Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Seven Years Later

 Tomorrow, November 18th, marks seven years since the first book in my Aurora Anderson cozy mystery series, Fatal Brushstroke, was released. Four books followed, spaced a year to a year and a half apart. The last one came out at the end of 2019.

Kindle Box Set

 It’s hard to believe that much time has passed. I recently reread a post I wrote for the Mysteristas blog right after my second book came out, reflecting on my first year as a published novelist. I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of it. I’ll have some comments after.

Reflections on Being A Published Novelist

 by Sybil Johnson 

When I signed the book contract with my publisher, I thought I knew what to expect. I mean, as a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and former board member of that chapter, I know a lot of published writers. I've heard the war stories. I've gotten lots of great advice. So I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn't realize just how hard and, at times, gut-wrenching it was going to be.

Not that I regret signing that contract. Not at all. It's been quite a growing experience for me as a writer and a person. I've discovered a lot of things about myself and this mystery writing world I’ve become a part of.

  • The mystery community. The generosity of the mystery community never ceases to amaze me. Not only have authors written endorsements for my books when I know their plates are already overflowing, they’ve also helped me gain exposure and given me encouragement and advice when times got tough. For all of these things I’m eternally grateful. I pay it forward wherever I can.
  •  Writing. I’m a slow writer, probably the slowest in the world. I’ve discovered in this past year that writing to a deadline is hard, way harder than I expected. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me it sometimes causes so much anxiety it can be crippling. So I’ve found coping mechanisms that help out. I’ve also discovered that writing the first draft longhand often works best for me. I write better drafts and I’m not tempted to check out things to buy on Amazon or watch that cat video someone told me about.
  •  Convention Panels. I've been on panels at conventions—Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and California Crime Writers. What I've discovered, and this shocked me: They don't make me nervous at all! For some odd reason, they don't bother me a bit. Not even a twinge of nervousness, not even the first one I was on. In fact, I actually *gasp* ENJOY them and, *double gasp*, look FORWARD to them. Now, this particularly shocks me because, well, I stutter. I have since grade school. Not the kind where you duplicate sounds, but the kind where you get caught on certain sounds at the beginning of words. So, on the days where I'm not fluent—usually high stress days—there are a lot of pauses in my speech pattern. I know exactly what I want to say, I just can't get it out. When I was a kid, some people who didn't know me thought I was retarded. (It was the 60s, no political correctness!) Nowadays, people think I'm done speaking or think I can't remember my own name. (Yeah, S is one of the sounds that often trips me up.) So speaking in public can be a bit nerve-wracking for me. But for these panels the enjoyment that I get out of being on them overrides any fears I have about talking.
  •  Learning when to say no. Conventional wisdom says do not turn down an opportunity. If someone asks you to do something related to promoting your book, do it. In general, I agree but I also know how much I can handle so a few times I’ve said no when most people would say yes. It may not be the brightest thing to do, but I’m the only one who can truly know if that “yes” will be the straw that breaks my back.
  •  Persistence and courage. I’ve discovered persistence is probably the most important thing to have in writing. When you encounter a setback (I’ve had doozies, believe me), just dust yourself off and keep on trucking even if you’re scared to death.
  •  Compliments. Whenever someone tells me I’m a great writer or that they enjoyed my book, my gut reaction is that they must be mistaking me for someone else; they couldn’t possibly be talking about me! I don’t say this to their face, of course, but that’s what’s going through my mind. I’m also blutterbunged* at the impact a positive comment has on me. A simple email can transform a bleak day into a bright one. Now when I enjoy a book I try to reach out to the author to express how much I liked their work because I know the impact it can have on a writer.
  •  Social Media. I’ve read so many articles and heard so many talks about what authors should be doing on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Post at least twice a day on Facebook. Tweet multiple times a day (I’ve heard everything from 3 to 10). The list is overwhelming. I understand the value of social media, but I know I can’t do everything, get writing done and have a life. I’ve made peace with that. I do what I can and concentrate on the activities I enjoy the most.
  •  Breaks. I know so many writers who work on several series at once. I don’t know how they do it; how they balance a day job, family and writing. They don’t seem to need breaks. I’ve discovered that, for me, I need periodic breaks from writing or thinking about writing or promoting my writing. I used to feel guilty about it, but I know that I come back stronger from a day off than I would have had I continued to try writing.
  •  Making your own path. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that there’s no one approach to writing and marketing your books. Everyone needs to figure out their own path like author Jenny Milchman who went against conventional wisdom and embarked on a year-long book tour. Read about it here:

* confounded, overcome by surprise

 I’m back. You notice in the piece that I didn’t say “published writer”. I’d considered myself one of those when I had some short stories published in online mystery magazines a few years before my first book came out.

I still believe everything I said. I still write my first drafts long hand. I still believe it’s important to know when things are too much for you. I still believe in the power of persistence.

One thing that has changed is my writing process. I’ve been pretty much a plantser since the beginning. That means I know who did it and why, I know the victim and the major characters. I do a bit of outlining, figuring out the major events in the book before I start writing from point to point. I started out writing the story in sequence. But, while writing book 3, I discovered that it was easier to write scenes out of sequence. The book got done faster and I wasn’t half as stressed out. Now, if a scene pops into my head, begging to be written, I write it even if I don’t know exactly where it fits in the story. I may have to rewrite bits of it when I do figure out where it goes but, surprisingly, they aren’t major rewrites.

 Another thing I learned about writing is that every project is different. Some stories are easier to write than others. Overall, writing a book takes a lot of work. I also get a lot of satisfaction out of completing the project. That makes it all worthwhile.


Anna said...

Sybil, you sound as though you really know and trust your process (which resembles mine). No one could ask for more. Whatever works for you, and for me, and for all those others out there is simply WHAT WORKS, however we may differ. I'm inspired by your self-knowledge and professionalism.

Sybil Johnson said...

Thank you, Anna. That makes me feel good.