7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by M.M. Vaughan

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by M.M. Vaughan, author of THE ABILITY) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: M.M. is excited to give away 2 free copies of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Jeri Baird won.)



THEABILITYcover      mmvaughan

M.M.Vaughan (Monica Meira Vaughan) is the author of THE ABILITY
(Simon & Schuster, April 2013), a middle-grade novel described by Publishers
Weekly as “a fast-paced, superhero-tinged spy novel” and picked by TIME
for Kids as one of its ’12 Books For Summer’. Her second book, MINDSCAPE,
will be on sale March 2014. Monica likes to start writing after midnight and it
has been, until recently, her secret hobby. On the weekends, she dedicates
her time to building cardboard cities for her three-year-old daughter and
catching up on sleep. She lives in London. Learn more on her website or
get in touch with her on Twitter.


1) Don’t send your manuscript out to every agent at once. I learned this by mistake. I made a list of twelve agents that I wanted to send my book to and prepared a submission pack for each one. I then realized that I only had three stamps so I sent three out and decided that I might as well wait and see how they responded before sending the rest. I’m glad I did. All three turned it down and all three mentioned that they didn’t like synopsis. I rewrote the synopsis (which, in fairness, was awful) and sent out the manuscript to the remaining seven agents on my list. Five said yes! Maybe they would have been interested anyway, who knows, but it makes sense to submit in batches to take advantage of any feedback you might get.

2) No news means … absolutely nothing. As the least patient person I know, I have had somewhat of a difficult time dealing with how slowly everything in publishing happens. To help me sleep, I have now devised a formula which (just about) keeps me on the right side of sane: Time for something to happen = Maximum length of time you expect that thing to happen, add one month and multiply by two. And I’m not even kidding.

(Hate writing synopses? Here are nuts & bolts pointers for you.)

3) Use your time well. Formula or no formula, waiting for news from agents or publishers is painful. Some do’s and don’ts (which I may, or may not, have compiled from personal experience): DON’T call them, stalk them, refresh your email obsessively or pore over agents’ twitter feeds for some veiled reference to your manuscript. DO use the time to build up an online presence or, even better, start a new book. If you get the deal, you’ll need to write a second one and, if you don’t – well, you’re not going to give up, of course. Oh, and change your ringtone for the caller you want to hear from, so you only injure yourself running to answer your phone when it really matters.

4) Secrets for your readers. Another lucky accident. When writing The Ability, I gave the last name ‘Genever’ to the baddies because it’s an anagram of revenge (a central theme), and the first names Dulcia (from the Latin for ‘sweet’), Ernest (synonym of ‘heartfelt’) and Mortimer (Latin, ‘death’). So their names mean Sweet Revenge, Heartfelt Revenge and Revenge of Death. I also, for no good reason, decided that the string of numbers my protagonist Chris ‘visualizes’ during an unusual test would be 1291292025, which I’m sure you’ve already worked out spells ABILITY if A=1, B=2 etc. I was just entertaining myself really, and explained neither in the story itself.

However, when it came to promoting my book, these two ‘secrets’ turned out to be a great way to give readers at events something extra that they couldn’t have learned without hearing it from me personally. It also ensured a good ‘oooh’ moment at the end of my talks, which is always nice. Not knowing how useful this would turn out to be, I didn’t include any secrets in Mindscape, my second book, and now regret it. I’ve learned my lesson; book three is full of them!

5) Once you get a book deal, you will struggle to find time to write. I have to admit that, though I have learned this, I haven’t yet found a solution that works for me. Before my book deal, I had no idea how much an author has to do; edit, blog, tweet, facebook, answer emails, network, reply to readers who take the time to get in contact and so on. The list is endless. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of writing the next book, which, now you have a deal, also comes with a deadline. (Fun fact that haunts me with every day that passes without blogging: some book distributors have a little graphic that shows how active you are on blogs, twitter and goodreads).

If I’d known all of this before I got my deal, I would have spent some of that painful waiting time building up an online presence (see point 2) so I didn’t end up doing it all from scratch when other work started coming in. I know that not everybody agrees about the necessity of all this extra ‘stuff’ but, personally, I think my best chance of continuing on this surreal and incredible journey will be with the support of others.

I have been surprised (in a really, really good way) at the generosity and kindness of people both online and off and, even if I do often lose count of the irons in the fire, I do believe it’s worth finding the time to maintain those relationships and let people know how grateful you are. Also, it’s worth remembering that nobody can promote your book with more passion than you can – use that to your advantage.

