The Highs and the Lows of Becoming an Author

Cassie Alexander is an active registered nurse. Nightshifted is her debut novel, coming out through St. Martin’s Press on May 22, 2012.

I was trying to think of the best way to present this piece without it being frontloaded (or backloaded!) with pain and sorrow. I’ve decided that alternating is best. Presented for your pleasure, or sympathetic pain, here’s the highlight reel of the best decisions and worst decisions I’ve ever made in my 15 year writing career.

Best: Getting an agent

I know, because I’m out there on the internets, that there’s a school of thought that says that now that Amazon’s our new publishing overlord, agents are a thing of the past.

That’s simply not true.

Let me tell you some of the fabulous things my agent, Michelle Brower, and her agency, Folio Lit, have done for me: sold a trilogy at auction, getting me three times as much money for it as was originally offered, obtaining sales of foreign rights to Germany and France. Reading my contract and making sure it was favorable to me, and having the agency lawyer red-pen it to make it even moreso. (Not that Macmillan was out to get me, but generic boilerplate is not always great.)

Those are things I simply couldn’t have done on my own. No way, no how.

And beyond that, she’s read all of my books, sometimes before my editor has, and offered really insightful advice that I was happy to take. She’s helped me come up with a sales proposal for another series, based on her knowledge of the market with her insider ability to see trends, an opportunity I would never have had on my lonely-own.

I’m always bemused when people say they can go it alone. Technically, you can, and yes, a bad agent is worse than no agent, but there’s no way I would have had the opportunities for success that she’s given me without her.

Worst: Getting a Book Doctor

In my weak defense, this was Back In The Day. But I wish someone had told me this sooner, so here, learn from my pain.

Once Upon a Time there was a Well Known Author who had a Spectacular Agent and Purported Ins at a Publishing House. He was also a book doctor, for the small small price of a thousand dollars.

I scrimped and saved until I’d earned that money — I think I had a ten buck an hour job at the time — and sent it and my manuscript (one before Nightshifted) off to him with the hopes that he’d see my intrinsic genius, give me amazing advice, and herald me to his agent and the publishing house he was associated with. It would finally be my in.

Yes, I was naive. And hopeful/desperate. You know, how new writers sometimes are.

Obviously, none of those things happened. Instead, he had some personal drama just after I paid him… and so he took my money and never responded to me. Ever.

I was understanding (naïve! Hopeful! Desperate!) about his personal drama, and I waited. And waited. And waited. After a year when it was clear I wasn’t going to learn the secret handshake from him, I demanded my money back. It took another 6 months to get. When I was eventually repaid he overpaid me, which felt like some sort of hush money to be quiet about his lack of services rendered to me. But, yeah. Overall, a bleak period in my nascent career. (For the record, he no longer offers those services, or I’d out him in a heartbeat.)

I learned then what I ought to have already known, that there’s no shortcuts in this career. Which leads me to my next best decision…

Best: Not Giving Up

I had so many opportunities to give up along the way. The first World Fantasy I went to was in 98, and I’d already written a book by then. Nightshifted (the one that sold) was my tenth book. I’ve had at least 500 rejections for short fiction, probably more, and over 150 agent rejections total over my entire career. 56 of those were for Nightshifted — the one that sold.

I had friends not get what I was doing, relatives and ex-husbands think I was crazy. I stopped telling people I was a writer because after enough times sharing it, I knew the decision tree subsequent conversation would follow — they’d want to know where I was published, and I wasn’t, and then there’d be an awkward silence I’d try to fill by explaining that that wasn’t all that unusual. (Somehow you can be an artist without having gallery shows, and you can be a musician even without a band, but if you say you’re a writer without a book in your hands, hmmph.)

If I’d ever said, “You know, maybe this writing thing isn’t working out for me,” there wouldn’t have been all that many people who’d have tried to stop me. Luckily for me, I was too stubborn to quit.

Worst: The Times I Did Quit

Or, I gave up too soon.

