly you are afraid of being a George Martin and not finishing the series and thus all the focus while writing the next book is on finishing the product, not having fun writing. Chances are you will not finish the series until you forget about selling it.

4… Books Aren’t Selling… This product focused is caused by the old 1980s way of thinking that books spoil like a bad banana if they don’t sell quickly and through traditional channels. This is normally caused by not enough product in your bakery. You think your third book should be making you thousands and actually it is selling three copies a month, maybe. The reality is the fact that it is selling is fantastic news that you are starting to build a fan base. But product and performance focused writers take this as a bad sign and often just quit. Perspective is not a strong skill set for early stage writers.

5… Comparing Your Sales to Other Writers… This is deadly to writing, so if you are in some group that is full of toxic people trying to tell you how you need to promote more and spend money to promote and write faster to get more product, run. The more you listen to that crap, the more you will become product focused and it will kill your writing.

6… Letting Others Into Your Work… This comes in a ton of ways. The stupidity of beta readers to workshops to letting someone, anyone, read part of a work in progress to “help” you. This kind of thinking always takes the focus to the end product and will kill it.

7… Writing sloppy and rewriting. This is always focused on the end product, not the process of creation. What causes this is fear that the book won’t be good enough or have a few flaws and because of those flaws the hit squads will descend on your home and kill you and your family because your story wasn’t “perfect.” This also brings in the scams of developmental editors and beta readers and such. Just fear of the end product stopping the fun of the process of creation.

8… Writing the Same Book Over and Over. Only reason any writer would do this stupidity is fear that a different book won’t sell or will bother fans. Learn to not care and let your creative voice be in control instead of some faceless fans who chances are won’t care in the slightest.

9… Focus on Only One Way to Sell a Book… This seeps back into your process and you end up forcing books to certain lengths or certain patterns or forms, thus killing the creative process of just letting a story be what it wants to be. Early stage writers really have trouble with this because now to them they either think they must go to traditional publisher or sell the book electronic themselves. Nothing else. I will be doing a lot of posts and classes and such on the different ways creators can make money in this new world. But first you must clear all that out and just write stories that are fun that you want to write.

As I said, I am sure I missed a bunch. But overall, this comes down to money and being in a hurry. The moment either of those two things creep into the product side in any fashion, it changes the process side, causes you to make bad decisions, listen to toxic people, rewrite to death, and make your writing no fun.

The goal is to sit alone in a room and make stuff up, anything your creative voice wants to make up, without any influence from what the book will be at the end. Then, when finished, give the product some time and do as best you can with it. Product work is very different from the creative process work. Don’t let the streams cross.

And that is the key, folks. PROMISE YOURSELF that when the book is done, you will do the best you can on the product part. But until the book is done, only think about the process of writing and having fun. You make that promise to yourself and stick to it, you will find yourself creating some amazing stuff, original stuff, and wow will you have fun doing it.

And you will save your writing and write even more (in the process).


  • Harvey+Stanbrough

    Great post, Dean, and widely shared. I’d like to see your thoughts sometime on the other side, on promotion, etc. after the book is finished, and maybe on how to stop writing long enough to bother with that (beyond designing a good cover, writing good sales copy, and putting it up).

    My “problem” is that when I finish a book and put it up for pre-release sales, I immediately start the next book. Sometimes in the same series, sometimes in another or in a one-off, but seldom later than the day after I finish the book. Or maybe my problem is that I don’t really see that as a problem.

    I use “the best way to sell books is to write more books” as an excuse to keep writing and having fun rather than engaging in the sheer drudgery (to me) of promoting what I’ve written.

    Thoughts? And thanks.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, I also start something new after finishing a project. I tend to let the previous story go cold before doing a cover. Sometimes for numbers of stories. That’s why I constantly fall off of Heinlein’s Rules #4. I am more focused on the next fun thing to write and sometimes leave a story just sit for too long. More often than not I am doing a cover or writing a blurb for a story I can’t remember. (Keeps the author problem out, that’s for sure.)

      And if any of you out there just shuddered at the idea of not getting something up instantly for sale, you have the exact problem this blog was aimed at. You care too much about the product. Harvey and I have too much fun in the writing, the product side is annoying more times than not. It has to be done, but it seems doing the product side of that last story just gets in the way of the fun.

      In Heinlein’s Rules, Product Focused writers have trouble with Rules #1,#2, and #3. Process focused writers have a horrid time with Rules #4 and #5.

  • Kate+Pavelle

    Oh, OH. (Headdesk.)
    -So if I write a sci-fi story that got some love out there, and I start writing one saying “oh good, I can make a series, then bundle them…) and I do it too early, that’s streams crossing.
    -If I say, “And this is a cool sidekick chick and I want to feature her more ( so far so good, good ideas in progress,) and then I say “And if I write it as her diary, then it would be great for a Patreon serial,” those streams have crossed.
    – And don’t get me started on the series. Fortunately, the sales on that have dropped off to that background radiation noise. This means your words that “if I can forget about it selling, I can start thinking about writing” makes sense, because I was really excited about that character, dammit.

