First-time Authors: Writing Tips from Experts

Connie PowellImproving your Writing

Writing advice from experts

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Writing and publishing your debut novel can take three months or 30 years. In this roundtable discussion, five very different breakout authors share what they’ve learned about how to position yourself for success.

Here are something most published pros know well: In this business, there are no absolutes. There is no fixed path, no yellow-brick road to success.

The journey to bookstores seems to be a lot like that old snowflake cliché—No two are alike.

And no one illustrates this fact better than debut novelists.

Consider Lissa Price, Melinda Leigh, Carter Wilson, Kira Peikoff and Eyre Price:

  • One pursued publication for 30 years. One had three agents pouncing on her manuscript within 24 hours of submitting it.
  • Some have had instant commercial success and received wide critical acclaim. Others still have
    their fingers crossed, as it’s too soon to tell.
  • Some come from writing backgrounds. Others from more unlikely realms: finance, consulting.
  • Some still balance full-time jobs with their novel promotions and future writings. Others are raising their kids alongside their debuts (and are adept at writing during soccer practices, or bringing their children along to conferences).

WD sat down with this eclectic batch of writers and had an honest, candid and enlightening discussion on the process of getting your first novel published. No matter how they did it, here’s what we find most inspiring of all: They did it.

They ran the gauntlet and emerged on the other side with a book in their hands.

And while there may be no absolutes in this business, they now have the power of retrospect. Here, they share the advice they wish they’d had all along.

In a nutshell, where were you with your writing (and life) before you sold your debut?

Eyre Price: I had a long career as a lawyer, and I left it behind to become a stay-at-home dad [and] homeschool my son. I’m blessed with a severe case of insomnia, so I need something to do at night. I’ve been writing since I had a column in the local paper when I was 13. [Getting a first novel published is] really one of those things where I don’t think anyone can explain it, just all of a sudden the fates align. It’s like a lock tumbler—all the tumblers fall into place. I got an agent, and the agent, Jill Marr from Sandra Dijkstra, was able to put a deal together with Thomas & Mercer, and the next thing I knew, I was here.

Lissa Price: My husband had lost his job, and so I think that inspired me to write harder because he got another job, writing and directing and producing a cable television show—and the owner was one of these Hollywood screamers, and I felt like I needed to write for my life. I had had one manuscript that had gone out and didn’t sell, as a lot of us go through with a good agent. He stopped with six editors. [For Starters, I queried new agents.] This one was sort of charmed [in] that I got three agents offering within 24 hours, and picked my agent and she sold it in six days over a holiday weekend, taking a preemptive bid the night before the auction.

Melinda Leigh: I was a stay-at-home mom, a former banker who quit her job. After spending eight years at home with two small children, they finally went to school and I realized the most mentally challenging thing I had done in the entire week was identify a mystery stain on the carpet. I said you know what, I’ve always wanted to write, and finally I had a little time each day—I had no desire to go back to banking, and that’s really putting it mildly, so I started writing without any idea of what I was doing. There were a few false starts—I took a few years to put the first book together—but then I found my agent, and she sold it to Amazon Publishing, Montlake Romance.

Kira Peikoff: I took a year off after college to write my first book, and I spent a couple of years editing it, during which time I was actually working in publishing. I worked at Henry Holt and Random House, and I was the unfortunate person who … had to write rejection letters to all the agents when they submitted their manuscripts, while at the same time getting my own rejections from the same agents. It was a very ironic time for me. But I did end up finally signing with my wonderful agent, Erica Silverman at Trident, and she sold my book to Tor.

Carter Wilson: I’m the director of a global hospitality consulting firm, so I’ve travelled quite extensively with that job, and I’ve been doing that for about 20 years and am still doing it and love it. I started writing about eight years ago, having had no real writing experience. It was actually in the middle of a continuing education class where I was bored out of my mind. I just started writing, and I wrote my first manuscript in three months, and I was lucky enough to get an agent with that who has since stuck by me, manuscript after manuscript and multiple rejections. It was my fifth book that finally sold. She’s been with me for seven years.

What’s the best thing you did before publishing that put you in a good place for your debut?

Peikoff: The first thing was, I had really no concerns about the publishing side of things. I just wanted to write the best book that I could. So I focused on writing, I took classes, I did a lot of research for the book. I had in no way the motivation to do it just to be published, and then once I finished it I got to that stage and then threw myself into it. But I think it’s really important to write for the sake of writing and wanting to be the best that you can be at the craft. And then the other thing I did was hire a freelance editor before I submitted, which was really helpful.

Leigh: The one thing I can say is, don’t be daunted by rejections. Use them. I had no experience in writing whatsoever. I had no idea what I was doing, other than, Hey, I’m gonna write a book! Learning to write a really good book is not easy. It’s hard to get the right feedback. Some people are gonna give you good feedback, some people are gonna give you bad feedback. But generally, you can look at your rejection letters and use those to then rewrite the book. I rewrote She Can Run five times from beginning to end. And I kind of used that one book as my work-in-process—this is how I was going to learn how to structure a novel, how to pace a novel, how to do characterization.

