My first book is scheduled to come out the last week in September.
It’s an interesting time for me. As I look back over the last nearly 20 years of writing (I’ve worked full-time as a writer since 1997), I realize I’ve had a lot of illusions about what this time would be like. I think as young writers we tend to imagine that our writing lives will peak with publication.
Turns out it’s not really like that. Already I have so much to do in the coming months to market the book. Soon I’ll be starting edits on the second novel I have under contract. And there’s my work in progress, which is still, well, in progress.
Publication now feels less like a peak and more like a change in course, after which the journey continues…uphill.
No matter how you look at it, though, publication—especially the first one—is a milestone, which invites reflection. What have I learned along the way?
As writers, we’re all told we need to get feedback on our work. I still believe that’s true, but I now know it’s extremely important to be careful with critiques. In my early years, I tended to believe most everything a teacher/editor/other writer would tell me. After all, they all had more experience than I did.
Plus, like most creative people, I heard the negative comments a lot more clearly than the positive. Which wasn’t good for my confidence as a young writer, or my progress toward becoming a published novelist.
After years of receiving critiques at conferences and contests, as well as hiring professional editors, I now know how subjective these things are. Some contests deliver three separate critiques, for example, and I’m still amazed at how different they can be. One reviewer will heap praise on a piece of writing while another will give it only mediocre marks. One will say the dialogue is natural and well done, while another will say the dialogue, especially, needs work.
Today, when reading critiques, I take most of the comments with a grain of salt. It’s only those that ring true for me on an intuitive level—the ones that I respond to in my gut—that I pay attention to. The rest I do my best to forget.
It was John Steinbeck who said, “Unless a reviewer has the courage to give you unqualified praise, I say ignore the bastard.”
It wasn’t until several years into my fiction writing practice that I found a really good editor who pointed out that I needed to work on plot. She had struggled with it, too, and told me how she had practiced to improve her skills.
That feedback was invaluable to me. I dove into plotting as if I was back in college. I bought books, took classes, made outlines, and studied story structure. Soon, I was getting consistent positive feedback about my plots. Did that ever feel great!
Looking back, I realize I could have advanced more quickly if I had discovered my weaknesses earlier. How? By researching and finding writing mentors who knew what they were doing, and were genuinely interested in helping young writers succeed—and then being willing to invest in their guidance.
We all dream of publishing with the big guns when we start out. We want names like Penguin, Random House, Tor, and the like on the title pages of our books.
We submit to those giants. And we wait. And we wait. Most large publishers take up to six months to get back to you, if they ever do get back to you. (Many these days make no response at all if they’re not interested in the story.) That’s a lot of time wasted.
There are some new writers who break through to these publishers on their first try, but the odds are against us. Meanwhile, a number of reputable small publishers are very eager to find new writers, and committed to representing work they believe in.
If I had started with these publishers, I might have gotten a contract much earlier, and been further along in my fiction-writing career today.
As a young writer, I would send my story out to a couple publishers, and then wait for their responses. When I received rejections, I would feel disappointed, and question my abilities as a writer. I doubted I would ever get “good enough” to be published.
All these negative feelings would prevent me from submitting again for a considerable amount of time. This happened a lot with my (now) first-published book. Years passed and I wrote other novels I didn’t try to publish. For some reason, the characters in this one stayed in my head, the story still alive in my thoughts. One day, I got a little angry. Heck with it, I thought. I’ll just send the darn thing back out there.
This time, I sent it to several small publishers. That resulted in a publishing contract. After I signed the contract, I was still receiving requests for the full manuscript from other publishers.
Was it just coincidence? Timing? Could have been, but I’m more likely to believe that if I had been more aggressive in my submissions earlier on, the book would have found a home years before it did.
When submitting this story to publishers early on, I received several positive comments. Way back in 2005, I got a handwritten note on a rejection letter that said:
“Great story idea. Not right for us but keep going. You will find a publisher for this book.”
That note made me happy, but I too quickly allowed rejections to overpower the encouragement. Looking back, I should have framed that letter, along with all the other encouraging notes that came in over the years, or at least put them somewhere I could see them now and then.
We writers are way too sensitive to negative feedback. We need to take any positive feedback just as seriously, if not more so.
We think our writing careers start with publication, but that’s not true, especially in today’s world. Now, authors are required to do the majority of the marketing for their own books. That means creating a platform as early as possible, and growing it over time.
This is something I didn’t understand until late in the game—partly because the radical changes in publishing happened quickly, and partly because this whole idea of building a platform was practically nonexistent when I first started out.
Looking back, I realize I would have been better off if I had taken a long-term view of my fiction-writing career. I was too limited, thinking it was all about getting better and getting a publishing contract. Both of those things are still key to succeeding, but now it’s also important to have a solid presence online, and to be continually working to attract an audience, book or not.
I’ve never had a problem running my freelance business as a business, but fiction felt different to me. It was more my joy, and my dream. Now that I have my first book coming out, I realize that a lot of the things I’ve been doing in my freelance business I could have been doing for my fiction writing, too.
This is the hardest one. When you’re all alone, working away day after day, year after year, it’s very difficult to believe that one day, you’ll be signing a book contract, and one day soon after that, you’ll be preparing for the launch of your first book.
We pay for not believing in ourselves. It holds us back. It stops us from fully investing in our dreams. I was never sure if my novels would be published, ever, so fiction writing remained something I did in my off hours.
Don’t get me wrong. I worked my tail off. Having a full-time job was something I had to do, and squeezing writing in after that was never easy. I dedicated myself to practicing, studying, and learning, but I felt almost guilty about it, like it was a self-indulgent thing to do, to spend all that time on something that might never culminate in an actual published book, or (gulp) a fiction writing career.
If I had believed in myself wholeheartedly, I might have done a better job of paving the way for myself. I might have gotten more done on my platform, for example, or felt more confident about devoting the time and resources needed to support my writing dreams.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say. I made mistakes along the way. I hope others might learn from them, but I also hope that we can all feel more entitled to make mistakes. We often fear getting it wrong, but there’s no way to learn in this field without messing up every once in a while.
Make mistakes. Go for it. Believe in yourself. If you keep at it, one day, you will succeed.
Did you make mistakes before receiving a publishing contract? Or do you worry you might? Please share your thoughts with our readers.
Colleen M. Story writes young adult fantasy and adult literary novels. She’s also a full-time freelance writer and editor specializing in the health and wellness field. Her first book, Rise of the Sidenah, is scheduled for a September 24, 2015 release. Find more on her website, ColleenMStory.com, and at WritingandWellness.com, or follow her on Twitter: @colleen_m_story.
Rise of the Sidenah is a magical fantasy about a young sculptress forbidden from practicing her art, until a powerful man offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse. He draws her into a world of deceit, murder, and betrayal, leaving her no choice but to engage him in battle to save the ones she loves.
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