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.