Advice To My Pre-Published Self
By Nichole Bernier
Recently at the pediatrician’s office I fell into conversation with a man in the waiting room, the father of a 7-month-old with some undiagnosed problem.
We talked as parents do in these situations when you cut to the chase. About the toughness required of parents, developed over time for that limbo of uncertainty and worry. We shared thoughts about the way having several older children too does help: the experience of having been down this path before, and gaining a gut sense of what constitutes an emergency and what does not.
Somewhat sheepishly he told me about a video he’d seen online that had stuck with him. In it, mothers were asked what advice they would offer their younger, pre-parenthood selves. In a silent clip—he thought he recalled it was sponsored by a bra company, but no matter—women held up sheets of paper. On them they’d written poignant and humorous words of wisdom to the people they were the day before they’d had their first child.
Which got me thinking about the long gestation writers go through for their first book. Not because creating a novel is the same creating a baby, because it isn’t, but it’s often used as a metaphor.
What advice would published authors offer their pre-published selves?
Julie Klam (Please Excuse My Daughter, You Had Me at Woof): I would say something like enjoy this time, because it’s the last time a book was really just mine. Once I had an agent, an editor, a publisher, a marketing team, a publicist, my work changed, I think especially for me because it’s non-fiction, more people have input from conception on. The other thing I would say is, “Pay attention to the dogs, they’re going to be important later!”
Jackie Mitchard (18 books, most recently, No Time to Wave Goodbye): This rollercoaster ride will take you higher than swallows fly and lower than worms burrow…
Erika Robuck (Receive Me Falling): Keep it simple. I wanted to put everything I loved into my first book—art, music, literature, multiple time periods, etc…–because I didn’t realize that there would be more books. Many more books. When I started my first novel, I didn’t know it was only the beginning and that I’d be hooked for life. If I’d have kept it simple I could have gone deeper into a small amount of material, rather than skim the surface of a lot of it.
Amy MacKinnon (Tethered): Become an accountant instead.
Jenna Blum (Those Who Save Us, Stormchasers): Try not to get so frustrated when you’re posing the questions & the answers won’t come. They will, eventually. But also accept that frustration, like procrastination, is part of the novel-writing process.
Jen Gilmore (Golden Country, Something Red): Seriously? Be patient. This is going to be a longer haul than you realize. Less seriously? There’s no shame in going into advertising.
Therese Walsh (The Last Will of Moira Leahy): I would give myself the warmest hug that I could and say, Aww, sweetie, hang on for a wild ride. Listen to criticism, but listen harder to your gut. Don’t be so proud that you’re unwilling to crack a dozen or so books on the craft of writing. Learn about the publishing business along the way. And no matter what, keep going. It’s a wild ride, but it’s also a worthwhile one.
Joe Wallace (Diamond Ruby): Don’t even bother pretending you have a choice.
Beth Hoffman (Saving CeeCee Honeycutt): Stop fretting about getting all the details into first draft. I’d remind myself to look at my manuscript like a cake, let it bake and cool, and then go back and decorate!
Jane Roper (the forthcoming Eden Lake): Go back and take out every other adjective and all of the similes. Yes, ALL of them. Except that one on page 143, which is fine because it’s someone saying it in dialogue. And he’s supposed to sound dorky.
Claire Cook (8 novels, including the forthcoming Best Staged Plans): That it didn’t matter that it had taken me two decades to get to this place. What mattered was that, as George Eliot famously said, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
Caroline Leavitt (9 novels, most recently, Pictures of You): Have courage, be daring, don’t worry about what everyone else is going to think of you and your novel, just write the novel you are obsessed with writing. And, oh yes, take Dramamine for the nausea. (True. I threw up while writing my first novel—I was so young and so terrified!)
Laura Dave (3 novels, most recently, the forthcoming The First Husband): The first draft you write to find out where you are going. The second draft will start to take care of the rest.
Matt Debenham (The Book of Right and Wrong): Nothing! My first book, a collection of stories, took me five years to write, mostly because I had no idea I was writing a book. I just thought I was writing stories! Don’t get me wrong: there’s blood, sweat, and coffee in every story, each rewritten 10-15 times over the years. But it was also a special pleasure, because I was writing for the stories: I simply wanted to get one published, and then another one. I’m writing a novel now, and that’s been a new kind of kind of pleasure. I have no agent, no publisher—and I don’t care, because I’m writing the book I’ve wanted to write. (I’m also 2/3 of the way through and can’t wait to rewriteit!) So that’s my answer: I’d keep my mouth shut and let slightly-younger me enjoy/sweat the writing. He made a book I’m really proud of.
Rebecca Rasmussen (forthcoming novel, The Bird Sisters): Good luck, honey. Write yourself out of those corners. Have faith. Also, coffee does wonders!
Anonymous: Take the damn antidepressants.
Ellen Meeropol (House Arrests): If I could go back to before I started writing my first novel, HER SISTER’S TATTOO, I would tell myself to be patient and trust the process. But patience isn’t one of my strengths, so I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway. Instead I worked hard for three years on a manuscript that was, looking back, beyond my skills at the time, and then sorrowfully put it in the drawer with a huge sense of failure. If I had told myself to be patient and listened to my own advice I might have felt better about letting that manuscript marinate for three years while writing HOUSE ARREST and then returning to rewrite the first book with fresh eyes and new confidence. Now, HER SISTER’S TATTOO is with my agent, much the better for that long gestation. I’m still not patient though.
Camille Noe Pagan (the forthcoming The Art of Forgetting): Don’t get your hopes up? Kidding! I’d tell myself to obsess less about the early (horrid) drafts and just keep writing.
Nichole Bernier is a freelance writer based in Boston, and the author of the novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, to be published by Crown/Random House in June 2012. She has been a contributing editor with Condé Nast Traveler magazine for 12 years. Before moving to Boston she was on staff writing features on golf, skiing and current events. She also served as the magazine's Ombudsman, writing a Dear Abby-style column that mediates travel disasters, and as a television spokesperson. She received her master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal, Child, Boston, American Way and This Old House. She lives west of Boston with her husband and five children, and can be found on Twitter at @nicholebernier.