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IWSG: Searching for the Magic Bullet

This month’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group question asks what pitfalls you’d warn other writers to avoid on their publication journey.

The best advice I can give, (other than my oft-repeated “Don’t take advice from other writers”) is this: don’t waste your money and time searching for the fabled magic bullet.

We’ve all heard about those people. The ones who write their first novel just for fun, only to have it turn into a massive bestseller. Or the ones who got laid off and started writing out of desperation, somehow building a successful career in a year or less. The ones who did everything “wrong”–wrote a bizarre query letter listing the reasons the agent shouldn’t offer representation; published their book on a public forum; left an agent and Big Five publisher to go indie–and yet became major success stories. Who wouldn’t want that kind of win?

Stories like that are what sends us straight into the arms of other prosperous authors. The ones promising that if you just spend hundreds (or thousands) on their course/program/workshop, you too will double your book sales. Or make your first million. Or go from obscurity to Stephen King-level fame. However, if one does a little poking around, they’ll discover that these authors make their money not from their fiction, but by selling courses, workshops and how-to books to desperate authors.

The expensive life coaches. The endless books on craft and marketing. The software programs that promise to choose only the very best Amazon keywords for your opus. The overpriced editors with no credentials. No matter what issue you’re having–writing too slow; writing too infrequently; poor sales; no responses from agents–there’s someone charging a ton of money to fix it for you. And when you’re a writer, and you want so desperately to succeed, you’ll jump at these offers like they’re the Holy Grail. Or a magic bullet.

The problem is, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet. Just because that romance writer makes a comfortable living publishing twenty books a year doesn’t mean you will. That sci-fi icon made a mint using Amazon’s KDP program, but that doesn’t mean you can replicate his success. Although that literary scribe got a top agent with his unusual query letter and a professionally bound book, that doesn’t mean it’s the right move for you.

It’s so appealing, so attractive, to turn to someone who seems to have all the answers in this confusing, often heartbreaking, business. But the word seems is key–no one has all the answers, no matter how much they try to convince you otherwise.

Practice your craft. Seek advice or mentorship from other writers who are where you’d like to be. Heck, read the occasional how-to book or listen to a podcast on marketing. What can it hurt? Just keep in mind that all the people I’ve mentioned in this post got to where they’re at by doing something unique. They followed their own path to success, not the one-size-fits-all Sure-Fire Book Sales Program some author is charging a thousand dollars for.

While it’s tempting to keep searching for the magic bullet, especially after a setback, save your money and time for things that are guaranteed to improve your chances of success. For those wishing to be traditionally published, a great developmental editor. A subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace. Blue pencil sessions. Pitch conferences. For indies: still a great editor, but also a fabulous cover designer and formatter. A gorgeous website. A virtual assistant to help you manage the tasks you don’t have time for.

In my experience, there’s only one secret to writing success that’s universal. Work hard, write hard, and make sure your writing is available somewhere people can purchase it. That’s it.

I know; I know–the magic bullet is sexier.

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The purpose of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. To see a full list of IWSG authors, click here.

 

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45 Comments

  1. Here are some thoughts I’d add to that:
    1. Good writers do 2 things. They read, and they write. Study the writers you love and pay attention to how they craft sentences, build plots, create characters.
    2. Never use a parent, spouse, or friend as your editor unless they happen to be a professional writer. They will never tell you the truth about what areas you need to improve on.
    3. Remember, more than anything else, story matters most. Focus on creating the best story possible and worry about grammar, etc. after the first draft is done.
    4. Create memorable characters, not 2-dimensional stereotypes.
    5. Be yourself.
    6. Don’t be afraid to write what you feel, what you want.
    7. Never pay for a contest or to get published. Those are almost always scams.
    8. Don’t be so desperate to get published that you submit to markets that don’t pay. No pay usually means the stories aren’t that good, and no one’s going to read them. You don’t want that kind of reputation.
    9. Follow the submission instructions to the letter.
    10. Have no fear. There is no such thing as writer’s block; it’s just an excuse for being afraid to fail. Get over it and write! We all fail, more often than we succeed, in this business.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for adding your thoughts, JG. Very good advice. Although I have known people with legitimate writer’s block, which is often caused by depression. If you need a break, take it, I say.

      Reply
  2. I hear you! It’s frustrating how this whole market has grown up around a writing life, promising you any number of magic bullets if you’ll just fork over your cash. Some are genuine enough, sharing their experience, but YMMV. Some are outright scams. @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, it’s almost like the dieting industry, with just as many–if not more–willing victims.

