Columns > Published on January 15th, 2020

20 Mistakes I Made Writing that You Should Never Do … But I Would Probably Do Again, If I Started All Over

20) Writing this post.

See, I got to 19 and figured it was smart to make it an even twenty, but then I looked through the list and thought, “Why am I confessing to all this, even in a semi-comedic meta-cognitive reverse psychology format?” Twist beginning: This is the mistake! It probably won’t really help people and might only be mildly entertaining. What good can come of this or any of it?

Maybe writing at all is the biggest mistake in writing. You hear me, Church? Can I get an “Amen?!” There are a billion smarter and more responsible things to do. Even honorable things to do. There are better dreams. Struggling actor = better. Struggling musician = cooler and gets laid more. Struggling writer = pompous asshole, sad English major, or Millennial cliché ruining it for the hardworking ones who joined the army or are working on a cure for cancer. Which type of struggling writer you are or who your favorite author is depends on age and genre. But writing this article, well, now I have to face which type I am. As a hint, I’m too old to be a Millennial, and I didn’t major in English. I’ve written a ton of these kinds of articles and blogs, too. But, whether it is a mistake or not, I’m about to do 19 more of these entries for this ironic listicle, so I’ve learned nothing. Maybe you can do better.

19) I wrote multiple stories where rooster sex played an important part in the story, requiring me to research rooster sex a bunch of times because I never kept the notes from my previous rooster sex research.

Just because you haven’t heard of my rooster-based fiction doesn’t mean I am not the leading expert and master of rooster sex fiction. That being said, I have not actually sold a story with rooster sex as a major story component. I know. I’m as shocked as you. I sold a story that was all dialogue tags, adverbs, and a mirror scene. I sold a story that was all tell and no show with a nameless character. I have a zombie story in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, but my rooster sex research has gone nowhere. I got no idea what makes a good story or what is going to sell. When I research some half-baked idea and turn it into a mess of a story, sometimes it gets the poison out, so I end up landing on a better half-baked idea later. But whatever you do, don’t do this.

18) Trying to become proficient at multiple genres no matter how many times I’ve screwed up bizzaro and weird fiction stories.

I did okay with steampunk, although it took me a while to figure out the tricks that made it work. I don’t like writing romance, but I’ve ghostwritten a ton of it and know how to make it work for various markets. Cthulhu mythos baffled me for the longest time, but I landed a few pro rate sales on that. I’m still struggling with bizzaro and weird fiction. I cannot get the hang of this very specific artform. The anti-rules of it make it tougher for me to go after regardless of how many other genres I’ve made money in. I wasted a lot of time trying to expand my toolbox in that direction, but I’d still be psyched to write a story for it that works. Maybe one day. But don’t try it. Stick with what’s easy for you. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

17) Writing cross-genre and finding out sci fi fans who like time travel stories do not like extreme horror mixed in with it.

You should see me trying to sell Time Eaters at a convention table. I can see the point where people reading the back of the book get to the time traveling cannibals part. When someone says, what is your weirdest book, I hand this one over with all its five- and one-star reviews. Extreme horror might fit into sci fi if done by a masterful writer, but fans of time travel stories may be the least open to this type of invasion. Two great tastes that taste weird together. That being said, I opened the book the other day and looked through a couple scenes. I did better with the prose in there than I remembered. In an alternate timeline, I’d still release it. When it catches on, I’ll erase this article and write about my own visionary genius.

16) Joining the Horror Writers Association.

I’ve written on this subject a lot, so I’m not going to shit on the HWA again. Maybe a little bit of a spray fart, but no shit. I find the organization terminally insular and almost immune to opening up to advertising the horror genre to actual fans and readers. This results, in my shitty opinion, to ever tightening circles where the money and energy goes into the center with less and less benefit to outside circles. I am friends with members who disagree and can make their case for why I am wrong. I just don’t feel there is any benefit from the money spent on dues which can’t be gained outside the HWA without the dues. Author Brian Keene was one of the most vocal critics, and he has rejoined to give them a second chance, like a man remarrying the woman he already divorced once because she was crazy. But like I said, I’m not trying to shit on them. I guess you can’t trust a fart. I might be open to joining some organization again. I don’t know. I think she’s really changed this time.

15) Building the foundation of my career on zombies.

