We all make mistakes. And learning from the errors of others can certainly be much easier than experiencing the sting of your own. In that spirit, here are a few of my most cringe-worthy choices in my writing journey, and what I learned from each one.
1. Editing before revising.
So your manuscript is complete! Hooray! After letting it rest for a bit, you’ll want to go back through and edit, right? Polish up those sentences so they really shine, fix all those spelling mistakes, check all those timeline references?
I learned this the hard way.
(In this post, I define “editing” as those smaller line-editing and prose tweaks, while “revising” is the big-picture stuff. Plot structure, character arcs, pacing.)
I skipped revisions and went right into edits. My story was already there, of course. It just needed that little bit of finesse, of course. I gave my manuscript a pretty shine-up and made that prose sparkle… only to realize a couple of drafts later that my entire plot structure was weak, my climax wasn’t climactic, and my character development was all over the place.
So guess what? 60% of those beautiful sentences were cut and most of the manuscript had to be rewritten.
The Lesson I Learned: Bird’s-eye-view revisions should always come before the spit-and-polish of line editing.
2. Mishandling the beta round.
It’s a wonderful feeling to have a first draft of your book completed. Hitting “the end” on your novel is an amazing accomplishment, and you should definitely celebrate!
However, before you send it off to beta readers, you’ll probably want to put it through at least one good, solid round of revision on your own, or pass it through a trusted alpha or critique partners first.
Here’s how it went down for me. I completely pantsed my manuscript for Cambiare. I started with a few characters and a “what if” question, then let the story meander where it would. I put it through only a couple of cursory rounds of editing (not revising, see Mistake #1), then put out a bat signal for betas.
I did not ask them any questions about their reading style or what they were expecting. These were people who had never read my work, who were only casual online acquaintances. Most of them had never beta-read before. Because of this, many of them were expecting a much more polished manuscript than the one I provided.
Worse, I did not send a sample chapter to see if we would work well together or to make sure they wanted to read a full book.
It was a disaster. The feedback was not only awful, it was hurtful and largely unhelpful.
The Lesson I Learned: Betas are not the same as alpha readers or critique partners. Make sure you’re a good fit with them before sending them a full novel.
3. Querying a book outside the industry-standard parameters.
After I’d finally gotten the hang of revision, I rewrote a chunk of my book and felt it was ready to go. I looked up how to write a query, researched agents, and sent off my first round of query letters.
For a debut fantasy novel that was just shy of 180,000 words.
Now I know what you’re saying: “But ____ fantasy book is 250,000 words! That other book is 400,000 words!” Yes, and most of those were not debut novels from an unknown author, like me.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a longer debut, but it’s by far the exception to the rule. Many agents will immediately toss out a manuscript that is significantly over the standard word count for the genre. It’s nothing personal, just basic risk-vs-reward. More words = more printed pages = higher book price = bigger risk on a debut.
The Lesson I Learned: You are probably not the exception. If you are aiming for traditional publication, it’s best to stick to the usual guidelines.
4. Going it (mostly) alone for too long.
Writing is hard. It’s really, really hard. It can be exhausting and emotionally taxing. Both burnout and impostor syndrome are frequent problems.
I spent two years heavily working on Cambiare with only the support of my husband and a couple of friends. They were great emotional support when I needed it most, but sometimes I just needed to talk to someone else who was slogging alongside me in the revising or query trenches.
Eventually, I joined Twitter and discovered a vibrant, welcoming community of people who were experiencing the exact same things I’d been going through. I’d found a writing family that could share our horror stories of persistent doubts or the stress of deadlines, and lift each other up when we were down.
The Lesson I Learned: No one is an island. We need support, and sometimes it’s just really nice to know you’re not alone in your writerly struggles. A writing group or an online community can be a lifeline when you need it most.
5. Waiting until Draft 9(ish) to find multiple Critique Partners.
So I finished my book. I edited it a little bit, sent it off to betas with awful results, had a friend critique it, rewrote it, and queried it to a handful of agents with only form rejections to show for the whole process.
Then I kept slogging away at round after round of revisions on my own.
On a whim, I participated in a hashtag event on Twitter called #CPmatch, in which users post in a search for critique partners (CPs). I found two and sent them my manuscript.
I had one friend who had already looked over my novel and given me solid feedback, but I didn’t realize how much help each new CP would be. Every new critique is another set of eyes, a new person with a different way of thinking, different likes and dislikes. In one case, I realized that a particular CP and I just didn’t really have compatible book tastes, but even that partner gave some feedback that helped me overhaul the book and make it better.
I found another CP while we were both prepping to enter the annual PitchWars contest, and got another round of feedback.
And I found even more amazing writer friends who were willing to do critique swaps through a NaNoWriMo event hosted by the #RevPit crew.
Each of these people pointed out something everyone else had missed.
The Lesson I Learned: Get other eyes on your book. Specifically, find other writers who are willing to give feedback on your novel in exchange for your critique of theirs.
You’ll make your own mistakes.
It’s inevitable. This whole writing journey is a learning process, and some of your mistakes will hurt. A lot. I know mine did. I’m sure there are many more in my future, but I’ll learn from each and grow.
What mistakes have you made, and what lessons did you learn? Share in the comments below!