A Writer's Journey to Publication
One of the most common questions we authors get:
Did you always want to be a writer?
To my thinking, it's a decent question, but not the most interesting one.
See, everyone has dreams, but making the dreams a reality? Not very common.. So I'm always more interested in the how.
How did the dream of being a writer become a reality?
How long did it take? What were the setbacks? Did you get a formal education for it? Was it luck? Magic? Sweat and tears?
For those of you with the dream of being a full-time author, wondering about how to make it work:
- You can do it. Absolutely you can do it.
- It's never about a moment. It's about a journey.
And this? This is my journey ...
The journey to full-time author, from birth to right now:
As I understand it, I spent the first year of my life screaming my head off, my not-so-terrible twos obsessed with Winnie the Pooh, and my pre-school days very into Playdough.
But somewhere in the midst of all that, I was riding around in my grocery store chariot, and stole a copy of James Michener’s Poland from some unsuspecting shelf. A book lover even then, you see?
Television wasn’t really allowed in our home, but books were encouraged. About this point I was starting to max out my enjoyment of slowly reading Dr. Seuss myself, and was much more into the more interesting books my mom would read aloud.
I still remember both how into The Castle in The Attic and Charlotte’s Web I was, as well as how frustrated that my reading skills weren’t strong enough to read them to myself after she’d put the book away for the night.
First grade. My reading skills were at the top of my class, but my grasp on numbers was shaky at best. Basic addition was a total stumper. This proclivity for words over numbers would remain true for the rest of my life. I still can't add a tip in a restaurant without muttering to myself about "carrying the one ..."
Second grade, and an absolute pivotal moment. My second grade teacher started reading the class The Boxcar Children. I was beyond enthralled. Right around the time my teacher started reading it, my parents took us Christmas shopping to downtown Seattle. I found my way into the bookstore, as I so often did, and pulled The Boxcar Children off the shelf. Delighted to realize I had the reading chops to read it on my own, I spent every penny I’d ever saved on The Boxcar Children, Book 1. Later that night at dinner, my parents surprised me with the second book in the series as well. I’d finished both books by the following day. A game changer, as I was from here on-out, “a reader.”
I was a voracious reader by this point, my mom patiently taking me to the library a couple times a week as I read every single thing I could get my hands on. Needless to say, I’d long devoured the entire Boxcar series, but discovered other favorites. Nancy Drew, Goosebumps, Sweet Valley Twins, A Wrinkle in Time, and so on. When my parents’ friends asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "an author!" Because, duh. Best job ever.
Oh junior high. The ultimate transition period (sup, puberty). My reading preferences started to change too. I discovered Sweet Valley High before I probably should have, and the adventures of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield is definitely the point in my reading career where my interests started zeroing on romance.
My parents were less than thrilled with the Sweet Valley High fascination, but I will forever be grateful that they never forbade me from reading them—I suspect they understood that reading was supposed to be fun. They did, however, insist that I alternate SVH with classics. In between Dear Sister and Deceptions, I also read everything else my parents set on my nightstand. Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, everything by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, Dune, and so on.
Another pivotal moment. While rummaging through my mom’s high school Costco haul for an after-school snack, I picked up Nora Roberts's The Reef.
Back in those days, I read just about any book that touched my hands, and this was no different, except it was very different. I remember feeling a very dazed sense of wonder at the romantic tension between the main characters. Forget about Sweet Valley High. This was my reading destiny.
I still didn’t quite understand that romance novels were a thing, but I kept my eye open for books like The Reef. I discovered Midnight Secrets by Janelle Taylor and Exclusive by Sandra Brown and hid them under my bed where I read and reread them a dozen times. Sorry, not sorry, Mom.
Big moment here. Huge. My family was vacationing at a beach house on the Washington coast. A couple days in, I’d already blown through all my reading material, which, in the pre-Kindle age, left me cranky and panicked. Then I found the vacation’s home “left behind” bookshelf, of those books previous vacationers had finished and left for someone else.
I picked up Judith McNaught’s Perfect. This book changed my life. The others I had read up to that point were romance, yes, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant to have All The Feels until this book. We had to leave before I finished Perfect, and um, I took the book with me, because I couldn’t not find out what happened. (I later mailed them a copy of Perfect, don’t worry!) Upon finishing the book, I had this very clear sense that if I could some day make someone feel with a book what I’d felt with this book, that I would be really, truly happy.
By this point I had a driver’s license, as well as a bit of my own spending money, all of which went to feeding my newly discovered romance novel habit, all of which were tucked into the back of a shelf in my bedroom.
