Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

The Many Deaths of a Fiction Writer

A Sort of Look At Tombstone Markers…

I’ve been thinking about trying this post for a year or more now, but this last news about the agent ripping off 3.4 million from writers (at least) brought this back to the front. So I’m going to try it.

The idea is simple. From my position of being around for 40 years, liking to watch other writer’s careers, and editing and teaching and interacting with writers now for over thirty years, I have seen what flat kills writer’s careers.

They are always, and I repeat always, self-inflicted wounds.

And one note before I dive into this. Those of us who have survived a long time came back from the dead many times along the years. We managed to survive some of these deaths and return. Most writers don’t, which is why there are so few long-term writers compared to the millions who claim they want to be a writer and stop themselves along the way.

So staying with the metaphor of writing death, here we go.

Death One… Talking about wanting to write but never finding the time. (This wipes out millions and millions of want-to-be writers.)

Death Two… Never finishing anything because of a host of critical voice reasons and perfectionism disease. (This wipes out more millions.)

Death Three… Never getting anything, or much of anything in front of readers because of mostly false fears. (And even more millions are gone right here.)

Death Four… The rewrite myth has firm hold and nothing is ever good enough. This plays into both two and three above. (This alone kills millions every year.)

Death Five… Book doctors, workshops, and agent rewrites. This myth makes writing such a pain and no fun that the writer quickly stops because they believe they just aren’t going to ever be good enough.

Death Six… Writing sloppy first drafts because they can be fixed later. Most never fix them later and fixing a sloppy draft is fifty times more work than writing it well the first time. Most writers do a few first drafts and just stop because writing is too much work.

Now, from here, we are down into more fine-tuned issues that only take out thousands instead of millions of want-to-be writers.

Death Seven… Worrying about sales numbers on something completed or worrying about rejections or worrying about what a reviewer said. All are quick death to the creative voice and the writer quickly finds it too much work and stress to continue trying to write.

Death Eight… Getting in a hurry and having expectations that are not in line with any reality of the publishing industry. This usually toasts writers in two, maybe three years. Seldom longer if they can’t change the attitude of being in a hurry.

Death Nine… Early success. Only seen one or two ever survive this for longer than five years.

Death Ten… Writers who are lost in the traditional world being dropped by their publisher and not being able to sell another book. You find these writers on panels at conventions or sitting in the bars complaining to other writers. Maybe one out of a hundred survive this and either jump to indie or change names and keep writing.

Death Eleven… Being screwed by an agent in one way or another. At best this takes years from a writing life, at worst the writer quits. Most quit. (This new theft news by one agency is going to cause many writers to just walk away from writing.)

Death Twelve… The writer got some good money for a time and believe it will continue. The writer increases spending, spouse quits day job. In other words, the writer sucks at long-term thinking and good business habits and when the money stops or slows down, the writer quits.

Death Thirteen… Bad contracts. Writer signs a bad contract or two and loses books and gets discouraged and quits. (Example, writer signs a bad contract, book made into a movie, writer gets not one extra dime for the movie. Happens all the time. A few writers have survived this one, but more have not.)

Death Fourteen… Believing that writing fast is writing poorly, so in this new world the writer can’t learn how to pick up speed enough to hold a reader base. Sales never happen much at all and the writer quits discouraged.

Death Fifteen… Not bothering to learn how to write sales copy or do genre-appropriate covers for your books in the indie world. Few if any sales follow and the writer gives up in short order.

Death Sixteen. Keeping books exclusive or not bothering to get books out to every reader in every format possible. The new market is worldwide now, in electronic, paper, and audio. Writers quickly get tired of the grind of only having one cash stream and soon burn out.

Death Seventeen… Excessive use of social media for promotion. Might last for a short time, but burn-out sets in quickly and writing is not fun because it is only being done for a market.

Death Eighteen… Major family issues derail the writing and it feels far, far too hard to restart, so the writers just don’t, even after the family issue has cleared. This is a really tough one that has taken out some wonderful writers. (This was one of the ones that stopped me for a time.)

Death Nineteen… A project gets too big. The writer is overwhelmed by the vastness of the project or the series and just stops writing because the entire thing feels like far too much work. Long-term writers get past this by moving to other projects, but this stops more writers than I want to think of, killed by their own imagination and project.

Death Twenty… Anything that makes writing work, including a bad attitude or calling writing work or trying to write to a hot market or trying to rewrite a book to make it perfect. This one colors all of the above. The moment writing becomes work is the moment the writer heads for the door.


