10 Things to Know Before Becoming a Published Novelist
Aiming to become a published novelist is akin to hunting a unicorn. Magical. Fantastical. At first, it seems impossible, but there’s proof that unicorns exist. You’ve seen photos, talked to successful unicorn hunters who have dined with those elusive creatures. Not everyone finds a unicorn, but you feel it down to your marrow that you will be one of the lucky ones. You begin the hunt.
Buoyed with optimism, you set out on a wide path through the Unicorn Forest. The way ahead, dappled with sunshine and worn well by many before you, is clear. You jog along the first few miles at a pretty good pace, following the signs others have left:
This Way to the Unicorns!
Never Give Up!
Surely, you’ll happen upon a unicorn soon, spend time with him, learn his tricks and secrets, and have his magic permeate your skin and settle into your bones.
But something happens. The signs, so big and bold at the outset of your hunt, become sparse. The path narrows as the treetops thicken and the way grows dim. Oops! Don’t trip over that exposed root. Or that one. Watch out! Those low-hanging branches will hold you back if you don’t watch where you’re going.
And then you see the first of them. Not a unicorn, but a hunter just like you. The straps of his laptop bag slide from his drooped shoulders, and he shifts it as he moves past you. Others plod behind him. You stop and watch them pass, heading back the way you have just come.
You make eye contact with one and ask, “What’s happened? Where is everyone going?”
He stops and emits a withering sigh, shaking his head. “Turns out,” he says, “each unicorn is somewhat different, and they’re hard to find.” He rubs his eyes and starts walking again, calling over his shoulder, “Don’t be discouraged. There are thousands up the road who have been successful. Perhaps you’ll be one of them. Good luck to you.”
You watch him go, surprised to see hundreds of new hunters on the path moving toward you from the direction you came. Some are walking, some running. You jump out of the way as several sprint past. A few jog off the path and into the forest.
“Hey, wait! How can you see where you’re going?” you call out, but they disappear into the mist with purpose, apparently certain of their course.
“Hello,” says a voice behind you. “I’ll walk with you. You hunting a unicorn too?”
“Yes,” you say, glad for a companion to share your journey. “But I’m confused. The forest was bright at first. There were lots of signs to spur me on. But the path is narrower now, the signs few and far between. There are so many hunters, all going off in different directions even though we’re in the same forest looking for the same things. And someone said each unicorn is different from the other.”
“Well,” he says with a shrug, “it is true that reality is often nothing like what we’ve imagined. Why should unicorns be any different?”
“Why didn’t someone tell me this before?”
“Well, you know it now, don’t you? Look, trust me. I’ve been here before. Think of this like the existence of parallel universes—inherently the same but ultimately different.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” you say, giving your new companion a look.
“Another few miles and you’ll understand,” he says, grinning and patting you on the back.
The two of you move aside as a group of hunters lopes past. One of the hunters cries out, “There’s a unicorn! My map was right!” She disappears through a dense stand of pines.
“Ah, there’s a lucky one. Planned ahead and found her unicorn early in the hunt.” Your companion’s lips curve in a wicked grin. “C’mon, friend, let’s go. We can do this. Hey, you feel like running?”
Where are you on your unicorn hunt? Is it early in the journey when there are plenty of helpful signs and sunshine beaming through the trees? Or have you been trekking for a while, tried to unroll too many maps, and feel confused about which way to go?
The Naked Truth is that up to a certain point, we all follow a similar path toward publishing. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but for most of us, we begin writing and learning about writing, meeting other writers along the way. Some are farther on the journey than we, and others are behind. The one thing you learn is that you are not alone. There are so many writers out there, all seeking publication and then more publication, that if we ever decided to band together and take over the world it would be a piece of cake.
When I started out, there were plenty of folks willing to help, ready and able to answer questions and point me in the right direction. The farther along I went, the harder it became, because I had learned the basic things and had to make decisions for myself that might not be viable for someone else. There are still plenty of people happy to help—the writing tribe is populated by supportive people—but some things we must determine for ourselves. Still, there are things I wish I had known at the outset.
