by Erika Marks
Hello, friends! I hope this finds everyone ready for the holiday season—and by ready, I mean totally freaking out! (Just kidding. Well, sort of.)
I know this time of year is one during which we can’t help but be especially reflective, not on just this past year but the years before it, and, of course, the one ahead.
It also seems to be the time of year when the world becomes especially list-happy with everything from books to bagels getting put on a Best of/Worst of list somewhere in the world. So I thought, why not add a Best/Worst list of my own during this season of reflection?
Recently, I met with a great writing group and one of the students asked me—after I’d told them that I was 20 years writing and submitting before I got my first book contract—if I would have done anything differently along the way, and if so, what?
Today I’m sharing my list of the best and worst things I may have done on my writing journey.
And because I like good news first, let’s start with the best things I did for my writing in those years.
1. I wrote every day.
Now I’m sure—no, I KNOW—there were exceptions to this. Life steps in (or gallops or tramples or…you get the picture) but during those times when I was in a story, I never left its side. For me, when it comes to writing, distance does NOT make the muse grow fonder. Even a bad day of writing kept me connected to my characters—and that connection got me back to the screen the next day (even if it was only to delete every word I’d written the day before).
2. I moved on to a new story when a current one needed to be shelved.
It’s hard, I know. We write and we edit, we cut and we add. We nurture the darn WIP like a baby bird and we cannot bear the thought that it might be for nothing, which of course it isn’t, because no matter what comes of the novel, whether it’s sold or shelved, our craft is stronger for it. But all that said, it still stinks to bid it adieu and move on to a new WIP love. But it’s necessary. And I did it more times than I can count.
3. I kept a spreadsheet of the agents I queried.
I know it sounds goofy and anal, but when you query agents for as long as I did, a good memory doesn’t cut it. I wanted to keep track, really keep track, of who I had sent what to, if they’d offered to see my next project, if they’d offered advice. All those pieces of correspondence ultimately brought me to my current agent, a fabulous relationship that I truly believe was 20 years in the making, and every contact I made led me closer to it.
4. I listened to feedback.
I know this sounds obvious; so obvious, I almost didn’t add it to the list. But there was time when I DIDN’T listen to feedback, and I wish I had earlier.
* * *
Okay then! Boy, that was fun. Yay me, right?! Cheers on some good moves, Erika! High fives all around!!!
Well. Now it’s time to put down the toasting glass and get on to the NOT so good news…
So, deep breath. Some of the worst things I did on my writing journey (be warned, it’s not pretty):
1. I sent my work out too soon.
How soon is too soon? You know the scene in the movies where the writer pounds out THE END, bundles the fat stack of typewritten pages into an envelope and mails them off gleefully? Yup. That soon. I can’t honestly tell you the first manuscript I did a real round of edits on. (You think that’s an awful confession? Wait till you get to number 2.) Forget getting other readers, I didn’t even take the time to reread it MYSELF! Gah. DOUBLE Gah.
2. I queried before my novel was finished.
Now we’re getting to the really ugly confessions, friends. In the pantheon of dumb moves, this is a biggie. But hear me out! I was excited about the concept, I was positive the idea alone was so sellable that I just had to get it out into the universe before someone else declared it! So imagine my excitement when the requests poured in immediately…then imagine my panic. Same goes for the previous worst: When an agent requests a manuscript that isn’t finished or isn’t ready, nobody wins. The moral: For the love of Pete, JUST WAIT.
3. I didn’t read.
For a long, long time, I wasn’t a reader. And it showed in my writing. (And other places too, I’m sure.) Only when I committed to reading—and reading widely—did I truly begin to understand how to build/tell/shape story.
4. I tried to write to trends.
We’ve all been there. We write and submit our own original ideas. Meanwhile, we keep reading about yet ANOTHER debuting author whose (fill in the blank with popular trend of your choice here) novel is joining the ranks of the growing rage and collecting big bucks. We think how much easier it would be to just write one of those books instead, right? For me, it wasn’t. I had neither the passion nor the stamina for a book I had built on trend.
Which leads me to one of the most popular pieces of advice but still one of my favorites: Write the book you want to read.
* * *
So there we have it! Yet another Best and Worst List to add to the ranks. Thank you so much for letting me share mine, friends—now I’d love to turn it back to you. If someone asked you what the best and/or worst thing you did on YOUR writing journey was, what would you say?
