The writing world is filled with land mines—lies that, when you step on them, blow you right off your creative feet.
I've stepped on all of these in my writing career, and every author-friend I know has set them off, too. That tells me they're pretty common.
Lies Writers Struggle With
I want to help arm you against these painful, dangerous explosions, so I present to you seven lies that writers believe—and the truths that can help you get back on your feet.
Fair warning: this will be a very quote-heavy article. Why? Because I don't want you to just take my word for it. I want you to see that all creative minds have to navigate these mines—including the best authors in the world.
Lie #1: If you haven't made it/gotten an agent/become famous by now, you never will.
This is a rough one. When we finally get the courage to start writing (and *gasp* tell people that we are), a funny thing happens: for some reason, others forget everything they know about how skill training works, and they insist we should have “arrived” already.
Baloney. Does anything work that way? Even people with genius taste buds need to learn how to cook. Being “discovered overnight” is an enchanting fantasy, but it's a dangerous myth.
Here's the truth: just like getting in shape, climbing a mountain, or memorizing a symphony, writing takes time to master.
Sam Sykes said once that no matter who you are as an author, you pay your dues at one end or another. To put it another way: it takes many years to be an overnight success. Maybe you haven't “made it” yet. That doesn't mean you never will.
“An overnight success is ten years in the making.”
― Tom Clancy, Dead or Alive
“Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”
― Biz Stone
“It takes 20 years to make an overnight success.”
“Actually, I'm an overnight success, but it took twenty years.”
If you haven't made it/gotten an agent/become famous by now, you aren't out of time yet. Keep writing. Keep reading. Don't quit.
Lie #2: If you don't know how to write your story by instinct/experience/magic, you lack the “natural talent,” and should just give up and find a new career.
I actually encounter this one fairly often, and it always baffles me. The people who say it are invariably frustrated writers—they tried and gave up, or they have the “best” book idea ever, but lack the courage to begin. It's as if seeing us walking on the “write” path drives them crazy, and they pop out of the bushes to throw discouragement in our faces.
Here's the truth: just like with playing piano, learning to cook, practicing calligraphy, or anything that involves skill and beauty and imagination, learning to write well means tackling a lot of learning curves.
“We write every day, we fight every day, we think and scheme and dream a little dream every day. manuscripts pile up in the kitchen sink, run-on sentences dangle around our necks. we plant purple prose in our gardens and snip the adverbs only to thread them in our hair. We write with no guarantees, no certainties, no promises of what might come and we do it anyway. This is who we are.”
― Tahereh Mafi
“You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.
That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
― Octavia E. Butler
“Anyone who says writing is easy isn't doing it right.”
― Amy Joy
You won't start out writing great stuff. You won't even necessarily like what you write for a long time. That's normal. The creative gap is a scary one, but it can be overcome if you don't give up.
Lie #3: Your idea/project/book/series is too big for you, and you'll never be good enough to write it.
This one plagues me all the time. See, as people who love words, we know what good words are like. That means when we start to write (and, as Ms. Butler eloquently said, it comes out crappy), we feel really discouraged.
We know the idea is good. But it seems like we just don't have the skill to make it reality.
Here's the truth: if you had the idea, then you have the raw talent to write it—just like you had the talent to think it up.
No matter how strong you are, you still need to work out to build muscle. Even if you have a skill for swimming, you'll never swim the English Channel unless you practice, practice, and practice more. Even Wolfgang Mozart had to learn how to read music and write for various instruments!
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
“It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that [creative] gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
“Writing—and this is the big secret—wants to be written. Writing loves a writer the way God loves a true devotee. Writing will fill your heart if you let it. It will fill your pages and help to fill your life.”
No matter how much talent you have, you have to take the time to hone that talent. Don't quit now. You're just getting started.
Lie #4: Even if you try your best, you'll never write as well as/be successful as [insert author name here].
Ah, the danger of comparison! There may be no more deadly poison than this for the writer. Not only is it pointless to compare ourselves to other writers (who have a different style than we do because they're different people), but we always seem to compare ourselves with folks who've been writing for decades longer than we have!
Here's the truth: if you don't give up, if you keep learning and growing and writing, you will find your own voice…and it will be solidly good and uniquely yours.
“The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that's not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we've sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
“No writing is wasted. […] If you bake a lot, your kitchen will become a happy home to wild yeasts, and all your bread will taste better. Even a failed loaf is not wasted. Likewise, cheese makers wash the dairy floor with whey. Tomato gardeners compost with rotten tomatoes. No writing is wasted: the words you can't put in your book can wash the floor, live in the soil, lurk around in the air. They will make the next words better.”
“Keep scribbling! Something will happen.”
