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If I'd Known Then

My writing journey began in 1995 when I left a corporate job I hated to pursue something that was from my heart. I quickly determined that was writing, not just for fun but for publication. One little opinion piece printed in the local paper and I was hooked. By 1997 I knew I wanted to write novels, and of course, to have them published. Here's a short list of things I didn't know then that might have helped me. I hope they help you in some way on your journey.

1. It takes time, lots of time, to write a first book. Writing a novel isn't easy. As you're writing that first one, you're learning how to do it. I wish that I'd been able to relax about it, 1,000 words, in, 10,000 words in, 50,000 words in. I wish I'd known that in order to be able to write a publishable book, I had to become educated about how to do it, from writing workshops to having others read and critique, to just writing pages and pages, whether or not I'd end up keeping them. From the time I began trying to write a novel to the time of my first published novel was six years. Had I known it would take that long, I'm not sure I'd have kept at it. And now, of course, I'm so glad that I did.

2. Never submit too early. I'm a classic early submitter, wanting feedback, or perhaps just external validation, way before my material is ready. The problem is, even agents and editors are humans, and they're tainted by early reads. They'll forever remember that they had a problem with that first read, didn't like the main character, or didn't believe the situation, no matter that you fixed it. We need to get that early validation elsewhere: friends, fellow writers, mothers, complete strangers. Never give in to the urge to send something to anyone who can help get it published before it's completely ready. Which brings us to…

3. Knowing when it's ready. I don't think you can know when your first one is ready, other than to believe others, or to be so sick of it you can't bear to look at it anymore. No, I mean really sick of it! You do know how much work you've put into it, how much has changed since that first draft, how you've addressed every concern you and your trusted circle of readers have had. If you can let it go cold for a month, then pick it up and read it and feel satisfied, send it. If you're one who is never satisfied, there does come a time when you just have to trust, and send it.

4. There's a reason why all writing teachers and books and seminars say the same things over and over. They're true, for the most part. I resisted lots of good advice early on, thinking, "Well, that doesn't apply to me." But it did, and it does for you, and the sooner you incorporate good, tried and true writing principles, the sooner you're likely to get published. Of course there will always be the occasional writing teacher or book that sucks, that doesn't get it right, that has nothing to offer you. Research writing teachers carefully. Have they been published in the field they're teaching? Or have their students gone on to publish? Be choosy.

5. You aren't just writing for yourself. If I'd known I'd actually have readers, readers who didn't know me, who invested time, money, and emotion in reading what I was writing, I don't know if I could have taken the pressure! When the first book came out and I realized that, I understood that I had a responsibility to them, to write the best damn book I could, to get the details right, to nail the emotional truth, to give them their money's worth. I love writing for readers, now. It keeps me honest, it keeps me learning, and it keeps me humble and grateful.

6. Writing the book is just one part of the job. You will also need to be the champion of your book, the advocate who goes to bat to make sure it's represented the way it should be by the publisher, the major promoter of the book. It is your child, essentially, and you must do everything you can do to make sure it does as well as it possibly can, because then you can write more books.

7. Agents and editors and publicists and movie producers are people too. And they want to find good writers as much as we want to find them. They have personal quirks, soft spots, blind spots, dreams, desires, bad habits, social faux paus, you name it. They also have spouses, kids, pets, parents. They're fans of certain genres, topics, writers, and they respond to what they like, personally. A rejection doesn't always mean that what you've written is no good. It may simply mean they like something different. And there very well may be another agent or editor who will respond more positively to what you have to offer. It's just a matter of finding them.

8. Getting a book published doesn't change your life. Not the way you think it will, anyway. I think most of us feel—well, I know I felt—that getting a book published would mean I had finally made it and the rest of my life would be easier, if not a fairy tale of New York cocktail parties and people recognizing me in airports. In reality, getting a book published means you must now worry that it will sell well enough that the publisher will want to publish book two. It means you must now write book two, in a much shorter time frame than you ever thought possible. People who know you will definitely be impressed, you will receive the external validation you crave, but you won't feel satisfied. You will want to write an even better book, that sells better, gets better reviews, stays on the shelves longer, earns a better sell through, garners more foreign sales, and on and on. It's just a new set of things you will desire, and you will still be yourself, sitting where you've always sat to write, in the same old sweats, wondering if you'll ever get another book published. Know why you want to write in the first place, and recognize when you achieve the small milestones: a fan letter, six copies of your book on a bookstore shelf, a book club phone call request, a friend who buys your book in bulk so she can give them to everyone she knows.