Earlier this year I read a spate of “Ten things to tell a newbie writer” posts, and very useful they were too. So when I visited the Prism Book Alliance in August to talk about Heart Scarab and found that their preferred format was a “Ten somethings or other”, and that in among the suggested things was “Ten Things I wish I’d known before becoming a published author” – well, my turn to tell the world how it’s done, right?
Well, no. But ten things I truly wish I’d known in advance, or I’d thought about more carefully in advance. This could just as well be titled “Ten mistakes I made that you shouldn’t…”. Enhanced somewhat from the original list and not in any sort of order:
Pen names are hard to get right. I wish I’d thought harder about my pen name, and what it should be. In the end, I mashed up my and my husband’s names. If I were to do it all again, I’d look into the benefits of something more gender neutral. Not particularly for the LGBT aspect of my writing, but for the harder science fiction element of the Shield series. I sometimes wonder if military sci fi would be an easier sell if I didn’t have an obviously feminine name! AJ Butler, perhaps. Or a name like Jesse or Charlie.
Using a male name, however, when you have girl parts can be more problematic if you’re not genderfluid and identify as male. While once a masculine pseudonym was the only way for a woman to get published (George Eliot, Currer Bell, anyone?), in the current climate where readers can have what they think is a close relationship to their favourite writers, this is a risky venture. The m/m world this autumn convulsed when a big-name writer who was thought to be a gay man turned out to be a woman–prompting accusations of deception and betrayal, and wildly emotional reactions showing hurt or, in some cases, sheer malice. Going down this route demands a great deal of effort to maintain the role long term. Not to mention a thick skin.
Whether or not, of course, a writer uses a pen name at all is another question. Most of us like to keep a little distance between our RL self and the author self. I think that’s wise. But the point is to think about it carefully and make an informed decision.
Brands are even harder. We all have to be ‘brand aware’ these days, as if we’re marketing boxes of cornflakes rather than the works of our hearts and brains. Coming up with my tag line was easy enough (I write sci fi, so ‘love that’s out of this world’ seemed to fit!), but I’ve played about with the look and feel of my website, FB etc for more than a year now, trying to get a distinct set of images that people can begin to associate with my name and the books I write. Let’s just say that my first attempt of an arty photo of a fountain pen didn’t exactly scream “sci-fi writer!” to anyone. Even me.
It’s taken me over a year and at least four attempts, but I think I’ve cracked the look: a background that is obviously sci-fi, and for my icon, a cheerful little retro space rocket on a burst of yellow flame. That icon is everywhere now: on my website, Twitter, Tumblr, FB… everywhere. It’s part of the swag I hand out at conventions as badges and buttons. I even wear a silver retro rocket necklace. And what that space rocket hopefully conveys is “here’s someone writing old-school sci-fi and who has a sense of humour.”
Related to the brand thing, making your mind up early what you’re going to call your website, making sure it’s professional and reflects what you’re about, and then sticking to it. Believe me, it’s galling to look at what I first thought was a chirpy and cheerful “annabutlerfic.com” and realise, after buying the domain (for the next ten years! Groan) and setting up all the social media and email accounts with it, that really it just looked juvenile and unprofessional. What did that say about the “Anna Butler” brand? What was I thinking?!
Paying for ten years for a domain name I will never use was an expensive mistake. Learn from it.
And speaking of websites, I wish I’d understood better how important it is going to be for me. It’s where my web presence will be as long as I remain a writer – Twitter, Tumblr, even FB channel traffic through to it. That front page is the doorway to me and my books. It was six months before I realised that my blog shouldn’t be the front page. That what matters is that people land instantly on a home page that says “Here’s a writer, and here is what she’s written and what it’s about. And here’s where you can find out more…”. The blog is important, but should sit behind that portal. Mine does now. It should have done from the beginning.