(What a James Cameron movie can teach writers about how to start a story strong.)

6) You never stop worrying. I worried I’d never get my book finished. Then I finished it and immediately started to worry about whether I’d get an agent. I got an agent and then had sleepless nights over whether I’d get a publishing deal. Got the deal, worried about whether I’d be able to deliver the edit they wanted. I could go on. I don’t think there’s much to be done about this but hopefully it will be some comfort to know you’re not alone and that there’s at least one other sleep-deprived, mildly neurotic writer out there (me) sharing your pain. At some point though, you just have to find a way to turn the anxiety dial down a notch before you self-combust. Which leads neatly onto my final point…

7) Celebrate. So I finished writing my book, got an agent, secured a publishing deal and received my advance. Wow! Literally all my dreams have come true but I’ve always been too busy focusing on the next thing I have to do to stop and celebrate. One day, a friend pointed this out to me and amends were made. Now, when a project is finished or I receive good news, I make sure I take one night off to savor the moment.

At whatever stage of the writing journey you’re on, enjoy your achievements. It could be a party, dinner at a restaurant, a glass of champagne or, perhaps, a night playing online poker while watching back-to-back Mad Men episodes followed by an epic lie-in. Whatever floats your boat. This is now my one rule of writing and, in my opinion: Best. Rule. Ever. As the great philosopher Ferris Bueller once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

GIVEAWAY: M.M. is excited to give away 2 free copies of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Jeri Baird won.)


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56 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by M.M. Vaughan

  1. nikosgrl4

    Thank you for sharing these points with us. You have given me some great ideas to incorporate into my own YA stories, especially with the autism twist to my characters. I have had one poem published many years ago so I can fully appreciate the need for celebration. It was awesome seeing my name (and poem) in print. One question, how to really focus on the writing priority when everything else seems to take precedence? Looking forward to your next book Alexandra!

    1. MMV

      Hi Alexandra,
      Thank you! Making writing a priority was really hard, especially as I had a job and a baby when I wrote ‘The Ability’, but I just decided that I would make after dinner, during the week, my writing time. It worked for me as there was less to get distracted by at night.
      And best of luck with your book! The autism twist sounds fantastic. I was a special needs teacher until recently and taught many autistic children and teenagers – I would have loved something like this for my class.

  2. vrundell

    So loved this article! It’s all about keeping it real. Yeah, life never gets easier, folks. And that grass really ain’t no greener. Good on you for achieving your dream and recognizing it’s not just a one-shot deal, but a new career that you must invest yourself in. And for sharing those facts with those of us who dream of being in your shoes.
    Thanks so much!

    1. MMV

      Thanks Veronica! You know, you’re so right about it not getting any easier BUT (!) there are some problems I’d rather have than others – I try and remind myself of that every time I stress about about deadlines etc.! Honestly, it’s been worth every sleepless night. Best of luck with your writing too!
      Monica. ps had a look at your website, it’s great!

  3. terranova

    I loved #4 and will look for opportunities to add secrets to my writing.

    On the other hand #5 was frightening. I guess it all comes with a price, hopefully it’s not a selling of the soul.

    1. MMV

      Thank you!
      Re. #5: No soul-selling necessary, I think, though it is definitely something that every writer I know struggles with. On balance though, it’s a small price to pay – well, that’s what I keep telling myself!
      All the best with your writing.

  4. Sunsette

    This is great advise. I enjoyed reading about your experiences & have definitely learned some things from you that I will take with me on my writing journey. I also found the insights into your new book very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    1. MMV

      Thank you so much! I was really trying to think of things that would have been helpful to know before getting my book deal and hope my hindsight turns out to be useful for others!
      Wishing you every success on your writing journey.

  5. Lori Snyder

    Love this, thank you! I’m in the middle of the querying process and racking up the rejections as well as a few possibilities. Got a particularly sad rejection on a full this week, and have been struggling with it a little. And then I was talking to some friends who are published, and I remembered that the rejection/approval cycle never goes away in this business. First it’s an agent, then it’s editors. Then it’s reviewers and sales figures and next books. So it seems that the key is finding tools to be good with the process and not letting any of it derail you, and even celebrating it. I wrote a book! I’m putting it out into the world! And now I’m writing another one.

