Sunday, April 13, 2008

Make MORE mistakes, not fewer

I attended the NYCIP writing conference on Friday (I got roped into moderating a panel, and try as I might, I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot).

The lunch keynote speaker was Lincoln Child and since he's a big time thriller guy, I was interested in what he had to say. He's really funny and charming by the way if you're ever looking for a good author for a conference.

One thing he said that struck a chord was "I'll tell you this so you won't make my mistakes." That made me think how often I've put a blog post up here (the entire category of annoy-me for example) in hope that you won't make mistakes.

But I also hear those voices in the comment column, here and in other places, that say how hard it is to get this stuff right, and how terrifying it is to think you're doing something wrong.

Ok, then, here's the best advice I'm ever going to give you probably:

Make Mistakes.

Make LOTS of mistakes.
Give yourself a dollar for every stupid thing you do.

Now, why on earth would I say this?

Fear of mistakes leads to paralysis. If you're so afraid of making a mistake or annoying me that you don't query, or don't write, or don't finish, the result is still the same: nothing.

So, do it, even if it's wrong. It's not going to kill you, and (more important) it's not going to kill me if you make every mistake in the book and invent a few new ones.

Here are some benefits for making mistakes:

1. You'll develop a thick skin, cause you'll get a lot of rejection. Rejection will not kill you.
2. You'll learn what works (because you'll figure out what doesn't)
3. You'll have moved off the starting point, even if you're going in the wrong direction, and the reason to do that is:

Even if you're standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, opportunity might knock. You have to come out of your safe little cave for the opportunity meteor to hit you.

So, what kind of mistakes should you make?

1. Query everyone. Forget that crap about honing a list and researching what agents like. Query everyone. If they say no, so what. Maybe just maybe you'll find an agent looking to branch out, looking for a fabulous new voice, looking for you. The cost of querying right now is damn near zero since you can query almost everyone by email.


2. If you don't hear back in 30 days, query again twice more. Don't assume silence = no until you've tried three times.  As more and more agents follow the loathsome No Reply means No, writers have no way of knowing if the first query was received. Figure three times to make sure. (updated 7/6/14)

3. If one agent at an agency says no, query the other ones.


4. Take your manuscript and your query letter with you to every single place you might meet an agent. This does not mean you thrust said pages under hotel room doors, under bathroom door stalls, under lunch plates, or into handbags. In fact, you don't offer them up at all. But you're READY if someone asks.


5. Write what you don't know. I recently attended a panel sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and it was interesting to me that five of the six authors had created a protagonist in their own image. That's all well and good, but I'm much more interested in the people I don't see every day. The one author who mentioned her protagonist was a Pakistani terrorist was the author I went out and bought the next day.


There are some mistakes you don't want to make of course; being rude is probably the top one on that list. Being stupid is second. You DO want to take risks and chance making a mistake though. Don't let fear of being wrong keep you from finding out how to write.

The corollary to this though is LEARN from your mistakes. It's ok to make them, it's GOOD to make them. It's not ok to make the same ones over and over again.

44 comments:

Mags said...

janet reid says...

There are some mistakes you don't want to make of course; being rude is probably the top one on that list. Being stupid is second.

Drunk querying is good to avoid too! (Unless, of course, you're a really fantastic drunk querier...)

This kind of post is e-zackly why I read your blog!

Eric said...

What about getting your agent drunk and then querying?

I suppose the trick to that is making sure she still respects you in the morning.

Well put, Janet. I'll have to think up some juicy mistakes - new ones, of course - to hit you up with. This old dog keeps trying to learn new tricks, even if I don't run and fetch as quickly as I used to.

corine @ Hidden In France said...

I have queried 41 agents and only ten gave signs of life. The idea of re-querying the 30 who ignored my e-query is a radical concept, but what the hell... what have I got to lose.

Mystery Robin said...

Please, what's the name of the book with the Pakastani terrorist as protagonist? I'd like to get it too!

RedDuck said...

I love your advice to make mistakes. Big ones too, according to your list. Thanks!

Courtney Allison said...

This is the best post I have ever read. Ever.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Thank you. After I made a bonehead spelling error in my query to you, I had images of your fellow agents taking one look at my query and laughing all the way to the rejection letter. Thanks also for being kind enough to point my error out, so I could correct it before anyone else saw it. (And for anyone else reading this comment, it was a proper name that I was so certain was correct, I didn't bother looking it up. Not a mistake I'll make again.)