You see “no zombies” in submission guidelines alongside no rape, no hurting children, no racism, no hurting animals, etc. There are millions of zombie books on Amazon. It is the white noise of horror subgenres. I started out writing zombie short stories, and a zombie story was the first one I was paid for. I’m in the shadow of more successful zombie writers with more authors taking up every niche around me every day. I’d still write about zombies and still will, but you shouldn’t. You’re smarter than that.

14) Going to a bunch of conventions.

I went to a few conventions where I made pretty good money. I went to more where I didn’t. I’ve had a couple near shutouts. I’ve gone to some that were great one year and dead the next. At most conventions I sit there with no one knowing my name next to other authors no one knows. Or worse, next to the guy everyone wants to see, and their line blocks my table. Or next to the guy selling Deadpool pillows, and he has an emotional support animal, so no one pays attention to your table. I’ve learned some and I’ve met some people and networked a little, so I would probably waste the money again.

13) Pulling back from going to a bunch of conventions.

I got sick and had to pull back from a lot of things. I love quitting things. Quitting is my favorite part of starting anything. I saved money by not going to conventions as much. I miss the interaction though. It is tough to pick a good one. I want to get back out there, but I didn’t lose anything by taking a step back for a while.

12) Waiting so long before writing a novel and waiting even longer to start a series.

My career could be much further along if I had done both of these things sooner. Or I’d probably be in the same place. I learned a lot by writing short stories before a published novel. I learned some things by writing standalone novels before a series. I kind of want a few more standalone pieces now to sell, too. I’d do it the same way again, but you should start sooner.

11) Agreeing to take over the Summer/Winter of Zombie blog tours or really saying yes to any extra work from anyone ever.

Holy smokes, was that a lot of work. Most of the authors I worked with on the tours were great. And then there were the ones who got shitty with me when I reminded them they had to share posts, and they acted like I threw a bag over their heads and held them for ransom by asking them to do what they agreed to do. I got some exposure and some sales. It was time for me to quit hosting the tours, though. As of writing this, I haven't told the people I needed to tell that I wasn’t doing them anymore. I’m using the publication of this article as motivation to break the news to them.

10) Trying out Kickstarter, trying out Patreon, trying out direct sales from my own website, trying out merchandise, trying out mystery boxes, trying out a Youtube channel, trying out a bus tour (God, what was I thinking?), trying to write music to go with a zombie story, and maybe trying out putting electrodes on my junk because I heard one guy one time made a sale by doing it.

Yeah, I attempted all of these things and more. Patreon is making me a little steady money now. The mystery boxes were a minor hit, and I was able to make the margins work in a way that is tough to replicate, so I kind of got that cornered. I did make a CD of 5 songs which are part of the Dead Song zombie universe. I’m not very talented as a musician, but I worked with people who were. I’ve actually had people come up with a CD they bought and had me sign it. Other things I threw at the wall did not stick. I got other people involved and wasn’t able to deliver. I’ll still be throwing things at the wall and dipping my toe in new waters. I probably wouldn’t try the bus tour thing again.

9) Neglecting my own writing in order to ghostwrite because I wanted to pay my bills on time like a bitch.

I would still be writing zombie short stories if Bags of Money Press dropped a million dollars on me and told me to write whatever I wanted for the rest of my life.

I would probably have many more novels written in my own name if I hadn’t done this. It was sure nice eating and not having to go to a day job though. I did learn a lot of skills from writing a range of stories I would have never attempted on my own. I have a bigger toolbox now. I don’t recommend this soul-sucking underground writing path, but I would do it again and probably sooner, too.

8) Accepting royalty deals in ghostwriting … Stupid. So, so, stupid! Except for a couple times it worked out, but still, so, so, stupid.

This is beyond dumb. I’ve discovered a rule about freelancing, ghostwriting, and probably the universe in general. People who pay you the least demand the most. This scales right down to people who want to pay you nothing and treat you the worst. If a person paying you to ghostwrite believes in their ability to sell the work, such as romance novel millhouses, pornographers, or alcoholic midlist writers with contracts already signed for books they don’t want to write, they will pay you well and keep the profits from the work they sell. They will come back and pay you well again. If they don’t believe in their ability to sell the work, they will offer you royalties. It is always a terrible idea. It never works. Don’t do it. Ever! Except it worked three times with ghostwriting for me. That is three times out of hundreds. I stopped taking those ghostwriting deals years ago, but one script and two book series paid out for me. If they had decided to screw me out of the royalties, I would have never known the difference. So, I made money off some of these stupid deals, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a terrible idea with a higher frequency of terribleness than most terrible ideas in writing which is a lot!

