December 13-19: “What’s one myth about being an author you’d like to debunk?”

Writers regularly go on lavish book tours. Writers work all day in their pajamas. Writers struggle with writers block. Writers are depressed/suicidal/loners/alcoholics. Writers drink too much coffee. True, or not true?  Susanna Kearsley, Julie Korzenko, C.E. Lawrence, Allan Leverone, Bonnie Hearn Hill, and Jeremy Robinson break down these and other writerly stereotypes.

After studying politics and international development at university, Susanna Kearsley sidestepped into museum work and at the age of twenty-two became a curator. In that same year, her sister dared her to stop writing first chapters and produce a book. By the end of that summer she had finished her first novel. She left the museum to waitress and write. Her second novel, Mariana, won the Transworld Publishers’ Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize competition. Seventeen years later, Susanna is still telling stories.

Born in England, raised in New England and subsequently settling in the South, Julie Korzenko’s background has strongly influenced her eclectic taste in literature, art and life experiences. A passionate advocate for nature and wildlife, she began college as a zoology major but ultimately graduated with a business degree in paralegal studies.  Her career has run the gambit from law to network administration to marketing and back to law. Her first novel, DEVIL’S GOLD, was published by Medallion Press in 2009.

C.E. Lawrence is s the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams and Silent Victim are the first two books in her Lee Campbell thriller series. Silent Kills comes out later this year.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.

Allan Leverone attended the University of Notre Dame with the intention of majoring in newspaper journalism before changing direction after his freshman year and majoring in Business Administration, a degree he received in 1981 and to this day hs never put to use. After graduation, Allan was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration and began training as an air traffic controller, a job he has held ever since, working in Providence, Rhode Island, Bangor, Maine, and, for the last twenty years controlling traffic at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Final Vector is Allan’s first novel, and will be published by Medallion Press in February, 2011. In the meantime, he continues working on follow-up projects, including a horror novel based on a fictional three-hundred-year-old Native American curse and a conventional thriller featuring an ordinary man who breaks up a kidnapping and in doing so thrusts his own family directly into the maniac’s sights.

A former newspaper editor, Bonnie Hearn Hill is the author of six thrillers from MIRA Books, and most recently, the young adult Star Crossed series from Perseus/Running Press. She has mentored and worked with writers such as Dr. Mark Fesen (Surviving The Cancer System), Hazel Dixon-Cooper (Cosmopolitan magazine columnist and author of the Rotten Day astrology series), as well as film stars, media personalities, those involved in high-profile true crime cases, and on occasion, just interesting people with engaging causes and stories. She was co-founder of the Yosemite Writers Conference, leads a writing workshop in Fresno, California, and teaches online for Authorlink exclusively.

Jeremy Robinson is the author of nine novels including PULSE, INSTINCT and THRESHOLD, the first three books in his exciting Jack Sigler series. His novels have been translated into eight languages. He is also the director of New Hampshire AuthorFest, a non-profit organization promoting literacy. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and three children.

  1. 1. Writers work all day in their pajamas. Answer: Sometimes.

    2. Writers struggle with writers block. Answer: Since having three kids, yes.

    3. Writers are depressed/suicidal/loners/alcoholics. Answer: Maybe one of the four.

    4. Writers drink too much coffee. Answer: I hate coffee.

    Hold on, I think I was supposed to come up with my own myth…but see answer #3 for my excuse. Wait, what? I won’t get paid unless I come up with an original answer? Crap. All right, here goes.

    I think one of the biggest myths that still endures and is still stalwartly defended by believers in the system is that the only way to get a publishing deal is to 1. Submit a manuscript to agents (that you’ve tirelessly queried) and hope it gets picked out of the slush pile, is read and enjoyed. 2. Sign with said agent. 3. Said agent submits to editors at publishers where it once again enters the slush pile, is read, and enjoyed. 4. Sign a three book deal. It’s a process that the majority of hopeful authors still pursue. But they don’t have to.

    I never like the slush pile system and decided I didn’t want to be a part of it. So using three credit cards, I created a small press (Breakneck Books) and self-published. It took four novels, and perhaps as much time as taking the slush pile route, but I made a living from those four novels for two years before signing my deal with Thomas Dunne. While I wasn’t published by a big house, I was a FULL-TIME writer. On my own. I have an agent, but he approached me. And the five books with Thomas Dunne? They approached me too. Slush pile avoided.

    When I tell this story so people say I’m a fluke. But I’m not. For authors who put serious time and energy into creating a professional book package (cover, editing, format, etc) and put the time (not necessarily money) into marketing, it’s possible. Many of my friends at ITW got their big breaks through self-publishing (Chris Kuzneski, Boyd Morrison, and more). And with e-books it’s easier than ever. Publishers are savvy and it’s easy to see which self-publishers are selling gobs of books on the Kindle.

