12 Lessons Learned From a Debut Author

I wrote my first novel six years ago at the age of forty-three. I was not an English major. I did not possess a Master in Fine Arts. I hadn’t had any creative writing training whatsoever, unless you count my honors English class, as a senior in high school. Bottom line, I was starting from scratch.

If you’re new to writing, like I was, take heart. I had those what-the-hell-am-I-doing moments, too. And when you don’t have the knowledge base to gauge your place and progress in the authoring world, it can cause a bit of anxiety. So if you’re feeling this way, know that you’re not alone. You can write that novel. It is possible to get published. I just hope I can help you in some way on your journey.

Without further ado, here are twelve lessons I learned, as I navigated the path to publication.

Anne A Wilson author photo-featuredHOVER cover for hardbackThis guest post is by Anne A. Wilson. She graduated from the United States Naval Academy and served nine years active duty as a navy helicopter pilot, which included deployment to the Persian Gulf. The Naval Helicopter Association named Anne and her crew Helicopter Aircrew of the Year, an award given for search and rescue. Hover is her debut novel. Visit her at www.anneawilson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Anne_A_Wilson or on Facebook at facebook.com/Anne.A.Wilson.Author.

1. Be patient.

I put this one first, because it’s the hardest lesson to learn. Publishing time is different than normal time. We’re talking dinosaur time. Geologic time. Everything stretches. And I mean, everything. My debut novel took two years to write and edit. My search for an agent and signing with her took another year after that (which I’ve since learned is actually pretty fast in this business). And when I was finally offered a book deal, it was for a release date nineteen months—almost a year and a half—later. So from the time I started writing this debut, until its release date, we’re talking four years.

Internalizing this lesson alone—being patient—about the world of publishing will save you heaps of anxiety in the long run.

2. Beware the rush to self-publish. Or, stated another way, self-publish for the right reasons.

Many authors are in a rush to get their story out there. They hit “upload” and bam. Published book.

I wrote four novels before HOVER. When I finished novel number one, I thought I had penned an epic fantasy masterpiece. But when I peeked at this manuscript again last year, just for fun, I winced. What I had thought was so exceedingly brilliant was actually . . . well, awful is really the only way to put it. But at the time, I didn’t have the experience or the know-how to recognize it.

Had I decided to self-publish that first book, before thoroughly exhausting all options—namely, having someone else critically address my work—it would have been a dreadful mistake. A jumping of the gun of colossal proportions.

I’m not saying if you’ve self-published, you’ve written a bad product. Your book could be awesome. But I am saying that if you’re in a rush, if you self-publish for expediency’s sake, what you present to the public might not be your best work. And once the book is out there, it’s out.

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3. Check your ego. Turn the lens on yourself.

A literary agent at a Pitch Slam event once told me point blank, “I can’t sell this.” Period. Next person in line?

Sure, it hurt to hear that . . . but it wasn’t the first time I’d received that feedback. So, after massaging my bruised ego, I turned the lens on myself. What was I doing wrong? Turns out, I wasn’t presenting my manuscript correctly. I couldn’t verbalize, or write on paper, for that matter, a good hook, something that would entice agents to want to hear more.

It’s easy, especially when you’re in that rejection cycle, to play the blame game. Don’t. Rather, look at the person standing in the mirror. Is your work really up to snuff? Do you need to revisit? If you’ve done that and you’re confident with your manuscript, address your queries. Are the words on that one-page document good enough to sell your idea? Chances are, they might not be. Have you queried the right agents? Have you invested enough time with your querying or have you just given up after a month or two? You have to ask the hard questions and you have to ask them of yourself.

4. Stay positive. Your reputation starts now.

During your publishing journey, you might be tempted to lash out in public forums, especially when you’ve been rejected, when you’re frustrated. Don’t. It’s a big publishing world, but at the same time, not so big. If you’re spewing vitriol on Facebook or elsewhere about why the entire publishing universe is colluding against you, it won’t help. In fact, it may hurt. Just like authors are researching agents and editors, so are agents and editors researching you, if they’re considering signing you. Don’t let this be the reason you’re not signed.

