8 Lessons of a Debut Author
This week, my debut picture book is being released.
Two years ago, I would never have dreamed I would be in the position I am now.
Flash back to August 2018 - my mum had just died, my kids thought sleeping was for losers, maternity leave was drawing to an end and I was struggling to keep my head above water.
Then I started writing again. I immersed myself in the children’s writing industry and found a hidden passion that had been waiting to emerge for a long time.
But it has not all been smooth sailing. I’ve made mistakes and felt out of my depth more often than not. The past two years have been a big learning curve!
I'd like to share with you some of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my journey to become a published author.
1. You cannot (and should not) do it alone
When I wrote Happy Hearts and started sending the manuscript to publishers, I had only told two people about this little foray into children’s writing. I didn’t want to tell anyone else in case I failed.
It wasn’t until I had a contract in place with a publisher that I started telling other people about my book, and even then, I was reluctant to tell too many people. #rookiemistake
Writing is a lonely endeavour if you don’t share it with other people. Sharing the writing journey not only improves the quality of your writing, but also bolsters your creativity and builds your confidence.
It may be slightly (or significantly) scary to start with, but I encourage you to share your writing with family and friends, join a local writing group, attend events and workshops, and sign up for that course you’ve always wanted to do.
The act of writing a book may be a solitary activity, but you shouldn’t feel alone on your writing journey.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
“The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.” – Confucius
How many times do we start our questions by saying “This may be a stupid question, but…”
There is no stupid question, except the question left unasked.
Sitting back and observing is a great way to learn but asking questions will provide a richer learning experience.
And when I say ask questions, I mean asking an actual real live human, not just Mr Google. While you can learn a lot from a simple web search, the real learning will come when you ask those burning questions of others involved in the writing industry – peers, publishers, booksellers, readers and teachers. And I say that from experience.
A few months ago, I had some questions about book promotion. I posted in the Facebook page of my local writers’ group and asked if anyone was free to catch up for a coffee and talk through these questions with me. If I am being honest, it felt really awkward asking that question, and there was the possibility that no one would take me up on my offer.
But thankfully somebody did! And for the price of a skinny latte, I was able to obtain a whole raft of invaluable tips from a successful author/illustrator.
3. Learn the rules, but don’t take them as gospel
"No one will publish a picture book longer than 500 words."
"Most of the time, publishers do not want to see rhyme."
"Write about what’s in trend at the moment."
"Don’t forget the ‘rule of three’!"
They say ignorance is bliss, and to some extent that is true. Once you start learning about creative writing, your creativity can begin to feel a little boxed in by all the rules.
Remember there is no RIGHT way to write. Rules and guidelines are helpful and should be kept in the back of your mind when writing, particularly for children, but they should not be taken as gospel.
Happy Hearts is longer than most traditional picture books, but it was still picked up by a mainstream publisher. Remember there is always an exception to (nearly) every rule.
Live on the edge a little! Break the rules, just break them well!
4. Patience will be your greatest virtue
Writing a book takes a long time.
Editing takes a long time.
Illustrating takes a long time.
Submitting to publishers take a long time.
Waiting to hear back from publishers takes a long time.
Publishing takes a long time.
Getting a name in the book industry takes a long time.
Learning takes a long time.
Do you get my drift?
5. Everybody’s journey is unique
It is a natural human tendency to compare ourselves to others. Being a writer is no different. We look around and see others achieving what we hope to achieve, and it can become quite daunting!
It may sound cliché, but each person’s journey is unique. Comparing your journey to the journey of others just leads to rumination and self-doubt. If you asked every author for their back story, I could almost guarantee you they would all be different.
Some writers take years to secure their first publishing contract, others get picked up for their first story.
Some writers choose to engage an agent, others prefer to fly solo.
Some writers have dreamed of being an author ever since they held their first book, others found their passion later in life.
Some writers work with the same publisher for a long period of time, others have published with a number of different publishing houses.
Some writers are able to make a living from writing, others combine writing with their day job.
Embrace the differences and follow your own path! Remember - all roads lead to Rome.
6. Everyone gets rejected (even if their social media feed doesn’t show it)
When you are starting out in the book industry, it’s easy to look at those around you and see nothing but success. Everyone else seems to be winning competitions, signing contracts, hosting book launches, and earning awards. And you’ve just received your fifth kindly worded rejection letter for the month.
Don’t let the beautiful social media feed fool you – rejection is the norm in the writing industry.
There are many well-known stories of renowned authors being rejected before ultimately going on to produce best-selling books. J.K. Rowling’s original manuscript for Harry Potter was rejected by 12 different publishing houses. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected by Faber & Faber, one of Britain’s most renowned publishing houses.
You’ll lose count of the number of rejection letters you receive or manuscripts you send out to no avail.
In the words of Harper Lee “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
7. Step outside your comfort zone
This may be a massive generalisation, but I would say that the vast majority of writers are introverts, or at the most, extroverted introverts. We feel at home in our safe cosy boxes (aka writing studios), and it can be excruciatingly painful to step outside of those safe cosy boxes.
But to be a successful writer, you’ve got to put down your pen, put on your big girl pants, and step out into the wilderness.
Sharing your work, connecting with other creators, attending events, trying a new writing style, ‘selling’ yourself and your skills, and pitching to publishers are all daunting, but necessary, activities if you want to be a successful writer.
“Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” - The Light in the Heart
8. Your biggest critic is yourself
When you create something and put it out into the world, you open yourself up to criticism. But I can guarantee you, you will be your own worst critic.
This week, on the eve of my book release, I suffered a major bout of imposter syndrome. I felt like a fraud and put down my success to ‘luck’. My brain convinced me I would never write anything worth publishing again.
imposter syndrome (noun) - the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills.
Research suggests up to 70% of the population experiences imposter syndrome. It’s only an educated guess, but I’d say writers would experience imposter syndrome more than your average Joe (or Jane).
Recognise that inner critic, and if they start to tell you you’re a fraud, tell them to take a hike! Elizabeth Gilbert has some great tips for dealing with fear in her book, Big Magic!
I've actually learnt a hell of a lot more than 8 lessons in the past two years, but I'll stop here and let you get back to your writing.