Friday, December 20, 2013

A Debut Writer Reflects on the First Year

The other day my son, home on break from his sophomore year, shared a big realization. He was bummed about how he did in one of his classes. It was a hard class and he'd worked his butt off but the bummer of it was that there were things he could've done to improve his performance--things that he didn't figure out until the end of the semester.

The TAs, for example, offered help sessions that weren't simply help sessions--but mini classes, where crucial information was given out, and all along, the professor had been offering students the chance to redo homework assignments.

Somehow, my son had missed these opportunities. The help was out there, but for whatever reason, it just wasn't on his radar.

Because I am the type of mom who hears something like this and ends up making a connection to writing, I told my son about the Hero's Journey. (Some other day I will blog about how this kind of thing probably drives my kids crazy.)

But anyhoo, there's a point where the hero leaves the comforts or discomforts of the Ordinary World and crosses the threshold into the Special World. This new world has a whole different set of rules and challenges that the hero has to learn in order to navigate through successfully. See, it's like college, I told my son. It's like anything in life. Whenever you move onto another stage--school, job, marriage, whatever--there are rules and challenges and things you've got to figure out in order to be successful.

What's nice is that you don't have to flounder alone. In the Hero's Journey, the hero has a mentor. That's what my son needed, I told him, a friend who'd been through this Special World pressure cooker of a college and who could share the crucial bits of wisdom and experience.

As I was blathering about this and watching my son's eyes glaze over, I had a flash of myself crossing over the threshold into Publishing Land. This year as a debut writer has been a big-time introduction into another world.

And I am so grateful for the mentors I had along the way.

Now I'd like to pay some of this back to any writers out there who are on the verge. So without further blathering, here are the crucial bits I learned this year:

1. Make connections-- with other writers, librarians, bookstore folks, and teachers. Do this NOW, wherever you may be in the publication process.

Why this is important: My connections to bookstores led to book launches and signings. Teachers invited me to visit their classrooms. Librarians asked me to speak and teach workshops. My communication with other writers led to interviews and guest blogs and blurbs on my book. Writers have shared helpful info about contracts and speaking opportunities too. All of these are real connections, by the way. Many of these people have become my good friends.

Corollary to number one: Make a list of contacts--every single person you have ever interacted with who might be interested in your book.

Why this is important: Some of these people will read your book and love it and want to help you promote it. I have been truly amazed and humbled by the responses I've gotten from family, friends--both old and new--who've stepped up to help me.

2. Interact on social media. Dip your toe into a few sites-- Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr etc. (New to the Twitter game? Here is THE best description of it I've read, from YA writer Patty Blount) Be a lurker for a while until you figure out the rules of social etiquette for that site (believe me: there ARE rules, even if they aren't explicitly posted, and people will gleefully let you know when you break them).

Why this is important: the party line is that social media is the way to promote your book. This is true-ish, but there's so much more to it than telling people to buy your book (by the way, NEVER do that.)

Social media is a way to find out the news in this business. I follow editors and agents, publishing companies, other writers, readers, reviewers, bloggers and librarians. These people post on social media about books and everything related to writing, reading, and marketing. Social media is how I've found out about conferences, book awards and deadlines, reviews and interview opportunities. It's a cool community, where a writer can feel not so alone struggling though a revision or reeling over a bad review or worrying over an impending book deal. Also, you can share your love of books with other book lovers.

Be careful though. It is a GIGANTIC TIME SUCKER. 

Corollary to number two: think about the "interacting" part of social media and how you want to present yourself online. Whether you consciously consider it or not, you DO have an online persona. How will you respond to negative reviews? To good reviews? How will you handle blogger requests for ARCs and/or interviews? If you are a blogger/reviewer yourself, will you review books by writers you know? What if you don't, um, like those books?

A word about dealing with bad reviews. Most writers say they don't read them. In fact, many writers don't read any of their reviews. Last year at this time, I didn't understand this policy. Each time a review or rating went up on Goodreads, I'd read it and experience a brief high. Someone I don't know likes my book! This was my dream come true goal--to have readers read something I'd written. Here's what I figured out along the way: the book, my book, is out of my hands now, being read or not being read, being loved or not being loved, being gushed about or being immediately forgotten. There is a certain point where the newness/excitement/nausea/horror fades.

And you stop reading reviews.

3. Figure out what kinds of book festivals are going on in your area and apply to be a part of them. I was lucky, and many opportunities fell into my lap. Another writer told me about an annual bookfair in Ohio that I'd never heard of. A bookstore owner told me about a book festival in a nearby city. A person I used to teach with was on the board of a different book fair and they invited me to apply. None of these things were on my radar last year at this time.

Why it's important: book fairs and festivals are a way to sell books, of course, (and you will sell a lot at some and maybe not so many at others). But they are also a way to meet other writers in your area and to make connections with readers, many of whom are teachers and librarians--which can lead to other opportunities. I met the woman in charge of programming at the Thurber House at a book festival, for example, and this fall she asked me to present a writing workshop for them.

Side note: you will not know about every single thing going on, and there will be some missed opportunities. Oh well.

4. Find your balance between writing and promoting. This is incredibly difficult and I know I still haven't gotten it right.

Last year my agent gave me some advice. I asked her what my goal was and she said point blank that I had two: Earn back my advance and sell another book.

Everything I've done this year, everything I've taken on or passed on, I tried to keep these goals in mind. To earn back my advance I have to promote my book. To sell another book, I have to, uh, write one. The difficult thing, I've learned, is that these two goals don't quite work together. Promoting takes time. Travel. Money. There are details to work out and email correspondence and phone calls.

But writing takes time too--long stretches for pondering and dreaming and drafting and revising and brainstorming and reflecting.  And there's another part of this balance equation too that I haven't touched on--my day to day life, where I have a family and a house to clean (or not clean) and meals to cook and pets to walk and de-flea.  

How do other professional writers do it all?

I do not know. But I promise, dear writers and readers who have been following me as I travel along on my journey, I will tell you as soon as I figure it out!


  1. Very insightful post about what to expect next in my writer's journey! Thank you, Jody & Happy 2014. Waiting for the sequel to THIN SPACE!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Happy 2014 to you and may it be your year!

  2. Thanks for the insights, Jody. And for the correlation to the Hero's Journey, too. For what it's worth, my eyes did not glaze over.

    1. Thanks, Karrie! And for the record, you are one of the friends I met along the way : )

  3. hi Jody, would love to know the ways you think are effective to make connections with teachers and librarians. Is social media good for this? Or are there better ways?

    1. Mary, this may be the topic for a blog post in itself. One example: I introduced myself to the librarian at my daughter's high school and gave her a copy of my ARC. She read the book and liked it and passed it along to other librarians in the area. They invited me to speak at one of their meetings and many of them attended my book launch and last fall that invited me to their state conference. These librarians are awesome and have been huge supporters of my book.

      Personal connections have worked out better than social media when it comes to teachers and librarians (and some of this is tapping who you know or tapping a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend... My advice: don't be afraid to ask for something, don't turn things down if it is at all possible that you can do them, and if someone says no or seems meh about it, let it go and move on.

  4. Thanks Jody. I appreciate every little bit of advice I can get. :)
    Your book is getting nearer the top of my stack!