Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Anniversaries and Milestones and Lessons Learned Along the Way

Today is the sixth anniversary of the first time I ever wrote THE END. I finished my first book, Treading Water, on May 18, 2005 with great fanfare and celebration. My family took me out to dinner, there were flowers from the hubby and excitement from my dad, who'd been after me to "write that book" for years at that point. Sadly, my mother, who had died nearly two years earlier, wasn't there to join in the fun, but I believed then—and I continue to believe today—that she's had a hand in all the wonderful things that have happened in the last six years. After all, she was the one who put a book in my hand every night before bed and said, "Read." And I read and read and read some more. Reading has always been my no. 1 hobby. Over 10 years as a Navy wife, my favorite books got moved more times than I could count, but parting with them was never an option. Nineteen years of marriage later, I still have them. One of my prized possessions is a first-edition copy of Love Story, which is one of those books you wish you could read again for the first time.

Since I loved to read and writing was the only thing I've ever been any good at, I suppose writing fiction was my destiny. Last week, I finished my 18th novel, and I'm happy to report it's still fun, although no. 18 was greeted with considerably less fanfare than no. 1 received. I believe it went something like this: "Congrats, Mom. That's awesome. What's for dinner?" :-)

I thought it would be fun today to recount a few of the lessons I've learned in the last six years.

Lesson No. 1: Nothing Ever Goes as Planned
When I finished Treading Water (still, in my humble opinion, the best book I've ever written), I was surprised to discover the romance fiction world had been invaded by vampires. They were everywhere in 2005-2006. Contemporary romance was a dying genre, and few agents or editors were taking on new contemporary authors. When I realized there was literally no market for my lovely book, I did what I was told not to do: I wrote two sequels. Those three books are still my favorites, and they are the ones my core group of readers still talk about all these years later. After six years and five published books (with three more coming soon), guess what? Treading Water is out on submission to publishers. Contemporary is making a big comeback. I've had a bit of success with my earlier books, and my ebooks have really taken off. The time is right for my most-loved book to have its moment. Whether or not it will sell is anyone's guess, but I remain optimistic. I have no doubt that my readers would go crazy over those three books, so keep your fingers crossed that an editor will, too. Getting back to the nothing goes as planned heading: I kept writing, and my seventh book became my debut, Line of Scrimmage. Go figure! (If you haven't read the story behind Treading Water and The House That Jack Built, check it out.)

Lesson No. 2: Writing May Be a Solitary Endeavor, But It Doesn't Have to be Lonely
I have made some of the best friends of my life within in the romance community (writers and readers), and they've made this perilous journey so much more fun and bearable than it would've been otherwise. I won't name names here, but you know who you are, and you know what you've done to prop me up, so I will just say thank you.

Lesson No. 3: The Publishing Business is a Marathon Not a Sprint
People ask me all the time what the secret is to getting published—and staying published. I give the same answer every time: you have to want it with every fiber of your being. Just like people who run marathons or climb mountains, an inner drive fuels writers to keep showing up every day, to keep putting butt in seat and fingers on keyboard when it would be so much easier to just say ENOUGH already. You can't ever give up. Years ago, when nothing was going the way I'd thought it would (see Lesson No. 1), I kept telling myself the only thing I knew for SURE was if I gave up it would never happen. It's as true today as it was six years ago.

Lesson No. 4: Don't be Afraid to Take Chances
I wanted to write this series, you see, featuring a DC cop and a U.S. Senator in every book. I wanted it to be a romance series with mystery and politics and an enduring love affair between two complex characters. I was told it couldn't be done. I was told that romance demands a new couple in the second and subsequent books. I was told to write it to formula. I didn't do what I was told, and my Fatal Series is the result. I could've given in and done it the way "they" wanted it done, but I wouldn't love writing that series quite as much if I hadn't done it my way. I was also told you shouldn't write the second book in a series before the first one sells. Twice now I have benefitted GREATLY from not listening to that advice. Write whatever is calling to you, and don't listen to people who tell you "it's just not done." Maybe it just hasn't been done YET. For five and a half of my first six years in publishing, self-publishing was a taboo. And then, seemingly overnight, it wasn't. I gave it a whirl, and it's been the BEST thing to ever happen to my career. Take chances. Sure, you might fail, but wow, if you succeed, it's so much sweeter because you took a risk. Those other books I wrote along the way? I worked on them constantly for years. Any time I learned something new or identified a bad habit, I went back and applied it to my earlier books. One of my favorite quotes is luck is the convergence of preparation and opportunity. When this new opportunity arose to deliver my books to readers, I was READY, and the response to those books has made me feel VERY lucky indeed.

Lesson No. 5: Trust Your Gut
If you sense that someone is feeding you a line of bull, they probably are. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. If a relationship you've worked years to attain with an agent, an editor, a critique partner or anyone else affiliated with the business isn't working, don't be afraid to speak up. You are your own best advocate, and it's true what they say that no one will ever love your book as much as you do. A writer friend of mine told me the other day that she loves how much I love my books. Well, hell yes, I love them. If I didn't love them you'd certainly never get to read them. I love all 18 of them. Some more than others for sure. I didn't always love the process of creating them, but I love the end result or they'd be under the bed where no one could ever see them. None of my books are under the bed, and I hope you'll get a chance to read them all someday.

Lesson No. 6: Listen to and Respect Your Readers
One of the things I've come to realize is that in the publishing pecking order, readers tend to fall pretty far down on the list. In MY world, they are no. 1. Everything I do is for my readers. Every ounce of work I put into a book is for one reason: because I will be asking my hard-earned readers to part with their hard-earned money, and I want them to come away entertained and moved in some way or another. Sometimes they leave happy. Other times they are mad with me (I love that just as much) and sometimes they've fallen a little bit in love with one of my characters (Nick Cappuano anyone?) If readers finish one of my books thinking and feeling SOMETHING, ANYTHING, then I've done my job. I have kept all of the emails I've received from satisfied readers, and I treasure every one of them. I know what my readers want from me because I talk to them often, via email, Facebook and Twitter, and I am listening.

Lesson No. 7: Protect the Work
Writing and storytelling are the most important parts of my "job." They come first and foremost, ahead of promotion, attending conferences, networking with other writers and fooling around online. Without words on the page, there's nothing to promote or sell or read. Protecting the work sometimes means living like a hobbit, saying no to social events that sound fun and forgoing the glass of wine that would make me so sleepy nothing else gets done that day. Protect the work. It's everything. But it's also important to know when it's just not happening on a given day and not trying to force it. That, too, protects the work.

Lesson No. 8: Keep Your Priorities Straight
I've had a great run as a writer. I've been blessed beyond my wildest dreams with so many wonderful moments along the way. But writing is not my full-time job. I have one of those, and it gets all my attention every day before I write a word because it, too, has been one of the great blessings in my life. And before either of my two "jobs" come my two children, who are the most important people in my life. They are tied for No. 1 (and no, I do not have a favorite, contrary to what they might say), and they always come first. All I really care about is seeing them to successful adulthood (and hopefully getting a few grandchildren if they are feeling kind toward their mother). Anything else that might come my way via my books is frosting on an already very nice cake. My husband and kids have been my top supporters, my greatest champions and biggest fans. They come first. Period.

Lesson No. 9: I'm Doing Exactly What I Was Meant to Do
To everyone who has read my books, to friends and family who have encouraged and supported me over the last six years, to the first editor who said yes, to the publisher who took a chance on an unconventional romance series to the wonderful agent who has stuck with me through thick and thin, thank you. Because of you—all of you—I'm doing exactly what I was meant to do, and I'm loving every minute of it.