    Myth: the BEST way to get a publishing deal is to query, submit and join the slush pile. It’s A way, sure, and works for some (probably did for some of the other authors taking part in this roundtable) but I’d rather get real world marketing and publishing experience, build an audience AND get paid for my efforts.

    If you disagree, be gentle. Remember, I might be depressed/suicidal/loners/alcoholics.

    — Jeremy Robinson

  2. Have you ever seen “Castle,” the show on ABC where the author, a successful mystery writer, runs around solving murders with a beautiful NYPD homicide detective? So far, my experience as an author has been nothing like that. Of course, I am a debut novelist you’ve never heard of unless you’re my wife and kids, and my first book doesn’t come out until February 1, so maybe come March or so the police will be clamoring for my services, but somehow I doubt that.

    There are a lot of things about being an author that differ greatly from what I pictured when I used to dream about writing books, but probably the biggest surprise has been the amount of work required that is not specifically related to putting words down on paper.

    Typing THE END on the last page of a manuscript is really nothing more than a bald-faced lie. It should say THE BEGINNING, because after I made my book as pretty and shiny as it could be, after I wrote and re-wrote and edited and re-wrote, then the real work began. I had to look for an agent, an experience eerily similar to high school dating in the sense I learned a lot about dealing with rejection. You never see Rick Castle reading an “It just didn’t grab me” email from an agent.

    Other things you never see Rick Castle doing: Worrying about approaching other authors, people he barely knows or maybe doesn’t even know at all, to ask them if they will read his book and maybe (pretty-please) supply an author blurb. Trying to decide how best to compete for readers in a shrinking marketplace, wondering whether a book trailer would do anything to help sell books.

    And, oh yeah, writing another book while doing all of that.

    I never gave any of this stuff a single thought when I decided I wanted to write books, and sometimes I wonder if there are enough hours in the day to get everything done. How Rick Castle can do all of it and still catch killers I’ll never know.

    But you want to know a secret? I’m having a blast.

  3. Ah yes, the lavish book tour… That’s one myth I wish were true!

    As for the coffee and pajamas, I’m not sure I’m the best person to debunk those.

    But the one myth I would love to see exposed is the belief that there’s this magical line dividing the unpublished author from the published one, and once you cross over that line, life gets suddenly easier – no more sending out queries or getting rejections, just a guaranteed place in the publisher’s catalogue year after year, steady work, steady pay, and security.

    Sometimes when we start out in this business, we’re so focused on just getting published that we start to think that’s the end of the journey, the end of our struggling. The truth is, I’ve been a professional writer for seventeen years now, with great agents in Britain and the U.S., and I was able to leave the day job behind a long time ago, but I’ve never, ever reached a point where I can stop and say, ‘Well, this is it. I feel secure.’

    Agents and editors leave, or retire, and whoever replaces them might not be such a great fan of your work (or your sales figures). Publishing houses get bought out by bigger ones, and when two stables of authors are merged some will always get put out to pasture. The ground has shifted violently beneath my own feet several times, and while I’ve never gotten used to it at least I’m less surprised now when it happens.

    In my experience, there’s no magic line. Whether writers are published or unpublished, all of us still risk rejection, and unless our laurels are huge we may never be able to rest on them comfortably; but although writing is not a secure job, it’s one we can do while we’re drinking our coffee and wearing pajamas, and that counts for something.

  4. I’d like to debunk the agent myth, as well. Most of the writers I teach think that they need only this wonderful agent, who will zoom in and get them all of the three-book deals mentioned above. Well, I have one of those, and she’s gotten me three of those deals. Six thrillers for MIRA Books. And the Star Crossed young adult series for Running Press/Perseus. However, she’s my fourth agent, and the other three didn’t sell a single book for me. Was that their fault or mine?

    In order to land a killer agent, you need to be able to write a book that will sell. It’s probably not the first thing you’ll dash off. Look at your concept. Look at your character. Is this person sympathetic and proactive. Is the antagonist even more so?

    I tell my writer friends to send out at least 50 queries. One friend said she had 47 rejections and was getting pretty sick of them and depressed by the silence from most. Then, number 48 replied and asked her to snail-mail the manuscript over Thanksgiving (the Holiday Myth debunked), and she sold my friend’s three-book mystery series with a $75,000 advance. And in a rotten economy.

    Yes, we need the agents, but not until we have a book that will sell. (And, L, if you are reading this, thank you for being my agent.)

  5. Another myth I’m sure those who teach as well as write will recognize. The Just Get Me Published Myth.

    I walk into writing class. A man with a huge manuscript box in his hand approaches me.