There are, of course, many more. And many of these fade into one another. If you have one issue, chances are it is playing into other issues.

Over the 44 years since I sold my first short story, I hit bottom and quit four times, all because of one of those reasons above. Why am I still around and writing and having a blast with my writing? Because I eventually identified what had stopped me and fixed it and got back to enjoying writing.

Every major long-term writer I know hit bottom a number of times along the way and just kept going, fixing the issues and moving on.

All major long-term writers I know love to write, enjoy the process, and still find it challenging and fun.

But along the way I can’t begin to count the writers who seemed to be doing fine and then just quit, never to be seen in publishing again. Sadly, Of the two-hundred plus writers who have come though the in-person workshops, hundreds of them are now gone as well, chased out of writing by one of the twenty reasons above, or combinations of the above reasons.

So I hope this list of tombstone markers along the road to a long-term career will help a few survive and keep fiction writing fun.

I don’t expect it to help. But I had to get it out of my system.



  • Bea

    I think I’m stuck in Death #Nineteen. I started writing a story, no plotting, writing into the dark…it’s a fantasy and I reached over 190,000 words and stopped. It sounds ridiculous, but I got scared, thinking, “This thing is never going to end,” and wishing I had made some kind outline. You mention starting other projects. Do you suggest I drop this for now, start something else (I do love short stories), and then maybe go back? I’d love to finish the fantasy novel, but I feel so overwhelmed and frankly, unequal to the task.

    Thanks for the rest of the list, by the way.

    • dwsmith


      Finish it. Your critical voice got in because you listened to people who thought that might be too long. In this indie world, it isn’t too long. So kick out the critical voice and just write the next sentence and finish it. Always time for short fiction when the book is done.

      One interesting thing you will discover if you follow my suggestion is that your fear is in finishing, not in it not finishing. Your fear sets firmly on what will I do next and what will I do with this book when it is done. So you are actually almost done. That’s how the critical voice got in, on the back of the fear of finishing something. So write the next sentence and finish it.

      • Bea

        Okay, and thanks. By the way, when I saw the title of this post, my first thought was, “Trust Dean. He’s coming out with another series I can’t wait to read.

        Well, the title is definitely catchy.

      • Eduard Meinema

        With that many ways to die (and relive) as a writer, I guess many of us truly are Zombies…
        Any way, Bea, your doubts about how or when to finish are shared by many writers and visual artists. I love both writing and painting; had my doubts about finishing artworks too. Way back in 2014 I found some quotes by Jackson Pollock (the ‘dripping’ painter) and Brave New World writer Aldous Huxley (read my blog: Apparently Huxley is not a ‘dripping-fan’, as he stated “these drippers can go on for ages”. Now the question about finishing is identical to all art forms. It’s up to you to decide whether it’s finished or not. Whenever you think your painting needs another layer, go on and put on some extra paint. If you think your story needs more words, go on: do the writing. If not, make it a short story, flash fiction, or, heck make it a postcard tale! It’s up to you. You can cut your 190k story into 2, 3, 4 or who knows how many slices. Publish and sell it chapter by chapter or create an oldfashioned encyclopedia size story. The decision is yours.
        I prefer to do it all. Writing a ‘full length’ story (approx. 70k words); meanwhile working on one or two short stories. And whenever I’m fed up, I go into my studio and start painting; or challenge my daughter by writing a new chapter in our YA series. But hey, that works for me, anyone else will have to find his/her own way. Basic line is: it’s all up to you. You write and decide. The reader doesn’t know where it will end. You decide. (Although I am often surprised by the way my characters seem to decide the end of my stories all by themselves too….).
        Upon my desk I have this quote of visual artist Keith Haring. About a year before he died, he said: “No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone. And it wouldn’t matter if you lived until you were seventy-five. There would still be new ideas. There would still be things that you wished you would have accomplished. You could work for several lifetimes… Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it’s going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.” (From David Sheff, “Keith Haring: An intimate conversation”, in Rolling Stone, August 10, 1989, p.51).
        There you go. Why bother about a tombstone when there are so many great ideas to work out; and you still have the time (and chance) to work them out? Do what you want to do!

  • Linda Maye Adams

    I’ll add one of mine: Listening to the other people and not listening to yourself.

    This one almost got me.

