Reader Friday: Learning from Mistakes

We all prefer to highlight the successful moments in our writing careers, but let’s visit the flip side for a moment. What mistakes or goof-ups have you made in your writing life? Did you learn any useful lessons from from the experience?


38 thoughts on “Reader Friday: Learning from Mistakes

  1. Before I sold, when I was researching what genre to write and what was selling, I saw that over 50% of book deals were romance. I hadn’t read much of it, but thought I could write it.

    WRONG! It wasn’t until I wrote my first suspense book that it hit me. My personal bookshelves were filled with crime fiction and all its subgenres. It was my comfort read. The research I had done on what was selling was important, but it should have included a look at my own reading collection. As an avid reader, I am my target market.

    Lesson learned – Read the genre you want to write AND write the book you are passionate about and want to read.

    • Been there, done that! Like you, I have a bulging collection of mystery novels, although I’ll admit it’s salted with a more than a bit of S/F.

      A friend (who reads romance) told me my first novel sounded like romantic suspense, so that’s the label I went with. It’s the first in a series. As I finish the second in the series, I realize that what I wanted to write was a mystery series with husband and wife detectives. Trying to keep the romantic elements alive is driving me crazy!

      I also write novels with fantasy elements. Surprise! They all have a mystery at their core. Is there a recognized genre for supernatural mystery? Urban fantasy has been overrun by the romance folks, it seems.


    • A term I’ve heard for cross over genres is Speculative Fiction. Usually it pertains to lumping sci-fi, horror, fantasy together. In YA, they are called YA Mash-ups. Mash ups are very popular these days. Publishers Weekly did a feature on it for YA, but I can see this idea of writing a cross genre adult book in the same way. In this digital age, it’s more important to write the story you are most passionate about, without worrying how it will be shelved in stores or libraries.

      Mystery is a great element in ANY story. I love reading it. And the attraction between the sexes is another thing I like to add, to build conflict and add tension. Romance is the new black.

      But any romance subplot needs to be fully integrated, such that if you delete the romance, the book no longer makes sense. In other words, ramp up the stakes & punish them for wanting to be together. Make them vulnerable because of the feelings they have.

  2. I’m a plotter and tried to write a book by the seat of my pants once. I painted myself do deeply into a corner by what I thought would be the halfway point I three 80% of that away, and outlines from that point on.

    Never again. I don’t outline in as much detail as i used to, but I still need t know where I’m going.

    • I hate outlining, but find them useful as long as they remain very broad-stroke and flexible. I usually veer way off the original outline during the actual writing, but consult it as a reality check to make sure I’m hitting important milestones.

  3. Kathryn, One of my biggest foul-ups came long before I had an agent or found an editor who liked my work. At a writer’s conference, I waited next to an editor I’d already met, while our bagels toasted. He asked me what I was writing. My “Uh, oh, well…” probably made him grimace. At that point I determined I would always, always, always have my elevator pitch on the tip of my tongue, even if it was before breakfast.
    (By the way, he wasn’t interested in my book but he and I have been friends ever since.)

    • He probably appreciated running into a writer who hadn’t already become over-rehearsed! And you bevame friends, so your reply must have been good, on a human level.

  4. That one is easy. Lessons learned:

    1) Don’t let someone else’s expectations become your personal goal post.

    2) Procrastination is the mother of shattered dreams.

  5. Oh mistakes…. I’ve made a few. The short list includes gems like “Write a YA toned novel with a college age main character” and “self publish rather than shelve and evolve”, plus of course “set a schedule for weekly web writing that you have no prayer of keeping up once summer is over.”

    But the biggest, most painful, misstep of my efforts in writing was to completely and totally underestimate the challenge of working 6 hour days in solitary while at the same time spending boku bucks to have the house to myself to do so.

    Last summer we kept both kids in day care so I could write for 5-8 hours a day in peace and quiet. I was supposed to, at summer’s end, have a 60k word manuscript of the next great sci fi epic. Instead I had some short stories, some short erotica, a weekly web novel that took all of my Friday’s to write a chapter of, and just over 6k words in the sci fi epic.

    And what did me wasn’t just procrastination, it was an inability to be alone for that long at a time. I needed contact. I needed to talk. I needed social time. I was like one of those sims who can’t go three actions without doing something social to keep out of the red.

