Learning the Hard Way

Christina Hoag is a former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press who’s been threatened by a murderer, 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, 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 in several universities. Christina makes her home in Los Angeles and lives on the web at www.christinahoag.com.

Christina’s Bookshelf

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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 all 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 with my 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.)

Christina at the Grand Canyon

I should have started joining writers’ organizations that are open to unpublished authors, like Sisters in Crime, which would have allowed me to network and make more connections that could have helped me gain marketing and promotion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. 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.

Christina at the Home Where Jane Austen Died

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 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 as well as more expertise in the subject matter of crime, as I’ve covered real life crime and cops, done ridealongs and so on. I should have emphasized this from the getgo.

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 give 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.