    I start writing when I was eight. I picked up a pencil (given I had no typewriter at the time) and just started writing. I passed my stories around to my friends. Those who could draw illustrated them, and one story had like three different illustrators. It was a blast.

    As I thought about writing professionally, everyone around me, even non-writers thought there was really something wrong with the way I wrote. I should outline. I ignored it for a while. And then, on the first novel, I got stuck at the 1/3 point. There was nothing in any craft book that I could find that that addressed why this was happening. I was panicking because this was the only idea I had, so I thought the story was flawed in the beginning, so I went back and revised. I didn’t know what the problem was so I was breaking the story rather than fixing. But I read every craft book I could lay my hands on…and I still could not get past that 1/3 point.

    So this goes on for many, many years. I begin to think the problem is subplots. I somehow can”t get them into the story. Enter cowriter, a friend who was also writing a book. Let’s team up! he says. He’s good at subplots (he wasn’t) and bad at characterization (a strength for me). Great fun doing the writing. We were actually able to finish the things. But I saw some warning signs of something for that first completed one that I ignored (very bad idea). We realized that we had too many characters after about 80 rejections and did a redraft. Cowriter locked into perfection hard. He kept wanting to fix the first chapter, claiming something was wrong with it, but did not know why. As I pushed to get the book done, this time, he started picking fights and turning really nasty. I was shocked. We had the book in an agent’s hands when the relationship self-destructed. Years later, I posted more in-depth about this story and Dean said it was fear of finishing. Cowriter had it really, really bad.

    It was a big hit when I gave up the book (which I had done most of the work on), and suddenly realized I was back to square one. In assuming cowriter would fill n my strengths, I still had the same problems. I managed to get a 50K book done, but it was a struggle just to get it up to that word count, and it wasn’t fun. I got too focused on word count and started watching as every change reduced words. It was very frustrating. The internet had really taken off, so I posted questions on message boards on how to fix it. I got cheery things like “Just add a romance!”–like this was a magic fix, or that I needed to outline.

    I started taking a lot of workshops that were available. The thirty dollar ones. I didn’t catch that they were for beginnings just dipping their feet into the water. My attempts to solve the story problem broke it worse. I finally broke down and tried outlining. It was shocked at how broken the story got. Other writers literally told me, “Then you’re not doing the outline correctly.” The story was so much of a mess that I was ashamed to show anyone to see if they could help me solve the problems. I was a better writer than the story was suggesting. In hindsight, that was probably a really good idea. Everyone would have said the reason it was a mess was because I was pantser.

    I hit a point where I’d run out of everything I could do. I thought I could never write a novel. But I took Holly Lisle’s class on revising your novel. She’s an outliner with an extremely structured process. I was glad I tried it out because it gave me a piece of the problem. I found what I called at the stubs that came into the story at random points. They were my signs my creative brain was trying to do something, and it was just throwing it anywhere because there was no room for it.

    I finally started understanding that I shouldn’t be touching outlning. So when I took classes, I asked, “Do you teach pantsers?” The instructions always said, “Sure! We teach both outliners and pantsers.” After I started to push back with questons during the classes, ti became really apparent that “We teach both,” was “We expect you to outline to do the material.” I was really gunshy when I ran across Dean’s site and asked him if it was pantsers. And he said he was one. Yowsa.

    Thanks to the productivity class here, where I had to do a list of all the junk I picked up along the way–and I think I shocked Dean with the length of the list–I finally understood what the actual problem was. I’m a natural pantser. If I introduce any form of outlning at all, it breaks the story. The more I add, the more layers of complexity it adds on top of what was already in the story. But the majority of the craft books and all those other classes could not separate craft from process. So everything that was recommended assumed outlining. And worse, there are some specific things recommended to pantsers that is outlning, and even the pantsers recommend it (plot points, knowing how your story ends).

    I had to dump everything I learned and go back to square one. But this time it had a proper focus. I’ve completed four books, and they were fun to write. I’m working on #5…and tackling an area I thought never possible…historical. I’m struggling a bit with “I’m going to get this wrong!” But it’s okay and expected.

    • dwsmith

      And what folks really should take from Linda’s post is her attitude about never say die. She was going to figure it out no matter what. 99.9% of all writers would have quit well before the point that Linda found her solution. Which goes to show a positive I didn’t say. They key is to never quit. Keep working at it, trying to find what works for you.

      So thank you, Linda, for that. Very, very much appreciated.

  • Ashley R Pollard

    They’re all good reasons to quit.

