My first novel debuted one year ago, and it’s been quite a ride. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience as a first time author.
Write the Book
It took me a long time to put the book out there. There were of course some practical hurdles. Number one was writing the thing. I love writing. Even so, First Command took several years to go from that first day I started typing draft one to publication. My first big tip for writers seeking to publish their work: get it written. You can’t publish something that doesn’t exist. You can only publish what you complete.
Often that means you have to accept that your first draft won’t be that great. In fact it may not even be good. But once it’s done you can jump into editing. And you can make it amazing.
Hire an Editor
Hiring an editor in no way absolves you of self-editing. In fact, what I found was that in preparing to sent the manuscript to an editor, I would forcefully go through multiple self-edits before sending it off. I spent time reading chapters to my writing group and my family. Again, not to get it perfect, but I wanted to make sure my editor was spending her time on the all the things I couldn’t catch myself.
Professional editing can be expensive, but this is one area where it really pays to make the investment. It’s like you get a university-level course in the craft of writing, and you’re the only student. And even more importantly, it give you an independent set of eyes on your work that will give you the feedback you need to hear, not just the feedback they think you’ll want to hear.
It’s important to spend time searching for an editor who will work well with you, and who can offer what you’re looking for. There’s basic stuff, like the difference between developmental, line and copy editing, but you also have to consider knowledge of the genre, jiving with your style, balance between criticism and pointing out what you’ve done well, and how well they understand the story you’re trying to tell.
Here’s one secret: Many editors will do a test-edit of your first thousand words or so for free. They can give you a critique on your work and tell you what they’ll help you to focus on. When you’re ready for an editor, this can help you figure out which one is going to be the best for you.
Putting Together a Cover
People judge books by their covers.
A cover becomes a focal point of your marketing. It’s what potential readers see when they’re searching for that next great read. What’s critically important about covers is that they need to tell people what kind of read they’re in for. First Command is a science fiction story featuring astronaut cadets and so it was important that the cover convey both science fiction and a young adult demographic. The team at Miblart suggested the main character, Cassi, with her helmet off, in front of a crashed spacecraft on an alien world. I went with an illustrated cover because there was generally more freedom than with models and photoshop, and illustrated covers are quite common in the genre.
Starting a Business
First Command is published by Megavoltage Publishing, a business I started in 2021. I’m not a “business” person. But even then, I knew if I was going to put books out into the world, I wanted to do it as professionally as possible. I can’t offer a whole lot of advice on this aspect of the process, but if you’re thinking about striking out as an independent author, there is this dimension to it. Business license. Taxes. Book keeping. Marketing.
I do commonly hear the advice from successful independent authors to: treat it like a business.
The caveat I would attach to this is that it’s important to establish for yourself what you define as “success.” For many independent authors, that means supporting themselves full time with their writing. But that’s not the only definition of success. For some people it simply means sharing their stories with their target audience.
Marketing is tough, because it put you in a position where you have to talk up yourself and your work and this goes against so many cultural lessons that insist people be humble.
Another tip on this front is to get really good at summarizing your work. Blurbs, elevator pitches, tag lines, log lines, tweets, social media posts, and even casual conversations when someone asks what your book is about… condensing your work down into a few simple sentences, or a single concept can be a brutally challenging task. But when you do it well, that makes it so much easier for people to find your work.
So far the biggest surprise for me has been how much of an emotional effect my work has had on people. As a writer I generally aim for my work to resonate with readers, and I’ve had a so much positive feedback it has been at times overwhelming. I’m always so grateful to hear from people who’ve enjoyed my work.
This is a beautifully written story whose characters are really likable. It is evident that James took great care with this story and with the characters and all their histories, their conflicts and their weaknesses, in order to forge a strong narrative that drew me in and made me really care about these people! Each character was developed so carefully and beautifully, and in such a way that they were exactly enough, and no more. The challenges they faced were extremely visual, emotional and really stressful but all this within a framework that was believable and backed up by either real science or by some really compelling sci-fi. James is disciplined in his writing and the result has me believing that I really understand the challenges, limitations and customs of this time, these places, these people. I also appreciated the opportunities he took to suggest the greater good in mankind as well as in individuals, and he did it with a gentle nod, instead of a judgemental shove, as I’ve seen in some movies over the years.– Amazon Reviewer
One final lesson I’ve learned is the importance of persistence. As a writer you have to keep going, keep pressing forward, and keep writing.
I’m currently working on a sequel to First Command. It’s already been through one round of edits and I’m feeling good about it, that it’s a worth successor. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’m aiming for later summer, or early fall. I’ll be posting here for sure when it goes up for pre-orders.