Saturday, October 31, 2009

Trudging Through The Snow Carrying Two Sacks of Groceries…

John Ramsey Miller

You know how “old” guys are always giving advice, usually unasked for and often as not unwanted. I find myself doing that these days. In the fifteen years since I began writing fiction, I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge, mostly by stumping my toe on obstacles that I didn’t know were in my path until I tripped over them. I wish I had known then what I know now. You get published and you learn this one way or the other, or you don't...

Here goes...

The first advice I would give soon-to-be, or newly published authors would be:

1) No matter how much your publisher loves your first book, they won’t tell you that they’d better love your second book even more, and then your third, and so on and so forth.

2) No matter how many critics love your first book or rave about how amazingly talented you are, don’t let it go to your head. Next week they’ll use pretty much the same words to describe another author. So, take a bow and go right back to work. More often that not, the worst thing that can happen to a new author is to have a first book really do well, or to get an award on their first book. Chasing an initial success is a lot harder for most people than building success one book at a time over time.

3) You are responsible for your career. Don’t depend on the publisher’s promotions department unless your book is looking like it will be a big seller. Publishers tend to put their promotion and advertising money where the return is most promising. This is true with most businesses, so don’t take it personally.

4) Don’t lose sight of the fact that your publisher is a corporation and as such is pretty much only interested in the bottom line. Corporations hate to lose money because their bankers and shareholders don’t like it.

5) Keep things in perspective. Remember that your book is one in thousands that are printed every year and every author is competing for the limited space in bookstores.

6) You are seldom as well known as you imagine you are. It becomes your job to reverse this by getting your name and the name of your book out there. Remember that memories are short and growing shorter all the time.

7) Listen to your editor and remember that he or she probably knows more than you do about the shape your book ought to be in and how you can best get it there. When you think you know more than your editor, you are more than likely wrong, or you should set about finding one you think knows more than you do. The first thing authors with bloated egos usually do is ignore their editor’s advice because they know their work and audience better than anybody. It’s possible, but unlikely. Maybe most editors can’t write a book, but they are usually in their position because they know when your piano is out of tune and how to get it in pitch.

8) Always assume an advance is all the money you’ll get from the publisher until you sell another book. And you should pay the taxman as you go.

9) Get to work on the next one immediately.

10) Don't take your positive or negative reviews too seriously, especially Amazon reviews. It's all very subjective, and negative people
, wing-nuts, and haters (especially failed writers) seem to love slapping published writers around. On balance, it's also a place where an author's family, friends and supporters post their applause.

Okay, authors, any advice for new authors you wish you'd had the benefit of, or paid attention to?


  1. Solid advice all down the line, John.

  2. Great advice, John. I would only add to never compare yourself and your writing to anyone else, or begrudge their success. Oh, and don’t get to excited or depressed over anonymous Amazon reviews.

  3. Can't find a thing wrong with your advice except that I didn't get it until I began learning all these things on my own. From one "old guy" to another, thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks, Joe. I actually intended to put your suggested advice in, so feeling like I had put out a car without wheels, I went back and added it. That's how much influence you have on me, and how right you always are.

  5. This is all good, hard-earned advice, John. One other point I'd add is to write every day. I'm reading a couple of how-to-write books by Dean Koontz and Stephen King, and what strikes me about both those writers is that they spend ~12 hours a day writing, with very few days off.

  6. I don't know if this is an addition or merely a corrollary, but I would add to always remember that this is the entertainment business (emphasis on the B-word). No one in the food chain is in love with YOU; they are in love with your BOOK. This is particularly true in the early stage of a writer's career, where the publishing landscape is littered with one-book wonders. The converse is true, as well: No one ever rejects YOU; they merely reject your BOOK.

    I would also add, never let Being A Writer get in the way of actually writing. Book tours, blog tours, Facebook, conferences, library talks, speeches, etc. are all great fun, and they help to keep your name out there even as they stroke your ego, but the book ain't gettin' wrote if you ain't writin' it. Time management, baby.

    Kathryn, I've read that 12-hour-a-day stuff, too, but I have to say I take issue with it. When I was writing full-time, I felt this bizarre need to be at the computer for an entire work day, even when the words were not flowing. I found that to be soul-sucking. Now that I've gone back to a day job, and the writing has to be engineered into my day, I actually enjoy the process more.

    Great post, John.

  7. Great post John! I also agree with Joe's point re:comparisons - very difficult not to do but important to try (otherwise writers would all go mad - well madder than they already are!)

  8. This is something of a footnote, although maybe it counts:

    Assume everything EVERYBODY tells you about marketing and promotion is bullshit. Then do it anyway, because nobody really knows what does and doesn't work or when or why. (And I suppose a corollary to that is: do as much of it as you can, as you can afford, or as you can stand).

  9. Excellent post, for its tone as much as for what ti says. Writers too often lament all the things you mentioned as if they're conspiracies operating to confound art/my book/literature as we know it. They revile the unfairness of it all.

    Life ain't fair. We can get with the program, or change the channel. You put that quite succinctly, without being harsh, which is no mean feat.

  10. If life were fair I'd have James Patterson's bank accounts.