From the veteran writer to the friend who doesn't read, author Karen Dukess presents the seven friends you need to keep on track while writing and publishing your novel.
It’s often said that writing is a solitary act. And it’s true — no one can put the words on paper for you. But that doesn’t mean you should go solo on the journey to publication. The right friends can help you finish your novel, minimize the angst of the submission process, maintain perspective as you approach publication, and get to launch day with your sanity intact.
As I approach the publication of my debut novel, The Last Book Party, I’m feeling grateful for a particular group of friends, each of whom supported my efforts in a different way. Herewith, my guide to the 7 essential pals for finishing and publishing a novel.
The Fellow Traveler
Writing can be a scary, lonely, roller coaster of doubt, which is why it’s best to have a friend strapped in with you. For the past several years, I’ve begun every week with a phone call with my friend Sally who, like me, got serious about writing later in life. During our Monday morning phone calls, Sally and I have discussed imposter syndrome, the inevitability of dreadful first drafts, and writing schedules that work. We’ve talked about writers we admire, sometimes for their drive as much as their talent, the ones who leave us in awe, and a few who make us think, “Well, if she can do it, so can we.”
Having one fellow traveler is essential; even better is to also be part of a writing group that meets regularly or an online support group. I’ve been lucky to have both. For eight years, my writing group has not only provided critical insights and a much-needed weekly deadline, but saw way before I did that the pages I was bringing in every Tuesday were turning into a novel. And for much of the past year, I’ve been part of a Facebook group for debut writers that has been a goldmine of support, advice, and friendship.
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The Tough Mother
Friends can be great cheerleaders, but sometimes you need a friend who is willing to kick you in the pants. My friend Maggie, a no-nonsense Australian mother of four, not only taught me how to expect more from my children, but also to demand more from myself. When I told Maggie during a long overdue visit that I was finally going to get serious about writing a novel, she rolled her eyes and said, “Puh-lease! You’ve been saying that forever!” My first impulse was to defend myself (“What about my job/kids/house/dog/mother?”), but Maggie was right. I was more talk than action, spending more time reading about writing than plugging away on my novel. I returned home with Maggie’s voice in my head and an invigorated focus on writing, including a new, self-imposed rule that I wouldn’t read books, blogs, or articles about writing unless I had already devoted time to writing that day.
When you finally have a draft and are ready to start submitting to agents, it’s time to find a friend who has been around the publishing block before. My go-to expert is my college roommate, Suzy, an author-illustrator whose first book was a New York Times best-seller and has published 10 other books for both children and adults. Suzy has been my personal publishing Wikipedia, answering questions on the submission process, agent contracts, marketing, publicity, and book tours. When my novel was on submission and I was in danger of spending entire days refreshing my browser in hopes of a response, Suzy told me what to do instead. “Get cracking on the next book,” she said. “Writing is absolutely the only thing in this entire process that you can control.”
The Friend Who Doesn’t Read
Who do you call when you’re convinced that future happiness will elude you forever if you don’t get a book contract? Or, when you’re caught in an endless loop of checking Amazon rankings and Goodreads reviews? You call your friend who lives a perfectly happy life without books. This is the friend whose first reaction upon hearing about your book contract is “Fabulous! What will you wear to the book party?” And when Terry Gross, after expressing initial interest, decides not to interview you on Fresh Air, you call this friend, who gives you some much-needed perspective by asking “Who’s Terry Gross?”
The Friend Who Reads but Doesn’t Write
Getting your book published is a wondrous thing, except perhaps for the friends who are trying to do the same. They’ll say they are happy for you, and they probably are, but there are times, and understandably so, when hearing about your success doesn’t make their struggle any easier. This is when you need a friend (or in my case, my sister Laura) who shares your love of books but not your ambition to write and thus can enjoy your journey without ambivalence. Whenever I head into a meeting with my editor, I know that by the time I walk out I’ll have a text from Laura asking, “How was it? Call me!”
The Friend Who Doesn’t Really Like Your Writing
Shortly before finishing my novel, while caught up in the throes of wondering if anyone would like it, I asked a friend what she thought of the novel just published by one of her oldest friends. “Oh, it’s awful,” she said casually. “I can’t stand his writing.” I was taken aback, but then had the glorious realization that true friendship has nothing to do with one’s artistic output. Your writing may be the most important thing to you, but to your friends and loved ones it’s not the most important thing about you. Being reminded of this is both reassuring and liberating. I have a hunch which of my friends is less than keen on my novel, and I'm OK with that.
Just as you needed more experienced friends, someone out there needs your hard-earned wisdom. Find a friend who is taking baby steps on the path to publication and assure her that writing is not only a worthy goal, but a process that will enrich her life. With this friend, you not only get to share what you’ve learned – that writing is supposed to be hard, that you sometimes feel like you’re writing in the dark, and that you have to trust the process and let the story reveal itself – but you get to remind yourself of those very things too. As you help your friend write a query letter, survive the weeks of waiting, or cope with her first round of edits, you are paying it forward. And when you’re obsessing about sales figures and media attention, you get a renewed sense of how far you’ve come, that there was a time when you, too, wanted nothing more than to write a novel and get it published, and how amazing it is that you’ve done just that.
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