Recently someone asked me whether my advice to an aspiring author today, more than a year after my first book was published, would differ significantly from the advice I would have given when I was a debut author. I answered quickly—I think so, I replied—and later went back to re-read the blog posts and presentations I’d written in 2013, three and a half published books ago. While my original thoughts still apply (even if some fall into the category of naïvely idealistic), my views have definitely evolved. I put together a list of things I’d tell an aspiring author (or 2013 Wendy) today:
Nurture your imagination. My old blog posts were all about making time to write. Like many aspiring authors, I have a full life: a day job, three wonderful kids, a husband, two dogs and a huge garden that demands care and attention. I’ve long adhered to a daily regimen that includes scheduled writing time, usually early in the mornings, but as my writing career has developed, scheduled writing time hasn’t been enough. Yes, set habits are important, but sometimes the strict routine of the day-to-day can be counterproductive. Storytelling requires a certain amount of mental freedom, and, for me at least, it’s hard to get that freedom without making time to not write. My advice: find time to do things that are not directly writing-related and that don’t require a lot of mental attention. Hike, garden, swim, dance, go for long drives, read the classics, travel…whatever works for you. Do these things as often as you can. And then get your butt back in the chair and write.
Check your expectations at the door. I’d wanted to be a publish author for so long that I had a very vivid vision of what my life would be like once that goal was achieved. Like so many things, nothing—marketing, sales, motivation, inspiration, support from friends and family—has gone quite as expected. Weeks when I feel like sales should be up, they’re meh. Days when there is no identifiable reason for a sales spike, the books sell. Friends whom I never envisioned as cheerleaders have become tireless promoters. Family members who I counted on for support...well, it’s hard to appreciate the stressors of the publishing world unless you’re in it. My advice: there are many things about your literary career you can’t control. Shelve your expectations, be grateful for the opportunity to do the thing you love (and the people who help you do it), and focus on what’s important—writing.
Develop objectivity—and a thicker skin. International Thriller Writers does an online segment in which (often famous) authors read their worst reviews aloud. Besides being funny, these videos help to defuse the power of a scathing review. As authors, we need reviews.
Reviews help to get the word out, and they assist in defining an audience. Even so, it’s never easy to read a bad review. After all, we struggle for months, maybe years (maybe decades!) to write that novel; how can someone be so glib (or cruel or (name your adjective)) in their dismissal of our efforts? My advice: appreciate the time a reader took to review your book, but maintain perspective. Not everyone will love what you do, and that’s okay. If you get a terrible review, read it, learn what you can from it and move on. (Or you can follow the lead of one famous mystery author and never read your reviews!)
Edit, and then edit some more. First drafts tend to be crappy—that’s why they’re first drafts. Before getting published, you have all the time in the world to rework that first draft. You can write, share it with beta readers, edit it, show it to your mother, revise it some more…you get the idea. Once you have contracts, though, it becomes tempting to skip some of the time it takes to revise—after all, you don’t have five years to write that sequel. My advice: don’t skimp on editing. If your contract demands you write the next book in a year, write the first draft in nine months. Manage your schedule so that you have ample time to edit your own manuscript, and keep a few strong beta readers (or paid editors) on call for early drafts.
Build your community. This is one piece of advice 2013 Wendy could have really used. I wrote my first novels largely on my own. By that I mean I didn’t attend writers’ conferences, didn’t belong to any professional organizations and I didn’t have a regular critique group. As a consequence, once Killer Image was accepted for publication, I was overwhelmed by things other authors already understood. (For example, I didn’t even know what a blog tour was!) My advice: develop your writing network. Whether you join a small writers’ group or seek a leadership position in a professional organization, don’t wait until you’re published to make connections. The mystery-writing community has been warm, welcoming and supportive. I only wish I’d reached out earlier.
Remember why you do it. This is, perhaps, my most important piece of advice. Once you’re in the thick of things, it’s easy to get caught up in the business of selling books. Marketing, social media, contracts, sales figures, reviews, lack of reviews, conferences, festivals…all these things take your time, attention and energy and can be—let’s face it—overwhelming. My advice: remember why you’re in the game—presumably because you love to write and connect with readers. Make sure you’re not letting the business of selling books overtake your passion and appreciation for the act of writing. Put pen to paper and let the rest go.Amazon B&N