Erika’s previous post here at WITS: 7 Tips For Finishing The First Draft
A native New Englander, raised in Maine, Erika has worked as an illustrator, an art director, a cake decorator, and a carpenter.
She now lives in North Carolina with her family and still rushes to the ocean every chance she gets. She is the author of Little Gale Gumbo, The Mermaid Collector, and The Guest House.
Hi Erika, thanks for the great topic! I’m with you – 17 years writing until my first book came out.
Best thing? Listened. Surrounded myself with smart people, then listened. Osmosis took over eventually.
Worst thing? No patience. It’s easy to look back now and think that I should have calmed down and I’d have made better decisions, but I have to admit, I’d probably make the same ones. Patience still doesn’t work like osmosis.
Laura, if they could bottle one thing–one thing!–I want them to bottle patience. As old as I get, I don’t find I have any more of it than I ever did.
Thanks for sharing your point about listening–that’s great advice, truly.
I’d be standing in line next to you for a few of those bottles! The other day I told the 8 year old to be patient. He looked me straight in the eye, hands on hips and said, “Really? Patience, Mom?” 😉
I’d be standing in line right next to Orly, chatting. I laugh inside when I tell me daughter she needs to be patient because I am NOT.
The Mermaid Collector sounds fabulous! I love mermaids.
Debbie, The Mermaid Collector IS fabulous.
I put it on my amazon wish list and will download this afternoon. (If I do it this minute, I will start reading and not get a lick of writing in today)Thanks, Orly!
Oh, you ladies are too kind. Thank you! I love mermaids, too, Debbie–which you probably already guessed;)
Terrific post, Erika. Thank you for sharing both the best and worst of your journey to publication. We’ve all been there, sending our “masterpiece” too soon because we’re so excited. (As Laura said above, “Patience doesn’t work like osmosis.” Love that!) I used a spreadsheet, too, and found it really helpful. And you’re spot-on about listening to feedback. When I finally landed my agent, I sent her every morsel of feedback I’d received from other agents. I was terrified she’s think, “Why have I agreed to represent this loser?”, but she kept me! The additional feedback was incredibly useful as we prepared the ms for submission.
Best wishes for continued success!
Lori, thank you so much for leaving your thoughts. I love that you shared your feedback–because it’s true, isn’t it, that every morsel, no matter how small, is useful. I also love that after having read your wonderful novel, THE LIFE LIST, I can tell you here how much I enjoyed it!
I hope you and yours are looking forward to a restful (what’s that, right?;)) holiday and a peaceful new year with much continued success!!
I have been writing in some form or another since age nine.I now write a blog.This year coming up is my big move.I want to write the book,that’s been dancing in my head for years now.I know the characters so well,you would think they live and breathe.My issue is fear,in every sense of the way.I never had formal education in writing.But my life could be a made for Television movie. Thank you for the words of wisdom.They have me a good idea,were to start.And now are on a 3×5 card above my desk.
Hello! Oh my dear, I think we can all relate to that fear, that worry of what if I’m not ___ or the book is not ___ but believe me, as someone who learned the craft from the ground up (and is STILL learning) I know you CAN get there and your words WILL flow because as you just said you know your story and your characters better than anyone. I wish you all the very best!
Aerobabe – You sound like me, 17 years ago. I had no formal training, just an idea and a pantload of ‘experience’ I’d put myself through. I now have 7 books under contract, and hopefully a new contract next year. Do NOT let fear stop you – you DO have what it takes to do this already!
Cheri, I’m with Laura on this one! You’ve got everything you need…you just need to take a deep breath and put your feet on the path. And think of what a great example you’ll be setting for your kids and your grandbabies by chasing those dreams. 🙂
Erika,Laura and Jenny,
Your words of encouragement are so wonderful. I cannot thank you enough for that.It made my Christmas. Your right Jenny i want so badly to show my girls and grand babies that Mimi has talent. That my mom was wrong,that I’m not a “49 year old bag,and a stupid mess”. I want them to know im a confident strong woman,that beat the odds and love them unconditionally.I read somewhere,that some of the most brilliant people achieved success after 50. I’m going to catch that dream’s tail and ride it all the way.
Wonderful post, Erika. I think understanding feedback is a whole skill set. And Aerobabe, we’re all rooting for you! I wish I could say the fear thing goes away when you’re pubbed, but it doesn’t. I think the other side of fear is appreciation for the craft of writing.