The early years of college. Because I’d taken AP Literature in high school, I didn’t have to take any English classes my Freshman year. I surprised everyone, myself included, by falling in love with political science classes and declaring a Poli Sci major instead of English.
My romance reading slowed down due to college coursework being way harder than high school, but my favorite part of Christmas break was diving into the waiting pile of romance novels. I discovered Susan Elizabeth Phillips during this stage, who quickly became a top favorite alongside Judith McNaught.
The latter years of college … I was still a Poli Sci major, and was still loving it, although every single one of my electives was in the English department. I took a poetry class, creative writing class, analytical writing class, political literature class, not because they fulfilled any requirement but simply because I loved them.
As graduation crept up, I took a “vocation symposium,” where we were asked to do a little soul-searching on our calling. My calling was clear—writing. But I didn’t want to pursue journalism or copywriting or publishing, or any of the suggested directions from mentors. I wanted to write novels, and not just any novels. Romance novels. ... it was strongly suggested I focus on paying bills instead. So I did.
My first real job. I was a receptionist at a fancy commercial real estate company. I didn’t hate it. I loved dressing up in high heels and Friday happy hours, and I made some really wonderful friends.
But about six months in, I felt my first stab of grown-up panic … that sense of wait, “Is this it? Is this all there is, the rest of my life?”
My fiancé asked what I wanted to do instead, and I said I wanted to write a book. He suggested I try writing something on the hour train commute to and from work, and I rolled my eyes. Real writers needed quiet and solitude and a dedicate writing desk, thought the pretentious snobby 22-year old. I didn’t write a single word.
I’d move on to another job. It was a better fit in that it required me to use my brain a bit more and kept me busy. I didn’t think about writing. As much. I was also distracted by the not so little task of planning a wedding to my high school sweetheart.
The luster of the new job had worn off, I was now a content wife instead of a busy bride, and ... the writing bug was back. This time, I decided to do something about it.
I bought a butt-load of books about novel-writing. I bought binders and notebooks and folders, and a brand new desk. Within three months, I had a very detailed outline and notes on a series about three sisters who inherited a Napa winery.
Then I tried to write the book and realized that writing is really, really hard. I quit before the end of Chapter One and put all of my notes and outlines away, never to look at them again.
My husband and I moved from Seattle to Orange County, CA for his job. I kept my job in Seattle, and they were kind enough to let me work remotely.
The wonderful freedom of not having to commute to work every day, as well as the fact that my husband was gone most days and many nights with our only car left me with a lot of time on my hands.
I was bored and fresh out of excuses. So I wrote a book. Or most of a book. It was called Whatever Happened to Romance, named after a Victoria Hart song, and about rival colleagues Max and Julia. When I got to the second to last chapter, I realized that I could/should do something with the book. Or at least try to. I wrote a very terrible query letter and sent it to a handful of agents.
After accepting that we absolutely hate living in sunny climates, my husband and I moved back to Seattle. The query letters were still out in the world, although rejections were rolling in. I still hadn’t written the last chapter. More rejections rolled in, vicious in their copy/paste lack of personalization. I decided I wasn’t a writer after all. I set the book aside, unfinished, and threw myself into my “day job.”
This was a tumultuous, but ultimately important year for me.
I was still in my job, but I was pulling hard at the reins. Butting heads with every manager who came my way, resenting the hell out of the monotony of a 9-5 schedule when most of my work could be done from home, after hours.
More than ever before, my life had become a depressing loop of desperately waiting for Friday afternoon, and dreading Monday morning with a knot in my stomach. I started asking big questions, and aligning myself with friends who wanted more out of life. The question came up over and over again, What would you do with your life if money were no object?
Writing romance novels was always the answer, and I finally realized how sick I was of myself—I was tired of being the person who was all dream and no action. I decided to stop being the person who kept saying “I wish” and start being the person who said “I will.” As I approached the end of that year (2010), I realized it was time.
It was time to write a book, all-in, not as a bored experiment, but because I wanted to publish it--because I wanted to be an author.
(we're going to start getting a bit more specific with timing now, as things are taking off and milestones happened by month, not year!)
Age 28 - early 2011
I started the book. My day job still demanded most of Monday-Friday, but for 3 months or so, I was a weekend warrior, devoting all day to writing as many words as I possibly could on Saturdays and Sundays.
I finished Only With You (then called Accidentally in Love) by summer, and was starting to clean it up for submission when my husband got a phone call from work—an offer to move to New York City for his job. We’d been west-coasters all our life, had never even been to New York. But we realized that it was a now-or-never situation. If we didn’t say yes to an adventure now, we were unlikely to later.
