My journey as a writer began in my early teen years. My parents had divorced under ugly circumstances, and my mother moved us from our very posh life in Hawaii to a small house in a secluded corner of Ojai, California.
Being young and not understanding the sacrifices my mother made during this time, I retreated into my books to avoid the conflicts brewing all around me and the displacement I felt coming into a new school with a bunch of kids I definitely didn’t fit in with.
I began writing my first fantasy story at 13, about a girl stolen away from her home, becoming a heroine who traveled with fantastical creatures on some quest or other.
I don’t recall if I finished it, but I delighted in the retreat and release writing brought me. I could pour my frustrations out on a page and find easy or whimsical resolutions to the drama.
That was important; I needed something to help me feel like there was an answer or an end to what I was going through—and that solution turned out to be stories. I wasn’t the popular kid by any stretch. No, I was the kid who broke the reading curve in English class because I finished all our summer reading projects before school was even out. I found myself engrossed in the stories written by other authors, reading whatever I could, whenever I could.
Finding My Genre
The very first romance novel I got my hands on, I’ll never forget. I was 14 years old, and I picked up a copy of The Pirate and The Pagan by Virgina Henley at the Ojai Library.
If you’ve never read a book by Virginia, they’re historical, deliciously salacious page turners, and 20 years later, I still go back and re-read my beat-up copies.
But imagine being 14 years old, having zero knowledge of what a romance novel actually contains, and coming across one of those salacious bits at home with your mama sitting not far away.
As a wallflower who was extremely shy and never spoke to the boys at school—who honestly didn’t give me the time of day anyway—these books were eye opening. Not the sexual content per se, but the idea of romance. The suggestion that the mean boys at school wouldn’t always be my only options. That there might be a man out there to sweep me off my feet and carry me off into the sunset someday.
Needless to say, I’d found my genre.
I was secretive about my books, and about my subsequent writing, in the way that artists are secretive about an unfinished painting.
“Don’t look! I’m not finished! This is mine! It’s a secret!”
More than that, I knew if my mom read what I was writing, she was guaranteed to freak out and not understand. Naturally, as teenagers are incapable of truly hiding something from their mothers, especially when they’re using the family computer to write their epic romances, Mom found out.
It was a horrifying disaster. I received my very first review: mixed, harsh, and rather heartbreaking.
And yet I was flattered, because despite the fact that Mom was yelling at me, she was expressing her amazement (and horror) that I had written a story she was able to feel, experiencing it like she was there in the middle of the story.
To me, this meant I must have done a good job! Well, until Mom started throwing out words like “smut” and “disgusting.” Then the heartbreak set in, because I had apparently done something wrong.
Now, the story she’d gotten hold of was one of my first attempts at romance, and I’m sure she thought that if I had written sexy scenes, I must have been experiencing sex. I’m not sure she believed me when I told her, honestly, that I’d never even kissed a boy.
The fact that there was an evil stepmother who locked the young heroine in a tower to keep her away from the hero probably didn’t help, as Mom no doubt thought I was writing about her—and maybe to some extent, I was.
I felt trapped and alone, so I wrote fantasies for myself where I was free as a bird and insanely happy. It was my version of a diary, except none of the things in my stories could ever possibly happen, as they existed in realms of fairies and dragons.
The harshness and anger my mother displayed at having discovered my secret worlds of fantasy made me even more secretive. I continued to write, finding inspiration in music where the lyrics reflected my emotional state and the desires for freedom.
Honestly, it was total teenage dreck, but it was my outlet and it continued to be throughout my transition into adulthood.
Creating an Outlet
Some women come home after a long day of work and unwind with a glass of wine and a hot bath.
Me? I wrote murder mysteries, and the bodies dropping all over my literary works were the customers who had been unbearably rude to me at the vet clinic.
Or I wrote short stories all about the insanely hot guy who took my breath away, the protector of small children and animals who found a kitten in the woods and rescued it from a fate worse than death, who later seduces the heroine by reading off the Thai food menu in his deliciously deep voice.
