November 28 – December 4: What was the big lesson that awaited you after you completed your first novel?

Writing that first novel is a huge accomplishment – something that many aspiring authors never quite manage to do. What happens next? Join ITW members Nancy Bilyeau, Karen Dionne and Ed Kovacs as they discuss the lessons they learned after completing their first novel.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thriller THE CROWN, to be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in North America in January 2012, Orion Books in the United Kingdom in February 2012 and five other foreign countries. She was a magazine editor on the staffs of “InStyle” and “Rolling Stone” before selling her debut novel.

Detroit native Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of two environmental thrillers, FREEZING POINT and BOILING POINT. She serves on the International Thriller Writersboard of directors as Vice President, Technology, and is co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, where she organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held every May in New York City. Karen is also a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America.

Ed Kovacs has worked and traveled all over the world as a private security contractor, journalist, and screenwriter. His latest novel STORM DAMAGE will be published by Minotaur in December, 2011, and is available for pre-order. Eight screenplays he has written have been produced under various pen names. He splits his time between his home in Southeast Asia and his aircraft hangar home at a Southern California airport.

  1. What I tell my friends is that everyone thinks that getting an agent and selling your book to a publisher is the goal–but that’s not quite right. There are dozens of books and courses and blogs and workshops and support groups on getting started–you name it. There are SO many places to read wisdom on how to write the perfect query letter to tantalize an agent. But I compare it to having a child. When you’re pregnant with your first child, all you think about is giving birth. But then you have this human being. One YOU have to raise. And I’ve found it’s like that with my novel. When I sold my book in auction to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster, I was so excited. This was the moment! But I’ve learned that then…you have to raise it.

  2. Raising the baby you’ve given birth to is a great analogy, Nancy.

    I think that as authors we need to wear two hats simultaneously; the hat of the writer and the hat of the businessperson. Finishing a book and then “switching” to the “business of writing” is not efficient.

    Perhaps it’s better to allow time for both in our workdays. I was so overwhelmed with the million things that had to be done after I self-published my first novel, UNSEEN FORCES, that it completely destroyed the joy I had felt while creating the book.

    Now, with St. Martin’s publishing my crime novel STORM DAMAGE in December, 2011, I have learned to budget my time very differently. And I have learned to make some of the business of writing a lot more fun and interesting. Tweeting, blogging, FB, and online roundtables like this one are actually pretty much fun.

  3. At Thrillerfest last year, I was on a panel with Steve Berry and he gave me some advice–I hope he doesn’t mind my sharing it here: “You need to spend five hours a day writing, two hours a day researching and two hours marketing.” He was tailoring this to my book, a historical thriller, I don’t know if everyone needs to do quite as much research as I do, and as Steve does. But two hours a day marketing seems about right.

    It needs to be done–but in a smart way. You are having fun with it, and that’s great. I do too. But I fear that some writers are going into facebook kicking and screaming, and twitter too. So they reluctantly post links to their blogs and reviews. But it’s a shrill screaming internet pit right now of people trying to draw attention to their writing or their other endeavors. How to intrigue and tantalize readers, that is the goal and the challenge.

    So many different opinions. Yesterday on one of my facebook groups for writers about to publish, one person listed a six-step daily plan for how to shrewdly attract more twitter followers. The same day I read a blog from the Brooklyn Scribbler that has this sentence:
    “The social media pundits must forgive me for saying so, but the best promotion of an author’s work is a good book.” And I could relate to both of these opposing points of view!

  4. One of the things that really surprised me after my first novel sold was how long everything takes. Freezing Point sold to Berkley in January of 2007, with an October 2008 publication date. That’s the gestation period of an elephant! (since Nancy introduced the birthing analogy).

    An author waits for input from their editor, waits for the cover, waits for copyedits, waits for the reviews to start coming in, waits for their publication date to inch closer, and closer and closer . . . and then waits more months for the royalty statements to find out how the book is doing!

    There are good reasons why it all takes so long, but for an author who’s just sold their first novel, waiting to see it hit the shelves feels like forever!

  5. Yes, Karen.
    I was shocked when they told me 18 months until publication. That is a lesson that is not so fun: I’ve waited a long time. I wrote my second book in the time it took between selling the first one and having it go out in the market.

  6. I must emphasize that there are wonderful things about writing and selling a novel. But another shock that people should be ready for is how much it COSTS an author to publish a novel, and I’m not talking about self-publishing. With the Big Six, unless you are Chad Harbach putting out The Art of Fielding, you will pay for your own author photo, website, business cards, research travel and expenses, and additional marketing and promotion.

  7. Another surprise after I sold my first novel: finding out how incredibly welcoming the thriller community is to new writers.