Moving meant me quitting my job, but I was planning on doing that anyway. This just moved up the time table by a few weeks. I asked my husband to give me three months before job-hunting in New York. I asked for three months to work full time on my writing, finding an agent to represent my work, and securing the elusive book deal.
Age 28 - late 2011
We were in New York City, and wildly in love with our new life in Manhattan. True to my word, I’d thrown myself whole-heartedly into my writing dreams. I polished and re-polished my manuscript. I started another one, a Young Adult fantasy, just to expand my chances of getting agent interest.
I sent out a dozen or so query letters. But rejections were starting to trickle in—many of them telling me that while they liked my voice, there wasn’t much of a market for contemporary romance.
Age 28 - early 2012
(I’m an April birthday, in case you’re trying to do the age-math here)
My three-months of not working were over, and the reality of trying to live on one salary in the most expensive city in the country was starting to have very real, detrimental effects on our bank account and stress-levels.
I dusted off my resume, updated it, and applied for dozens of e-commerce and web-marketing jobs. However, I also was still damn sure I was supposed to be an author, absolutely convinced that my manuscript was every bit as good as much of what was being published.
Rejections continued to roll in, but instead of getting discouraged (okay, there was one day where 2 rejections came in back to back within an hour and I cried), I became more stubborn. More determined. A little angry, even. I wrote another query letter—better this time, although in hindsight there was something more pivotal happening than my improved query letter skills … Fifty Shades of Grey was starting to take off in a big way. Those agents that had just months earlier claimed there was no market for contemporary romance were starting to change their tune.
Age 28 - Early April 2012
It was a Saturday morning. I was sitting on the couch with my husband. He was working on his laptop, I was perusing job boards on mine. An email came through. Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency: “Lauren, you have a spectacular voice - Is this manuscript still available?”
Heart in my throat, I did a last minute read-through of the manuscript, before emailing her back on Sunday morning (the following day), saying, that yes, it was available, and attached for her review.
Less than twenty-four hours later, she emailed me back. She liked the manuscript, and could I speak on the phone. We set up a phone date for Wednesday, I nearly died waiting for it.
Just five days after requesting the manuscript, Nicole called and offered to represent me.
Two days before my 29th birthday, I signed a contract with The Seymour Agency.
Age 29 - Mid 2012
The weeks after signing with Nicole were a little surreal. As I tweaked the manuscript per some of her suggestions, responses from other agents started to pour in, this time with very different responses, none of them rejections.
I politely told them that I’d already accepted representation (and hell yes, after months of rejection, that felt good).
Age 29 - July 2012
Nicole thought we were ready to go out on submission.
Two days after she sent it out, we got our first offer. A little lower than she wanted, and digital-only, but I’ll never forget the feeling. There was a book deal on the table. For my book.
More offers came in, and we ended up accepting a 2-book print deal from Grand Central Publishing. I was officially on my way to becoming a published author.
Age 29 - August 2012
The book contract was signed, when Nicole came to me with news that Random House (this was before they merged with Penguin) wanted to know if I had anything else in the works.
They were one of the houses to offer on my first book, but the offer was digital-only, and I decided to go with the print offer. But as Nicole put it, e-books were the future, and in publishing it was always a good idea not to put all your eggs in one basket. I agreed.
Problem was? I didn’t have another book. Or even an idea. I hurriedly brainstormed, came up with the concept of a series about a women’s magazine (based on Cosmopolitan/Glamour), where the heroine of each book was a columnist in their “Love & Relationships” department.
The Random House editor was interested, but wanted to see the book, obviously. So I wrote it. In one month, I went from having not so much as an idea for another book, to having a complete manuscript.
Random House bought the three book series, and in just a couple months, I went from having no book deal, to five books under contract.
Age 29-30 - Late 2012 - Mid 2013
I wish I could tell you that the months that followed were all sunshine and rainbows and champagne, but honestly ? They were difficult.
While I was very much soul-happy, knowing that I was secured on the path to achieving my ultimate dream of being a published author, real life was nipping at my heels.
Generally speaking, debut romance authors don’t tend to command huge advances (the money authors receive upon signing a book deal). Or at least my advance wasn’t huge. Receiving the checks were a wonderful symbolic moment, but to be honest, the amount did very little to make a dent in our slowly accumulating debt.
And my first book, originally slated to be published e-book first with print to follow, continued to get delayed. Originally my publisher aimed for a January release. Then March. April. And so on. I was still living the dream, but it was not particularly … dreamy.
Age 30, August 2013
My first published book (After the Kiss) was released on August 25, 2013. I say my first published book, because this was actually not the first book I wrote, nor the first book deal I was contracted.