    Some people just don’t quit. Some learn from their mistakes. Some people never learn.

    I’m not sure I will survive, but I will certainly try.

    As Heraclitus said, “A (wo)man’s character is his (her) fate.”

    • dwsmith

      Yes, the key is to learn and stand back up and make writing fun again. Most of these deaths cause writing to be torture and thus why writers quit. They can’t seem to figure out how to make writing joyful and fun again.

  • Anonymous

    Medical problems like chronic pain?
    Jealousy of other writers. (Not a problem for me, but I’ve seen some people get really worked up about this.)

    • dwsmith

      Oh, yeah, that one is a killer as well. And that turns into anger at other writers who did nothing to you. Kris deals with that a lot because she is successful and people who don’t know her seem to hate her for it. Strange to watch. But we know they will be gone shortly. She’s been dealing with that since before she became the editor of F&SF.

  • Jason M

    VERY useful. I’m going to save this post. I’ve been wrestling with Death Seven for a little while now, but ironically have picked up more ghosting work than ever before, so the slowdown in sales doesn’t sting quite as bad. Nonetheless, I’m not doing many new words of my own (maybe a couple thousand a week), so it’s good to hear someone to say that you can overcome these little deaths.

  • Linda Jordan

    Fascinating post. Apparently, I’m on my ninth life. Hit every one of the early ones–except early success. I think I’ll keep this one. The worst thing is the time I’ve lost and possibly wasted in not writing. In my early 60’s and I’m feeling like I’m just getting started. So many stories I need to tell. I just hope the energy and time hold out.

    • dwsmith

      It will, Linda, if you add in some exercise if you are not already doing that. I didn’t really start over until I was sixty-one and have over a hundred novels since then, plus who knows how many short stories. Key is to make it fun.

  • John Meaney

    Dean, this does help, and is a post that could save a writer’s writing life when one of those writing deaths is looming.

    My first novel appeared here in Britain 20 years ago. Last October, I hung around with writing pals who first got published around the same time, all full of woes like me (my own being at least partly from deciding to write two non-SF/F books which my agent thought were great but couldn’t sell…. yes, I used the A-word!). Except that my mood wasn’t gloomy – it was determined.

    Since December I’ve indie-published 4 books, with more imminent, having escaped Death Ten and the threat of Death Five. At least one of the writers I talked to was well placed to follow suit, but overwhelmed by the learning curve.

    I’ve had a lot to learn myself over the past year, and the most valuable advice has come from your books and Kris’s books.

    Thank you both. Many times over.

    (And writing continues to be a wild, adrenaline-filled ride. Or maybe it’s just the coffee…)

    • dwsmith

      Wow, great to hear, John. Thank you for being one of the survivors. Great to hear because I see so many that don’t.

  • Philip

    Dean, can you elaborate on 8, being in a hurry? Do you mean people who expect to be a best seller overnight?

    Yours on a roll with great posts this week. All great stuff and I suppose the inverse of each of these deaths is a path to life as a writer.

    • dwsmith

      When a writer is in a hurry, they expect that they can write a lot of stuff quickly, get it all out quickly, and then quit their day job. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way.

      Learning the craft of storytelling is a long-term and never-ending process. It takes time to write stories that readers will enjoy enough to suggest to their friends. Doesn’t mean that the first books should not be out there. But before levels of sales can be reached, it takes a level of craft and story-telling ability, combined with learning how to do blurbs and covers.

      What happens when a writer has expectations that do not match reality, they get discouraged, try to find short-cuts, end up frustrated and quit. This usually comes about also when there is financial pressure on the writing.

      True fans build over time. And that time is always longer than five years.

      • Linda Maye Adams

        I think this one point is where all the junk advice comes from. The book becomes a big event so it must be absolutely perfect. The writer researches every detail to death because they don’t want the 1% of the readers who might now the fact to call them out on. Then they write the story, racing through so they can get to the revision where the “real work” happens. They post it online for other beginners to critique, and change everything based on their comments. Revise, critique, repeat. Then they send it to a developmental editor who has more comments, so another round of revisions. Then they pack it off to a diversity editor and another round of revisions. At last, it’s done, and it’s off to agents, who all give form rejections. The writer grows bitter because the system is obviously broken. All they needed was to get the manuscript in front of the agent. Maybe they go to a writer’s conference and slide the thing under the door in the bathroom. Finally they indie publish. A reader gives them a one-star review, and the writer publicly melts down, demanding it be retracted.

