As far as I know, there is no definitive manual on how to be an author. There are hundreds of books about the craft of writing and dozens of places to go for advice on how to write a good query letter and synopsis. You can take a course on everything from nailing that first line to marketing your backlist. But there are still surprises. There are aspects of being an author that you’ll only figure out after you’ve been doing it for a while.
It’s like raising a kid. You’ve heard a rumor you might be up at three in the morning cleaning pink vomit off the carpet on the stairs, but you didn’t think it’d happen until it does. There wasn’t really supposed to be pink vomit, was there? Not when no one had eaten anything pink.
This is my list of things I sort of (definitely) wish someone had told me.
The number of times you will read your own books.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Most writers are readers and the idea of reading your own book feels a bit like a dream… until you’re reading it for the thirteenth time. It’s been out for a year now, and you’re feeling pretty good about how it all went. You might even love the book a little. You’re over the seventh read through, which was when you decided the whole book sucked and you wanted to start again (like you did after the third read through). Your editor telling you why that would be impossible is a dark memory. By the tenth read through (for quotes and excerpts), you’re resigned to it all. You don’t exactly hate it. You just want it done.
So, there you are, quietly smiling over a very clever line, when you spot the error. It’s not a misspelled word or a dropped comma. An extra punctuation mark, or an echo. It’s just the wrong word. You could have said it better. And you can’t understand why every review started with just how botched this particular scene is, and why, oh, why did you ever think you could write?
You’re never going to read this book again.
But you will, while you’re plotting the sequel because you’ve forgotten the color of Charlie’s eyes and the name of his mother-in-law. And then you will read that book thirteen times, and the book after it about sixteen times, and you’ll wonder where you ever found the time to read books written by anyone else, which is fine because…
You now hate the authors you used to love.
When compared to them, you are a hack. Like, it’s embarrassing how bad your books are. The prose is clunky, the characterization very routine, and there are no surprises. None! The new book by <insert favorite author here> is, quite literally, the best thing you’ve ever read. You should find something heavy and destroy your laptop right now. Immediately.
Of course, when you review their latest book on Goodreads, you will effuse over how inspiring it is and what you loved about it. You may even mention the broken shards of your laptop (you’re using the Goodreads app on your phone). That’s when you’ll remember how inspired you are by this book… and that you’ll only get better with practice.
And if you were to read your own books (not again, not again!) from the first to the last, you’d realize you are getting better. Little by little, you are growing. With each book, you cry less.
Oh, the tears.
Things that will make you cry:
- When your characters are sad
- When your characters are happy
- That one moment not on your outline that somehow snuck into the story and became significant
- Typing “The End”
- Your first rejection notice
- A gentle decline from the agent you thought would love your book
- The phone call from the editor who did love your book
- The six-page letter from that editor detailing everything wrong with your book
- Holding a copy of your book in your hands
- Reading reviews
- Thinking no one really got it
- Getting an email from a reader who totally got it
- Doing it all again
A lot of the tears are the good kind. Honestly! They’re you and your characters having a great time. I hadn’t realized how much of myself I put into every book until I got to the tenth one and still found stuff to give. Parts of me to tuck inside every character to either unwrap and challenge or send out into the world on reconnaissance.
To me, my characters are real people, and while I write their stories, I live with them, and they with me. So, it’s no wonder I take everything about publishing personally—which sort of sucks because except for the writing, it all takes a lot of time.
And no one tells you…
How much time you’ll spend not writing.
You’ll have heard it dozens of times: a real writer writes every day. But what you might not know going into this—I certainly didn’t—is how much time you spend not writing. Not because you’re blocked, or the words are only happening on an average of one every two minutes. (That’s when you decide today isn’t a writing day.)
It’s all the other stuff that goes along with being a writer: the revising, the editing, the thinking. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to step away from the keyboard and go to pull weeds, mow the lawn, bake bread, go for a walk, vacuum the stairs, or take a shower. Then the words will come… and your hands will be filthy, and one of your three trillion notebooks will not be close by.