That guy still features as inspiration for some of my heroes. Witness the hot yoga teacher slash youth social worker with a crotchety kitten named Monjee. Swoon.
So in truth, I’ve always been an author; I just never published anything because I felt like it wasn’t good enough. My ideas weren’t good enough. It wasn’t finished. It was too trashy. Not trashy enough. Too whimsical and outlandish.
I had a million reasons why I couldn’t actually publish anything I wrote, and a million more reasons to say that while I dreamed of being published, it wasn’t a realistic job for a single mother to have. Couldn’t do it, because I had to play it safe and be a good provider for my daughter.
Being a good provider meant that I had to work three jobs, had to have no time for myself and even less for my daughter. Being a good provider meant stress, unhappiness, feelings of never moving forward toward my goals no matter how hard I worked.
Overcoming My Limitations
So how did I finally overcome all that to become an author? Fun story.
I was working job number four, part-time at a workshop that fabricated custom handmade draperies. The kind you see in fancy boardrooms or multi-million-dollar homes. It was fun and quiet, I didn’t have to interact with the public—very low stress.
The best part about it was that I was working with one of my best friends, and while we worked, we talked about everything under the sun.
One day, the topic of publishing came up, as my friend Shelda had published a book of erotic poetry called Sky Woman’s Daughter. Awesome read.
I mentioned all the unfinished stories I had in the wings that someday I would publish, and we talked about our dissatisfaction with the books we were reading: content, storyline, plots, etc.
Shelda must have had an epiphany, because she stopped working on these truly atrocious taupe linen drapes, looked at me quizzically, and asked me how many books a month I bought and read.
Embarrassed to give her a number, I said, “A lot.”
A lot, as in probably $200–300 worth of books every month.
“How many of those books do you think are comparable to or worse than what you’re writing?” Shelda asked.
I shrugged, struggling to cut a piece of insanely expensive chiffon in a straight line. “A good portion of them, probably.”
“What drew you to buy those titles?”
We discussed that further, and eventually, Shelda asked me this final question: “If you’re buying them, so are other people. Imagine you publish a book, even if it’s total crap, and five people a day buy your book: you would be making the same amount of money doing something you love, versus working four jobs you hate. Why wouldn’t you do it?”
With that, Shelda threw down some serious logic, and I had no rebuttal.
I thought about it for days, to the point of distraction, and then like a sign from the universe, a commencement speech Jim Carrey delivered popped up on my Facebook feed; everything he said in the space of five minutes was exactly the catalyst I needed to realize Shelda was on to something.
I had been wasting some serious time on the Hamster Wheel of Life with nothing to show for it but stress, exhaustion, and an enormous book collection.
Jim Carrey said, and I’m paraphrasing the parts that really hit home for me: “Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. All there is are the decisions we make in this moment, and those decisions are made either in love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. But what we really want is something impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”
He went on to talk about how his father could have been a comedian, but he didn’t think that was possible for him, so he got a safe job as an accountant, and eventually was let go from that safe job.
The message that was so profoundly put, and pretty much exactly what Shelda had said to me, was this: You can fail at doing something you hate, so why not take a chance on doing something you love?
I played it safe because I was afraid to fail, and I was miserable. I was afraid my stories weren’t good enough, afraid other people would react the same way my mother did when she read my first angsty story as a teenager. I was letting that fear keep me from asking the universe for my impossible dream.
Moving Past Fear
When I was asked to guest blog here at TCK, I was flattered, and frankly I was terrified. I was asked to write something inspirational, to share my story and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
I corresponded with TCK’s truly kind and welcoming content gal, and I allowed myself to become distracted by family and other things because I was afraid my story wasn’t inspirational enough. I’ve only published six books—what would I know about being an inspiration to someone else? The lessons I learned might not be very big in the scheme of the enormous industry of being an author—who would want to read about them?
