Emily Whitson: “Don’t give up, but know when to change direction”

Don’t give up, but know when to change direction — While you shouldn’t pay attention to every review, you should pay attention to trends and patterns. If you’ve sent out 50 queries, and you’ve received 50 rejections, there’s probably something wrong with the query. If you sent out 10 partials, and you received no requests for fulls, […]

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Don’t give up, but know when to change direction — While you shouldn’t pay attention to every review, you should pay attention to trends and patterns. If you’ve sent out 50 queries, and you’ve received 50 rejections, there’s probably something wrong with the query. If you sent out 10 partials, and you received no requests for fulls, there’s likely something wrong with the first fifty or so pages. Writing can be overwhelming, and sometimes it’s hard to know whose opinion to trust. However, you can trust in numbers. If there’s a repeated comment, pattern, or piece of feedback, it’s probably best to listen.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Whitson.

Emily C. Whitson received a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She worked as a marketing copywriter for six years before pursuing a career in fiction and education. She is currently getting her Master of Education at Vanderbilt University, where she writes between classes. She is particularly passionate about women’s education and female stories. This interest stems from her time at Harpeth Hall, an all-girls college preparatory school in Nashville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or in the classroom, Emily can usually be found with her dog, Hoss. Beneath the Marigolds is her debut novel.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thanks for having me! Honored to be here.

So, unlike many authors, I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. I’ve loved stories for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t think a career in storytelling was a viable option. Instead, I chose to major in creative writing-adjacent fields: journalism, and then marketing.

Then, in 2013, I had to take an unexpected leave of absence my senior year in college — if you’ve read my work, you can guess why. I picked up creative writing as a coping mechanism. It provided a much-needed escape, a way to envision a better world than the one I occupied. I wrote for the next five years, mostly at nights and on the weekends, always submitting my work — and getting subsequently rejected — along the way.

In 2018, I decided to pursue this passion more seriously. In what can only be described as a fit of madness, I quit my very stable marketing job, with absolutely no backup plan and just enough savings to last me three or four months, and I spent the summer writing. I wrote every day, from sunup to sundown, joined various critique groups, and completed the first draft of what would become Beneath the Marigolds. It would take me another year, several rewrites, and 58 rejections before it was purchased.

You hear it all the time, but it’s one of the best pieces of advice I can offer: the night is darkest before the dawn, and the sweetest victories often come from the sourest moments.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

That’s tough! There are so many. One moment that felt very surreal for me was when Parnassus, an independent bookstore in Nashville owned by Ann Patchett, started to offer signed copies of Beneath the Marigolds. Ann Patchett is one of my heroes; she’s a literary heavyweight, she lives in my hometown, and she gives back to the community. Because of this, I named one of the Beneath the Marigolds protagonists after her. (Although, I would like to emphasize that my fictional character is in no way a reflection of the real-life Ann; the name was just a nod.)

Needless to say, when Ann Patchett’s store offered my book, that was a cool day for me.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

There are plenty of challenges for writers, but my biggest obstacle — and it’s an obstacle that never completely disappears — is always myself. I get into my head, and I tell myself I’m not good enough. I can’t say I’ve overcome it, as I still have moments of doubt, but I try to remember that writing is like anything else: it’s a skill that requires time and practice.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Ah, I’m going to regret sharing this, but it’s a good lesson.

When Beneath the Marigolds was ready for blurbing, I decided to be bold — take a chance! — and ask one of my favorite authors and fellow Nashvillian, J.T. Ellison, via Instagram direct message, if she’d like to blurb my book. I’ve never met J.T. Ellison. She is a NYT bestselling author with absolutely no spare time at all. I honestly thought she wouldn’t see the message, so I was shocked when she responded with a gracious message that she was on a deadline, but she’d try her best if my publisher would send her an advanced copy. I almost passed out at the message. I responded immediately, asking for her address so I could send her the book. She never wrote back, and she shouldn’t have.

Fast-forward three months, and I’m reading her blog for pre-published authors. Some nuggets of wisdom she offers:

  1. Do not be overly familiar with authors you don’t know. (Like, you know, call them by their first name.) Strike one.
  2. Do not, upon meeting an author for the first time, ask for a blurb. Strike two.
  3. Do not ask authors you don’t know for their home address. It is creepy. Strike three.

To make matters worse, I met her the next day at The Killer Nashville conference. To her credit, she was extremely kind, and we even chatted for an hour or so. I have no idea if she recognized me, and to this day, I hope she doesn’t connect the dots. (But if you do, Ms. Ellison, please forgive me. I was a novice! I didn’t know!)

So, bottom line: Be chill when chatting with your favorite authors. Don’t ask them for favors when you don’t know them. And know that “I’m on a deadline” is code for “no.”

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m working on my second book now, and part of the story revolves around a (fictional) former Nashville homicide detective. In order to learn more about the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD), I asked the East Nashville Police Precinct if I could tour the building and interview an officer. Given the current climate, they were apprehensive to talk to an author, but I’m…well, I’m tenacious. So, after a few requests, they finally let me come in for a visit yesterday.