    So your article was awesome and fabulous and heartening. Putting your book on my to-read list as well. Thanks again!

    1. MMV

      Hi Lori,
      Thank you so much – what a lovely message! I really feel for you – the submission process is so incredibly hard and, you’re right, it doesn’t stop! However, it only takes one yes and you forget all the pain! Also, I do think all that feedback can only be helpful – at least that’s how I chose to look at it – every single comment or criticism has stuck with me and informed the rest of my writing, which I think can only be a good thing!
      The very best of luck and I hope your new book is going well!

  6. skell182

    I find this some of the best advice I have received so far. It seems plain and simple but is often overlooked for excitement in sending in the queries. I hope I win a copy of your book to see your success.

  7. esparhawk

    I love your closing quote from Ferris Bueller. Classic!

    I’m a 7th grade English/language arts teacher, and I’d love to have a copy of “The Ability” for my classroom library.

    I’m also an agented writer, so I found this info helpful.

    1. MMV

      Thank you!
      Good luck with the giveaway and please do get in touch on my website if you’d like to do a skype session with your class – as an ex-teacher, I love any excuse to talk to kids about writing!

  8. Lisdoonvarna

    Thank you so much; these were awesome, particularly number 5. I hadn’t realized quite how much we’re expected to do. I guess it’s better to start doing a little something online now, then, rather than have to figure everything out over night. It almost makes me want to write slower so that I can enjoy being creative without being stressed. And it’s nice to know I’m not the only person who likes to write after midnight.
    Again, thank you.

  9. Tracy

    Thanks for all the great advice. I loved number four and the secrets you mentioned about your story. Then, you incorporated that with giveaways. Genius! 🙂
    And I very much relate to number six because I worry about everything: how to write, when to write, if I should start a blog. I need to remember that I can only read so much advice and that sometimes I just need to sit down and write.
    My favorite, though, is number 7. Celebrating small victories like writing for 5 minutes for writing so many words. Focusing on the big picture can be overwhelming, so us writers need to take pride in our little victories and remember that those little ones are paving the way to the bigger victory.
    Thank you for sharing.
    – Tracy

  10. Linda.H

    I am so glad I read this. I definitely would have made the mistake you wrote about in number 1. Also, the idea of number 4 is pretty awesome.

    I like the plot of your book. It sound like a good book for my daughter.

  11. CMorgan

    I’m really glad you wrote this. I had no idea how many activities you had to do to please the publisher. I mean, I’m a believer in scheduling, so I can find an answer for myself for that question, but I didn’t even know that situation existed. Some distributors track your online activity? Seriously? Wow. That’s good information to have right there.

    And I love, love, love your ‘Easter egg’ idea. That is so cool. I’m in the process of fleshing out the story, and I don’t have names for all my characters yet; I’m just using their title as their name for now. But I love this idea of hidden gems for names, places and other items. That’s fantastic.

    All the best to you!

  12. rampmg

    Thank you for sharing your hard won insights. I am especially glad to hear you say not to send out all the queries at once. I’ve sent out a few, but realize that they were either not the right agent or my query isn’t compelling. I wish they would give just a bit of feedback!!

  13. Cathio

    Great advice! #6 is a good reminder that I’m not the only writer who is a worry wart. I’m also on the waiting train, so I’ll apply the “no news is good news” theory onto my waiting. Thanks for taking the time to share these!

  14. ketari

    SHEESH!!! I don’t which piece of advice was more helpful. They all were something I need to hear and adhere to. You may as well have popped your head through my screen as I read #3 because that had to be for me personally. I totally “pore over agents’ twitter feeds for some veiled reference to your manuscript”!!!! I won’t anymore now that you’re on to me. (lol) Thank you so much for this insightful article. I needed to read this and congratulations on all of your success!

  15. Maureen A.

    While each piece of advice is going straight to my desktop, the one that really made me want to adjust my behavior is “Don’t Send Your Manuscript Out to Every Agent At Once.” I guess because I assume no agent is going to provide feedback. Most never even reply. But this is so wise. If you are getting consistent rejections, at least a flag should go up that you must change something to affect a different outcome. You always hear, “There are thousands of agents out there. You just haven’t found the one that’s right for you.” So, you keep on submitting. I guess this is where the impatience comes in. Woe is us.
    Maureen A.

