March 20, 2015

The Things I’ve Learned in Ten Years of Being a Writer

By Karin Gillespie

The year? 2004.

Mean Girls was playing in theaters. Martha Stewart was sent to the pokey, and Janice Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction.

And on a personal level, Simon and Schuster published my first novel in 2004. Back then, there were no Kindles, Nooks or Kobos. Facebook was for Harvard students only. No one tweeted, instagrammed or pinned cute cat photos on Pinterest. The Internet was a wasteland of porn and pop-up ads.

Ten years ago, you actually had to leave your house to promote a book. My publisher sent me on a multi-city tour and, after it was over, I schlepped myself to every bookstore and library in the Southeast.

Now, in 2014, I’m more inclined to promote from my armchair. I’ll still occasionally make in-person author appearances but my days of driving 400 miles to speak to ten people in some forgotten corner of LA (Lower Alabama) are over.

2004 was a very different time for writers, and I can’t imagine what it might be like ten years from now. But although many things have changed, some things about the writing life will always remain the same.

The Muse Must Be First, Everything Else Last

Authors have a need to please their publishers but sometimes pleasing your publisher isn’t always in your best interest. Authors can get a little starry-eyed about their publishing company especially during the honeymoon phase of the relationship when the editor is throwing around the “L” word.
And yes, your editor does LOVE, LOVE, LOVE you and your work until… your book sales slump, you gripe about your ugly cover or you decide to write something that is not your brand.

What writers need to remember is that almost everything about the publishing process is like a PESTICIDE for the Muse. If, for example, you’re writing a series that’s wildly successful your publisher will want you to continue to write sequels, not just until you’re dead, but from beyond the grave like V. C. Andrews

Admittedly, some writers are perfectly content writing about the same characters for years and years, but others aren’t. (Which is painfully obvious when you suffer through their books) You can hardly blame them, especially when the filthy lucre is accumulating their bank accounts so quickly they have to occasionally shovel it out.

But, honestly, why be a writer if suddenly it becomes as oppressive as the day job?
And what about readers? Authors love readers but our relationships with them can also grow sour if they aren’t interested in our growth as writers. Often they want use to produce the same-old, same-old but stagnation is the death of creativity.

Moral of the story: Don’t let anyone hobble your Muse. Not even people you desperately want to please.

Not Everyone is Going to Like You.

In the months leading up to publication, I learned that my novel was going to be S&S’s lead title for the month of August. My head swelled so much I could barely pull a turtleneck over it.
The day my book was available from Amazon I eagerly waited to hear from my public.

One five star review! (Thanks, mom.)

Three more reviews followed in quick succession.

All one star.

Later I discovered those review were all submitted by the same person, a former member of my writers’ group. At the time, I was highly miffed but now I’m grateful.


Because I was forced to face bad reviews early in my career. I gnashed my teeth, took to bed with whisky and candy corn, called my editor and sobbed, but eventually I got them out of my system. Now I barely flinch when a total stranger says, “I wish I could have given this book minus ten stars.”
Moral of the story: Everyone gets bad reviews. Hemmingway, Jane Austen, Scott Fitzgerald. It’s all part of being an author. (Although admittedly it lessens the sting when you’re dead.)

Dry patches are part of the package

As writers, we get frustrated when nothing seems to be happening and we are running 90 miles an hour. Fallow periods can last weeks, months or years and they can feel longer than a coon’s age. But then, whammo, a millions things happen at once almost making us nostalgic for the days when the only emails we got were from Living Social.

I had a fallow period for six years! (Still makes me shake my head in disbelief.) But I needed those six years to regroup. I got my MFA, wrote a couple of dud novels and plunged into a self-study of storytelling. That time seemed wasted but it wasn’t. During the next 12 months, I’ll have six novels coming out. Six! (Four are re-issues, but still…) That’s one for every year I was stuck in mud. And 

I’m just finishing up a seventh.

Moral of the story: Fields that lay fallow will eventually produce bumper crops. Bring on the zucchini!

Karin Gillespie is the national-bestselling author of five novels. She has also written for the New York TimesWashington Post and Writer Magazine. She has an MFA from Converse College and lives in Augusta, Georgia. Karin is a Midwestern girl who, after forty years in Georgia, is still trying to get the hang of being Southern. Her Bottom Dollar books are being re-issued by Henery Press starting in October 2014. I wrote the Bottom Dollar Girl series as a love letter to small Southern towns. Over a period of several years I visited dozens of tiny towns throughout the Southeast and I took copious notes of everything I saw to create my perfect little Southern borough, Cayboo Creek, South Carolina. Her website is at

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