When I was at an SCBWI conference recently, I said something that the entire audience (only about 800 people) thought was hilarious. I first asked how many of the people in attendance were unpublished. A vast majority raised their hands. I looked at them very seriously and said, “Enjoy it. This is a very special time in your career.” That’s when they laughed.
But I meant it, and I mean it. The time before you’re published is the most important part of an author’s career. My thinking about this started in a conversation with an author of mine. (I won’t reveal her name, but she can out herself in the comments if she likes.) When I asked her if she had any advice for the conference goers, she said it was to enjoy the years spent before publication. In the ten years it took her to get her first book published, she said said she never realized how free she was. She meant creatively free. Before publication, when she sat down to write, she could do whatever she wanted. There were no expectations about what she’d write, no deadlines to write to, and no promotional commitments to take her away from her creative time. So she wrote, and revised, and developed her craft on her own, at conferences and with other writers. She’s done very well for herself in her career, and she wouldn’t give any of it up, but she felt that she lost a little something when she became a published writer, and she wished that other authors would stop and enjoy the process.
It’s not easy advice to follow, I know. For anyone with the goal of being published, it’s hard to imagine that life before publication holds anything special. There’s all the butt-in-chair hours spent writing and revising, the query letters to agents, the conferences, the workshops, the critique groups, the rejections, the hopes and hopes dashed. Writing isn’t for the faint of heart. But getting published isn’t the end of much of that, and there are added pressures once you’ve achieved your first goal. Once you’ve successfully sold and published your first book, the question of your second book is right around the corner. The process of selling that book is different, but may be just as agonizing. Often, you’ll be expected to write an outline and sample pages, instead of a whole book. Great, right? You don’t have to write the whole thing! Not so fast — is that how you started your first novel? Many authors don’t approach writing their first book in that way, and they enjoy the time they spent figuring things out on the page; the characters that they didn’t know existed until they started writing, the plot twist they couldn’t have imagined when they began. I had a very successful author ask me yesterday if she could just write the whole book again — she missed the freedom she experience she had writing her first book, which just flowed out of her and took shape as she wrote it. While it sounds fantastic creatively, it doesn’t make as much sense practically. We’d like to have a good idea from her publisher if they’re interested in the book before she goes through all of that work!
Then there’s the pressure to promote and sell your book. The hours spent online social networking, the time spent at conferences and workshops presenting, and if you’re lucky enough to be very successful, the tours, appearances, video chats, book club appearances, media, stock signings (I have an author flying several hours, for only a day, to sign 5,000 books), and whatever else the publisher throws at you. As the author above said to me, when you’re an author, sometimes it’s hard to find time to be a writer.
I know, I know. At this point you’re thinking, “Can these published writers just stop whining? They have the life they always wanted!” It’s true that in many ways they’ve achieved their goals, and I can assure you that none of the authors I’m referencing here are whiners in the least. In fact, they’re unbelievably hard workers who take their jobs quite seriously. But they were all pre-published (as SCBWI is fond of saying) at some point, and I know that they all wish they’d enjoyed that time period more. They wish they’d relished the time when being an author meant only writing. So for those of you who aren’t published yet, remember to enjoy this part of the journey, too.