What I Wish I’d Known

by Jennifer Hillier

I hemmed and hawed about writing this post, because I know this blog is designed to be read by debut authors, and the last thing I want to do is scare anybody who’s new to the profession. I don’t want to be that dude.

But there are things I wish I’d known seven years ago when I was writing my first novel and dreaming about my books being in bookstores. Because, you know, not only was I was going to be in bookstores, but I’d have my own standalone section right beside Stephen King’s. Who has, of course, blurbed all my books and declared me the greatest thriller writer of my generation, a sentiment enthusiastically echoed by all the major trade reviewers, the New York Times, and also Clint Eastwood, who’s signed on to produce, direct, and play the title character in my third book, The Butcher.

So, okay, none of that has happened. My books are in bookstores, but most of the time I find them spine out, filed alphabetically in the Fiction section under H. I have received rave reviews, but I’ve also received lousy ones. I’ve sold a lot of books and made some money, but not quite enough to pay off the car or take my family on that bucket list vacation to Italy. And nobody from Hollywood has called.

Which puts me in the same boat as 99.999% of published writers, because unless you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling, you, my fellow writer, are me.

I wish I had known, when I was starting out, how hard it would be to write a new book while reading reviews for the novel that was just released. The advice, “Always be working on the next book,” is spot on, but it’s easier said than done. If it’s a good review, you’ll feel like a superhero, but if it’s a bad review, it can kill your writing mojo for the work-in-progress. Your published book, even if it’s a fictional story, is a part of you. Once it’s out in the world, you can’t help but feel naked and exposed, and do any of us really want to know what other people think about how we look, naked? Does someone pointing out that I have jiggly thighs make me want to do more squats? No, it does not. It makes me want to camp out on the sofa and eat chocolate until I vomit.

I wish I had known how hard it would be to juggle writing with the business side of publishing. Had I released a book ten years ago, this might not have been an issue. But times have changed, and authors have to do most – if not all – of their own marketing and promotion, a lot of which happens via social media. I like Twitter, but I hate tweeting about my books. I like Facebook, but I hate posting yet another reminder that I have books for sale. It makes me feel like an infomercial. “Wonderland has dead bodies, a clown museum, and a detective who must find missing teenage boys… but wait, there’s more!”

I wish I had known how scary it would be to get the next book published. It’s a really big deal to sell your first novel, especially if you’re an unknown and have never published anything before. When my first book sold, I felt unrestrained joy. But then I found myself terrified I’d never be able to sell anything else. Which is why, when my second book sold, I almost collapsed with relief. And then the pressure set in, especially when my editor said, “We want it to be just like Creep. But, you know, different.” Huh?

And don’t even get me started on how difficult is it to write a book on a deadline. With my first novel, I took all the time I needed, because I was unagented and unpublished and nobody was expecting it. But every book since then has had a pretty tight timeline. When I asked for a few more weeks to finish Wonderland because I’d just had a baby, my publisher was very understanding, though they pointed out that if I didn’t get it in before a specified date, I’d crash the production cycle.

I wish I had known how important it was to be social with other writers. I’m a chatty person in most parts of my life, except for the writing part, where I tend to be quiet and insecure, wondering if I have anything to contribute. I learned – only in the past couple of years– how crucial it is to let other writers in. And I’m not talking about the online stuff. It’s important to have writerly conversations in person, to go to conferences and conventions, to meet the people whose books you’ve read and who’ve read your book, and talk about what’s awesome and what sucks and everything in between. These people are your tribe. They get how hard it is to get published and stay published, they get the terror, and they have your back. They’ll remind you why you wanted to write a book in the first place.

And why did you? It wasn’t for the money, because you’re smarter than that. It’s because you love to write. And that’s another thing I wish I’d known. Your love for writing will carry you through the stress of your book being out in the world, the disappointment of a bad review, the challenge to both write and sell at the same time, and the pressure and expectation of securing another book deal. The love is what gives you the mojo to write the next book, and the one after that, and the one after that, and makes it all worthwhile. You must always hold on to the love. It’s easy to tell when a writer’s lost their mojo – it shows in the work.

Don’t be that dude.

