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!
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. :)