    I would take an hour long trip to the grocery store and strike up random conversations just to have them. I’d look for friends on Facebook who were on just to get some chat action. I woudl comment like crazy at blogs just to feel like I was interacting and then I’d sit and hit refresh to see it become a conversation.

    I don’t think it was so much procrastination just that it’s not easy to sit and make yourself create content hour after hour after hour. I don’t even think I set too high a goals for word count on a day to day basis, having managed to hit 1200 words a day during NaNoWriMo a few years ago without TOO much sweat. it’s just the social thing.

    I went from spending all day with 5 groups of 30 teens to going all day with… no one but me. And I was so not ready for it.

    • You see these strange people wandering around Gelson’s talking to the kabochas and anyone who’ll listen. Must be lonely writers gone stir-crazy.

    • Try placing Mr. Chips the talking mannequin at a strategic location away from your writing space in the house, be sure to get the model with a random auto-repsonse audio chip and strike up conversations with them.

      You: Hello Mr. Chips, how’s your day?

      Chips: Fine Rob! And you?

      You: Oh, the writing’s coming along nicely, got 500 words done and it’s only half-past morning.

      Chips: Fine Rob! And you?

      You: Uh…you just said that.

      Chips: Red salmon, grilled on a cedar plank…mmm, mmm good!

      You: What?

      Chips: Out of the park, baby!

      You: Is your speech synth broke or something?

      Chips: Fine Rob! And you?

      never mind…technology isn’t there yet

  6. Sending out a giant typo in a novel synopsis to five agents. And after realizing I’d done it, I accidentally sent the same text to a contest without fixing the typo. Ouch!

    Lesson learned: You can never reread your submissions too many times…


  7. It’s always good to triple check your research. Technical mistakes can haunt you, and I’ve had a few. But there was one that no one caught (at least my co-writer and I never got called out on it). On page 20 of our second thriller THE LAST SECRET, there’s a blatant mistake. Anyone that can spot it will receive a signed copy.

  8. My biggest writing mistake–I got plenty of others–was not starting this fiction “thing” earlier. It just never occurred to me that I could actually do it. Even after twenty-some years of technical writing and denying the desire to do it. Now, it’s just so much fun! Hey, work? Sure. But it’s still fun to me. And thanks to the amazing folks at TKZ and JSB’s wonderful writing books, it’s all happening and I’m doing it every day.

    • I hear you, Jim. I also did the technical writing thing, a career in which you starve your writer’s soul in exchange for a pleasing paycheck. Actually I should have been doing both technical writing and fiction, but I was a bit of a Lazy Mary.

  9. Mine (of many) was to not know when it was time to leave the cosseted fluffy bunny writer’s workshop/group where your every word was considered golden and criticism was not to be condoned.

    It was okay place to start because it got me writing and I turned out some fairly decent short works. However, the never-ending “oh, so shiny” ego-petting also over-inflates your writer ego and gives you a sense that the rules don’t apply to you.

    It is hard to break out of and a lot of decent writers I know never did. Instead of manning up and doing it the real way, many went to places like (gak) Publish America and other scams.

    It isn’t easy to grow elephant skin over bunny fur, but I’ve done it.


    • I went through something of the same thing, Terri. When I was nearly finished with the first draft of DTBT, I was desperate for what I considered to be “real world” feedback. My critique group was helpful, but I didn’t know if what i’d written would pass muster in the big, bad world. So I signed up for my first writer’s conference, Sleuthfest, and submitted an excerpt to an editor. (I chickened out of my slot with an agent because I didn’t feel confident about my ‘elevator pitch.’ That year Sleuthfest had an auction, and one of the prizes was a critique by TKZ’s own PJ. Parrish. I and another newbie writer proceeded to engage in a fierce bidding war, which the Parrish sisters kindly put to an end by agreeing to critique both our manuscripts. Their comments on my first 30 pages became like gold to me, and I applied their suggestions to the rest of my WIP. (The editor I’d submitted pages to did request the rest of the manuscript, but then eventually said that my story was somewhat “commercial”, and she was a “literary” editor. I’m still trying to understand that distinction! But the feedback I’d gotten from professionals finally gave me the courage to start approaching agents. I had no idea whether I was really ready to submit the manuscript until I got that feedback.

