10 Common Mistakes of Self-Published Writers

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oopsOkay, we’ve all made mistakes. And I doubt that there’s a writer among us who has yet to experience a misstep in his or her writing career. Throughout my (long) writing and publishing history, I’ve made my share of doozies (To read about one of them see The dumbest publishing decision I ever made), but to broaden my observations even further, I’ve observed a long litany of mistakes among my fellow authors as well. Here are the ten I believe to be the most common.

  1. Publishing a first (or even second) draft. As a new writer, you might think that your writing is just fine the way you put it onto the page or computer screen. It isn’t. Believing in the infallibility of a first draft is the hallmark of an inexperienced writer. The more experienced you get, the better your writing gets. And the better your writing gets…

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[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – A Dictionary

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dictionaryThe most useful writing reference is also the most obvious. It’s so obvious that it should have been my very first recommendation for “Zetta’s Reference Desk,” but it wasn’t because I/we take it for granted!

Actually, this isn’t so much a recommendation as it is a requirement.

Every writer—or person who wishes to be considered one—needs to make friends with a good dictionary. As you can imagine, not all dictionaries are created equal. Years ago, I studied library science and one of the things we studied and analyzed were dictionaries and their components.

Well, I’ve slept since then and can’t remember the details, but I do have a few suggestions when it comes to choosing a dictionary. The following is a list of features I look for in a dictionary because this is the info I like to have on hand. You may not require as much. There’s a variety of dictionaries out there, and the best one for you is the one that suits your needs.


1) Number of Words Defined

You can get abridged dictionaries and unabridged dictionaries. Apart from the number of words that can be found between the two types, other things to consider when picking between abridged and unabridged include:

  • Length of definitions (with regard to clarity and concision)
  • Quality of definitions (does it include part of speech, spelling variations, etc.)
  • Pronunciation key
  • Ease of use

2) Etymology

Merriam-Webster defines “etymology” as:

: an explanation of where a word came from : the history of a word

: the study of word histories

So what, you say. Why does this matter?

Geeky Answer: Apart from being interesting, knowing the history and origin of a word reveals a lot. You can see how different languages influence each other and even help you understand languages foreign to you when you see how a word is constructed.

Practical Answer: Writing historical fiction is hard enough, but it also needs to sound authentic. Even if you’re writing from the historical perspective from the last 50 years, changes in language is subtle. A word we may use every day today may not have existed in common use a few decades ago—and I’m not talking about something obvious like “selfie.”

Pop Quiz!

When was the first known use of the word “selfie”?

You can find the answer in a good dictionary! Try it and post your answer (the year and the dictionary you used) in the comments.

3) Synonyms/Antonyms (optional)

A dictionary that offers at least a few examples of each would be nice, but it’s not entirely necessary. A good thesaurus (another recommended resource) should be a part of your personal library.

4) Niche

I’m focusing this post on your basic, general dictionary that we will all use at one point or another. But there are specialized dictionaries (e.g. law dictionaries, medical dictionaries, children’s dictionaries, slang dictionaries, etc.) that focus on a certain niche or topic.

5) Convenience

In this Digital Age, people have come to expect to find everything online, and with the help of the Internet, a person can probably source at least 80-90% of the information they need.

If you spend most of your time in front of a computer like I do, using online dictionaries are very convenient. My favorite online go-to is Merriam-Webster Online. It has the first three components I list above while giving you access to other resources. I’m cheap and use the free access (which limits the number of look-ups you can do in a day, I’ve found), but you can pay to download the dictionaries for about $20.

Another good online dictionary is perhaps the granddaddy of them all: the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED.

However, I’m still quite old school and proud of it. I like—and still use—an old fashioned print dictionary at times. You can find good deals on print dictionaries at used bookstores. And there’s something to be said about old, “out of date” dictionaries in that they are still useful because they show the evolution of language.

Dictionaries aren’t updated very often because words have to pass several tests before they are considered worthy of inclusion, and words can be removed if they become so obsolete to warrant it.

