Beginning Writers Biggest Mistakes

I like chocolate.  But that has nothing to do with today’s post.  Not really.  Unless of course you like to eat chocolate while you’re writing.  Then, my friends, we’re off to a great start. 

 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. 

No, this is not me, though my children would try to convince you otherwise.

But I was making my manuscript better, right?

                                                          WRONG! 

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.

This bar ceased to exist after writing this post.

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.  

Amie Borst is the mother of three girls – two of which are middle grade readers.  She writes fairy tales with a dark but funny twist and would love to have you visit her at her website and blog.

Amie Borst
Amie Borst is the author of the Scarily Ever Laughter series featuring Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood and Snow Fright. You can find her on her website www.amieborst.com

23 responses to “Beginning Writers Biggest Mistakes

  1. I have been told by others that this is wrong, or that is wrong. Never what is write… Ignore them all!

  2. Thanks for your comments everyone!
    Brian – you’re welcome. 😛
    Robyn – I’m so glad to hear that you’ll be sharing it at your SCBWI meeting. That’s wonderful!

  3. Great points and good article. I’m printing this article to read to our SCBWI meeting this weekend. It means a lot to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.

  4. Excellent post. This is so true, especially about querying too early. I think sometimes we get so anxious to begin our journey to publication that we get ahead of ourselves and submit work that really isn’t as good as it could be.

    Thanks for the reminders!!

  5. Oh, yeah, I’ve become well aware of these rules, LOL! I think hearing them helps, but sometimes experiencing them makes all the difference. Thansk for sharing your thoughts and journey! 😀

  6. This is a great post, Amie! I think most writers can relate to this on some level, whether starting out or having been there. It’s great advice for beginning writers…there’s nothing like experiencing it for yourself, but at the same time it helps to know what to expect.

  7. Sydney Salter

    Really great post! I agree that learning to take criticism–and finding the right way to incorporate it into a story–is one of the trickiest thing to learn as a beginner.

    Now I’m going to go eat some chocolate!

  8. Jocelyn Carlin

    Great post. I’m so glad I have blogs like this one to remind me to be patient, work hard, and learn all I can before trying to submit.

    My husband keeps pushing me to query my manuscript, but I am still revising and it is Just Not Ready. This was a nice pep talk to remind me that when I take my time, I’m doing it right. Thanks!

  9. This is so weird… you blame you for not making your manuscript better… and I blame you for not making MY manuscript better. Huh.

    Nice, informative post. Of course it comes about five years too late for me, so thanks for that. 😉

  10. Thanks for this post! I like how you incorporated comments from other writers on what they wish they’d known.

    Like this quote of yours: “I needed to take the suggestions from my crit partners that I felt improved my manuscript, not changed it.” So true! You have to tune in to what your critique partners are saying. Is their suggestion only an opinion, something they’d like to see or what they would write, or is it a true element of revision, something that will improve the story, character, style, etc.? Definitely something to think about with a critique group.

  11. This is a wonderful and insightful post!

    Learning how to properly give and take critiques is key. Even for critiques where I feel like the crit is not something I want to incorporate, I try to discern WHY this person is having difficulty with this particular part of the MS. And then see if there’s a way I can make it better. There usually (but not always) is, even if the change isn’t at all what the critiquer envisioned. Hopefully it’s better! 🙂

  12. Chocolate is always good!

    This is a great post with tons of super info – thanks so much 🙂

  13. Oh, man, thank you for putting this into words. Story of my life…changing my book to please others, querying too soon…but we all learn, right? Great post.

  14. Very helpful article. And like Karen, knowing this earlier on would have saved me a lot of headaches — not to mention headaches of those I submitted to too early!

  15. Karen B. Schwartz

    Ah, a post like this would have saved me a lot of heartache back when. Your photos crack me up. Pass the chocolate!