Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mistakes I Made Early In My Writing Career {dual guest post + GIVEAWAY!}

Guess what?  We have guests!  Please join me in welcoming Stephanie Morrill and Jill Williamson of the Go Teen Writers blog!

UPDATE: Scroll down to the Rafflecopter at the end of this post for a chance to win an ecopy of the new Go Teen Writers book!

The publishing business is so quirky, it can feel impossible to learn all the rules and etiquette. With our book Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft Into a Published Book, we wanted to pass along what we’ve learned in our years of pursuing writing. Here are five mistakes each of us made early in our career:



Stephanie’s Big Mistakes 

I narrowed my selections to three craft related mistakes and two industry/professional mistakes.

1. Story Structure. I’m a pantser by nature (someone who writes by the seat of my pants rather than outlining), and as a novice writer, I didn’t bother to understand story structure. Because I had absorbed a great deal of it from movies and reading, I assumed I knew what I needed to write a good story. I see now how my early stories would have been strengthened had I known a bit more about beginnings, ends, and especially middles.

2. Passive writing. My early manuscripts are riddled with phrases like, “Paige was walking,” or “Matt was Carter’s best friend.” I didn’t even know I wrote passively until an agent told me. Fortunately she said if I fixed my abundance of passive sentences, she would take another look at it. After I fixed my sentences to “Paige walked” and “Matt, Carter’s best friend…” she asked to represent me.

3. Dialogue Tags and Action Beats. In second grade I wrote a story with tons of dialogue. My teacher told me it was difficult to tell who was talking, and that I should use things like, “Sam said,” to show who was talking. Well, I really took that to heart. Even 10 years later, I used a dialogue tag with just about every sentence. When I learned how to use action beats, my scenes flowed so much better. Action beats are things like: Sam planted his hands on his hips. “Why would you say such a thing?”

4. I thought if I ignored marketing, it would go away. Or I guess that’s why I thought it was okay if I didn’t learn how to market my books. I hoped/prayed Me, Just Different (which is currently available for free on your ereader!) would magically break out on its own, and I could ignore everything that everybody said about how important it was to put together a marketing plan. I’m still not brilliant with marketing by any stretch, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about reaching my readers and how to wisely investment my time.

5. I didn’t understand why a one-sentence pitch mattered. My books aren’t high-concept books, so I’ve always had trouble summarizing them in a sentence. After I had sold my first series, I wiped my brow and put my “elevator pitch” days behind me. I had sold! That meant no more pitching! Until you’re on a TV show and they say, “Tell us what your book is about.” Or when you’re at a book signing and a stranger wanders by your table and ask, “What happens in your book?” As scary and uncomfortable as pitch sentences feel to me, I’ve come to terms with the fact that a good one is my most powerful marketing too.

Jill’s Big Mistakes 

Yeah, I could go on and on! But I gave five mistakes as well.

1. I didn’t respect my dream. I knew nothing about how to write good fiction. And I spent more time daydreaming about the success I might have someday than I spent writing and learning. I wrote half a book and went to a conference thinking I could sell it for a million dollars. (I now have nine books in print and still haven’t come anywhere near making a million dollars. If I add together the income from five years of writing, I haven’t even made a hundred thousand yet!)

2. I sent out my book before it was ready. Once I did finish my first book, I submitted it to agents and editors before I’d found the right people to read and edit it for me. It wasn’t ready, so rejection was always swift.

3. I signed with the wrong agent. I was so eager to be published, that when one of my random query letters came back with a positive response, I signed on without much thought or investigation. And I was lucky. My first agent was a good guy. But we weren’t the best fit and things didn’t work out. I encourage you all to meet your potential agent first at a writers conference. I realize that’s not always possible, so make a list of what’s important to you in an agent and be patient until you find the right one. Parting ways with an agent is never fun.

4. I tried too hard to put a theme in my books. I knew what I wanted to say and I found a way to say it. Readers who agree with me love that about my books. But the readers who don’t think like I do feel judged by certain aspects of my books. I never meant for that to happen. I was simply trying to write what I wanted to say. But a good writer shows all sides of every theme fairly and lets the reader choose what to believe. This has been a hard lesson for me that I continue to strive to do better with.

5. I judged fellow writers. There was a time before I was published when I read books and began to think, “My book is better than this one. What’s the deal here?” It upset me that these people were published and I was not when I felt that my book was better. So I pointed out what writers were doing wrong in book reviews or blog posts. I wanted people to know that these books were breaking the rules!

If you ever feel this way, resist. I know it’s tough. And I know that there are lots of wildly successful authors who break the rules. But that didn’t give me the right to judge. I should have held my tongue—or fingers from typing. Because there were times when I had to sit beside some of those authors, feeling very sheepish for the cruel things I once said online.

And there were also times when some unpublished authors felt the need to rip apart my book and point out all the ways that it was terrible. And that hurts. Don’t bad-mouth someone’s book when you don’t have any understanding of what it took to write and get that book published. We’re all on the same team here. Let’s support each other. And it’s always best to follow this rule: If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.


