It took a tarot card reader in Salem Massachusetts for me to figure out I wasn’t good enough to be selling yet. Once I recognized that was my problem, I realized the signs were everywhere. You can have one or more of these signs and still not be on the Dunning-Kruger bump.
1. You’re already a good writer. The less published the critiquer is, the better the critique is. The more published the person is, the more they’re telling you to dig deeper, to push harder, and to rewrite until it’s drum tight. You could tell a story from start to finish with rising action, good characterization, and all of that. When you go to write your bio paragraph now, you actually get to pick and choose which sales you want to mention.
2. You know all the rules, but you still think that there are times when you can get away with breaking them. You know that the action has to happen on the page, but you’re still taking easier short cuts. When you cut a plot-line, it still physically causes you pain to delete whole chapters or sections.
3. Your novels would make great novellas, your novellas great short stories and your short stories are either brilliant or terrible. You can go through your novels and highlight the scenes where everything is all systems go, but you’ve still got chapters where all that happen are your characers argue about or discuss what just happened or what’s going to happen next. You can tinker with your synopsis until it sounds like you have an absolutely fantastic story…but it has nothing to do with the story you told.
4. You can read other people’s stuff and know exactly what is wrong with it. You know how to fix they’re stuff, but you’re still getting far more rejections out than acceptances.
5. When you send out your novels, they stay out a long time and then you get a personalized letter saying not this one, but please send them the next one.
6. Your backstory or world is far more interesting than what happens on the page. Your characters are either too passive or too over-emotive. Your plot is either too simple or far too complex. If someone asked you to sum up your story in one sentence, you would have to pretend to faint to get out of the question.
The Dunning-Kruger effect impacts writers who have never actually finished a story, who have never actually started a story and who are convinced that their first book that they finished is as good as a best seller. You don’t have to worry about those writers. They’ll figure it out or they won’t. There’s nothing you can say to have them believe that “there are no rules” isn’t the only rule that matters.
But when you get to that good-but-not-great and you follow the rules, mostly and your novel took four years to get back with a really complimentary but still rejection, the response is not to self-publish.
I think when you write, you’re given your strengths and your weaknesses. It’s not about how great you can make your strengths, it’s about how fast you can bring up your weaknesses to the level of your strengths. If you get to that close but not quite, work smarter, not harder. Ask someone you really trust what the problem is with the book that didn’t sell. Get more than one person’s opinion. If they all say the same thing, believe them. Go back to the basics. Start with an interesting main character in an interesting world with an interesting problem. When you’ve finished telling that story, showing the action on the page, making your character earn every bit of knowledge that they have, throwing them at an enemy that has every chance and ability to honestly defeat then. Bring your character to the brink of failure and then have him overcome the odds.
Do it three times. Send out short stories if you have to, but spend a full year working just on your novels. Focus on the scene. Focus on your ideal reader getting behind and routing for your main character to succeed. The only way off the bump is realizing your work isn’t as good as you want it to be, but you don’t have to be so good you can break the rules and still tell a good story. You can just tell a good story, first.