  16. Jeri Baird

    Great post and suggestions! Since I just finished some major revisions today on my MG story, I think I’ll take the afternoon off to celebrate. You’re so right – there is always something more to do, but for just today, I will revel in the joy before I enter the despair of querying! Thanks for sharing.

  17. bendwriter

    Such great insight. Seems like more and more first time authors have been talking about how hard it is to write the second book under a deadline for the publisher. Guess I better start on book #2 while I wait to hear about #1. Thank you!

    1. MMV

      Thank you! And yes – write it! It’s so hard when your mind is focused on how the first one is being received but – whatever the outcome – you’ll want to have another book in the pipeline, so it really is worth starting it as soon as possible. The very best of luck with both books – 1 and 2!


  18. DanielJayBerg

    Thanks for sharing your insight. I’m curious to learn more about tips on balancing writing with online presence/social media writing. Time of day? Ratio? How often should you update?

    And thanks for the reminder to celebrate. Best of luck!

    1. MMV

      Oh no, I’m not sure I’m going to be much help with this! My answer (as evidenced by my very sporadic tweets & blog posts) is that I haven’t found a way to balance it all very well yet – terrible, right?! However, I am beginning to build a routine that works for me – as long as NOTHING else happens in the day (which is never!).

      So, at the moment, I do all emails/blogs/tweets etc etc in the daytime until I have to pick up my daughter from school and then, in the evening around 9pm, I start writing. I’ll normally do that to about 2am. It suits me as I’m such a night owl. It does mean I don’t get a huge amount of sleep in the week, but on the weekend I try and make up for it.

      When I was teaching full-time, I’d do the other ‘stuff’ on the weekend and have the same writing routine in the week, but just finish an hour or so earlier (9pm-1am with a target of 1000 words a day).

      As for how often to update – I think everybody has to find what works for them. I personally like less quantity & more substance. Ideally, I would like to do a blog post every three days and a tweet every day. However, this has never happened.

      Well, that probably didn’t help at all! Let me know if you find a better solution 🙂

      Best of luck with your writing and thanks for the comment! Monica.

  19. Alison Doherty

    This was so fantastic to read. I love finally reading someone who instead of saying “don’t worry” admits that anxiety is a normal part of the process. I also love the idea of reader secrets. I need to think of ways to work some of those into my WIP. Good luck to you with you book and future projects!

    1. MMV

      Thanks so much, Alison, and good luck to you with your WIP also. Re. the secrets thing; hope you have as much fun coming up with them as I did. I think the more random they are, the better but, of course, now that I’m trying to come up with some for book 3 intentionally, I’m finding it much harder – typical! Am intrigued to hear the secrets you end up coming up with – let me know!


  20. kylegwhite

    (Fun fact that haunts me with every day that passes without blogging: some book distributors have a little graphic that shows how active you are on blogs, twitter and goodreads).

    Oh, the horror! I’ve intentionally limited my social media footprint to give myself more time to write. Guess I’ll need to correct that mistake.

    Great post. You had advice I’ve not seen elsewhere.

  21. stuartgreen

    Excellent piece – tons of info I hadn’t heard anywhere else before. Will do same as Happy Amateur below and hang it by my desk, and also memorize the formula for my sanity! Hoping point 7 will come in useful soon also 🙂

  22. kylegwhite

    (Fun fact that haunts me with every day that passes without blogging: some book distributors have a little graphic that shows how active you are on blogs, twitter and goodreads).

    Oh, the horror! I intentionally maintain a small social media presence to have more time to … well, er, uh … write. I guess Big Brother really is watching.

    Great suggestions. Many of which I’ve never read before elsewhere.

  23. kylegwhite

    (Fun fact that haunts me with every day that passes without blogging: some book distributors have a little graphic that shows how active you are on blogs, twitter and goodreads).

    Oh, the horror! I’ve intentionally kept my social media to a minimum so I would have more time to … uh, well, er … write. Big Brother really is watching.

    1. MMV

      I agree! But I do think you have your priorities in the right order; write first, everything else second. After all, without a book, there won’t be anything to promote on social media anyway!
      Best of luck with the writing. Monica.

  24. The Happy Amateur

    I’m going to print this out and hang next to my desk. I found points 1 and 4 especially useful. Submitting in batches is not a piece of advice you’d normally get. It makes perfect sense, though. And “Secrets for your readers” made me realize I’m giving too much away. Got to save some for later.
    Thank you Monica.

    Alexandra A. Palmer


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