New Author Survival Guide With Laura McNeill

New Author Survival Guide With Laura McNeill
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Choosing to pursue a writing career is exhilarating, challenging, and a lot of hard work. From being a CBS reporter, Laura McNeill changed her career to writing thriller and romance novels. McNeill has been teaching and helping women learn how to survive and thrive during their first year as a new author. She is a role model of how well pursuing your dreams can turn out.

What’s the top thing you wish you’d known before you became an author?

I wish I’d known and believed that being a successful author is a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, there are overnight successes. There are authors who take the New York Times bestseller list by storm. For the rest of us, it takes hard work, and often years, to write, revise, and polish that first manuscript. 

What about landing that coveted literary agent to represent your work? Is an agent necessary to publish?

In this day and age, it’s up to the author whether she opts for the independent (or self-) publishing route or decides to pursue traditional publishing. Independent publishing is certainly faster, and the author makes all of the decisions. An agent, however, helps guide that initial process and should act as an advisor. If an author chooses traditional publishing, they should be aware that it is a tough and time-consuming process to query and land a really good literary agent. Your manuscript must be finished and polished. Your manuscript must also stand out from the rest of the submissions, as interns or assistants are likely the ones sifting through the agent’s inbox.

Though it may seem exciting and logical to jump at the first offer of representation, take the time to find a good agent who believes in you and your work. Having an agent does not solve all of your challenges. Keep in mind, if you decide to go the traditional route, the publishing house has to be a good fit as well. Think about it like a long-term relationship. It involves work, compromise, and a significant investment of your time.

Best advice you’ve heard for writers?

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King

It’s hard to ignore the words of this famous author, who’s penned more than 50 novels and 200 short stories, as well as one of my favorite books on the craft of writing, appropriately titled, On Writing. He’s also an author who endured a slew of rejections before publishing Carrie.

King says that he makes time to read every day. Reading, as King says, is essential to an author’s growth and development. It doesn’t matter if you graduated with a degree in English, completed an MFA in creative writing, or have memorized every grammar rule in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Your growth and knowledge as an author shouldn’t stop there. 

I often find that new ideas for stories or chapters flow more freely after I’ve read a great book. Reading a fabulous novel may also help you get un-stuck from a difficult plot point or a challenging character arc. Keep a pad of paper handy while you read and jot down ideas that fascinate you. A particular phrase, setting, or character in a novel often fans my curiosity about new story ideas to explore. Specifically, reading novels in and outside my genre allow me to better understand character development and story structure. Often, I revisit my favorite novels and examine what hooked me into the story. How did the author pace the book or use tension and theme? How was the climax crafted? 

I also recommend reading outside your typical genre. If you write historical romance, read Dystopian YA. If you write horror or suspense, try Steampunk. Like Chick Lit? Pick up a fantasy novel. Listen to an audiobook if you’re pressed for time or travelling. You get the idea. It’s a wonderful way to stretch your brain in new directions.

Which part of the writing process is crucial as a beginning author?

Writing scenes that prompt readers to turn pages. After all, it’s our job, as authors, to keep the momentum going. We don’t want readers closing the book. We want readers asking themselves, “What happens next?” We want reviewers who say, “I read this novel in one sitting!” A novel is, after all, a series of well-written scenes. Those scenes are sewn together in such a way that the reader is compelled to turn page after page. After a scene is written, I like to step back and look objectively at its function and purpose. Does the scene move the story forward? Does it support the main character’s goal or desire? If not, it gets tossed or marked for some serious editing work. 

As authors, we have to be careful about leaving the reader wanting more. That means not tying all of the action together too neatly and placing a bow on top. I’ve learned to allow my characters to leave the scene before the action stops. I have the most fun when I can reveal a surprise or clue, stop the scene mid-action with an announcement, or give the character an unexpected challenge.

What is the most surprising skill you’ve developed as an author?

