Advice to New Authors
I do not have all the answers. No one does. Even after many years, I am still a student of writing, learning what makes a story great, and discovering my voice. Each book presents an opportunity to be a stronger, smarter, and more entertaining author. There is a beauty in the journey from novice to expert, though most authors, no matter how many books they write or how much notoriety they attain, still grasp for the chance to be called an "expert." Below are tips for authors starting out, things I wish I'd known before I published my first book.
Before reading ahead, be aware that the best piece of advice I can give is to be your authentic self—with your writing and with readers. Go into this business with an open mind, thick skin, and a strong work ethic. You'll need all three, and a lot more, to make it. Competition is fierce and talent is abundant. You might make it or you might not, but if you remain true to yourself, the journey will be worth every moment.
1. Beta-readers, family, and friends do not replace the skills of a professional editor. If you're submitting a book to a publisher, then thorough beta-reading might be enough (maybe), but if you're self-publishing you cannot do without an editor. Having an editor and proofreader is valuable if submitting your book to agents and publishers.
The advice? Use beta-readers who you know won't tiptoe around issues with your book. A good editor will also do this. Make sure to read the book aloud more than once before sending it to your editor. I didn't always do this, but I've learned my lesson and won't make the mistake of thinking the book is ready for the editor or publisher when deep down I know it's not.
2. A strong social media presence does not replace good writing or publishing your next book. I learned this one the tough way. I fought using social media for the longest time. I finally caved, but not just a little. I joined Goodreads, SheWrites, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Pinterest. Needless to say I hit overload fast, and I couldn't keep up without sacrificing my writing or my sanity. It became stressful and not at all fun. As a result, years later I’ve cut way back on social media, schedule as much as I can in advance, and am active on only a couple of platforms that don’t cause me stress.
The advice? Work your way into it. Don't allow yourself to be sucked into the idea that you have to be everywhere. You want your book to be available as many places as possible, but you don't have to be. If you aren't comfortable, or don't have the time to join every social media platform, then don't. Use a service such as Hootsuite to schedule posts and view all of your platforms in one convenient location.
Your readers will know where to find you when they want to talk. Many readers go directly to an author's website when they want information about new releases or special events. In the rare event an author I like doesn’t have a website, I can find their books on retail sites. That's enough for this avid reader. Which brings me to the next point . . .
3. Website. You need one. I'm one of those avid readers who spends a small fortune every year on books, but I don't visit authors' social media sites. If I want to know about their books or find information about them, I go directly to their website. I remember when I first went looking for Johanna Lindsey's website and I couldn't find one. I wanted a place to keep up with her books and what was coming next, but I soon learned that I had to resort to checking on Amazon because she doesn't keep a website (though her publisher kept one for her). Now, for an author like Johanna Lindsey getting away with that is a little easier than a new author who isn't known or not popular enough to expect that people will simply look for your books on Amazon.
The advice? If you have time for nothing else, put up a nice, basic website or an informative blog. One single place where readers can get news and updates about you and your books. Keep it updated and easy to navigate. If you want both a blog and a website, ideally they will be connected in some way so that when a reader visits your website they can easily find your blog and vice versa. What makes a website so important is ownership. You don’t own your social media profiles, which means you have a lot less control than you’ll ever realize, and you can be shut down at any time.
4. If you're not having fun, neither are they. At some point in your writing career you might write a book that isn't easy to write. For whatever reason, you aren't having fun. You love the story and the characters, but something is "off." Perhaps you have a lot going on in your personal life. Perhaps work keeps you occupied and when you have time to write you're too tired to be excited. It may turn out to be your best book, or your worst book, and when it's published you may wish you had waited.
The advice? Push through it. I've felt this way, and I'd be willing to bet that most authors have at some point. That doesn't mean you give up on the story, unless of course it's really just that bad. If life is getting in the way of your writing, don't be afraid to take time. I had a major event in my life happen on the day of my second book release. I put off writing a new book for nearly six months, but in truth I still wasn't ready when I did write the new book. I felt I wasn't ready, but it had to be done or I may as well have given up entirely. It's okay to take a break, but don't stop writing. Keep it going somehow, push through it, and get ready to write a better book. Above all, love what you do or it's not worth doing.
