7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Katharine Quinn

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Kate Quinn, author of EMPRESS OF THE SEVEN HILLS) 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: Kate is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Tammy Nischan won.)



Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She wrote her first book
during her freshman year in college, retreating from a Boston winter into
ancient Rome, and it was later published as MISTRESS OF ROME. A prequel
followed, titled DAUGHTERS OF ROME, and then a sequel written while her
husband was deployed to the Middle East.  Kate is currently working on
her fourth novel, set in the Italian Renaissance. She also has succumbed
to the blogging bug, and keeps a blog filled with trivia, pet peeves, and
interesting facts about historical fiction. Kate’s latest book (April 2012)
is EMPRESS OF THE SEVEN HILLS, which Publishers Weekly called an
“epic, sexy romp” in a starred review.


1. Be patient. Everything in the publishing world moves at the speed of glacier, so a good supply of patience will save your sanity. It took me about seven years of (on and off) searching just to find a literary agent; then another four months to find a publisher, who then assigned my book a publication date 18 months away. Don’t let all the waiting kill you – get to work on a new project while waiting for progress on the old.

2. Learn to produce on a deadline. The one thing in the publishing world that doesn’t move slowly is your deadline when it gets closer and closer. Maybe you took three years to write your first book, and had another three years to tinker with it while you tried to get it published. Why not; you had the time. But when the publisher signs you for a second book, well, after you’ve had a chance to celebrate your good fortune, you should realize you do not have another six years to finish Book 2. You might have a year; you might only have a few months – so get used to the idea of putting your butt in that chair day after day, and producing words under pressure.

(Learn about pitching your novel to an agent at a writers’ conference.)

3. Self-edit. You will probably have to make changes to your first-born book in order to make it publishable – and my agent once estimated that fully half of all first-time writers will sink themselves by being either unable or unwilling to make those changes. Maybe you love your book just the way it is, but if a trusted and experienced publisher tells you that you need to cut 50,000 words and Character B to make it work, then listen. They’ve been in this business longer than you, and likely they know what they’re talking about. Reach for a pair of scissors and start cutting up your baby.

4. Be nice to your team. A whole host of people will have a hand in your book’s production: not just your agent and your editor, but a publicist and a managing editor and a copyeditor and a cover artist and a whole host of others you may never even hear about, much less meet. They are overworked folks who got into this business because they love books – so do your best to make their jobs easier. Love your new cover? Get the artist’s name and send him a thank-you note. Want your editor to love you forever? Be early on all your deadlines. These people work hard for you, so repay them by being a dream client.

5. Develop an online presence. It’s not enough these days just to write a book, then sit back and wait for it to sell. Writers are expected to promote themselves online, and being a Luddite is no excuse. You’ll probably have to start a blog, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page; you should phone in to book clubs and speak at conferences and be active in online reader communities like Goodreads and OnFictionWriting.com. So learn the etiquette of online promotion: promoting your book, yes; constant updating/tweeting/Facebooking/any other nonstop online blabbing about your book, no. Unless you want to be labeled a spammer.

(Why you should only query 6-8 agents at a time.)

6. Grow a thick skin. Those negative reviews will come, and they will hurt. And thanks to the internet and that online presence you’ve worked so hard to create for yourself, it’s tempting to put a snarky comment up on that blogger review, pointing out the blogger’s complete lack of literary discernment and utter misuse of the subjunctive. Resist the impulse, because nothing will trash your reputation faster than public whining about your bad reviews. It’s always better to take the high road and let the bad reviews sink unnoticed, rather than get into an online spat that goes viral. For an example of what NOT to do, just google “Jacqueline Howett The Greek Seaman.”

7. Deal with writer’s block. Bernard Cornwell has said he doesn’t believe in writer’s block: “Do nurses decide they can’t go to work one day because they have nurse’s block? Do plumbers?” Since Cornwell has hit the New York Times bestseller list umpteen number of times, I figure the man must know what he’s talking about. Writing is a job, and like any other job, there will be days when you just don’t want to do it. But you have a deadline (remember #2?), so park yourself in the chair, grit your teeth, and get to work anyway. Most of the time, the prose you squeeze out word by painful word is no better or worse than the stuff you wrote in the white-hot flush of inspiration. If you can make yourself write even when you’re not “feeling it,” then congratulations – that, more than the book contract or the shiny paperback sitting on the New Release table at Barnes & Noble, means you are a professional.

GIVEAWAY: Kate is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: Tammy Nischan won.)


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We bundle them together at a discount in our shop.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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32 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Katharine Quinn

  1. vickielb

    Thank you for the great advice! I can make use of all of them, but #6 and #2 made me shudder the most. Deadlines are tough, since I feel writing coming on, rather than at set intervals. I have not had the discipline or even luxury to write a bit each day. It’s only the last few years that I have written much at all, and that is because of returning to school – majoring in Writing and Rhetoric, and minoring in Creative Writing. I love historical fiction the most, but I have had some success with personal narrative. Thanks again, and I’ll try to follow your example.

  2. Tony Conaway

    Another reason to follow Point #4 “Be nice to your team:” The publishing industry is a revolving door. People who like you may be able to help you at a different publishing house, sometime in the future. The first three business books I co-wrote were with three different publishers…but all with the same editor. He kept buying books from us as he moved from publisher to publisher.

