MIND MELD: 2013 Debut Authors on Lessons They’ve Learned Since Getting Published
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There were so many wonderful debut authors in 2013, so I asked a few of them this:
Here’s what they had to say…
- Use discretion when telling people you’re a writer. There is a 95 percent chance you will end up in a Fifty Shades of Grey conversation.
- Being an author means people will assume you’re rich and that you drink all the time. No matter what. They just will.
- “April Genevieve Tucholke” is far, far too long a name. It’s cocky, almost arrogant. What was I thinking?
- People will try to sell you their ideas for your next book. Try not to kill them.
- People will ask you how your sales are, and you will be too stunned every damn time to think of a good comeback.*
- If you leave your book lying around your parents will read it when they stay for the holidays. And you will regret those steamy scenes.
- Getting to meet (and occasionally hang out) with other authors never gets old.
- Readers rule.
* Such as: “I don’t know. How’s your salary?” or “Here’s my bank info. Why don’t you log on and check things out for
Interesting: Not getting “The Call” from the literary agent who signed me. After spending many hours lurking about on sites like AgentQuery.com and other wanna-be author haunts, I’d been indoctrinated into thinking that if my stuff was publishable, I’d eventually pick up the phone and hear an agent offering me representation. My agent never actually called. Instead, I got this email from a guy I’d never heard of. Turns out, several months back he’d championed my manuscript at Ginormous Uber Agency, but this agency had unwisely declined my book. Now, he’d been hired by Mid-Sized Agency and was cleaning out his Kindle files when he came across Zenn Scarlett. He wondered if I’d signed with anyone yet. I had not. So, he sez: “A novel about a young veterinarian learning to cure alien life forms? With some tweaking, I can sell this.” Me: “Boola boola!” So, I felt a little cheated at not getting The Call. But I got over it.
Unusual: The extent to which readers become invested in your characters/story/world-building. This cuts both ways, so was alternately hugely enjoyable and mildly distressing. My previous public writing displays had taken the form of scripts for teen/tween TV shows. And while I got on-screen credit for these, I can count on one hand the actual viewer responses they generated to me personally. So, as a debut author, I was just caught off guard by how ardently people identified with certain characters, wanted to be like them, hated them, thought my main character was amazing/credible/admirable, thought my main character was an idiot/narrow-minded/intolerant, thought I was someone who wrote awesome teen female voice, thought I was a horrible person for giving Zenn strong political/philosophical opinions, etc. But hey, anybody who reads my books is a swell human being and deserves cake. So, overall this interesting element is also mightily gratifying as well.
Fun: Frankly, I’m gonna broad-brush the answer to this and say the whole messy, sometimes mystifying oddball-concept-into-first-book process has been an intriguing, wonder-inducing ride. My journey to publication was totally Old School, from working with an agent, to selling to a traditional publisher, to the too-long-but-luscious-interval until publication day and the Very Fun Moment of breaking open the just-delivered cardboard box and holding the finished product my hot little mammalian hands. And the fact the ride was so traditional actually aligned nicely with how my Fantasy Generator had promised me it would go. And this was cool. Plus, I now get the chance to visit sites like the indispensably fabulous SF Signal and relive the whole affair. Me: “Thanks, universe!” Universe: “Yeah, yeah. Don’t get too comfortable, bucko.”
- Twitter. It baffles me. I was…encouraged…to join by my agent. I’m not sure I would have done it otherwise, and now I feel myself strangely drawn to it. It’s like a disco ball, pointless and dazzling and constantly spinning whether you’re looking at it or not. I remember seeing an article on famous writers’ inaugural tweets. One of them was, “Fine, then. I’ll Twitter.” That was me.
- People want to know what I think about stuff. Following my reviews on Goodreads (of which there are zero). Asking for advice on how to get published, how to write better. As if I leveled up, video game-style, on December 3, 2013 (when DARKWALKER came out). It’s flattering, but it also feels weird. I’m thrilled to join the club of published authors, but it doesn’t come with a decoder ring. (At least, I don’t think it does. If I find out they’re holding out on me, someone’s gonna hurt.) I’m still new at all this, and very much learning the ropes. Just ask the people I’m constantly harassing with my dumb newbie questions.
- I’ve been really blown away by how supportive the writing community is. Fellow authors especially, but also agents and publicists and other industry professionals beyond those I work with directly. People I’ve never met, virtually or in person, have helped boost the signal for DARKWALKER. When you’re a debut novelist, that’s huge. I’m so grateful for that, and I hope to be able to pay it forward one day.
