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 at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Mark Mustian. 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 "extraordinary and unforgettable" by Bookpage.
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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.)

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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.


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