        Writing good fiction really is a long-tail goal because there are so many things to learn. You have to really like creating stories, because even if the story never gets published because your pacing was off or your depth was lacking, you can still say, “But I had a blast writing it.”

        • dwsmith


          Wow, what you described I have witnessed so many times it scares me. Exactly, detail for detail, sad author one after another. And not a thing anyone can say to those authors headed down that death spiral. They won’t listen. The myths are so strong and they have so much invested in the myth. Well described. Thanks!

          • Janine

            And worse, fellow writers tell each other that “you only debut once, so that first book better be perfect and polished, otherwise that’s the end of your career.” Indie authors are falling for the big hyping up the debut novel, big blog tours, months of promotion leading up to the release, emulating the style of traditional publishing almost to a T. They put so much pressure on themselves and leads to what Linda said above; they expect the first book to be master craft quality out the gate, when that probably takes a long time of writing new material to get there. You’ll probably not get to that point if the writing is hard work though, but if you relax and learn and grow, you’ll get to master class quality eventually.

          • dwsmith

            When I restarted novel writing seven years ago, Allyson at WMG asked me if I wanted to promote my books much and I said no, I just wanted them out. Stealth published. That way I didn’t fall into any pressure and could just let the writing be fun. Now that I have a bunch in different series, they are starting to do promotion and first in series and such. Now watching that is fun as well. But it would not have been without the stealth publishing to start of the first fifty or sixty novels.

            Most would never have the patience to do that, though. (Grin)

          • Anon

            Stealth publishing. I like that. That’s what I plan to do (at least until I have a long backlist).

          • Janine

            I haven’t heard the term “diversity editor”, but it’s likely the “sensitivity reader”, which has been popping up especially in the last few years. Dean talked about in a blog once or twice, but as I understand it, you pay someone from a certain background to read your story to make sure it’s not offensive to people of that background. I think he put them in the same class as the “book doctors”.

          • Linda Maye Adams

            Tony, the editors are a result of the push for more diversity in fiction. They’re called either diversity editors or sensitivity readers. Basically if you put a character of a different culture in your story, you’re “supposed” to send it to a diversity editor to uncover any hidden bias or anything offensive that you may have written into the story. And there’s always been people who are looking to be offended. So the result is that you’re given control of your story over to other people and letting them tell you what you should be saying. Very dangerous trend.

          • Kate Pavelle

            I’ve read it said that it’s “absolutely necessary” to send your book to a sensitivity reader if you write a character that’s not of your ethnicity, sexual orientation, background, etc. They are essentially self-appointed censors. If you want to throw your hard-earned royalties at censors, be my guest, but being censored is not why I used to bum around Europe as a political refugee from a Communist regime 🙂 (Yes, I write characters of all colors and cultures, and I do my own research. Those self-appointed arbiters can bite me.)

  • Janine

    *raises hand for death #5*

    Things were going fine for me (not counting falling for death #6) until I was told I must workshop my novels “since critiques are the best way to learn and to improve the story and your craft”. They usually didn’t say “workshop”, but they talked about “critique partners” and “beta readers”, the latter you covered in you Sacred Cows series. It was usually phrased in a phrase to make your novel polished and perfect and that it wasn’t any good in it’s current form. I fell for it and what I usually got was negative comments everywhere with little, if any, positive uplifting thoughts about my writing and believed that I had no writing strengths. I lost faith in my writing and stories, thinking my writing was never good enough and that readers only wanted to read one style of writing and I couldn’t offer the style or the stories.

    After I was stuck in the workshop loop, I stopped finishing anything, always stopping part of the way thinking my stories were awful and wanted to avoid stuff, so that’s deaths 1-4 and off I was, regressing. Thankfully, I rediscovered you and Kris’ blogs otherwise I was finished. I’m still in recovery though against death #5 the most, but I’m having the most fun writing in some time.

  • Leah cutter

    Yup. Been there. Had a few of those deaths. Only completely stopped writing a few times, generally with life rolls. Always got back up again. Most recent was chronic health issues. Didn’t stop, but slowed way down.

    And forgave myself for it.

    Last month I hit pulp speed one – 92k words for the month. Am planning on maintaining that for now.

    Until the next life roll happens. (^_^)

    Just gotta keep getting back up.

    • dwsmith

      Leah, that is everything, the getting back up. That’s why I said all of these deaths are self-inflicted wounds. The only way to fail at writing is to stop writing. When one of these hits, you take a deep breath, get through it, learn from it, and go back to writing.