For me, the strangest aspect of my debut was that I did all those things we’re told not to do. I had this weird perception that everyone would buy my book and read it the day it came out. That I would get sales figures the day the book came out. That I would see all the reviews the next morning. I was waiting for them: checking my ranking on Amazon, checking my Goodreads page for reviews, and refreshing over and over again.
A day or so later I realized I was wasting my time. I decided not to worry about sales figures and rankings and reviews because there’s nothing I can do to affect them anyway. I stopped checking things and got back to work. All that’s really important is working on whatever piece of fiction is next.
The odd part of that experience being that I already knew that; I’ve had a lot of short stories come out. What’s done is done. Move on. And yet for some reason, my brain approached the novel debut as different, which just goes to show I’m not as cool and professional as I’d like to believe! What remains to be seen is whether I go through this all over again when the next book comes out…and the next!
This is really a difficult question to answer. I have friends who’ve been published for many years, and I’ve watched them go through the publishing cycle, so I thought I knew a lot going in. And I did know about the business aspects, the production steps and how slowly the wheels of publishing turn. You don’t know how many personal/emotional surprises are waiting in the wings until it’s you.
I know that writers are supposed to maintain that cool, calm unflappable demeanor, to rise above the fray and never let anyone see you sweat, but I found it impossible to detach from the experience. The reality of reaching a goal I’d worked toward for more than ten years was a bit overwhelming.
Going to my first con as a published author (ten days before the book hit the stores) was like being a newbie con goer all over again. Not only did people pay attention to what I said on panels, they came up to me afterward to tell me that what I said resonated with them, or that they’d learned something. People sought me out. That was very cool and odd all at once. For the first time in ten years, people who weren’t friends knew who I was.
For the first time, I wasn’t just another face in the crowd. That required a major adjustment in the way I thought about what being published meant.
My first novel coming out was such an odd mix of elation and fear. Excitement I expected. Terror, not so much.
I knew I’d be excited as publication day for Delia’s Shadow loomed on the horizon—and I was so so excited—but I was also extremely nervous. People I didn’t know (strangers!) were going to read my book, which was utterly awe-inspiring. That moment of wonder was followed almost immediately by the thought—oh stars, what if people hate this book?
And that did happen, more than once. Reading reviews is not for the faint of heart, but I learned something about my writing and myself each time. Mostly I learned that I wanted to do better next time.
Fan mail is the best thing ever. Better than ice cream, better even than cheesecake, and it will never, ever get old. This goes hand in hand with learning I can’t let praise go to my head, or cancel out the need to keep doing better.
Stay humble, keep working hard, and keep stretching, trying to do better. That sums up the lessons of the last four months perfectly.
Where to start! Everyone who responds to this mind meld will have had a very different experience with their debut, and I’m no exception. Compounding my experience is the way my books were released. For the unfamiliar, Del Rey published my entire trilogy in the span of two months (late July to late September). So I actually went from a debut author to a thrice-published author in a very short span.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned is hinted at in that paragraph above: every author’s path is different. Or more accurately, you really can’t predict what your path will be. Leading up to July, I spent a ton of time doing interviews, blog posts, and guest appearances. I tweeted, I did a panel at San Diego Comic-Con where I also signed almost 600 books that were given away. All this before the book was out. Through it all I was incredibly nervous, convinced that the success or failure of the books will basically hinge on how much of these sorts of activities I did, and how well. And while I’m sure they had an impact, by far the largest factor in my success came out of nowhere: a very positive review on NPR’s “All Things Considered” during rush hour the day after the book came out. I had no idea this would happen and had no personal influence on it. It’s possible the reviewer there heard about my book from someone who became acquainted with it during all my other PR efforts, thus implying my efforts were at least indirectly responsible. Or, perhaps he discovered it entirely on his own, lifting it off the stack of books I’m sure he gets every week and diving in. Whatever the case may have been, the point is there’s no way to know how things will go when your book is published. The novel could just as easily have been skewered by NPR and I would be living in a cave somewhere in the Siberian wastes right now. Or the review might not have happened at all (a much more likely scenario than receiving a review, good or bad), in which case the novel may have just done good instead of insanely great.
The moral to all that? Well I suppose it’s that you can only do your best and hope it all turns out okay. Step one is of course to write a book you’re proud of. After that? Well I don’t advocate just sitting around waiting for great things to happen. Do your best, do the marketing stuff that you personally enjoy, relax, and enjoy the ride.
