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we’re looking for at this time” message to file with the rejections I’d already received for Glass Houses — my still unpublished memoir.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.