On August 10th 2011, at precisely 3:10 pm, I was sitting on the examining table at my doctor’s office, waiting impatiently for him to come in and prescribe antibiotics for my stubborn bout of sinusitis. One minute I thought I was having the worst sinus headache ever, the next I felt like John Travolta in the movie “Phenomenon” where he suddenly develops special powers after seeing a bright light in the sky. In a flash of what felt a lot like ESP, I was given a sign that my novel had sold.
But before you decide that I should have been seeing a psychiatrist instead of a general practitioner, let me explain what happened.
Minutes earlier, after taking my vitals, the nurse had left the examination room door partway open. Out in the hall, someone was holding the latest book by Fern Michaels, a NYT best-selling author with Kensington Publishing Corp. All I could see was a woman’s tan, jewelry-adorned hand, holding the hardcover against her ample chest, right side up and title facing out, the white and pink cover like a neon sign against her navy shirt. The woman talked excitedly for several minutes, her entire body shaking, the novel bouncing up and down as if saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” I told myself I was imagining things. Seeing the newest novel by a best-selling author from one of the two publishing houses who’d requested my novel three weeks earlier did NOT mean my novel had sold and I'd soon see my name on a Kensington cover. It was a coincidence, nothing more. People read books at the doctor's office all the time. Maybe I had a fever. Maybe I needed a nap. By the time I left the doctor’s office, I’d come to my senses and forgotten all about it.
Then, when I got home, my husband said my agent had called at 3:10, the exact same time Fern Michael’s book had been playing peek-a boo with me through a crack in the examining room door. My agent wanted me to email him as soon as I returned. Shaking, I emailed my agent, took the phone in the den, and waited. Finally, the phone rang. My agent said we had an offer from the editor-in-chief at Kensington for a two-book deal. For the first time in my life, I was speechless. “Yeah?” I managed. “You don’t sound very excited,” my agent said. Finally, I found my voice. “Are you kidding?” I said. “My heart is pounding out of my chest!”
Once I could speak again, my agent and I talked for over a half an hour. My husband and daughter kept opening the door and looking in at me with wide, questioning eyes. I smiled, gave a ‘thumbs up’, and shooed them away. Finally, I hung up and shared the news. I sold my novel! Wiping away tears of joy, I tried to remember everything my agent said. After hugs and congratulations, a rush of adrenaline raged through my body. It was like a hundred Redbulls mixed with shots of espresso coursing through my veins. I was wired, all thoughts of ESP and sinus headaches miraculously disappeared. I remember talking a hundred miles an hour and pacing the driveway in my bare feet, my husband sitting in the open door of the garage, nodding and smiling. This was huge! This was what I’d been working towards for years! This was like winning American Idol! Well, okay. Maybe not. But at that moment, that’s what it felt like (minus the million dollar contract). We decided to drive to my parents’ to tell them in person, (my mother cried) and we called close friends. It was a great day! And call me crazy, but I still wonder if someone or something was trying to give me a sign that day.
Next came the questions. What happens now? What do I do next? What's going to be expected of me? Unfortunately, that day in the doctor’s office I really did have a sinus headache and had NOT developed special powers. Bummer, I know.
We didn’t have a party, or go out to dinner to celebrate. Looking back, I wish we had. After all, how many times do you sell your first novel? Yeah. Once. Lesson learned.
There are a lot of other things I wish I’d known back then. And a whole lot of things I still have to learn. With that being said, here are some insights I've gained since then that may help others who have sold a novel and can't rely on ESP.
Let me start by saying this; if you’ve just sold your first novel, you’re going to be busier than you can imagine. If you have a two-book deal with a deadline, along with a hundred other things you never thought you'd have to do, you’re going to find yourself doing edits, copy edits, and promotion for the first novel, all while outlining and writing the second. That’s why I came up with this list. Some publishers may ask for the things on this list, some may not. Either way, you’ll be glad to have some of this busy work done ahead of time.
1) Celebrate every step! (Okay, it’s not required, and your publisher isn’t going to care one way or the other, but it’s a good idea) It doesn’t matter if celebrating means going out to dinner, buying yourself something nice, eating bread dumplings and drinking beer with your best buds, or lounging on the couch with your cats. If it’s something that makes you happy and feels like a reward, do it! You’ll be glad you did. (Did I mention you’re going to be busy?)
2) If you have a two-book deal, start writing down your ideas. Now. If you’ve already started another book or have three complete manuscripts stashed under your bed, good for you. But find out how soon your editor is willing to look at your ideas and synopses because the book you want to write, or have already written, might not be what your editor has in mind. If you have to start from scratch, it's best to know ASAP.
3) Write an Author Bio. Have several, in various word counts.
4) Write your dedication and acknowledgements. I know, I know. That’s the easy part and you'll have lots and lots of time! Trust me, it’s not, and you won’t. Look at other acknowledgements to get different ideas. Writing an acknowledgment is harder than you think.You can always add people later, but at least you’ll have a basic draft and you won’t be rushed when your editor suddenly asks for it in two days.
5) You may decide not to blog, but write a few blog posts anyway. I wasn’t going to blog and yet, here I am. The posts will come in handy if your publisher has you doing guest posts closer to publication, or you might decide to do a blog tour to get the word out about your book. You’ll be glad to have some posts ready. (And here I need to take my own advice)
6) Come up with 5-10 questions and answers for an Author Q & A. You know all those nice questionnaires in the back of your favorite books? Chances are, the author wrote it. Do yours now.
7) Write a positioning statement for your book. A positioning statement is like a pitch/byline for a movie. Here’s the positioning statement I wrote for The Plum Tree. It’s a little long, but I figured my publisher could edit it if necessary. They did.
“Told from one of the best vantage points for witnessing the first cruelties and final ruin of the Third Reich—the German home front—THE PLUM TREE is an epic story of human resilience and enduring hope that follows a young German woman through WWII as she struggles to survive poverty and Allied bombs, finds the courage to outwit SS officers, and tries to save the love of her life, a Jewish man. Think Cold Mountain meets Schindler’s List!”
8) Write a Reader’s Guide. Again, not all Reader’s Guides are the same, but look in other novels for different examples and ideas. My editor asked for 15 questions. I came up with 25. He kept 20.
9) Write an Author’s Note. My Author’s note consisted of the inspiration behind The Plum Tree, paragraphs describing how and why I used certain non-fiction books in my research, another paragraph about novels I’d read and enjoyed that also helped guide me through WWII, plus any historical liberties taken by me to further the plot.
10) Remember to enjoy LIFE. The life of a working author is literally non-stop. Non-stop writing, non-stop editing, non-stop networking, non-stop promotion, non-stop work. If you’re already a little OCD like I am, you have my sympathy. I’m a list person. I like to cross things off my to-do list by the end of the day. Having a never-ending to-do list is tough. You have to know when to take a break. Sometimes, even when you’ve got copy edits due and a hundred emails waiting, you’ve got to step away from the computer. Go for a walk, watch the Housewives of NYC, play with the dog, invite friends over. It will make you feel like a real, live person again. I love to cook, garden, clean, spend time with family and friends, and do yard work. Those things make me feel normal. It’s easy to put in 12-18 hour days doing everything a writer needs to do. If you have a full-time job and a family to raise, things are going to be monumentally harder. And remember, whenever you feel overwhelmed, see number one on this list. Celebrate! You sold a novel!!! And that, my friend, is almost as amazing as having ESP!!