One thing I learned the hard way is that I’m terrible at performing live readings. There seems to be a sort of unwritten law that authors must read from their own works when they do appearances. Indeed a few of the signings I arranged were advertised, by default, as “the author will read from his novel and answer questions” despite no such agreement or discussion of this up front. The thing is, there’s no correlation between being a writer and being a talented public speaker. As an avid audiobook listener, I know well what a bad narrator can do to an otherwise good book. Despite all my practice, it’s just simply not something I’m good at, and I’ve reached the point now where I’m comfortable with that fact and confident enough to simply decline to foist this torture on readers. I’ll keep practicing, and maybe occasionally reading something if the situation is right, but in the short term I’ll either beg off from doing readings or…OR…I’ll unleash my secret weapon. See, at one signing I was simply too nervous to read. But at the same time, I also very genuinely wanted to share a sample of the audiobook with my fans. So instead of reading I played a short excerpt from the audiobook over the store’s sound system, and the audience reacted very positively. Not only did they hear a reading, they heard a good reading, and simultaneously I was able to introduce people otherwise unfamiliar to the joy of audiobooks.
On the topic of signings, another thing I learned is that they can be gigantic, ego-boosting, successful marketing tools just as easily as they can be soul-crushing slices of humble pie. I rode extraordinary highs after my first signings at San Diego Comic-Con and my launch party at Mysterious Galaxy. I love chatting with fans and answering questions. It was easy, and very naive of me, to think that all signings would be like this. But as soon as I left my home turf of San Diego things changed. I’ve now seen the whole gamut, including going all the way to London to sign at the famous Forbidden Planet store only to have just a single person show up, and he was a friend of mine. I did sign some books there, but they were all for people who happened to be there browsing and came by to see what I was all about.
By no means do I intend this to sound ungrateful. Even a “flop” of a signing is still fun. Meeting and hanging out with fans is my favorite part of this gig. What I learned, and what I’d like to pass on to upcoming debut authors, is that this is totally normal. Unless you’re a big, big name in your genre, expect low turnouts at these events. It’s just the way things are. Virtually every author I’ve met in the last year has experienced this and will tell you the same. And don’t worry, the bookstores are used to this and won’t see it as a failing on your part. Besides, for all you know, that one person who shows up might love your book and happen to have a friend who reviews for some major media outlet. Do the signings and the readings if you enjoy that sort of thing and the bookstores will have you, and don’t sweat the turnout.
Lastly, and this came as no surprise at all, I learned what wonderful people authors are. The chance to hang out with authors I admire is easily the greatest perk of this newfound career. So if the court will allow, a quick shout-out to just of a few of the amazing talents I’ve had the pleasure to meet and chat with: Django Wexler, Kay Kenyon, Ramez Naam, Wesley Chu, Michael Underwood, Mike Martinez, Kevin Hearne, Sam Sykes, Chuck Wendig, Tobias Buckell, Hugh Howey, Gail Carriger, Myke Cole, Saladin Ahmed, Ted Kosmatka, and ML Brennan.
Lots, actually. Probably one of the things that surprised me the most, though, was how sneaky typos could be. Seriously — it always used to drive me absolutely insane when I’d read a published book and find a typo. (yes, I’m that kind of person) I couldn’t understand how it could make it into print. Well, now I know. Typos are like shapeshifters — not the kind that turn into animals, but the Odo from Star Trek DS9 type. You think it’s just a normal room, but *that’s not a chair*.
I write the manuscript, then read through for errors. Then I pass it to my two beta-readers, who catch some errors. Then I pass the manuscript to my editor, who catches some more. Then I read and correct it again. Then it goes to my copy-editor, who catches even more errors. Then it’s back to me to implement the copy-editor’s changes, and catch a few more errors. Then the manuscript gets bound and sent to both me and a page-proofer for one last pass.
The last time I was proofing bound pages? Twelve typos or outright word errors that somehow slipped past all these readers, many of whom are a lot sharper than I am! I write about kitsune who have the ability to cast illusions by letting the mind see only what it expects to see — I think some of that comes into play with these typos.
I definitely have a lot more sympathy for published manuscripts now. When someone tells me about finding an error in a book now, instead of saying “Oh that drives me nuts!” I say, “It’s so hard to catch them all!” (I think there’s a Pokemon joke waiting somewhere there, but I refuse to acknowledge it.)
