A week ago, I had the honor to pick a published author’s brain. Not just any author either: award winning Christian Romance author Julie Lessman. Her first book earned her the American Christian Fiction Writers 2009 Debut Author of the Year Award and she’s written over 20 books since then. So, how does someone like me get a sit down with a published and seasoned author like Julie? Surprisingly enough: Julie’s a friend of my aunt.
My aunt has known Julie for years–they used to work together–and knowing how passionate I am about becoming a writer, my aunt asked Julie if she would sit down with me for a while. I’m so thankful Julie said yes.
I’ll admit, I had my doubts about meeting her. I wasn’t sure what else she could tell me that I didn’t already know. Plus, she’s a romance writer and romance isn’t really my thing. Thinking about it further, what if I ask her for opinions on how to do my blog and I find out I’ve been doing things wrong all along–talk about discouraging! Then there’s the thought of “well, maybe she’ll tell me I’m doing everything right? But…if that’s the case, then why am I not published yet? Huh…Yeah…I’m definitely doing something wrong.” Hopefully Julie can help pinpoint it, and I’ll at least know how I can do better. When the meeting time and place was set, I started thinking of questions. Julie only had an hour to talk, so I narrowed down a list of the main things I wanted to ask her.
I was so nervous about meeting her. You can ask my grandma, I was pacing around the condo in my anxiousness. I had no idea what Julie might say, if she’d even be able to help me, or if she even thought I had any potential at all. I mean, first impressions are big impressions and even though I’m 26, I sure as eggs don’t look it.
My aunt and I arrived first at the meeting place at and we munched on a cinnamon roll until Julie arrived. She and my aunt hadn’t seen each other in years, so they started catching up in conversation. The last thing I wanted was to be rude, so I patiently waited and listened to their stories.
Eventually, it’s time to talk shop. I started with the easy questions of how Julie got published. She went with traditional publishing at first and it took her a few years to get her “yes” from an agent and that “yes” was for the first novel she had written. Now, in all my rejections, I’ve had one agent offer me feedback and it was that my word count was too high for my genre. Since then, word count has always been a haunt in my brain, so I had to ask Julie about her experience with it. Julie’s debut novel is A Passion Most Pure of the Daughters of Boston series and it has roughly 140,000 words. If you look up the typical word count for an adult fiction novel or even a romance novel, it’ll tell you the high end for word count is around 100,000 words (which, in my experience, no agents like books over 100,000 words). Yet, Julie told me all of her books reach over that typical mark for her genre, so it isn’t impossible to find someone who will love your book despite the word count. That should be encouraging, right? My novel hits roughly 128,000 words, so ideally it should be more appealing to an agent than a 140,000 word manuscript. The problem is: hearing about Julie’s word count didn’t encourage me as much as I’d hoped. While she’s talking, I hear those whispers in my ear that our situations are different. She’s in Adult Christian Romance, I’m in New Adult Fantasy, our ideal word counts are different. Just because she made it with a higher word count doesn’t mean that I will.
Not everyone gets their first written novel as their debut. Over the past couple months, I’ve been thinking that maybe my first novel needs to sit on the shelf for a while before it can get the spotlight. So, I’ve been trying to work on other stories of mine that might be more appealing to agents–like the one set around Saturn. Hearing about Julie’s word count and knowing the thoughts I’ve been having for a couple months, I asked Julie how many books she had completed before she got published. She ended up telling me a story about one of her author friends and that story’s been sticking with me over the past week. I don’t recall the author’s name, but she had a dozen books completed before one of them finally got published. A dozen! Honestly, I would’ve lost the battle to discouragement by then, but once that author got her first book out, she was able to pick up speed in the market by getting the others published one after another and she’s become a best selling author! If you take anything out of this blog post, take that story. That author had the resilience and passion for her craft to keep writing even though rejection likely loomed like a shadow over her shoulder. That story was enough for me to want to get back into writing again. I mean, you could almost play it like a game: How many books can you write before you get published? One? Two? A dozen? I’ve got one completed, one half-way done, another six chapters in, a few “started,” and a dozen more as concepts. What about you?