      Sadly, most don’t. And these things become tombstones marking the death of their writing dreams.

  • Marion

    I feel like I’m currently dancing with #18 with a new baby and other issues. I understand the problems with perfectionism, that’s a huge personal struggle, and I’m trying to write into the dark, but how does one do this with a historical novel? I know that I need to research the history to get the facts right (or at least I feel I do because it annoys me to pieces when a novel gets the facts WRONG) but how do I do this without outlining and knowing what I need to research?
    Doesn’t help that this is my first long fiction work, but there’s a WW1 story that just won’t get out of my head, so I need to write it!

    • dwsmith

      Marion, you write something that doesn’t need research while you do the research on the historical novel. Honest, your creative voice is fine with that and it allows you to not use research as an excuse to not write.

      Some projects require research, most don’t. So write one that doesn’t to give yourself time to research.

      Also, the 20 second expert is a great way to deal with small details. I run into a detail I don’t know and is important, I spring up from my writing computer and go to my internet computer (different computers and desks) and look up the detail, jot it down on a note, then go back to my writing computer and put in the detail. Research in twenty seconds.

    • Annemarie

      In my experience, you can truly loose yourself in research. And then you want to put everything, you learnt, into the book, because the time you used for research had so much worth. And you end with info-dump.
      But so many things, you won’t reallly need; only you don’t know it before writing. Therefore I stop myself from further reseach, once I have the big picture. And look for more information, when I see, I really need it

      Adn then, Dean, it mostly takes more than 20 seconds, when you write historicals: Did they have some sort of newspaper at Naples (Italy) in 1647? I first had to find someone, who knew who would know that, then send him a mail, then …

      • dwsmith

        Agree, Annemarie, that sometimes it does take more than twenty seconds on a detail. When I realize that, I ask myself if I really need that detail or if I can write around it. Often, not always, but often, I can write around it.

        But realize my attitude comes from being a pulp writer. We get paid by the word. If I can use a big word (that I need to look up how to spell) or four or five small words, I use the small words every time. So on this each writer is different.

        And yes, I once had a story completely stopped on a detail that was going to take some time to get an answer to. So while I was waiting for an answer, I wrote another, different story.

    • Chrissy Wissler

      I’ve finally just moved out of the baby stage and toddler stage with my two kids (5 and 3), so your comment really spoke to me. And that toddler stage? Wow, talk about the year you *never* sit down. Last year I finished my first historical mystery novel and I’m not finishing up with the second. But that first one? I was terrified to try because of just that: getting all those details just right. I took both the Writing into the Dark and the Research Workshop and finally decided to say screw it. I had the tools I needed to write the darn thing. I knew the history. Might as well jump in and just do it (terrified the heck out of my critical voice). It turned out my creative voice already *knew* all those little details from all the reading I’d done for years and I just picked up the ones I was missing, quickly, as I went along. And often, I didn’t know what detail I needed until I got into the writing. Just have fun. If your creative voice isn’t playing and giggling like your new little baby does, then it’s a good chance the critical voice has found its way back in to stop you. (I found Dean’s lecture, Restarting Your Writing, HUGE for when I was just getting back into the writing after having kids.)

  • Dave

    I suffered from deaths 1, 2,3 and 4 until I found your blog and read your sacred cows. After that I started writing into the dark and published 4 books already this year since February.
    But I was getting hit by death 7 and worried about low sales which met I was headed into death 8 by trying to hurry things up. I didn’t really understand what you met by that in the post until I read your clarification to Phillip. Then it hit me!
    Seeing these tombstones is great to know what dangers and pitfalls to avoid. Thanks for the post, Dean! As always, great stuff!

  • Harvey

    If anyone else out there needs one narrow focus they can return to as a writer, just remember Heinlein’s Rules.My copy is annotated with Rule 6: “Just write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence.”

    I first learned both from Dean. (First lecture I took.)

    That plus hearing that “even” Dean falls off the rules occasionally and has to climb back on was more than enough to get me through every life roll and every appearance of the critical mind. Every one.

    • dwsmith

      If those rules were a horse, I’d have a ton of broken bones I’ve fallen off so many times over the years. The stupid things look so darned easy and are so hard to stay on. Four just kills me. In fact, right now, I have yet again fallen face first to the ground on Rule Four. I have almost fifty short stories and two novels stuck on four because I just haven’t gotten around to putting them into a Smith’s Monthly and getting them out. Fell off four again. Climbing back on shortly.

