When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea of how long and difficult the road to publication would be. Seriously, I thought everyone had J.K Rowling results. No joke, I was that naive. I really wish someone had clued me in on that from the start. Or maybe I just needed to believe them when I read it time and time again.
I also didn’t know just how important certain aspects of a story were to middle-grade readers. And honestly, if a blog like this had existed then, I’m sure I wouldn’t have made many of the mistakes that I did. Or maybe if I had known about SCBWI or the blueboards it would have helped me avoid some serious pitfalls.
However, I quickly learned some very valuable lessons. Most of which were universal: show don’t tell (gah! Guilty as charged), use active voice and not passive, follow the rules – even if other authors break them you can’t afford to be the exception – and don’t query until your manuscript is ready. I mean really ready.
Plus, I’ve become more familiar with Microsoft Word than I’d ever care to know.
But the biggest thing I learned was about myself, not my writing.
When I first started writing, I read everything about the craft that I could get my hands on. The one common piece of advice was that a good author should learn to take a critique and apply it to their manuscript. I decided early on that I didn’t want to be the author who couldn’t take a critique. So when my crit partners suggested a change, I made that change – exactly as they wanted it. When friends and family had questions, I made sure that the answers were clear in my writing even if it meant I gave away something important. If another writer suggested something else, I made that change too, which most of the time caused a conflict in my writing.
But I was making my manuscript better, right?
Now let me be clear, I’m not blaming my crit partners (or my family and friends) – they were great and had fabulous feedback. They were my biggest supporters when I didn’t believe in myself. They gave me energy to press forward when I thought I couldn’t take another step.
No, there really is only one person to blame and that’s myself. I thought I had to please everyone. But I can’t please everyone no matter how hard I try. That realization was a difficult one. Nothing can bring on a chocolate-induced coma quicker than thinking someone is unhappy with me.
What I had to learn, and eventually did, was that in order to be a good author – one who could take a crit constructively – I needed to take the suggestions from my crit partners that I felt improved my manuscript, not changed it. Because it’s one thing to fix that telling and turn it into showing and another to manipulate the words so much that it’s changed the voice entirely. It’s one thing to get rid of back story and another to eliminate important depth in characterizations.
As a writer for middle-grade children, characterizations are more than important, they’re vital! Those same middle-graders love to experience the story with you through showing details, not telling ones. And those middle-graders love voice; a main character that talks, jokes, laughs and experiences emotions just like they do, in a way that relates to them.
It’s my job to engage my readers. And I hope through all my experiences and steep learning curves, I can say that I’ve done just that.
One thing (other than chocolate) that has brought me a lot of comfort in this process is the knowledge that I’m not alone. Many writers have been through some of the same things that I have. Since most of us learn best from the experiences of others, I’ve asked a few authors to weigh-in for us.
What they wish they’d known:
Elana Johnson: How slow the industry is. When I first started, I read of other aspiring authors saying they took a year to read other books in order to submerge themselves in the market. I was like, ‘Whatever. It’s not going to take me a year to do anything!’ LOL! Oh, man. How much I didn’t know…
Kurtis Scaletta: Getting published is not the happy ending, it just begins a new chapter. It is extremely competitive and a lot of work to promote your book.
Rose Cooper: Before I started writing, I wish I knew how to revise properly. I would take critiques and try to change my manuscript to how other people thought it should be written, instead of taking suggestions and working those in only if I thought they made sense. I also wish in the very beginning I knew the age group I would end up writing for.
What was most helpful:
Elana Johnson: …I read a lot of blogs. I participated in forums, found friends and absorbed as much as I could. After that, I found the confidence I needed and just went for it.
Tami Lewis Brown: …I enrolled in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College. It changed my writing, sure, but more important, it changed my entire way of looking at the world and navigating my life.
The biggest mistakes:
Elana Johnson: Querying too early. And yes, I made this mistake. When I realized that hey, maybe my book wasn’t so great, I stopped querying and took the time (remember how slow publishing is?) to get it right. Then I re-queried. Of course, that book was still terrible, and I didn’t get an agent with that one. It wasn’t until my third round of querying, with a second novel, that I found an agent.
Tami Lewis Brown: I think beginning authors try to rush the process and submit work before they’re ready. I decided to hold off on all submissions until after I had my degree and I’m glad I did. Instead of slowing me down waiting until my skills were developed and I had something marketable to submit it put my career into overdrive.
Kurtis Scaletta: The biggest mistake is having high expectations for your first book — of course some authors do land on the bestseller list and Oprah on the first try, but most don’t.
On a final note, the fabulous Suzie Townsend of Fineprint Literary had this to say: I want first time authors to query me after their novel is polished – not just finished, but revised and edited based on feedback from beta readers or critique partners who read and write the same genre. More and more often, I have writers emailing me a few weeks after they sent me the manuscript I requested going, ‘Actually I’ve made some revisions, can I send you the new version?’ While I always say yes, it’s hard to stay organized with the number of emails I get without getting multiple versions of the same manuscript and more than once I’ve read the first version by mistake.
In the end, I’m grateful for my learning experience. And you can bet that I don’t intend to make the same mistake twice. But if I do, there’s always chocolate to make it all better.