    I thought I sent my Critical Voice on a a series of fool’s errands and away from my writing – but it looks like a pesky marketing manager took up space in his stead. (Time to change that capable person’s schedule so it doesn’t coincide with mine.)

    Great post, Dean. Thanks, I needed that.

    • dwsmith

      Kate, yup, all those things are deadly to the creative voice in the long run. If your creative voice really wants to write a sequel or a sidekick book, let it. But it has to be your creative voice wanting to do that instead of your critical business voice.

      I have lots and lots of series. but if you look back through the fifty issues of Smith’s Monthly, which is sort of a timeline of books I have written in order, you see I do repeat a series, but mostly I write in one series, then move on to something else and then move on and then return to a series, sometimes for two books, then move on. That’s all creative voice going “Oh, let’s write that next, that will be fun.” And me not caring and not forcing anything.

  • Kristi N.

    This probably comes under the auspices of the Originality workshop, but #8 is one of those nebulous fears that I haven’t written enough books to make it worth worrying about. I try to approach each hero/heroine as an individual, one with a different history and perspective, to make each less like the others. I hope that as I learn more about the craft, I will also get better at creating unique characters without descending into caricature.

    I’m taking your advice on #1 as well, hunting for the job that will give me time to write and publish while taking the financial pressure off. Cash flow is a skill I’m learning slowly, and I need to look at the business as a whole (the bare minimum of what it takes to get a book up) and where I’m at (not enough books to make advertising a good idea) and remind myself that my business model is slow growth. I’ve made 2 sales from people not related to me, and that is a good thing.

    • dwsmith

      Kristi, the bare minimum to get a book published these days, in hardback, paper, and electronic, is between $1 and $5 dollars, depending on the price of your art at a royalty free site. No other costs needed (you must have a computer and an internet connection of some sort.)

      And worrying about making a character unique is a bogus critical voice problem that I bet is stopping you. Every character has been done a thousand times. What will make your characters unique is you writing them. You are unique, so stop worrying about what others have done and just write. You will be surprised at how others will think your characters are unique if you do that.

  • Philip

    Dean, I really needed this one.

    I have no idea in the world why I’m so worried about my UNFINISHED books not selling. The craziest part is I work full time in a job I enjoy and earn good money at. I don’t need to become a millionaire off books. I got into it because I loved writing and figured hey, why not generate some side income from the process? Makes no sense why I would put so much pressure on myself to be a best seller out the gate.

    You’re so right. Writing should be my happy time to blow off steam after work and be creative. Instead, I’m watching YouTube videos and listening to podcasts obsessed with manipulating kindle select and “writing to market.”

    No idea why writers want to be sharecroppers on Mr. Bezos’s farm.

    • dwsmith

      You clearly have found your problem. And you expressed it so well for other writers. Writers worry about an unfinished book not selling, thus never finish the book and fulfill the worry exactly, because an unfinished book never sells. Ever. And I can say that with confidence. (grin)

  • Philip

    I read this post again and thought of a question.

    If we sit down with the mindset of I’m going to write a short story or I’m going to write a novel or I’m going to writer a piece that’s 12k words, is that product focused?

    I find that I’m more apt to finish work when view everything genetically as “a story” and let the characters take me where they want. I (try) to approach writing like a method actor thinking like the character. As a result, I’ve had many “novels” turn into 4,000 word short stories and a few short stories turn into 15,000 word novellas. Is that the right approach?

    • dwsmith

      Yes, it is product focused. You are focused on the length and thus constrain and stop the creative voice. Just let a story be what a story wants to be. It is that simple. For me, when I get invited into an anthology that has a word requirement, I fire up on a story and often find myself going past the word limit. So I finish the story and start another one. Eventually I hit one that is inside the word limit, but I never purposely try to alter a story to fit a word limit.

      • Kate Pavelle

        Oh that’s a good idea. Next time I’m invited I’ll write that story first thing, just in case I run into that “I want to be a novella” problem. You have no idea how much I struggled with those 7k and 8k limits! I do admit some trimming had occurred during the reread process, like squeezing into my good jeans after the holidays.

  • Sean+Monaghan

    Thanks for this reminder. One of the things I’ve done is separate the writing space from the business space – something I think was suggested here some time back.

    I have a nook with a simple cheap secondhand computer which just has Wordpad, no internet or anything else. Elsewhere I have the whizz-bang computer with Vellum and Indesign for formatting, wth the internet for the publishing and so on. When I sit at one of the other, there’s a real brain space. I find it especially useful to take the distractions away from the writing space.

    • dwsmith

      Yes, a separate writing computer and space helps wonders. Helps the creative voice know where it is in control. Internet and games and such on your writing computer is certain death over time.

