The biggest mistake I've made in my writing career is underestimating the tyranny of marketing.
The biggest mistake I made was taking my rejections too seriously. I believed if five agents rejected me, there must be a consensus that the book I'd sent them was terrible. I would drop the manuscript and start another. I didn't understand that when you find an agent, and then an editor, it's more like finding a soulmate. They have to fall in LOVE with your work. So what I did in my younger years would have been like having five guys on Match.com not answer my ad, and decide I must need plastic surgery. Silly me. Maybe it was good for my writing, as I do think my first books were weak, but I spent a lot of time feeling unworthy and afraid to call myself a writer, simply because of random people 'passing' on my work.
Is this question for everyone or just for me? Oh, everyone. Because I was pretty sure I could max the word-count out all on my own. Biggest mistake? I can only narrow it down to a dead heat of three: 1)Sticking too long with an agent who was as clueless as me. We both needed to move on long before we did. 2) Thinking gusto and a bit of raw talent would get me there. There were some necessary lessons in craft needed in between, which I ended up learning the hard way. 3) I continue to make the mistake of being unable to engage in my own fate. In other words, I really like having a published book. I’m too reluctant to involve myself in things like sales numbers, self-promotion or anything else that might otherwise rock my cushy little world. Those are my biggies. If any girlfriends have advice on the last one, consider me a GBC student today!
Biggest mistake? Boy, I’m glad you asked me to narrow it down. Kidding! Hopefully in publishing more goes right than wrong, but these days, I tend to say that thinking a 'two-book contract, at auction' meant more than it did. Let me elaborate: when I got an offer for a two-book deal and was ecstatic that one house wanted not one but two of my works, a person very close to me who knows the business said, "Well, yes, that always sounds good, but if things go wrong, you're stuck in a bad contract, not just for one book but for the other as well." Who wants to hear this, especially as a debut writer? As always, though, my friend offered sage advice. That was in 2007--things were looking fine and dandy then! My first book, PRECIOUS, was published in early 2009, and my second book, EVERYONE BUT YOU, in 2011. Let me tell you, in three-and-a-half years a LOT can happen at any given house. The economy might tank, e-books might cause disruption to traditional publishing models, a house might downsize, an editor might leave or change imprints, people might be fired, et cetera. Generally speaking, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. It's terrible to have a book come out and know that it is already dead in the water. Like so very, very dead in the water. We are not speed writers here, and even the most gallant efforts result in a literary novel once every, what, two years? (Keep your fingers crossed for me on that one!) You want to make sure that each work is getting the maximum benefit in terms of backing. (This still doesn’t guarantee things will go right, but it helps.) I would never let multiple babies go to any one house, editor, and contract anymore unless I felt 200 percent sure they would be taken care of, on all fronts.
There are so many to choose just one! But if you're going to hold a gun to my head, I'll say that I haven't fought enough over certain things. A big example would be book covers. I've had some I've loved and some I liked well enough, but I've also had covers that either didn't serve the book as good as they could have or - even worse - were actually misrepresentations of what's inside the book. It's bad if readers pick up something and expect one kind of read only to discover it's something else entirely. Think about if you went to a restaurant and ordered pizza and you got served lobster instead. You might even love lobster! But it's not what you ordered or wanted or expected on that day. Why haven't I fought harder? There are probably two answers to that: one, I'm cursed with a disposition that wants to "play nice"; two, with more than one book coming out most years, there's never enough time to focus on any one thing for too long. OK, now I'm mad at myself.
The constant self-doubt. We've talked a lot about this on this blog lately, but sometimes the doubt about your writing can be crippling, and lead to long bouts of writer's block. What I'm learning is that it's far better to just keep writing, even if what you write is garbage and needs to be heavily edited later. The thing is to write. I met Jenny Egan at a reading two years ago, and her advice was to keep writing. She said that you have to get out all of the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. I love that advice. It gives you permission to just move forward and keep doing what you love to do. It tells you that the good stuff will come-- you just have to be patient.
I made the classic newbie mistake of falling for a scam. I was so eager/frantic/desperate to get an agent, that when one "offered" representation I leapt at it and ignored the red flags. $250.00 later, I had to admit to myself (and friends) that I'd been taken. So, never forget the mantra--reputable agents NEVER ask for money up front.
I've always just assumed that making mistakes was an essential part of being a writer. You make mistakes because you've tried something new, you've pushed yourself beyond your limits, you've taken silly chances. How can you grow as a writer if you don't do those things?
That said, I think my biggest mistake was signing a second contract with a publisher when my gut told me not to. I'd completed a three-book contract with them, and I wasn't happy with the way they'd published my books. But they waved a lot of money at me, and my agent urged me to sign another contract with them, so I agreed to a two-book deal. They published those last two books even more incompetently than they had the first three, which threw my career into a tailspin. I love all the five of the novels I wrote for this publisher, but I'll probably never get the rights back to them, which means I'll never see them published the way they should have been.
Back in 2003, I had the chance to get my book Learning to Fly featured by Carl Lennertz when he was still running Book Sense. All he needed was buy in - a simple "okay" - from my editor. I sent off a request, and didn't nudge. I should have nudged, because by the time she finally said it was fine with her, Carl had moved on to Harper Collins
I'm not sure I can point to my biggest mistake, but I can name my biggest regret: I wish I'd started writing fiction earlier. It's really a tribute to how much I love this job. I spent years as a newspaper reporter, and could have written a novel during my free time (now that I have three young kids and am writing full-time, I know that I actually had a ton of free time back then, despite the fact that I didn't realize it!) So, if I could do things over, I'd have started writing fiction in my twenties instead of my thirties. Of course, sometimes I think that I needed to acquire all of the experiences of my twenties and earlier thirties to begin writing fiction!
I could write an entire book on mistakes I’ve made. Certainly there have been several abandoned novels, a few wrong business decisions, but the mistake I’ve made most often is thinking I’m done with a novel when it really needs several more revisions. I get a little too impatient. In between revisions, I need to let a novel cool a while before I touch it again. Also I do a lot more novel planning ahead of time instead of impulsively plunging forward.