    “I can’t edit more than one chapter a week,” I tell him.

    “I don’t need your editing,” he booms. “Just look at this and tell me where I can sell it.”

    I didn’t.

    He didn’t.

    A woman walked into the same class and sat in the back. When it was time for her to read, the manuscript man shouted, “You have to go to the front.”

    “No, she doesn’t,” I said. “She can face the wall if she wants to.”

    That woman received a six-figure, three-book deal. She never asked me to get her published. She just wrote.

  6. Wow, you guys are on a roll. I have to admit that pajamas are a sweet thing to work in. . . and I love coffee. But I totally agree with all your comments so far . . . and I’d like to add one. It has to do with glamor. I think non published writers think our lives are glamorous, or maybe hope they are. But I see writing as just another job – maybe more fun than working in a bank, but it’s still a day to day grind much like any other.

    What about the myth that writers are drunks? Or did that go out with Hemingway? I’m personally not a drunk, though I do like a round of single malts at Keens, if someone else is buying. Preferably my editor.

  7. I’d work all day in pyjamas if I could, but I always have to answer the door. And I couldn’t write if I drank – I’d just fall asleep. I have a limited tolerance of coffee and I don’t have an agent, either. But I’m with Susanna on the it doesn’t get any easier thing. It just doesn’t. And there isn’t some magic book that will give you plots, either. Maybe I’ll write one of those “ten master plots” books next. Writing lists of exotic jobs/fancy names/settings has got to be easier than re-inventing the wheel for the sixtieth time.

    Oh, and my myth – the reason big advances make headlines is because they are so rare. Most writers need a day job.

  8. The myth’s I’d like to debunk for other writers:

    There’s one right way to write a novel. There’s one good style. There’s one good process. You have to plot. You shouldn’t plot. You have to write every day. Write only when your muse is in the house.

    I’m not published, but what I’m finding from chatting with writers published and unpublished alike is that there’s no one way to write. The only way to write is the way that works for you. (Hint: if it isn’t working, you might want to try another way).

  9. The main myth is that being published will automatically earn a writer a fortune. When you meet a custodian of a crumbling castle or someone trying to break out of a dead end job, they zero in on a writer for advice, saying that ‘everyone says I need to write a book to earn some money.’ If you try to explain the economics (let alone the realities) of writing and getting published, they look at you with the words ‘you’re just trying to keep all that lovely money to yourself’ tattoo-ed across their foreheads. And so ends a promising relationship.

  10. Okay – well, I’m glad I didn’t pre-write my first post this time because y’all covered all the myths I was going to debunk. Nicely done.

    I think the perception that once you’re published, you’re an immediate success and can eat bon-bons all day and sip champagne all night. Wrong! The second book is just as hard (if not harder) than the first book. Being published once, twice, thrice does not immediately guaranty that your next work will be accepted. In addition, there is no guaranty that Barnes & Noble and Borders will pick up your book or that your publisher will purchase display space. All of these items are variables. Writing is hard work and not for the meek or tender skinned.

    Julie – in search of bon-bons and champagne

    1. Bon bons and champagne sound really high-brow and I’m sure I’ll never get there, no matter how many books I sell, assuming, of course I sell any more. I celebrated my first book contract with stale potato chips and warm beer…

  11. Here’s a myth perpetuated by nonwriters–that writers somehow lack ideas. Thus, you’re approached by a person who says, “I’ve got a great idea for a novel. Why don’t you write it, and we can split the profits.”

    Another version of that is the nonwriter who thinks his life will make a great book/movie. All you have to do is write it and take half of the big bucks.

    These people don’t realize that we have more ideas than we would ever write in a lifetime–with or without bon bons and champagne.


  12. Heh heh, Bonnie – I like what Harlan Ellison said about where his ideas come from (and I quote):

    When some jamook asks me this one (thereby revealing him/herself to be a person who has about as much imaginative muscle as a head of lettuce), I always smile prettily and answer, “Schenectady.”

    And when the jamook looks at me quizzically, and scratches head with hairy hand, I add: “Oh, sure. There’s a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ’em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”

  13. Myth – Writers spend lots of time in their velvet smoking jackets, smoking their pipes and contemplating the nature of the universe.

    Truth (at least in my case) – I’m waaaay too busy, between working my day job, writing, promoting and trying to carve out time with my family, to contemplate much of anything besides the inside of my eyelids when I lie down at night. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, and I’m sure Lee Child’s experience is much different than mine – at least I hope it is, for his sake – but my guess is he doesn’t spend much time contemplating the nature of the universe either.

    Besides, I don’t look good in velvet.

