I spent the majority of my 20s doing what I think a lot of young professionals do: I woke up early, went to work every morning, and dutifully put in nine hours at my cubicle—then, every evening, I came home, cooked dinner, and tried to relax while facing a crushing sense of dread at the thought of doing that again, every single day, for the rest of my life.
Alright, that feels dramatic—but it’s how I felt, and I’m willing to bet that’s how some of you feel, too. I tried to find meaning in my work by switching industries (several times), investing in professional development, and writing freelance for various magazines, but at the end of the day, I was never satisfied, and I knew why. It was because I knew what I wanted to be doing with my life and I hadn’t yet figured out how to do it.
I wanted to be an author.
I’ve been obsessed with writing ever since I was six years old. I grew up writing short stories and screenplays and started trying to write my first novel at age 22, immediately after I graduated college. I’ll never forget typing out that very first sentence, feeling nervous and excited about taking one step closer to my dream—but for some reason, I kept that dream a secret from pretty much everyone in my life. I think it’s because it felt too unattainable and too embarrassing, and I didn’t want to admit to wanting something that I might never actually get. But at the same time, I felt like I owed it to myself to try.
So, unbeknownst to most of my family, friends, and coworkers, I spent seven years of my life cranking out draft after draft after draft, pitching agents, getting rejected, and trying to break into an industry that is notoriously tough to break into. I was stumbling most of the time, trying to figure it all out as I went. I failed significantly more than I succeeded and I thought about quitting multiple times, but I never did.
Today, almost a decade after I wrote that first sentence, my debut novel A Flicker in the Dark is an instant New York Times bestseller. It’s been out for a little over one month now and has been optioned by Emma Stone and A24 to be made into a television series on HBO Max. It was chosen as a December Book of the Month Club pick and is currently being translated into 26 foreign languages.
These are all sentences I never thought I would write.
If you have a similar dream, I’d like to share how I did it because I know first hand how daunting it can be and how unattainable it can feel. Below, I’ve compiled the book publishing tips that helped my dream come true in the hopes that, one day, yours can, too.
Signing with your agent is a surreal and exciting experience. Little did I know that exactly two years from this moment, I would be seeing my debut novel on the shelves for the very first time. All photos courtesy of Stacy Willingham
Set a firm deadline
Maybe it’s the former journalist in me, but I am deadline driven. When I was 22 years old, I told myself that I would do whatever it took to have a book published by the age of 30. At the time, eight years felt like a lifetime, but now that I’m 31, I realize it went by fast! There’s something about the passage of time that makes life feel very urgent to me, so whether your deadlines are daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly, make sure you’re committing to accomplish a specific thing by a specific date—otherwise, it becomes incredibly easy to put it off.
PS: I hit that deadline, but damn, it was close. I sold A Flicker in the Dark at age 29 and it was published two weeks before my 31st birthday.
Show yourself the same dedication you show your boss
If I could give every aspiring author one piece of advice, it would be this: Prioritize and protect your dreams with the same vigor that you prioritize and protect the dreams of your boss. You show up for work every morning, don’t you? You get your work done by your due dates, right? I bet you also stay late sometimes, work weekends, and begrudgingly do tasks that feel monotonous and miserable.
You do those things at work because you have to—there are consequences, like getting fired, if you don’t. And while it can be really hard to find the time to write a novel while still working a full-time job, going to school, maintaining a social life, and doing all of the other things that life requires us to do, try to think of the consequences if you don’t do it.
For me, it was the thought of spending the rest of my life helping someone else achieve their dreams because I never made the time for my own.
First pass pages are the first typeset draft of your book—or, the very first time you’re reading it not as a Word doc, but as it’ll actually look once it’s published! In this stage, the book has already been edited and proofread; now, you’re simply looking out for errors before it’s sent to the printer.
Now, “making the time” looks different for everybody. Some writers set a weekly word goal and force themselves to meet it; others allot one hour a day every day to write as much as they can. For me, personally, I tried all of those tricks and none of them ever worked. What did work, though, was giving myself the flexibility to write when I could as often as I could and simply trusting myself to get it done the same way my boss trusted me at work—after all, I never liked a micromanager, so I didn’t micromanage myself. Instead, for about seven years, my life looked like this: On most mornings, I spent about an hour writing before work, and if I was running late, I would bring my laptop with me and write during my lunch break instead. A few nights a week, I would write for several hours after dinner until pretty late into the evening, and I spent at least one Saturday or Sunday each weekend in a coffee shop.
It wasn’t always fun and I missed out on a lot, but then again, I figured that if I made those kinds of sacrifices for my boss, I should be making them for myself, too.
Learn everything you can about publishing before trying to enter it
There are so many different avenues to getting published: You can self-publish, go hybrid, work with a small press, publish digital-only, or go traditional. For me, I wanted to try to go traditional, which means I knew that in order to get in front of one of the Big Five publishing houses, I was going to need an agent.
Literary agents are like the gatekeepers to traditional publishing: They read your book first, and if they love it enough, they’ll represent you, and it, for a commission. You catch their attention with a query letter, which is a basic synopsis of your book that is ideally personalized to each agent and will pique their interest enough to want to read more.
