Lessons Learned in Writing My First Novel

Posted on December 22, 2012

I’m the type of guy who believes you can achieve anything you set your mind to, as long as you give it your all and don’t give up. So when I decided to write a novel, it didn’t matter to me that I had never done anything like that before. What mattered to me was that I had an amazing story looming in my head, a story that needed to be born. With no experience, training, or education in creative writing, I figured I’d pick up the skills along the way, which is exactly what happened. Besides, I thought, how hard could it be to write a book? Well, I’d soon find out.

What I thought would take a couple of months, took a couple of years. After five months of writing everyplace and everywhere, I finally reached the “finish line” of my manuscript – that magical day when you type, “THE END.” Okay, so I wrote a manuscript; now what? The first thing I did was to copyright it, followed by sending it out to those of my friends who read a lot. This worked out great, providing me with honest feedback in various aspects. Then it was back to rewriting the story, and when I was done, I rewrote some more. Next, I hired a professional to critique the story, who gave me invaluable advice, which meant more rewriting. I soon learned Lesson One in writing: writing is rewriting. There’d always be room for improvement.

By this point in time during this process, I felt that the story had risen to a level of brilliance. But what about my writing style and voice? It needed to be just as good as the best-selling authors’, because they don’t put an asterisk next to your name along with an explanation about your education. So I spent months combing through the manuscript, trying to bring the level of writing up to the level of the story.

When I felt I was ready, I tried soliciting literary agents with a one-page query letter, synopsis, and whatever their submission guidelines called for. Oh, did I mention the Catch 22 in traditional publishing? Apparently, you need a literary agent to get traditionally published. However, in order to get a literary agent, you need to have already been published. So it’s nearly impossible to get an agent unless you’re a famous celebrity, politician, sports figure, etc. Certainly, they’d give me more credence if I had a BFA or MFA in creative writing, which I had not. Like all roads to success, this one’s paved with rejection. And after tons of rejection letters from literary agents, I had a choice to make: give it up or step it up. Since giving up is not really in my vocabulary, I stepped it up.

So I hired an editor, and the first thing she did was to cross off 5,000 unnecessary words. For instance, you shouldn’t write, “run fast.” You should simply write, “run”, because obviously if you’re running, it’s fast. Who knew?? Besides copy-editing, my editor did developmental editing, too, telling me where the story needed to be improved. It was kind of like digging for treasure – she’d tell me where to dig, and I’d come up with something remarkable, as if she knew I had it in me before I ever did. I learned a lot simply by reading her edits and comments, and I became a better writer for it.

I had rewritten the manuscript time and time again for a period of two years, and in the process, I learned how to write. Looking back, I had no idea how long it was going to take or how hard it was going to be. Writing the manuscript, however, was the easy part. Navigating my way to a successful book, now that’s the hard part.

After getting the go-ahead from my editor, I hired a cover artist, designer, and formatter; and I was on my way to self-publishing my first novel, SAND DOLLAR: A Story of Undying Love. Now it was time to find out how good it really was. I set up a website, SebastianColeAuthor.com, entered contests, gave away free books to reviewers, and waited for the reviews to start coming in.

And the results? Well, the reviews have been mostly outstanding, with an average rating of 4.6 stars (out of 5 stars) on Amazon with over 60 reviews. People who have reviewed SAND DOLLAR have even called it the best love story they’ve ever read, with many of them comparing me to Nicholas Sparks. I was also a finalist in ForeWord Firsts debut literary competition for first-time authors. Who knew?!

But my greatest reward lies not in any number or rating. My greatest reward lies in the effect I’ve had on the lives of others through my writing. People who’ve read SAND DOLLAR, especially those who have lost a loved one, feel that the book was written just for them, as if the author expressed in words what they have always felt. One person wrote that the story “touched the very depths of her soul,” and she’ll “cherish the book forever.” She loved the book so much that she even had the book made into earrings!