  14. Allan,
    You know, I’ve always wanted a velvet smoking jacket . . . think I’ll add that to my Christmas list. And one of those little beanie caps with the tassel like Sydney Greenstreet wore in Casablanca.

    1. That’s perfect! If you find one, could you let me know where? I’d love to get one too – it would be perfect for that new author photo I’ve been contemplating…

  15. This is a fantastic discussion! Bonnie, I love the idea of the blitz approach, I always tell aspiring writers to send out dozens of queries. I’m always amazed that they think they can send out a handful, and expect to find representation and snare a great deal.

    And Nina, the “I’m gonna make a fortune” myth is another one! Considering the long, grueling hours we put in, a lot of us would make more money saying, “Would you like fries with this?”

    And Susanna, love the metaphor of the ground shaking beneath our feet. I so agree! Nothing is certain…it was ever thus.

    Everyone left really wonderful comments. Bonnie, I am still laughing over that guy lugging in the big fat manuscript!!

  16. Great post! Myths I’d like to see debunked?

    1) That it’s easy to write a book and we all make huge amounts of money.

    2) That we should write a given person’s life story (the person speaking to us) because it’s guaranteed to be a best seller.

    3) That we’re hiding the secret of how to get on Oprah.

  17. Thanks, Mary.
    The it’s-easy myth is a smug put-down. “You’re a writer? Oh, I’m going to write a book when I find the time.”
    They think if they can write a shopping list, they can write a book, and the only reason we did it first is because we had all this time on our hands.
    How many of you wrote at least some of your books while you still had a day job?

  18. Bonnie, you are so right, I hear that all the time. They would never say “I’m going to compose a symphony,” or “I’m going to paint a landscape.” I think it’s because everyone can write “a little” (even if it’s only a memo or a grocery list) they think that “writing” is no big deal and that everyone can do it. Some people even say, “Well, I wish I had the time for that!” Which also feels a bit snarky…

  19. One of the most common myths I run into is that “anyone can write a book”. Sorry, but I don’t agree. If it were true, there would really be a million books at your local Books-A-Million store. And that’s taking into consideration the mind-boggling amount of books being written right now. Everyone I know and have ever known claims to be writing a book. I also don’t believe that it’s just a matter of talent. I think an equal dose of luck has to be factored into getting a manuscript published. Throw in some patience, education and discipline, and you might have a fighting change.

  20. Omg, Mary and Bonnie, a variation of that I hear all the time is that people say, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write.” Then they look at me with a hopeful expression. To my mind there’s only one response to that comment: “Then why don’t you?” I suppose it gets down to the question of permission; perhaps some of us write because we’ve been given “permission” at some point in our lives, by something or someone – or the inner drive was strong enough to ignore all the negative signals and discouragements. I’m not sure; I just know that when people say that to me it makes me want to chew glass shards.

  21. C.E.

    That’s sad that they haven’t/can’t do it. But the snarky I-just-don’t-have-time ones Mary and I are talking about are the ones who irritate me. Do they really think we *have* the time?

  22. Mary–Wow. A day job for 40 books. You’re amazing.

    I was a newspaper editor while writing many of my novels, and since then I’ve ghostwritten several books.

    Another myth–the serenity myth–and maybe it was mentioned before. Writers knock out a few thousand words in the morning, and then drink tea, go on long walks and do yoga for the rest of the day. Before the champagne and the bon bons, that is.

  23. Yes, Bonnie, I agree entirely with you and Mary. What I’ve found is that we all make time for what’s important to us. An hour or two less television per day would probably solve that for most people. Of course, I can’t miss Forensic Files – but that’s what DVRs are for!

    Serenity? If I were a serene person, I’d be teaching yoga, not writing thrillers.

  24. Joe,
    A hundred percent agreement with what you say – I tell my fiction students that a novel is a horrible, unwieldy creature, to be avoided at all costs, if possible. Of course, if one wants to make any money writing, one must eventually throw the harpoon over your shoulder and go after that particular white whale.

  25. Bonnie,
    In answer to your question about day jobs, still got one. Teaching, so it’s more of a night job, but it’s still a job. There was a play a few years ago by a woman about all her temp jobs – I felt like I was hearing about my own life. Maybe that would be a good premise – a temp worker who solves crime in her spare time.

  26. Thanks, Mary. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks the ground out there is shaky, sometimes!

    And Joe, I completely agree. Luck plays a much larger role in this business than most of us probably care to admit.

  27. Ditto on the comment about luck – on the other hand, if you write long and hard and well, you’ve given yourself better odds. I think there’s also a danger of relying on luck, or blaming it when things don’t work out. However, we all have to work on staying humble in these hard times. Happy Holidays, everyone!

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