The best thing about writing fiction is that moment where the story catches fire and comes to life on the page, and suddenly it all makes sense and you know what its about and why you're doing it and what these people are saying and doing, and you get to feel like both the creator and the audience. Everything is suddenly both obvious and surprising... and it's magic and wonderful and strange.
Neil Gaiman's poignant words describing the writing life could easily have been used to describe the unpredictable journey of the debut novelist. It's both obvious and surprising. It's magic and wonderful and strange. The current crop of women now traveling this well-worn path wrote some of the most talked-about books this summer. What does it feel like to be poised at the starting gate, waiting for it all to begin? What kind of mental preparation and determination brought them to this point? What do they have in common and what sets them apart? I interviewed nine breakout debut authors with books being published this summer about the journey they are on, the advice they were given, the unexpected steps along the way and the words of wisdom they can now impart on those who will follow in their footsteps.
Karen Thompson Walker, author of the explosive hit The Age of Miracles has already seen her debut novel affixed with starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. She's been recommended on the pages of Oprah and People and has received endorsements from some of the biggest names in publishing. Walker knows a thing or two about the journey to publication, having worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. "I wrote almost the whole book while working full time as a book editor. I didn't have much free time, but I tried to write for about an hour each day, in the mornings before work. Sometimes I brought my laptop on the train so that I could keep writing. It felt like a slow process, and I definitely missed some days, but after about three years, I finally finished a draft." Walker's education in publishing began well before her first official job in publishing, "In graduate school, I studied with the wonderful Sam Lipsyte, who recommended that we always try to think of our writing careers and our publishing careers as two completely separate things. For me, that has proven to be equally helpful in good times and in bad. I try to keep the writing part, and not the publishing part, at the center of my life." When asked what advice she would give aspiring authors, Walker said, "Be patient and keep your mind focused on the writing. In terms of getting published, know that there is not just one single path."
Kim Fay, another debut author with previous experience in the publishing industry was surprised by her initial interaction with her own editor. "Having worked as an editor myself for many years, I'd gotten used to the impersonal nature of the 21st-century editor-writer relationship. I worked with people I'd never spoken to, and we often exchanged our edits and revisions through track changes. So when my first set of edits for The Map of Lost Memories arrived by Fed Ex in a manila envelope at my apartment, I was thrilled. There they were: penciled notes in my editor's own hand. There was even a coffee stain on one of the pages! I was not part of a big uncaring publishing machine, as many other writers had warned me I would be. Instead, I was part of a personal correspondence about my novel, as well as a conversation that included many memorable phone calls, during which my editor and I talked about my novel's characters as if they were old friends while we developed the book's crucial scenes."
Anna Keesey, author of Little Century, found that the most helpful advice she had been given to prepare for publication involved finding an agent. "You should choose an agent you can talk with frankly, someone you can be yourself with and not be intimidated by, and someone who is personally energized and delighted by your work. Someone who likes you and will call you back. Your agent is your guide, your shepherd, and your champion in a world you don't know, usually. Get someone who can look after the machinery of publication for you, so that you get to be just a writer." Besides the business end of things, Keesey also advises authors to spend time on their craft. "Apprentice yourself to good teachers, read good books, and write a lot. Tell the truth as you see and feel it. The other stuff -- the many rings of the literary and publishing circus -- are navigable if you've done good work. Maybe that's too optimistic, because the literary world is in a precarious state nowadays, but I think the work is the only thing the writer can control."
When Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. turned her attention from magazine writing to fiction writing, she tried to make the transition too quickly. "My big rookie error was in querying immediately after I finished the first draft. My mental timeline was still that of a freelancer: finish, publish, paycheck. I wasn't used to improving something slowly and tortuously with no one in the world even waiting for it. We'd just moved to Boston and I was expecting my fourth child, and eager to cross "Get Agent" off my to-do list. There were some requests for partials and fulls, all leading to rejections in the end. So I threw myself into revisions. I developed a writing community. I revised for a year and a half."
All of these steps along the way ended up feeling natural and necessary and eventually led to a final product that Bernier was passionate about. "When I felt ready to query again I received three offers of representation, for which I was endlessly appreciative, and I felt a strong connection to agent Julie Barer. Julie worked with me for a year, urging me to streamline my story and weave more closely the timelines of my two main characters. After she sold it to Crown, the trajectory of the process suddenly made sense, all the necessary steps and hard work."
Now that she has made the transition from magazine writer to fiction writer, Bernier offers invaluable advice to writers who find themselves in the same situation. "You have to make your writing the absolute best it can be, and find folks who will help you get it there. Find a handful of like-minded writers who will be supportive and honest. Revise until you think it's ready, then revise some more."