I don’t know how often dictionaries are updated today, but “back in the day” when everything was produced in print, it wasn’t uncommon for a decade or more to happen between editions.

Remember what I said above about etymology and the history of a word? What better way to find old words than in an old dictionary? Considering how some dictionary publishers are not producing print dictionaries anymore, these door stoppers may become quite collectible in the future.




GUEST BLOG: Native Texan, by Zetta Brown

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This was written before the terrorist hate crime in SC, but it does touch on a few of the issues we’re dealing with in the aftermath. Check it out. 🙂


ZettaB2I was born in a very small North Texas town, and I was born a Negro…which became black…which became Afro/Black/African-American. But while American society came up with new names to call me based on my race, I just considered myself a Texan.

I remember as a child playing in the red dirt of my parent’s home town, eating Moon Pies, drinking grape Nehi or red cream sodas, giant pickles from a pickle jar, salt-and-vinegar chips like a home-grown Southern kid. I think it’s very telling that my earliest memories of living in the South centers around food.

Then we moved to Colorado and snow, which had been a novelty before but became a part of life. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’m not a huge fan of snow. My parents were surprised when we were showed homes in racially diverse neighborhoods. We wouldn’t be “blockbusting” after all.

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[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Getting Started as a Freelance Writer by Robert Bly

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zetta_getting started as a freelance writerTitle: Getting Started as a Freelance Writer

Author(s): Robert W. Bly

Published: 2008

Pages: 261


This week’s recommendation comes from Trisha Faye  who writes stories about people from the past. Dear Arlie contains images of vintage postcards sent between two friends from 1907-1913. Wash on Monday shares short stories about the people behind 8 different antiques. (Some factual, some fiction).

Trisha’s web site: www.trishafaye.com.

Friend Trisha on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/trisha.faye.


Getting Started as a Freelance Writer is an essential book in my writer’s library. I’ve owned this guide since 2009, and while sometimes months pass between using it, I always find something useful in its folded, dog-eared, marked up pages. My writing path has changed over the past six years, taking unexpected twists and turns. Every time I search the pages of Robert Bly’s informative book, I discover tidbits that help me at the particular place I am at that point in my career.

The book begins with the essence of writing. Do you really want to write? Then, steps to follow for getting started – what you need to know before you start: Money, Logos and letterhead, Equipment, Filing, Reference books, Setting up an office – it’s all here.

From this basic starting point, the book branches into business specifics: a freelance writer’s business plan. Treat it as a business. Set daily revenue goals. Value your time. Be more productive. Get paid more. Create multiple streams of income.

Various revenue possibilities are addressed with informative tips for each: entry level assignments, magazine articles, business writing, Internet and multimedia. One chapter addresses agents and book proposals. Another chapter looks at web sites and ezines. Different genres are discussed in length: poetry, short fiction, novels and personal essays.

The book wraps up with chapters on “Growing Your Business” and “Making Your Writing Dreams Come True.”

In one of my favorite chapters, the author states,

“In most instances, the writers who earn the most money are not necessarily the best writers; they are the best marketers.”

Bly then proceeds with an entire chapter on “Marketing and Self-Promotion for Writers.” Included in this informative chapter is: Twenty Tips for Successful Self-Promotion, Create a Bait Piece, How to Get the Most Out of a Book Signing or Event, More PR Tips for Writers, and more.

At the beginning of the book, the author shares a list of what he thinks it takes to be successful.


  1. Define what success means to you. Then pursue success as you define it – not as others do. For me, it’s doing what I want, and avoiding the things I don’t want to do. For you, it may be getting your novel published or becoming a radio talk show host.

  2. Love what you do for a living. Noel Coward said, “Work is more fun than fun.” Time never moves more slowly during the day than when you are working at a job you loathe.

  3. Find the intersection of your passions and the needs of the market. What do you like that also interest other people, and that they are willing to pay for? Therein lies your writing career.