      • Harvey

        Wow. A couple of weeks after I finished about the fourth novel back I suddenly realized I hadn’t even created a cover for it. That was a shocker to me, as I had been very structured (and fast) in getting the grunt work done after the story was finished. So I did it.

        At the moment I’m in the middle of writing another novel. And your comment reminded me I haven’t published my previous novel yet. I got to looking and realized I also haven’t published my previous 11 short stories. Just doesn’t seem important somehow.

        But I’ll do it now that I noticed. (grin) Maybe after I finish the current novel.

        • dwsmith

          Fell off #4, huh? (Grin) When you have fun writing and just want to tell stories, Heinlein’s Rule #4 gets tough.

  • emmiD

    Wow. I hit a lot of these deaths over the past 30 years. Clawed my way out. Gave up writing when I kept being rejected (romances not romantic enough, fantasy not magical enough). Then I hit a really dark time that lasted about six years; my mother’s last years with dementia and I was her primary caregiver. You know what got me through the dark and her death? Writing.

    When the sun came back out, I tried agents and traditional publishing with no result. Then the indie revolution hit. It took me a bit, but I finally understood this meant me! I decided to go for it. My sales are minuscule, I obviously want to sell more, but you know what? I’m happy with my writing for the first time in years!

    I think it’s the people who lose sight of what they love about writing who die and never revive. Thanks for the list. And for the heads up on the 3.4 mil down the drain. Reinforced my decision to stay indie. Finding you and Kris again (I knew of you from very afar from the F&SF years) has been a boon. Thanks for sticking with writing and sharing, always sharing.

  • Ross Lundberg

    I’ve hit a few of these, but I’m determined to continue this time. I belong to a large writing forum and I see all the things you talk about both here & in the Sacred Cows. I see the self doubt of new writers, the “critique* circles, the absolute groveling people are willing to do to get validation, etc. Bravo! Thank you so much for this blog!

  • Jamie

    Uh, oh. I’ve just started in with #20, intentionally thinking of writing as my “full-time job”. I had been loath to do so because, instinctively, I know what you say is true – making my writing “work” will kill my joy.

    Yet, I want to have a writing career, not a writing hobby. I’m finished with “dabbling” here or there, publishing now and then to “see what happens”. I want my writing out there, being read, and I want to make money from it. How can I do this if I don’t focus on making it a “job”, prioritizing it as my “job”, putting it in an important place in my life the way I would any other “job”?

    Is it a change of perspective I need? Perhaps the writing itself is not “work” but the marketing, distribution, etc. is?

    • dwsmith

      Jamie, yes, division of labor or as I like to call it, different hats. When I am writing, I never think about selling or marketing or any of that crap that indie writers think important. I just write for the joy of telling a story. That is play.

      Then when I have a final product, and as my creative voice moves on to a new fun area, my work part steps in and does the work of doing covers, blurbs, and getting the finished story out there to readers. So yup, keep the writing fun and play, let the production and marketing after you are done become work.

      • Jamie

        Thank you for that encouragement. I had the pleasure of viewing one of your appearances on The Creative Penn today In which you talked about this very issue. So, when I read this, I could almost hear you saying it to me in your voice. Fun!
        Anyway, I am very impressed that you took the time to personally respond to my post. Thanks so very much.

  • Kate Pavelle

    I’ve toyed with several of these. Early success was one, and I thought the money would just grow in a natural progression, like a chemical reaction. (Not really 🙂
    So I regrouped and went indie, and a year later I had some quick hits, which resulted in #12.
    I regrouped from that, too, and now I’m wrestling with #20, calling writing “work.” My husband works from a home office as well, and we try to keep each other honest on productivity, so that’s what we call non-entertainment. I keep reminding him not to call writing “work,” but it’s an easy default. I have to actively remind myself that visiting my world is a special treat and a lot of fun, and that I want to know what happens next. That always helps me turn the bend, but it’s a daily struggle in face of the financial fallout from #12.
    Thank you for the list, Dean. I’ll stay vigilant!

    • dwsmith

      Kate, about the only thing that is consistent in the fiction writing business is that income will be inconsistent. Ups and downs and ups and downs and sometimes no logic to any of it. That’s why the long term writers are master money managers. The ones that aren’t are forced out by the pressures.

