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Lessons from 17 Hard Years of “Easy” Success
Happy Anniversary To Me
Five years ago I wrote “Lessons from 12 Hard Years of “Easy” Success” for the writers site Career Authors.
I realized that today is December 27, 2022 and I’ve been published for 17 years … this revelation shocked me. I still feel like a new author sometimes … even though my 43rd book comes out in January (with #44 in April and #45 in August …)
I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way will help aspiring or published authors, so I took my Career Authors essay and updated it. Maybe you’ll find something to help in your own writer’s journey!
Ballantine Books released THE PREY into the world at the end of 2005, and on January 24, 2023, MIRA is releasing DON’T OPEN THE DOOR, my 43rd full-length novel. This doesn’t include over 30 short stories, novellas, and short books that I’ve published for charity, independently, or in anthologies.
Since I first wrote a version of this article for Career Authors five years ago, I’ve published 11 books, 3 novellas, and 3 short stories. I remember thinking before THE PREY came out that I might never have a new idea … but then an idea came. And another. And another. But with each new idea I wonder if it’s good enough, strong enough, interesting enough for not only me, but my readers. As an author, I’m always striving to write my current book better than the last.
Sometimes, the pressure is motivating. Sometimes, it’s debilitating. (As an aside, I wrote an article years ago, recently updated, about what happens when the doubt demons land on your shoulder.)
When I was first published, I hit the NYT extended list (back when they tracked “extended” bestsellers.) My 4th book hit the print list. I remember hearing fellow writers—some published, some aspiring—whisper behind my back (where I could actually hear) or tell my friends that my success came too “easy” for me. That I hadn’t “earned my dues.” I’ll admit, this disturbed me on many levels. I’ve always been a relatively happy extrovert, but knowing that people I had once liked and respected had insulted me without really knowing me or my journey, sent me on the cusp of introversion. To this day, I don’t enjoy conferences like I once did, preferring to go to my panels, give my speeches, chat briefly in the bar, and then disappear into the calm, non-judgmental quiet of my hotel room.
It was also through these experiences during my early years that I recognized that good writing friends—those who support you instead of tear you down—are few and far between. Hold them close, because you need them now and you will need them later.
An excuse not to try again
The truth is, nothing worth having comes easy. My journey has been long, a wild ride with many ups and downs.
While I would never want to do anything else, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
The thing is, I don’t like to complain about my career or what I have or have not. I don’t cast blame on anyone for any struggles I’ve faced, because blame is unproductive and gives an individual an excuse not to try again. I tend to give people credit—sometimes too much credit—for my success because it’s easier to credit others than accept that maybe I’m a pretty good storyteller.
You don’t find time to write – you make time
I would never want to do anything else but write. I was born to be a writer. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. It took awhile to get here … mostly because I thought I had to do something “else” before I could write books. I got married, had 5 kids, enjoyed (mostly) a 13-year career as a consultant in the California State Legislature, but through it all I also wrote.
Most people who know me know my publication story, but sometimes it bears repeating because it wasn’t the “easy” journey my early critics claimed.
I wrote five books in two years while working full-time and raising five kids. How? I gave up television and wrote every night after the kids went to bed, from 9-midnight, seven days a week. I started in March of 2002 shortly after I went back to work after a 4-month maternity leave with my son Luke (who’s now 21 and a senior at Texas Tech!) I didn’t want to go back to work, and I was frustrated with my career, my life, and that I wasn’t writing. I’d turned 30 in 1999 and felt I was just living one day at a time and not really enjoying my life, which had become routine.
Writing during these years wasn’t easy. I love television. My husband was frustrated because I didn’t spend as much time with him. I was tired a lot because I sacrificed sleep to write. But in March of 2004 I sold THE PREY in a three-book deal three weeks after landing an agent. It took nearly two years before THE PREY hit the shelves, but that gave me enough time to write two more books while working full-time and being a wife and mom (plus, I had two more kids — one in 2003, one in 2004.)
That was then
THE PREY came out first in a back-to-back-to-back trilogy that landed on the NYT extended list. I’d already quit my job in a huge leap of faith that I would receive another contract, but it wasn’t until after the books came out and I was offered a second contract that I could breathe easier about my decision. The last thing I had wanted to do was crawl back to my former boss begging for my old job back.
That was then, this is now. The industry has changed upside down and inside out, but I am still doing what I love. (This line is even more true now than five years ago when I first wrote it!)
I’ve made some mistakes along the way, but today is not a day to dwell on missteps or detours. Just know that every writer’s journey is filled with pitfalls, and those pitfalls they may not share publicly. Why? Because they feel inadequate, they don’t want failures and missteps to shape their future — or maybe they just don’t like complaining. My career has nearly tanked twice over these 17 years … but because writing is my true love, I am always willing to do what it takes to become a stronger, better storyteller. I will always strive to write better books, and remain proud of those I’ve already published—even as I grow and change as a writer.
I feel blessed to be able to do what I love. I sometimes feel guilty that I love what I do, but just because I love writing doesn’t mean it’s easy. When you love your job you’re willing to work hard, and maybe you don’t think it’s as hard as it actually it is. Here are four lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. It doesn’t get any easier
I was in the middle of writing KILLING FEAR, my 7th book, at the time my friend and mentor Mariah Stewart had her 20th book come out. I emailed her and said something like, “Congratulations on your 20th book! I can’t wait until I get to the point where it gets easier, I’m so stressed over this book I’m writing.” She called me almost immediately and said something like, “Honey, it never gets easier. Some books will be easier to write than others, but you will always want to make your next book better than your last.”