Stephanie Morrill and Jill Williamson have written a combined two dozen speculative and contemporary novels for teens. They also blog obsessively at www.goteenwriters.com. When not writing or blogging, they can be found at the teen table at writer's conferences or wherever chocolate is being given away. Come hang out with Stephanie at www.stephaniemorrill.com and Jill at www.jillwilliamson.com.


And the giveaway!  Open to all ages, international, ends Tuesday, April 2 at midnight. :)

47 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post! I'm pretty sure I'm making some of those mistakes now myself; I'll do my best to work on them!

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  2. I'll definitely be bookmarking this and keeping it in mind. These are mistakes I know I have trouble with.

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  3. Some of these mistakes were painful to read about! But it was an interesting post and I'm glad I read it.

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    1. They were painful to live through too... lol

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  4. Great post again, love to see all these posts coming by from/about Jill & Stephanie!

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  5. These are very helpful to keep in mind as I go about my writing journey. :) Thank you!

    --Amanda F.

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  6. I am putting these on my list of writing tips. :) Thanks!

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  7. These are good things to remember to not do... :)

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  8. Great post! It's always helpful to hear about other people's mistakes.

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  9. I've got the opposite problem of Mrs. Stephanie. I overuse action beats in my writing, and very rarely use, '(s)he said'. (Though I'm learning to watch out for that. ;) )

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  10. Those are really good mistakes. Wait! That sounds strange...well good for us, we can learn from your mistakes. ;) Love this post. Learning to write without a billion passive verbs is one of the best things that happened to my writing (er, and that was a passive sentence...still!) ;)

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  11. Thanks for the great post! I'm so excited to read this book. :D

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  12. Thanks for the post! I've got to keep this in mind. I can't wait to read the book. :)

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  13. The book sounds great! I really want to read it!

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  14. I really love Jill's fifth point! It's sooo easy to find everyone else's faults! That was a brilliant post! Really helpful. :)

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. *blushes*

      Glad it was helpful, Mime. Sadly, I have to keep reminding myself not to do that one even now that I know better. I can't seem to turn off that internal editor when I'm trying to read for fun! "Shhh!" I want to tell it, but it refuses to listen. Go figure.

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  15. Jill and Stephanie, you two are awesome. You are amazing writers and this book is an amazing idea.

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    1. *blushes again!*

      Thanks, Jennie. :-)

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    2. You are both very welcome! I love the idea of this book and I know a lot of people who could use it. :)

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  16. I think this book is going to be great. Thanks for writing it!

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  17. Great post ^_^ I'll try to learn from these as much as possible!

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  18. Thanks guys! I'm really scared of one-sentence pitches too... Too bad they don't go away. =(

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  19. Great that you do have this book published but I don't think that it is that bad to judge other writers because sometimes feedback is good if it has not yet gone out for final publication and the negative feedback might help them change what is wrong in the book.

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  20. My biggest mistake was sending out a query letter before I was ready. After my first rejection, I got lucky, because a friend of my mom had been working on his query letter for years (I think he had 21 rewrites) and knew exactly what my biggest problems were. He helped me out a LOT. Then this SUPER nice lady from Random Writing Rants (Michelle) offered to help me with my query letter and post it on her blog for other people to give advice. They both agreed that I should leave out my age (12), because most agents wouldn't want to sign with a kid, despite how good the book was. Now I'm just waiting for responses! :D

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  21. Really neat post! I see some mistakes I've made in there. :P

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  22. Ooh, I can see myself making some of the mistakes here... Thanks for the tips; it'll help me not to make these in the future. :)

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  23. Awesome post! I'm really looking forward to reading this book!

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  24. Nice post, again

    Stephanie (or someone else), can you explain why it's better to write 'active' instead of passive?

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    1. Yes! http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2012/04/active-and-passive-writing.html

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    2. Thanks, now I understand. But I think the problem is less big when you write in Dutch, because we don't really have a difference between 'walked' and 'was walking'. It's all the same: 'liep'

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  25. Great post! Definitely a lot of stuff I'm going to need to keep in mind with my own writing and while I'm trying to get published.

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  26. Great post! I'll have to keep these in mind when I'm writing!

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  27. I love to see short posts on mistakes, tips, etc. other writers have. Thanks, Stephanie & Jill!

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  28. I definitely need to read this book - I'm fifteen and have wanted to be an author since I was five, so I'm sure there's lots in this book that would be very interesting for me! :D

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  29. I've had issues with these, too, but the biggest one was the story structure example Stephanie had. It took me a long time to pants my way through the first draft, and it's taken me a lot longer to go through and reshape it till it's got a proper plot shape. I don't necessarily regret that, because I've learned a lot along the way, but it's definitely something I should've worked more at beforehand. Anyways, great post! I'll be sure to watch out for these.

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  30. I've made...actually, I think I've made almost all of these mistakes. Especially querying before the book was ready. I still wince at how bad the query was for my 13,000-word fantasy.

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  31. Oooff. Some of these mistakes I do or have done, like the day dreaming and looking down at other's works. But the saying goes, "You never know another person's story until you walk a mile in their own shoes..." Great Post!

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