by Nicole Melanson ~
I’ve spent the past few years interviewing 300 or so women in the literary arts, and there are some patterns of success that stand out from that time. They’re not earth-shattering; in fact, they’re rather elementary. But they are the things my most successful interviewees have in common. I’m sharing them here to help you progress your writing career to the next level, whatever that may look like for you.
Writers write. I know, I know—you were expecting something so much more profound! Soz. But hear me out: the reason I had so many authors to interview is because they were actual authors—not just daydreamers. These women had gruelling day jobs, dying parents, young children, failed marriages, empty bank accounts…or else they were stunning, whirling dervishes of professional success with scintillating social lives. Regardless of individual circumstances, every one of them sat down and wrote. Some started writing at 4 AM, others worked from midnight on. Somehow, they prioritized the act of writing and made it happen despite a wealth of compelling distractions.
You need to find your tribe. Not just any tribe but your tribe—the people who appreciate what you’re trying to do and know how to help you do it. All my interviewees spoke about the importance of having someone else ready to read their work and provide constructive feedback. For some, it was a partner; for others, a writers’ group. Some of the more established authors built a rapport with a particular editor. The point is, all of them had a checkpoint between their desk and their publisher’s. Find someone who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re writing garbage, keep your pride in check, and thank them profusely!
Be prepared to revise. The act of writing? It’s flirtation. Revision is where you pick your lover’s socks up off the floor, unball them, and put them in the washing machine even though you’re tired and would rather be watching a trashy television show. Some of the writers I featured loved the process of revision; others loathed it. All agreed it was absolutely essential. Revise, rinse, and repeat.
You need an author page on Facebook. By all means, rabbit away on Twitter; it’s a fun way to chat to other industry professionals and I’m not saying those people are never going to buy your book—just that they’re not particularly interested in how you feel about your book. They might “like” and retweet you, but the people coming to read your innermost thoughts are flowing in from Facebook. They’re the ones who want to know what your dog said to you this morning and how you translated that into a sestina. They’re the ones who are going to attend your book launch even though it’s snowing and your publisher refuses to spring for refreshments.
Another reason you need a Facebook page? So you can be tagged. You might have a personal account, but if you haven’t set up a public author page, there’s no way to loop you in on a thread, share your writing with prospective readers, or help you connect with fans that might be interested in supporting your work. Ask any publicist what it’s like trying to promote someone who won’t even open the door. (Elena Ferrante, feel free to disregard.)
In addition to Facebook, if you’re writing for a younger readership, you should be on Instagram bantering over pics. Teens these days do read, but they’re also into photos and you need to get comfortable sharing selfies and shelfies if you want to catch their attention. Bonus points if you can throw in an audio or video component; mixed media is where it’s at with the next generation.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I had one author pitch me for an interview and I felt concerned when she told me she had no social media accounts whatsoever. Her approach was to visit local libraries and nursing homes collecting the email addresses of interested audience members after every reading. And that’s all she did. And it worked! So the lesson there is understand the way your target reader thinks and don’t underestimate the importance of building up a database of people keen to receive updates about your work.
You have to actually submit. You just do. If you’re not sure where to start, read Catherine Nichols’ “Homme de Plume” and The Guardian follow-up “Sexism in Publishing” and you’ll see how the odds are stacked against women writers, meaning we need to work twice as hard as men to get our names in print. Then read Kelli Russell Agodon’s “Submit Like a Man”, pull together some poems, a short story, an entire manuscript…and hit SEND!
Yes, it’s true that from time to time publishers will approach someone and beg them to write something—anything—just so they can publish it, but here’s the thing: the people they approach are already celebrities. They’re Olympians and politicians and rock stars and self-made Insta slebs with a million followers. They’re not me, and they’re probably not you either. Unless you’re willing to put yourself out there and risk getting your heart ripped into confetti, you’re not going to get a book deal. How does a publisher know you have their next international bestseller hiding in the bottom of your sock drawer if you never send it out? Sometimes the only difference between a published author and a dreamer is a good, solid query letter.
Lastly, learn to let go. For some of my interviewees, this was easy; they were ready to be released from their book. Others described struggling to recognize when their work was done, or feeling overly invested in reviews, literary awards, and peer criticism. The timeline is different for everyone, but at some point, your book ceases to belong to you and becomes part of The Great Universal Library instead. People you don’t know will read it. Many will hate it. Some of them will tell you this, even if you burst into tears on the spot. You have to be willing to relax your grip regardless. You have to be strong enough to press on with the hardest challenge ever presented to literary mortals: Writing the Second Book!
I hope this has been helpful to you. Thank you for reading, and best of luck with all your writing endeavors!