Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Writing regrets and other torrid things

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?

24 comments :

Amanda Hoving said...

First, my biggest writing regret is taking so long to get serious about it. I could have done so much more in the early years.

Second, NEVER regret Phil Collins.

Sarah W said...

I wish I'd learned earlier how to deal with the potentially lethal combination of Chapter 14 Boredom and Shiny New Idea.

And I wished I'd learned earlier that in order to have written, I need to actually write. 'Cause it's so much easier just to talk about what I'm planning to write than to do all that work . . .

Okay - still learning that one. It's a process

Indigo said...

Writing regrets? I wish I had listened to my teachers in high school. They hinted like crazy I should write. Instead I waited until my 40's to take interest.

Then again, now I have a lifetime of experience to temper my words with. Still all those wasted years of non-productivity - boggles the mind.(Hugs)Indigo

Teri Anne Stanley said...

Ditto what Indigo said, as in, "Why did I wait so long to do this/but did I have any perspective before this?".

Fortunately, most of the other things I regret happened before people had camera phones.

Except now I have to worry about the Phil Collins thing.

Linda G. said...

Ugh. The Waiting Game. I'm in the middle of it right now, and it's never easy. But I try to keep the eternal waiting on the back burner while I concentrate on the things I can do, like working on the next project. And developing my social networking skills, of course. ;)

Control what you CAN control, and let go of the rest; otherwise, you'll go even crazier.

Laura Maylene said...

I regret sending out stories in the past that were just plain not ready to go out. But then I overcompensated and for years didn't send anything out at all. I hope I have reached a middle ground -- I send stories out when I truly feel they're ready. I'm getting acceptances so it's going well.

I considered saying that I regret querying my first novel (which also wasn't ready) years ago, but I don't...I learned a lot, received a lot of good feedback from agents, etc. I even used the experience in an essay that was recently published in Poets & Writers.

Not to be all Sally Sunshine, but everything, especially the bad stuff, has been a great learning experience.

Mark Simpson said...

I also regret not starting earlier, although if my early work is anything like some music I wrote ten years ago I doubt American Literature missed out on much.

Thankfully I destroyed the evidence in case the odds catch up with me in a tragic les-paul-to-stripper-to-vacuum-tube-amp electrocution. Nobody needs to find that while dividing up my shit... er... mourning my early passing.

That's probably how I'll soon feel about my rookie effort in the works... but until reality is forced upon me that guy in the mirror is still strikingly reminiscent of a young Peter Capstick.

Christina Auret said...

I don't have writing regrets. I started trying to write a book because I did not want to regret not writing a book. I love my day job (on the days that i don't want to take an axe to all the people who are thwarting me, anyway), but in the back of my head I have always wanted to be a writer.

I was six when I made up my mind that I would write a book some day. This was before I could actually write. I turned 25 this year and decided that now would be a good time to start. I'm sure I will have regrets along the way, but at least I won't ever have to regret that I did not at the very least try to write a novel.

Danica Avet said...

My biggest regret was not starting earlier. I toyed with fiction for years before I sat myself down and said, "Self, you need to finish a book. Instead of starting twelve projects and getting to page 50, finish one of them." Which I did and I haven't looked back since.

The other thing I regret more than anything else, is not actually paying attention in Math class in high school. My life would have been so different if I had. You know, it might not have taken me 6 years to get a 4 year degree because I had to keep taking Math 101...yeah...BIG regret there. LOL

Leona said...

OH, and PS No one should ever regret Phil Collins! Ever. Not Ever. Not even once in a while. He is a fabulous singer.

Michelle Wolfson said...

I find this so interesting how many of you regret not starting earlier. In my mind, you started now (or whenever) and that's what counts.

It's not that I don't understand what you are saying. Sometimes I wish I'd become a literary agent straight out of college. But all of the jobs I had and things I did went in to making me who I am.

I say if you're happy with where you are, don't regret the past. And if you're not happy, then change your future.

Ooh, that came out nicely, didn't it that last little bit? Sounds like something I've said a million times before but I swear I just made it up as I was typing.

Gale Martin said...

I'm glad I found your blog (and became a follower). I find it interesting that you write romantic comedies. I must have had the wrong agent because she told me she couldn't sell my book if I called it a romantic comedy. That's really the genre I write best, so I am anxious to read your books and see what kind of American rom-coms are saleable. Congratulations!

warriorwriters said...

Great blog as always and I hear ya! I wish I would have studied the craft earlier too. I was an editor and a copy writer and had won awards for my work (so it was NF and had nothing to do with constructing a plot). I was full of myself and it cost a lot of years and a lot of wasted writing. But, I am happy for it in that I make fun of myself quite often to teach other writers...and I never run out of material for self-deprecation, LOL.

Thanks Tawna.

Kristen Lamb

Matthew AT Banning said...

Since I've only just started looking into being published (Aug. 2010) I haven't had much to regret yet. I know if I went ahead with what I was going to do and cut down my novel (currently 133,000 words and that's already cut down from 138,000!) down to 120,000 I'd regret that. It would mean cutting out scenes important to the plot and a few that I thoroughly enjoy.