Erika, you’ve hit a vital nerve for so many. Me? I’m still in the “process.” Four years writing, most of my life thinking of writing. An old salt who has already managed to do three of the worst … yet in fairness to me … I also do most of the “best.” Looking at your two lists, I see that I could balance those a little better. Great post!! Thanks 🙂
I’m so glad you can relate–I really appreciate that. And while I’d love to think I’m in front of my writing mistakes, I know I could come back in another year and have ANOTHER list;)!
Happy holidays and thanks so much for reading!
What a great post, I love a post that doesn’t make me feel guilty for things I’ve done! Queried before book was finished, check. Sent out too soon, check. I’ve been writing on and off for…mumblemumble years but I figure every year I learn something, so I’m soon to be a brilliant novelist, right? Thanks for your insight and willingness to share.
Oh Amy, I love that! It’s all part of the process, isn’t it? The good, the bad, the ugly, the early, the late–all of it. I am my own WIP, it’s true!:)
Wonderful post, Erika!! As Amy said, LOVE a post that doesn’t make me feel guilty.
Best thing I’ve done – learned from my mistakes. Worst thing – sadly, repeated some of those mistakes. All because of that stupid patience thing.
Hey Orly dearie–Oh, that darned patience thing again! I think you’re right–I’d be willing to bet a good 9 out of 10 mistakes we make in life are a result of lack of patience.
Now that we’ve established the source of the problem… 😉
Erika, a terrific topic. I think I’ve made all the above the mistakes too. In defense, I was told even though it broke a rule, it was okay to query before the book was done because it would take at least 2 months before I heard a peep from anyone. In some cases that’s still true but with everything going digital …. Too, I know now when I finish the book, that’s just beginning of the end. There’s still beta readers, editing and etc. I’m still making mistakes even having been published — new ones crop up, but I’m working on them.
Hi Sharla–thank you! And you are so right that the mistakes keep coming–my only hope is that I don’t make the same ones in writing twice, but then…
(Is it too early for a post on New Year’s Resolutions, Orly???)
Funny … Laura and I were brainstorming this morning and I mentioned that my goal for 2014 is to teach myself patience (she may have hurt herself laughing – can someone in CA please go check on her?!).
So no, not too early for a post on New Year’s goals/resolutions/promises/whatever you like calling it. 🙂
Great validation for “writing what you like to read”. That’s how I started and that’s what I’m still doing. I was told by my first agent that she “couldn’t sell women’s fiction”. Okay. Well, that wasn’t going to stop ME from writing it because I read WF every single day so I know it sells.
Patricia, exactly! We can get so fixated on writing to suit an agent/reader/editor that we lose perspective on what it is we want to write (and read, as you rightly point out).
Thank you for sharing this today and may the new year bring you and yours joy and peace!
This was really helpful. Thanks.
I’m so glad! Thank you for reading, Melissa!
Everything you did (even the worst things!) worked out okay, because your books are fabulous. 🙂
It’s tough to find time to read, isn’t it? Even now, I have a hard time relaxing into a book, because I always think I should be writing instead. The only way I can manage it sometimes is to tell myself that reading widely IS and essential part of writing.
Oh hello, my sweet Deb sistah! Happy, happy holidays to you! I’ve been thinking about you and wondering what Ciel is up to these days?? I agree that trying to find time to read seems a biggie these days but so important–of course, one of the perks of publishing is hearing about all the fabulous books coming down the pike so there’s never any shortage of great reads, just TIME, right, my dear??
I loved hearing the good and the bad — so helpful to hear the paths other writers have been down. Listening to feedback has been so critical for me, too, and I’ve really tried to find at least one universal message in every piece I’ve received (even when I wasn’t receptive to the critique as a whole, haha). Your message: to write what you want to read is a powerful one, too, closely related to a favorite I learned in a class: to find and write in your own voice… which for me is tied back into reading widely. Great piece, Erika.
Hello, my friend–It’s wonderful to see you here!
It is amazing, isn’t it, how good we get at taking feedback once we realize how important it can be and how there is usually something to be savored in every piece. I think that’s why I love the editing process so much–I want to know what DOESN’T work because I can’t wait to make it work.