      Reply
  3. So well said. Success stories are great and can be motivational, but when you assume that they contain a magic bullet, you’re bound to be disappointed when you don’t replicate the same level of success. I see so many people despairing that they’ve followed the same steps as a six figure author, but have only sold a handful a books. If only things were that easy.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? Success stories are great for inspiration, but not as how-to guides so much.

      Reply
  4. There’s no magic bullet and there’s no one single magic bullet. What works for one won’t work for another. If there was a shortcut, we’d all be doing it. And then it wouldn’t be a shortcut anymore.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Alex. Well said.

      Reply
  5. I agree with this when the course or book promises a magic solution, however, I do think some of the books and courses give valuable insights into how certain things work and can stop you wasting a lot of time making mistakes in publishing and marketing if you haven’t done them before.
    As someone who has written this kind of book and course, I know they can help new authors – but they can only help (usually with the technical side), not give a magic formula to make six figures. These are just a side line for me though, not a five figure sum course. I make my money through writing.
    The fact is, unless you’re already a household name, a course or book can only give you pointers on where to focus your time. The hard work will still be on you and I do think some courses are kind of misleading and imply that there’s no real work involved.
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      Forgive this copied comment, but I should have done a better job in the post about distinguishing between writing books like On Writing or Bird by Bird and the ones that promise you’ll go from ten readers to ten thousand by following their E-Z steps. When I wrote this post, I wasn’t thinking of (or referring to) you or Chrys. There are plenty of people out there making thousands of dollars telling other writers how to make thousands of dollars (while neglecting to admit it’s their “non-fiction” which is earning the money.)

      Reply
  6. There are literally millions of people out there trying to be writers. Just look at the unfathomable library of self-published books on Amazon Kindle.
    There are handful of people (JK Rowling could fit in my hand, right?) who got lucky and truly successful their first time out.
    If I was banking on those odds I would rather buy a lottery ticket.

    Reply
    • JH

      Ah, but Rowling was rejected umpteen times before she made it. And how do we know that was her first book?

      Reply
  7. It’s like those “overnight” success stories. If you dig deeper, overnight often equals 10 years of really hard work. Problem is, a lot of people don’t dig – they just see the glamour not the grit – and wonder why they can’t/don’t get the same thing right away.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Madeline, and everyone achieves that success in different ways, which is why the “Do What I Did and Make a Million” books and courses are more fiction than self-help.

      Reply
  8. If only there was a magic bullet.

    I’m always surprised at how many people enter the arts with the mindset that unless they make millions they are a huge failure.

    No one goes into business, I.T., marketing, dentistry, law or any other profession with this mindset. Only the arts.

    And I know life-long actors and playwriters that make an okay living off their craft, some with a 2nd job, and are perfectly happy.

    I’m sure they’d be happier if they had a big break, but I know for sure that they would have been considerably unhappy if they never pursued their art at all.

    And there will be people who will have lived an entire lifetime pursuing their art and never have a “big break” and still be perfectly happy with their smaller successes.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good points, Tanya. Very well said. Better to pursue your art and make a little than give up on the dream entirely.

      Reply
  9. Great post! Totally agree about the deceptive lure of those books and courses. I do like reading writing books, but always with the awareness that these are, at best, recommendations. No magic bullet, and no map to follow step by step to the palace :).

    I figure my own very limited success is serving an important purpose: my son, who is another natural writer (I.e., one who can’t help himself) is under no illusions about making a living off his fiction. He is starting, instead, to look at what other kinds of writing he can do and enjoy to make money while he works on his epic fantasy.

    Reply
    • JH

      Great to hear about your son, Rebecca, although personally I wish I’d gone for a career that had nothing to do with writing. The last thing I wanted to do after writing for my day job for hours was write some more. It really slowed me down, novel-wise.

      I should have done a better job in the post about distinguishing between writing books like On Writing or Bird by Bird and the ones that promise you’ll go from ten readers to ten thousand by following their E-Z steps.

      Reply
  10. Very down to earth message. In a blog hop I did last year we had to give a piece of ‘advice’ to others and mine came down to ‘do you’. What works for one won’t necessarily work for you and that is an important thing to remember.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly. We all want so badly to succeed, and that can make us extremely vulnerable.

      Reply
  11. So true. All of it. I wish there was a magic bullet, but there isn’t That’s why in my writing book I state several times that my book isn’t like those books that say you’ll be able to sell X amount of books and all that. My book is a guide with tips that can be taken or not. Nothing works for every writer, and I try to make that clear. And I don’t expect to make a lot of money off it. I didn’t publish it for that reason. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      No worries, Chrys…I wasn’t referring to you.