  4. Become the best you can be at what you do. Work tirelessly to increase your skill and knowledge. It’s been said many times that there are only two ways to improve your writing: write and read. So do both. Write every day. Read all the time, and read widely. Also, take writing classes. Attend writing conventions.

  5. Master and dominate a niche of the market, rather than attempt to be a jack of all trades. Constantly add to your storehouse of knowledge and experience in the specialized fields you write about, whether it’s cats, crafts, cooking, or computers.

  6. Be the consummate craftsman. Always do your best on every job. Never give work short shrift because you agreed to short money. Once you tell the client you are taking the job, she expects and deserves nothing less than your best effort.

  7. Be the client’s ally and partner, not her adversary. The angry writer who is constantly screaming at agents and editors is a cliché. Embrace the positive attitude of prolific author Isaac Asimov, who said, “I love my publishers!”

  8. Do not undercharge. Charge what you are worth. But don’t overcharge; don’t make it difficult for clients to hire you.

  9. When in doubt, get the money up front. A retainer check for half the fee is the quickest way to separate serious clients from time-wasting prospects.

  10. Don’t waste time with things that may be pleasant or entertaining, but do not help you achieve your goals. Value your time as the precious, limited resource it is.

Wherever you are on your writing path, be it just starting, growing your business, or stretching into a new and unexpected field of writing, you will find useful advice in Getting Started as a Freelance Writer. In this book I always find nuggets of treasure within its pages.



[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

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nego with the deadTitle: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

Author(s): Margaret Atwood

Published: 2003

Pages: 256


This week’s reference is recommended by L B Gschwandtner. She is the author of The Naked Gardener. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies and she has received awards from the Writer’s Digest and the Lorian Hemingway short fiction competitions. Visit her website www.lbgschwandtner.com.


Negotiating The Writer Within


Books on writing take many forms. Some cover the generally accepted rules of grammar and style … think Strunk & White. Others deal with such genre issues as how to write cozy mysteries, romance novels, or (gasp) steamy erotica – E. L. what’s her name of Fifty Shades fame is purportedly penning one of those. Oh, my.


Writing about writing is almost a side gig for authors. Seems like in every author’s career there comes a time when he or she is compelled to tell other writers and, maybe readers, just what this writing thing is really all about. The lowdown. The skinny. The inside story. They may not be the only people writing about how to write, but at least when you read a successful writer on the craft of writing, you know it’s written by someone who’s lived in the trenches.


I like to read authors whose books have given me, not so much rules for writing, but a way to think about the long history of the written word. Of the many books on writing by writers whose work I admire, here’s just one you might consider picking up.


Margaret Atwood is not only prolific in both prose and nonfiction, she’s also a daring writer who tackles uncomfortable subjects. As she’s said many times, her unflinching apocalyptic novels don’t make anything up but rely on events that have occurred in this, the real world. Many years ago, she wrote Negotiating With The Dead, A Writer On Writing, an exploration of writing from so many aspects, writers’ works, points of view, and styles that it’s like a kaleidoscope of the written word. Of course, Atwood’s well read – stunningly so. But she also brings a self deprecating humor to this book about books and writers thereof.


Negotiating came about when Atwood was asked to give a series of six lectures at The University of Cambridge on the subject of writing. Piece of cake, she thought, but, as the time drew near, she describes a panic setting in. Well, what do you know? Even the great ones sweat it out when it comes to sitting in front of the blank page. In other words, now how in hell am I gonna fill that?


If there was a way to sum up this book with all its wisdom, historical perspective, and simply wonderful overview of the craft of writing, I would certainly give it to you. However, I can’t. What I can do is tell you what this book on writing is not.


It’s not a blueprint for writing a book. As Atwood points out in many ways, writing is inherently about the writer – about the internal workings and struggles of each writer’s mind and heart. Of course craft is basic to being able to put those workings into a coherent and cohesive form. But that form is peculiar to each writer. And for every “rule” of writing, there is a writer who breaks it. But always for a purpose, and that’s what makes Atwood’s book so interesting and inspiring. She’s a rule breaker.


