One thing struck a real chord: "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 you in the comment column and other places say how hard it is to get this stuff right; how terrifying to think you're doing something wrong.
So, here's the best advice you'll ever get from me probably:
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 the same: nothing.
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 can 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.
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 once 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.
Don't let fear of being wrong keep you from finding out how to write.
There are some mistakes you don't want to make of course; being rude is right at the top of the list.
The corollary 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.
Thus this rule for writers: Be Imperfect
An earlier version of this post appeared in a different form and headline on April 13, 2008.