Getting back to Julie, I made sure to ask her about her author platform. For those of you who don’t know, some agents prefer authors build their own platform (get their name out there) before they’re even considered for representation. Authors can build their platforms through their own websites, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media sites. The more fans/followers/likes/etc. you have, the more likely you’ll be considered for representation. However, that’s not the case for everyone. Julie didn’t have a platform when she got her “yes.” She didn’t promote herself on social media, but when she got her contract, she had to work hard on it. Her advice to me was to follow your genre. As a New Adult writer, I would have to go to the social media platforms where I’ll find my audience. New Adult is typically for ages 18 to 30. Most 18 to 30 year-olds are going to be spread across all of the platforms…So, I’ve got a lot of work to do and speaking with Julie, it felt like a daunting task–it still does! But you have to remember as you build your author platform that the platform doesn’t make the author. I kept thinking that there was a threshold or a certain number of followers you had to hit before you could get published, Julie’s story goes to show that you’re platform could be at 0 and you’d still have a chance.
One of the ways of building an author platform is by making your own website. When I built this website, I had absolutely no idea what to put on it. I figured I’d include some of my old writings so people can see my writing style. I could use it as a place to store pictures of my art work and since I worked at a library when I first started this site, I’d include a book review section as well. So, I asked Julie what type of content should I be promoting on my website and more book reviews was one of her answers especially for books in my genre. Looks like I’ll be making more time to read. Other things to include in the website is sneak peeks into your books. Maybe do a Sneak Peek Friday that reveals one of the passages in your novel. Something to get people engaged and watching your novel before it hits the market. Something Julie told me repeatedly is to look at the websites of other writers and authors. Reviewing the format of a bunch of author websites (especially ones in your genre) can help you decide what kind of approach you like best. Then, it’s just a matter of incorporating everything you liked into your own.
One of the last two bits of advice Julie had for me when it comes to the website is to pick a header photo that fits with your genre. Like if you’re a Children’s author, you’ll have something that’ll appeal to kids. Julie has a beautiful lakefront scenery on her website (quite the romantic place). When it comes to New Adult, I honestly have no idea what type of header photo to use. So, this is where I would go look at the websites of other New Adult writers to get ideas. However, when I first started this website, I didn’t want to tie myself down to one genre since a lot of my book ideas jump genres or are of different genres other than New Adult. If I get published and settle down into a genre, I can always update the website. Last thing Julie recommended was to get your picture on your page. Readers want to see what authors look like. And yes…I know. My picture still isn’t on this site. I’m my own worst critic. I don’t like any of the pictures I have of me, so I’m planning on getting better ones taken.
Having an author platform and a website can certainly help you get published, but allow me to share the top two things Julie advised me to do. The first one is to get into a writers group especially a group that focuses your genre. Julie joined ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), FHL (Faith, Hope & Love), and RWA (Romance Writers of America). Now, I’m still looking for official New Adult groups (the genre is still in development), but in the meantime, I’m peeking into some writers groups around my city to help me get connected to other writers. Getting connected to writers in your category can help you learn more about your genre and improve your writing craft. Plus, you’ll get to know more people like you and you can build each other up. Iron sharpens iron, right?
The second thing Julie stressed is to get into writing contests. She entered a lot of writing contests before she got published and it helped her become known in the writing world and even meet others in her genre. Judges from contests can give helpful feedback so you can see where you are in your journey and how you can improve. I’ll admit, I’ve been avoiding contests. I see some on Twitter and I just keep scrolling. I mean, I already have to deal with the overhang of rejection, I didn’t want to deal with the heartache that comes from a judge’s feedback too. But, how can you improve if you don’t try? Feedback can be a hard pill to swallow whether it comes from a judge, a beta reader (fellow writer), or an alpha reader (nonwriter). It’s what you do with it that counts.
