Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Five Biggest Mistakes as a Newbie Writer by Hilary Wagner

If you don't know much about me, I have three books out currently, a middle-grade series, all about rats, very good versus evil sort of stuff. I love what I do. I love writing. I love creating a killer world that kids will devour and killer characters that kids will adore or love to hate. And like any author, I love reading an email from a young reader who says, "Wow, I love your books!" It feels really good.

That said, my writing road has been riddled with mistakes. I started writing my first book knowing nothing about the publishing industry. I mean, zero, zilch and even after five years in the business, there's still so much I don't know. I put together a top five list and figured, if anything, it might help someone else avoid these pitfalls in writerly judgement. I could have written a top 50 list, but we've all only have so much time in the day for reading blog posts! 

Okay, here goes! 

1.  Too Impatient (or dumb) To Submit My Best
Oh, this is a bad one. I was dumb enough to think the first version of my manuscript was "good enough" and agents (because we all know how accepting of anything they are) would be so in love with it they'd be happy to rep me on the spot, ignoring that some scenes were way too long or my story had more characters than a Russian novel. How dumb was I? Apparently super dumb in those early days. Agents don't want good enough. They want great! They want perfection! 

2. Query Letter That Screamed Reject Me Now!
Like I said, I was a newbie to the publishing industry. I truly did not understand the importance of a query letter. I thought, how can I explain my entire book in 250 words? After some serious trial and error and massive research, I finally got it right and my letter started sounding like a well-formed query letter, rather than a form letter from the IRS, and that's when I started getting read requests. Eureka! Best advice I got, write your cover letter like the back flap of a book. That was my ah-ha moment. 

3. Didn't Research Agents Properly Because There Couldn't Be Bad Ones, Could There?
This imprudent habit changed quickly after I started submitting my work around. I realized there are some bad apples out there. I was so new to the industry, I had no idea--I mean, it didn't even occur to me--that there were crooked agents out there, with no intentions other than lining their pockets. I was shocked and relieved when I discovered the Preditors and Editors website--so happy I did! 

4. In Dire Need of a Thicker Skin
I don't care how close you think you are to getting repped by an agent. They've called you. They've built a rapport with you. They really, really, really like your work...yada, yada, yada, it doesn't mean you're getting signed by them. I had this happen to me after several conversations with an agent that was jazzed about my first book and then out of the blue got a form rejection letter. That one hurt. I felt like I'd been involved in a hit-and-run. Be prepared for this. Even after talking to an agent, it's possible that you'll get a very impersonal rejection. It's just the nature of the industry sometimes. I've met so many great agents in the last couple years at industry events (by and large they are a lot of fun and quite a dynamic group!), but it's a fast-moving industry and they can't always give the personal attention they might want to. My trick was to start laughing about my rejections, instead of crying. All the rejections do get comical at a certain point and as I've always said, it only takes one yes. So, don't let it get you down. Let it make you stronger! 

5. I Fell In Love Too Easily
Any agent who took interest in my book, I immediately fell in love with. I mean, they liked my book, why shouldn't I adore them like the gods they are? It was not until some of my writer friends started getting repped by a few of these same agents that rejected me after reading my manuscript that I realized how lucky I was to not get an offer from them. Once repped, if my friends first manuscript didn't sell quickly, they started getting ignored by their agents, even dumped. I felt terrible for my friends, but it made me realize you've got to do your research. Ask the agent questions like, 'Are you just representing this first book or my whole career?' and 'What happens if editors aren't interested in my first manuscript, will you still rep me after that?" Email current writers that the agent reps (preferably ones who aren't on the bestseller list or haven't been published yet, because the bestsellers are clearly getting treated well!) and find out what their experience has been. Mostly, you should hear good things, but you might be surprised by their answers in some cases. I was very lucky to find my agent (Marietta Zacker of Nancy Gallt) who's in it for the long haul. She reps my career as a writer, not just my first manuscript. She's also painfully honest. If she doesn't like it, she'll let me know. Of course, there's a certain ouch factor when your baby is called ugly, but I want my books to be the best and so does she. She's my advocate and adviser and tells me the truth. You need someone like that in your corner.

So, now that you've read my top five painfully awful mistakes, if anyone else out there has a mistake they'd like to share, please let us know. Advice from our readers, who are mostly writers, is priceless.

Thanks for reading!



  1. Hilary! True, true, true! Painfully true! For me I would add "Being depressed to discover I am not ____" (insert your favourite writer). I beat myself up a lot that my work wasn't Holly Black's or Jaqueline Woodson's. Now I focus on best me.....

  2. Wendy, thanks so much for mentioning this. I think every writer has an author they aspire to be like, but we need to be ourselves! So, well said! "Focus on best me...."

  3. Laughing at rejections, rather than crying. Yes, I needed to read this today. ("Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!")

    1. Michael, alcohol works too! ;)

    2. Oh how I know it, Hilary. (And chocolate, boxes of chocolate.)

  4. I will add this: I see authors fall in love with a single story and never move on to something new. They write and re-write the same book or theme, and never vary their formula or technique.

    Try different things, especially in the beginning, and see what sticks, and do NOT commit to a series until you find out if book #1 is going to sell.

    In other words, treat it like a business. Put different products on the shelf, see what moves, and focus on that.

    - Eric

    1. Eric, such great advice! I totally agree. Don't start a series until book one sells! If you really can't help yourself, write a few chapters of the 2nd and then move on. When I hear unknown writers have written a whole series and it's not published, I cringe inside. All that work on the hopes it will get published. Again, great advice!

  5. Great post, Hilary! I made a lot of those same mistakes, too! Adding this post to my resource list for a community ed class I teach!

    1. Like I said, I could write a much LONGER list! Thanks, Dianne!

  6. You've triggered a fear in me. If I get an agent, how do I know it's a good one? I try to use personal references, but can only get so many of those.

    1. Chuck, once you get "the call" from an agent you'll want to be prepared. Here is a great article on Literary Rambles (great resource site!) about what questions to ask an agent on that first call. It helped me with mine! And an author-turned-lit-agent once told me "No agent is better than a bad agent".
      Good luck!

  7. Hilary, I can empathize especially with #1! I thought I was submitting my best to agents...but 100+ agents later until I got an agent I realized I was submitting a work in progress and was learning my craft as I went. Painful lessons indeed.

    I also started writing children's stories based on what was out there -- not the story I wanted to tell. I think this was a painful lesson as well. However, I think I had to go through that painful lesson to hone my craft, understand the industry better - AND most importantly find out what kind of writer I am. So, I don't regret any of it.

    And if you really want my whole long road - check out my post on 8 steps to an agent, a publisher and a 2-book deal on Writers Helping Writers

    Wishing you continued success!

  8. I HAVE to speak out about #4, it's not always possible to be this bulletproof vest of grit and resilience.

    As I mentioned (though in a different context), people are NOT teflon with organs, being human means you will sometimes do and say things that aren't the most "worldly and mature."

    That does NOT, I repeat, NOT always mean you've got silly or misguided notions, and DEFINITELY NOT because you aren't working hard. Period.

    Forgive the the all caps in places, but I HAVE to stress this so writers whatever their age/life stage don't feel more broken then they have to.

    Sometimes, we can learn that "Life's too short" lesson TOO WELL, whatever our career goals are, whether we're talking publishing, or something else.

    I don't think "paying one's dues" shouldn't ALWAYS HAVE TO FEEL LIKE THIS!

    (FYI, I've not self-harmed myself, BTW, but there are days like my recent breakdown back in August 2015 when I feel pain this intensely)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!