6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

We’ve all done it.

We write what feels like the most heart-wrenching, glorious, meaningful story ever put into words, and we polish it until it’s as beautiful as a rare seashell. Then we hand it around, to our writing workshop or critique circle or peer group or dedicated readers, and we sit back and wait for the compliments to come pouring in (“How did you do it? I felt like I knew these people! I’ve lived your story a thousand times in my heart! Your metaphors, exposition, insights—I am humbled! You’re so brilliant, I just want to shake your hand and give my keyboard over into your vastly safer keeping. . .”).

And what happens instead?

Those ingrates come back with suggestions.

“Really?” they say with the most perfect deadpan faces. “This is what you’ve been up to? Honey, they’re starting a knitting class down at the Y next week. Maybe you’d like to sign up? I understand John Steinbeck was a great one for knitting.”


How do we keep shooting ourselves in the foot?

  1. Hand it out without waiting for it to cool off

    This is my personal favorite.

    I love doing this one.

    By the time I’ve finished a rewrite, that darn manuscript is so hot it’s jumping right out of my hands. It’s not my fault. My words are simply on fire.

    (Flaubert did it, too. And his friends made him set his manuscript on fire.)

    You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel? “I love this paragraph.” Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified. I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”

    Let me tell you, you do not EVER want to hear your agent, of all people, say those words to you. Wowza. Trust me on this one.

  2. Neglect to read other books

    Decades ago, John Prine said it: “Blow up your TV.”

    And he meant it.

    And he was right.

    Far, far too many aspiring writers these days are trying to write fiction the way they see storytelling done in television and in movies. But fiction isn’t screenplay. The page isn’t film. They’re not the same medium.

    Yes, it sucks for everyone that reading takes more effort than watching a flickering color screen, and when you come home from a long day at the office (and on the subway or freeway or bus to and from the office) it’s easier to pick up the remote than it is to pick up a book.

    Nobody’s forcing us to do this work.

    If you want to write fiction, you have to read it. It’s just like riding a bike—nobody ever learned how to do that by sky-diving.

  3. Ignore sensible feedback

    I know. You’re on the cutting-edge of fiction, misunderstood by your contemporaries, corrected and insulted by your peers, dismissed by the same kind of people who refused to read Emily Bronte, Jean Rhys, and Jane Bowles. Probably the very same people. Those cretins never learn.

    Yeah, they misunderstand me too. I’m going to be dead five hundred years before anybody gets me.

    But in the meantime, I’d better make an effort to roll with their feedback, at least for show. Even cretins sometimes luck into a good piece of advice. Just because they wouldn’t take it for their own manuscripts doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take it for mine.

  4. Neglect to research writing advice

    And this one’s really hard, because not only is there a ton—a super-condensed black hole ton—of writing advice floating around out there, especially now that the blogosphere has turned everyone with a keyboard and a thoughtful expression into an aspiring writer. . .but a great great great great good deal of it is crap.

    Of course, if you’re still aspiring and not an experienced long-time professional in this field, you have no idea what’s good advice and what’s crap.

    So you dutifully read it all, try like heck to sort it into some kind of logical sense, and synthesize it in the deeper, darker, slimier recesses of your poor overloaded brainpan.

    And it’s like trying to reconcile the houses of Lancaster and York, goddammit. You can’t do it!

    Somebody is simply wrong.

    I know—I did all that during my apprenticeship to the craft, too. It was hell.

    That’s why I do what I do now—putting so much advice out there free on this blog and my advice column and making so much of the basics available cheap through my books—because I want you to get the rudiments you need in order to judge for yourself what out there is really useful and what is nonsense being passed around by folks who want to be gurus more than they want to be adepts.

    There’s a lot of ’em.

    I don’t make my living on this cheap and freebie stuff. I make it behind the scenes, where the vast majority of you never even know it’s going on, in editing the individual manuscripts and the emails and conversations I work on all day every day with individual writers. (Only my clients know, and they are extremely gracious about the time I spend on the freebie stuff for everyone else—hi, guys! This is me waving at you!)

    However even if you can’t afford to hire me, I still want you to know what you’re doing. I’ve been alone in the world with my stories and dreams and words and typewriter and my empty bank account, with no decent advice to rely on for years and years.

    I know what it’s like. I’ve lived that way, I’ve suffered, and I swear—I feel for you guys.

    I do.

  5. Neglect to take it

    But this one’s your fault. If you read nothing on craft except what you can find right here in front of you right now, on my blog (and there is a whole lot of other fabulous advice available to you out there—Flannery O’Connor, John Gardner, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Raymond Chandler, E.M. Forster, Jack Bingham, Dave King and Renni Browne, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera), there is enough here to put you on the right track and keep you there.

    You simply have to do the work.

  6. Try to improve upon the greats

    And this is where fanfic meets lazy because, I’m sorry, guys, Elizabeth Bennet is not improved upon by turning her into a potty-mouth 10-year-old’s ignorant joke on the tribal elders. You know why Austen’s characters are still vivid and present and oh-so-enticing to all of us out here with lesser talents 200 years after they first appeared on the page? Not because she made them shocking or gruesome or her era’s equivalent of marketable or racy or edgy. Not because she had a fab agent or an in with a good publishing house or a really killer blog. Not even because she won the 18th-century lottery.


    Because she learned her craft.

    That’s all. And you can do it, too.

And in case you’re hopping around on one foot now, since you’ve just shot yourself six times in a row (ow, my foot!), take comfort in the 5 Things All Writers Always Overlook.