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5. The act of writing is the best way to learn to write.

Seems obvious, but we can get off track. We read articles and books and take classes and so forth on how to be better writers—and this is good—but all of these must come second to actually writing.

As I mentioned before, I wrote four novels before I wrote HOVER. And all the while, I was learning, getting a little better at it each time. You learn by doing. There is no short cut. There is no substitute for the act of writing.

I work full time. I have kids. I get it. Finding time to write is difficult, but not impossible. Often, it’s a shifting of priorities. And, always, always, always carry a notebook with you or have access to an app like Evernote on your phone—something so you can write no matter where you are. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve cranked out scenes, hand written, in a physician’s waiting room, a parking lot, a locker room.

6. Get feedback.

You must do this. Ideally, it’s better if the critiques are not from friends and family, who might withhold needed constructive criticism, because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Try a writing group instead. Or your book club. Or a professional editor. Just someone else. Someone that is not you needs to lay their eyes on your work.

7. You make your money with the editing.

In the hands of a capable editor, your work will be elevated, one, two, three, four notches higher. Just be ready to spend a lot of time here.

And while we’re on the subject, I guess I’ll add this. Remember, everyone who is critiquing you, as you prepare your manuscript, is on your side. They’re helping you. Sometimes it might not feel that way, and often, it’s tough to hear the truth. But I always say, far better to hear it from an editor now, than a reviewer later!

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8. Beware too much backstory.

A common new-author mistake. Remember how I said I went back and peeked at novel number one? Actually, I did more than just peek. I read it again—all 161,000 words of it (yes, I know, but you have to give me some slack because it was epic fantasy). I realized—to my horror—that I had written 65,000 words of backstory. Yep, my magnificent epic fantasy novel should have started on page 283. I didn’t know it then, but I knew it five years and four novels later. Patience. Learning.

9. Read in genre.

My literary agent preaches reading 2,000 words in genre for every 2,000 words written. Like asking for feedback, like doing proper editing, you must do this. You learn by writing, but you also learn by reading. What are the “rules” for your genre? If you’re a romance author, you’d better know the rules, because they’re quite a bit different from the edicts for a work of women’s fiction.

And then, of course, you should begin to absorb these novels in a different way. Not as the casual reader, but with an author’s eye. How did that writer do that? Why did that scene work? Why did that other scene not work? What was it about that turn of phrase that caught my attention? Every time I read a book, it’s like going to school. Invaluable and necessary training.

10. Be a perpetual student of the craft

Read these books: (1) Stephen King’s On Writing, (2) Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, (3) James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure and also Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, and (4) Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas. There are more, but these will get you started.

And hear this now! You are never done with your writing education. There is always something to learn. You can always improve your writing. Becoming a published author does not mean you have it wired.

11. Never permanently delete your work.

Save everything. If you’ve ditched an idea or killed a chapter or whatever, save it somewhere. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] You’ll be surprised how many times you come back to it—maybe for another project years later—but it will be there.

In writing my second book under contract, I was 40K words in, when I realized I was writing the “wrong” book. So . . . I had to start over. But I saved everything, because I have scenes in there that I might be able to use for future works. And, I had 40K more words of writing practice under my belt, which is never a bad thing.

12. Educate yourself about the business side of publishing.

Craft is one thing, but authoring is a business, too. Read articles, take tutorials, register for webinars. I will sing the praises of Writer’s Digest forever on this one. They offer it all—information on how to get published, as well as offerings to help you with the craft of writing—so take advantage of this outstanding resource.