  10. Sometimes I feel split in two as a writer, divided between romance and mystery. Had circumstances been different at certain junctions in my career, I perhaps should have stuck with one of these regardless of the obstacles at the time. It would have made things easier in terms of branding and promotion.

  11. I lost a year working on a book that someone else, whose opinion I value, said would be a good area for me. I had completed two YA pirate adventure novels, and this person suggested I should branch out. So I tried this supernatural mystery.

    It’s a good topic, someone should write it, but not me, I discovered. You can’t write what anyone else tells you you should, or what sales reports suggest would be profitable. You’ve gotta write your passion.

    I am now trying to convince that friend that she should take the idea and run with it. She’s thinking about it.

  12. I’ve made plenty of errors in my life related to this industry. Like Joe said, technical mistakes can be pretty bad especially if you write a genre where you are supposed to have a degree of experience and should know better. Other mistakes include inserting a character in an action sequence without remembering they died two chapters earlier.

    The most notable by far though was not in writing, but in reading…ie narrating an audiobook on mic after a big bean-soup lunch…that’s where I learned to always edit audiobooks in a quiet environment to catch those, um, personal noises before the book goes public.

  13. LOL, Basil. I once went back into a studio to read an audio book after a Mexican lunch.
    One big mistake — waiting too long to double-check technical info and having to change it on the page proofs. Highly risky.

    • OMG, Elaine. I want to hear more about this audio book and the aftermath of a Mexican lunch. Oy!

      Actually…maybe my imagination is enough.

  14. It’s hard to say which among many was my biggest mistake as a writer. The one that comes to mind here relates to my one and only commercially published book, a thriller from long ago titled The Dating Service. In it I developed what people in the know told me was a great bad guy, one with legs that could be sustained in a sequel, even a series. The trouble is, these people in the know–the very successful agent who sold the book and the good editor who bought it–didn’t urge me to rewrite the story, so that the character they both liked wouldn’t be blown away at the end. Goodbye, sequel/ series. I know I could resuscitate this character, bring him back as a son, or in a prequel, etc., but I never have and probably won’t. Times have changed, and what fit then probably wouldn’t now.

  15. This writing mistake goes to all the young authors out there lurking in shadows, behind your creative genius.
    The writers on this panel have perhaps dipped their toes in the waters of this mistake—only to find it too painful to jump in.
    Joe touched upon it, exposing it for what it is.
    My colossal writing mistake has been thirty years of procrastination.

    • Mine’s worse, Dave–I wasn’t even trying to write fiction until I was invited to submit a story proposal by an editor friend. What a waste of time! I thought fiction writing was an “unrealistic” goal, and spent too many years doing more “career-oriented” things. I should have been writing all along, but I hadn’t even let myself dare to dream. What a chicken I was!

  16. Thanks Kathy for sharing.
    I never thought fiction writing was an unworthy or an unrealistic goal—I only thought it was beyond me to ever write and get a published work out —to be read, and liked by others like myself.
    That was until I read Stephen Kings Book on Writing.
    In my immature mind, I thought it take years to write a novel.
    Alas, hindsight and procrastination only destroys the possibility of fame and fortune.
    I applaud the contributors in The Kill Zone, and Mr. Bell for sharing their successes and failures with us all.
    And Basil Sands…”he is one hell of a great audio book voice!”

  17. The mistake I made was becoming a famous fictional character in an online text-based MUD (multiple user domain) and becoming the slut of the universe with my writing.

    The combination of writing and role playing is a breeding ground for perverted readers. People would stay online just to get a taste of mud sexing with someone who could actually write. πŸ˜€

    I should have gone straight into erotica to compete with 50 Shades. lol

  18. James, I’m sure you receive many accolades each day. But, I’m here to tell you about your Knockout Novel software platform. It is incredible. I’m using it to write my 4th novel, and it’s almost as if you are there with me, taking me through a class, each step of the way, my not knowing why you’re asking those questions of yours, pushing me to dig, dig, “I want another 25% more intensity.” You, sir, are either brilliant, or possibly you’ve just done this so long that it’s second nature to you. BTW, I’d be more than happy to write a blog, or whatever, about how Knockout Novel is worth a lot more than $49!

    • Michael! Thank you so much for the kind words about the software. You’re right, I’ve been doing this a long time and have been gratified to hear from writers who say I’ve been able to help. Nothing pleases me more. Thank you again for the comment!

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