We were getting down to the last question I had for Julie. To me, this was the BIG question. It was the first one I thought of, but I put at the bottom of my list because if we didn’t get to it, then I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Well, Julie was kind enough to stay longer than she originally said, so there was no avoiding this question. I was trying to avoid it for a couple reasons. The first a was because I know how emotional I am and I knew I would get emotional if I asked the question and the second was because I had a feeling I knew what Julie’s answer was going to be. But, Julie was kind enough to give me her time, more time than she originally intended, and as an aspiring author, it would be wise for me to get as much advice from Julie as I could. So, I asked my BIG question and my voice trembled when I did.
“How do you handle the discouragement and low motivation?”
Every writer deals with it. The constant rejections, the low number of followers, the sour feedback, the bad reviews, on and on and on. It’s enough to tear you down and make you want to quit. I’ve become guilty of checking my website stats countless times a day just to see how many people are viewing my work. How many followers do I have on Twitter? Likes on Facebook? What about Pitmad retweets and likes? When the numbers are high, yeah, you’re feeling good, but when the numbers are low. When you can’t get more than ten views a day for a couple weeks at a time, you start to feel like your worth isn’t amounting to anything. So, what’s the advice from a published, award-winning author like Julie Lessman on how to make it through the dark valleys of discouragement?
“Keep your eyes on God.”
She’s a Christian author, right? So, of course she was going to say that. I knew she was going to say that! Just speaking with her, hearing her stories and advice, I could tell this woman is passionate about her walk with God and she’s doing good works through her novels. It’s easy to want to blow it off. Depending on your beliefs, it may sound like crazy talk, but following God clearly seems to be working for her. I mean, she sits on the patio of her lake house overlooking the beauty of creation while writing her stories–that sounds pretty good to me! But no matter what your beliefs are, what Julie said was exactly what I needed to hear.
To give you some background: I grew up a Christian. I still consider myself a Christian. So, I’ve heard it all:
“God loves you,”
“God has a plan for you,”
“God will carry you through the hard times,”
“You are blameless in God’s sight.”
“Have faith. God’ll work it all out.”
I know a lot of Bible verses:
John 3:16-17 ~ For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son so that whoever should believe in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Proverbs 3:5-6 ~ Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.
Jeremiah 29:11 ~ “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
I even listen to KLove radio, so I know this stuff, right? If that’s the case, then why did I need to hear it again from Julie? It’s because sometimes, even though you might know something, you need a reminder from someone else to help you get out of your own head. I got caught up in the doubt, fear, and shame of not being able to measure up in the eyes of this world, society, others, whatever label you want to put on it. I started to doubt that there was a purpose for me. That my writing wouldn’t go anywhere because my stats remained so low. I heard the whispering that I should just give up and pursue jobs that are more practical and jobs that I’d have an actual chance of a career in. Yet, Julie reminded me that doubt and fear don’t come from God. What comes from God is my passion for writing and since He gave me that, He’s gotta have a plan for it. Now, that’s encouraging! The God of the Universe, the Author of Life, has a plan for my quirky writings? It’s safe to say Julie successfully brought me to tears.
But God’s gotta come first. Speaking with Julie, her passion radiated off of her. She believed every word she was saying wholeheartedly and she has the testimony to back her up. It made me realize how much I’m lacking in the passion for God department and I want to fix that. Matthew 6:33 says “Seeks the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need.” So, God’s gotta come first and when you put Him first, you won’t find your worth in the stats or reviews, or the way the world, society, and others see you. Have faith in His plan and your discouragement will be forced to tuck and roll on out your window. Faith can be hard at times. I mean, I find myself more often than not wishing I knew His perfect timing, but where’s the fun in knowing when everything is going to happen?
Needless to say, I learned a lot from Julie, and I’m SO thankful she took the time to meet with me. I’m thankful to my aunt too for introducing us. Before we said good-bye, Julie actually prayed for me–which is not something I’m used too, but I’m glad she did. I ended up leaving more encouraged and actually eager to get back to my computer to start writing again. With everything I learned, I wanted to share it so others can learn as well. I hope you were able to take something out of this. If you’re a fellow writer, I hope this helps you in your endeavors. So until next time, God bless!