Tough Lessons From a Debut Novelist, Part 2

In my last post ("Tough Lessons from a Debut Novelist, Part 1"), I shared eight lessons I learned along the difficult road to publishing my debut novel, The Breath of God, that I wished I'd known prior to starting my journey. Here, I conclude with eight more from the heartache of multiple rejections, the wasted time put into 300 pages of discarded prose, and finally the elation at seeing my book in print.

1. Hire a book doctor or professional editor.
One of the most painful lessons I struggled to accept was that my words and ideas were not sacred. After editing The Breath of God many times on my own and then having friends and family members make suggestions, I began the process of sending out query letters to agents. I had a few agree to look at sample chapters, and some wanted the whole manuscript. None took me on at this point. I had fundamental structural flaws in my story and characters, even though the technical writing wasn't bad. Everything changed after I hired a book doctor who was a former editor at a NY publishing house. Later I worked with a second freelance editor who was just as helpful. These two women gave me the independent and professional perspective on my writing that I couldn't get anywhere else. Because of their feedback, I made significant changes to the novel that I never would have had the energy or courage to do on my own. Because of them, The Breath of God is in bookstores now.

2. Perfect your pitch.
Many How to Publish Your Novel books tout the importance of the query letter that you send to prospective agents and publishers. I won't rehash their advice here, other than to say that the most important part of you query letter will be your pitch. The pitch is the several paragraphs in which you outline the story, conflict, and main characters of your novel in such a concise and compelling way that the reader asks for the book. How do you write the perfect pitch? First, take several of your favorite novels in your genre and study the inside flap. Try to discern what about these teasers made you decide to read the book. Then write your pitch with those same elements applied to your story. You should spend as much time perfecting your pitch as you do slaving over your first chapter. These few paragraphs will determine whether you get picked out of the slush pile.

3. Getting an agent doesn't mean that you will get published.
I distinctively remember the email from the New York literary agency. The agency's president wanted to represent me. I must have read it a hundred times. Now, all the hard work and the rejections would pay off. I was destined to get a big advance and a publishing deal from one of the top New York houses. Again, I was wrong. I'd heard stories about writers who, despite good agents, were unable to sell their books. I dismissed this as not possible in my case. Then the rejections from the publishers started to arrive. The letters started off nicely. Many praised my writing, my themes, my characters, but no one wanted to take it on for marketing reasons. I was a victim of the imploding economy in 2009, and my genre had become overcrowded post Da Vinci Code. After six months of striking out with the big publishers, my agent and I parted ways.

4. Giving up is not an option.
When I was in the midst of receiving rejection after rejection, I spoke to an old high school friend of mine who is now a best-selling YA author. She said these very simple words that became the most meaningful advice I received through this entire process: Giving up is not an option. Every time I picked up the mail and saw the SASE I'd sent out with a query, I broke out in a clammy sweat. Getting rejected feels like such a personal rebuke because writing fiction is a personal process: we pour ourselves into our characters and stories and we do it utterly alone. My friend's journey gave me hope. She wrote five novels over five years, and each one was rejected multiple times without getting picked up. With each book and each rejection, however, she learned to become a better editor of her work. Finally, after persevering for those five years, she not only published her first novel, it went on to become a New York Times best seller. She's since gone back and rewritten the earlier books, and they've all been published to acclaim too. I took my friend's advice and vowed that I would never give up. Instead of writing five books over five years, I just kept rewriting the same book over five years, until it became good enough.

5. Find solace in the personal rejection.
Psychologically how did I handle all of this rejection? As painful as it was, I tried to find little bits of hope along the way. Although I received a number of rejections that began "Dear Author," I began to pick through the ones that were personal and showed that the person rejecting me had actually read what I'd sent. Some of these had positive things to say about my work. Many complimented my writing or aspects of my plot or my themes. I took whatever positive sign I could and then went back to edit the novel again. I forced myself to view each rejection, not as a commentary on my self-worth, but as a gauge that I just had to work harder. I also found solace in the stories of other published and successful authors (like my friend) who had gone through similar rejections.

6. Network.
After parting ways with my agent, I decided to explore smaller independent publishers on my own. Not having the energy to repeat the blind query process I'd been through with agents, I reached out to everyone I knew who might have a relative, an acquaintance, or a friend of a friend who worked for a publisher. As drafts of The Breath of God were being passed among my friends and then given to their friends, I began to receive emails from people who loved the book and wanted to recommend it to someone they knew. Then through a family friend, I was introduced to the president of a non-fiction publisher based in San Francisco who also lived part-time in my hometown of Atlanta. He was enthusiastic about the concept of The Breath of God, and after reading it, he agreed to establish a new fiction imprint of his company to publish it!

7. You are the brand. Your writing is the product.
Whether you get picked up by one of the big New York publishing houses or, like me, a small press, you will probably receive little marketing support from your publisher. Because of the poor prospects of a first novel making a publisher much of a profit, they save their marketing budgets for their A-list authors. If you want your novel to be successful, you must take the reins of your marketing yourself. In the eighteen months between getting my publishing deal and the release date (yes, it actually takes that long), I heard the standard advice: hire your own publicist; develop a website, a blog, a Twitter account, a presence on Facebook; and find opportunities to speak about your book. I took all of that advice, but I also wanted to find another hook to distinguish myself. One evening I was having drinks with a friend, who was studying for a PhD in Psychology and who had a background in marketing. He made me look at my writing from a very different perspective. He challenged me to see myself as the brand and my writing as a specific product. The Breath of God is my first, but not my last book. When I began to think long term about how I could define the brand that is Jeffrey Small, a whole new world of ideas opened up to me. I decided to take a page from the nonfiction world and to build a platform around my educational background and my interests about the role of religion in the 21st century in a world governed by science and composed of multiple faiths. I now have a blog and podcast on this topic, and I travel around the country giving lectures. As a first-time fiction author, how do you discover what your brand is? First, look into your heart: where do you want to take your writing in the future? What is your educational background? Your professional experience? If these questions do not present obvious answers, then realize that by being a published author, you are now considered by many to be an expert in two fields: the subject matter of your novel and the process of writing fiction itself. Build your online presence and speaking gigs around this expertise.

8. Write because you are passionate.
One common piece of advice I heard when starting my novel was don't quit your day job. I'm glad I listened. I won't repeat here the depressing odds of either a) getting published in the first place or b) making any real money from it if you do. If you name isn't King, Rowling, Baldacci, or a handful of others, the chances of becoming rich or famous from your fiction is miniscule. You would be better off buying a lottery ticket and saving the years of work. Putting that depressing reality aside, finishing my novel is the accomplishment I am most proud of. Note that I said finishing and not publishing. I write because, as painful as the process can be at times, I love it. I write because I must. Writing brings me a sense of pleasure, a creative engagement, and an intellectual stimulation that my day job (one that I'm quite good at and that pays the bills) does not. Write because you are passionate about writing.