Two mistakes novice writers make before setting pen to paper – and how to avoid them

Some mistakes crop up before you type the first letter of your manuscript: conceptual mistakes, errors of attitude and approach. Find out here about two biggies.

Don’t chase yesterday’s trends.

Many people don’t realize that yesterday’s publishing trends only reach the public today. A book will hit the shelves months or years after it sold. What editors look for now may lie worlds away from what you will find in your bookstore or on the silver screen. Also, as Robert McKee points out, publishers and studios face a flood of copycat scripts after any breakaway hit:

“[Fledgling writers] will look at the hits, they’ll look at last summer successes, or even the independent films, you know. … I’m sure that after a film like “Boys Don’t Cry” got out, Hollywood was inundated with interesting little small stories of small town characters in some kind of brutal sexual relationships.… On the other hand, Avatar of course and films like that spin loose imitators [as well].”

By the time your work finds its way to the desk of an editor or agent, she will have faced a flood of knockoff scripts based on recent hits. They are last year’s news, and the people you want to impress now hunt for the next big thing.

Partly this stems from seeing writing a get-rich-and-famous scheme. Robert McKee again:

“And so they will be more concerned about selling than they will about creating, and the attitude often of young writers, or wanna-be writers for the screen is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my shit is better than their shit. And so, they want to get made, they want success, they want to be in the movie business, and so they will imitate whatever they see, assuming that because of awful stories like ‘Transformers’ get made that they just have to find another toy at Toys R’ Us and imitate that and build a movie around it.”

Cory Doctorow also had a thing or two to say on this last point: Don’t assume that you can get published just because you find a lot of garbage out there. Thinking “I can write better than that” is a trap. You have to compare yourself to the very best in order to improve and get noticed.


“Bestsellers are completely unpredictable and you certainly don’t manage to be original by looking over your shoulder.”

– Emma Donoghue,

Do market research first

This may sound contradictory to the premise “Don’t chase yesterday’s trends” expounded above. But this is why you should do research, to make sure that your work is actually different enough to stand out from what has already been done and find a niche in the market.

There are two times when this is essential.

  • When pitching a nonfiction book. If you are producing a nonfiction manuscript, you are wasting your time unless you are certain that there is no book available that is essentially like yours. Even a very good idea will never see publication if the idea is already taken.
  • When pitching a fiction book. You want to make clear where you think your book would find its place in the market. You can compare your book with others, making clear both the similarities and differences. Don’t say you are the next J. K. Rowling or Stephen King, but find a similar author and explain how your work is similar to, and different from, theirs.

Comb Amazon for works similar to yours, and be ready to explain why yours is different and why there is a market for it. If Amazon checks out, look at Books in Print, too.

Try to balance these two points. Know the market, know what you can sell or not. But also look inside yourself, know what you can get behind, as a person and as a professional. Your passion will show through. Find a common ground where these two forces overlap.


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