When I published my first novel, Driving by Starlight, writers started asking me for tips on getting published. I was happy to share my own path, but I made it clear it was just my path, and what worked for me might not work for anyone else. It might not even have worked for me five years earlier, given how quickly the publishing industry changes its tastes and its appetite for diverse authors or particular genres. At some point, I realized that asking a published author for advice on getting published was a little bit like asking a newlywed for dating advice. Unless you want to marry exactly the kind of person they’re marrying, the advice is probably not that relevant to your own ambitions.
Actually, even if you did want to marry the exact same kind of person, that dating advice still might not work for you.
But I do understand why so many people see publication as a kind of gateway to happiness. I felt the same way once. On one side, you are a writer, seeking and yearning, and on the other you are an author, acknowledged as a professional. Right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. And it finally clicked when a married friend of mine called me, exasperated, and said, “Why did I think getting married would magically fix our relationship?”
A wedding is one happy moment in a relationship that is meant to last a lifetime. And in the way that someone who just got engaged might believe that they can now relax into their happily-ever-after, a writer who just got their first book deal assumes that the pain and effort of rejections and rewrites is done, and they’re going to honeymoon on the New York Times bestseller list from now on.
So here are three things I wish someone had told me about getting published, and about life after publication.
You’re already an author
That’s right. Put that “Author” credential in your bio, even if all you write is fan fiction on AO3. There will always be gatekeepers who insist that you aren’t a real author unless you’ve gone to an MFA program and been published by a Big Five house. Ignore them. There are many real and fulfilling relationships that don’t result in marriage. Just as a country’s laws on homosexuality don’t own the truth of your love, some of the authors who have moved me to tears and inspired me in my craft have never been published and probably never will be.
You can’t divorce a published book
Once your book is published, it’s out there, forever associated with your name. You might think that’s a good thing right now, but you’re still improving your craft and that book will almost certainly make you cringe later. You’ll find typos and plot holes, some places where you could have done better and others where you should have known better. So don’t rush to publication. It’s probably more critical that you don’t publish the wrong book than that you don’t marry the wrong person — you can’t even get a divorce.
Writing is a relationship, one that takes work
Being published is not a permanent stamp of excellence. If anything, it creates a false sense of security that you know what you’re doing. But then time passes, and you find yourself struggling with that second book, now in its third rewrite. You find yourself debating for the hundredth time, first-person POV or third-person POV? Past tense or present tense? What’s that word for that thing, you know, the thing? How did your first book ever get published when you can’t even word today?
As Stanley Kunitz once wrote, “The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance starts when you try to convert it into language. Language itself is a kind of resistance to the pure flow of self.” Being published can be inhibiting. Now that you know that there is an audience out there, and that certain things will “sell” and others won’t, resistance rises. You may find yourself losing some of the uninhibited intimacy of your language, or compromising your own story before someone else tells you to.
Just as even married people need to go out on date nights to rekindle their romance, you’ll have to keep reminding yourself of why you write, of the musicality of language that nourishes your soul, and of all the stories you still need to tell.
Getting published is a moment in time. Being a writer is the love of a lifetime.
Read more: writingcooperative.com