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 Only a handful of people knew that I had written four unpublished novels.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.
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Congratulations! All excellent suggestions. It's worth remembering, if we don't take ourselves seriously, others won't either. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles
Thanks for reading, Sheila!
Way back when Kresley Cole had just published her first novel, she spoke to our RWA chapter about her journey. One of her pieces of advice was when people asked what you did, tell them you're a writer. Once your mother-in-law knows, you have to keep at it.
You're so right, Terry. Telling other people you're a writer makes you feel accountable (which is a little terrifying!). Thanks for reading!
First, you guys need to order Emily's debut, THE BLOOM GIRLS. It's amazing!!!!!
Love having you on WITS, Emily!! Your story sounds so much like mine.
For me, it was actually my husband who gave me the kick in the pants. He pointed out that if I didn't take myself seriously with my writing, why should anyone else. True! But, like you, it was signing with Marlene that gave me that confidence to stop cringing every time I told people I was a writer.
Yes to every single one of those tips. And I'd add get a critique partner and/or accountability buddy.
Congratulations on becoming a published author, Emily!! 🙂
Thanks for reading, Orly, and your hand in this post! Signing with Marlene definitely gave me the permission I needed to take myself seriously, but I do wonder if things would have moved a little quicker for me if I'd done some of these things earlier. A critique partner/accountability buddy is such a great idea. I just read about accountability buddies somewhere, and I can really see the value in having someone keep you on track. Writing can be a lonely business.
Congrats on your own debut, Orly. What an incredible and exciting time!
Perfect timing on the post, Emily. I needed to hear it. Lately, I feel like I'm wasting my time pretending. You've reinvigorated my drive to persevere.
BTW, your website looks great. Preordering The Bloom girls is my next click! Congrats and good luck.
I'm so glad to hear that the post reinvigorated you, Stephanie. Writing can often feel like a fruitless task, especially before the promise of publication. Thanks for checking out my website and BIG THANKS for ordering my book. I hope you enjoy it! Good luck in your own writing. 🙂
Such good advice - and so important. Last night I was having a conversation with my college age son who is studying creative writing (yikes) and he said, "they're teaching us to write amazing, experimental stuff, but no one talks about how to actually get published." This is the missing piece for so many writers! And so many of us, have had to figure it out on the fly, later, when if we'd only known some of this sooner, we would have helped ourselves out tremendously. Forwarding this post to him right now (he'll be much more receptive to this information coming from a stranger rather than mom).
Thanks for reading, Cara! It would be great if writing programs emphasized getting published more. In the meantime, I guess we'll just have to learn as we go! Hopefully your son will figure it our earlier! 🙂
Yes! I could have written this myself! 18 years of trying (on and off because life, work, and kids take priority), 3 unpublished books (#4 is the one that made it - to print & ebook this spring with a small press), and I could have written this. Great advice - conferences, small blogs/magazines (I started that last year, too), writing groups, website, business cards. Thanks for writing this!
Thanks for reading, Jean--and congrats on your book!
Emily, this is all fabulous advice--I wish I'd read this when I, too, was struggling. (For the record, I wrote six novels before publishing my first one with Penguin.) I would add one more thing: join a writers' workshop or form one of your own, because even meeting once a month with other writers will help you keep writing and learning about new resources.
Yes to the writer's group! Those are invaluable to keep momentum going.Thanks for reading, Holly.
Emily - you've condensed the essentials that can be found in so many sources into one brief, clear, and useful post. And you've added a little inspiration on top. Thanks. I've only dabbled in some of these solutions so far, but know I need to get more serious about them. The conferences are the hardest to schedule, but everyone has touted their value in making good contacts.
I know, the conferences are hard, but I wished I'd pushed myself to go to one earlier. Better late than never, I guess. Thanks for reading, Jerry!
As a chronic non-networker, reaching out to other writers is the hardest part for me... but clearly one of the more important in your list. So... here goes some networking! 😉 Having business cards made is also a fantastic idea. Thanks for the article, Emily!
Thanks for reading, Gary!As a fellow chronic non-networker, I will say that it gets easier the more I do it. Getting business cards made was actually really fun. It made me feel professional just looking at them. Good luck!
Congratulations and much success, Emily!
Thank you, Debbie!
Emily, all good suggestions. thanks! And congratulations on the book deal!
Thanks for reading!
I can completely relate to this. I feel like such a fraud telling people I'm a writer when I haven't even been published. When I do say it to people there's always a note of apology in my voice - I can hear it!
Luckily for me my husband has encouraged me to do many of the things you suggested - if you don't take yourself seriously then no one else will.
Thanks for the great post.
Yes, I totally relate to the apology. I was always embarrassed to tell people, since there was no "evidence" that I actually was a writer. Thanks for reading-and keep writing!!
I totally agree. You have to take yourself seriously, you have to decide what you want because it is too much of a roller coaster if you don't. I started with a blog, then attached it to my website before I did anything else. it was and is so scary. Great post.
Thanks for reading, Barbara!
Great post Emily. I have done many of the things that you mentioned, but I have found that getting the attention of an agent is the most difficult task I have faced. Maybe going to a conference is the answer. Do you have any other suggestions on finding an agent?
Hi Sue. Thanks for reading and your reply. Honestly getting an agent was so hard. It took me nearly 10 years to finally sign with mine. I would definitely suggest a pitch conference (which is how I ultimately found mine). If you do go to a pitch conference, make sure you're totally prepped to give your pitch. I wrote mine and then practiced it like crazy. The only other thing I would suggest, which you're likely already doing, is to keep querying and not let a rejection stop you from continuing to query. When I got rejected by an agent (which happened probably over a hundred times. And usually happened before they'd read much, if any, of my work), I'd take a day or two to lick my wounds and then move on to other agents. Lastly keep writing. When I did finally land an agent, she asked if I had any other work besides the novel I was pitching. Since I'd been unsuccessfully pitching for YEARS, I had plenty of other work, which probably made me more attractive as a client. Keep at it. I hope you catch a break soon!!
Great post. I've been working on my first novel for a long time. A few years ago I started calling myself a writer and at first I felt like a big fake, because I hadn't published anything but a short story, but over time my inward cringe has gotten less and less pronounced. I'm a writer, even if I'm STILL working on that novel. In fact, I'm a writer BECAUSE I'm STILL working on that novel. Thanks for the encouraging thoughts.
Keep writing, April--you ARE a writer! Thanks for reading.