I’ve created a list of 10 things to know before becoming a published novelist. I won’t say the information wasn’t available to me when I started out, only that I either missed it or foolishly ignored it. The list isn’t numbered, because what resonates as #1 with you might be #10 to someone else. So here they are, in no particular order:
- Writing and publishing are two different things.
Writing is your joy. Publishing is a business. These are not interchangeable. Follow your bliss but learn the business of publishing so you’re prepared to merge the two when the time is right. Will you opt for traditional or self-publishing? Perhaps the hybrid option is best for you. Maybe a small press instead. No matter what, you should know enough about each to make the right decision for yourself, because making the wrong one can and will affect your options down the road. Conference workshops are great learning tools, and there is a lot of information available online. Here is a good link to get you started, but don’t stop here: Derek Murphy http://www.creativindie.com/100publishingquestions/
- Don’t measure your success against someone else’s.
Your path to success is uniquely yours. Sure, you might attend the same conferences and belong to the same Facebook groups as your writer friends, take the same writing workshops, hang out with the same critique group. But your books and stories will never be identical. You have different voices, different writing skills. Similarities may abound, but this is a subjective business and one writer’s talent, luck, and timing may fuse sooner, or later, than yours. Just because another author is soaring high doesn’t mean you never will. Celebrate the successes of others and learn from their mistakes and your own. Those lessons are implements in your writer’s toolbox. Help others whenever you can and leave envy at the door. It has no place here and will only hold you back and kill your joy. Here’s the link to a post on writer envy (yep, it’s a thing) that includes some good quotes: Leslie Greffenius http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/writer-envy-when-going-green-not-so-cool
- Your idea of what constitutes success will change many times.
Like the unicorn, success is an elusive beast. It morphs into something different just when we think we’ve grasped it. To a brand new writer, that first acceptance of a short story looks like the pinnacle of success until it is achieved. Then success shifts to a book contract, or the realization of an eBook self-published, or 10,000 subscribers to your newsletter. Each success drives you toward a different one. The Naked Truth is that every milestone reached is a success. Allow yourself to take pride in each, then plant your butt in front of the keyboard and get back to work.
- Your work is neither as good, nor as bad, as you suppose.
Every novelist I know, myself included, goes through the occasional litany of negativity: “I suck, my work sucks, I’m a fraud, I’m wasting my time.” (Impostor Syndrome explained: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome) This nasty sinkhole stinks, but it’s not unusual. The good news is that none of us is as horrible a writer as we think. The bad news is that we aren’t that spectacular either. There is always someone else out there pushing harder, running faster, and working smarter than we. There are also those falling behind us. And there is always more to learn. So stay humble, but be focused. Keep writing, keep studying the craft. A famous writer once said the first 10 million words are just practice anyway. (This has been attributed to more than one person, so I’m not naming names.)
- Enjoy the journey and all its stages.
You will only be a new writer once. You will only be a debut author once. You will succeed. You will fail. You will be amazing and mediocre. It’s your journey and yours alone. Love every second of it, even the negatives, because they will make the successes that much sweeter. This is your unique unicorn quest, so experience the ecstasies and agonies of the hunt. Take time to smell the forest, get to know your fellow hunters, stop and rest once in a while. It’s only a race if you turn it into one. It’s okay to be the tortoise instead of the hare. And lighten up already!
- Being a published author is expensive.
You will shell out hundreds and even thousands of dollars for marketing your novels, attending conferences, paying dues to writing organizations, as well as buying swag, doing giveaways, etc. Being a published author is expensive. Why? Because publishing is a business. Yes, the idea is to earn. But spending money to make money is a well-worn cliché for a reason. Save your pennies, buttercup. You’re going to need them.
- Publishing a novel is a little about writing and a lot about marketing.