I was a cable film and TV writer first and the difference with novel writing is interesting in the sense of the participation level of the people around you. My family and friends have always been exceptionally supportive of my career choice but screenplays are not intended to be read outside of the industry. People wait to watch the finished product on TV. A book (even an e-book) is a far more tangible, tactile object for your acquaintances (and hopefully, new readers) to discover. You can sign a book and they can keep a book. A novel is an intimate conversation between the writer and the reader, a kind of pillow-talk, a production and interpretation of dream-scribbles where the reader is an active participant in the imaginative process. This makes the author a key component in the reader’s feelings about what they read. The screenwriter is, unfortunately but naturally, somewhat distant from the visual experience of a finished film, though this ‘distance’ varies greatly depending on the project. There are a lot of fantastic screenwriters out there but I doubt that many people could name them; on the other hand, most people could immediately generate a list of their favorite book authors and even name a few that they don’t like very much. I’ve had a lot of fun engaging with readers as they respond to my novels and to me as an author.
One of the things I have learned is that all authors rise to the top together. I’ve never encountered a profession in which so many people are willing to help each other out. For a profession I assumed would be solitary by nature, I am stunned and thankful to have found a huge support network or friends, librarians, bloggers, teachers, readers, and other writers.
Also, I find that my hobbies have risen to the next level. Now, instead of just being fun little things I would tinker around with, they have all risen in status to being extreme procrastination techniques. For example, I have always loved cooking, but now, instead of just making dinner every now and then, I garden, I’ve canned both tomatoes and pickles, make jellies, I’ve even started brewing beer.
When I started work on Nightlife, I knew I’d wanted to come up with a mechanism for vampires that would be based (however loosely) on actual science. To do this, I dug deep into the rather icky science of parasitology. While I was there excavating, I’d found enough facts about parasites to not only fill the book I was writing, but also a lifetime of nightmares––which I will happily now pass along to you.
WARNING: What I’m sharing here might (A) Be considered “spoilers” for Nightlife; (B) Have you compulsively worried about a parasitic infection…not to worry! The “spoilers” are minor…the parasitic infections are––unlikely. At any rate…if one is willing to engage in a “mind-meld” with a horror writer, one can expect a few nightmares.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT PARASITES:
- Parasites don’t have to exist in the outside world to travel from host to host. They can simply wait for one host to be eaten by another.
- The hair worm Spinochordodes tellinii can command its host grasshopper to commit suicide by jumping into the water (where the insect will drown) once the parasite has matured enough to leave the host and survive in the water.
- Darwin once said (about parasitic wasps) “I cannot persueade myself that a beneficient and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillers.” (for what it’s worth, these same wasps were the inspiration for the creatures in the Alien movies)
- The nematode Myrmeconema neotropicum has the power to make its host ant’s backside look like a red berry…this makes them especially tasty to the local fruit-eating birds.
- Once inside a host, tapeworms can increase their size by a factor of as much as 1.8 million in as little as two weeks.
- Toxoplasma (a parasitic protozoa lodged in billions of human brains…and one that is perhaps lurking in your own cat’s litter box) can cause men to become less likely to submit to cultural mores, and women to become more caring and extroverted.
- Not all parasites are “animals.” Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a parasitic fungus that feeds on carpenter ants. Once infected, an ant will clamp down on the fungus until it dies. allowing the fungus to consume the rest of the ant whole.
One of the lessons I learned as a first-time author happened on the day my book was released. I eagerly joined my wife on a trip to Costco to revel in the glory of seeing my book on display. I had visions of towering stacks, glimmering under the skylights as book-buyers swung their purses and wielded membership cards like straight razors in the mad rush to get a copy before they were all gone. Okay, so maybe I didn’t expect that, but I was still excited just to see my books there. We found them, nicely stacked and standing side by side with authors I read and admired. Then I noticed the price sticker—it was applied directly over my name. Not just on one book, but on all of them. I quickly learned my first lesson as a debut author: nobody knows (or cares) who you are.
On the flip side, nothing can compare you for the experience of meeting someone who truly enjoyed your book. Fans are awesome. One brave soul dressed up as a bad unicorn at the New York Comic Con. I’ve been sent drawings of everything from frobbits to the zombie duck, and I’ve been approached by kids (and adults) who shared their favorite passages, jokes, or urged me to hurry up and finish the next book. Those moments are incredibly fulfilling.
I think the hardest thing about being a first-time author is you want it to last. There is a long road that leads from your first book, to query letters, to finding an agent, and to finally getting a deal. What you learn after that is the journey continues. You now have to be economically viable. That’s a new challenge and takes you out of the craft of simply writing. You learn to control the things you can and not worry about the things you can’t.
Tagged with: April Genevieve Tucholke • Christian Schoon • EL Tettensor • J. Kathleen Cheney • Jaime Lee Moyer • Jason M. Hough • Matthew Quinn Martin • Mind Meld • ML Brennan • Platte Clark • Richard Ellis Preston Jr. • TL Costa
Filed under: Mind Meld
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