I started writing when I was 13-14, as a freshman in high school. I started in part because I idolized Stephen King and wanted to emulate him, and in part because I wanted to impress my friends. Despite the fact my early writing was as bad as you would expect from a 14 year-old, and my reasons for doing it were rather superficial, there must have been something in it, because I kept doing it. I also found encouragement from friends and teachers who read my work, which fueled my fire. So, there must have been potential hiding somewhere in that awful muck.
However, it would be years before I had something published, and many more before I became substantially published and on track to actually make a career of it, which was (and is) the ultimate dream. I made some horrible mistakes, and had many, many missteps during that time. I’ll share some of them here today in the hope I might divert others from them. Some are really specific instances, and some are general overall.
The “don’t be like me” list of writer mistakes I’ve made:
- Cockiness. Hoo boy, was I ever over-confident and sure of myself in the early years of my writing, despite having no real experience or ability yet. I compare it to how some of us thought we knew everything as teenagers, but looking back as adults we could cringe ourselves into orbit over the things we did. I like to tell myself this happens because if humans are empowered by overconfidence to plunge into new things, they’re able to overcome the timidity that holds us back from the unknown. Ha! I tell myself that, anyway. I thought I was the best writer on earth, an unrecognized genius, sure to be a shining star one day. The funny thing is, it was actually learning more and honing my ability that made me humble and teachable. It wasn’t until I knew things that I realized I barely knew anything.
- Failing hard at basic things. I was gifted this typewriter sometime in my youth (good lord I feel old, they’re calling it ‘vintage’). When I was about 15 or 16, I typed out a story on it and sent it to a magazine. The problem was, the ribbon was crap, the keys stuck, and every single ‘e,’ ‘d,’ and ‘b’ was filled in with ink. They sent the story back to me and said they wouldn’t even consider reading it until I typed it out on a properly functioning typewriter. I was so offended.
- Fishing in the wrong spots. For much of my early twenties, I was a horror writer, and I sent stories off to ‘zines. Those of you who are old enough, do you remember ‘zines? They were slapdash, low circulation, overpriced magazines full of fiction and art that could go out of business in the blink of an eye. My first ‘acceptance’ was from a vampire ‘zine and it folded before the story was even published. I should have been looking higher, at more prestigious magazines, and trying to obtain legit publications and build myself as a writer, working my way up through the ranks. Instead, I was crying over the fact that the whole twenty people who would have read my awful short story wouldn’t get to.
- Writing in genres I couldn’t write in. As I said, I was a horror writer in my early twenties. Then, in my mid-twenties I went through a very intense, random and bizarre religious phase. Actually, it was probably more a ‘spiritual’ phase, but suddenly I couldn’t morally and personally write horror anymore. So, I started writing science fiction instead. I am not a science fiction fan. I wasn’t then, I’m not now. I didn’t read or watch science fiction beyond Star Trek. What on earth possessed me? I wrote several really BAD science fiction stories and submitted them to contests. Are you shocked to hear I got an honorable mention in one? Hand to God. I don’t know how this happened, I’m thinking maybe there were only like four stories in the contest and mine was the fourth. Then the phase passed and I went back to writing horror. Let’s never speak of this again.
- Being oversensitive. For a long time, every rejection was a knife to the gut and every valid criticism made me defensive. I suppose we all go through this, but damn. Would you like to read the story of how I dramatically “gave up writing” after a very valid criticism of my awful, inexperienced writing? I promise you’ll laugh.
- Not studying hard enough. Early on, I took a Writer’s Digest writing course. This was an over-expensive opportunity to work with a ‘real writer’ and hone my writing skills. I had to write a short story over the course of the class, send it off to this ‘real writer’ every month, and he would critique my work and progress. It wasn’t very helpful, and of course the story was never completed let alone published. But I could have done a lot of studying for free and got the same kind of education. I could have read books in my genre and learned how to construct stories through the work of others. I could have taken legit real-world classes (the internet wasn’t a thing then) and beefed up my knowledge. Instead, I kept writing more and more bad stories and insisting I already knew it all. Guess what? I did not know it all.
- Ignoring myself. I’ve talked before about how, like many elitist writers, I used to turn my nose up at romance. I didn’t think it was legit literature despite the fact the romance genre is a bigger seller and industry juggernaut than almost all other genres combined. The thing is, romance was ALWAYS part of my stories, and I was always inclined to write romance. But I struggled against it. Now, would you looky there–I write romance and I’m ACTUALLY starting to make a career of my writing. It’s almost like I should have stopped being stupid and short-sighted ages ago and it wouldn’t have taken me into my 40’s to get to this point.
- Spending too many years in the wrong place. I’ve mentioned this several times, but if you haven’t heard before, I used to be a fanfiction writer. A hugely popular fanfiction writer, if I may brag a bit (know what a BNF is?). I will not tell you what fandoms, though some of you who read this already know. I cut my teeth on fanfiction, and honed my skills, and got tons of feedback. The problem is, I cut my teeth too long. I should have tried transitioning into standard fiction writing long before I did, instead of staying where I knew everyone was happy to stroke my ego and I was safe from actual critics. I should have been branching out and trying to start my career. I don’t regret using it to make myself a better writer, or the experiences I had then, but I should have been working on other stuff, too.
I made a lot of mistakes, but you don’t have to be like me. You don’t know everything. You should learn as much as you can. Don’t take rejection and criticism too personally. Don’t deny who you are or try to be something you’re not. And for goodness sakes, make sure your printer doesn’t screw up your manuscript before you send it off (does anyone still send hard copies)? BE SMARTER THAN ME!