Claire McEwen, hopeful romantic.

Nine Lessons I’ve Learned as a Debut Author

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak on a panel for my local Romance Writers of America group. The session was titled My First Published Year. There were three of us who have recently been traditionally published, and we were invited to talk about what we’ve learned.

We have such a great group of writers at our meeting, which made it really fun! But as on any panel, there wasn’t time to go into everything we might say, so I decided to say it here, on my blog. Hopefully these lessons can help other aspiring authors.

1) Believe:
You can do it! I thought I couldn’t. I sat in meetings and read books wistfully, thinking that there was no way I could ever finish a book, let alone get published. But I am proof that it is possible. Just commit to your writing. And be willing to give up something else (like TV time!) to do it. Your dreams are worth investing in!

2) Manage Your Writing Time:
You might not have much time in the day to write, especially if you have a job, kids and/or friends. But put the time you do have on your calendar just like you would any other event, and then sit down and make good use of those minutes. If you have twenty minutes to write, don’t spend the first fifteen of them re-reading what you worked on the day before. Instead, when you get off the computer for the day, leave yourself a note, (a post-it on the keyboard works for me,) that tells you what to work on during your next writing session.

3) Be Ready to Say Goodbye to Words You Love:
We are too close to our writing to know for sure that it makes sense to the reader. If a critique partner or editor reads your story, and tells you that a part of your book is confusing, doesn’t belong, or any other criticism, consider listening to them. If you aren’t sure you agree with your reader’s advice, get a second or third opinion. But remember that readers have to understand our work in order to enjoy it! And we are not objective enough to be our own readers!
Note: Sometimes we fall in love with a sentence or a scene and yet it needs to go. Be willing to let it go if necessary. Put it in another file and promise yourself you will use it in another story. You probably won’t but it will make you feel better!

4) Listen to Criticism, But Stay True to Your Voice:
Your voice is what makes your writing unique. We’re writing romance and it’s all pretty much been done before, it’s how YOU do it that makes your book special. Someone can suggest changes, but be careful about letting them re-write your actual words. Revisions and edits are good, but they should happen in your voice – find a way to make those changes your own.

5) Social Media is Important, but Beware of Its Voracious, Time-sucking Powers:
Writers need to have a social media presence. But if that presence takes up all your writing time, that isn’t good. You need to write your book… and your next book! You need to revise and make your writing the best it can be. And if you’re distracted by social media all day, you won’t do your best writing. Schedule social media time as well as writing time, and try not to let the two mix.

6) Be Strategic:
Once you get your book written, or a lot of it written, and get a sense for what it is really about, start researching where it might fit. Find similar books and figure out who is publishing them. Those are the publishing houses you want to target. And if that publishing house has category romance, like Harlequin does, make sure you read a bunch of books in the category or series you are targeting, to make sure it’s really a good match for your book.
Note – Some super-strategic people actually research the publishing house, the category or series, before they write the book. Then they target their book to that series or publisher while they are writing it. I am not that organized, but if you are, go for it! Yay you! You will be a big step ahead of where I was with my first book!

7) An Agent Can Help You, But Isn’t Always Required:
There are great writers who were rejected by various agents and went on to sell anyway. Harlequin series accepts un-agented material, as do more and more other publishing houses. An agent can be a wonderful asset, especially to help you plan your career in the long run, but don’t put your career on hold forever if you can’t find one right now.

8) Study Your Craft, Improve Your Writing, Do Your Best, and Grow a Thick Skin:
Commit to being a writer. Attend writing groups, take classes and workshops, read books and blogs about writing. Take the time to revise your work, applying all that you’re learning. And then put the best book you can write out there – and get ready for the critics! Because not everyone is going to like your book. Some people will actually hate it. I mean, really, really hate it. (And sometimes those are the people who are most excited to share their opinion of it!) Try not to take it all personally. Remember – the readers’ job is to read your book – or not, finish it – or not, love it, hate it, rave about it, revile it. And ALL of that is totally beyond your control!

9) Safeguard the Joy:
All of it, the social media, the sales, the lack of sales, the reviews, can cloud the real reason you are writing. You write because you love it! You write because your imagination doesn’t quit and you have stories to tell! So focus on writing the very best book you can. Send your book out into the world and move on – to learn more, work more and try to write an even better book the next time!

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