Having a book published was merely a gleam in my eye and a trash bin full of crumpled paper when I met my first “real live author,” several of them, actually. It was years after my stint as a reporter on a metropolitan newspaper and then a freelance feature writer. I knew the brief satisfaction of seeing my words in print and the letdown of seeing them wrapped around leftovers jammed into a garbage bin. Writing a hardcover book appealed to me. Let someone try and wrap that around last night’s mashed potatoes!
I’d even predicted in my high school yearbook that I’d write my first novel by age 30. [For anyone not familiar with newspaper tradition, for reasons I don’t remember or never knew reporters wrote “30” instead of “the end.” Thirty also seemed like the Rubicon for accomplishments at that cocky young age. I was extremely shy, so in addition to working on the high school paper, I took a speech class. I needed that boost of confidence to face people if I was ever going to be a reporter, my first step toward fame and fortune. Besides, as an author, I might need to “put myself out there.” Because I’d need that credit to graduate, there was no way to run and hide.
My college classes seemed like a mish-mash to the counselor, but I chose my electives with my future double life of reporter and author in mind: journalism major, family and criminal psychology [crime fiction always appealed to me] and drama [to study the expressions and movements, the “tells,” of people in situations. For good measure, I took scriptwriting and television news. Fiction writing was not an overnight whim. I had a plan.
A marriage, three children, and plenty of closet manuscripts later, I had stars in my eyes at my first fiction writing workshop. The secrets of the universe were about to be revealed. The speakers were an author of four picture books, one with three mystery novels, and the third, a non-fiction hardcover. I was a sponge for every word and took copious notes.
At my 10-minute one-on-one with the picture book author, she handed me the manuscript I submitted. “You’ll never publish. You just don’t have what it takes,” she told me.
One Opinion is Just That—One Opinion
I was heartbroken. She was an author, after all. She knew her stuff. I was not the only one she told that during the workshop. Two people there never wrote again, sadly, because I felt that they had unique voices that would have found success. Her words served only to make me more determined than ever. The best thing that came from that workshop was to learn of a local writers’ group, and I heard about a how-to book. I followed the exercises in that book and amassed seven manuscripts that I was confident in before I submitted them to publishers two years later. I continued to write more while those manuscripts were repeatedly returned and went out again. I always had another publisher in mind so that the manuscripts never remained home overnight. By the end of the year, I sold all seven.
Those first seven were the beginning of many. Seven books were the lifetime limit for the author who told me I’d never publish. The moral of this story is to listen to check out the speakers before you go to a conference, workshop, or classroom. Read what they have written. Read their reviews. Do they write stories you enjoy? Do they write well?
If they are not visible on the web, be a little suspicious. Workshops have limited money for speakers. They generally have a headliner, but often fill in the staff with locals that are no more experienced than you. Talk about false prophets! I’ve been on panels with speakers whose only publishing credit is a letter to the newspaper editor, and they talk about their novels and giving sage advice as if it were the gospel according to Rowling. Not that they don’t have advice worth learning. They probably read the same how-to books that you did [or should]. It was pencils down when a selling writer mentioned rejection or revision. It was more fun to believe the fantasy when they should have felt good that the road to publishing is filled with rejections.
Be More than a 1-Manuscript Writer
Take all the applicable advice, but in the end, find your own way. Read, study, analyze, and compare. Don’t put your hopes into one manuscript; chances are that you’ve turned a blind eye to its faults. If you don’t figure out why it isn’t working, you doom yourself to repeat the mistakes. You must prove to the editors and to yourself that you have more to offer than a single manuscript. When they buy the first book, they are investing in the future. Once that first sale comes, be ready with something more to offer. You’ll find holding that first book in your hands is like eating potato chips. It is satisfying, but only briefly. One is not enough.
I remember the picture book woman telling us, “You are just writers. You can call yourselves authors only when you are published like I am.”
The Thesaurus reveals a slew of synonyms to author: Writer, creator, journalist, originator, novelist, playwright, dramatist, poet, biographer, and essayist. The words don’t discriminate between published and unpublished work. We can bask in the more illustrious descriptions without challenge, but to me, they sound as final as an obituary.
I prefer writer. It is a working word, and to me, it says actively moving forward, one word at a time. Write on!