When I was still pregnant with my now two-year-old son, Writer’s Digest (my publisher of Make a Scene) interviewed me at their website. And while I don’t normally make a habit of quoting myself, I have to say: I have some really good advice, that the me-of-now nodded along to. My life has changed so dramatically since my son’s birth, but pretty much everything I said here, rings true:
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
In short, “be persistent,” which actually means to me: FIRST worry about the writing (and explore it, delve into it, try a lot of things on and get excellent feedback). Work with great passion and be committed to gaining a thorough understanding of your particular form (or forms). THEN, be persistent in the face of rejection and adversity and trust the impulse that led you to create.
But, what has equally contributed to my success is a determined effort to block out all the negative noise and discouragement that abounds on the road to publication. I am a life-long practitioner of leaping first and looking later. I highly doubt I would have ever published a book if I had, for instance, paid attention to the statistics about how many writers are seeking publication (a mind-numbing number), or pursued my MFA because I thought it would make me great contacts. I have always pressed ahead towards what I was compelled to write, and only then has success followed.
What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
The writing should be your priority. Make the writing as good as it can be before you dip your toes in the whirlpool of publishing. Don’t take your tender, barely finished manuscript to a conference (or send a first draft of anything anywhere!) and let yourself get discouraged or beat up by the first (or sixth) word of rejection. Don’t get sucked into the lust for publication before you’ve given everything to the work. Because you might just need another draft—but rejection could make you believe you should give up right then. (Do, however, seek critical feedback when you’re ready).
For example, a client of mine attended a conference where she was able to pitch many agents at once. They all asked for samples. Problem was, her pitch was better than her manuscript because she’d only written a first draft! The rejections that followed caused her great despair until she realized she’d just done things out of order.
What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
I think the biggest mistake that anyone in any of these categories can make is what I’ve just said above, to throw yourself to the wolves unprepared, and to assume that there is any such thing as an “overnight success.” Successful freelancers train ourselves to thoroughly study the publications we’re pitching before we spend that valuable time writing a pitch, and sometimes we even have to do extensive research before we have an assignment! Non-fiction book authors survey the marketplace to be sure that the book they want to write hasn’t already been done a thousand times, before they build a gorgeous, winning book proposal. And successful fiction writers understand the demands of the form—they get very good at it, they practice and read and get feedback and read a whole lot more. Most importantly in all of these categories, successful writers succeed because they commit to learning the highest standards of the form and then applying themselves to it.
I’m often amazed how little research a new writer puts into finding out how the industry works. There is nothing you can’t find with a simple internet search. New writers need to empower themselves to get informed.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
Other writers, both as friends and critique partners, and for the books they write. I recommend this too, because it’s not wise to rely on our spouses or family members or non-writing friends (though sometimes any of those people might have a very savvy eye). As for other writers-as-authors, they teach me and entertain me. I read voraciously and widely (some might even say indiscriminately)and am always learning something about my own craft as I go.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Despite the fact that I left a “day job” more than three years ago to work for myself as a freelance writer, I still rise as early as possible and end up sitting at a desk most of the day. The desk just happens to be in my home, and nobody notices if I’m late, but for anyone who doubts my work ethic, I’m butt-in-chair all day every day.
I do a lot of editing (of others’ manuscripts) and article writing. But I learned a long time ago that if I want to write fiction, I must do it first before anything else. So I either start with fiction, or if I’m not writing fiction at the time, I make myself do a “journal dump”—to get all the myriad anxieties I normally carry with me off my mind—then move on to whichever project is highest on my priority list, and then the second highest (I tend to work on 2-3 projects at a time). I do have the luxury of taking breaks—to eat, visit with friends, etc—and yet I probably take fewer breaks as a self-employed person than I did when working in a workplace because my home office is an environment completely in my control (except for the neighbor’s propensity to play incredibly loud Opera).
Though all of this is about to change in some unimaginable way I’m sure, as I’m expecting my first child.
If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
Smaller advances, higher marketing budgets for authors, which might then make it possible for more really good books to be bought as well as properly marketed.
But what I hear from my clients is that they wish agents and editors were not so inundated so they could get feedback on why their work was rejected.
In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?
In every way. I decided I was ready to freelance full time nearly 4 years ago, and started stockpiling my on-the-side freelance income until I had a six months “net.” Then I leapt, terrifying as that was. My most significant successes have all come about in that time—I’ve published two books, built a steady income writing articles and editing manuscripts, and been able to do more teaching. Since my book Make a Scene was published, I’ve had the opportunity to present at conferences and to various writing groups and have gained more clients. Quitting that last job was the best thing I ever did (though in all fairness, I am married to a man with a very stable job!)
Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?
It’s easy to assume that since an editor likes your work, they’re instantly your “friend.” It’s wise to treat these relationships as professional vs. friendly (which is not to say be mean or terse!) because your editor undoubtedly has many other clients and it’s to both your advantage to keep your contact as professional and to the point as possible.
On the other hand, I will say that when it’s clear an editor likes your work and is open to working with you further, try to maintain that relationship by pitching new ideas as frequently as the publication or publisher allows.
What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?
Taking my writing seriously enough to make a career out of it. I’ve had many, many jobs that run the gamut from vitamin buyer to spa director, and every time I stifled the writer in me, I grew miserable (ask my husband). I learned quickly that you don’t have to quit a good job to write—there is absolutely enough time to do it if you make it a priority. You can’t be published if you don’t write.
Any final thoughts?
I’ve always been someone who ignored the “don’ts” and “can’ts” that are slung at you in this industry. This doesn’t come from some defiant streak in me, but from a place of deep curiosity. I have to find out for myself if I can or can’t. And in doing so, I’ve found out more times than not that don’t and can’t are expressions of other people’s fears or anxieties. If you think you can and you put your energy into doing whatever that is the right way (with enthusiasm and purpose), you most likely WILL.