In the end, my first book would get pushed out seven times by that publisher, making it my fifth book to be published. Random House, in the mean time, had published the 3-original books about the magazine writers (the Stiletto series), as well a s a standalone New Adult novel (Isn’t She Lovely).
The publication of After the Kiss was a bit bittersweet, as just weeks before its release, my husband and I made the difficult, but financially-responsible decision to leave New York City to return to Seattle, where we moved in with my parents for a couple months in an effort to get our money-reality back on track.
Age 30-31 (2014)
In 2014, my husband and I settled into a two-bedroom apartment in Issaquah, WA and worked our asses off. He threw himself whole-heartedly into a new job, and I spent all day every day writing my ass off to make sure this whole “writing career” didn’t go belly up.
My book sales up to this point were underwhelming … not enough for my publishers to drop me, but enough so I didn’t command much money in subsequent book deals. I realized that in order to make a living at this, I’d need to make a little money on a lot of books, since I didn’t seemed destined to make a lot of money on any one book (see: Fifty Shades of Grey).
I released five books in 2014 (including my two books from that original publishing deal, two years after singing the contact).
I also signed more book deals, setting me up to release six books in 2015. After two years of making virtually no money, in 2014, I matched the salary (almost exactly) of what I was making at the day job I quit in 2011.
Age 31 (2015)
Things were looking up. While hardly rolling in dough, we’d climbed our way back out of debt. We also reached the startling realization that Seattle (where we grew up and lived most of our lives) didn’t feel like home. Apparently, those two years in New York had changed us into east coasters.
We couldn’t afford to move back to Manhattan yet, but we were craving a change. In January 2015, we moved to Chicago for a year. By this point, I’d become a writing machine in the best way possible, writing book after book and loving every minute, even as I started to resign myself to the fact that while I could make enough money support myself, I might never be a bestseller.
Age 32 - Summer 2015
In August 2015, almost two years to the day after my first book was published, I hit the USA Today bestseller list with Blurred Lines. It stayed in the Amazon Top 100 for weeks, the iBooks top 10 for weeks, and in its first month had sold more than most of my previous books had sold in their entire lifetime.
Things were changing.
Age 32 - End of 2015
Following the release of Blurred Lines, I had two more releases in 2015.
While neither made any bestseller lists, but both did vastly better than all my previous books.
2015 marked the first year that I made more--substantially more, than I ever made in my day job.
I know it’s incredibly taboo to talk about money—I’m well aware that this could come across as bragging and smug, but that’s truly not why I’m bringing it up.
I’m talking about money as a note of encouragement to every writer who’s thought they couldn’t make it. Who thought a career in writing was a either a fantasy, or financially irresponsible.
I’m bringing this up for parents who would tell their kids that writing won’t pay bills, that they need to get a “real job.” Please don't. Or do, but tell them to keep writing even as they work that "real job."
Dreams do come true, yes, but more importantly, hard work and persistence can pay off.
(also? We finally made it back to NYC, this time with very different financial circumstances)
Age 33 - Late 2016
Plenty more good things. I had six releases, five out of six made the USA TODAY bestseller list, one even breaking onto the New York Times bestseller list for the first time.
It was a really, really good year, although also an important ones in terms of lessons—I learned that no matter how great you feel like you’re doing, no matter how happy you are, you can’t make everyone happy. There will be readers who demand more books. Publishers who want better sales numbers. There will be frustrated readers who want print versions of your book, even as publishers tell you they’re not going to print them.
In a lot of ways, 2016 was a busy, messy journey back to my roots—back to the reason I started this career in the first place: I like to tell stories. All the other stuff can go hang itself.
Age 33 - January 2017 - Present Day, as I write this!
Things are good. Things are great. I have seven books out this year, all stories that I’m wildly excited about.
It’s early yet, but I feel good about this year’s direction. That said, I’m already thinking towards 2018, dreaming, scheming, whatever, and I just feel sort of on … high alert, prepped for a change/adjustment. I had a writer-friend tell me recently that I seemed “never satisfied.” I was a bit stung at first, but upon reflection, I realized it was not only true, but … a compliment.
Or at least I’m choosing to take it that way. I didn’t get where I am today by being satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate every moment. I’m grateful for every achievement, and always keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge to celebrate wins, both big (new book deal) and small (finishing a particularly rewarding scene).
But there’s a fine line between rejoicing in all the you’ve achieved thus far and becoming complacent. My advice?
Be hungry. Dream big and act big. And it will happen.
(this blog post marks Lauren Layne’s writing journey through January 2017 . She will make every effort to update it in the future as major milestones occur, but makes no promises!)