1. Learned not to take it personally
2. Accepted that my first couple of manuscripts weren’t good enough (and that my current one might not be)
3. Edited other people’s writing
4. Found trusted beta readers and took their advice to write bold.
Not enough space to list them all.
Eric, your number one is a huge one–thank you so much for sharing that because I can’t believe I didn’t include that one. Not taking it personally is such a biggie. I think once we are able to do that (and let’s face it, we’re not machines–even the toughest of us nuts crack every now and then under rejection) only then we can be much more pragmatic about the process and move to the next (be it query/manuscript/edit/etc) and keep the momentum going.
Wishing you all the best in the coming year–and thanks again for sharing your list!
I wrote for a long time before my first screenplay was produced. You made the same mistakes we all make. It is part of the process, unfortunately.
Michael, you are so right that it is part of the process. This list of mine is far from exhaustive–especially as I read the wonderful ones you all are adding to remind me the longer we work toward our goals, the more we hiccup along the way.
Happy holidays to you!
When I was asked how long it took me to write my first book, I said 20 years. The second book took me just two. If I were to have written the list of the best and the worst things I have done to further my writing career, I would take the reading off the worst things and put on the best things list. I would have to take the spreadsheet off the list. That is a good idea though. Thank you for the tip!
Cygnet, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing those thoughts. Like so many things in life, writing is about timing. I firmly believe that. When the stories arrive, where we are in our lives to flesh them out, to make them stronger, etc. It takes what it takes, doesn’t it? The key is keeping at it. Wishing you a fabulous new year with lots of writing AND reading! 🙂
Erika, this is inspiring. I’ve been at this 7+ years and counting. I’ve published a few small pieces and poems, but nothing big yet. Thanks for honestly and concisely sharing what you learned along the way. It inspires me to keep going.
Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author.
Wonderful advice, Erika. I too try to write every day, even it ‘s blog posts for releases. I also sent my book out too soon. That, however, was a good thing for me. I have no chapter nearby, and didn’t know about RWA until after I’d finished my first book. I had no craft to speak of, but when I got rejected, I was able to join RWA PRO. It wasn’t until then that I discovered critique groups and the wonderful community of romance writers. Tweeted, reblogged and shared.
What a great post – clearly things so many of us recognize!
The only thing I can add to this terrific list is “give back.” Give to the writing community and to your peers. Giving can take any form – I’ve served as a judge for chapter contests, coordinated my chapter’s contest, moderated classes, beta-read, and now handle the blog/social media for the International Thriller Writers Debuts. There are so many ways to help out and often people seem hesitant to step forward.
Yes, it’s another ball in the air – and time away from my writing – but I’ve met so many wonderful people over the years by doing these things. Without volunteers, these programs wouldn’t exist.
Fantastic advice – so straightforward yet so not that easy to figure out for yourself! I’ve fallen into the trap of sending stuff out too soon – looking at the comments it seems we all have! – and also of forgetting to read because I was so busy writing. Earlier this year I realised I had to make reading a priority and carved out specific time in my schedule to devote to it (in addition to all the random reading times that may or may not come along!) and I think my writing has definitely benefited from it.
Great post, Erika! I loved Number One. I heard James Rollins speak last year and one thing he said stuck with me, “I give myself permission to write crap today.” I think folks who only work when they have that flash of genius sit at the keyboard for a long time. My worst mistake? There are so many . . . I’ll pick sticking with a genre (science fiction) because I had early success, even when I wanted to write mysteries. And it showed in my work. Gotta go now — I’m getting “I give myself permission . . .” tattooed on my forehead. Happy Holidays, everybody!
Great post! Next year I’m going to worry less about marketing and spend more time writing. That’s my New Years Resolution!
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The very best thing I did for my writing was…well there were two things, actually…
1)joined a writing circle
Nothing beats being among like-minded people to inspire and motivate you. They cheer you on. They give you a helping hand. They… Well, I could go on and on.
2)created a blog
I know some would say, “But it’ll cut into my writing time.”
I reply, “Blogging is writing.”
Thank you for your thought-provoking article, Erika.
Great post! I love ‘write the book you want to read’ – I am doing revisions on my first novel (or rather, the first one I have ever actually finished…) and it only occurred to me recently that I wrote this book for myself. It is something I want to read. And that’s why I found this writing journey so rewarding. Now here’s hoping there are others out there who also want to read it!