And your website should be crisp and clean and so easy to navigate a chimp with an iPad could do it blindfold. Make sure links are prominent and easy to follow, that someone landing on your homepage can find your social media links at a glance, that the blog is easy to spot, and that you keep the content fresh. Make sure you have a reason for them to come back, to see what you’ve been up to.
I know it’s a ruddy pain to keep up with blogging and the website, and it does cut into your novel-writing time. But it’s an essential part, these days, of being an author. And if you can’t keep your website fresh and topical, readers are going to wonder if your novels will be equally static and stale.
And while I’m on the topic of websites and social media, what I’ve learned is that you have to take it seriously. Most publishers at a minimum expect you to have a website, a blog and FB/Twitter. If you can throw more into the mix, they’ll be happy. Join FB groups for your genre(s) where both writers and readers meet. Set some time aside each day, even if it’s just fifteen minutes, and work those media: retweet a fellow author’s blog or comment, like and comment on group posts in your genre, link through to your blog content. Get your name out there.
But don’t ever treat it as if it’s your personal social media account. This is business. Hard, unrelenting business.
Because the person who will promote your book? You. No one else.
You will need beta readers who will be hard on you. Friends are great for boosting your confidence, but really a good crit group who will challenge you and force you to think again about the direction your draft is going, or where the characterisation looks shaky or there’s a plot hole so big you can drive a space ship through it… priceless. They should be your first line of challenge, so that what you present to an editor is as good and as tight as you can get it. The editor will find more, of course, but that’s their job. Still, they’ll thank you if you send them a taut, snappy MS rather than an unthought-through hot mess. Beta readers will help you get there.
I owe so much to my crit group. I didn’t know in advance how much, but now I wouldn’t be without them.
I wish that I’d been more savvy about the genre when I started out. My first ever published work was a self-published novella. Aha, thought I, the m/m romance genre is huge and I should label it m/m romance to get it noticed. Foolish move. Anyone reading it will see instantly that it fails hugely on the one thing romance readers want to see: a happy ending. It doesn’t even have a Happy For Now. It has a very ambivalent ending.
The point is that when I started out I didn’t realise I wasn’t writing romance in a way that met the expectations of romance readers. I was writing a love story, sure, with gay heroes. But it wasn’t romance. I did the novella, and the reader, a disservice by labelling it wrongly in the hope that I’d catch the trend. These days, I’m much more careful. I want readers to know and understand in advance what I’m writing. I don’t want to leave them feeling cheated and disappointed. That works out better for both writer and reader.
Which leads me neatly on to reviews. Oh, how I longed for them when I started out! I dread to think how often I refreshed the Goodreads page those first two weeks! And then I got a stinker of a review on Amazon that cost me my sleep for the next two. Lord, but it *hurt*. Like the reviewer had scraped me raw and rubbed salt into the exposed patches.
It was a salutary lesson that I wish I’d known in advance: you can’t please everyone. Not every reader will like your style or your plot and they may end up hating the characters you feel you gave birth too, like Eve, in travail and suffering.
And what’s more, they don’t have to like you and your book. They’ve paid their money for your work and they have every right to tell the world what they think of it. Even if that isn’t very much. And you, as writer, have to take it on the chin, and just keep on going. And for the lord’s sake, meet every bad review with dignified public silence. There are too many object lessons out there of authors behaving badly! Don’t be one of them
And that brings me to the final thing I wish I’d known two years ago: it’s okay to fail. Not every book you write will be a best seller. Not every book will win prizes. Not every book will be noticed. In fact, you’ll be bloody lucky if it garners any praise and sales at all.
Embrace that. Learn from it. Take that stinker of a review and remind yourself of two truths. First, that you’re a writer and nothing and nobody can deny you that, and they’ll have to pry your keyboard from your cold dead hands. And second, and most important, write what makes you happy.
Maybe that’s been the hardest lesson to learn, and not something that I could have been told in advance. But I’m a writer, and I’m happy.
I can’t ask for more than that.