I only wish more people knew about it so they could read it. I honestly feel the world would benefit, if they only knew… What I need is exposure. But how do I do that? It would be great if I had a YouTube video with millions of hits, or if Oprah were to pick SAND DOLLAR for her book club, but neither is likely to happen at the moment. So I sent out press releases to local newspapers and got a couple of articles written about me. I’ve done several book signings, and I’ve talked at different venues about my experiences. Despite my success, my book is currently only available online, not in bookstores, and very few people have ever heard of me.

So it’s back to the literary agents I go. I’ve somehow made it full circle. But will I have a different result now that SAND DOLLAR has gained traction? Stayed tuned to find out. Regardless of whether or not SAND DOLLAR ever makes it big, touching the lives of others through my writing has been the single most gratifying thing I have ever done in my life. And pursuing my dreams has made all of the difference.

Life’s a journey. I can’t see what lies ahead, but I know one thing for sure: when I look behind, I see the things that I’ve accomplished… and I smile with pride.

Sebastian Cole


14 responses

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  7. Ah yes, the torturous road to self-publishing. I know all the things about which you speak: ‘Can’t get a publisher unless you’ve got an agent,’ ‘Can’t get an agent, unless you’re published…’ This year was my maiden voyage, too. Now, I’ve got two books (for kids) out there and ours were selected “Great Gifts for Kids” by the biggest international truckers’ association, OOIDA, so we’re after two widely-divergent markets, you and I. But I salute you on your journey. Seems we have other “stuff” in common, too. I was highly-successful, 8 year realtor who left at the height of her professional career, to do what I always wanted to do–write stories. That second career came on heels of my 30-year career as teacher. I see, too, you’re doing guest-signing at Symposium where I also have books. Sebastian, this year I will be expanding (now that I’ve navigated the first tough ascent), putting out Patient Witness, my experieces with the medical industry. I also write another blog called “Encouragement in a Difficult World: Biddy Bytes Blog”…I am looking for an editor and I wonder if you could give me a name since you’ve got one you like…Thanks, Sebastian and I applaud you on your pluck. One friend said to me, recently: “A lot of people talk about writing a book, but you DID it. Congratulations!” My current two books on the market will be joined this year, by others…I am excited at the prospects. Good Luck to you, too…

    December 27, 2012 at 11:43 am

    • Thanks, Colleen. It seems like we are both on similar paths. Good luck to you, too!

      As far as editors are concerned, I contacted the best freelance editors in New York, and either they didn’t get back to me, or they told me that they don’t work with “beginner” authors. It’s funny that there’s rejection everywhere, even from people I’d pay money to. I’m not sure what the best way is to go about selecting a good copy editor and developmental editor. You could probably find lists of them in the LMP, Writer’s Market, and The National Directory of Editors and Writers. As far as recommending one, I don’t have enough experience with different editors to know the difference. I was fortunate to have a literary agent take me under her wing, although she doesn’t represent me as an agent. I hired her as an editor, and she did a great job for me, but I may have been one of her first clients as an editor. Her name is April Eberhardt, http://aprileberhardt.com.


      December 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

  8. Maryellen

    You not only have traction with SAND DOLLAR; but, the momentum you’re gaining is about to catapult you into the literary stratosphere! Keep doing what you’re doing. You’ve got this!

    December 23, 2012 at 7:18 am

  9. emiga

    I attempted NaNoWriMo again, but only got up to 7,000 words! School and life prevented me from reaching the 50,000 word goal. Now I feel completely worn out and stuck. I admire your perseverance. Good luck to you!

    December 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    • Writing 7,000 words is great!! Don’t give up. You can achieve anything you set your mind to, if you don’t give up.


      December 22, 2012 at 1:42 pm

  10. Oh dear. I have just written my first 10,000 words. Looks as if I have a long, bumpy ride ahead! Good luck – hope you get it out there to the masses.

    December 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    • Thanks for your kind comments, and good luck to you!


      December 22, 2012 at 1:07 pm

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