In terms of tactical advice for finding an agent, Bernier believes it is all about research. "Before you're ready to send your manuscript out to agents, research the business end of publishing -- who publishes your kind of book, the agents who handle it, and how best to approach them. It's so easy now to learn about agents and editors and the query process with all the resources online. On Twitter, you're hearing preferences and pet peeves right from the horse's mouth. Then get thick skin and be persistent and find a way to keep up your stamina through the rejections. There are as many reasons for rejection as there are Eskimo names for snow. You just have to find that one agent and editor with whom your story resonates, and who can bring it out to the world."
Making your work the best it can possibly be before submitting to agents is something that all of these debut authors can agree on. "I think my best advice is to be your own critic and get your novel as close to perfect as you can get it before you start looking for a publisher," says Bernier. "Lots of people will have revision advice for you, and you need to have confidence in your intentions for that manuscript so you can sort out what will make the work better, and what will not. You can send out a manuscript too early and end up with a jumble of other people's visions for the work. You need those early readers to imagine the work as you intend. If they can't, it's not ready for them."
Stephanie Reents, author of The Kissing List, has a simple, strategic list for aspiring and published authors.
1. Take pleasure in writing sentences.
2. Know that writing will often feel difficult.
3. Take pleasure in writing paragraphs.
4. Take pleasure in writing pages.
5. Develop a thick skin.
All jokes aside, Reents' advice is valid and important. "Let's face it: writing is far from glamorous, and it's also not a particularly useful profession. For both of these reasons, it's important to derive a good measure of intrinsic pleasure from figuring out how to write a sentence, describe a room, or tell a really great story. At the same time, however, it's important to keep in mind that the very thing that allegedly gives you great pleasure may also sometimes feel like torture while you're doing it -- like you're standing on the edge of the high dive, your stomach swimming with butterflies, or you're browsing every aisle of the hardware store with your father, bored out of your mind. My first piece of advice then (and one that I'm still working to practice myself) is that you have to find joy in the process of writing, and you have to be very brave when it feels like the hardest or scariest or most unpleasant thing you can imagine doing."
Reents learned a great deal from author Barbara Kingsolver, whom she studied under. "She once reminded us that the wonderful thing about writing is that it's really not a competition. It's not a race in which there will be only one winner. Indeed, many writers can and will publish their books. There are writers whose connections help them publish their books; but there are also many writers without connections whose talent in combination with hard work bring their books into the world for readers to marvel at. I think it's really important to remember this."
Liza Klaussmann, author of Tigers in Red Weather and great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, believes in the confidence that can come from pursuing writing in the form of an advanced degree. "One of the best decisions I made was to do an MA in creative writing; I did mine at the College of Royal Holloway in London. It gave me the space I needed to really focus on writing a novel and also the ability to take myself seriously, not in a humorless kind of way, but in the sense that it gave credibility to my desire. It also allowed me to create a writing community with my fellow students, one that has proved invaluable -- we still meet weekly for workshops, three years on. They're the first to see anything I write and they're amazing." Klaussmann also believes that patience and a strong belief in your goals are essential to building a successful career. "I think, guidance-wise, the best advice on writing -- and I think it also applies to trying to get published -- came from my mentor, the poet Andrew Motion, who said that there's always going to be a time when what you can imagine doing, and what you're actually capable of, are going to be very far apart. And that's when you have to be the most patient with and kind to yourself."
Klaussmann believes the uniqueness of voice and originality of an author's writing is key to success. "My advice would be not to try and game the market; write whatever it is you most desire to write about, because your imagination is the only thing you have that is unique and therefor the most valuable tool in your arsenal in terms of getting noticed.
Carol Rifka Brunt, author of Tell the Wolves I'm Home, agrees with Klaussmann's opinion on writers finding their unique voices. "Write the story only you can write. The only commodity an artist or writer has to offer is their uniqueness of vision. It's also the thing readers seem to respond to most strongly. And give yourself time. There's no rush. Some of the best things in Tell the Wolves came to me three years into the process. The subconscious is mysterious. It's always working, but will only give up its secrets if you give it enough time."
These novelists have mastered their own impeccably authentic voices and it shows in the abundance of praise they are receiving for their debut novels. Teresa Link, author of Denting the Bosch, is straightforward with her advice. "Write. That's all. Only in writing will you find your own voice. Write a journal, write letters, write a blog if you must. And read, voraciously. After you read, write. You'll find your writing may curiously echo the voice of whomever you just read. Identify that, and learn to cull what you need from their example and respectfully omit what is simply imitation. And while you're writing, don't think about publication!"
With the road to literary stardom at their feet, these debut novelists will have to see where their path leads them. Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, knows a thing or two about unpredictable paths. "I worked for a theatre actress for many years before I had children. Actors often say that you are only as good as the performance you are giving. It doesn't matter how good you were last night or even in your last play. I think the same is true of writing; you have to keep doing it. Yes, you are going to be published; but what comes next?"
As Klaussmann poignantly quoted L. Rust Hills, the former fiction editor at Esquire, at the end of our interview, "The whole literary establishment -- if there is one -- is geared to find new writers... No need to 'pity the poor young writer' -- if he's any good, he'll be famous before he ought to be."