10 Mistakes Writers Make with Their First Book Before They Start – Part 1

It doesn’t matter if you are writing fiction or nonfiction, are traditionally published or are venturing into self publishing, it is a big deal to finish your first book. With self publishing, we used to say there are more things that can go wrong with no guiding hand, but that is not true any more. There are all kinds of experts available and most of their advice we hear repeated ad nauseum: hire a professional to do your cover and your editing. But there is so much better book writing advice to be given well before your final draft and even before the first words are written. These are ten mistakes we have found authors repeatedly make well before they finish their final drafts:

1) Everything and the Kitchen Sink.
2) Why just one book?
3) Story, Story, Story.
4) Going Deeper: Character Development and Personal vulnerability.
5) Read and Research the competition.
6) Who is going to read it? Writing M.
7) Your Process. Outlining or Pantsing or both?
8) Do you need to do actual research too? Health book. Historical Fiction, etc.
9) Marketing vs. Passion.
10) What you forgot to include: You.

I am going to go into the details of the first five of these mistakes and save the next five for next week’s post. But the first five are pretty important so listen up from someone who has seen a lot of first manuscripts and outlines that were doomed.

1. Everything and the Kitchen Sink

I know this mistake because I made it with my first book to a large degree. I tried to make it the best book in the world and therefore I also tried to include everything in it. It wasn’t just a book about success in life, it was about success in careers, success in love, etc. It was about recovery from broken hearts, divorces, bad bosses, bad decisions, etc. You see the problem I am sure. The focus and range of topics was too large. I was warned about this and ignored that good advice. Why? Because I could see all the interconnections. I am told this is a common female trait because we see how everything relates. I would buy this except that after working in publishing for so many years, I saw just as many male authors make this mistake with their first book. I am told hoarding is more common in men but demonstrated by both genders.

The problem isn’t making the connection the problem is that readers want more focus. They go seeking a single focus. For non-fiction it is usually to solve a problem. They don’t want everything and the kitchen sink in one book, so don’t produce a hoarder book. And if you think this is true only for non-fiction readers, it isn’t. Fiction readers can get confused by too much clutter in a plot line and give up. A writer has to know what the single mission is and return to it constantly throughout the book. Yes you can have sub plots, details, tangents and intrigues as long as you go back to what I call the through-line, regularly, and make it the strongest mission, you are good.

This tendency to want to put everything and the kitchen sink into your first book also stems from another problem first time writers have, and this is mistake #2.

2. Why just one book?

Being first time authors we are so incredibly grateful to have some ideas and material for one book we do not really think about the fact that we might have several books in us. That is another reason we put everything and the kitchen sink into the first book; we think we have to. We think this will be our only opportunity. I even bought my first domain name because it was the title of the book (a domain I long ago dropped). Now I know, buy the domain name for the author, that means your name or pen name.

If I had to do it over again I would have made my first book into three. One for Career. One for Love. One for Life in general. Do you know what we call that? A successful book series! That is gold. But as with many others I thought all books had to be a certain quantity of words. Three books would be daunting! I thought then. In fact, readers love books that focus and give quality information, quantity is less important. Since learning this, I rescued many a first time author from manuscripts that were up to three inches thick and got them breaking it into multiple books and working on a quality series.

3. Story, Story, Story

This mistake may seem like it is just for fiction writers but it is not. Just like real estate is driven by location, location. location, all books should make as its priority story, story, story. If non-fiction authors are just producing data or ideas without stories or case studies the chances for engagement by their readers goes down drastically. People share great stories. Stories go viral. Stories make people feel, for good or ill, that they can accomplish something, or that something can happen to them. Given the psychological and addictive power of stories (and anyone who has binge watched any kind of series on Netflix knows this), why wouldn’t you learn what turns a plain story into a good one, and a good story into a great one. This is a skill that all writers need to learn, relearn and listen to feedback about how to improve. This they should be prepared to learn before going too far down their manuscript path.  Not because all is lost if they didn’t but you will have the pain of knowing you wasted time and effort when you could have had something better  by having a better sense of what turns a story from good to great. Usually this is conflict but it also has to ring true, it has to fit. Fit what, you ask? On to Mistake #3.

4. Going Deeper: Character Development and Personal vulnerability

In order to write well, for fiction and non fiction, you have to convince readers that what you have is real, authentic and true. No problem, you say, I have a real, authentic and true story. Maybe you do, but chances are you are being like most first time authors and skimming the surface. Whether it is your own personal, true story, or you are hiding behind–I mean using–fictional characters in a fiction genre, most first time authors don’t go very deep and readers will sniff that out quickly. In fiction I see most first time writers creating heroes and heroines that are ego ideals. People without flaws are not only unrealistic they are boring. That’s why almost all of the beloved genius characters from Sherlock Holmes, to House, to Sheldon Cooper are also eccentric as all get up. Great heroines are not often the girl you can take home to mother. They are flawed, feisty and fabulous. Warning: they can still be flawed, feisty, fabulous and still flat. Why? Because the essence of a character is in their back story, their origins, and most of all their vulnerabilities. More than just a “dropped in” flaw, you have to know the character’s psychology for every movement they make. If it comes up inauthentic readers will know. That is why to coach fiction writers we go deeply into character development and how it works with story. It will ultimately shape story.

And don’t think the non-fiction writers are exempt from all this work and vulnerability. They are not. A great non-fiction writer told me that every reader has a secret wish to get to know the author. The real author. If you deny them that pleasure, if you just give the pleasant facts of your life and skip over the times you were left with the proverbial egg on your face, if you think you can move people with just a resumé of facts, then you will learn the hard way that successful authors get down in the muck before they raise themselves up.  Everyone loves a comeback story but you can’t skip around how bad it got, or how wrong you were before you got right. Suck it up princess time.

5. Read and Research the competition

When someone first comes to me with a half written, fully written or even an idea for a manuscript one of the first questions I ask is have you read the competition? Some people look at me like this is a weird idea. Most sheepishly admit they haven’t even looked for what’s out there on their subject or genre. And some are well versed in their genre and have read everything under the sun on their subject. Guess which ones I want to work with? It just makes sense, doesn’t it. Yet, there are plenty of people who are moving on an idea or a story or a whim without having a clue what’s been done before. It’s true that they may fluke out and have something untainted and new, but often that is not the case. Even if it is the case, it doesn’t make it easier to prepare the way for readers if you don’t have any reference points. Go get versed in your genre. Learn what readers expect. Learn what is successful now. Learn what was successful but is out of date now (but maybe could be updated). Learn what you have that is unique and could be a selling point if you know how to describe it in a way that will get your readers interested. And this ties into our next mistake, #6, who is going to read your book? Subscribe to get this and the other five mistakes first authors make even before they start delivered to your email inbox. Also, Learn more great tips from master writing coach Kathrin Lake at her Mexico Writing Retreats rated as one of the best writing retreats 2019.  One of the few retreats to provide one-on-one coaching as well as working in a group of inspiring, like-minded writers.

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