  • Laura

    Every time I start to feel a little depressed like I’m doing something wrong, I come back to this website. I have to thank my parents for making me as stubborn as I am or i would have given up already. My ideas tend to be so niche that for a lot of them I can’t find similar books on Amazon, at all. Because of that, everyone keeps telling me that I won’t be able to make money and that I need to start writing romance, but I don’t want to. I want to continue writing my weird stories.

    One thing I noticed that helps me a lot is writing fast. Anytime I slow down, that’s when the voices of everyone starts to get to me and I consider quitting but I hate leaving a project unfinished so even if I don’t necessarily like how it’s going, I’m going to finish it. One book I hated when I was writing but looking back at it now that I’m trying to get it published, it really wasn’t half as bad as I remembered it being.

    I realize that most of those problems is a lack of discipline. I had two wisdom teeth extractions in May (and I heal slowly so we’re thinking 3 weeks out of the four I was on painkillers) and I still got a 52k word book finished. True it has some grammatical errors and I have a list of details that need to be added in (I was writing too quickly to go back the same time and add them in) but 52k of mostly clean words while high on painkillers.

    I may not be writing very popular types of books but I realized that I can comfortably write a book a month, while binge watching foreign dramas. I’m up to 11 finished books so far (5 written this year alone) and working on getting them published. If I can’t win by popularity, I’ll kill it with shear numbers of good clean stories. I’m hooping to complete at least another 5 by the end of the year.

    Wish me luck!

  • Janine

    Another death, which sorta plays into #4: Grammar correction apps. First instinct for many writers is to run their manuscript through grammarly or some other writing app, since “nobody wants to read a book with bad grammar!” Especially since they are so easy to access nowadays. Some years ago (has to be 7-8 years ago), I showed some of my writing to some friends, and the biggest complaint that still sticks to me is that the characters sounded too formal and mature (I was writing first person of 14-16 year olds) and didn’t seem realistic. Not long after that, I turned off my grammar correction, since it was only hurting my voice and my stories. We don’t (usually) use proper grammar in our day to day lives, so why should our characters unless it’s a part of their character? I think Kris brought this up in her post about “Serious Writing Voice” which I recommend reading if you haven’t.

    Oddly enough, as of late, nobody is complaining about my teenage characters sounding too formal and/or mature for their age, but they nitpick about the word choice and grammar being “incorrect”. Funny how things change in a few short years.

    • dwsmith

      And Janine, one of the signs that you have moved into more of a professional stance is when you stop listening to everyone. Not a person matters except you for your writing. It is part of being a professional, not letting anyone in, defending your own work.

  • Dixon James

    Personally I’m not a big fan of Frank Zappa’s work, but i am a big fan of Frank Zappa. And that guy was prolific. Known for his wild creativity and steady output. When he was just about to die of prostate cancer he asked for his keyboard because he just had a few ideas to work out. He diddnt care that he would never develop them properly or perform them! It was the joy of the creative process. He just wanted to play. Thats how i want to be. I want to come right down to being in the moment of that creativity,not caring what people think or worying its not good enough. That,and i want to make a living. Because that is living on my own terms,just like Frank Zappa did.

    • dwsmith

      And when writing is fun and joyful and part of who your are, then you can get to that state. I personally love it, writing for fun, writing for the joy of telling stories to myself. I have never once said it was easy to get to this point, which is why I am always trying to help writers move toward it.

  • Elena

    Fantastic post thank you so much for sharing. I write for children and the obstacle which I keep coming up against is the opinion of the schools, teachers, librarians and parents versus the child my story is written for. Kids love all stories… even badly written ones. They are amazing at enjoying the creative part. And will openly complain when they don’t like something, but they’re so honest about it and then move on to continue the story. Hence I’m a little stuck (but will definitely overcome) death #7 namely getting those detailed and nasty 1 Star reviews of how much my first novel sucks. Well I guess it does, but it’s also a great story if that makes sense, because my imagination and creativity never get anything wrong. I need to get better at craft, but I did a fine good job the first time around. The kids that have read it, enjoy it. But the teachers and librarians love realism books – not fantasy, so getting past the gatekeepers as a first time author, who’s not traditionally published is so hard. So many more millions of Indie children’s book authors quit. Even traditionally published ones. I’ve had friends who now write adult fiction who are so relieved to have left kids fiction. But something in me doesn’t want to give up. I read middle grade fiction and I want to write it. I’d like to make real money from it one day, but who knows if it’s possible.