5. Don't read reviews, at least not all of them, and definitely don't respond to reviews. There are others out there who would disagree with this advice, but I stand by it. When you're first starting out as a writer, reading reviews can be helpful. You'll be getting "advice" and feedback from genuine readers. Most reviewers aren't afraid to say what they like and don't like about a book. Some can be cruel and a few may be helpful. Some will give spoilers which ruins it for others. Others are amazing and even send you emails because they want to let you know how much they loved the book. Still, you shouldn't read most—or any—reviews.
The advice? When you're a new writer with only one published book, you won't be able to stop yourself from reading through every review that pops up online. Take it in stride. You won't be able to please every reader. What one reader loved another may hate. One reader may think the book wasn't edited properly when you know it was, and another may not notice a book that has multiple errors. Just as there are a variety of authors, there is an even greater variety of readers.
These days, I look over a few reviews when a book is first released to see how it's accepted, and sometimes a friend or reviewer will email me a link to a review, but otherwise I've learned to let it go and leave reviews for the readers. I want to learn from past mistakes, and reviews can help an author do that, but at some point an author needs to focus more on writing a better book than worrying about every review.
As a side note, if every review a book receives is poor, then it might be time to evaluate what went wrong before writing the next book. Being an author is more than just coming up with a great idea. And reviews lead me to the next point . . .
6. Reviewers can be your friend. Just because a review may not be good, doesn't mean it's wrong. Your book can pass muster with you, your beta-readers, a proofreader, and your editor, and still something might be missed. What you have to remember, though, is that when a book is read over and over again, sometimes it takes a "fresh pair of eyes" to catch something. Pick up 85% of books published by big publishing houses and you're likely to find a minor error here and there. Readers really are wonderful people. The vast majority of them want an author to succeed because they want great books to read (rhyme unintentional).
The advice? Don't discount a review just because you believe they're wrong and you're right. There are some awesome reviewers out there who may point something out that you could swear wasn't an issue. No one was more surprised than I to discover that a reviewer had caught something I missed. I'm grateful to that reviewer because no matter how small the miss might have been, I was able to correct it, and it made a difference. If someone points something out about your book, take a few minutes to check before dismissing it entirely. It's better to be wrong and correct it than to be stubborn and ignore it entirely.
On the flip side, don't expect readers to be your editors and proofreaders. You should be publishing the best book you possibly can.
Another word of caution—many readers who believe themselves experts, are not. Heck, I wouldn't pass muster as a professional editor. If someone points out an error, make sure it's wrong before fixing it. A reader may believe something to be wrong, when it is in fact correct. It happens all the time! Always ask a professional editor if you're unsure.
7. Bragging is not an attractive trait in an author. I might have a few virtual tomatoes thrown at me for this one, so I'm going to keep it brief. I wouldn't be honest if I said I believed it was an okay practice. Of course, an author who has worked hard, touched lives, brought joy to another, and who has written a great book deserves some bragging rights. I've shared a few reviews on social media when the review either touched me personally, or I felt the reader just "got it," but there is such a thing as too much, and there's a fine line between sharing and bragging.
The advice? Keep it subtle, simple, and sporadic.
Well then, what about marketing? This brings me to my next point . . .
8. Marketing. There's no way around it, but there can be a balance. I have found the trick is not to overwhelm yourself. Readers and followers don't always want to know everything about your books—they also want to know something about you. Believe it or not, every time you make a legitimate connection online, you're still marketing. When you answer fan emails or reply to Facebook comments, you're marketing. Of course, there are times when a little more is required, especially around a new book release. This is one of those instances when I give the advice and not follow it, since I'm slow to respond to comments online, and that's when I see them.
The advice? To be honest, I’m not the best person to give advice about finding balance between marketing and writing. I struggle with sharing anything about myself, mostly because I think my books are far more interesting than I am.
