Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
April 2009

Top 10 Mistakes I Made as a Writer

I've made lots of mistakes in my life, but I won't bore you with a recitation of all of them -- only with the ones that have to do with my writing. Here they are:

1. Not writing novels sooner.

2. Not learning to pitch a book before it was written.

3. Waiting around too much.

4. Going to conferences too rarely.

5. Entering too many contests.

6. Not listening when people told me what I did well.

7. Staying in my writers group too long.

8. Not using contacts well enough.

9. Not finding an agent soon enough.

10. Not learning to love rewriting.

I began writing seriously in 1993, but I didn't spend much time at it. My total production was, in that year, a single short story, and several aborted ones that went nowhere. In 1994, I wrote almost exclusively short stories. In 1995, about half and half. It was 1999 when I got my first offer for a published novel (2002 if you count until the time when that novel was actually published). That's six years (or nine), which isn't way beyond the average. I think that one of the biggest problems I had was writing too many short stories. It was Patricia Wrede's advice that made me realize that I had been assuming that all successful writers followed the same path to publication, i.e., short stories first and then novels. But that is an old model and I think an outdated one. Short stories are actually more difficult to sell than novels today, if you look at the number of short stories sold in the pro markets during the year versus the number of novels purchased by publishers. But more importantly than that, I was a natural novel writer. I read novels. I also think in novel ideas. I don't know why that is. I actually can see this in school visits I do, when I ask kids to write a retold fairy tale. Some of them simply start to turn it into a novel naturally. Others don't.

Learning to pitch a book before it is written isn't important in selling a novel for a beginner as much as it is in forcing you as a writer to figure out what your story is about and why it would be interesting to the average reader. And I'm not talking about the one-sentence movie pitch where you say it's Harry Dresden crossed with Big Love. I mean a paragraph pitch, where you explain what the genre is, who the character is, and what the big conflict is going to be. This is an enormous help in figuring out if the novel is worth writing. I know, I know. It isn't always possible to figure out what you're writing before you sit down and do it. Sometimes those first novels are just the path to figuring out how to put a novel together. Don't stress about that. But just be aware that being able to pitch a novel is a huge part of selling it. It may be more important than how good your writing is.

I spent a lot of time waiting around for editors to get back to me on novels. I was working on other novels, but I wasn't doing the other things that might have helped. I wasn't reading novels that were coming out right now, which is hugely important, and I wasn't going to national conventions where I could meet other writers and editors. I couldn't do that, financially or in terms of my family arrangements. And I took great pride in the fact that I sold my first novel all by myself, completely cold to the editor who took it. I sent it in originally to "Acquisitions Editor." I believe (and still believe) that when you are good enough that no editor can turn you down, that's when you get published. But I think I could have helped myself a little more there by seeing what was going on in the field. I'm not saying I believe the contacts in themselves would have helped as much as the sense of what the national scene was like. And what real writers are like, what they do, how they think, what they sell.

I think I must have entered every contest that doesn't charge an entry fee, and some that did. I also had the mistaken idea that this would be the way for me to get attention from an editor or agent. I won a few contests, and I was able to put them on my query letters, which I thought was a great help in trying to prove myself a professional when I wanted to get out of the slush pile. I look back now and suspect that they did not help at all. Editors and agents pull people out of the slush because they like the writing, not because of other endorsements.

Listening to feedback is an extremely important skill as a writer. You must learn to listen to feedback from a writer's group, from an agent, from an editor. You must learn what to do with that feedback. I had a terrible time with it, unable to figure out what I did well and what I didn't do well. I completely rewrote things that only needed tweaks here and there. And I put too much time and energy into projects that no one believed in, including me.

Now I'm going to sound like I'm contradicting myself. But really, I'm not when I say that I stayed in my writers group for too long. I needed feedback, but the problem with my writers group was that I was getting the same feedback over and over. I do think that tends to happen in groups. I don't know if it's because of writing or if all groups are that way. But you get labeled in a particular way, and then people see everything you write in that same way. Also, writers groups tend to know what good writing is, but not necessarily what a good plot is -- or good idea or a big concept that will sell to publishers quickly. I rewrote a lot of projects trying to make everyone in my group happy and tended to lose sight of why I loved a project to begin with. And believe me, you can never make everyone happy.

I didn't have a ton of contacts in the writing world when I was a rank beginner, but I collected a few as I went along. I had no idea how to use them, however. I didn't know when it was appropriate to pitch a book to an editor or how to do it politely, without causing offense. There are lots of times when editors are eager to be pitched to. When they come to a conference or convention, they expect to be pitched to. Not in the bathroom, and not from total strangers. But if you have been introduced by friends, you can ask what the editor's tastes are, mention a book you are working on casually if you think it fits, and then if the editor shows interest, you can say more. No harm, no foul.

I also think that I didn't know how to use my published writing friends in the right way. I thought (and suspect that many beginners still think, since they ask me) that a referral to an agent or an editor was the way to use them. It happens that way sometimes, but usually, you will want to wait for the writer friend to suggest a connection. It's nothing personal. I have lots of friends who are great writers but whom I do not think would be a good fit for my agent or my editor. It's much better to talk in general about the business, ask questions about which agents or editor or houses to avoid, and what mistakes they made that you don't have to. Blurbs are really only useful once you have a contract. Then, feel free to ask people you think might help, and be gracious in accepting either no response as a polite "no," or a more honest "no," as inoffensive. It could have nothing to do with your writing, but only a deadline the writer is facing.

I didn't start seriously looking for an agent until a couple of months before I got my first offer. The standard advice I am hearing from most writers these days is to get an agent first. That is probably the ideal, though I used the more old-fashioned approach, getting an agent after I had a deal on the table to get some attention. I would probably have ended up with the same agent in any case, since my first novel was a bit of an outlier, and luckily I was able to find an agent who could see more of the potential in my career than that one book represented, by looking at several other manuscripts before I signed with him. I think that if I had focused more on getting an agent and less on getting a first deal, however, I might have been able to focus on my career rather than one sale. That is what is important about an agent, that the agent helps focus on career rather than a manuscript by manuscript sale. Seeing myself through a slightly more commercial lens has been enormously helpful.

Finally, I think I made a mistake as a writer in believing that it was my first draft of a novel that was either going to prove my brilliance or not. I knew that I would have to rewrite. But I honestly thought that a first draft of a novel would show how good I was and that an editor would be willing to take it on from that. Maybe in the past, that was a possibility. But these days, editors have to have projects quite far along before they want to buy them. No matter how brilliant, none of my first drafts is going to be published. Other writers do have different methods and do a lot of prewriting before they draft, but I don't. It's not that my original draft is necessarily bad (thought sometimes it is). More often, it is just that it can be a lot better. Boring parts need to be taken out. The climax needs to be absolutely clean with no dangling questions left. The characters have to be motivated to act as they do, not just because the plot needs them to act in that way. And the world itself (background details, rules of magic, etc) has to be absolutely consistent.

I don't know if reading this list of mistakes will actually help people to make fewer mistakes. Maybe just different ones? Or maybe you just make the mistakes anyway, even if you're trying not to? Whatever your path, I wish you luck on it.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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