  • Lisa Silverthorne

    Wow, BRILLIANT post, Dean!! This is EVERYTHING I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  • Pat Leo

    Hi Dean,
    I read this post and thought, he’s talking to me. I have one book that I self-published on Amazon and I’ve made a few sales outside of my family and friends. Lately, I’ve been studying how to market my book to get more sales and neglected working on my current novel. And I was wondering why I wasn’t having as much fun as when I first started writing. I’m not even sure it’s a money thing as much as an ego trip having people buy MY book.

    Thanks for helping me get my priorities straight. I want my fun back.


  • Sam

    I’m so embarrassed. I’ve been writing and self-publishing for a decade. TEN YEARS. And my books still aren’t viable. I’ve been all over the place in my head and I wish I’d never used my own name to self-publish. It ruined my creativity and I was bombarded from every angle about product. I wish there was help for me, but now my books just stagnate with terrible covers, blurbs, and everything else. I haven’t been able to write creatively since before lockdown part one. I will probably never write again. What a wasted decade and now I’m fat too, from all the sitting amd writing!

    • Nathan Haines

      The nice thing about self-publishing is that you can just refresh your book with a new cover and a new blurb any time you want.

      And that’s good, because the first time you tried it, you probably weren’t any good, so now you’re way better. Besides that, trends change.

      I’ll bet if you researched covers and created a cover template (or consistent style) and published everything again over the course of a day or a week, you’d see some sudden, short term success.

      Turning that into long-term success would be to keep writing and publishing frequently. Which of course you can only do if you make writing fun again. And a good, brisk walk is a great time to let your mind wander and see what sort of stories pop up. At the least, you come back, rinse off, and feel refreshed before you go back to writing….

    • Kate+Pavelle

      You can change the author name no problem. It’s still your work. You may let the gatekeepers at Amazon know, and you may want to disclose as “previously published under old pen name” in your Copyright Notice, but readers don’t read that anyway. I did it – my husband had a cow over me writing gay romance and ruining his good name as a lawyer, so I invented a pen name and moved my gay-roms under Olivette Devaux. (Actually, that’s where all romance goes nowadays.) It cost me 2 years of momentum for sure, but the books are selling. I wish I hadn’t had to do that, but it helped keep peace in the family and I still get to write and my books are slowly selling.

      There are worse things in life. At least you have books. Take the positives and run with them. As for being fat from all the writing, yeah I get that. I got an Apple watch and it keeps me mindful of getting up on the hour, moving, and so on. It’s my Jiminy Cricket, that and the dog.

      You can do this if you want to – but you have to want to.

  • Joe Cleary

    I’m just starting to deal with this side of my critical voice now that I have a few completed stories I want to make covers for and get up for sale and into collections. I’m trying hard to keep the business and the writing separate.

    Right now, I structure my time so that business and creative are different parts of my week. And I don’t even touch the business part if I haven’t fulfilled what I commited myself to creatively.

    Besides, I don’t need to worry about business yet. A few stories aren’t going to sell well on their own anyway. I just want to get them up before a few becomes a few dozen and I’m buried in backlog that needs covers and such. I’m very much sticking to the ‘write the next story’ marketing plan.

  • Jeanne Felfe

    Writing for the fun of it is something that evaded me after publishing my first book. Then product focus took over. I’ve only recently begun to wind my way back to the pure joy of creating story.

    Thank you for this article and for your book Writing into the Dark. My natural writing voice is helter-skelter, writing whatever scene wants to be written, very much like you’ve described your wife’s process, piecing it all together at some point in the creation. Since I almost always write multi-POV stories, this works. Whoever wants to reveal the next scene gets my time.

  • Heather Strickler

    I’m a late comer to this post, but wanted to say thank you. I needed this. I started the business end of publishing and the writing fell off a cliff. This let me get a handle on why. And on why my stories seem loudest when I’m at work and not supposed to be writing. The ‘supposed to be’ itself is the problem.

    Now that I know what’s happening the stories are talking again. Now all I have to do is keep up. And I have time tonight when I can write, not am supposed to write, so maybe I will keep up witb the stories after all.

  • Desikan

    Thanks for this post Dean !

    Very timely for me. As a beginning writer I am struggling to gather time for writing admist a busy day job schedule which keeps me staring at a computer screen all day. (I am forever grateful for your tip to use a separate writing computer which has a psychological magic)

    Whatever time I get, my focus had changed more towards churning more words in limited time that puts an additional pressure and lately I see the fun got lost somewhere on the way. This makes it tough to get to my writing computer(again subconscious at play).

    I am taking a resolution now to keep my focus on the process of creating fictional worlds which is fun.
    Big thanks for this reminder.

  • Natalie

    Great post Dean! I am working on the last book in my series now( I write contemporary romance) and this 4th book is so much harder to write. I honestly belive I am slugging away because I am paying TOO much attention to my numbers and sales and comparing them to others in my sub-genre and all that jazz.

    It’s just so easy(especially in romance) to feel like a complete failure. I’m also a slow writer because I think when I write, so not being able to crank out 6K/ words a day makes me self conscious. Anyway, I just want to say I appreciate the post and I’m saving it to look at it anytime I need a reminder to chill out.