Three years ago today, I signed my very first publishing contract! Now I’m five books in, what have I learned so far?
Trust your gut
While there are people in this industry from whom you can learn a lot, including identifying the right time to scrap or change a manuscript, ultimately you are a writer because you want (or need) to write, and that means writing the story that’s inside you. I wrote Girl, Lost out of contract and without any idea of whether it would find a home, but it was picked up later the same year and became my bestselling book to date. Of course, things could have gone the other way, but I’m glad I listened to my instincts and wrote the book I wanted to write.
Learn from everything
An author once told me that everything is fodder, nothing is wasted. That author was Leigh Bardugo, whose fantastic Grisha trilogy has recently been adapted and will premiere on Netflix in April. It can come from anywhere; rejections, feedback, reviews. Everyone you meet or speak to online, from readers to other authors to agents and editors, can have something to teach you if you’re open to it. All the positives and negatives and everything in between can be an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer. Being able to adapt and change is a highly valuable skill, and one worth its salt in the ever-changing market that is publishing.
And it pays to be able to ask for help when you need it. If you’re brand new to publishing, you may not understand everything in your contract or your first royalty statement, or you might be unsure about signing with a particular agent or publisher. There are some brilliant groups and websites out there for authors, and the Society of Authors are also a great resource, so it’s worth knowing when you need to reach out.
Some people say that releasing a book (or more) each year makes you a ‘prolific’ writer, and that isn’t always meant as a compliment. Some authors write full-time and can dedicate five or more days a week to writing; others simply write faster in shorter time periods. To say an author ‘churns out’ books or is ‘a machine’ sometimes gives the impression that we are releasing lower quality books. Although I’m sure plenty of books on the market are better than mine, that kind of comment can be a bit hurtful, especially when the insinuation comes from other authors. Whether you write three books a year or one book every three years, all authors deserve to be proud of what they have achieved and the novels they release into the world. Which leads me onto…
You are not a machine
If the past twelve months have taught us anything, it should be that we are all human. We all have a mixture of day jobs, children, pets, families, bills, relationships, friendships, and more to juggle alongside writing. Some writers have found lockdown incredibly productive; others have struggled to focus. And while it can be both realistic and beneficial to view writing as a job, it may also be the thing that gets lost for a while in amongst everything else. You can and will pick it back up, so there’s no point in stretching yourself too thin. After a false start where I eventually scrapped a book, I ended up being quite productive throughout the past year, with two new books written, one almost entirely rewritten, and another edited, plus an entire submission process. But after juggling three books in January this year, I decided to slow down and take a break, especially as our new puppy Vixen had just joined us. Now I’m back in the saddle, but it was worth taking a breather when I needed it.
Last year I came aboard the Psychological Suspense Authors’ Association, heading up the social media channels and creating promotional opportunities for members. While there will always be some people who take more than they give, I feel it’s important to do what you can for other authors. Through The PSAA and my own social media, I schedule publication day posts, share news, and conduct author interviews, and I do my best to keep up with everything. I don’t expect the same in return from everyone all the time, as we all have busy lives and full plates, especially right now, but returning the favour and supporting other authors is always worthwhile. I’ve made some amazing friends, read some fantastic books from both new and established authors, and it genuinely makes me happy to see others succeed. In-fighting and competing with one another helps absolutely no one, and if you conduct yourself with animosity or selfishness, fewer people will want to be in your corner when you need support.
Ah, boundaries. They seem to have flown out the window since the pandemic hit. Working from home (ahem, living at work) can mean we’re ‘always on’, and of course there may be people in our lives who feel differently about abiding by the rules or what is considered ‘safe’ than we do. But setting boundaries is more important now than ever before. We can help prevent burnout by switching off at a certain time, removing people from our lives who make us unhappy (both on and offline), and setting a routine, and the same goes for writing. Fridays are my scheduled writing day, and Monday-Thursday I’m at the day job. When I have a deadline, I might squeeze some writing in after work or on a weekend, and when lockdown first happened, the days blended into one and I struggled to keep up a routine, but now I try to only write on Fridays and I feel much better for it.
Don’t lose yourself
At the beginning of lockdown, I tried to lose myself in my writing. I know I wasn’t alone in wanting to hide from this new, terrifying world, and I turned to writing in an attempt to distract myself from everything. But I ended up with a scrambled manuscript which just wasn’t working, and I realised that I’d been pouring everything I was feeling into it, expecting to be able to make sense of it all. But I wasn’t ready for that at the time, and it showed. So I started a new story, one which would become In the Dark, and which gave me what I needed.
My novels always contain a piece of me, usually something which I need to get out and process through my characters. The Diary came about when I was finally ready to talk about my own sexual assault. The Girl Across the Street and Girl, Lost feature domestic violence which I both experienced and witnessed as a child. The Wake came to me at a time when I was thinking a lot about death and the legacies we leave behind, and In the Dark was my way of exploring the ‘sins of the father’ and how sometimes our paths appear set in stone. I write best when I am trying to find something through my writing, instead of trying to hide inside it.
Back in 2017 when I finished writing what would become The Diary, I had no idea what was going to happen in the future. I’ve always loved reading and dreamt of being an author, so signing that first contract was the beginning of the career of my dreams. And although it has been a (sometimes steep!) learning curve, there’s still nothing I’d rather be doing.