Wednesday, February 20, 2013

8 WOW Wednesday: Rachel Caine on Making Mistakes

I will honestly tell you that when I started writing, I didn’t even know it was a potential career. It was just a thing. A thing I did, the way other people doodled on their Trapper Keepers in school … I wrote stories, and I hid them away. Very occasionally, I’d let someone read them, but not very often.

One of my teachers encouraged me to write, and told me that I might be able to get some stories published. In my high school flush of confidence, I fired off some hand-written efforts to one of my favorite magazines: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Not surprisingly, these were returned with form rejection letters. I was crushed.

That began a process of learning that still continues to this day, because no matter how much you learn about the business of writing, you never, ever stop learning.

So. Let me cover a few of the mistakes I made, just so you can understand why you shouldn’t make them, too.

• Handwriting my stories. Yeah, this one is pretty obvious, but it’s important to start with it. You should, at the very least, use an old-school typewriter to create a readable manuscript – or, preferably if you’re not a hipster, just use the computer. Funny thing: the more you type, the better you get at composing at the keyboard versus writing longhand first. And the faster you type, which becomes important later.

• Not understanding the market. Simultaneous with my first mistake, I sent in a story that was horror to a magazine that says right in the title that it publishes Fantasy and Science Fiction. So do your research and send your story to the appropriate outlet.

• Craft, craft, craft. I wasn’t ready to be published. The stories were fundamentally flawed; I had a good grasp of grammar and spelling, but I didn’t know how to construct a story with a good beginning, middle and end … I was really writing a scene, not a story. So understand how to construct your story. Oh, and grammar and spelling are important. Yes, they are. Stop arguing.

Even with all those mistakes, the last story I submitted got a personal, handwritten rejection from Stuart David Schiff, and that was awesome.

Fast forward ten years. I learned my craft. I sought out people who could help me improve. I was ready to pursue professional publication of a novel. So what did I do wrong then?

• I didn't finish the book. This seems obvious in retrospect, but I honestly thought, since the submission guidelines for the publisher asked for a synopsis of the book and the first three chapters, that I didn’t need to have the entire thing written. WRONG. Finish the book, then sell it (in the beginning, anyway). The consequence was that when they offered to buy it, I didn’t have it written. And it wasn’t a good place to be.

• I didn’t follow standard manuscript formatting. I thought I did, honest, but I screwed up on little details … Like putting my full mailing address and phone on the front of the manuscript. That becomes important when the editor loses the cover letter and has no way to contact you. True story: she remembered I lived in Dallas and called information on the off chance she might find my number. She did. She bought the book. But it could so easily have gotten pitched in the trash!

• I didn’t get an agent. Now, an agent won’t necessarily be able to help you much on a first book anyway, if you’re genre, but it’s still a good idea to have one at your back if only to review the contract and commiserate with you on how bad it is. I didn’t have one. I got a very bad deal that I shouldn’t have accepted.

• I had no idea about marketing. Seems obvious now, but I thought that once I’d sold a book, I was DONE. Instead, I found that the book doesn’t sell itself, and the publisher wasn’t committing any marketing money to a new author … I would stand or fall on the sales of that first effort. Guess what? It didn’t go well. Spectacularly.

Still, my publisher liked me, and thought I could hit big, given enough time. But after five books, they regretfully informed me that it wasn’t happening, and they couldn’t buy anything else.

That’s right. I got fired. And truthfully, I still didn’t know what I was doing – I was writing without outlines, I wasn’t marketing properly, I wasn’t even writing what I was later good at doing. But I had an agent, which was good. Only after two more failed books for another publisher, my agent and I parted ways as well.

Back to square one. But at least this time, I kind of knew what I was doing. I got a new agent straight off. I came up with new concepts, submitted them properly, and when the first book as Rachel Caine came out (Ill Wind, if you’re keeping score at home) I devoted some real effort to promoting it. I’d learned a lot.

But what mistakes did I still make? So many. I cheaped out on DIY efforts instead of hiring professionals. I committed to too many things, once Rachel Caine started selling well. I rejected social media because I thought it was a distraction. Etc. It was a next level of problems.

One thing I’ve learned about the writing business is that it never stops giving you opportunities to make mistakes. But you know what? That’s a great thing. Mistakes help you grow, improve, and focus. Every error I’ve made resulted in a course correction of some kind.

I’m not saying those mistakes don’t hurt … they sting, a lot. My advice to is to take a deep breath and look them full in the face, and listen to what they’re telling you. Because a mistake is a fantastic teacher – maybe the best one of all.

Learn and grow stronger, young writer.

I’m screwing up right along with you.

By the way, I’ve still never managed to get published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. TRUE FACT.

Rachel Caine

About the Author
Rachel Caine is the New York Times, USA Today and #1 internationally bestselling author of more than 30 novels, including the immensely popular Morganville Vampires series, the Weather Warden series, and the Outcast Season series.

In 2011, Rachel published the first novel of her new trilogy, The Revivalist Series, with the release of WORKING STIFF in August, followed by TWO WEEKS’ NOTICE in August, 2012.

She has been honored with a Paranormal Pearl Award and an RT Booklovers Award, and was recently awarded a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times. Her first young adult novel, GLASS HOUSES, was chosen for the Texas Tayshas List in 2009.

Rachel has appeared as a guest at over 100 science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance conventions and conferences over the past 20 years, including Dragon*Con, San Diego ComicCon, the World Fantasy Convention, and the World Science Fiction Convention. She has been featured in several national publications including People magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and Vanity Fair, as well as international, national and local television and radio.

She was born at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, attended Socorro High School in El Paso, Texas, and earned a bachelors degree in business administration from Texas Tech University. She’s worked in many jobs, including accounting, graphic designer, insurance investigation, corporate communications, and web design, to name just a few. She became a full time writer in 2010.

Rachel is married to award-winning fantasy artist R. Cat Conrad, and has two iguanas as pets: Popeye and Darwin.


  1. Thanks for sharing what you've learned from your mistakes. I so didn't know what I was doing when I started writing and made a ton of mistakes in my writing. It's good to know that we all have to learn from what we do wrong and that we can be successful.

  2. I love this list of what to do. Now we can learn form Rachel's mistakes (wisdom). :D

  3. What a fantastic post! Somehow it's comforting to hear that mega-successful authors have gone through the same process and have made mistakes along their way. I'm trying to keep track of my own and learn from them as well :)

  4. Rachel, great to meet you! Love your voice in this piece. Fantastic list of mistakes and solutions.

  5. Wow, Rachel the Tenacious. Thanks for sharing your mistakes and your perseverance with us! I too submitted in high school, but luckily nothing got published then--I wasn't ready. Not later, either. :o)

  6. It is always reaffirming to be reminded that we all struggle in this business and getting started is such a big learning curve. Thanks for this post.

  7. Thanks for the reminder, Rachel. This business is something here there's something new to learn everyday.

    By the way, really enjoyed your panels at ConDFW. Insightful info shared from your knowledge-by-experience :-)

  8. Thanks for sharing. As an author just starting to share with the world I'm making tons of mistakes. Every time I take a new craft class and I see one of them, I want to beat my head up against the wall.

    It's gratifying to remember that it doesn't all have to be perfect. Getting out in the world and interacting is the only way to make mistakes and learn from them.


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