It was honestly one of the coolest days of my life. I was able to join their roll call, meet a few detectives, sit in a cop car, and inspect their radios, among other things. I felt like a real-life Olivia Benson.

In all seriousness though, one of the best parts of my job is seeing life from various perspectives. I love that I can step into someone else’s shoes and have a unique window into a different life. And, with that in mind, I believe it is crucial that when writing about someone else — a fictional detective, for example — it’s a writer’s responsibility to research appropriately and have the utmost respect for the real people behind the fictional professions or experiences, even if — and especially if — you don’t agree with with all of their viewpoints or decisions.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I particularly loved writing the addiction backstory behind my two protagonists, Reese and Ann. Too often, addicts are portrayed as one-dimensional villains in fiction. Or, they are defined by their addiction. I wanted to see characters who are in recovery and are thriving.

Of course, both Ann and Reese run into trouble in the story, but it’s trouble unrelated to their addiction. There’s still so much shame surrounding addiction, and I wanted to have characters that talked about their recovery in a refreshingly stigma-free manner. Seeing such characters would have been really helpful to me when I was entering recovery, so I hope it helps someone else in a similar situation.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I hope that readers walk away with a broader definition of a happy ending. Romantic love is wonderful, but so are other forms of love. By the end of the story, I hope it’s clear there are many paths to a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Know that writing is a job.

I can’t remember where I read this — I think it was Gillian Flynn, but I can’t find the quote for the life of me — but some [insert great writer] said that writing is a job, just like any other job. Some days you feel great, and some days it takes all your energy just to sit down and write a few pages. What separates paid writers from aspiring writers is often just perseverance; who kept going when the going got tough?

I remember I saw this advice on one of my low days, and it really resonated with me. A lot of people, myself included, think that creative jobs are always fun and inspiring and magical — and it definitely can be. But not every day.

2. Join a critique group.

Critique groups are great for several reasons. You learn to put yourself out there. You learn how to edit. You learn what doesn’t work, which is just as important as learning what does work. You learn accountability. And most importantly, you meet other writers. I actually met my publisher in a critique group, and she was the one who encouraged me to submit my work to her team. If I hadn’t joined that critique group, I’m not sure I would be a part of this interview right now.

3. Don’t obsess over reviews

There will always be someone, somewhere who doesn’t like your work. Also, reviews are so circumstantial. Perhaps the reader is burned out on your genre. Perhaps the reader doesn’t like your genre. Perhaps the reader just read something similar. Or, as my publisher once told me, perhaps it’s a Tuesday, and your reader doesn’t like Tuesdays, and she had a flat tire on her way to work, and now she’s late, and she’s bringing all of this with her when she sits down to read your writing.

4. Don’t give up, but know when to change direction

While you shouldn’t pay attention to every review, you should pay attention to trends and patterns. If you’ve sent out 50 queries, and you’ve received 50 rejections, there’s probably something wrong with the query. If you sent out 10 partials, and you received no requests for fulls, there’s likely something wrong with the first fifty or so pages. Writing can be overwhelming, and sometimes it’s hard to know whose opinion to trust. However, you can trust in numbers. If there’s a repeated comment, pattern, or piece of feedback, it’s probably best to listen.

5. Learn to say no.

This is the most difficult for me, as I am a people-pleaser through and through. But, the truth of the matter is, writing requires some sacrifice. Unless you’re one of the lucky few, most writers have a day job — at least at first. That means you have to write at night, early in the morning, on lunch break, on holiday, and on the weekend.

Even if you’re able to write full time, writers receive a lot of requests — for events, blurbs, reviews, advice, you name it. If you want to keep writing, you have to carve out time to actually write, and you can’t feel guilty for prioritizing your needs.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I ask a lot of questions. I was painfully shy as a kid, and to help with that, my dad told me to just ask questions. In general, people like to talk about themselves, and you discover something new from every conversation. I’ve learned so much about human nature, human behavior from this habit, which I believe makes my characters and their struggles more realistic. Plus, you never know what question might trigger your next story.

To quote the great Walt Whitman: “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

There are too many to name! Some of my favorite contemporary writers are Ruth Ware, Megan Miranda, Tana French, Liane Moriarty, and Gillian Flynn. They write edge-of-your-seat stories with satisfying conclusions and complex female characters. Gillian Flynn, in particular, helped expand archetypes of women in fiction, reminding readers that women can be just as complicated and flawed as their male counterparts.

No matter what you write, it’s critical to stay up to date on your genre so you understand the specific tropes, trends, story structure, and reader expectations.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think everyone has an important story to tell. If we would take more time to listen — really listen — to those stories, including our own, I believe the world would be a much better place.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I love connecting with readers on social media! Below are my handles/URLs.

Facebook: @emilycwhitson

Instagram: @emilycwhitson

Goodreads: Emily C. Whitson

BookBub: @emilycwhitson_author

Amazon: Emily C. Whitson

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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