Margaret Yang said...

Thank you. I really need to hear this today. I'm off to make more mistakes in the WIP. Beats staring at a blank page.

jwhit said...

Hallelujah!! As an educator for the majority of my life, you have hit the nail on the head with this one. Life is a risk. Learning is risky and full of mistakes. Celebrate! Learning also helps move one forward and stop making the same mistakes.

The one thing I'd debate is the 'you'll figure out what doesn't' work comment. I think I connected that with the rejection pile, and probably incorrectly. Rejections only teach that you didn't meet some often unstated expectation. I can and am learning how to write better fiction. But I'm not sure rejection is teaching me much of anything. But critique groups are teaching me heaps. So one risk I would add to your list is getting involved in a crit group or groups to get some hopefully honest feedback.

The rest of the post was magnificent. Full marks and gold stars.

Jan

Julie Weathers said...

*Narrows eyes*

Who are you and what did you do with that agent who used to live here?

That, of course, was a joke, but I have to admit this is pretty radical advice.

I'm probably still going to make my carefully researched lists and query the ones who seem most receptive to my work and me. However, this gives me hope not every agent has a trap door just waiting for the first mistake an author makes.

I've pared down my blog reading, but this is one reason I continue to haunt this place. There is quite often some very good advice for the eager souls who abide here.

Usman said...

My novel is based in Pakistan. Am I late? I'll be moving fast to finish my novel now.

Loved the advise.

kitty said...

Question: Will writing top almost any (and all) mistakes?

...

Wilfred the Author said...

One word: REFRESHING

R.J. Keller said...

Thank you.

Josephine Damian said...

I've always been a big believer in write what you don't know.

Imagination trumps reality everytime. The characters I've written who were the more different from me were the most fully realized because I had to put more thought process into them.

Ryan Field said...

Love this!!

Heidi the Hick said...

Wow. I really needed this today! Thank you!

Just_Me said...

I'm very guilty of being a perfectionist. I nit-pick everything I do from writing or cooking. Nothing is ever good enough for the standards I set for myself and if I make a mistake I want to curl up and die....

I think paying myself a dollar every time I do something stupid is much more practical. I can put it in a savings fund for a charity or something. Or for ice cream :)

Thank you for your wonderful advice. I may print this and hang it somewhere while I query so I know I have "written" permission to move forward with my query letter.

The Grump said...

Just one question:

Aren't you worried about when other agents start hating you for increasing their workload?

(I can't wait to inflict my inappropriate novel on you, but I have to revise ... yet again.)

John said...

I'm going to write a novel about someone who deliberately makes mistakes in all aspects of her life, suffers innumerable, catastrophic hardships as a result. Penniless and loveless, on the streets, she fishes a pencil stub out of someone's trash and writes a brilliant book about her experiences, but can never get it published because it's too "dark" (or too "unbelievable" or "convoluted" or whatever). So she gets a job at Bear Stearns.

Julie Weathers said...

"Aren't you worried about when other agents start hating you for increasing their workload?"

I doubt many other agents are as enlightened as our intrepid Ms. Reid. I'll continue to angst over margins and curly quotes and who is handling what this month.

Even so, this was so very refreshing.

Diana Gabaldon started out writing a "practice" novel. Sometimes not worrying about perfection is just what we need to get us moving forward.

Jessica said...

Janet, Janet, how I love you. Don't worry. I'm married. It's only in an obsessed-fan type of way.
Laughing with maniacal delight as I mentally prepare to send you my inspirational category romance! hehehe

Merry Monteleone said...

"Aren't you worried about when other agents start hating you for increasing their workload?"

- I was actually thinking much the same thing... with visions of agents cursing their slush piles, muttering, "I'll get you Janet Reid... and your little blog too..."

This is a great post - I'll be paging back to it time and again as the rejections roll in, I'm sure.

Julie Weathers said...

"I was actually thinking much the same thing... with visions of agents cursing their slush piles, muttering, "I'll get you Janet Reid... and your little blog too..."

*guffaws*

Thanks, I needed that.

Teri Thackston said...

All so true. I once had a boss who said "If you're not making mistakes, you're not working." The trick is--as you said at the end--to LEARN from those mistakes. Thanks!
Teri

Loretta Ross said...

Write what you don't know

Damn! And after I killed all those people . . .

Californio said...

Excellent post. A well-sent query has a better chance than a poorly-sent one, but a non-sent one has no chance.

