Ten Obsessions that Murder Writing Careers


Writing is an obsession. It occupies your brain all the time. Your characters talk to you at night. Plot twists come to you in the middle of conversations with other human beings. The perfect day is spent inside putting words to paper regardless of the weather outside. Such is the life of the writer. Unfortunately, the same obsessive nature that allows writers to live and breathe their art is the same behavior that makes them easily develop hurtful practices that may hinder their career and cut into their writing time. Here are ten of those bad obsessions. Look for them and then stay away.

1. Checking Amazon rankings

Probably every author does it even while accepting that they are just mysterious numbers that kinda/sorta/maybe correlate to sales in some bizarre way. Usually, books are also available through other online retailers and, with some luck and a bit of hustle, in brick-and-mortar stores/indie bookstores, but those Amazon numbers just seem to embody everything and many authors constantly check on them and allow the digits they encounter to affect their mood. Sure, it feels good when your book hovers in the 30k-90k for weeks on end and seeing seven digits probably means that you need to step up your game, but allowing Amazon rankings to occupy mental space they don't deserve and spending writing time checking on those little numbers is counterproductive in every sense. Oh, you will keep doing it, but try to keep it to a minimum.

I wish to publish a novel that gets a million 1-star reviews on Amazon, and all of them say 'Verified Purchase" underneath the single yellow star.

2. Freaking out about negative reviews

Accept that subjectivity rules all, make peace with that fact, and move on. Think about your favorite novel. Got it? Well, I assure someone out there read it and was preternaturally angry at having spent their valuable reading time on such an insufferable piece of garbage. Such is life: a cauldron of passionate opinions in which sense and good taste are not always the main ingredients. If you read a 1-star review on Amazon, celebrate that sale and move on. Feeling sour because someone disliked your work is stupid, and so is wasting time and energy thinking about it. In fact, I wish to publish a novel that gets a million 1-star reviews on Amazon, and all of them say 'Verified Purchase" underneath the single yellow star.

3. Drama

The writing community is split on this one. One half couldn't care less about the latest issue or discussion. Kudos to that group. The other half racks up some serious word count trying to explain things or correct people online. Attempting to influence someone or change their views by arguing with them online is as useful as trying to cure cancer by drinking bleach. Just don't do it. Your opinions regarding self-publishing, Lovecraftiana, and politics are great things to have, but I'd rather read your novel than your opinions on a Facebook thread. Forget the drama and focus on the writing. The 5k words you wrote on a Saturday on an online discussion are 5k words that you did not add to your work in progress. Drama is a waste of time. This is not to say that if you see abuse or injustice you shouldn't intervene, but defending someone is not the same as wasting your time engaging in online drama.

4. Word count

If you force yourself to write X amount of words a day, fine. If you only write when the muse strikes you, great. Whatever works for you is good, but there is too much importance placed on word count. Look at your ten favorite authors and you'll quickly realize that they don't produce at the same speed. Ultimately, 200 outstanding words are better than 1000 mediocre words. Focus on quality, not quantity. Obsessing about word count keeps you from obsessing about telling a great story. Focus on the latter.

5. Losing yourself in the single-sentence microcosm

You write a line. You delete that line. You write that line again. You delete it again. You stare at your screen. You ponder the perfect combination of words. You come up empty. You try a hundred different combinations. Sound familiar? If you write literary fiction, it probably sounds too familiar. Great opening lines matter and there should always be enough superb/quotable lines sprinkled throughout the text to let readers know you have chops, but a novel is full of sentences, and obsessing over every sentence is a great way to spend a decade working on the same novel. Write carefully and edit mercilessly, but if you find yourself stuck on a single sentence for too long, think about the time you spend reading a whole page. Yeah, write that line and keep telling your story.

6. Self-criticism

Your next book will hopefully be better, so just get this one done and let a great editor work his/her magic on it for a while. Self-criticism is great because it keeps you humble and pushes you to be a better writer, but when it becomes a crippling element that keeps you from moving on, it's time to relax a bit and accept that it's okay to think you will feel ashamed of your first novel when your fifth one gets published. Your writing could always be better, but you won't make it better by rewriting the same chapter a hundred times. You ever heard a record that sounds overproduced? That can also happen to fiction. Don't become your enemy to the point that you stop yourself dead and rework the same project forever.