E. Price: No. 1: I’m a great believer in the literary conference, as opposed to, particularly this day and age, sending out cold letters. An agent, and then after that an editor, is looking at creating a relationship with a person, and it’s very difficult to do that through simple correspondence—so if you can get to the conference that’s right for you and get on the floor and meet people …

My second piece of advice is, just write. Getting published, in large part, is like falling in love and finding a soulmate. You can read books about dating, but everything needs to happen in just the perfect way, and you can’t worry about that. You have to go out, and maybe you meet that person and maybe you don’t; you just have to keep going out, and you have to write.

L. Price: I think it’s really important to read in your genre. Read a lot. Also, read books about writing—I like James Scott Bell a lot. Go to conferences—a lot of times at conferences it isn’t the agents I met that made my conference, it was the other writers I met. They’re going to be your support system.

Leigh: I started this whole process with two young children, so going to a lot of conferences was not an option for me. I had no money coming in, I hadn’t sold a book, my husband was travelling a lot. … What I started doing when I started sending the queries out—which is actually how I got my agent, just through a straight email query—was after I would write that little blurb and I would do that little query, right in the body of that email, I would just cut and paste the first couple pages of my book. Because even if I couldn’t write a good query, even if they weren’t interested in me—I mean, who was I? I was a stay-at-home mom—what really matters is the hook to that book. And if they don’t have to open an attachment to read it and it’s right there under that signature and you hook them with those first couple paragraphs. … That’s how I got my agent.

How many places did you all submit to, and how many rejections did you get?

Wilson: For agents, I was probably [in] the 60s before I finally got one, and then my agent submitted to about 14–15 houses—and then I was rejected for the first four books.

Peikoff: For agents, I probably got about 30–40 rejections, and then my agent submitted to about 10 publishers.

Leigh: Probably about 30–40, over a couple of years.

E. Price: I’ve got a big box filled with 30 years’ [worth of rejected submissions]. This is an endeavour that’s just filled with rejection. You always see articles about so and so was published, and he had 107 rejections—if you’re at the point where you’re even considering counting rejections, there are much better uses of your time.

L. Price: I got very lucky with agents. I’ve sort of gotten every agent I wanted to get. Didn’t mean I kept them, right? But in terms of rejections, the very first manuscript I wrote got me an agent but it turned out that [by] the time I finished it, someone came out with a book just like it. This was a YA book. So we all said, “OK, we’ll just put that one in the drawer—we won’t even try to go out with that one.” And then the other manuscript—I had a really big agent—went out to six editors, and he said, “Well, now I stop, that’s sort of the way I roll.” And then for [Starters], my agent had planned for 10 editors for the auction.

Let’s talk more about the value of conferences and events for writers.

E. Price: It’s expensive. And it’s one of those questions of, What do you want? Maybe you don’t go to the movies tonight. Maybe you’d like to go out to dinner, but you stay home. I certainly understand the demands. I’ve never been to a literary conference without my son. When I pitched my agent and I got my agent, it was one of those five-minute pitch fests. [My son] sat in the seat, and I made my pitch from my knees because there was only one chair. It’s one of those things where if you wanna do it, you’ll do it, and it may be a huge pain in the ass—

Wilson: But in fairness, that probably really helped you. [Laughter]

E. Price: It helped me with [that agent, but] it didn’t help me with the half-dozen others who said, “Why is there an 8-year-old looking me in the face?” And that goes back to it, it’s like you go out tonight: Maybe you meet the person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, maybe you don’t. It’s one of those magical things. But if you wanna do it, you’ll do it. To my mind, if you want to write, you’ll write; you’ll find out what’s necessary to get it done and get it out there. And certainly to me, having a support network—not only from the business standpoint [but] from the marketing [standpoint]—it’s nice to have that. … It is a lonely occupation at times, but at the same time, it’s a tremendously social endeavour. I thought it was something that could be accomplished alone, and it’s simply not.

L. Price: That’s a really, really good point. … I want to say to new writers: When you go to conferences, be nice to people. Be kind, because it’ll pay you back.

Kira, you talked about your experience working in publishing. What did you learn from it that helped with your debut?

Peikoff: I had no real understanding of how publishing worked behind the scenes until I had those jobs. … I was amazed at the amount of effort that goes into every single stage of every single book. From the very first line of copy to every single thing about the jacket and the proofs, and over and over and over.

I was also a bit daunted to see just how many books get rejected. I worked for a top editor at Henry Holt, so he got submissions from all the best agents, really high-quality work—and he only bought maybe five books in the whole year-and-a-half that I worked there. He had pursued may be up to 10, I would say, and then actually bought about five. At that point, I was still trying to find an agent, and I didn’t know if I had any real hope. But I just kept going anyway, and with very realistic expectations, and I think probably because of that I was able to wait it out until I did get an agent, whereas I might have just given up long before that. I knew what to expect.

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