As for learning how to write (queries, novels, magazine articles, blogs, PR, whatever) sometimes you have to do it wrong, before you know how to do it right.

Jamie Hall said...

I needed to hear this. It is all too easy to remain paralyzed.

And, I've experienced the truth of it in my own life. What's the best thing that has happened in my attempt to launch a writing career? It was finally learning how the publishing industry really works.

And why did I learn? Because I first made a bad mistake, going with a vanity publisher. I went through the hell that most of the vanity-published go through, and I desperately wanted to find out how I could fix things and get published for real.

JKB said...

This is such an excellent post. I hope you don't mind if I take your advice, and I hope you don't bash your head into the wall when you start getting all these crazy queries from your readers.

Seriously good post tho.

:)

ChristineEldin said...

I agree this is a great post!
Good thing I don't have to practice at this. sigh....

:-)

Linda said...

Great post, irreverent and rad.

And thank goddess my protag is a 20year-old bipolar Harvard male undergrad. Heh - I could almost be his mother, product of the public university system, and about as sane as they come.

Just stumbled onto this blog -thanks! (And Janet, maybe I'll politely sidle up to you at the Grub Street conference and slide you my query and first 10 pages...). Peace...

Lisa York said...

Just what I needed to hear tonight. Your entire blog is great- a gift to writers. Working on my first book, a memoir. Thank you!

Bagby said...

My sister, a biochemist, had much the same advice from her undergraduate lab advisor, who said, "If more than 5% of your experiments turn out as expected, you're probably not being creative enough."

I try to keep that philosophy in mind, but it's always good to hear it again. Thanks.

D. A. Baudoin said...

Janet, I'm going to print this out and tape it to my desk. Best advise I've read in a long time. Thank you.

Corra McFeydon said...

I think when one is willing to take risks, they accomplish a great deal more than when they are terrified of tarnishing their own success.

I agree with so much of your blog.

It's an honor to meet you.

Corra McFeydon

Linda Rader said...

Seems like such simple advice but it is well worth hearing. I am glad I was recommended your site. This is awesome stuff.

Jess of All Trades said...

Thank you so much for this. The 'fear of mistakes leads to paralysis' really struck a chord...it's just nice to remember that everyone can be human. When all's said and done, we'll survive.

Orphan Haiku said...

Thomas Edison once noted, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

Meredith said...

Janet, this is such a great post. Not only is it great to hear this stuff for the authors out there (go you guys!) but it's also inspiring for all the starting-out-in-fill-in-the-blank-industry-people. Like moi. :)

Tessa Quin said...

That's a great post! You don't represent my genre, so this is not a suck-up comment.

3. If one agent at an agency says no, query the other ones. made me do a little wicket laugh inside. I would never have dared to query more than one agent at the agency if one rejects; they all say you're not allowed to! It's refreshing to hear an agent suggest this ;)

I'm getting ready to query a bunch next Wednesday (yes, I work with my own deadlines), and since the only query I've send out-ever- was rejected two weeks ago, I'm already expecting to be rejected by all (I have anxiety issues). This post of yours has helped me greatly to prepare and to continue.

Phil said...

That's a GREAT post, I love the concept. I blogged about something similar in my own blog Failure: the art and science of perfection but your post adds a wonderful twist to it and a lot more specifics about submitting actual work. I will be linking to this post in my next blog.

Wonderful stuff!!!

Phil South

Vanessa K. Eccles said...

Thank you! You have no idea how much I needed to hear this. :)

Carissa Elg said...

So there I was, peacefully minding my own business... I thought to myself, "I'm gonna crack open my book on querying agents." Seemed like a good idea at the time. I was winding down. Getting ready for bed. I've finished my MS... it's in tweak-o-rama/beta/critique hell...er, I mean purgatory... uh, no, that's not right either. Phase Two. Yeah, I'll go with that. Ideally, I'd like to query by fall. The more I was reading... perfection, no mistakes, ask a thousand more questions of yourself, of your writing... perfection. No mistakes or you will be in purgatory forEVAR... the more my heart started to race and my palms had gone clammy. The lazy winding down turned into a frantic frenzy and I realized it would've been better reading a horror novel before drifting off. On the upside, lesson learned. No books on querying agents before bed. It also led me to this post, which I will bookmark in the dank inner workings of my brain. It will be pulled out on days where I'm freaking myself out and getting in my own way. THANK YOU!

Katharine Manning said...

So fantastic, I want to tattoo this on the insides of my eyelids. Thank you.