By Melissa Lenhardt
A few weeks back, I hit send on the manuscript for the third novel in my historical fiction series, ending a whirlwind year of writing and editing. There were moments, many moments, when I had serious doubts I would survive with my mental faculties intact. (There’s some debate among my friends and family if my mental facilities are intact in the best, normal circumstances, but that’s a topic for another post.)
In 2015 I wrote two novels from scratch, edited three for publication, edited one for submission and finished another I’d started in 2014. I attended four writing conferences and the Texas Book Fest. My stay-at-home mom responsibilities never end, nor do they take a vacation. If I had a job outside the home, I would be curled up in a corner in a catatonic state today instead of on a flight to Left Coast Crime. Hats off to the thousands of writers who manage to do it all. You make me want to take a nap.
What did I learn in 2015?
Deadlines are my friends. I laughed when my agent told me the deliverable dates for the sequels to SAWBONES. Two novels in a year? Ain’t happening. My MO for writing, until last year, had been starting a story, getting 40-50K words in, moving on to another idea, and coming back a few months, sometimes years, later. I had never, NEVER, taken a story from idea, to first draft to final draft without interruption. That’s a rather horrifying admission, truth be told. Hand to God, I didn’t think I could do it, and I had weeks and weeks of 2 a.m. panic attacks as a result. It didn’t help that I barely had the germ of an idea for Book Two. Book Three? LOL.
The panic attacks weren’t getting the book written, and they sure as hell weren’t getting rid of the looming deadlines. So, I put my head down and wrote. I sat down at the computer daily with no idea where the story was going but somehow the ideas and words came. (Another lesson: writers never run out of ideas, but some ideas take more coaxing than others. Give it a kibble, i.e. lots of chocolate and ice cream, and it’ll come around.) The coaxing pays off: when I hit send last night, it was two weeks before the third MS was due.
It’s important to have a support system. I’m an advocate for critique groups, not only for the benefit of improving your writing and learning to give and receive criticism, but also for the community. When you sign with an agent and sell a book, it will be critical to have other writers you can talk to about what you’re going through. Even the most supportive and understanding family (which mine most definitely is) won’t be able to talk to you about the minutia of navigating the publishing world. Besides my agent, I have four or five writer friends who I call, text and email with regularly. They have all talked me off the ledge more than once in the past year. I absolutely wouldn’t have survived, or met my deadlines, without them. How do you meet these wonderful people? Critique groups, writing organizations such as Sisters in Crime, RWA, MWA, and attending writers’ and fan conferences.
Failure is more terrifying than a blank page. I’m not what you would call a driven person. Competent? Yep. Reliable? I like to think so. Competitive? Only when I think I’m good enough to win. Watch out if I ever play Trivial Pursuit with you, is all I’m saying. Last year, the threat of failing was real. I pushed myself creatively and productively in ways I never had before. My 2 a.m. panic attacks weren’t merely about the lack of ideas or the fickleness of inspiration, but about how mortifying it would be if I didn’t hit my deadline. Creating and maintaining a reputation as a professional, reliable and amiable author is not only critical to the editorial relationships I currently have, but also to the editorial relationships I will have in the future.
In publishing, I’m not competing against other authors, because those other authors have readers who will like my books, and I have readers who will like their books. I’m competing against myself, against the last book I wrote. I want the next book to be better, and the next one to be better than that one and on and on. I want to sell books, obviously, but success isn’t just the number of books sold. It’s readers enjoying the characters I’ve created, being upset over the length of time until the next book, recommending the book to their friends and family, asking me to speak to their book club. Success is having a bookseller who doesn’t know me recommending STILLWATER to me. Success is making friends with other writers and paying forward all the help and encouragement they’ve given me. Success is my husband reading my book and saying, “You’ve found your calling. I’m so proud of you.” Honestly, anything beyond that is gravy.
Though 2015 was a challenging year in so many ways, I met my goals and proved to myself that this writing thing might just work out. I’m ready for what’s next. Bring on 2016.
About Melissa: Melissa Lenhardt writes mystery, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her debut novel, STILLWATER, received a starred review from Library Journal and was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. Her short fiction has appeared in Heater Mystery Magazine, The Western Online, and Christmas Nookies, a holiday romance anthology. She is a member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop and vice president of the Sisters in Crime North Dallas Chapter. Her debut historical fiction novel, SAWBONES, will be released on March 29, 2016.