Then there are all the words you’ll need to write about your words. Promotional posts, pitches, queries, synopses, blurbs, cover copy, advertisements, blog posts, web pages, newsletters, emails. I’m sure there’s more. You’ll have social media accounts to maintain, and that means looking somewhat alive and functional. People will write to you, and you’ll be expected to write back, especially when it’s your editor. And no one told me about Canva and how many hours I’d spend putting my book covers into awesome little promotional posts to sprinkle across social media so that I do, indeed, look alive and productive.
Which rules you’re allowed to break, and when.
It changes. All the time. A part of it, for me, is that I’ve worked with four different publishers. Just as every writer has their own style, editors do too. The hardest aspect, though, is when you’re reading someone else’s book and there, right there, is the THING all of your editors have told you not to do. It’s on the page, loud and proud. And when out of curiosity, you flip to the acknowledgments to find out who their editor is, and you see the name of one of your editors, it’s… confusing.
Like, did they just give up trying to get this other author to change their mind? Were there worse problems in the book? You’re hoping this is the reason until you start to wonder what the same editor might have given up trying to get you to do and what the worse problems were with your book.
Or, it could be that this other writer tells such great stories, no one cares how they’re written. Autonomous body parts are doing all the weird things, every relative (alive and dead) is included in the first scene, both the main characters have names that begin with the letter C (and so does the dog), and there’s a lemon tree in the backyard. In Canada. You can’t grow lemons in Canada. Not outdoors. Not really. I mean, you can, but only in certain areas, and you really should have your trees in pots so you can pull them inside during winter.
You’ve sweated over your books. Every word is carefully considered and you know your copy editor is one of the best in the business. You’ve worked your plot forward and backward, you’ve researched every last fact, and the story is good. You cried on every second page, and not only because you’ve figured out they can’t have a lemon tree in the backyard.
But there’s a review saying your book could have used a good editor—and the same reviewer loved this other book where the author misused callus and callous THREE times, so you’re confused. You’re… Let’s leave it at confused.
You’ll seek to redefine the definition of insanity.
You are going to do it all again. I’ve done it twenty times now. Soon to be twenty-one. And I’m under contract for books twenty-two through twenty-four. And I’m polishing twenty-five for submission.
- After signing my first contract for multiple books (a series) I said I’d never do that again. I’ve done it three times now.
- After receiving poor reviews for putting aliens in a love story, I thought I might leave that one alone. Excuse me while I laugh. (Three books now. No, wait, make that eight. No, wait…)
- After plotting more commercial books, I’ve set them aside to keep writing books that mix tropes. Like, mail-order-spouse space westerns and alien billionaires. I mean… Okay, let’s move on.
- I have tried to make my stories simpler and just about the romance. I have. But my characters always want to explore ALL the options.
- When given a choice between making the reader happy and making my characters happy, I’ll side with my characters 100% of the time.
- I’ll make plans to retire from publishing, dreaming about all the things I can do with my time if I’m not writing (or not not writing) and stumble on a new story idea.
- And after typing The End and promising myself I’ll take a month off to do nothing before going back to read over what I’ve written, I will, inevitably, load that puppy onto my ereader that evening.
Because you love it.
This is the only thing no one has to tell you. Ever.
You’ll figure out it’s not as easy as you thought it was and that publishing is a curse to creativity. Why is someone else in charge of deciding what your words are worth?
You’ll wonder why some people, the people you thought would love your books, hate them, and why others love them. You’ll never really know why that this one will become a bestseller while that one languishes below the rank of seven million on Amazon.
There are so many whys. Most of the time, little makes sense. But none of it will stop you from writing the next book because there are so many stories to tell, and no one else can write your stories the way you will. No one else has your voice.
And there is something magical about being able to write it all down. To listening to your characters and knowing, instinctively, what they have to do. To going back over a WIP only to discover what you thought you needed to add is already there. To reading one of your books for the seventeenth time and thinking, Wow. I wrote this. And it’s good.
So, even though it’s all much harder than you thought it would be, a path full of holes no one warned you about, you’re going to keep going because, quite honestly, once you get started, you can’t imagine doing anything else.