It wasn’t until really late on in my career I realized how often people — even pros! — had to keep submitting stories. I was giving up on submitting stories way too soon. I’d get four or five rejections from professional magazines and then trunk the story, and write a new one. Always writing new stuff was great experience, yes, but I should have been better about sending out the old.

Same for novels. Mind you, a large proportion of this was pre-internet making all the agent searches easy, but… I’d send a book out to 5-10 agents, they’d say no, and then I’d send it into the Tor slushpile to get lost. I didn’t persevere. I didn’t run things into the ground. I’m not sure it would have changed my career much, as Nightshifted is clearly the best thing I’d written up until that time, but it would have been good for me to keep trying.

Best: Going to Conventions

Writing is such a lonely art, and so few people understand why you’re compelled to do it. Going to conventions and meeting other people who take writing seriously gives you the freedom to be among their number, permission to take yourself seriously. That’s always been something that I’ve battled, and am battling still with an increasing sense of irony. Going to conventions really helped me to feel like a Real Writer. Being around people who do what you do and get what you do and why you do it is energizing. I’d come home from a World Fantasy or Worldcon high on being a writer for weeks at a time. It gave me the self esteem about being a writer that I wasn’t able to give myself internally (having known that I’d received 5 rejections that week) or acquire through external measures, such as getting acceptance letters.

At conventions when I was with writers I felt like a writer and it was good for me.

Worst: Flirting at Conventions

In the Venn Diagram of my life, there was a brief period where I was single and attending conventions. The overlapping zone of time was not pretty.

I wrote a lot of SF early on. It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman who writes SF, muchless one who flirts. I don’t think this is fair or anything, but it is what it is, and the brief window of time when you’re at a writing convention is not the place where you’ll manage to overturn the social hierarchy. It’s a shame, because it’s completely a double standard, in that guys can flirt and no one thinks less of them…but be a girl that does it, and suddenly you’re not the SF writer who also sometimes flirts, you’re just a flirty girl. Or, worse yet, a girl trying to flirt to get ahead. Which for some people, negates whatever career progress you’ve made — “no wonder they published your story, you showed clevage.” Gah.

Some people do manage to use their convention time as a pansexual smorgasbord of opportunities. I wasn’t one of the people who could do that well, and in retrospect, I wish I’d never tried. (Except for that one time when it worked out reallllly well. He knows who he is.)

Best: Making Writing Friends

The end result of all the conventions I went to, and online message boards and mailing lists I hung out on, was making writing friends. People I could email on bad days, send stories to, chat ideas out with, get support from when the rejections came in, and celebrate the few successes. While my real life friends are supportive, they don’t bone-deep get it the way my writer friends do.

Conventions and writing groups led me to Daniel, who is my alpha reader for all of my books now, who sees them all when they’re still in progress. (And who yells at me when I’m not writing them fast enough.) He’s a writer, but I met him through his wife who was in a writing group with me at the time. We clicked, and I’m very very very pleased to get to have his input in on all of my books now. He’s really made my writing shine.

And you’ll find in your career that no matter where everyone started, that the people in your social cohort rise together. I think that’s a direct relationship to the critiques, support, and understanding we offer one another. Together, we become our own liferafts and we rise with the tide.

Worse: Being Jealous of Friend’s Careers

Because my heart is not a stoic island. The more awesome people you know, the higher the chance that one of them will be zomg-amazing-bestselling-award-winning awesome. And while I’m always 99.99% happy for their success, especially when as a friend I’ve had the closest seat to their efforts, that .01% of jealousy can be a very bitter draught.

It’s not something I’m proud of. It isn’t that I don’t think they deserve their success, it’s just that I wish/ed that I could be as successful too. Fifteen years with not much to show for it wears a person down. Mostly, I try to remind myself that they’re awesome and deserving, and that eventually my time will come. Hopefully, I’m right.

And because I want to end on a high note, the final best:

Best: Having My Own Book Come Out

Nightshifted sold at the end of 2010. It came out in Germany earlier this year, which has been awesome — but I can’t wait until it finally comes out in the US. That’s going to be a best for sure, the second that that I can finally see it in a bookstore!