Regretfully Yours: 28 Writers on Their Biggest Mistakes

The noir image of suspender- and deadline-strapped writers sweating onto their typewriters while chain-smoking and throwing back tumblers of alcohol inspiration may be gone with the wind, but the idea of writers as tortured—or neurotic, to use a less glamorous word—is alive and well. One reason for the perennial neurosis is the permanence of the art: you’ve written it, you’ve published it, it’s out there, and you’re not getting it back. I rounded up 28 authors to see what keeps them awake and at night, grinding their teeth to dust.

Irksome Inclusions & Offensive Omissions

PFMcover“I do have a regret. It’s a little esoteric. It involves my third book, Packing for Mars. I regret not answering a question that is, judging from the number of reader emails I’ve received since the book came out, on a lot of people’s minds. The question is: How does zero gravity affect menstruation? (Answer, not all that much, and most women go on the pill before their missions.)”
—Mary Roach, Stiff

“I regret every adverb I’ve ever used. They’re the Crocs of literature: comfy as hell, but can also suggest you’ve just given up.”
—CG Watson, Ascending the Boneyard

“In The Bad Beginning, the first volume in A Series of Unfortunate Events, I wrote a sentence which, I realized several books later, necessitated my reworking my original vision for the ending of the series. I won’t say what the sentence is. It’s not particularly elegant nor does it add anything narratively. But it accidentally closed a door and it makes me wince in regret.”
—Daniel Handler (as Lemony Snicket), “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”

“I regret that I made the witch in Plain Kate an albino. It was my first book and I just plain didn’t know about the stereotype, but that’s no excuse: to have your appearance universally associated with evil is obviously a bad thing, and not a small one. I am sorry I contributed to that. I created a character with albinism for a more recent book just so he could rock off the darn page, and he does.”
—Erin Bow, The Scorpion Rules

It was my first book and I just plain didn’t know
about the stereotype, but that’s no excuse.

“I regret italicizing Spanish in my first two novels, where code-switching was utterly unremarkable to my characters and so should have remained typographically unmarked, too.”
—Ashley Hope Pérez, Out of Darkness

“In a short story anthology, my narrator was Mexican-American. Speaking Spanish with her mother was a pretty big part of the emotional plot. I didn’t italicize the Spanish, but I let the copy editors. I’ve regretted it ever since. It’s not foreign to the characters, and shouldn’t be presented as such. (The publisher has agreed that when the book goes to paperback, they’ll take out the italics, though!)”
—Kiersten White, And I Darken

Egregious Editing

whatwelost“If I had a time machine, I would go back and not agree to the title change of my third book, Once Was Lost, to What We Lost. I understood why my publisher wanted to try it, and I did like the new cover. But, the title change only confused readers and booksellers, and didn’t end up having the desired effect. The What We Lost version is now going away, and we’re returning to the original title. Lesson learned!”
—Sara Zarr, The Lucy Variations

“Upon the (quite excellent) advice of my editor, I cut a LOT of stuff from Boy Toy. Something like 150 pages! But one thing I resisted was a couple of sentences that referred (somewhat obliquely, I thought) to anal sex. My editor begged me to cut it; I refused. She begged again; I refused again. She begged once more; I relented. It was just a small bit—what was the difference? Well, every time I look at that book—every time I even THINK about that book—I regret it. I didn’t regret cutting those 150 pages, but that small moment spoke volumes about the characters, and I know that the book is incomplete. It’s just WRONG. To the chagrin of every editor I’ve had ever since, this cut haunts me and makes it that much harder to convince to me to cut something!”
—Barry Lyga, I Hunt Killers

“I regret not getting myself embroiled in more literary feuds à la Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. I haven’t even been in one. I also regret cutting this really filthy scene in The Glass Casket.”
—McCormick Templeman, The Little Woods

Every time I look at that book—every time I even THINK
about that book—I regret it.

“A lingering regret is my old novel Incarnate, which was substantially edited and then sent me for approval, giving me just a weekend to go through the entire thing. I would much have preferred to do the work myself and preserve my own voice—I’d done such work before, having cut and rewritten The Parasite, losing 40,000 words to its benefit. I don’t think Incarnate was seriously compromised, and nothing crucial was lost, but it could have been more me. Still, I don’t know that anyone else has noticed, and so I’ve lived with it since.”
—Ramsey Campbell, The Grin of the Dark

Bad Business

animorphs“We sold a book series (Animorphs) over the transom, all on our own, while our agent was on pregnancy leave. Being good feminists, we decided to involve her anyway, after the fact, and got from her a contract so poorly written, so limp and one-sided, that it has cost us at least a million dollars and continues to handicap us to this day. The agent left the agency soon after.”
—Michael Grant, Front Lines

“My biggest regret was back in the late ’90s, when a friend launched a publishing house and I agreed to write a few nonfiction books to help him get off the ground, but did it with a handshake rather than a contract. It backfired and I never saw a penny for those books, and he reorganized the company to close me out. The upshot is that I made a determined effort to be less naïve about business, and in fact made it my mission to learn everything I could about how the publishing business works. Now I have a top agent, my books are published by big houses, and I live very well on my writing income. So, my regret is conditional. It sucked to be taken advantage of, but the result was that I became a much better businessman, which has helped me become very successful.”
—Jonathan Maberry, Rot & Ruin

“I do have one big regret: I wish I hadn’t sold some of my books for large rights grabs—world, and world English—simply for a larger advance. I don’t know, really, if the publishers would have accepted fewer rights in exchange for a smaller advance, but I would have rather that been the case. The larger the advance, the harder it is for a mildest author to earn out.”
—John Hornor Jacobs, This Dark Earth

It was just plain bad, but I’m pleased to say
it was never published in the U.S.

