Five Steps to Becoming a Successful Author

On this date just two short years ago, with a lot of encouragement from my friends in the Athens Writers Workshop, I submitted a query for my first novel. I waited for the “not what we’re looking for at this time” message to file with the rejections I’d already received for Glass Houses — my still unpublished memoir. Instead, less than three months later, the fine folks at Dreamspinner Press sent me a contract for Until Thanksgiving.

When I signed that first contract, my expectations about overnight success as a published author were a tad unrealistic. I haven’t quit my day job. You won’t find excerpts from my books in The New Yorker. Terry Gross hasn’t interviewed me for Fresh Air, nor has Oprah called. Even so, becoming an author is, hands down, the coolest thing I’ve ever done.

Am I successful? Depends on who you ask. My mother thinks so. Opinions otherwise vary, but I’m tickled pink about my accidental second career. MLR Press published my second novel, After Christmas Eve last year; I attended my first conference as a featured author this spring; and Dreamspinner Press will soon release my first short story (The Bear King of Snowbird Mountain) and my third novel (Happy Independence Day).

You know I’m all about being helpful. Based on my experience, the first step to becoming a successful author is to WRITE A STORY. Seems obvious, but after 25 years in a university setting, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. Starting new stories is a blast. Finishing one is hard work. Being at least a little Obsessive-Compulsive helps.

The second step is to EDIT THE STORY until your eyes cross. Believe it or not, few writers burp out the version readers see. Until that last chapter is written, many authors — myself included — don’t always know how the story will end. Even when they do know, a lot of fine tuning takes place after that first draft is finished to get a manuscript ready for the next stage of the process. Perfectionists never get beyond this step.

Step three is to PUBLISH THE STORY. New authors have more publishing options than ever before. The best option depends on the genre, the author, and a host of other factors. Self-publishing works well for new and established writers who know a hell of a lot more than I do about the ins and outs of the process. As a slow learner, part-time writer, and a new author, I prefer the package of services (professional editing, cover design, formatting, and marketing to name a few) that comes with having a publisher.

The next step is to FIND PEOPLE TO BUY THE STORY. Having a publisher helps, but even so, developing a following of readers falls on the author. I’m grateful to all six of my loyal readers. Email messages arrive every day about opportunities to promote my books to potential new readers. Some work, some don’t — but nobody really knows the difference, so we try to do everything plus maintain a web site, write blog posts, find guest bloggers, promote posts via Facebook and Twitter, appear at conferences and as a guest on other blogs, offer giveaways and interviews on popular review sites, and network with other writers.

The fifth step is the most difficult. REPEAT THE FIRST FOUR STEPS. Only now, instead of one at a time, you work on them simultaneously until you die or can no longer write. Squeezing some kind of life into the routine is a challenge I’ll talk about in next Monday’s post.

7 responses to “Five Steps to Becoming a Successful Author”

  1. Great list, Michael. Shared on FB. I can attest to the eyes crossing after doing final edits. And I still miss things. Sometimes it’s just punctuation that readers might or might not notice. But when it’s a misstep important to understanding the story—just happened to me last night AFTER my editor sent in the final edit–it’s painful. Thank God I have a publisher I can work with and who made the changes I asked for. Absolutely everything you said rings true. Great post. Hugs, P

    • Thanks, Paul! If ask me, aspiring writers focus over much on #1 with no awareness of the other four! I know I was blissfully unaware of all the extra work around being a writer.

      • Right. As an editor of a lit journal in the recent past, I’m well aware of folks sending out work without polishing it. Spelling errors galore, weird unconventional punctuation, and my biggest pet peeve: word repetition. That’s one thing I always look for in my work and don’t always catch. Great post, Michael. I’m going to think seriously about the anthology calls you suggested. Just checked them out and might be able to meet the next deadline. Thanks so much for pointing me in that direction. 🙂

  2. Hi Michael,

    I have to say I’m getting to really like your weekly posts and look forward to them. I love your covers and I detect a theme…lol Paul, your dog is just freaking cute!

    I think what trips a lot of new authors up is the editing. They don’t expect the amount of corrections and revisions that comes with doing this professionally. Another very hard this is to forge ahead to the next project while the completed one waits for publication.

    I’m an author who tends to depend on my editors. Anyone who can edit has my utmost admiration. The way I look at it is I have the easy part of the process.

    I would like to comment on word repetition, sometimes it’s not avoidable. I’ve had two novels and an anthology story released so far this year and that issue came up in all three, with different editors. In each case some of the words repeated were technical terms, there weren’t other choices. Not ones that would be accurate.

    I’m with you, Michael, no self publishing for me if I don’t have to.


    • HI, Elizabeth. That’s my dog, Maddie. He’s a rescued sheltie show dog. Best of show and best of breed. We have the certificates, but the previous owner kept the ribbons. Maddie wasn’t thrilled. We have three sheltie rescues. Love em. I hear ya. Sometimes you can’t substitute words. But a lot of the time you can. It just bugs me when I find it in my own writing post release. Congrats on your publishing success. Sounds like you’ve been very busy. I agree. Thank God for editors. We each get a personal editor at JMS Books and that makes a whale of a difference. Nice to meet you here. All the best, Paul

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I spend entirely too much time on my blog posts, so it’s nice to know they are appreciated! Word repetition is a challenge–especially when you don’t have much choice. Coming up with clever ways to get around the problem can be fun–unless you’ve got a deadline lol.