But while I was on vacation visiting my grandmother and family in Arizona, Jim Carrey’s commencement speech popped up on my Facebook feed again. I’d like to think it was a nudge from the universe reminding me that I was choosing how much fear factored into my decisions, and as soon as I got back, I sat down, contacted Kate to tell her I was ready, and really thought hard about my journey as an author and the lessons I’ve learned.
So here it is.
Lessons from an Author
Lesson #1: You’ve Got This.
Publishing a book is much easier these days than you might think. Amazon, Kindle, indie publishers, the world of ebooks: it’s all right there at your fingertips. You aren’t required to start out with a traditional publisher. If you want to go that route, power to you! But it’s not the only way to get your manuscripts out there.
I started with Amazon, scrolling all the way down to the bottom of the page to find their Kindle Direct Publishing, and I won’t lie. During those first 12 hours of setting up my account and reading through all the legalities, rules, and guidelines, I hated life.
In fact, it was such a monumental “Oh crap, this is too hard. I’m going to fail!” moment that I set up the basics of my account six months before I actually sat down to complete a manuscript and upload it for publishing.
I was terrified when I finally hit the “publish” button, convinced everyone was going to read my book, hate it, and think I was a total freak with sex on the brain, and I would never be able to publish again.
Fear. Such an insidious a–hole.
But I stuck it out. My goal was to sell five books a day for a month.
Day one: 1 book.
Day two: 1 book.
Day seven: 1 book.
I started getting discouraged. But then the reviews came, and by week two, I’d sold 10 books in one day, and the numbers kept rising.
Inspired, I finished a second science fiction book and put that one out, certain no one would really be interested in the genre—but putting out a second book meant I might draw in more readers by having some diversity.
By the end of the first week, my first set of readers devoured Sarazen’s Claim and demanded more as fast as I could possibly write it.
I was shocked.
All those negative things I feared would happen—the bad reviews, someone not liking my book, finding my story boring or stale? They happened.
But for every one of the readers who hated my book, 10 more sent me messages of encouragement, gushing over how they had read Claim five times and could not wait for the next one.
In talking to some of those negative commenters, I accepted that there was no possible way for me to write the perfect story that everyone under the sun was going to love.
What did happen was that I had just published two books, where I had previously been 100% sure I would never publish a single one.
I had a moment where my thought process changed, and those things I feared became actually really good for me. Those negative comments, the folks who hated my books: they helped me be a better writer by pointing out in no certain terms where my weaknesses lay and where I had room for improvement.
Lesson #2: Get. An. Editor.
This was a major lesson learned, and a rather humbling moment.
I’ve always thought of myself as a person with fabulous grammar. One of my biggest pet peeves involves people who write to me or text me and don’t use any punctuation marks or who spell phonetically using numbers and singular letters…
Turns out, I really suck at grammar! Or at least I did when I first published.
I thought I had it in the bag and was proficient enough to wait to get an editor when I was “more successful.” That I could handle it on my own until I had a bigger budget to work with.
Readers of the E-world today are brutal about their grammar. Keep in mind, you’re reaching thousands of people, when before maybe you only reached one or two—and out of those thousands, about half will have some issue with grammar. An issue big enough that they’ll leave you remarks such as this one, which I received myself:
“I would have enjoyed this story better if the author didn’t have such a love affair with commas. Her grammar was so bad, I couldn’t finish the story because I’d stumble over an improperly placed comma and totally lose interest. One star.”
Did that hurt? Hell yes it did! My ego just took a blow, because here I thought I was so good at grammar, and this woman was telling me I was, in fact, not.
But did that help me be a better writer? You bet your biscuit. I discovered a weakness of mine that needed attention to ensure the product I was selling was up to customer standards.
Lesson #3: Don’t Pet the Sweaty Stuff.
Unfortunately, even with three editors and 10 beta readers, things still get missed. It happens, and there is always going to be someone who can’t stand those mistakes and will leave scathing comments that you should know better, you need an editor, and you need to do a better job.