I think I've made the wise choice to set this series aside and work on a smaller 50,000 word novel to publish first. I will admit that the nine other book that were going to follow that first one may have been a bit daunting ...

Patty Blount said...

Biggest regret? Definitely not starting earlier. I really wish I'd trusted my own abilities more a bit sooner because playing that waiting game means I'll be on social security before I see my book on a shelf. Worse, it means my mother won't live long enough to share the joy of realizing that dream.

I wish I could take a magic pill and have instant confidence. SEND is a good story! If it came in 6th in Writer's Digest's competition, I am clearly not the only one who thinks this.

But the number of rejections I'm collecting is telling me it's just not good enough. I have to be honest, submerging myself into two new projects definitely removes some of that sting.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I regret not taking more time for my writing in earlier years. I kept making excuses, and there always seemed to be at least one good one. But I sometimes think about what might have happened if I had made more time for writing. I'm trying to make up for that now.

kd easley said...

A hundred years or so ago, I was at a conference. My first novel was polished and I had just started shopping it around. I had a face to face with an agent. She liked my writing, but wasn't interested in the project. Her first question..."What else do you have?"

"Um...."

It was kind of a wake-up call. Sure I'd finished a book, I was sending it out, gathering up rejections, but what else did I have? I immediately went back to my computer and started "something else". If I'd had something else in the works when I sat down with that agent, she might have been more interested. I'll never know, but I never made that mistake again.

Chris Phillips said...

I once saw a bumper sticker that read "How's my driving? Call 1-800-eat-$#!t. I yours was more profound.

I sent a query out but I wasn't sure about the genre, wasted a couple weeks before talking to an author about it and getting it sorted.

terripatrick said...

I don't believe in regret (anymore) and am a "change my future" type, as the profound Ms. Wolfson stated. All the mistakes I've made are now viewed as research since this is exactly what we need our rom-com characters to do. They make choices then deal with the consequences as now they are facing more choices.

In my writing career I was very fortunate that my first masterpiece flew from first draft to the slush pile at Harlequin and the first rejection stated "learn how to write a romance by reading craft books on writing novels." :D

Michelle Wolfson said...

Thank you, terripatrick, for acknowledging how very profound I am.

Jan Markley said...

I agree with the 'pick up a book' one. I too have a journalism/writing background and while I can clearly writer - it is wise to learn as much about the craft of fiction as you can. Now, with two novels under my belt I am still trying to learn as much about the craft of fiction as I can.

C. L. Freire said...

I'm not sure if this is really a regret or not, but years after many revisions on a novel I'm trying to land an agent with, I wondered if I shouldn't write it in first-person, as opposed to how it is now: the elusive third person.

An agent who asked for a partial said she loved how I write, but that she believed the story would work better if written in the voice of my 12-yr old protagonist. So, I started, and it's coming out great, but I have so many self-doubts about it; something keeps gnawing at my gut that this series should be as it is, and not rewritten in first-person.

So I suppose, my "minor" regret, could possibly be having not written it in first-person from the get-go; with it lingering in my head in 3rd for so long, it's hard to break away from what's already there to create what would be an entirely different book.

Great post, btw; it really helped one delve into a dark area I've been avoiding.

C. L. Freire
www.clfreire.blogspot.com

Tawna Fenske said...

Amanda, you know, I really do like Phil Collins. I just couldn't come up with a better musician to pretend to regret :)

Sarah, good point -- there is a big difference between writing and having written.

Indigo, I think you're right about needing life experiences to make you a better writer. That's how I feel about it anyway.

Teri Anne, amen to being glad there were no camera phones in my early 20s :)

Linda G, I shudder to think of YOU getting any crazier.

Laura, I'm totally with you on bad decisions being a great learning experience.

Mark, that early stuff will be worth millions someday!

Christina, exactly! Very rarely do I regret DOING something. Only NOT doing it.

Danica, math sucks.

Leona, I do love Phil.

Michelle, I'm going to start addressing you as "Oh wise one."

Gale, my agent and I heard the same crap about the term "romantic comedy" being a kiss of death. We spent quite awhile calling it "comedic contemporary romance" or some crap like that, but what I love best about my editor is that she just calls it what it is -- freakin' romantic comedy.

Kristen, no kidding, the screw-ups give us plenty to talk about!

Matthew AT Banning, you are an ambitious lad, aren't you?

Patty, yay on the sixth place finish!

Neurotic Workaholic, I like how you phrased it about MAKING time. So many people bitch about not having time as though they're victims, but it really is all about making it.

KD Easley, always good to have an arsenal of other stuff.

Chris, my favorite bumper sticker is the one that says "visualize whirled peas."

terripatrick, I'm totally going to start calling her "The Profound Ms. Wolfson." Thanks for that!

Jan, it's a big switch, isn't it?

C.L. Freire, are you working on a new book yet?

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Claire Dawn said...

I guess my biggest regret is not moving any of my first drafts past the first draft stage. I feel so guilty surround by all you fantabby author types and all my excellipous blog followers, knowing that I'm not doing all I could :(