This is a long list, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for hanging in there. I’ll leave you with this. In those moments when you’re questioning your sanity, when you’re drowning in negative self-talk, please remember, you’re not alone. Every published author was once an unpublished author. And the not-so-secret secret to publishing a novel is this. Create a good story. Write it well. And put in the hard work, day after day, consistently, patiently.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

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27 thoughts on “12 Lessons Learned From a Debut Author

  1. luigikorrey

    Even better, write a series. Books linked together by some connecting theme (think of John Gray’s “Mars and Venus” books), or by some appealing character (think: Harry Potter, Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mitch Rapp, Mike Hammer, Scot Harvath, Sean Dillon, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Joe Pike, etc., etc.), will foster a virtual addiction in your fans, who will then eagerly await the publication date for every new installment in the series. Better yet, each new book released will attract new fans, prompting them to go back and buy all the prior books in the series. That’s how bestselling authors expand their audience over time, often geometrically.

  2. luigikorrey

    It’s interesting to suddenly read this having just come off some SEO sites (which I am v. bad at) because whilst they preach all sorts of SEO wizardry, they are not too good on the personal and emotional stuff.

  3. Pete L Abram

    Hi Anne -great piece. So true about not deleting your work. I still use old short stories, characters and scenes that I jotted down in the 90s. Just one point -it’s really really hard to find an editor one strikes a chord with. I’m living in China, teaching English writing, and am desperate for the feedback I enjoyed writing my first novel. I have my students and friends, but they’re not tough enough with me! Guess I’ll have to head up to Shanghai when I’ve got time. Or form a Writer’s group! Looking forward to reading your novel.

    1. wilsonanne

      Hi Pete, Thank you reading and for you comment. Maybe an online writing group? Have you looked into that? Perhaps you can start here: http://www.scribophile.com/. How wonderful that you live in China. I hope you’re keeping a journal of your experiences. Good stuff for your future works. Thanks in advance for reading HOVER. All the best to you!

  4. thethirdgeorge

    The writing muse can ding you at any age. Like you I’m a military academy graduate (The Citadel). I retired just before my 50th birthday, having only written business letters for 25 years. It took me the next 7 years to write a book about our plebe year. No agent would touch it because I was unknown. After over 150 rejections, I finally self-published last year on Amazon’s Kindle platform. The book went off like a bottle rocket and I lost count of the requests for signed hardbacks. So I had an independent printer print and ship me hundreds of copies where I signed and shipped them from our dining room table. I was out of stock in a few days. I’m working on a sequel now and I don’t know if I’ll self publish this time. It did very well without an agent but as well received as it was, I can’t help wondering how much further it would have gone if an agent had simply given me a shot.

    Keep writing, Ann. We need more such real life stories. I’ve a feeling that we are making a lasting impact in the literary world.

    1. wilsonanne

      Congratulations on your success! I certainly empathize with you on the rejections. It’s no fun, and honestly, I lost count. If you do decide to query literary agents again, certainly mention your sales numbers, as that would be indicative of your potential for a future work.

      I agree about the true-to-life stories. Yours sounds like a winner.

      All the best to you!

      1. thethirdgeorge

        By the way, just listened to your radio interview. Couldn’t help but be proud of you and for you. It wasn’t easy for women to break into the academies. The Citadel started accepting women only around 1996. But isn’t the goal to put the global fires out as quickly as possible? Doesn’t allowing women hasten the war’s end? After all the pioneer women didn’t sit home when their husbands aimed the wagons west. And Molly Pitcher … she picked up the cannon swab during the Revolution when her husband fell in battle. I’m proud of you and my sister graduates who wear the uniform.

  5. carlisdm

    Hi Anne,
    Excellent article and I must say I’m willing to follow all of them. But I have a little bit of trouble with “Read in Genre” You see, I’m working on my first New Adult Thriller novel, it involves cyber espionage and lots of action. However, my reading tastes are actually very wide. In enjoy reading horror, drama, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, etc. I also enjoy reading memoirs. But for some reason, when I come across with a book, similar to mine, a thriller that involves technology, science or espionage, I feel like not reading them, it doesn’t appeal me, don’t know why. The times I’ve tried a couple of them, I found them boring, like there was too much science explanation… However, I still believe that reading any other genre, it also improves my writing. From mysteries from example, I’m able to extract good lessons for pacing, the flow between scenes, etc. From romances, I’m able to extract very good character development. I believe I can get lots of good lessons from other genres. In spite of this, do you believe I should insist on reading more in the genre?