Published authors have to market whether they like it or not. Sure, we’re writers, and we want to write, not market. But if you don’t market, readers have no clue who you are or that you’ve even published a book. For most of us, marketing is difficult to do well. It is time consuming and often expensive. But there are so many authors out there vying for the attention of readers that marketing is a must if you plan to sell books or, honestly, even give them away. Marketing is part of the publishing business. You don’t have to like it, but you better learn it. In the end, you will spend more time marketing than writing. If you want to earn money as a novelist, learn to market your books. Some marketing can be done for free, some will cost you. Resources are legion, but take care. Don’t jump into anything without first doing your due diligence. There are a lot of predators out there, so writers beware.
- Don’t quit your day job.
Almost every novelist I know—shoot, every writer, come to that—holds down a full or part-time job outside of their writing work, me included. Some writers do earn a decent living from their work, but most do not. If I had a penny for every writer who said, “My dream is to earn enough from my writing just to pay the bills,” I’d be wealthy enough to retire. That’s the real unicorn—to earn a living wage doing what we love. Some will achieve it. The majority won’t. I hope you’re one of the ones who does, but be prepared not to. A well-known author said this to me: “Would you write even if you knew you’d never earn a penny from it? Because if the answer is ‘no,’ there are many ways easier to earn a living than being a novelist.”
- Just because someone says it doesn’t make it true.
A few weeks prior to the release of my first novel, another author I trusted reviewed the first few chapters and let me know how much she didn’t like the book. My writing skills, she said, were amateurish and my main character unlikable; the hero was okay, but the story lacked this, that, and the other . . . you get the drift. I plummeted into a deep abyss and allowed the opinion of this one person to torpedo my joy. I was an idiot. I knew it, but couldn’t stop the sickening dread that filled me. What if every reader felt the way she did? My debut novel released, my fears dissolved with every glowing review, and I learned a valuable Naked Truth: Not everyone will like your work, your story, your style, or your voice. Smile and leave them to read the books they appreciate. Those people aren’t your audience. Your audience consists of those who do love your books. And remember, you never know how or for whom your words will resonate, but if you positively impact the life of one single reader, you’ve been successful. There are no sweeter words to hear from a reader than, “I loved your book. I read it at just the right time, and it gave me hope.” That’s true unicorn magic, right there.
- Once it becomes your job, it isn’t always fun.
Like changing your baby’s diaper, writing is something you perform with love, but it isn’t always fun. When you first start out, writing is a blast. You can’t wait to sit at the keyboard, blank pages are the equivalent of party invitations, and every second spent not writing creates an ache in your belly. Everything you do is part of the hunt for that unicorn, and it is fun! The possibilities are endless. But after you sign that contract and the publisher slaps down deadlines, your writing time is no longer your own. You must carve out the time to write and make it count. You will miss family dinners, dates with your husband, time with your kids, and other important events. Writing for publication is joyful work, but it is work just the same. Sign on the dotted line and you are no longer writing only for pleasure. You’re writing because you have a legal obligation to do so. If you want writing to be fun and games all the time every time, then make writing a hobby and not a profession because—we’ve come full circle now—publishing is business and business involves work.
An aside: A fellow writer once blasted me on social media because I referred to writing as work. She informed me, via her Facebook comment, that real writers love writing all the time. Real writers, she said, don’t ever consider writing to be work.
Shy away from anyone who wants to tell you what real writers do. If you write, you’re a real writer, and however you make that unicorn magic happen is up to you and no one else.
I’ll leave you with this: Before you jump into publishing your novel, map out your game plan. Slow down to be sure you know which path you should take, because it’s far easier to adjust your course before you make a poor decision than after. Your writing will forgive your foibles; the publishing world may not. It’s a hard business, so armor-up with as much information as you can absorb, writer pals whose opinions you know are rock solid, and a nice stock of chips, chocolate, and wine in your cupboard. You’ll thank me later.
This was unusually lengthy today, but I got on a roll with it and just kept going. I cut myself off at 10, and in fact deleted several others. I had to stop yakking at some point, right? The hubster probably wishes he could find the “off” switch, too. Ha, ha!
Where are you in the Unicorn Forest? If you’re a reader and not a writer, perhaps this post gave you some insight into what the world of a writer/novelist looks like. Comments welcome!
Thanks for hanging out with me. See you next week.
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