    The day my novel’s sale was announced in Publisher’s Marketplace, my inbox was flooded with literally hundreds of congratulatory emails – mostly from my fellow thriller authors. I recall Lee Child wrote: “Remember this day. It only happens once.” So true! It was wonderful to be able to share that day with so many other published authors, because they were the ones who truly understood what an incredible, odds-beating accomplishment getting a publishing deal was.

    One of the first things I did after my novel sold was change my ITW membership status from “Associate” to “Author.” What I think is extraordinary about ITW is that you don’t have to be a brand name to get involved. When I first expressed an interest in serving on the Board of Directors (after serving for a couple of years as Debut Authors committee chair), I didn’t yet have a contract for my second novel. I mentioned that to then co-president Steve Berry as a factor that might disqualify me, and he said, “Doesn’t matter. You’re a member.” As a board nominee, I was invited to sit in on the board meeting at ThrillerFest the next July – a pinch-me moment if ever there was one. Picture me, a new author with one book published in mass market paperback, sitting at a table with Douglas Preston, David Morrell, Gayle Lynds, Steve Berry, Peter James, David Hewson and others, listening to these thriller luminaries discuss the organization’s needs and goals and tossing in my occasional two cents. Amazing.

    Now that I’ve served on the board for a year, I know firsthand how many hours this involves. And yet these authors who have seriously time-consuming careers still make time for it because they care about their fellow thriller authors, and they want to see everyone succeed.

  8. The long lead time to publication is one of the reasons Barry Eisler went e-book indie for his latest John Rain thriller novel. Finish your manuscript, get cover art done, get e-book formatting done, get proofreading/copy-editing done (this is optional), and release the material quickly. I’m not advocating that route, but digital publishing is certainly changing the face of the publishing world, for better or worse. Bob Mayer has been blogging some wonderful stuff about all of this—information new novelists might find very helpful.

    All the more reason first-time novelists might be surprised to discover how much “business” work there is to being an author these days.

    1. The publishing world is certainly changing at warp speed, and that makes it really difficult for aspiring authors to decide which route to take. I think they need to examine their reasons for seeking publication carefully, and then decide from that which route might best meet their publishing goals.

      However, I have to say as a traditionally published author, there’s just no feeling to compare with the experience of walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelves. (Which also sort of ties in with the “what surprised you after you were published” theme of our discussion.) And I have the pictures to prove it!

      Boiling point
      It’s “Boiling” at Detroit Metro airport!

      famous authors
      A friend from Texas sent me this one – he swears he didn’t move my book! “Famous Author” indeed . . .

      boiling point
      Borders was always a huge supporter of my titles. So sad that they went under.

      me and boiling point
      This pic says it all. Am I a happy camper? Oh, yeah.

      (Okay, I’ll stop now!)

  9. You go girl!! Revel in it, Karen, and I mean that. I’m thrilled for you. I’m deployed overseas so I will miss the release date of Storm Damage coming in just a couple of days. I won’t even be able to get a copy in my hands until January!

    I agree with you that aspiring novelists should very carefully consider the route to publication–indie or the traditional route.

    And yes, Nancy, the expenses after publication! I’m footing the bill for my “Double Down Micro Tour” for STORM DAMAGE starting in January, 2012. A six-city tour staring in Los Angeles and ending in Houston. Tour dates at (Please excuse the shameless promotion, but that’s another surprise awaiting authors: having a good novel is a given or you’re just wasting time; you also have to become a good promoter.) I have the usual costs for copies and biz cards, but also air fare, hotels, rental cars…at least it’s a tax deduction.

    Some pundits say forget book store appearances and just concentrate on online marketing, but I feel a balance is in order, and want to connect with my readers on as personal level as possible. I’m in it for the long haul.

  10. Karen:

    I love those pictures of you in the bookstore!
    Another lesson learned, and this just the other day–it is my book but I sold it to a publisher. This may sound obvious.

    Bear with me.
    It took me five years to write and research my first novel, “The Crown.” I felt extremely protective of it, as I’m sure all authors do. My agent sold it to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in July 2010. I was thrilled but fundamentally continued to feel it was my book. Somehow S&S was involved but “The Crown” was my precious baby. LOL.

    I put a google alert on my name, and things have lately been popping up: S&S put “The Crown” in goodreads as a giveaway; my first two chapters are on scribd. In each case I was happy to see this but disoriented. “I didn’t know about this; how could it happen?” Until I realized, this is THEIR book. I am a big part of the media and marketing campaign but S&S is selling it to consumers and by contract I am getting a portion of the money.

    This was a useful realization. Instead of feeling, “Wait, what are they doing?” I began to calm down (a little). My publisher is doing what needs to be done to sell this book; I am doing everything I can to boost sales. Together, I hope, we will make this a success.

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