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 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 historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, author of historical romance novels. 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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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.)

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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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