Monday, April 23, 2012

Had I But Known...

With Liz’s publication day for The Cornish House only a month away, I’ve been thinking back to how I felt when I was in her shoes. (That’s me in the picture above, at the launch party for my second novel, Mariana, back in 1994).

I was—in addition to being Much Younger and Thinner then—much more naïve about writing and publishing, and looking back I can think of a lot of things I wish I’d known then.

So here are five things I wish someone had told me, when I first got published:

1. That getting published is only the beginning of the journey. When I was starting out, publication seemed like the finish line. Everything I did—querying agents, querying editors, learning the business—was aimed at achieving that one single goal, and I always thought that when I reached that goal I’d be able to say, “This is it! I’ve arrived.” But there wasn’t a finish line, as it turned out…just a turn in the track and a whole lot of distance to cover beyond that. I’ve been on that track almost twenty years now, and I still don’t feel like I’ve arrived. I still have to pitch, and I still get rejected, and boy, do I still have a lot left to learn.

2. That the first editor I worked with probably wouldn’t be my editor a few books down the line. I was in my twenties when I first got published. I dreamed of developing a Pascal Covici-John Steinbeck-like connection with my editor, and I’m sure many editors working today still aspire to that, too, but the reality of modern publishing is that editors don’t always get the final say in whether they continue to acquire your work. They also—being rarely paid enough for what they do—tend to get mobile in this business, move from house to house, change jobs, get sacked, get married and have children and leave publishing for other work. I’ve had three different editors in the UK, four in Canada, three in the USA, and four in Germany, and each of them has taught me something valuable and helped me to advance my craft. But being me, I tend to get attached, and find it difficult each time I have to lose one.

3. That I will always feel the same way in the middle of a book. It won’t get easier. I’ll always think it’s rubbish and I’ll always feel like stopping and just throwing it away, because it’s clear to me it’s never going to turn out half as good as I imagined it. I know now that I’m not the only writer who has ever felt this way (Hi, Julie!), and I’ve learned I just have to ignore the doubts and forge ahead and finish, but I wish someone had told me it would always be this way.

4. That, while some writers start out successful, for most of us this is a long game. It’s always been thus, though. Jack Higgins wrote 22 novels before he came out with The Eagle Has Landed, and Rosamunde Pilcher wrote at least that many over almost 40 years before she found bestselling status with The Shell Seekers. Learning a craft can take time. It’s a good thing to cultivate patience.

5. That the relationships I’d build with other writers would become one of the most wonderful, supportive, and sustaining forces in my life, helping me through crisis after crisis—and not only in my work, but in my life. We’re an odd bunch, writers, but no one can hold you up better than someone who’s been down themselves, and although I once had the impression, when I started out, that writing was a solitary job, that hasn’t been my own experience. In my writing-room, I’ve always had my characters to keep me company, and outside my writing-room, I have the friendship of writers like my fellow Heroine Addicts. A pretty good thing, in my view.

If you write, what are some of the things you wish you’d known, when you first got published?

(And be sure to come back Thursday, to find out what Julie's up to...)


  1. Loved this! As someone whose first book is due out this year, I need to hear every word. The voice in my head gets more conflicted by the day, at some moments joyful (My first book! Yay!) and other moments terrified (My first book! What was I thinking?!) Thank you so much for the post.

  2. Like Megan says...thank you. Just what I needed to hear at this point!

  3. A very interesting post, Susanna.

    As someone whose first book will be out later this year, I might have added to your list that I wish I'd been prepared for how different it would feel to be writing a book for which you have a deadline, compared with writing a book that has, as yet, to find a publishing home, and upon which you can spend an endless amount of time.

    Liz X

  4. Excellent, excellent advice. Thank you!

  5. I've been writing for 20 years, and paying attention to published writers and editors and agents for much of that time, so I have my eyes wide open (maybe I know a little too much!). I'm not yet published, but I'm contracted now for two books, so I'm REALLY paying attention now. Especially to posts like this one.

    I'm one of those Panic In The Middle writers too. Just edging my way through that stage with the WIP now. Your recent post on that went a long way toward settling my nerves. Just push through it. Which makes me wonder if it's like that stage in labor when a woman thinks there's no way in heck she can do this and she wants to chuck it all and run? Does that really happen? I read it in novels all the time.:)

    And since I've been at this for twenty years too I've already figured out that this rough middle stage is just part of my process.

  6. Great post, Susanna, and all so true! Love that photo of you too!

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    And Liz, yes, the difference when writing to deadline is marked. If I didn't mention it, it's because I actually wrote Mariana to a deadline so I could enter the Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize contest on time, so I had some experience with that feeling early on.

    And Christina, yes, I've always liked that photo. I wish I could still fit into that dress! *sigh*

  8. This is lovely, Susannah. I've taken careful notes...