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Publishing, Pen Names, and Breaking the Rules

When I first began writing, several authors generously shared their unwritten rules for forging a successful career. They unanimously recommended:

  1. Writing in a popular genre

  2. Thinking long and hard before using a pen name

  3. Sticking with one genre

Being a newbie to the business, their advice seemed reasonable and sound. After all, they’d played it safe, signed with agents, and landed long-term publishing deals.

Fast-forward a year later, and I’d finished my first terrible, awful manuscript. In retrospect, the result was glaringly obvious. I was trying too hard to fit my book into traditional romance—a genre I don’t often read. I took a deep breath, shelved the book, and began writing the next. This time, I allowed myself more freedom.

Breaking Rule 1

I injected humor into my new manuscript, created some eclectic characters, and drew upon my real-life experience as a news anchor and producer. The result was a fun, frothy, chick lit novel set in the Deep South. Not exactly New York Times bestseller material, but it felt right. I got to work querying agents, sending several dozen letters out over a period of two months.

The replies were swift and polite. “We don’t represent chick lit” was the standard answer, though many of the letters included kind words about my writing. After the fortieth rejection arrived in my inbox, I had a glass of wine (or two), shook it off, and began my third manuscript. In the following months, I determined that indie publishing was likely my best option if I ever wanted to make it as an author.

Breaking Rule 2

In preparing for my first novel’s release, on a whim I searched Amazon author names. In short order, I discovered that an erotica writer shared my married name. As I was penning sweet Southern novels, this didn’t necessarily bode well for my future career. After much debate about confusing friends, family, and potential readers, I published my novel under the pseudonym Lauren Clark.

While I was enjoying some modest success with the book and planning for another release, my life took a few unexpected turns. A relationship ended. I became a single parent. I moved. I changed my name. All for the better, but not without pain.

Breaking Rule 3

I found myself unable to capture my previous enthusiasm for writing lighthearted, humorous novels, and instead turned to crafting a manuscript full of drama and suspense. I wrote a second, and began brainstorming a third novel when I received a phone call from Liz Winick Rubenstein of McIntosh & Otis. She had come across my second chick lit book and enjoyed the writing, but wondered if I’d written anything darker.

I signed with Liz two months after delivering my two completed manuscripts. In the next year, she sold my first two suspense novels to HarperCollins / Thomas Nelson. Center of Gravity will be released July 14th of this year, under Laura McNeill, nine years after I began my first manuscript.

Though my main focus and time now center on my upcoming HarperCollins book launches, I’m not at all certain that I’ll give up my pen name persona completely. I’ve enjoyed sharing my sweet Southern books with the world, and my friends, bless their hearts, wouldn’t know what to do if they couldn’t tease me relentlessly about having an erotica book somewhere on a flash drive.

Moral of the story? Not all advice, however well meaning and thoughtful, is the right advice. I’ve learned, through trial and error, that writing from the heart and being authentic is the best way to succeed in this business.

xo, Laura

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