7. Procrastination

You need to live to write. You need to travel to write. You need to read to write. You need to get drunk and wake up in a strange town with a bloated body in the trunk and a strange new tattoo on your arm to write compelling fiction. Fine. However, if you do those things time and time again instead of writing, you're not a writer. If you do a Netflix marathon while you wait for the muse to come pay you a visit, you're procrastinating, and doing other things while you think about writing does not equal writing. Get your behind in a seat (or stand up!) and write. Procrastination is a sweet, easy vice to develop. Go out there and get it done because opportunity hates knocking on doors.

8. Constantly thinking about your own previous work

That one novel came out a while ago and everybody loved it. That one story got you an award or it was singled out in a few reviews of that anthology. How can you replicate that success? How can you once again be as good as you were that one time? You'll never know the answer to that, and your readers will feel cheated if you rehash your own work time and time again. Innovate. Move forward. Tell a different story. If you're already doing the writing thing, wake up every morning thinking there's nothing and everything left to prove. What you did is done, and hopefully what you produce next will be better. Compete with yourself, but not to the point that something in your past becomes an inescapable reference point.

9. Genre

Screw genre. There is no genre. There are no limitations. The narrative is what matters, and if folks want to put you in a box, let them do it on their own after they buy the book. Too many authors are afraid of borrowing elements from other genres because it will pull their work into a plethora of different directions. That's great: let it happen. Just because you're a crime writer doesn't mean that you need to stay within the confines of that genre. Explore. Use whatever devices you want to use. A powerful, compelling, entertaining story will get noticed regardless of genre. If no genre satisfies you, invent a new one. Limitations will keep you running around in circles, and that's an awful thing if you realize that you're the only one forcing you to play by the rules established by a genre. Yeah, screw genre and do whatever you want to do with your stories.

10. Comparing yourself to others

Part of having a successful writing career is having a great persona. Look at James Ellroy for a superb example. However, you will be much more successful if that persona is unique, and that starts the moment you stop comparing yourself to others. Stop caring about what other authors get paid, who represents them, and what their next project will be. Their success could be based on talent or on a strange amalgamation of elements that made them sell a ton of copies of a book that should never haven been published. It doesn't matter. Your writing career is about you and your work, not about them. No one will give you anything, so concentrate on your hustle and pay attention only to the things that work for you and help you reach the next step in the ladder. Everything else is inconsequential.

What do you find yourself obsessing over? How do you overcome it?

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. 

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smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. November 9, 2016 - 5:04am

Thanks. Another nice column. I enjoy your fictional voice, and now am glad to hear your magazine voice. Thanks.

You asked, "What do you find yourself obsessing over?" and "How do you overcome it?"

I find myself obsessing over the great field of cold lava that covers the Litreactor site. The past is very present, and I keep digging trying to figure out where everyone went, and why people hang around in silence instead of engaging. I understand the heating and cooling cycles of the creative nature, which extends itself to where the creative natures hang out. I don't understand the pinchy, withholding, silent obstinance that pervades this site right now. You asked I tell.

I am obsessed with the Writers Workshop. So I just keep doing reviews, and hoping to strike a chord. I am now taking a break from reviews for maybe a few more days or maybe just taking classes and dumping the workshop. But, I want  to share and write and take the lumps and get over it and get on with it. Getting over what others think about my writing has been the great gift of the past six months. Nothing is precious or treasured. It's all on the table at the flea market, nothing too good and nothing too bad, and it doesn't matter if any precious pages remain, because it is the process not the result that seems to matter.

I get over my obsessions by riding them through....punching them out, and getting pissed off and then ashamed and then reconciled that I am human. I get over my obsessions by exposing myself and sizzling  like a vampire in the sun. Dying. Going down in flames. Coming back to give it another go. Blushing. Hiding. Going rogue. Posting another piece, and reviewing another dozen or two. I get over my obsessions by asking for grace when I offend. Obsessions have a way of offending the gentlefolk. Harnessing obsessive energy to the writing is a pretty good tactic.

I get over my obsessions, by calming down and trusting my characters to take me for a ride somewhere.


P.S. Maybe it's not withholding. Maybe, there is just no one here.


Eryk Pruitt's picture
Eryk Pruitt from Texas is reading The Twenty Year Death November 8, 2016 - 11:37pm

Gabino is the SpAnish word for genius