18 thoughts on “6 Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

  1. Nate Wilson says:

    Steinbeck wasn’t bad, but Hemingway could knit like nobody’s business. Also, I feel bad for your first agent, having to wade through your fiery manuscript like that.

    Excellent advice as always, Victoria. And wow, for once I’m doing everything right! (It’s easy to do #1 when nothing you write is cool enough to hand out for critique.)

  2. I started writing novels, then had a chance to study with Syd Field and took it and got involved with romantic comedies (screenplays). Now that I’m writing novels again, I found that at first my writing was too sparse. I was counting on the camera recording everything to me. Adding all the descriptive details that make the story come to life are coming back to me, though. A lot of screenwriters can never make the transition to novelist, but Alan Brennert is doing wonderfully, and so are some other former screenwriters I know. It just takes study and work, work, work.

  3. Nadia Damon says:

    No.1 is my greatest fear. I’m a very impatient person – something that lends itself to journalism, but not to novel writing. I’m have to force myself to sit on chapters for a while, but I’m always glad I did it during the inevitable edit.
    Thanks for some great advice. :o)

  4. Kathryn says:

    All true of me. I was getting low on toes before I found you.

  5. Victoria says:

    If it makes you feel any better, Kathryn, I’m going to post a piece in a couple of weeks on the 2 Guaranteed Ways to Ruin Your Novel, and you have never done anything even remotely like either one.

  6. Victoria says:

    It’s true, Nadia, journalism is great for those of us with more words in us than patience. I was a newswriter and editor for many years. Whack ’em on the back of the head to make ’em cough it out, snatch it away from them before they can think twice, and run it through the editing & fact-checking mill. Presto! News copy. That was my technique. My writers loved it because it gave them more time to hang out at the local tavern, but they did wind up with kind of sore heads.

  7. Victoria says:

    Gabrielle, it all takes work, work, work. Screenwriters are excellent candidates for novelists, though, so I’m surprised to hear few of them make the transition. You guys know all about audience expectations, and that’s the core of all great storytelling. Plus you have a ton of experience in fiction essentials like snappy dialog, unexpected actions, and always, always forward motion of the plot. You’re a zillion times further down the professional road than the majority trying to break into fiction these days.

    And I love Syd Field. Wow! What a wonderful education, studying under him.

  8. Victoria says:

    Aw, Nate, believe me, it’s so much harder when your friends are actually lighting your matches for you! 🙂

  9. Melissa says:

    okay, surely I’m not the only person who read this post and wondered, “if her first novel was so bad, how did she GET her first agent?”

    Just found your blog and I’m enjoying it!

  10. Fred Miller says:

    No. You’re not, Melissa. I wondered the same thing.

  11. Melissa and Fred, I know a person whose written a very bad book (flat writing, unbelievable characters, etc.) who has agents clamoring to represent her simply because her material is topical and it’s her true story. Now, editors probably won’t buy the manuscript as is, and this woman doesn’t know how to fix it because she has no experience in writing, but a lot of agents out there want to be the one to represent her “just in case.” (I don’t know about you, but it kind of makes me groan.)

    Regarding Number Six, I can’t wait until novels like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” go out of style. No, I did not read it and would not read it. The title along is insulting enough. Poor Jane Austen. To think anyone would believe they could do better than she at a comedy of manners.

    Working with Syd is wonderful, Victoria. I don’t know anyone who has a better understanding of the screenplay than Syd. I think a lot of screenwriters fail to put themselves in the place of the camera and then write what the camera shows. Many books from former screenwriters will be dialog heavy, but not really in a bad way. I know my first (unpublished) one is, but I think the dialog is good dialog. I worked in the romantic comedy genre and that genre contains more dialog than any other. And working in screenwriting is great practice for learning to work within a structure. It makes adhering to the novel’s three-act structure much easier than someone who’s never had to write withing that structure before.

  12. layinda says:

    I knew there was a reason that I put your name under “Literary Wisdom” on my blog roll. Great advice, as usual. 🙂

  13. Victoria says:

    You guys. It wasn’t a terrible novel. It was just a really good premise in early draft that had at least one paragraph that showed my stuff. (And I exaggerated that—she loved more than one paragraph.) She knew I could write that novel, she just didn’t know how to help. And she stuck with me. We didn’t part company until I had the baby and signed away the next few years of my life to full-time milky spit-up and toilet issues.

    That’s why I’m a fiction editor now. Because I went out and learned how to help writers get from that really-good-premise-in-early-draft-with-a-paragraph-that-shows-your-stuff to a publishable novel.

    But all great novels start out as a really good premise in early draft. Nobody’s going to publish that early draft. It’s just where they all come from—that’s all.

  14. Victoria says:

    Thank you, Layinda! I’m going to ask my husband to call me that from now on.

  15. Pauline Fisk says:

    You mentioned Annie Dillard. Nobody in the UK seems to know her. Her ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ is one of my top ten favourite books. To anyone who reads this comment, GET IT. And to anybody who hasn’t read her book on the writing craft, GET IT TOO. It truly is sublime.

    Flannery O’Connor, though. I know her novels and love them, but can somebody tell me what she’s written on the subject of being a writer? I’d love to read it. If you know, leave a post on my website, paulinefisk.co.uk.


    1. Victoria says:

      Mystery and Manners, the essays of Flannery O’Connor collected and edited by her close friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald after her death.

      The emphasis on Catholicism notwithstanding (I am not Catholic), this is my favorite book on writing ever.

  16. Pauline Fisk says:

    Thank you so much. I’ll chase it up.

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