-- Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes
I realized the other day I am celebrating a landmark anniversary this month. It was thirteen years ago that I signed my first contract for my first Louis Kincaid novel. Also, I am now working on the thirteenth Louis book. I don't know whether this is an occasion for superstition, pride or terror.
But it got me thinking that it's a good time to look backwards. Because over these many years -- working with two New York publishers, at least ten editors and two agents; getting dropped by a publisher, starting over by switching from romance to crime; publishing original books and backlist titles on Amazon; chairing writers conferences, being on Bouchercon panels and being ignored at signings; giving keynote speeches, mentoring newbies and cracking bestseller lists -- after all this, I might have a few words of semi-wisdom to toss out there.
So here are the Ten Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started in the Writing Business. Oh, and I've includes some contributions from some author friends.
1. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Way back when, I thought success was going to come fast and easy. Now, you have to understand that my naivete arose from the era -- I got my start back in the early '80s when an editor at Ballantine plucked my first romance manuscript from the slush pile. You can't get a toe in the door that way these days. But it came so easy I thought everything after that would. I didn't understand until I got knocked around for four hard years that publishing is a very tough business and that you have to have stamina, faith, a gold-plated work ethic and the hide of a rhino to succeed.
2. No one wants a one-trick pony. I didn't educate myself going in on how agents and editors worked (we didn't have The Google then) so I didn't understand that agents and editors want writers who are looking to build careers. Let's say you catch an agent's eye with your manuscript. You know what the first question out of the agent's mouth will be?: "So what else do you have?" The second question: "Could you make this a series?" And the third: "Can you get it to me in four months?"
3. You have no control over what your publisher will do for your book and they probably won't do much at all. Boy, this was a toughie. It was true thirteen years ago and it's even truer now. I didn't know squat about the business side of publishing when I started out. I found out, through some embarrassing moments, that: Where your book is shelved at B&N has nothing to do with its quality; that your publisher pays to put your paperback in the No. 7 Bestseller spot at the drugstore; that the New York Times bestseller list is not based on actual sales...etc. etc. I'm still coming to grips with the fact that you have to be a business person and take charge of your "products."
4. You have to handle yourself well in public. This goes hand-in-hand with no. 3. Even though the days of big tours and promotion are over, you will still have to occasionally leave the Writer Cave and go out and mingle with the public. You will do signings, give speeches, be on panels, chat up other writers, meet agents and editors at conferences. If you are shy, you are doomed. Sorry, but it's the hard cold truth. Most writers are natural introverts so I know how hard this is. A good friend of mine would literally start to shake whenever she had to be on a panel. Over the years, however, she has worked hard on public speaking and now she delivers confident one-woman workshops on self-publishing. My sister Kelly has also worked hard to overcome this and now she's a terrific teacher. Even if you do nothing but bookstore signings, you still have to go for it. I learned this lesson early from a kind manager at a Barnes and Noble who saw me sitting pitifully behind my stack of books and advised me to stand out, hold out my book, and actively engage people as they passed by the table.
5. Keep good notes, chronologies, timelines, dossiers. This is crucial if you are writing a series but you need to do it for any novel. If you don't write things down, you will lose valuable time looking up stuff about your characters or plot. I have an old-fashioned loose-leaf binder in which I record vital stats for every character in every book. (And don't think that cameo might not come back in a future book!) Here's my friend SJ Rozan on the subject:
I wish I'd kept better notes. I have an eleven-book series that I keep leaving and coming back to, two standalones, and, as Sam Cabot, two paranormals in a new series. That's a total of fifteen books. Plus about three dozen short stories. That means I've written about a million and a half words. It didn't occur to me twenty years ago when I wrote the first book that I might lose track of, say, the names of Lydia Chin's brothers' wives. In fact I think I might have felt it was overweening, for me to think anything I did was important enough to keep notes on. Now I find myself rooting through my own work like a squirrel looking for nuts.
