For the past ten years, I have written steadily and quietly. While my friends, family, and colleagues all knew I wrote, only a few close writer friends knew the extent of my writing life. Only a handful of people knew that I had written four unpublished novels. When I would somehow let this slip in conversation, I would receive looks of marvel, looks that made me inwardly cringe. What others viewed as a major accomplishment, I viewed with embarrassment. After all, I’d been trying unsuccessfully to get an agent for years. Telling people that I kept writing despite anyone recognizing my work felt like admitting publicly to my failure as a writer. Without the external approval of an agent or publisher, I couldn’t take myself seriously as a writer, beyond a narrow circle of writing colleagues. (This need for approval speaks to many things in my life, but let’s just stick to writing, shall we?)
When I finally signed with my agent in November 2015, everything changed. Not just because I was suddenly on the path to publication after all this time, but because signing that contract allowed me to change the way I viewed myself. With my agent as my ally, I could finally take myself seriously as a writer. I sprang into action and in a matter of months set about creating the outward appearance of a writer. However, looking back, I realize that my own unwillingness to take myself seriously may have impacted my slow journey to publication. If I could go back and do it again, here are a few things I would do earlier:
Build a website
What on earth would I put on a website? That would have been my question two years ago. But I found the process surprisingly enjoyable. And while my website started small, it’s been easy to build on as I get ready for my first book to release. I took a free class at my local library on using Weebly (which is very user-friendly, and if you’re at all computer literate, you could probably figure it out yourself), and within two weekends had created a basic site. I included a synopsis for several of the other novels I’d written, and when my agent was shopping around my manuscript for THE BLOOM GIRLS, an editor at Lake Union checked out my website, requested to see one of the manuscripts I’d included, and I ended up signing a two-book deal. If I hadn’t built the website, that second book likely wouldn’t be coming out next spring.
Scrape together the money to go to a writing conference where you can pitch directly to agents.
This is how I ultimately got my agent. After pitching my manuscript at a Writer’s Digest conference, I was referred to my agent, Marlene Stringer. I’d put off going to one of these conferences for years, because they were too expensive, requiring travel and hotel accommodations. Yet I wonder if I would have sped the process along if I’d gone to a pitch conference earlier. Having the chance to pitch your book directly to an agent removes you from the slush pile and it also allows you to demonstrate yourself as a professional (articulate, serious about your craft, ready for all of the other challenges publication will bring). This is something you just can’t show in an email query. If you make it to one of these conferences, do your homework first. When I sat down to give my pitch, I knew it backward and forward. I’d practiced it a hundred times, by myself and for an audience. That came across when the time came to deliver it to an agent.
Get yourself some business cards, for goodness sakes! You never know when you’ll need one.
Again, this was something I was embarrassed to do before signing with an agent. A business card? What for? When I pitched at the above conference, another agent asked for my contact info, and specifically asked if I had a card. Uh, no. Instead I scrawled my name, number, and email on a piece of notebook paper which is a lot easier to lose track of.
Creating a business card is really simple and inexpensive. And it looks a lot more professional than a post-it note.
Try to get a few pieces published in smaller local outlets or start a blog.
But I don’t time for this, I’m busy writing my novel! And what the heck would I blog about? Yup, that’s what I was thinking. But how long would it have taken to write a short piece for the local paper? I would have made some contacts that could have helped me, and I’d also have a few more credits on my bio. Once I started my blog (which I admittedly only update on a monthly basis), I discovered I actually enjoyed this kind of writing. It was a nice break from fiction and allowed me the chance to write in a different voice. Plus, unlike novel writing, you can publish lots of blog pieces in a short amount of time, which means people are reading your work on a regular basis (even if it’s just ten people all related to you!). Blogging was my first step out of the writing closet I’d been in for so long. People I’d known for years were reading my writing for the first time. While I felt like I was totally exposed and in one of those dreams where you enter gym class and realize you forget to get dressed (the first post was entitled “Playing Kickball Naked”), the more I wrote, the more comfortable I got. Now I find that I enjoy writing these pieces and love getting feedback from readers.
Network with other writers
I’m now a member of several different groups on Facebook where writers can pose questions, offer promotional support, share ideas, and network. Again, this fell into the “I don’t have time for this” category. While discovering some of these groups requires a little bit of legwork upfront, you then have easy access to a group of writers who are going through the same struggles and have experience they can share, which may even lead to potential opportunities. As someone who isn’t crazy about the idea of interacting with strangers online, I’ve found that having a virtual community of writers is invaluable. Writing is a naturally solitary and lonely experience. Having people to talk to (even people you’ll never meet in real life) offers a respite from wandering around in your own brain with imaginary characters.
The sooner you can take yourself seriously as a writer, the more likely others are to treat you the same way. As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” The difference between a professional and an amateur, may start with the way we view ourselves as writers.
So, WITS readers, do you agree? Do you have any other tips for unpublished writers?
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When she’s not working as a middle and high school English teacher, Emily Cavanagh writes contemporary women’s fiction . She lives with her husband and two daughters on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Her first novel, THE BLOOM GIRLS, releases March 14. You can read more about her life and work at www.emilycavanaghauthor.com or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.