— Frank McCourt
“Writing is a difficult trade which must be learned slowly by reading great authors; by trying at the outset to imitate them; by daring then to be original and by destroying one's first productions.”
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good.”
The more you write, the more you'll figure out your style—just like the more you paint, the more you figure out just how you want your colors mixed. Or the more you cook, you'll learn which spices to use, when, and how much. It takes time to develop your own voice and find your own path, but in the end, you'll be glad you did.
Lie #5: You're too old to start now; you should've started young. You missed your chance.
This is a nasty one, especially when we see some young person who managed to “make it” at a relatively early age (that would be the “overnight success” myth). It can feel like we had to try during some magical period of time in our youth, or else we're just too old, too slow, and too set in our ways to become what we ought.
Here's the truth: you're never too old to learn to write. Ever.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder and Frank McCourt were both first published in their mid-sixties.
- Raymond Chandler didn't get published until was about forty-five.
- Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame) didn't get published until he was in his fifties.
- Mary Wesley wasn't published until she was 70.
How do I know you're not too old? Simple: do you still love to read? If you can still enjoy a good book, then you can still learn to write. You still have the good taste and sense of story necessary to recognize a tale told well; that means that in time, you can learn to do it yourself.
“You're never too old to write. But, ‘Am I too old to write?' is not actually the right question. The correct question is, ‘Am I too old to improve my writing?'”
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
“We always may be what we might have been.”
—Adelaide Anne Procter
“Follow your passion. The rest will attend to itself. If I can do it, anybody can do it. It's possible. And it's your turn. So go for it. It's never too late to become what you always wanted to be in the first place.”
—J. Michael Straczynsk
“If it's still in your mind, it's worth taking the risk.”
There's no better time to start than now—and as a bonus, your extra life experience will make your story a lot richer. Talk about a win-win scenario!
Lie #6: If you write it, everyone will hate it.
First the bad news: when you write it (yes, when, not if), someone will hate it.
That's life; there's someone who hates everything ever written, just because that's the nature of reading and personal taste. I'm willing to bet you've even encountered books that other people loved but you hated. It happens with everybody.
It even happens to Shakespeare.
Here's the truth: yes, there will be people who don't “get” it, but there will also be people who do.
Have there been books you loved, even if someone you know didn't like them? That will be true for you, as well—and the people who love your book will defend it, just like you've defended the one you “got.”
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make more art.”
“If you make art, people will talk about it. Some of the things they say will be nice, some won’t. You’ll already have made that art, and when they’re talking about the last thing you did, you should already be making the next thing. […] Do whatever you have to do to keep making art. I know people who love bad reviews, because it means they’ve made something happen and made people talk; I know people who have never read any of their reviews. It’s their call. You get on with making art.”
― Neil Gaiman
“Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible, and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
“When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced.”
― Salman Rushdie
When a book resonates with you, it's worth defending; and if you're driven to write, then you have something to say that will resonate with other people. It will. You just have to keep going until they find you. Don't give up, and it will happen.
Lie #7: If you've messed up your book/writing career/”platform,” it's over.
You're going to make mistakes. You're going to encounter stuff you have no idea how to do. You're going to realize more than once that you're overwhelmed, and don't know how to proceed. This is all normal. There isn't an author on this earth who didn't have to learn how to write well.
Here's the truth: mistakes are not the end. Even if you “blew it,” as long as you're alive, you can start over—and you'll do it with more wisdom and skill than the first time around.
“A teachable spirit and a humbleness to admit your ignorance or your mistake will save you a lot of pain. However, if you're a person who knows it all, then you've got a lot of heavy-hearted experiences coming your way.”
― Ron Carpenter Jr.
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
“We learn from failure, not from success!”
“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”
“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
― Albert Einstein
And a Bonus:
“Nothing haunts us more than the things we don't say.”
We have a lot of problems to overcome as writers. We have a learning curve, we have a whole bizarre industry to learn, and we have inner demons to knock out on a regular basis.
The thing I want you to hear is that it's worth it.
Writing is difficult, but worthwhile. Getting those words on the page and learning how to make them sing exactly the way you want is kind of like giving birth: after it's all said and done, you're joyful about the result, rather than distressed over the process.
You can do this, fellow writers. Don't give up, and don't believe the lies. Keep writing!
Have you heard these lies before? What lies have you believed? Let us know in the comments below.
These lies are deadly, but they can be knocked down—and there's no better time for you to practice than today. Take fifteen minutes and tackle the lie that bothers you most. If you're not sure how to fight it, just tell me about it in the comments, and I'll help you find its glass jaw.
You can do it.
Share your practice in the comments and help other writers tackle their worst lies, too. Let's give these lies a beating they won't soon forget!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.