28 July 2018

A Million Tiny Steps

I'm paraphrasing Jane Friedman here, when I say:"Success takes a million tiny steps."

People always ask me what's the hardest part of being a college fiction writing teacher.  Is it all the marking?  Having to read student works in genres you wouldn't choose to read?  The long hours teaching at night, at the podium?

I don't teach that way (at the podium.)  I'm a desk-sitter.  But it's none of that.

By far, the hardest part of being a writing instructor is telling my students about the industry.  And in particular, that they aren't going to knock it out of the park with their first book - the one they are writing in my class.

It's hard, because they don't want to believe me.  Always, they point to one or two authors who make it to the bestsellers list on their first book.  "So and so did it - why won't I?"

What they don't know is that the book on the best-seller list - that author's "debut novel" - is most likely NOT the first book the author wrote.  Industry stats tell us it will likely be their 4th book written.  (3.6 is the average, for a traditionally published author.)

My own story works as an example.  My first novel published, Rowena Through the Wall, was a bestseller (yay!)  But it wasn't my first novel *written*.  It was my third.  And before that, I had 24 short stories published, which won me six awards.  (Six awards, students. Before I even tried to get a novel published.) 

Each one of those short stories, each of those awards, was a tiny step.

About that first novel: it was horrible.  So horrible that if anyone finds it on an abandoned floppy disk and tries to read it, I will have to kill either them or me.  It was a Canadian historical/western/romance/thriller with a spoiled, whiny heroine who was in danger of being killed. No shit. Even I wanted to kill her.  The second book was also horrible, but less horrible.  It was a romantic comedy with a "plucky heroine" (gag) and several implausible coincidences that made it into an unintentional farce. 

By the time I was writing my third and fourth novels, I got smarter.  Apparently, I could do farces.  Why not deliberately set about to write a humorous book?  And while you're at it, how about getting some professional feedback?  Take a few steps to become a better writer?

I entered the Daphne DuMaurier Kiss of Death contest.  Sent the required partial manuscript.  Two out of four judges gave me near perfect scores, and one of them said:
"If this is finished, send it out immediately. If this isn't finished, stop everything you're doing right now and finish it. I can't imagine this wouldn't get published."

One more tiny step.

That book was The Goddaughter.  It was published by Orca Books, and the series is now up to six books.  (Six steps.) The series has won three awards, and is a finalist for a fourth, this year. (Four more steps.)

I'm currently writing my 18th book.  It comes out Fall 2019.  Last summer, for the first time, I was asked to be a Guest of Honour at a crime fiction festival.  It may, just may, be my definition of success.

If you include my comedy credits, I have over 150 fiction publications now, and ten awards.

160 tiny steps to success. 

Conclusion:  Don't give up if your first work isn't published.  Take those tiny steps to become a better writer.  Take a million.

How about you? In what way has your writing career taken a million tiny steps?


  1. Writing success often is the result of perseverance, and the courage to persevere comes from recognizing each baby step is success, as you said, Mel. You don't have to have your first book hit the bestseller list to have success. Every day you write another page when you could have given up is a success. Finishing a full draft is a success. Finishing a revision is a success. Gathering the courage to send your manuscript out for critique or to find an agent or publisher, this is all success. The only way to ensure you won't succeed is to give up. You may never hit the bestseller list, but you still can succeed in writing by realizing what you have accomplished. (As for me, I was fortunate. I wrote 12 chapters of a book that ... got interrupted. I finished a second book that remains one draft away from being ready to go out. (It's been this way for years.) Then I turned to short stories. My first short story was published and nominated for the Agatha Award, so I got very lucky. That was a big step, and it encouraged me to persevere.

  2. Good lessons here.

    SInce you asked. I thought my first book was a novel. It was a series of stories about a police patrolman. I broked it into short stories and have sold much of it as short stories. My second novel is on a shelf in my closet. I think it can be salvaged when I feel like getting back to it. My third novel was GRIM REAPER and it started my career as it was published and is now the first novel in a 10-novel ongoing series.

  3. Great post, Melodie. Would any of your students expect to drive in the Indianapolis 500 with a learner's permit? That's the best analogy I can think of before my coffee.