  3. Anne

    I loved this article! Yes, writing is an art and a craft, but it’s also a business. Too often writers don’t realize they/we are actually entrepreneurs. When we’re pitching our debut novels, we’re also growing a business. Landing the deal is just the first step. To be truly successful, a whole lot of nurturing follows. That means listening to the professional coaches (agents, editors, publicists, etc.) and following their advice.

    Can’t wait to buy one of your books online tonight, Kate! Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. Kate Quinn

    A somewhat belated thank-you for all the nice comments! (My computer was acting up; kept refusing to let me register.) I think if there’s an eighth lesson to be learned, it’s right here in the comment section and stated outright by happybones: The writing community is surprisingly supportive and giving, both online and in person if you go to writing conferences. Take advantage of it, because fellow writers will get you through the crazy times!

  5. writergale

    Kate, you got my attention – by throwing in some statistics along with facts you hit the nails in my wooden head with a resounding ‘thud’ especially on this one: “… half of all first-time writers will sink themselves by being either unable or unwilling to make those changes.”

    Yikes, but I do believe it.

  6. Harriet Berg

    Thank you, Kate, for this great advice. As an older writer, I have lived a lot of life. I often wish I had written much earlier, but I would have had to give up something else that I have done. I’ve been working at it a little at a time along the way, though. One problem I have is patience. I want to sit down and write my book all at once, and have it published right away. I’m afraid I’ll forget about it otherwise. I also tend to think there’s some sort of race to the publishing house. Well, I’m still working at it, and all the advice you have here is wonderful. Thanks, again.

  7. Jodie007

    Patience is probably the one I’ve had to work on the most. When you write your first novel, you expect to query and voila, agents will be more than happy to take you on. Sadly, that is a newbie mistake! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Kate!

  8. geogstacey

    You make some valid points. I wrote my first novel over two years ago. Luckily, I realized that it wasn’t the book that would get me published so I started working on something else…so much better.

  9. acoywriter

    I was working on #7 tonight. Had a word goal and kept forcing my way through. Sometimes I feel all my writing is one big writer’s block 🙂

  10. HannaAnna

    I thought this was all really interesting, but #1 was my favorite. I’m relieved to know that there are others out there who had trouble getting an agent. I’m still working on it.
    Thanks for the info!

  11. Emily Tanner

    Thank you for these tips. I’m working on a novel right now and there have been days I haven’t felt like writing but I have made myself do it. I have found after writing even when I’m not in the mood, the creative ideas still flow even if it takes a little longer. At the end of a day like that, I’m so glad I sat down and made myself work!

  12. chthao

    Thank you for the great advice! Love #1 which is something I had to learn along the way, and sometimes learn the hard way. My journey has only started and I feel lucky to have advice like this to guide me. Thank you!

  13. Narda

    I’ll have to check out your book. It is always interesting to hear authors say that the book in their first draft isn’t necessarily the published book, Editors know what readers expect.

  14. JennyMHerrera

    Great advice. I especially like the part about it taking 7 years (on and off) to find an agent. I’ve been working on finding an agent for a couple of months, and it already feels hopeless. But this post reminds me that these things take time. As people keep telling me, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

  15. ashluvgd

    This list was exactly what I needed. I’m just starting to really get into my writing now that I’m about to be a housewife and not worry about a “job”, I can focus on my writing that I hope to become a career. It is difficult at times to buckle down when I’m not feeling inspired. I will definitely keep this list in mind while I work on my first novel and try to find a publisher and agent.

  16. MissScarlett

    Thank you. I worry that my knee-jerk temper will cause me to launch a verbal slap against negative reviews, so I’ll need to self-medicate to get through that.

  17. Michael G-G

    All of these are great tips. I think I can do every one of them–except #1. (But I guess that’s the one that is really out of one’s control!)

  18. giselleoreilly

    I think these lessons can be applied to life in general. It applies to me as a teacher.
    1. Be patient. Not all kids learn at the same pace. When understanding lights up a pair of eyes, it was worth the wait.
    2. Follow deadlines. Grade your work and post the results. Parents need to know how their child is doing. Do not wait two days to call a parent back.
    3. Self-edit. If you don’t, you look foolish in front of your students. There are only so many times you can claim you were “testing them.”
    4. Be nice to your team. Working in a school where the teachers do not get along reflects on you AND the school. The kids feel the atmosphere.
    5. Develope and online presence. Check the discussion board daily. Some children feel comfortable reaching out this way.
    6. Grow a thick skin. Not all students will like you. Some are abused, neglected, hurgry… you sometimes end up the punching bag. Do not ever give up. Do not react the way the child expects you too; they are often testing you and determining if you are the same as other adults who have let them down.
    7. Deal with writer’s block. Some lessons flow, others do not. Get over it. Kids are waiting for you.

    Thank you for all you do.

  19. Lioness

    Loved your blog. For me, following tip number 3 would be heart breaking. But it’s very sage advice, and true. Plants don’t always flower unless you prune them, and books can’t get published if you don’t edit them. Thanks for the honest and wonderful tips!

  20. Sherida Stewart

    All great advice, but I especially love #7-Deal with writer’s block….”Do nurses decide they can’t go to work… because they have nurse’s block?” Or teachers with teacher’s block! Love the job, but I must get beyond the excuses. Thanks!

  21. VStrawmier

    I love your blog, but what I especially love is that you took a difficult time and turned it into something creative! Thank you for sharing the results of those times with us, your readers, and letting us learn from you as well!


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