A good book on writing is like peeking behind the curtain at what goes on behind stage while the play is being performed. As readers we only see the final draft, the polished, approved, cleansed prose. But as writers we want to know what really went on during the process of writing. At least I do. Atwood allows us a glimpse inside not only her writing world but of many others. And what makes this a great book about writing is that it inspires the writer to write.


That brings me back to why we writers read about writing. Is it because:

a) we want to improve our own writing,

b) we are curious about what other writers have gone through,

c) we’re craft voyeurs,

d) we want to discover why we write, or,

e) all of these reasons and maybe a few more I haven’t considered?


The first part of Atwood’s Negotiating deals with d) or why she writes. More precisely, why and how she started writing. And then how it got the best of her and she never stopped. Prolific as any writer, her prose is as much a joy for the mind’s eye as a walk through a garden in full bloom is to the actual eye. So there’s that. The pleasure of reading a good writer, no matter what the genre or theme.


The second part of Negotiating covers other writers and their relationship to the history of the written world but also to their relationships with readers. It is this conjoined quality of writer to reader that Atwood makes so clear. Yes, she says, we are writing for ourselves, but we are also read (or hope to be) and the reading brings to the writer’s work an unanticipated dimension and life.


After all, you don’t have to take my word for what a wonderful, rewarding, and yes, inspiring read is Negotiating With The Dead. Pick up your own copy and read it for yourself.



[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

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Still WritingTitle: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

Author(s): Dani Shapiro

Year Published: 2014

Pages: 240

When I decided to get serious about writing my first book, I didn’t do much writing. Instead, I read everything I could about the writing process. After all, isn’t it often said that to be a good writer, you have to read? However, in hindsight I was just stalling. I was terrified of finishing my book and putting it out in the world until I read Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Books I had read up to that point provided helpful advice by offering tips such as “keeping the reader engaged,” but Shapiro kept me engaged by giving me an honest look into her past and present life as a writer. Prior to reading her work, I had written numerous articles, thousands of technical documents, and many blogs, but I still didn’t see myself as a “real” writer until I saw the parallels between Shapiro’s work and my own.

She had me hooked from the very first chapter by addressing my tendency to procrastinate, reminding me that carpe diem isn’t necessarily cliché:

“I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I don’t seize this day, it will be lost.”

In her chapter on “Ambition”, she spoke to my fears saying,

No writer I know is confident in her work.”

Most of Shapiro’s book is more inspirational than a structured, step-by-step guide, which is what made it appealing to me.

However, she offers a practical approach to character building in her chapter on “Five Senses” by telling the reader to ask themselves pertinent questions in their creative writing:

“Is there a siren in the distance? A slamming door? A car alarm? Is she thirsty? Hung over? Does her back ache? Not all of this needs to end up on the page, but you need to know. Because knowing your character’s five senses will open up the world around her. It may even unlock the story itself.”

That may seem simplistic to some, but it offers a reminder to the novice and the seasoned writer that utilizing some of the most basic steps in writing can help in story development.

Throughout the book, Shapiro relays her personal stories, her mother being her most often used muse, keeping the reader intrigued, and revealing what made her into the writer she is today.

Her chapter on “Writing in the Dark” couldn’t have been more enlightening as she talks about a longing to return to a time when there were no expectations or ideas from others clouding her perceptions of herself:

“The time when you’re working on a first book is when the darkness is at its purest and most precious.”

Surprisingly, Shapiro’s straightforward approach in Still Writing results in a meaningful, encouraging read and she minces no words when writing:

If you’re waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.”

Ironically, that’s just the green light I needed.


Donna Streetenberger is a technical writer with a bachelor’s degree in corporate management. Her first book, Not Exactly Nightingale was written under the pseudonym, “D. J. Street.” She is also a professional genealogist who enjoys writing about family history. Her “Weird Relatives” blog can be found at:  http://www.researchheritage.com/weird-relatives-blog.html

[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle

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description and settingTitle: Description & Setting: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places, and Events (Write Great Fiction)

Author(s): Ron Rozelle

Year Published: 2005

Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books – Write Great Fiction Series

Pages: 213



When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to write a term paper in my English class where I had to compare and contrast two Nathaniel Hawthorne novels: The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.