THE PREY is a good book, but I’ve become a better writer and a better storyteller over the last seventeen years. I never want to think, “This is the best I can do” or “This is good enough.”
I don’t want to be “good enough.” I want to continue to write the best book I can write the moment I write it.
I want to keep getting better and growing as a human being and a writer.
2. Write what you love
I firmly believe that you need to write what you love, because once you gain a readership, they’ll expect more from you very much like what you first wrote. If you don’t love the genre, it’ll show. At the same time, sometimes what we love when we change the course of the ship isn’t what our readers will love. I loved my Seven Deadly Sins series. They flopped commercially. Some of my readers love them as much as I do, but writing those books nearly killed my career. I’d like to say I don’t regret it … but in some ways I do. This was a major hiccup in my career that took me awhile to recover from. Yet … at the same time … I’m glad I wrote the books. They were good stories and I loved writing something completely different. Writing something different rekindled my love of writing after penning 12 romantic thrillers and feeling bored with the genre. It’s because I took this detour that I regained something I’d lost — the joy of storytelling.
The other importance of loving what you write is that this business has ups and downs.
If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll never get through the down times.
You’ll become discouraged, you’ll hate your job, you’ll grow cynical and depressed. Then you’ll stop writing. If you love writing, that love will keep you going through the rough patches. Your passion for your genre, for your story and characters, will show in your work. That love of storytelling will help get you through points in your writing where you think everything is crap or the words won’t come or you don’t know what to write next. If you love it, you’ll work through the doubts and fears.
3. Every career is unique
Professional jealousy exists and it can be an insidious monster that destroys friendships and creates enemies, despair and frustration. Love what you do and work to make your career the best for you. Don’t assume that someone had an “easier” time or they wrote “easier” books or that they didn’t “pay their dues.” You don’t know what went into building their career, the sacrifices they made or the time they put into writing before they became an “overnight” success. There are no overnight successes. First books may sell big, but how long did it take to craft that first book? How many failed books came before? Be happy for the success of fellow authors and commiserate when the road becomes bumpy. It can happen to anyone at anytime.
You are on your own journey. Your journey may intersect with others. There are infinite paths to travel. If you don’t like your path, it’s no one’s fault. Find another and don’t cast blame. Casting blame, even justifiably on your former publisher or agent or a retailer, can turn you into a cynical, angry person. Shit happens. It sucks. Move on and find a way to get over the hurdle, or quit. Every writer has their own path. It is not better or worse than yours. You may have some opinions about other careers, and you may be right, but every writer needs to make decisions for their own career — and their own lives — themselves. And honestly? You don’t know what their individual situation is or the reasons that they made specific decisions. Focus on your own career.
Related to this is the “could have beens.” We all have things we wish we had done. Don’t. Don’t live your life in regrets. Move on. Life is too short to live in regret, be filled with envy, or cast blame on others.
Accept your faults, work to improve the things you can improve, and stay on course.
4. Savor the journey
This advice can be hard to live by. Sometimes, when you face a difficult obstacle in your life or your career, you don’t see the good in anything. But truly, if you accept the first three points — that it doesn’t get any easier, that you love what you do, that you recognize that you and your career are unique — then you can enjoy your journey. There is no end. Being a career author means that you:
write every day (or nearly every day);
write at least one book a year, but usually more (especially if you’re a genre author);
fulfill one contract and sign another.
The journey is the writing, the discovery, the truth in fiction, the hope and satisfaction that each story brings to you–the author–and hopefully to your readers.
Celebrate every success, even small successes. Every time you get a box of books, open the box and breathe deeply. I cried in joy and excitement and fear when I received my first box of books — THE PREY. It was overwhelming. I don’t jump around and dance anymore, but I still get that surge in my heart when I receive a physical copy of my next book. I still get that stomach flip when I see my book on the shelves at a store. I still type THE END when I finish my first draft because writing a book is an accomplishment, whether it’s #1 or #50.
Celebrate the small things. Finishing a book. A good review. A kind reader whose email reminds you that you’ve connected with another human being. The small joys will sustain you on the journey, because the journey doesn’t end. You don’t tell yourself, “I’m going to write five books then quit.” Or, “I’m going to write one Great American Novel and retire and live off royalties for the rest of my life.” There is a difference between dreams and goals. It’s my dream to hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list … or #1 on any list … and it may happen, but it’s not the destination. It’s not a goal.
Goals are things you can attain through your own actions. My goal is to write each book as well or better than the last book.
I can achieve that, because it’s totally dependent on me. Dreams are wishes and out of your control, but as Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if you chase perfection you can catch excellence.”
There is no final destination in publishing. For me, it’s all about the journey. And after seventeen years of publication and (almost) 45 books, my greatest wish is that I have at least seventeen more years with 45 more books and still savor and celebrate the joy of storytelling.
What about you? What is an attainable goal you have recently achieved or are striving to accomplish? Is anything stopping you from doing it?
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