Jennifer Hillier writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of CREEP, FREAK, and THE BUTCHER. Her newest standalone thriller, WONDERLAND, is out now from Simon & Schuster/Pocket Star. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

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Comments

  1. Allan Emerson

    I could have written this post–it mirrors my experience and feelings precisely. Well…except for the part about having the baby. Great post, Jennifer!

  2. Jenny Milchman

    What a terrific, honest, from-the-heart and relevant post! Thank you, Jennifer. You are most definitely NOT that dude.

    PS: “Does someone pointing out that I have jiggly thighs make me want to do more squats? No, it does not. It makes me want to camp out on the sofa and eat chocolate until I vomit.” Ha ha ha. Me too.

  3. Donna Galanti

    Jennifer, this is SO SPOT ON and what I’ve been wrestling with this year and lost my love of writing in between some of it. If THAT goes, then there is nothing. So we must do whatever it takes to keep that love alive (like any love it requires work). We must take a break, do new things, read books, write outside our comfort zone, write refreshingly with prompts and journals and get with our writer peeps who GET IT. I have been yearning to get back to that place where I was anonymous and just had me and my pages, all alone at 4;30 in the morning when the world was asleep. And why did I get up then to be with my characters? For me.

    Do it for yourself, or not at all.

    Lose your mojo? You can get it back – if you want to be in love again badly enough.

    Thanks for the honest Jennifer! Hope to see you at Thriller Fest next year. 🙂 Wishing you success – and lots of time between deadlines.

  4. Helaine Mario

    with every paragraph, i was nodding my head. yes. yes. yes, yes, yes! (except for the baby part – now it would be a miracle birth…) i especially connect to your comment, ‘these people are your tribe.’ that’s what i have been missing… will look for you at thrillerfest. thank you, jennifer. helaine

  5. Guy L. Pace

    I did just publish my first, but I’m starting late in life. Still, I see many of the same things except the pressure for more. That may come later.

    Still, if you had known all that before, would it have changed anything? You probably would still write, would still seek publication and still go through it all, right?

    Fortunately, #2 is already done and we are “in edit.” The challenge is getting #3 done. Good post, though. Needed to be said.

  6. Jimmy Carter

    I was waiting for the part where there would be mention of something that you would have done differently. ..

  7. Sue Coletta

    So honest. So true. We’re never prepared and yet, somehow we still muddle through. It’s definitely the love factor. Congrats on Wonderland. I’ve heard that title before, so we must be in the same circles.

  8. Lorraine Devon Wilke

    An honest, candid piece, one, I have no doubt, that will resonate with a LOT of writers… certainly me! I can’t say knowing everything I know now would’ve changed anything I’ve done up until now, but damn if what I know now hasn’t been quite the eye-opener! As a self-published author with two novels that have been well-reviewed but not exactly sales chart burners, I find the marketing issue — that relentless, never-ending, rabidly demanding marketing issue — to be the element out of all this that most wears my soul to a nub. If I could afford to pay someone to do ALL of it, every bit of it, I would. Like you, the tweeting and Facebooking is cringe-inducing after a while and I look for any way to do just what you suggest — connect with real people — when opportunities and budgets allow. It’s juggling act, though, marketing and continuing to write, and every now and again — like right now — I have to step back and let it sit, to regroup, replenish, and remember that my love for telling stories is what powers the whole endeavor. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Cathi Stoler

    A great post Jennifer. So honest and true and something I can totally identify with. It doesn’t get any easier after that first
    book., especially the promotion. Ah well, I’m still waiting for Hollywood to call and Nathan Fillion to come knocking on my door.

  10. Tim Washburn

    Great post, Jennifer! Can I copy and paste? You’ve summed up my experience in a much tidier way than I could. How do you deal with the overwhelming desire to check your sales rank,or author rank on Amazon, or the numb er of reviews on Goodreads? I’m driving myself crazy and I know the best answer is DON’T LOOK. Yet I find myself peeking and the nausea boils my stomach, and my current work in progress suffers.

    My debut, Powerless, was released on 10/27/15.

  11. Kerry Alan Denney

    Excellent post, well said! I’ve lived the same drama, and am so thankful for my love of writing. I don’t write to become rich or famous (although that would be way rad); I write because I can’t NOT write. I found this post on Michelle Johnson’s Facebook page, and am glad I did. Tweeting it now! Happy writing to all my fellow authors.

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