Remember three things when you get these comments:
1. It is impossible to please everyone, and someone will always be hunting for bad grammar, misspelled words, etc.
Ask those people to be your beta readers. If they’re so good at finding mistakes, ask them to help you! Their OCD nature will help you put out manuscripts with fewer mistakes.
2. There is no bad press.
Yes, you just got a scathing review, and it hurts. That knife digs deep and makes you question whether or not you really have what it takes to be a good author.
I’ll be honest: the reviews that really stick in my craw, piss me off, or hurt my feelings? I bitch about it for about a day, sometimes longer if the review was particularly nasty. Just ask Shelda.
It sometimes takes me that long to get over it and find the positive, or to realize that even though the review was scathing, that person just helped legitimize all the reviews and bumped me up another notch on the search engines.
Also, if someone is looking for a mistake, no matter how small it might be, they’re going to find it. My opinion is: if they have to go looking for a mistake, you’re doing just fine.
I’ve found mistakes in hard copies of Anne Rice and Nora Roberts novels that I bought from Barnes and Noble. So even with a big deal publisher?
On the upside, if you’re publishing ebooks, it’s a two-minute fix to make changes, then reload the edited version.
The very first review I got, the one my mom made to my face about my utterly disgusting smut, still sticks with me. It affects me.
The positive I try to keep in mind is that I was 14, and my 30-year-old mother read my work and was able to vividly imagine herself in the story.
I’m 31 now, with some actual life experience under my belt, and I feel confident that I’ve got this.
However, I still don’t let my mom read my books.
3. Don’t feed the trolls. They’re crazy enough without your help.
This is one of the hardest things as an author, as someone who has spent months of time, countless hours, pouring your heart and soul into a project, reminded of the terrible person who ripped your heart out and inspired you to write a villainous character—you’re sure this is some of your best work. Ten people will agree, and one person rolls their digital eyes and says it’s boring.
So boring in fact, they email you directly to tell you why.
Or they email you five pages ripping into you about how dare you write “woo woo and pseudoscience” into your book! They’re never buying anything of yours again because they just can’t stand for people to write things in fictional books that people will believe.
Your first reaction may be to argue with those people and defend yourself. To defend your work.
I am guilty of doing this, and I learned very quickly that the more you feed this negativity, the more it will weigh on you, drag you down, and distract you.
So just don’t. You could be spending that time creating a new character, inspired by such craziness. Writer’s prerogative.
When possible, ignore the trolls and just say to yourself, “Bye, Felicia!”
If it’s so bad you just can’t hold it in, call up the friend you can vent at without judgment. They’ll get you through.
Lesson #4: It’s Okay To Say No!
When you publish your first book, your friends and family are going to be insanely proud of you, as they should be. You should be proud of yourself too.
They’re going to tell everyone they know that you’re an author, and soon you’re going to be inundated with those people asking you how you did it.
What’s your secret?
Do you have any advice?
Can you sit down with them to explain the process?
My personal experience with this was hard. I’m a pleaser, and I wanted to do what I could to help anyone who asked and had an interest in writing to make their dream come true, because I knew how hard a struggle it could be. I wanted to help them avoid all that mess.
In response to about 20 friends and friends of friends telling me they wanted to learn how I published a book, I put on two workshops, three months apart.
I got supplies, I drove an hour into Austin, paid for a space that was convenient for people to get to, marketed and advertised.
The first workshop, every single one of those people who had been so excited about it and saved the date, saying they would be there, sent me a message on FB at the last minute to cancel and give excuses as to why they couldn’t be there. Could we reschedule another workshop?
I found a day those same people said they could all make, planned it out, got the supplies, made the commute.
Same thing happened. Only this time, after the excuses came, which some of them were legit, this happened:
“Can I pay you to sit down with me one on one? I’ll come to you.”
