How to: Making mistakes

I’ve read a spate of blog posts and articles recently about mistakes writers should avoid making – it being conference season, we’re getting our annual dose of Thou Shalt Not instructions.  Which is fine, even admirable and helpful; I hope so, anyway, because I give that kind of advice all the time. 


But it occurred to me that all of this information can make aspiring writers too afraid of making mistakes, which means only the clueless (who don’t even know there are mistakes to be made) will be out there, making life miserable for the rest of us.


When I started out many years ago, I tried to educate myself on the publication process, but I made mistakes, many mistakes, mistakes you, my friend, would never dream of making.  And still I managed to bumble my way to a certain amount of success in the business.  So here are the reasons why it’s okay to make mistakes:


·        Unless you’re malicious or completely nuts, no one remembers.  Just recently I was shaking my head over something a newbie had done, and you know what?  Today, I don’t even remember her name.  Said newbie could write to me tomorrow and I wouldn’t connect the dots.  The sheer volume of stuff that comes across your radar in this business makes anything other than felonious assault unmemorable.

·        Editors and agents expect writers to do dumb things.  All they ask is that you own up to the dumb thing you did and clue them in before it ends up on Fox News.  Every mistake you can think of — and a lot that would never occur to you — has been done before.  Trust me.

·        Publishing is a small world but it’s mostly nice.  So even if everyone is talking about you and your screwup, they don’t put you on the publishing blacklist, because there isn’t one. 

·        The not-nice people who excoriate you for your mistake and compare you not favorably to a mushroom, whose withering sarcasm about your lack of talent is seared into your soul (not that this has ever happened to me or anything) don’t tend to last long in this business.  And you can avoid the ones who do, or make your agent deal with them.

·        The most popular game in publishing is “Musical Chairs.”  If you did manage to make an editor remember you and not in a good way, chances are she’ll move on to greener pastures (or will at least be “exploring alternatives” or “spending more time with family”) soon enough, thus allowing you another shot at the magazine or book publishing company you’ve got your eye on.

·        My agent (hi, Neil!) recently sent me a pencil with erasers on both ends.  Imprinted on it were the words, “You’ll never make a mistake using this.  You won’t make any progress, either.”  I think that about sums it up.