      Reply
  12. First of all, I agree there is no magic bullet. But when I’m down, or frustrated, or whatever, I dream of just that very thing. Chosen from the millions of fish in the writing sea and cherished as if my writing is all that. As silly as that is, it makes feel a little better. 🙂

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      Not silly at all, Anna. Dreaming of a magic bullet is fine. Paying tons of money for it is what I’m cautioning against.

      Reply
  13. Oh yes, this is by far the best advice for writers everywhere. 😀

    I have fallen for those promises, too. Of course, nothing worked. Which was ‘naturally’ my own fault for getting it wrong. And in truth, I did get something wrong: applying writing tips and sales methodes I didn’t believe in.

    So I went my own (dangerously unorthodox) way. Only did so recently, but I’ve had more fun and more success in those few short months than I’ve had in the four years before that. In the end, everyone has to find their own way. In life and in writing.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good for you, Chris! I’d love to hear what worked for you, if you’d ever care to share it.

      Reply
  14. Great post. You said it so perfectly. There is no magic bullet and a writer’s money can be better spent than trying to follow someone else’s plan.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true, Toi. Trying to live someone else’s life is never a good idea.

      Reply
  15. Never read a “How to” book, A great story is a great story. If a storyteller believes in the story it will show in the writing, and readers will enjoy. The rest will follow naturally!

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Jim. The books/courses I’m referring to are sometimes about the craft of writing, but most often deal with marketing. And sadly, no matter how good your book is, readers won’t just find you. Effective marketing is essential, which is why these courses and webinars and books are in such demand.

      Reply
  16. AMEN, SISTA! Yes, I’ve actually pondered on this before, because my former business partner is a marketing genius where I can’t market worth a darn. She’s written a book about how to optimize one’s work-life style, but I’ve come to realize, though the idea sounds great, it doesn’t work if you’ve got my personality. Much like all those how-to-succeed books and blogs, they make their money off of the people who want their success, not their content.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Loni! As the saying goes, you hit the nail on the head.

      I once drove myself crazy trying to figure out what personality I was after reading some book on personality types and forming habits, since none of them seemed to fit. Then I realized it really didn’t matter, and also, it was pretty fishy the author only created one personality type without flaws and then assigned it to herself.

      Reply
  17. Amen, amen, amen! It’s wearing, how often an offer of writerly advice found online turns out to be a pitch for an expensive webinar or coaching service. I have a shelf full of craft books, and I take inexpensive courses through the RWA. The rest of those hucksters can shill their miracle cures elsewhere. Wishing you happy writing in August.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Sadira, and welcome!

      A common tactic is authors and/or life coaches offering a free webinar, book, or course. If you sign up, you know you’re going to get a sales pitch, and fair enough–the author is giving you something of value for free, in exchange for being able to tell you about their new offering. I’ve never minded that too much, as long as the advertisement portion didn’t go on and on. But now, instead of offering something of value for free, half the time all you get is an advert for the new offering. Sometimes it’s cleverly disguised as useful advice, but often all it is is a painfully obvious ad.

      Reply
  18. The closest thing to a magic bullet it the ability to throw a million dollars into marketing like the big boys do. And that is certainly no guarantee either.

    Reply
    • JH

      Nope. If it were, every author published by one of the Big Five would earn out their advances.

      Reply
  19. Great advise! Who doesn’t want a quick fix, a magic bullet? But I agree. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We all have to do our research – the same way you would research a product viewed in an advertisement…make an informed decision! Wishing you much success & a great week!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Sandra. So true–research, and not making decisions on impulse, are key.

      Welcome to my blog! Hope to see you back here again.

      Reply
  20. I don’t think I could like this post enough. Almost all the “writing advice” I’ve ever been presented with has been ineffectual for me, which doesn’t make it bad advice, just not the best advice for me. I’ve had two writing mentors in my life who have put me on what I feel is the right path. Both of them where extremely honest and upfront about my skills and weaknesses. I owe them both so much.

    As for publishing advice, well I can’t really speak to that…YET…But soon enough.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, that’s the problem–what works for one rarely works for all, and a lot of these amazing success stories–assuming they’re even true–happened because the author was the first person to try that particular tactic. There’s a great book called Unmistakeable: Why Only is Better than Best that explains why one person will be a huge hit on YouTube, but all that person’s imitators will not. Same concept applies here.

      Reply
  21. Well, rats. I bought the gun and everything. I liked what Madeline added about digging deeper and finding those hidden years of hard labor and rotten result.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, someone mentioned on this post about J.K. Rowling succeeding with her first book. But how do we know it was her first? Most authors’ “debuts” are not the first books they wrote.

      Good luck with the gun! 😉

      Reply
  22. I don’t believe in overnight success, but I still wish for it. I haven’t given up on finding a unicorn yet either 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Sure, one can always dream. Why not?

      Reply

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