Before a book looks like a book, it looks something like this. This is an ARC (advance reader copy) that was printed before the cover was finalized; there is also a later version of the ARC with the cover design. An ARC is a mostly-finished manuscript that is sent to bloggers, reviewers and other influential readers to generate buzz leading up to publication.
First impressions are everything in life, and introducing yourself to an agent is no exception. You only have a few sentences to catch their attention, so once I finished my manuscript, I made a list of every single literary agency in New York City. Then, I went to every single website, chose one agent per agency, and entered them into a spreadsheet with their name, email address, and query guidelines. I chose each agent by reading their Publishers Marketplace profile and Twitter profile to see who they already represented, what genres they liked, and what they were looking for. I also read the Acknowledgements pages of some of my favorite authors to see who their agents were, knowing that my plot and writing style might be similar.
At this stage in the process, the biggest mistake you can make is querying too soon. Take your time learning about the industry and how it works. Be strategic when targeting agents and really perfect your query letter and synopsis before you send it out.
Your perfect agent is out there—but you only have one chance to convince them of that. Don’t rush it.
About a month before publication, you get to see your hardback for the very first time. It’s an emotion that’s hard to describe, and in many ways, it feels like the long-awaited reward after years of hard work.
Learn not to take rejection personally
Remember when I said that I thought about quitting multiple times? That’s because when I hit the querying stage, I almost did.
I spent three years writing my first novel, squeaking out sentences and full chapters whenever I could find the time. Once I had a manuscript that I was proud of, I spent another two years meticulously selecting agents, perfecting my query letter, and sending them out—only to get rejected by over 100 of them.
I never found an agent for my first novel, which means that A Flicker in the Dark, while it is my debut, is technically my second book.
The idea of starting over from scratch—of literally filing away an entire novel, opening a blank Word document, and writing another 100,000-word manuscript from the beginning—kind of made me want to burst into tears. But at the same time, this is where the importance of deadlines comes in again: At that point, I was 27 years old. Thirty felt like it was looming, so I knew that if I had any shot of meeting that deadline, I needed to just buckle up and try again.
In the beginning, those 100 rejections hurt like hell, and the idea of putting myself through that again was incredibly daunting, but here’s the thing: After a while, the rejections kind of lose their bite. A writer’s worst nightmare is pouring their heart and soul into a story, sharing it with others, and having them not like it—and that happened to me over and over again, day after day, for two entire years. By the time I decided to abandon my first book and start another one, I had already lived my worst nightmare—being rejected—and I realized that it hadn’t killed me.
A few weeks before publication, boxes of books start arriving at your door. These books were all signed and sent to bookstores around the country so they would be ready to be displayed on publication day.
I still loved to write. I still felt creative. I still wanted to try.
I signed with my current agent less than two weeks after finishing A Flicker in the Dark, a stark contrast to my first attempt. But while I was celebrating the idea of not having to face another agent rejection again, what I didn’t realize is this: The rejection never stops.
Now that A Flicker in the Dark is out in the world, I’ve experienced a whole different type of rejection. It isn’t gone just because I’m published; if anything, it feels louder and more personal than ever. Before, “a rejection” meant getting a polite email from an agent saying “thanks but no thanks,” which I could simply file away in my inbox and never look at again. But now, “a rejection” comes in the form of a very public one-star rating from a reader with 10,000 followers. It comes in the form of a less-than-flattering Instagram post with hundreds of likes that magically appears in my newsfeed (thanks, algorithm). My point is: Even after “succeeding,” I still get rejected by people multiple times a day every day, over and over again, so I’m actually glad I got those 100 rejections before because now I feel prepared. Now, I’m able to look at these rejections with more of a clear head. I’m able to let the positive reviews and enriching conversations drown out the negative ones, and in the end, I remind myself that everything in life is subjective, so it’s a waste of time trying to please everyone.
You will experience a lot of rejection on this journey, and if you’re anything like me, it might tempt you to quit. But please, please remember: One person’s opinion cannot invalidate an entire work of art. It’s a battle you’ll be fighting daily and one that still knocks me down sometimes—but as long as you get back up, you’ll be stronger for it.
While all of this is happening, you’re also working on your next book! About five months before publication, I sent the first draft of my second book over to my editor. It’s now in production and slated for publication in January 2023.
Ask for (and accept) help.
In the beginning, writing a book feels like you’re doing it alone—and for a while, you are. But slowly, you’re going to need to start getting comfortable asking for and accepting some help.
At first, asking for help looks like letting a few people you trust read and critique your story—for me, that was my sister and my parents (who still to this day are the only people I let read my first drafts). Once you’re agented, asking for help means listening to and taking their professional advice. The same goes for your eventual editor, marketing team, publicity team, copy editors, proofreaders, and so on.
You’re the expert on your story, but remember that they are the experts on the industry in which you now work. The first few years are a solo sport; once you’re in, you’re a part of a team.
5 Signs It’s Time for a New Job in 2022 More