Okay, here’s the advice. Instead of spending every spare minute marketing yourself, get some help if you can. I'm old school so I still prefer book blogs to social media. I personally like small book tours (5-6 stops). Instagram tours are also becoming popular. If you enjoy social media, then I suggest you make friends and not ads, that is if you're social. If you're on a tour or promoting your book, you definitely want to let people know about that, but then mix it up with something not about you or your books. It takes restraint not to talk about your books every day. If wonderful things are happening, and you absolutely want to share it every day, talk to your friends and family, but keep it more subtle online.
Don't be afraid to share books from your favorite authors or help them promote a special offer or book release. Your author page(s) don't have to always be about you—share the love.
The least amount of marketing I ever did was for my fourth book release. Understandably, that's when I found the greatest success, which tells me something else. Writing is the best marketing tool you will ever have. Keep writing books readers want to read. It's like climbing a mountain—when you're fifty feet from the peak, you can't slow down. You slow down, you lose momentum. You lose momentum, one of two things usually happens—you either quit or you lose ground and have to start all over again.
9. Learn when to take a break. This may seem counterproductive, especially since the whole idea is to write books, but you have to learn to spend time away from the computer or notepad. No matter how quickly our brains and fingers are working, writing is a sedentary job. No matter how many awesome fictional characters there are, writing is a solitary job. The solitary part doesn't bother me since I'm most comfortable when I have a lot of quiet and alone time. The sedentary part is another issue, and it's not healthy.
The advice? Get up and get moving. Live life at least a few days a week—in the real world. Make time to exercise at least three days a week. If your body can handle more, get out and walk a few miles every day in addition to your thrice-weekly workouts. Stand up every hour and walk around your office, stretch your body, do a few breathing exercises, but get up and move. Sitting for 4-8 hours at a time is one of the least healthy things we can do to ourselves.
When we get into a story, we can easily forget about time and before we know what's happened, three hours have slipped by. I have back issues, so I've learned to automatically stand and walk around every 30-60 minutes. Sometimes I forget, so when I know I'm entering a writing marathon, I set a timer. Whatever works for you, do it. Just move, walk, stretch, and live as much as you can.
10. Writing is a job. Granted it's one of the best jobs ever, and where it might be one of the best jobs you'll ever have, it's hard work. If you're only a part-time writer, think of it as a second job. If you don't show up, you don't get paid, or in this case the book doesn't get written . . . which means you don't get paid. We all need sick days or vacations, but at some point you have to go back to work. If you're anything like most writers, you can't wait to get back to work.
The advice? Set a schedule and try to stick with it. This is one of my greatest weaknesses. I'm great with schedules and organization, but I often allow too many other things to get in the way. If I only manage one hour a day, at least I know I showed up. Make a calendar, set your watch or phone on an alarm as a reminder, ask family to be supportive for that coveted writing time. I tried the late-night schedule once, but it didn't work for me because I need a full night's sleep, though it might work for you. Do whatever it takes to get the writing done.
11. Discouragement and encouragement come with the territory. People will knock you down from time to time. It's inevitable. As an author, you put yourself "out there" and some people, thankfully a blessed few, will do their best to make your life miserable. Remember that they are not the reason why you do this. On the flip side, encouragement will likely overshadow anything negative. It's a tough business but also a rewarding one. You are making yourself vulnerable to criticism and opinions the moment you publish your book. Whether you're traditionally published or self-published, the opinions are out there.
The advice? It's not much different than what I've already stated. Push through it. Write first for yourself, second for your characters, and third for the readers (or whatever makes you happy). If you've been true to yourself and the story, then the readers will see that. If you haven't, well, they'll probably let you know. If that happens, and it really matters to you what everyone thinks, then the next time around just write a better book. You will never, ever, be able to please every reader.
12. Rules. Ane Mulligan said, "Learn the rules of good writing . . . then learn when and how to break them." You can read every writing how-to book, take online classes, spend a fortune in workshops, and still not know how to write. There's nothing wrong with knowing every rule, but you have to know when to throw the rule book out the window (cliche intended).