I started reading those books and knew I had found a cure for insomnia. I hated Hawthorne and the long, tedious descriptions, and if I could, I would bring him back to life so I could kill him myself. I was able to B.S. my way to a decent grade without resorting to Cliff’s Notes, but don’t ask me anything specific about those novels because I’ve blotted them from memory. GIGO.


Fast forward a few decades, and contrary to Victorian authors, the trend in writing today is to be concise and to “write tight.” As a result, I believe lot of writers have lost the ability to write description and setting, or they don’t know how to create a balance that works within their writing.


One thing I tell some of my editing clients is that they need to “set the scene.” What I mean by this is that they need to give their reader some clue as to where they are and what it looks like. They don’t have to info dump paragraphs of description (e. g. “Pull a Hawthorne”) but a few short sentences can do the trick. I say this so authors don’t freak out . But having adequate, memorable descriptions and settings can take more effort—and words.


Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle is part of the Write Great Fiction Series by Writer’s Digest Books. Some authors turn their noses up at WD’s books. They believe that these books are for amateurs and wannabes—not true, literary artistes. These people are self-proclaimed know-it-alls. Color me unimpressed. The smart person knows there is always something new to learn.


Rozelle provides a lot of insight and tips to many of the same things I tell my clients. “Chapter Four: Showing, Telling, and Combining the Two” is worth the cost of the book alone.

“Showing rather than telling is part of the magic that you have to work as a writer; in fact, it is one of the most vital parts.”


Feeling versus reporting—that is the key. But when do you show and when do you tell?

“Deciding when to show and when to tell will become an instinctive process if it hasn’t already for you.”


Rozelle will guide you with examples and exercises to help you build your instinctive process. Writing is just like playing a musical instrument. It takes practice and the more you do, the more comfortable and competent you become, and soon, you’ll be creating your own riffs in your own style.


Incorporating all of the senses is another area that falls to the wayside in fiction writing. Writers tend to limit description mostly to sight and sound, but rarely do they include smell and taste.


Feeling—the sense of touch—is sometimes maligned because often writers tell what the character is feeling rather than show it by way of description. And let’s not forget how we all get slammed for telling the reader how a character feels (emotionally).


Rozelle takes it a step further with The Sixth Sense when a character senses

“Something not concrete at all. You’ve had intuitive feelings…So your characters will have those feelings too.”


But learning how to write description and setting is useless unless you learn how to pay attention. This skill is one Rozelle coaches on early in the book.

“To be a good writer, you have to be a persistent and meticulous harvester of detail. To put it less politely, you have to be a thief, pure and outright.”


What does he mean by being a thief? He means taking that snippet of overheard conversation and using it in the context of your story. He means carrying that little notebook you hear speakers advise at all those writing conferences you attend. There’s a reason for it. It works.


Take notice of the “fresh little details” that fill your life: the way a person enters a room or stands on a bus; how a dog scratches its ear. Pay attention. Look at what is being done and how it is being done—and describe it. Soon, you’ll be able to make mundane actions sound extraordinary.


When it comes to settings, the easiest way is to describe places you are familiar with, but once you become an “outright” thief of detail, describing a new place you’ve never been to should be second nature.


Other tips and tools to help describe settings include drawing a map or a floor plan. One thing I love about Agatha Christie books is how some of them have floor plans of the crime scene. You don’t have to illustrate your work, but having it in your notes for reference won’t hurt.


After you read Description & Setting, you will find ways to incorporate these oft-overlooked elements of writing into your work. You may even find yourself revising your WIP to take advantage of the creativity and depth your writing could have.


But don’t feel obligated to go overboard. You can let Nathaniel Hawthorne stay in the nineteenth century.

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