Learning the hard way: How I became a published novelist

By Christina Hoag

I often wonder that if I’d known all that I know now about the publishing business, would I still have flung myself headlong into writing novels?

The answer is probably yes. Writing novels has been my dream since I was a small girl. Still, I wish I’d known a few practicalities beforehand.

A key one is how much more I could have done to build my author’s platform before I was even published. In fact, this may have helped me get published, as agents and editors are looking at an author’s platform as much as their manuscript these days.

As a journalist, I should have had a website up and running featuring the nonfiction book that I co-authored, and I should have started other social media sites such as Instagram, GoodReads and a Facebook author page. (I’m glad to say I did do something right—I built my Twitter following to 20.4K over the course of steady daily tweeting.)

I should have started joining writers’ organizations that are open to unpublished authors, like Sisters in Crime, which would have allowed me to network and make more connections that could have helped me gain marketing and promotion expertise. Ditto with writers’ conferences. I could have saved myself so much time and energy in cold-querying agents by pitching them directly at conferences, and again doing that crucial networking.

I should have thought more about branding myself and developing one genre instead of, as my former literary agent told me, writing “all over the place.”

So why didn’t I do all this stuff? In short, I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t have the confidence in myself and my writing that I should have had. I was intimidated by conferences and organizations because they were just for published authors, or so I thought. According to me, I was just another one in the mass of aspiring novelists begging for a contract. I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously until I was published.

So I got published and then ventured out into the woolly world of trying to get my books discovered. Then began another series of lessons.

I had no idea that developing a genre or writing a series of books was essential to building a publishing career. To me, writing the same stuff over and over again seems boring, but I seem to be the only person who thinks this way. I also had no idea just how competitive publishing is and how writing a good book just isn’t enough to catapult you above the heads of everyone else. I didn’t realize getting readers to write reviews was a Promethean struggle.

I didn’t realize I was way ahead of the game in being a newspaper reporter and foreign correspondent for many years, which gave me a far more interesting bio than many writers, as well as more expertise in the subject matter of crime, as I’ve covered real life crime and cops, done ride-alongs, and so on. I should have emphasized this from the get-go.

I also didn’t realize that agents were basically sales people and weren’t going to invest a lot in an author they hadn’t sold, such as in advising them that they should build a platform or social media, or giving them editorial advice on early-stage manuscripts.

But here’s the thing. I’m glad I didn’t know all this stuff. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have even attempted this foolhardy game of being a novelist at all. Maybe I would have put too much focus on business instead of just working on my craft. And let’s face it, writing the best book you can write is still the heart of this business.

So now I’m building my author platform, slowly but steadily. It’s been a steep learning curve, that’s for sure, but now I know.

Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s had her laptop searched by Colombian guerrillas and phone tapped in Venezuela, hidden under a car to evade Guatemalan soldiers, posed as a nun to get inside a Caracas jail, and interviewed gang members, bank robbers, thieves, and thugs in prisons, shantytowns, and slums, not to forget billionaires and presidents, some of whom fall into the previous categories. Kirkus Reviews praised Christina as a “talented writer” with a “well-crafted debut” in Skin of Tattoos (Martin Brown Publishing, 2016), a gangland thriller. Her YA thriller Girl on the Brink (Fire and Ice, 2016) was named to Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 YA list. She also writes nonfiction, co-authoring Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a groundbreaking book on violence intervention used at several universities. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.

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One comment

  1. Thank you so much for this article! As an author working on my first book this is such invaluable insight. I plan to follow Ms. Hoag on Twitter and FB. Much appreciated.


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