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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Learning From Mistakes

It’s a fact that I’ve learned a whole lot more from my writing mistakes than from my writing successes. Take, for example, the chapter book debacle.

The first manuscript I wrote was an 8,000-ish word chapter book called, "Eddie’s Chance to Dance." Except that I didn’t really know it was a chapter book. I just thought it was a charming tale that might be a tad short for juvenile fiction.

Then somebody told me it was a chapter book. Well, okay, no need to be all smartypants about it. It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard of chapter books. I’d bought a ton of them for my kiddies. I just hadn’t…what’s the word again? Oh, yeah. Read many of them. So I thought I’d better brush up on chapter books.

I checked out shelves full of these slim books from my local library and read every single one. And what I realized, after all that brushing up, was that my chapter book was not very good. Or to put it another way, Eddie didn’t stand a tap shoe's chance of getting published.

I’d made a big mistake. I dashed off a chapter book before I knew much about what makes a good chapter book. It seems like an obvious concept, to research before you write, but you’d be surprised how often writers (and I’m including myself here) will write something willy-nilly and expect the world (and I’m including mostly editors here) to love it.

I figured out a few things after all that reading, and not just about chapter books. For example, if I want to write for a market, say a webzine like WOW!Women-on-Writing, I’ll read a ton of issues before making a pitch. If I have a mystery novel in mind, I’ll read a couple Edgar Award winners before pounding out 50,000 words. And now that I write fiction for the kiddies, I’ve read picture books on the Caldecott Medal list, and chapter books and middle grade on the Newbery Medal list, and young adult novels on the Printz Award list. These days, I do my reading research.

Lesson learned.


  1. Hey, that Cathy C. lady is all over the blog world! I never excepted to see her name at the end of this article. Obviously, I hadn't noticed her name up there in the Contributors list, either. Some scathingly brilliant advice, Ms. Cathy C! :D

  2. Great post about research, and I totally agree that mistakes drive the point home like nothin' else—DON'T DO THIS AGAIN!

  3. Thanks, y'all! And Lisa, I often share my writing What Not To Do's. And how I learned what NOT to do? Yep, you guessed it. (I've made quite a few writing mistakes! ;-)

  4. "Eddie didn’t stand a tap shoe's chance of getting published." Oh, do I know that feeling! :)

    Thanks for the article, Cathy!

  5. The great thing about this lesson is that it's not like we find out we have to take nasty medicine or blister our hands digging ditches. All we have to do is read. It's like getting dessert before dinner.

  6. I'm a teacher. But I learn something every day. Unfortunately, it's usually along the lines of Friday's student-driven lesson: "Did you know that Cher is a WOMAN?"

    You've taught me something useful. I've heard of Caldecott and Newbery award-winners. Now I know about Edgar and Printz.

  7. This is what makes writing the greatest job in the world. Our research is a immersing ourselves in great stories. It's almost a good excuse to make mistakes. Almost. Great post and advice, Cathy!

  8. At least you researched before you sent the manuscript! Sometimes, I shudder at my beginner mistakes. We all have them. :)


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