    1. wilsonanne

      This is SO great that you mention this, because I had originally included a very long discussion in this article on how important it is to read out of genre, too! For the purposes of this particular blog article, the explanation became far too lengthy, so instead, I focused on what you learn by reading in genre – the “rules” for your genre, so to speak.

      Having said that, I am a HUGE FAN of reading in various genres. Huge fan. I do it all the time and I learn from all of it. My book, HOVER, is a classic mix of genres and it has been exceedingly difficult to categorize for business purposes. It is women’s fiction, it is romance, it is thriller. So I read in all of those genres and others, too, for both enjoyment and edification.

      To answer your question, no, I would never insist that you have to read more in genre. Read what interests you. Read what you think will help you become a better writer. It’s interesting that you’ve found the thrillers you’ve read that deal with science and technology to be boring. It’s actually good that you’ve experienced this. It means you’re reading with an author’s eye. Why didn’t those books work? What would you have done differently? When you see what’s wrong, you’ll be sure not to include those mistakes in your own work.

      Best of luck to you with your writing. I think your subject matter is fascinating and would make for a great read!

  6. jannertfol

    Excellent list, Ms Wilson. Thanks for posting these useful tips. I especially like the one about getting feedback.

    I’d say a writer should get as much feedback as they possibly can from as many people who are willing to give it. Great feedback from only one person, no matter how skilled or impartial, is only one person’s view. I’ve had well over 30 beta readers for my complete novel, and they’ve all had something useful to say, and have caused me to improve things about my story. And not all of them say the same things.

    If somebody doesn’t like a portion of your book, you can delete the offending passages. This is the simple solution, but might not be the right one. You can also completely re-write major portions to alter or sharpen focus on that ‘bit’ as needed. Sometimes just a few tweaks of character or plot will do the trick. If you use multiple beta readers, however, you may find that some of the others actually like the portion the first beta hated. Taking only one person’s view is not necessarily the right way to go. The trick is to work it around so both sides ‘like’ what you’ve written.

    Never NEVER dismiss an opinion from somebody who has taken the time to read and critique. Always consider what they say and try to address their concerns. If they say a certain aspect of the plot confuses them, it’s not enough to page back to where you wrote the explanation and say ‘there it is.’ Obviously they missed the connection, so try to make that connection stronger. This kind of thing.

    Betas are so valuable. They are our first readers. The first of what we hope are many!

    1. wilsonanne

      Yes! You raise a valuable point about the necessity for getting feedback from multiple readers. I had 13 beta readers for HOVER, and like you mention, you have to balance the feedback from each. Love your comments. You are absolutely right on!

  7. Camille Di Maio

    So true, word for word! After six years of working on my debut novel, between building a business and homeschooling four children, I got an agent in December, and a publishing contract in May. My book about Eleanor Rigby will be published in May 2016. This was a journey that required patience, strength in the face of rejection, willingness to hear and act on critiques, and everything else that the author here outlines. Congratulations, Anne, on your success. I will look forward to reading your book.

    1. wilsonanne

      Hi Camille,
      Congratulations to you, too! And way to hang in there. I tell you, walking in to my book launch event just two days ago, I thought, whoa, this started six years ago. Surreal doesn’t begin to cover it. I know you will enjoy your May 2016 debut just as much! Thanks for reading and for the good wishes!

    1. wilsonanne

      Thank you. I’m glad this article helped you. It’s comforting to know that we’ve all been there. We’ve all been newbies. Thanks for reading!

  8. David Throop

    Thanks for writing this article. As a writer working for years to get better, it’s always motivating to hear from someone who’s climbed the mountain in front of me.

    When you discuss educate yourself on the business side of publishing, are there any specific tools or resources that you recommend?

  9. dymphna st james

    Dear Anne:

    Thank you for the encouraging words. I am in the first revision of my novel and hope to have it completely revised by the end of summer. Hover sounds like an original women’s fiction novel and I look forward to reading it. Thank you for your brave service in the Persian Gulf and good luck with all your future books.


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