7) Not releasing audio books because I didn’t have the money to pay the narrator and I didn’t want to screw them over with the royalty cut deal … like a bitch.

I have a lot of readers who say they wish there was an audiobook version of my books. I only have one audio book out with one publisher. None of my self published works have them. I planned to, but didn’t have the money. I could have done the royalty split. A lot of the better narrators are moving away from that and are charging straight hourly, and rightly so. It is a screwjob otherwise. Though I have readers asking, it’s not enough to pay an hourly rate for a narrator. Maybe someday. Maybe I should have taken advantage of what the market offered. I still wouldn’t go back and do it differently though.

6) Starting a podcast because that’s what all the cool kids were doing … AND starting a podcast as I was getting ready to have a kidney transplant.

This will probably be canceled soon because I don’t consistently keep up my numbers. I got lots of listens when I started the podcast right as I was going into the transplant. Recorded a few episodes before surgery and a few more after. The going theory at Project Entertainment Network is that I was more interesting when I was dying. So, I’m trying to get more interesting and get interesting guests each week without having to die to boost ratings. It probably would have been smarter not to do it, but here we are, and I’ll keep going until they fire me.

5) Piling a bunch of my work with one publisher early on until that publisher imploded leaving ashes and sorrow in its wake.

Lots of authors have done this with publishers better than the one that imploded on me. Hazardous Press published my first novel. The guy who ran it treated me well, although I never met him or heard his voice. He wasn’t the best at editing, and he was really bad about not communicating for weeks or more at a time. But he paid very well and consistently for a long while. He paid for me to go to conventions. This turned bad when he started publishing pro anthologies with big names and they did not take kindly to him going dark on communication for extended periods of time. They went after him, and he closed shop. I had a lot of work without a home I should have spread out to other places. I diversify now, but I’d probably still ride the wave of a publisher who wanted my work like that again.

4) Writing for markets that don’t pay.

As the saying goes, exposure is something you die from; it is not a form of payment. You know what gets you good exposure? Getting your work published by people who pay the writers. That’s great exposure. Submitting to nonpaying markets is something almost every author does at some point, but probably none of them should ever do it. It feels good to get something “published’ early in our careers, but we forget the value of actually getting paid for our work. It was a nonpaying charity anthology that got my Dead Song short story noticed and into Best Horror of the Year volume 5. Still, I’m serious, you guys. You shouldn’t write for nonpaying markets. It debases the whole industry that already pays badly most of the time even when it does pay. 

3) Not writing what I love because the market didn’t support it.

I would still be writing zombie short stories if Bags of Money Press dropped a million dollars on me and told me to write whatever I wanted for the rest of my life. I started writing other stories in other genres and horror sub genres to try to get some traction with my writing. This is when I found out I loved more things than I thought. Brave writers with integrity stick to what they love, but I learned a lot from doing things that scared me more than any love I felt for them, even if it was partly about chasing money.

2) Writing what I love because I want to no matter what the market says.

Some of the best horror novels I’ve written have been with Armand Rosamilia. We tackled some tropes I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to exploring on my own. I love the books and stories I’ve written – most of them anyway. I got tied up in my own stuff and needed an outside influence to push me into new directions. Sometimes it’s good to do just what you want to and sometimes it is good to try out a few other things. Marketability isn’t a bad thing to keep in your head, too.

1) Quitting my day job with only a dream of writing horror and zombie stories as my master plan for not starving to death and shaming my poverty stricken family.

You should never do this. You will not make enough money to live. I mean, I have for several years, but quitting your job is a dumb idea. You think you will spend more time writing, but most of the time you find other things to do, and you might not even write more than you did when you had the day job. It is difficult to make money. It is difficult to get your work noticed. Even when it does make money, it is irregular and highly unreliable. I’ve become friends with well known authors who have made the bestseller list more than once, and they talk about how after that achievement, it was like starting over again. They “made it” by most people’s standards, but they are still grinding out a living just like me. So, you should not do it, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing since I quit teaching to become a full-time writer except that maybe I would have done it sooner.

About the author

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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