For about a week, I was pissed. Here I was, putting in all this effort to help these people who wanted to become published authors, and no one was showing up to the workshops they had asked for and were mere blocks from their homes or offices! But they were willing to drive an hour to see me for a one-on-one session at triple the cost?
It made no sense until I realized that all those people simply weren’t ready to let go of their fear, whatever it might be, and do it. They didn’t want it badly enough, and I was not obligated to take time out of my own productive writing time to take their hand and drag them into readiness.
One of my all-time favorite horse trainers has a great motto: “If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”
So I told those people, “No. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the time right now. I need to be working on my own projects. Next time I put on a workshop, I’ll send you an email.”
Now, I’m not saying this is going to happen to everyone, but it happened to me.
I get an email every month from a fan who loves my work and has all these ideas/dreams/hopes of becoming a writer, and is so jealous of my success because they could never make it happen for themselves.
You begin to notice that people who are making choices based on fear of failure think publishing a book or finishing a creative project involves some kind of magic spell. It just happened to you because you’re a natural.
You might very well be, but the chances of you sitting down to write a 500-page book in one day, with no mistakes, are pretty astronomical. I’m sure it could be done, but with me and my process, that would indeed be magical!
Everyone’s process is different. Not everyone is ready to take the plunge and publish a book, just like not everyone is ready to hang their paintings in an art gallery, and no one can make you be ready.
I had people telling me for years that I should publish my work. Only I wasn’t ready; it was impossible, I just couldn’t do it. It finally happened for me because my friend Shelda said something I’d heard many times before, but she said it at the exact moment I was ready to hear it.
It will happen when it happens. When you put your big kid underwear on, tell your fears to sit down, shut up, and hold on for the ride.
You’ve got this.
Lesson #5: Tools For Your Writer’s Toolbox
- Join some writing groups on Facebook in the genre you write in, and for ones you don’t write in. They’re everywhere.
- Follow your favorite authors to see how they advertise.
- Make friends with other authors who have been through the process you’re embarking on, and let their stories of success, their tricks, tools, and tips that they share with the group lift you up.
- Keep those websites of bloggers who review your books, good or bad, in your pocket for later. They often will review your book on request and help you reach all the members who follow their blog, to gain them as readers.
- Be kind and professional when you’re messaged directly by readers via Facebook, but remember: you are not publishing books to make someone else happy. This is your dream; do it for yourself.
- Don’t change your writing style to suit that one person who tells you what they wish you would have done with this scene or that plot twist. If they’re dissatisfied with your work, maybe it will inspire them to write their own. If you like their suggestion, use it in your next book.
- Always be collecting smells, tastes, sensations. Every day, you experience something new in the environment around you. Today I was able to come up with a way to describe what it felt like to walk outside in the 101-degree Texas weather with its stunning 75% humidity, sweating the whole way.
Gross? Totally. Will your reader be able to perfectly envision what that bead of sweat felt like as it rolled off the end of your nose?
- Keep a thesaurus handy at all times.
- Having a bout of writer’s block? Don’t stress over it or force yourself to sit at your computer until words come out. You will hate every single one of them. Go do something fun.
I ride my horses. I take my daughter to the movies. Sometimes I cook or opt to read a new release by an author in my writing group. I go for a drive with the top down and kick myself later for not wearing sunscreen.
Just go do something else that pleases you and makes you happy.
- You’ve got this.
About the Author
Isabel Wroth is the author of six books, all of which have a touch of romance (or more) no matter what genre she’s writing in. She currently lives in Texas with her awesome daughter, small herd of horses, and a dog with an unhealthy obsession with tin foil.
Onward and upward we go!
For more on how to navigate your author journey, check out these articles:
- From 0 to $100,000 in Royalties: How A Non-Reader Taught Herself To Be A Top-Selling Author
- 3-Step Action Plan to Overhaul Your Mindset for Success
- How to Leave a Lasting Impression by Building Your Authentic Author Brand