7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mark Mustian


This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Mark Mustian, author of THE GENDARME) 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.

Mark is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Carly won.)


Mark Mustian is the author of The Gendarme (Sept.
2010), a historical debut novel that received a starred
review from
Library Journal, and was called “extra-
ordinary and unforgettable” by Bookpage. Mark is an
author, attorney and city commissioner. He lives in
Florida and serves as the chair of the Lutheran
Readers Project, a nationwide effort to connect
readers and writers associated with the Lutheran
faith. See his website here.


1. Agents really matter. Okay, I knew this all along, but maybe I’d talked myself out of it. After years of trying and failing to get an agent, I’d decided that maybe I should try the direct approach. Even though most major publishers specify on their websites that they won’t consider un-agented submissions, there are those handful of stories of writers sending their manuscript directly to the publisher and getting it published. (I remember hearing of someone who sent a package to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and then called a week later demanding to know when they would publish it.) In hindsight, though, my agent (Scott Mendel of Mendel Media Group) was key to everything that happened with The Gendarme. Trying to sell the book without him would have taken long odds and made them astronomical.

2. editors generally know best. My editor/publisher (Amy Einhorn at Putnam) did a great job with my book. We went through several rounds of changes. After the first round, I’d think we were done, and then another round of (new) changes would arrive. I’d swallow, agree that most of them made sense, and get back to work. Then another round. One of her last general comments was that there were too many colons and semi-colons in the book, and that I needed to get rid of them. I protested. That’s the way I write! Her response: Get rid of them. So I did, protecting the last few like a mother hen, defensively comparing my now virtually colon- and semicolon-free manuscript to a dozen well-loved books in my library. But she was right. When I look back now at my earlier drafts, they look like a will or trust document.

3. Marketing isn’t for sissies. I went on a short book tour when The Gendarme was first published. I’d been told to schedule events in places where I thought I could draw at least forty people. Some of the events went very well—we ran out of books at the Tampa event and had packed houses in Baton Rouge and Jacksonville. Others were less well-attended. At one venue (which will remain nameless), the bookseller insisted that I bring the books, then sold them at my discounted author’s price (leaving no profit for me), then shorted me several books. You live and learn. Generally, though, booksellers themselves are all candidates for cultural sainthood, and the one I’ve just described is the exception rather than the rule.

4. A thick skin never hurts. I read somewhere that John Grisham doesn’t read any of his reviews. I read all of mine, the vast majority of which have been outstanding, but there were some occasional stinkers. I learned (I didn’t know this) that one of the leading publishing industry magazines pays anonymous reviewers $40 per review. That explains a lot. After a while you start to brush off the not-so-great reviews and treasure the good ones. One of the benefits of e-mail is receiving individual messages from readers all over the world, telling you how much they loved the book. Those who hate the book usually don’t e-mail you about it.

5. There’s a certain way to sign books. Did you know there is a recognized place within the book the author should sign? I didn’t. It’s the title page, and generally just below the title. Some authors will cross out their own printed name and sign below it. At first I tried to think of cute or clever things to say, but now I just sign my name.

6. Money rules the world—the publishing world, too. If you’re fortunate enough to be paid for your efforts as an author, there follows the tediousness of record-keeping, etc., all while you’re trying to market the book and write the next one. My accountant suggested that I create a separate limited liability company and separate bank account for my writing efforts. Ughh. I was told to keep receipts of the book tour expenses. People (even though I politely suggest otherwise) want to buy books from me instead of the bookstore or online. It’s all a small price to pay for having your book published, but it’s there.

7. Gratitude, generosity, perseverance. I’ve been amazed and humbled by the generosity others have shown toward me and my work. I received blurbs from prize-winners and luminaries, most of whom I’d never met. Other authors have offered advice and encouragement. One of the real joys of being published is the interaction with other writers—those going though the same things you are. (Will the book be reviewed? Is anybody doing anything? Why is this taking so long?) Long odds are examined, evaluated and in some case defied. But it all starts with a single idea, and the willingness, courage and stamina to put it down on paper.

Hook agents, editors and readers immediately.
Check out Les Edgerton’s guide, HOOKED, to
learn about how your fiction can pull readers in.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
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media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more. 
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32 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mark Mustian

  1. Jeff Wetherington

    I found #5 to be of particular interest. I had no idea there a specific place in the book to sign. I always assumed it would naturally be one of the front pages and perhaps the title page, but wasn’t aware the placement was so explicit.

    Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of your book! 🙂

  2. Cully Perlman

    I think once you’ve been writing seriously for a while (i.e., seriously enough to go to workshops, seriously enough to have "finished" first drafts, seriously enough to have rewritten those drafts over, and over, and over again, and have done it on more than one book, you start to see the same standard things "learned so far." But each individual author brings their own perspective, their own humor, their own pain–and, if we’re reading their lessons learned, success. What it does for me is provide hope–that I’m doing the right things, that our experiences are similar, and that there’s still hope for me (and you) too.

  3. Kate Cobb

    All great advice, some I’ve heard before in writing classes and talking with Professors, others I didn’t hear so much. What would be your number one piece of advice to young future writers out there?

  4. Layla Fiske

    Thank you for the honest and clear-sighted synopsis of your writing experience. After reading your article, I checked out the reviews of your book on Amazon.com and it would be an understatement for me to say that it sounds absolutely intriguing! I am particularly interested in your story as it is set in a similar era and geographical location as my work-in-progress which has been inspired by my grandmother’s life. I would love to read your book. Congratulations on being published and best wishes to you in the future.

  5. Diane Magras

    You describe well the strange cocktail of humility and confidence that writers need to succeed. The whole spectrum of the writing process once the final draft is done leaves much room for this, from editing (humility) to marketing (confidence). Good luck with this and your other books, and thank you for sharing your advice.

  6. Dan Kolbet

    Mark, I’m about 25% done with my very first draft novel. Pretty excited about it, but I know I’m a long way from being done. I appreciate your tips about writing and the process after. Very practical and interesting. Hope to see you on this blog more.

  7. Stephanie D.

    The Gendarme moved me very much, Mark. Although, I had previously known about the Armenian Genocide, your book inspired me to explore this heartbreaking subject in more detail. I look forward to your future books.

  8. Theresa Schultz

    Thanks for the advice. It’s always helpful to learn about another writer’s experiences. Congratulations on the book and all the great reviews.

  9. Tom Bentley

    Dang, no semicolons? But I even love the SHAPE of a semicolon! Oh well…

    Thanks for all the good advice: a fine mix of the artistic and the business sides—and gratitude for it all.

    [ignore colon in sentence above]

  10. Janice

    What truly inspirational advice! And you’re right about having an agent. They are simply priceless.

    Also, thanks for the tip about signing books. Even though I’m unpublished, it’s nice to know for in the "future" when I’m signing my own.

    Take care everyone,

  11. Susan Cushman

    "Willingness, courage and stamina"–three strong words to begin this writer’s New Year. (I have eight published essays and two books-in-progress. About to query agents with my nonfiction book proposal.) Thanks for a great post, and I’d love to read The Gendarme! (btw, LOVE the book cover. Did you have any say in its selection/design?)

  12. Christy Hayes

    Congratulations on your book and success. It is refreshing to read lessons from someone like you who sounds very grateful for your success and those who helped you along the way. Best of luck to you in your career.

  13. Elizabeth McCulloch

    Hi. I’m commenting to get in on your book lottery! Though I generally don’t like historical fiction, every once in a while I find one that knocks me over (eg Kevin Baker – Paradise Alley).
    I had to laugh at the semi-colon problem. I’m a devotee of semi-colons too; perhaps b/c I’m a retired lawyer. If I ever get an editor, I will happily sacrifice them all, trying to remember that semi-colon means half-assed.
    Congratulations on your book. I know how hard it is – I even had an agent for a couple of years, but no go. I try to remember that writing is what counts, without abandoning the drudgery of trying to publish.

  14. Susan Anthony

    Hi Mark,

    Congratulations on publishing your first book. I hope that someday I can share my experience with others as you have done.

    I’ve been toying with self publishing. After reading your tips, I think the agent route is the best for me. Do you know anyone who specializes in "Memoir"? My New Year’s resolution is to finish my book. . .your tips will help me keep that vow.

    All the best,


  15. Brandon LaChance

    Thank you for the pointers, they will be in the front of my mind when I go on the publishing adventure. The advice on editors knowing best is something I’ll definitely think about, especially since I’m hard headed and think my style reigns above all.

    Thanks again for the pointers, I’m excited to read your book.


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