    I wrote five unpublished (all with good reason) novels between 1972 and 1981 and drifted into theater. When I started writing again in 2003, I thought one of those books was salvageable, but the rest were junk that taught me only to keep my butt in the seat. When I started writing again, I was a lot more professional and a lot more organized.

    I sold my first short story (actually, about my fifteenth) after gaining over 350 rejections. My next two stories won Honorable Mention in various contests, and then a story won a fairly respected award. The next day, my ninth new MS was accepted by a small local publisher. We turned out to be a terrible fit for each other, but I have now sold about 20 short stories that have won two awards outright and five honorable mentions. And an Edgar nomination. Seven or eight stories are currently submitted to various markets and I'm waiting to hear one way or the other.

    My (thirteen) novels are now self-published (including the salvaged one from the 70s), and one was a finalist for the Shamus. The fifth draft of my latest WIP goes to a beta reader next week, and I'm putting together ideas for the next one. I quit counting the rejections at 750, and that was about four years ago, but I do keep track of where I've sent stories already.

    I still have at least twenty stories I never felt were good enough to submit anywhere, and five or six novels that eventually morphed into something better. I'm one of those people who learned to write by producing tons of real crap first and then figuring out how to fix it.

  4. Barb, wise words. You did a lot of writing before that first short story, and I'm sure that apprenticeship with writing novels showed. Cool, that we sort of did the opposite thing to get where we are today!

  5. O'Neil, I love your history of breaking down the first book into a series of short stories. I really prefer to write like that. If I had my way, I would be writing linked short stories instead of full novels. I also love to read those sort of books, where the characters return to tell new stories. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Steve, I've got to steal your race car example! (with appropriate credit given, of course :) I also learned to write by writing lots of crap (overwritten and overwrought). I think the lesson I learned the most: I have to love the protagonist I'm writing about. If I don't, it shows. My writing is not as fresh or exciting as usual. Thanks for commenting and telling us your story to publication!

  7. I started to write a novel once about 25 years ago. I wrote 200+ pages & it was terrible & getting worse. So I ran a high-powered magnet over the floppy disk I had saved it to & put it in a public trashcan in another town. Since then I write shorter & shorter. I haven't won any awards but I have won a couple of writing contests, have been invited to submit work different places, & placed two reprint stories in an anthology.

    Off topic, on Sunday my daughter, son-in-law, husband & I visited the Butterfly Conservatory near Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was magical!

  8. Love that place, Elizabeth. I've had them land on me. So that's what I should do with the floppy discs? grin - I figure no one on earth could read them now, not even me, which is a plus. Thanks for commenting!

  9. A million tiny steps? Jokes, anecdotes, fillers, cartoon captions, short verse, essays. In short, writing anything and everything just to get published as I worked my way up to short stories and novels.

  10. Michael, that was my path too. I always want to scream when someone says I became an overnight success. That night took almost twenty years.

  11. Started as a songwriter, wrote a sci-fi story on a bet that I couldn't do it (it was bad, but I wrote it), wrote stories for a while, wrote plays which finally taught me dialog, went back to stories, and the rest is history!

  12. I started doing comedy (think bad Mark Russell) and when that tanked (local club hired me and then went bankrupt & closed) then moved into writing (after spending the late 80s and 90s reading anthologies) and sent off a few stories in the 90s to multiple rejections and then WHAM I placed two short-shorts (one co-written) in a flash fiction anthology and then ZAP I had a longer story read over the radio Halloween Night 2001. And that was it for about ten years. Nothing but rejections! Now I've increased my productivity and manage to sell/place a couple of things a year! But things are still looking up!

  13. Eve, I can so relate to plays! My first play was produced in 1993, long before I thought to write a novel. It really does teach you dialogue. Thanks for commenting!

  14. Jeff, I actually got my start writing standup! I opened the Canadian Humour Conference in 1999. (and I LOVE Mark Russell) Is your fiction comedy? Most of mine is - 14/16 books. Thanks for commenting!

  15. Couldn't have said it better, Mel. And I couldn't imagine taking a single one of those million steps without holding your hand. Thank you, my friend.


  16. Dee, you leapt over many many of those steps when you won the Kobo Emerging Writer award this year for your first published novel! Damn proud to know you.


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