A long time ago, I saw a bumper sticker that said this:
The only things that I regret are the things I haven’t done.
I’ve always liked the concept, and for the most part, I can say the same (OK, fine – the teased bangs, Phil Collins tape, and the eighth hot buttered rum may have been ill-advised).
Still, even the dumb things I’ve done have been learning experiences.
But several people have asked lately about regrets in my writing career. There aren’t many – certainly not the sort that keep me up at night – but there are a few things I’d do differently if I had it to do over again.
Swallow my pride, pick up a book. I took my first stab at writing fiction about eight years ago. I had an English degree, had been reading voraciously my whole life, and had spent my professional career as a newspaper reporter, technical writer, and marketing geek. I knew how to write. I didn’t need some silly how-to manual.
In hindsight, I wish I’d gotten over myself and picked up a book on writing fiction. While I certainly understood how to string sentences together, I lacked some of the basic knowledge of plot and structure and pacing. I learned those along the way, but I could have saved both time and struggle.
Getting an agent. Many of you are familiar with my bumpy path to publication. In those early years, I was targeting Harlequin/Silhouette’s Bombshell line of women’s action/adventure novels. An agent wasn’t required, so why would I bother getting one?
Um, well—because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, for one thing. Yes, I landed myself a book deal (which I subsequently lost when the line was canceled a month before my scheduled debut). Since then, I’ve realized a couple things – for one, an agent has the industry knowledge and influence with editors to haggle over details like release dates and contract terms. Two, an agent can often negotiate a higher advance than you’d get on your own, essentially paying her own 15%. Three, when something goes awry with a book deal or a manuscript, an agent has the wisdom to point you in a new direction and keep your career moving smoothly.
Would my Bombshell debacle have gone differently if I’d tried to find an agent before setting out on my own? I’ll never know. But I do know I’d sooner cut off my own kneecap with a rusty pair of scissors than negotiate my career without my amazing agent now.
The waiting game. Every author who’s ever submitted to an editor or agent has played the waiting game. It’s enough to drive you to the brink of insanity (and let’s face it, it’s a short trip for most of us). In my early years, I thought it wise to wait for feedback on a submission before forging ahead with a new project. After all, wouldn’t professional input be just the thing to shape my next project?
Well sure, in an ideal world. But the publishing industry doesn’t operate in an ideal world, and wait times can drag out longer than the gestation period for a spiny dogfish (720 days, in case you’re wondering). Not only that, but feedback is just one person’s subjective opinion. I can’t tell you the number of times an editor has gushed enthusiastically over an aspect of a manuscript that made another editor suggest I should give up writing and become a shepherd. Waiting for feedback is a good way to ensure you’ll not only end up disappointed, but with nothing to show when an agent says, “this isn’t quite right, but what else do you have?”
So those are a few of my regrets. What are yours? I’m talking writing here, but if you feel the need to discuss the time you danced naked with a glove on your head pretending to be a giant squid, please share.
Just don’t post pictures, OK?