I’ve learned to love the editing process. I used to dread editing, but I’ve actually grown to appreciate and embrace this necessary part of the writing process. I’ve also learned to step away from the manuscript for four or five weeks before beginning the editing process. It’s difficult at first because the urgency is there to wrap up the novel and send it to press, but patience pays off. I can look at the story with a fresh perspective, address any challenges or problem areas, and craft new ways to approach a scene or chapter that needs extra attention. Often, I discover dialogue that needs sharpening, a lengthy description that needs to be trimmed, and ways to deepen a character’s goals, dreams, or motivation. In the end, careful edits mean a richer, more nuanced experience for the reader.

What did you have to learn “trial by fire?”

I had to learn to be careful about reading book reviews. I always welcome positive, constructive feedback, reviews, and emails that offer suggestions that could make my novels stronger or more compelling. My beta readers are invaluable. My editors and proofreaders are top-notch. I trust, also, that those people have my best interest, and that of my work, at heart.

When my first few books were published, I would read every single review on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Goodreads. However, after scanning a few zingers, and reading other authors’ reviews, I forced myself to step back. While it’s great to get well-meaning, constructive criticism to improve your writing, it’s another thing entirely when an author—any author—receives hurtful, inaccurate, or inflammatory reviews. Negative reviews can leave an author feeling inadequate or doubting her capabilities. The fact is, not everyone will like every novel, and that’s okay. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. 

The key is to acknowledge, accept, and move on. Have a friend or trusted colleague read the reviews, filter, and pass on helpful advice and information. This allows you to focus on your writing, concentrate on the positive, and do the best work you can.

What are your strategies to manage an aspiring author career if you also work full-time, have a family, school, church, etc.?

I work full-time, teach courses at a local university, and write novels, in addition to spending time with my family. The key, for me, is figuring out what is most important in my life, setting goals, and being organized. I am fairly protective of my writing time and set goals for myself to complete a certain number of words a day. I am also protective of my family and friend time, so it is a matter of achieving a balance.

Often, I map my writing schedule on a calendar, so that I can “see” my progress and keep on track. As life throws up roadblocks and challenges, some days, the writing doesn’t get done, but I can always get myself back on track. Again, writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

When do you find time to write your next book, connect on social media, and promote your books?

It’s a challenge to balance it all! I write in the mornings when it is quiet, around 5:30 am, and I don’t check email or social media before I begin writing. Social media is reserved for after my writing time, at lunchtime, or if I’m waiting at an appointment. It is so important to connect with readers and other authors on social media, but that time has to be limited. After all, if you are only Tweeting and posting on Instagram, you could be spending those hours writing. 

As for marketing, I have done a mix of handling most of the marketing myself to hiring a company to handle my online blog tours, writing posts for magazines and websites, attending conferences as a speaker, giving talks on writing to aspiring authors, meeting with book clubs, and working with an outside publicist to set up book signings and handle media inquiries. As with many things in life, it depends on how much time you have and if you are willing and able to hire outside assistance.

How about a list of quick tips and reminders for new authors?

There are so many ideas and suggestions for handling your first year as an author, but I have found these to be among the most helpful:

  • Create a schedule for your writing, and stick to it as best you can,
  • Turn off your cell, tablet, and/or laptop before school, after dinner, and on dates.
  • Schedule family and friend time. Plan game nights and outings.
  • Communicate with your family, spouse, and work. Listen as they communicate their needs, desires, and expectations.
  • Set aside time for yourself. Read a book for pleasure, take a drive, sit at the beach, or indulge in some self-care you really enjoy.

Where else can a new author turn for help?

Writer’s Digest is a fantastic resource for new authors and experienced writers, as is Poets & Writers. You can get some incredibly helpful advice and straight talk from people who work in the industry. Weiland, Bell, and Friedman have all published books on different facets of the writing and publishing process (available e-book and paperback). I recommend starting with these four experts:

  • K.M Weiland
  • James Scott Bell
  • Rachelle Gardner
  • Jane Friedman

Any closing thoughts and words of encouragement for women?

Above all else, believe in yourself and you’re writing. Like many things in life, nothing worthwhile comes easily. But if you have a great idea and are persistent, you will eventually succeed. I believe author Shelly Oria says it best. “Pay it forward. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other writers. Dare to be vulnerable. Rely on your community. And enjoy the ride.”

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