6. Don't try to go it alone. You must network. You must find support. And not just from family but from like-minded writer souls. You need to share with others your problems about writers block, your despair over rejection, your happiness when something good happens. You need to know that your problems are not unique and that they can be overcome. I didn't learn this until oh, about book three, when I finally started going to writers conferences. I could have learned so much from other writers! Here's my friend Sharon Potts talking:
I had assumed when I started my first novel that writing was a solitary process and I spent my first year locked away in my garret drinking cheap wine and smoking Gauloises. Just kidding--the wine was expensive and I didn't smoke. Then I discovered Mystery Writers of America and it was a real eye-opener. It was like dropping into a cabal where I was offered the secrets to getting published. But even better than that, by attending workshops and conferences, I learned how to improve my own writing and made friends who were instrumental in my success. I don't regret the wine, but I sure wish I'd joined MWA sooner.7. You must read. Not just for pleasure (although that is fine!) but with a cold analytical eye toward how other writers spin their magic. Read widely in your genre, but also outside it because that can make you braver. Read some bad books, too. You can learn from them and it can boost your confidence. But it's better to read really great stuff that makes you want to stretch your own writer wings. Here's my critique group buddy Neil Plakcy on this subject:
One of the most valuable things I learned in graduate school was to read like a writer — to be analytical about things like chapter length, pacing, cliffhangers, the balance between narrative and action, and so on. That when I see something I admire in another writer, I should analyze it to see how the effect was accomplished. I wish I’d learned that back in college, when I first studied creative writing.
8. Your publisher is not your friend. This sounds bitter but I don't mean it to be. But I didn't understand this at first. And even though writers today are smarter, I think many are a little naive, believing that once they sign a contract they will be "taking care of." The fact is, publishers want to make money. If you can help them do that, you will have a fine and fruitful relationship. But if circumstances are such that your book does not sell sufficiently, you can be dropped. It has nothing to do with you personally. It may not have anything to do with the quality of your book. Publishing is a business. A business that is now challenged by market forces and going through a wild state of flux. Yes, you can have a good relationship with an editor. But if you want a friend, get a dog.
9. Your worst character traits will be amplified. It's been said that when you get old, you become yourself but even more so. This is true of writers as well. Something happens to otherwise normal folks when they enter the creative fugue state of novel-writing. Maybe it's because, unlike other jobs, we have no easy ways to gauge our success -- no weekly paychecks, no performance reviews, no boss breathing down our necks. Writing is faith-based and lonely. So it tends to magnify whatever is strong -- or weak -- within us. Are you a procrastinator? Ha! Wait until you paint yourself into that plot corner. Are you a conflict-avoider? Well, being at the mercy of a publishing house is going to drive you nuts. Are you a tangled yarn-ball of self-doubt? That first bad Amazon review is going to have you in tears. Are you full of yourself? You will get a quick rep for being a panel-hog at writers conferences and no one will sit next to you at the bar. Learn where your fault lines are and work with them. Or get a good shrink.
10. You won't get rich. This is a true story: Back in 1982, I read an article in Money magazine about housewives who were making tons of money writing Harlequin romances. (I swear I am not making this up but I think Money magazine was). I told my husband I was going to write a romance so I could quit my job and we could get rich. I wrote a novel called The Dancer and it got published out of the slush pile (see no. 1). My advance was $2500. I never made any royalties. I didn't get to quit my day job. We didn't get rich. But it did launch my career and though my original motive was shallow and stupid, I did come to realize I wanted to actually be a serious writer. I can't say I still didn't think about getting rich but I found out money wasn't what motivated me. I discovered that writing was the one thing I really wanted to do, and that I had to give it my heart and soul. And after thirteen years, I can look back now and say that wasn't such a bad lesson.
Hey, the mail just came, and guess what? I got a royalty check from Japan! It's for $15.66. That's a decent bottle of Pinot. In honor of my windfall, I will let my old friend Rod Stewart have the last word . Take it, Rodney!
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.