“Aside from the fact that my first agent told me that a story set in a British public school would never sell (this being around 1998) and listening to her, I think the things I most regret are the two times I wrote a sequel. The first one wasn’t so bad but was tortuous to do, because I hadn’t planned that there would be one, and the second I did because my UK publisher wanted a follow-up to what was then my best-selling book. It was just plain bad, but I’m pleased to say was never published in the U.S.”
—Marcus Sedgwick, Ghosts of Heaven

“In 1992, after years of work, I finished writing a sequel to The Wind in the Willows. I thought it was pretty good, and so did my agent. He submitted it to several publishers . . . simultaneous with the announcement that well-known British children’s author William Horwood had written his own sequel called The Willows in Winter, which soon became a best-seller. Do I regret the thousands of hours I spent writing my now-unsellable sequel? No. I still think it’s a good book, even though only a select few will ever read it. I regret William Horwood. #Hegottherefirst.”
—Pete Hautman, Eden West

“My greatest regrets have to do with my responses, twice, to publishers and editors who simply failed to see what I wished to do, could do, with my novels-in-progress. Imagining I was intending to write books they had pretty much worked out in their minds, they expressed appalled, disbelieving shock when confronted with what I was actually doing. Wow, I said, that’s really too bad, you know, but, sure, I’m willing to cooperate, and both times wound up lost, depressed, and pissed off. Never again.”
—Peter Straub, A Dark Matter

Problematic Publicity

PeterNimbleCover“When I started touring with my first book, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, I made a point of shaking hands with every kid who came up for a signature—I thought it was important to show them respect and express sincere thanks for giving my book a chance. I also would come home from every event with some horrific superbug that would pass through my family. I still shake hands, but with a giant bottle of Purell on the table next to me!”
—Jonathan Auxier, Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard

“I regret doing panels and radio interviews. They are fun in the moment, but I completely forget what I said. This is awkward when (hours, days, or months later) someone wants me to expand on something or share an anecdote. Deer, headlights. ‘I said what?’ Fortunately, I forget about the danger the next time I’m on a panel or whatever and it’s Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
—Blythe Woolston, MARTians

“I regret publishing a few books for adults under the Darren Shan name. I’ve always written for adults as well as teens, and was determined to use different names, to keep the two worlds separate, but my publishers managed to convince me to use Darren Shan for the adult books for a time. It did mean they reached a wider audience, but I never felt comfortable about it, because I knew there was the potential for my adult books to be misfiled in shops and placed with my other books in the YA sections—which did end up happening in plenty of stores. These days I release the adult books under a different name (Darren Dash) and although that means a far smaller audience for them, I’m much happier this way.”
—Darren Shan, Zom-B

It did mean they reached a wider audience, but I
never felt comfortable about it.

“I regret not making more time for my personal art. And all the hours I have wasted on social media.”
—Lisa Brown, The Airport Book

“I regret not balancing life, writing, and social media better from the start. I’m finding it such a challenge to make time for Other Stuff now that my career is where I want it and the Internet is accustomed to a certain amount of my time.”
—Susan Dennard, Truthwitch

“I regret getting online. (I was torn between that, and, ‘I REGRET NOTHING!!!!!’)”
—Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife

Puzzled Personal Lives

program“Can I have a regret and still not want to change the path? If so, I regret the lost time with my kids. I spent so much of their young lives working on my books. Now that they’re teenagers, we’re enjoying the industry together, and they’re proud of me. But, man—I’d love to have back a few moments of that toddler chaos.”
—Suzanne Young, The Program

“I regret all the time I wasted second guessing myself and worrying about whether or not the book I was writing would be good enough—even before I had written it. I convinced myself the crippling self-doubt was just part of my writing process. I’m still trying to slay that dragon.”
—Kami Garcia, Dangerous Creatures

“I wish I had been easier on myself during the early years of trying to get published. I was so eager to reach my goals that I would try to force my work into readiness, when in fact what I really needed to do was slow down and actually think about what I was doing. It led to a lot of disappointment that could have been avoided by being more patient and eager to learn.”
—Amy Lukavics, Daughters unto Devils

I regret, during my first tour, bragging about a second book
I was working on with such confidence.

“A couple years ago, I was doing a story set in Gaza. I had a chance to go with an international convoy and was about four hours from taking off for Cairo. Then the second revolution broke out and an American was killed. The border was sealed and I felt traveling 30 hours into a hotspot with little chance of getting through was not going to be worth it. But others closer by in Europe went, and miraculously, made it into the Strip. I had a second chance and that failed too—now, it just seems impossible. I’ve put the project aside. I wish I had gone the first time regardless.”
—Greg Neri, Tru and Nelle

“I regret, during my first tour, bragging about a second book I was working on with such confidence. I later threw that book away, after writing it twice, and I STILL get asked about it. Womp. Womp.”
—John Corey Whaley, Noggin

“I regret being born a writer.”
—Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

About the Author:

Dan Kraus was Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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