The advice? In the end, you'll learn more by writing than you will by learning how to write because you never stop learning. There will always be old rules and new rules, and trust me when I say that you will never know them all. That's why you have an editor; they fill in the knowledge gaps. The catch is, you have to keep writing in order to discover when and how to break the rules. As authors, we have more leeway with our books than we may realize, but there is a right and wrong way to break the rules. If you're ever uncertain about whether or not a rule is breakable, don't be afraid to ask your editor. Chances are they'll tell you it's okay, or they'll tell you it can't be done. Either way, don't let the rules stop you.
13. Bestsellers' lists and awards are not the golden ticket. Oh, they're fun, but they aren't a guarantee of future success. This tip was added in early 2019 after I read in an author group about how one author was asking advice about joining a boxed set with the sole purpose of pricing it at 99 cents and getting as many copies sold as possible so as to make the USA Today bestseller's list. A LOT of self-published authors do this. It's neither bad nor good. Yes, it's nice for marketing and to give yourself bestseller status for life. Kind of like winning an award. You win one, you're forever an award-winning author. My disgruntlement with the first tactic is because I'm not a fan of shortcuts. Writing, like business, is a marathon. The quick and easy way to the top doesn't really exist. Earlier in my career, when I started seeing more and more authors attain USA Today bestseller status, I was curious how they did it, so I asked and investigated. What I learned was disheartening, and I was not surprised to learn that their newly-gained status did not impact future sales.
Many authors I know have done this, and I don't begrudge them it, but everything I have learned about why and how it's done has made me never want to attempt such a shortcut on my own. I enjoy sprinting, but I'm okay with a marathon. I admire the authors who have reached those great levels of success one book at a time.
The advice? Expect to work hard for every book you sell. If you look for the shortcuts to success, your career may not be as long-lived as you'd like. This does not mean you and your book will not be at the right place at the right time. You could submit to the right agent who sells your book to the right publisher, and that publisher does such a bang-up job for you that you reach every bestseller list out there your first week. It happens! But it's not the everyday reality of publishing. Work hard, gain recognition, (even awards), write the best books you can, and be proud of what you have accomplished. A lot of long-term sales spread out over the course of a year is worth far more than a lot of short-term sales packed into a single week. The key to this career is longevity.
14. Love what you do. Okay, I already said this, but it's worth repeating. Love what you do because if you don't love it, you should ask yourself why you're doing it.
In closing . . .
Overnight success is a myth (for 99.9% of authors). Writing isn't for everyone, and many people publishing books probably shouldn't be, at least not for public consumption. It takes a lot of work to succeed and even then, some great authors never see great success or wealth, but they keep at it because they've discovered it's about more than success.
Sharing these thoughts and the accompanying advice isn't my way of telling writers what to do. They are simply things I've learned as a published author.
Being in this business is like being in a classroom, except that school is never out. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; just make sure you're learning from those mistakes. When you graduate to the next level, you want to be able to take new skills and knowledge with you.
There are plenty of books and articles out there telling you how to write. End each chapter with a cliffhanger, don't use cliches, avoid redundancies . . . All good tips, but the list never ends. Find what works for you and learn to balance it all out. It won't be easy, but if you love what you do, it will be worth it.
1. Self-publishing is a wonderful experience, and I would highly recommend it. However, if you cannot hire a professional editor and great cover designer, and put up a website of some kind, then you're not ready to be a self-published author. Even if affording a professional editor and designer means you have to put off publishing for a few months or years, then wait. This is a business and needs to be treated like one.
2. Keep a gratitude journal. There are going to be days when you feel frustrated and wonder why you started writing. Remembering the little things, even the small things you're grateful for, can keep you motivated and filled with positive thoughts.
3. Beware of distractions. Phones, social media, and random web searches are huge time suckers. They will cripple you if you're not careful. I go to the extreme and don't keep personal social media accounts, don't have cable/satellite/streaming services attached to my television, and turn my phone off daily at 5:00 p.m. It only leaves my office when I leave the house. You don't have to go this far, but while you're writing, turn off your phone and keep web browsers closed (if that's a distraction).